Liam’s Life Story Repeated for World Prematurity Day.
World Prematurity Day. Time to repost your story.
Save Me Time
The Life and Times of Liam Theodore Cassidy Brunstrom
This is something that started to happen to us, over eleven years ago.
There are few things more enjoyable than seeing university professors acting in demonstrably foolish ways, than observing academics lacking the very rudiments of what is strangely known as “common sense”. It’s a necessary compensatory satisfaction, founded on paradoxes that are occasionally vindicated if not by direct experience then by comforting anecdotal evidence. The story of the Harvard law professor with two PhDs who fell for one of those West African internet investment scams so fresh in everyone’s memory, may be apocryphal, but has been widely quoted and will continue to be enjoyed and circulated for years to come. Our own “foolishness”, that of Tanya and myself, can be explained and even excused, but the fact remains that we neglected to consider one of the most obvious explanations for Tanya’s changing sensations until we had it confirmed by a medical professional. Our experience of Liam was therefore humbling from the very outset, it was what made us unlearn everything we thought we knew. A lot of the ensuing idiocy was very lovely and some of it was horrible.
Idiocy is relative and it’s selective and sometimes it makes sense on its own terms. It’s not that I’ll concede that academic intelligence is redundant in certain situations (I will never concede that). Nor will I concede the idea that there are certain things you can’t learn from books. (People who say that simply have no idea how many books there are out there.) What has changed is the idea that any level of intellectual competence can provide a measure of security against your world being blown apart. No amount of reading will ever make you an efficient stoic. Such efficient and well-read stoics as appear in the historical, theological and mythological record are people became skilled at emotional self management and self representation. It doesn’t mean they weren’t blown apart, merely that a façade held, plasterwork and stucco swaying above a collapsed superstructure, and the core of their grief became creatively sublimated and channeled in various creative directions.
The speed of the events and the extremity of the emotions they produced will make the year 2005 (I hope, I pray, daily) the most extraordinary year either of us will ever be able to remember, a year in which we were dragged from one extreme emotion to another and back with no time to reflect or consider. As a consequence, I’ve become concerned to want to record what I felt and when I felt it, not in the form of a diary or a set of daily entries, since I’m certain that during these events I was very unsure of what day it way in any case. At the very heart of these events, running back and forth, exhausted, within a warrenlike windowless environment, I was fairly unclear as to whether it was even day or night. But I continue to remember things that I said and did and felt, and I trust myself to put these things in roughly the right order, not labeled by calendar date but sequenced in terms of a more emotional trajectory, to be true to how I felt time passing than how I know it must have passed. It is however, something that I have insisted to myself that I complete before the year’s end. Adequate completion in the sense of a narrative that describes and explains everything is impossible of course, but what is not impossible is a document rich and detailed enough to suggest the incompletion. I think that this is all that any narrative that purports to be true can ever do, hint at the extent of its own inadequacy, sketch the faint lines that trail off the edge of the page into infinity. As time passes and yet nothing fades into mere memory, I think I can produce such a narrative and I think I can do so before the end, if not the of calendar year, then by the end of a twelve month from when everything started, in other words, before February 1st, 2006. If I can do this, then I will have set something down that other people can read that will have a degree of permanence. Liam Theo surely deserves this.
I was at my desk, where I had planned to be, when I received the call. It was mid afternoon my time, and mid morning Tanya’s time. Tanya, three and a half thousand miles away, had promised to phone me from the Doctor’s office as soon as she was finished. The appointment had been cancelled and rescheduled at least once and we were both becoming impatient and anxious. For weeks now, Tanya had complained of mysterious pains, aches, feeling tired and, more urgently and visibly a lump in her abdomen. As we lay awake at night in her sister’s house on Pelissier, she had started to hold the lump and fret about it. The word she had dared to use to me was “cyst”. Tanya has a way of saying very scary things and then dismissing them instantly. I don’t have the same knack of mentally dismissing such scary things with such rapidity. However I was keen she get to see Dr DM as soon as possible. We had said goodbye at Detroit airport just over two weeks earlier from where I had to return first to the UK and then Ireland to resume teaching. I had last seen her at the end of a tunnel separated by armed guards and massive security X-Ray machines.
My experience of the international departures lounge of Metro Detroit airport on the evening of my thirty-seventh birthday was lonely, dark and interminable. My flight had been delayed for many hours and I had to work hard to kill time. I felt very alone. The main thing on my mind had been a job interview I had very recently attended at a convenient university in South West Ontario, a job that would make living and working within range of one another a reality at last. The interview had gone well in some places and badly in others. The paper I had delivered seemed very well received in some quarters and very poorly received in others. In other words, it was just the kind of job interview that was bound to prey on you and force you to revisit it in useless detail. I was praying on it that afternoon, thinking about how much Tanya wanted us both to be living and working in Canada.
I get into London the next morning, see my folks and very soon I’m back in Ireland, back in the house that belongs to Tanya and I, the only place in the world that is uniquely and only about us. Two and a half weeks go by, confused and essentially dead weeks of rapidly advancing bachelor squalor. My descent into lonely routinised shabbiness is the product of having no one to take care of and no one to keep things shipshape for. Two and a half weeks of phone calls that say nothing much other than how much we miss one another, how little sense we make without one another. This makes for rather repetitive conversations. The one topic that does have an edgy quality to it is the question of Tanya’s abdominal pain and the appointment on Tuesday February 1st to figure out what was going on. From the moment I wake up that day I’m anxious and I wake up especially early that day, because I’m anxious.
So I had arranged my schedule and set myself to be fairly sure of being reachable as soon as Tanya’s appointment was done. Sure enough the phone rings at around four o’ clock (GMT) . As I pick up the phone, I noticed immediately a very strange tone in Tanya’s voice – unfamiliar yet anything but sinister. I feel excited, attentive and for some reason not afraid in the slightest.
“I’m fine. I’m in the carpark outside the clinic. And I’m pregnant. We’re going to have a baby.”
There. It was said. I falter and I’m mute, for a moment utterly stupefied and then suddenly afraid that anything I say on this great occasion will be inadequate. Accustomed to thinking before I speak, news of this magnitude deserves to take me a while. Yet I have to say something pretty darn quick because she’s three and a half thousand miles away and she can’t see the look of transcendent happiness on my face. Silent awe could be misinterpreted as mute horror. She might even think that I’ve fled the room without bothering to hang up. If I were by her side (as I should be) I could fill the thinking time with hugs and kisses or simple gobsmacked joyous awe.
“Wonderful” I say, or something like “wonderful”. I think I remind her how much I love her. I hope I do. I think it’s the only thing I can think of to say and the only thing that seems really important to say. Then Tanya tells me that an ultrasound appointment is booked for Thursday when far more definite and hopefully reassuring information will be available. I’m nodding mechanically in response to each of these facts although there’s no one to see me nod. My head is as heavy as an anvil and as light as a feather at one and the same moment, and nodding is a very deliberate and yet intuitive thing for me to do.
As my head clears and I become capable of receiving and retaining detailed information, the rest of the story gets filled in. Tanya was bullied by the doctor (a long standing family friend) into actually testing for pregnancy and then failed to believe the result when announced. Pregnancy was impossible, it would have happened long ago if it was going to happen. So she took it again. Then she asked the nurse one last time to check to see whether or not the samples could have been confused. And then she decided to concur with medical opinion. She rang me immediately, so I was the first person outside the clinic to know. She’ll drive now to her parents and tell them. Then she’ll tell her sister and her brother and her brother in law and soon her nephew and nieces will know of it. I’m reminded of how extraordinarily close her family are right now, what with all three children living within five minutes of each other and their parents living half an hour away and Pierre, our brother in law, with parents only five minutes away. Given the size of the country they live in, I find it all rather amusing. Telling Tanya’s family anything is not a time consuming activity.
The phone call has not been a long one. The car park she’s sitting in must be freezing at this time of year and she can’t be sat there with the engine on, burning petrol and blowing smoke indefinitely. After some rushed and inadequate goodbyes I’m left to my thoughts for a while.
Paradoxically, just a matter of days ago, Tanya was organizing a baby shower for an Armenian friend of ours. She was busy shopping, setting up stuff in the Windsor Armenian Centre, having spent weeks before hand checking the venue and writing out invitation cards. The event had to be postponed at the last minute due to a snowstorm, the kind so violent that even Canadians raise their eyebrows and hastily improvise alternate plans. In any case, there were bags and boxes to be lifted and folding tables to be tilted and dragged in a fashion that belatedly troubles me. Now it turns out that Tanya was nearly as far gone with child as the friend she was catering for. She’s missed out on far too much “being made feel special”.
I get worried about every occasion I can remember over the past weeks when Tanya lifted something, or bent over to retrieve something. When I hear (about a fortnight later) that my nephew Ara has been helping her with laundry I make a point of phoning to thank him personally. Yet I know that I can’t guarantee that she won’t lift things (and maybe even carry them up and down stairs) unless I’m with her. And I know that I can’t just run off and join her right now, without jeopardizing my job and therefore my child’s long-term future. Whatever I do, or don’t do, I’m falling down on the job. Fatherhood and failure walk arm in arm from the outset.
Two days later (February 3rd) I’m due to fly to England to do some research at the British Library. This was a trip planned a few weeks earlier. Now it will give me a chance to tell my folks the news. Until the ultrasound comes through showing something vaguely human I don’t want to tell anyone else about this and the next forty-eight hours are among the strangest of my life. I have never felt so alone or so furtive. Every chance conversation sounds like an evasion, while I have to spend the time talking about novels written more than two hundred years ago (because that’s important!). I have no way of explaining the stupid look on my face while I go about my business, shuttling between seminars, photocopying class projects and nodding to students. I have to chair student seminars without looking like a lunatic, an alien abductee or a pervert. I have to give lectures to several hundred people and somehow stay focused.
We’ve figured out where both of us are likely to be at any given time and I think we take some comfort in our reliable scheduling. Knowing exactly where the other is almost certainly going to be at any given time makes us feel a bit less far apart. The forty minute drive to Dublin airport is quite tiresomely familiar — the car could and would drive itself there I think. In my lonely yet excited condition I have to keep preventing myself from drifting into reverie and allowing the car to think it’s on auto-pilot. Pulling off the motorway early, along my accustomed route, I drive past the runway along the same road used by the permanent community of plane gawpers. “All the lonely people — where do they all come from” I mechanically sing to myself. Almost miraculously, when I get to the long term car park, I am directed by signs to “Zone D” — an absurdly close and convenient section I’ve never been able to access in ten years of constant traveling from this airport. I take it as a good omen and jump on board the long bendy shuttle bus with added alacrity. Perhaps everything in my life is going to be lucky from now on. If someone like me can become a father then all bets are off.
On this day, on the day of Tanya’s first ultrasound, I’m flying from Dublin to Luton airport on what must be one of the cheapest flights in the world. When I booked this leg of the journey online, it cost me a grand total of fifty British pence. It’s not, however, the cost that caused me to book through Luton but rather its fast rail access to London St Pancras and the British Library. With no baggage, you can get from the airport gangway to a desk in the Rare Books Room in about an hour and a half. I resent waiting for anything right now and I don’t quite know why?
Within a few hours I’m at a familiar desk having ordered my books electronically, waiting now for my little desk light to tell me that I can pick up my precious volumes. Everything around me should be familiar and comforting. Five hours ahead of her, I try and work. Usually this is my favourite place in the world, somewhere I am unfathomably relaxed and alert a the same time. I would live here if I could. This minute, however, I am sitting in the great interior space of the new British Library. Scholars and visitors mill back and forth constantly, rummaging for their ID cards on the way up and locker keys on the way down. There are people I know by name and people I know by sight, people I talk to and people I nod to, all of them busy and all happy to be there, none of whom have any of what I’m feeling right now. Just as I’m preparing to phone Tanya, the phone rings and now I’m told that Tanya and her doctor have had a good look at the baby with the ultrasound and decided that all is well. The child has a pronounced nose which tells me firstly that he really is a child of mine and secondly that Downs Syndrome is unlikely. This comes as a relief, though I hadn’t really had time to get properly frightened before this point, or rather , no time to properly focus and direct my fears. Tanya promises to scan the picture and send it me, which makes me additionally impatient. I need to tell my parents of this, but I know that my parents’ computer is frustratingly slow.
Tanya’s multiple sclerosis is the ultimate cause of all this confusion. She’s had this condition (knowingly) for nearly two decades and it’s not advanced significantly in that time. She does not require any regular medication and although interferon has been discussed it has never been implemented. No injections, no spectre of a wheelchair. She has “episodes” but these are not disabling and nor have they increased in terms of frequency or severity over the years. Yet it’s the MS that is to blame for our sudden and continuing ignorance and for many of the implications of that ignorance. The point being that many of the most obvious signs of pregnancy have been masked by her condition, signs which have been experienced many times in the past without pregnancy being an issue. If anything, Tanya has been feeling better than ever over the past six months, and there are reasons for that too. Most mothers feel their infant move inside of them when they are pregnant to the tune of twelve or thirteen weeks. Tanya is too numb in the area six month old babies generally choose to live and so felt nothing at all for the first twenty-six months of the pregnancy. (It is interesting that we don’t use the word “foetus” at any point in either our conversations or in our private meditations. The being inside Tanya is a baby. Foetus sounds more like a word for textbooks than a word for a human being whose arrival gallops apace.)
The age of the baby is confirmed and the real shock starts to accelerate. This is going to be unlike any pregnancy I’ve ever heard of. Tanya is an incredible six months gone. A due date of May 8th is announced and today is February 3rd. At least everyone has told me that there’s no way to prepare for the shocks and transformations of parenthood, and I find this observation strangely comforting. Had I ever been told that it is possible to prepare adequately and that it is therefore my responsibility to achieve a state of calm and confident readiness, then I would be truly terrified.
I go back to my library desk and try to work. Generally speaking, this place has a claim to be regarded as my favourite spot on the planet, and I can achieve strange state of relaxed and confident excitement here that nowhere else can offer. I normally find it homely and reassuring and when I’m there there’s nowhere I’d rather be. A sense of the uncanny takes over, a literal “unheimlich” quality. Everything around me now looks unfamiliar and unpredictable right now. I believe I could probably manage to get lost on my way to and from the bathroom. When walking, I seem to have lost all sense of conscious control and I become repeatedly astonished at the ability of my brain to issue orders to my arms and legs to do things.
Looking around me, I start to blush at the explosive privacy of my situation. I am surrounded by people I know slightly and I want to tell all of them. I tell some of them. I feel the need to account for the strange look on my face. Shortly before leaving, however I run into the oldest friend I have in the world, someone I’ve known since I was twelve, someone I don’t see often enough. I tell him my news and watch his face beam and divide into the sincerest of grins. We hug, but I can’t be slowed down. I hurry back to see my parents in Ealing, skipping past crowds, weaving my way through the impossible building site that links St Pancras and Kings Cross stations.
I’ve phoned ahead to warn them I’m coming and I wonder whether my voice betrayed anything. Forty minutes on the Piccadilly Line I spend wondering about how to tell people, which people and in which order. Will people be offended by being told further down the queue?
At Ealing Common Station, the stop I grew up with and the stop that still best communicates the idea of “home”, I dance off the train and up the stairs, invigorated by the fresh air. I walk the most familiar streets in the world to me, the streets I spent the first nineteen years of my life on, already wondering which streets our child will come to know as her or his own.
At home I tell my parents to sit down and give them the news. Ma is visibly delighted, Pa more quietly happy. Old Dad is great with kids, but generally after they’ve learned to talk. He tells me that he enjoyed being a Dad (which is not something I can ever remember telling me before). He’s not one in any case who can deal with such issues in the abstract or in the future tense. It’s ma who performs the arithmetic that I’ve perhaps deliberately evaded and tells me that I have exactly three months to prepare. Most people get eight or nine. We get three. I get blown away again and start to feel just a little frightened again. At which point I remind myself that I’ve an ultrasound picture somewhere attached to a piece of webmail.
While my parents are still getting used to things, my brother arrives. We quickly decide that the computer here in Inglis Rd has neither the energy nor the capacity to download an ultrasound and therefore determine to take a walk out into Ealing to try to find an internet café. I remember a remark from an old friend of mine about Ealing. He said that he could never understand why the borough council didn’t commission a series of giant portraits of Marvin Gaye to appear at all the major approach roads at the edge of their jurisdiction, all bearing the maxim “Welcome to Sexual Ealing”. Feeling elated and fertile I can see these signs in my minds eye with renewed clarity. Ealing’s implied fertility and the spring in my step deserves something of this nature. Now that the cork is out of the bottle and “people” have been told, I phone my Maynooth pal and fellow lecturer J on the mobile as I walk briskly through the late evening streets. He’s impressed enough, or rather he’s not and he knows he’s not. And now Ireland knows, or should do, after a few days. There are others to be told more directly. The most efficient thing will be to figure out the people who are likely to tell everyone anyway and just tell them.
Clicking the phone shut, Michael and I stroll on through the middle of Mall and the Broadway, the town I grew up in, past the The Bell, The Town House and the North Star, further down the main drag, crossing the road, passing what I experienced as a child as the immense and threatening spire of Christ Church and on towards the Town Hall. Ealing’s first internet café is just past the cinema, an imposing three screen building I haven’t been inside in decades. Ealing has only ever had one internet café it seems. It was among the first internet cafes in London, and it’s still there in the same place. Michael and I burst into the place with melodramatic bravado. “We’re closed in ten minutes.” Comes the sullen greeting from the underpaid underling behind the desk. The rest of the world is being slow at getting into the swing of how I feel. They must be made to understand and get with the programme, and we’re the men to do it.
“Listen”, say I, relishing the urgency and melodrama of the situation and hoping that I look like a man on the edge. “I’ve just discovered I’m having a child in Canada. Today. The mother of my child has just sent me an ultrasound. I desparately need to see my child.”
The underling responds well to this suggestion and Michael and I seize ourselves a terminal and begin work on opening up the file. I retrieve my email and open up the relevant attachment. An image opens up in front of me — I don’t know how to interpret it at first. I’m fine on where the head is — but sorting out everything else takes time. Although it seems logical to assume that the elongated extremities at the opposite end from the head represent legs and feet, I have to allow for the fact that all four limbs might be waving around quite a deal. A printed image appears slowly from behind me. Michael picks it up, we slap down our money and we saunter into the night.
By streetlights I stop and I stare again at the shape. I wonder if I’d identify the form as a tiny human if I didn’t already know it. As I stare, a head becomes clearer. I’m still not certain whether certain things are arms or very acrobatic legs but certainly there appear to be digits at the end of them.
We do stop of course for a drink on the walk home, pausing under several streetlights to get a better look at the photo we have just acquired. Our options are seem a little limited but of course we must stop somewhere. The North Star seems packed to the rafters and the music is inappropriately loud so we strike out north, past Ealing Broadway Station, keeping Haven Green on our left, to the locate a secluded little hostelry called The Haven that prides itself on decent beer and a discrete atmosphere but is just hard enough to find to keep it sane. It’s so secluded that we forget exactly where it is at first. I’ve never thought of Ealing as the best of places for pubs, but I’d have to say the Haven scores highly within this limited field.
I address the barmaid with the same shameless attitude I’ve only just cultivated. “Hello, I’m carrying an ultrasound of my son, can I have two pints of Bombardier please?” She’s interested and genuinely happy for me but I still have to pay for the drinks. Michael and I find a niche for ourselves towards the back of the pub where we can start to talk. We talk a little not so much about baby names as the incentives and disincentives surrounding particular names, why people like the names that they like. I stare at my brother. That earnest yet quizzical rabbinical appearance of his is deceptive: Michael is genuinely excited on my behalf, not knowing what to say or, I suspect, think. His eyes just open slightly wider around me and I can see my own joy reflected in his. On my way back from the gents I accidentally tread on the toe of an enormous person, a hulk of a man who looks like a regular, who looks as though he’s used to owning the space. Without waiting to assess his mood I whip the ultrasound from my pocket while apologizing. Showing him the picture as a means of explaining my erratic co-ordination, I receive further good wishes and a smile that looks real. I wonder to myself, just how often this child of mine is going to get me out of trouble?
The following day I fly back to Ireland via Luton airport, stopping again at the library to check a few things, or pretend to myself that I’m checking them. I’m trying to do as much research as I can, reckoning that extended library time may turn out to be something of a luxury over the next few years. But I don’t get much done and before I know it I’m at St Pancras station running for another train. Again, I’m carrying just one bag and a bizarre look on my face. I phone Tanya as the train pulls away, starting to accumulate the biggest mobile phone bill I will ever know. I phone her again from the Duty Free area, crouching over an enormous caffé mocha. Back at Dublin Airport I find my way back to the car and take a deep breath. I have to drive, carefully, because everything now is being done carefully. My senses are heightened, the peculiar relevance of everything is sometimes oppressive but mostly intoxicating. You’re not supposed to drive while intoxicated. But I’m important now, and I have no right to die in a blazing inferno, I have no business doing anything of that kind. I have no business being cut out of ditch by fire crews. My health and well being are no longer my own. Taking care of myself is no longer a selfish priority but a familial responsibility.
In the meantime, I have to teach, or at least offer a passable impersonation of someone teaching. Since I’ve taught all these courses before, I have a real sense of running on auto-pilot. I don’t announce my impending paternity to students, though I do to everyone else. Students are too polite to question the bizarre smile on my face but everyone else working in Maynooth is, I feel, entitled to some sort of explanation. I wonder how my changed state is affecting my lecturing style. My two lectures on Tristram Shandy definitely feel different this year. The conception, delivery and baptism of little Tristram, all so bizarre and contingent, all so redolent of the sheer miracle of physical survival, cannot be communicated without surely some hint of personal investment. The miracle and surprise of birth cannot be dissected as dispassionately as in previous years? I wonder if anyone notices?
J’s dad died suddenly. Within a few days of Tanya and I finding out we were to be parents. So he’s off on a plane to be the man in a complex and fraught family situation. It makes me feel awkward about being around him, wanting to celebrate my paternity yet wanting to acknowledge his loss. I creep around him, asking questions of others, putting the case to L, his wife and mother of their little girl. J is great with his kid and they can often be seen around Maynooth, her on his shoulders, or being pushed. Once thing I think I believe in is a pedestrian upbringing, is the importance of walking, the importance of a child seeing the world through something other than the thick glass of a car window. Also, I could stand to lose some weight and being forced to walk more would do me good.
We plot how the final weeks of Tanya’s pregnancy, figuring out which of us can be flying in which direction by which week. It’s understood that I am to become the perfect birth partner, so I’m co-signed up for a whole bunch of ante-natal classes beginning in mid March. I’ll become that guy, perhaps the only guy in a room full of women, going through sympathetic moaning motions. I’ll be the one who knows about cycles and breathing and timing. In the meantime however, thousands of miles away, I stick to what I know best, i.e. finding some fat books on the topic. (After all, reading an enormous book is just as good as actually experiencing something.) I race to my terminal and start ordering books, opting for the swiftest delivery method possible. The good ones will unfortunately take about three weeks to get here, but that will surely be plenty of time.
And I continue to tell everyone that I meet. (Staff that is, not students.) A guy I know in the German department is especially ebullient. His eyes open wide and he declares, in words I never forget “Don’t let them scare you. They’ll talk about sleepless nights and crying and constant wiping and feeding and spilling and hard work. But it’s marvelous. I’ve got three boys and they’re the best thing that ever happened to me. Kids bring happiness that you wouldn’t believe existed. It’s what we’re meant to do, have kids.” And he bounces off, his own day already visibly improved by my news. He cheers me no end, reminding me again to be excited rather than anxious, reminding me that there’s absolutely no reason why I can’t do this.
And he’s quite right of course. The baby is going to be extremely time consuming and most inconsiderate but there’s no one I’d rather sacrifice everything for than for baby. Everything really worthwhile is time consuming and sacrificial. Looking into baby’s eyes on a daily basis and knowing that this is a person who will be close to me forever, is a reward for any amount of sleep deprivation. At least, this is my advance reasoning though I’m aware that I may feel a little different when the time comes. We’ll be prevented from traveling quite so much, but that in itself is the source of some relief. I’ll be giving all of my money to baby rather than to the airlines.
I have a strong sense of fulfilling some sort of biological imperative that has been delayed for perhaps too long. It’s not that reproducing is some kind of duty or obligation, although certain traditional communities around the world assert that full manhood is only conferred on those who have a child, as though childhood is something that is held in trust until it can be passed on. I’m alert also to the homophobic implications of the doctrine that parenting is a defining responsibility. But I’m also alert to the fact that gay people can parent as well (or better) as anyone else. And then it occurs to me that parental joys can’t really be communicated in the abstract because the real joy comes from a truly original and very specific human being. Philip Larkin wrote in his poem “Dockery and Son” about the idea that parenthood is like “dilution”. For Larkin, the very idea of becoming a father was a bit like fading as a photo. Instead of dilution, I feel as though I am filling out and becoming more defined.
I think about parental pride and try and figure out the perfect dramatization of proud fatherhood. I think about Andrew Flintoff’s dad catching the cricket ball that his boy has just hit for six while playing (and winning) for his country. I take this as the very definition of happy paternity. I imagine myself as a dad in this situation, some time around the year 2030, a healthy sixty two year old me sitting up in the stands as my boy (or girl — because this child will live in a far more liberated age — it’s now my duty to see to that) plays a delicious stroke that hurls that projectile neatly into the palm of my hand. This is only a metaphor I know for some immense point of pride that will help me to relive a quarter of a century’s parenting in an instant. (Much later I learn that Pa Flintoff in fact dropped the catch.)
On another day I’m wandering through Dublin, trying to get some research done in Trinity library, before all forms of active research has to take a back seat, and while pottering about looking in shops awaiting for a viable train or bus back to Maynooth, I spot a postgrad student and occasional tutor I know (and whose help I have already solicited) browsing through a small record shop. I wander in and pretend to browse and tell her too. I tell people I meet on the bus. I do my best to ensure a chain of communication. At the back of my mind though there’s a voice that says that I need to be more careful, that perhaps it’s early days… but I can see no point to caution. Besides, this is the third trimester. It’s about time it was news.
I’d already planned to get a new passport, but I decide to expedite this matter since my old one is due to expire in June, when I’ll be in Canada with a new born baby. I trapse down to the British Embassy, an ugly and understandably over-secure block in South Dublin. I’m reading “What to Expect” books all the way down. I look at my old passport, which is starting to crumble in my hands, from being dragged out of sweaty pockets at the conclusion of transatlantic flights a few times too many. The plastic is starting to peel away from the corner of the photopage, which makes it look like a fake, a clumsy home-made effort that I daren’t try to improve. If I were to try to glue it back I’d only look like more of a criminal. When going though the United States, in this day and age, this is a bad way to look and I’ve been becoming increasingly anxious about it. My nightmare now is that somehow some uniformed (and armed) guard will stand between me and Tanya when she needs me most.
I’m checked into the fortress and ushered into the passport foyer. Having filled in one set of forms and been advised to come back in ten days time I now phone the Irish Office for foreign birth registration from a suburban DART station. I get an officious voice, telling me the forms to be completed, the fees to be paid, and the documents assembled. Tanya needs to prove not just citizenship but a period of residence. I am disproportionately dismayed by her attitude. I want her to congratulate me, to be as happy and awestruck as I am, but that’s not how the office works. I feel rather let down. So — Irish citizenship is not automatic then. I don’t believe it will be contested, but it will be deliberately cumbersome. I suppose this is the modern world — citizenship application is to be made as unpleasant as possible, wherever you’re coming from or going to.
I start to assemble the documents we’re going to need to give baby all the choices they might want, in particular to establish their identity as an Irishwoman or Irishman. There are plenty of utility bills in Tanya’s name to prove residency. I want our child to be European. Irish and Canadian is fine. Irish, British and Canadian is also fine. British citizenship is even harder, however. Despite being (supposedly) a more “modern” and “secular” nation than Ireland, the British office for foreign birth registration likes kids born abroad to a British father to be born to a married couple. From the computer I locate a copy of an Ontario Marriage Licence application form. I print it out, fill in my half of it, and mail it to Tanya along with a Valentine’s Card. If we can marry in some office building in Windsor Ontario a week or so before the event, then the child’s life might be a bit easier. The card just says “marry me.”
I spent seven years asking Tanya to marry me before she finally said yes, very publicly, in a restaurant at New Year’s Eve in Birr, County Offaly in front of a room full of happily surprised strangers. I think about that night a lot, it was the night before our friends J. and L. got married. We still haven’t gotten around to the ceremony ourselves, largely because we’re unsure what country to do it in. Wherever we decide to marry, it will irritate a bunch of people. Perhaps the best thing we can do is figure out somewhere in neither Canada, Ireland or the UK so that everyone is equally irritated. I had been looking up the details of getting married in Las Vegas for this very purpose, but now neither of us will be in a position to go to Vegas for many years. The American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies is meeting in Vegas in April and I’m due to give a paper there. I write to cancel (swallowing a few regrets), since there’s no way we can be somewhere like Vegas so close to Tanya’s due date. To get married in Las Vegas before a motley assemblage of gamblers, strippers, Elvis impersonators and eighteenth-century literature specialists would have had a very special kind of charm. I make a promise with myself never to accuse my child of having robbed me of my trip. I’m shocked that there’s a primitive, irresponsible, selfish and unfatherly voice still in my head saying “Vegas would have been cool.” No, our kid must be spared that voice. There are some grumpy family jokes that simply aren’t worth it.
Tanya and I still haven’t figured out, longer term, which country we’re going to live in. Will we ever be sat on a sofa, my child and I, cheering for different teams? How difficult is it going to be keeping the child in touch with extended family? How often and how easily will I be able to show the child things that I knew as a child, or that Tanya knew? Will our child know London, for example, feel comfortable there… feel at home? Will it feel odd to be parents of a child who feels more at home in a country than we do? Will our child grow up feeling interesting or just confused.
If we wind up living permanently in Canada, it’ll be a cleaner break with the past and our child would be growing up in the same country one of their parents grew up in. England is a non-starter with seemingly no chance a job there for me since I was pretty much thrown out around 94-95. If our child grows up in Ireland she’ll be one of a very new kind of Irish citizen, he’d held to redefine what Irish identity could be. There are so many alternate timelines I can project out into the future. Everything is dependent on just a few coin tosses.
I start to think about Valentine’s Day. This will be the first one of these that we’ve been apart for quite a while. Something must be done even from (especially from) this immense distance. The floral part is easy enough. I locate a florist a few streets away from her, fill in the name address and approximate time of day and a credit card does the rest. However, I clearly can’t let it go at that.
Over the past few months, I’ve managed to learn how to play Elton John’s “Your Song” on my Yamaha keyboard and (still more controversially) how to sing along with it. The fact that this is very much Tanya’s music, not mine, is very much the entire point. Now all I need to do is send her an email attachment of me performing it that she will open in her office the moment she comes in to work on February 14th, roughly 9am Eastern Time, 2pm Greenwich Mean Time. This means bringing my keyboard into my office where I have a webcam and I can record it. I choose the Sunday beforehand for this exploit as I’m less likely to be overheard by staff or (worse) students. I record a few versions before I’m happy with them but when Valentine’s Day comes, I find they’re all too long to send. I try cutting the files in half — but they’re still too big. So I have to drag the keyboard back home that evening and prop it up close to the speakerphone for a “live” performance. I’m not at my best “life” and she doesn’t get to see me doing it. When we’re finally back in Ireland together I can take her to my office and show her the files and prove that I actually did what I said I was going to do. Better tidy the office just a bit before I do that though.
In central Dublin one time I’m distracted by a book staring out at me from a plate glass window entitled How to keep a pregnant woman happy. The excessive relevance of the title coaxes money instantly out of my pocket and within the next day or so I’ve pretty much digested its contents. Its main remedy is plenty of fluids. Constantly offering to fetch small glasses of water seems to be the main ante-parental responsibility for guys, though guys are also taught how to tactfully advise their partners not to avoid certain sports such as professional kick-boxing.
There are at least three phone calls a day that join and reassure and alarm us. These phone calls are both fascinating and frustrating, a continual reminder of the fact that I’m not there and can’t be there. I’m constantly trying to think five hours behind. The first calls begin at twelve noon, and I the last ones at around 11pm my time, 6pm her time. So she has long evenings with me asleep and I have long mornings with her asleep.
The weeks tick by. Some of the books I’ve ordered, including the most pressing — the Birth Partner book have yet to arrive, even though I’ve ordered it the most expensive post I can. Reading is to be my main activity, my main preparation. I may not be there fore her in person, but no one will be able to say that I didn’t have a fair stab at the reading list. The What to Expect book is on sale everywhere and I’ve made a fair stab at it. When I need to check the manual in a crisis situation, I shouldn’t be rummaging for too long in the index.
At various regular points in the day, we talk on the phone and just before I go to sleep (five hours ahead of Tanya), she puts the receiver on her abdomen and I talk and sing to my child. I find these conversations a little difficult, knowing that the sound of my voice is far more important than the content and that if s/he can hear me at all, then I might as well make gurgling noises, or randomly combine whatever vowels and consonants occur to me to entertain his or her infant ears. Fortunately, as lecturers we’re more than adequately used to talking at length without any expectation of reply. The sound of our voices echoing in our heads is hardly peculiar or disorientating. Tanya’s MS means that she has trouble feeling baby kicking, though kicking there must be. And I can hardly hear kicking at a distance of three and a half thousand miles.
Everybody says there’s no real preparing oneself for parenthood. I sincerely hope this is true because our scheduling leaves room only for the most desperate improvisation. The idea that we can’t prepare ourselves adequately no matter what we do is the source of some comfort. If people were to say “yes, it’s possible to be completely prepared in mind and body and have everything you need in place well in advance, and it is, needless to say, your sacred duty to reach this state of perfect preparedness” then I’d be upset. I know there’s stuff we’ll forget to buy, but the child will sleep on occasion and on those occasions one of us can run out and attend to their needs.
We suspect a boy. I’m the one who has to keep reminding Tanya of the very possibility that she’s growing a little girl. Team Brunstrom is, after all, known to be home to one of the world’s most recidivist Y chromosomes. When I was about to be born, my mother was visited by a “wise woman” who promised her a girl. Then she came back a year later, a few months before the twins Chris and Jeff were born and promised another girl. She never returned to make a determination as to Michael’s gender when he was born five and a half hears later, but the fact remains that my upbringing in a crowded house full of boys (think Malcolm in the Middle) did not naturally tend to cultivate my feminine side. I had to do that all on my own.
We’re fine with the whole boy thing, which doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t be deliciously surprised by the arrival of a girl. Any small healthy face who looks up at us with love if fine by me. I’m bemused by any sort of need to know this question in advance, as if shopping preferences are really that important. A new born infant is hardly going to be traumatized or confused by being fitted with inappropriately blue or pink booties. A new born infant cares about being fed, held, kept warm and being wiped on a regular basis. A new born infant does not have to worry about maintaining patriarchally imposed gender norms. Who cares? Who should ever care? Babies are wise. They are focused on everything that is of most consequence to them. Food, sleep, warmth, comfort, love… these are the only things they can be prevailed upon to care about. All other forms of stupidity have to be learnt, over time. It’s exciting to think about getting in touch with that sort of wisdom, the wisdom of unfeigned need and honest contentment.
Some people (over the phone) congratulate me on the child and on my book coming out in the same breath. This seems a particularly strange pairing. It’s not as though the book is going to take a great deal of looking after from this point on. It’s not as though I’m going to hold and caress the book ever night (not after the first night or so anyway). The baby is not going to gather dust on a shelf for the rest of time, only taken out on special or insecure occasions.
Baby is too far away for me to sleep well. Tanya is with family and with people who love her. But she’s not with anyone who regards her as the single most important person in the entire world. She’s with family who will take care of her, but she’s not with someone who can drop everyone and everything else to take care of only her. When I hear that her ten year old nephew took the trouble to help her carrying and folding laundry, then my heart goes out to her and to him and I take the trouble to thank him (and probably embarrass him profusely) over the phone the next time I’m phoning her.
For want of anything else more useful to do, I find myself in the gym working out at least three times a week. It occurs to me that I need to get in shape and if I can’t help Tanya directly from where I am, I can at least make sure that I’m in peak condition to help her as much as I can once we are together. Running on a treadmill feels like running towards something real for the first time. My child will not be the child of a slob, if I can help it. If my child needs me to get off the couch at very short notice, I’ll make sure I can do exactly that. If everything is to be last minute then I need to be someone who doesn’t tire easily.
I also, perhaps ludicrously, wonder whether it wouldn’t be possible to try and adjust my sleep patterns in advance. I’ve never been good at taking naps, with a tendency to get headaches whenever I wake up after too short a burst. I feel confused and vaguely guilty if I don’t know what time it is. But I’m going to have to get used to sleeping in shorter bursts, so maybe it’s possible to practice nap? This project gets deferred and eventually it will provide my midwife sister in law D with much amusement. But I am determined to get myself into something like top form for this child, determinated that no incapacity is going to prevent me from being the best father I can. People say to me “Ah Conrad, you won’t be the worst father in the world”, but in truth, I’ve decided to set my sights a little higher than second-worst father on the planet. I want to be toasted and boasted as a Dad and a ruthlessly competitive streak starts to kick in. However, for this überDad to emerge, I will have to learn how to react quickly to situations on very little sleep. At present I’m a heavy sleeper, snoring and yawning through thunderstorms beneath major flight paths. That too will have to alter.
And here I am at last, giving large second year lectures on Laurence Sterne, that very great comic writer born in Clonmel in 1713, the only writer to give sentimentalism a good name. The coincidence of this topic in itself is rather bizarre and alarming since one of the main themes of Tristram Shandy is the unforeseeable hazards of childbirth. Walter and Elizabeth Shandy represent opposite poles of theoretical and practical intelligence, a pattern I don’t think it would be healthy for Tanya and I to emulate. Walter Shandy respects and trusts the book learned “man-midwife” obstetrician Dr Slop (who has patented and advertises some very dangerous looking experimental forceps) while Elizabeth insists on relying on the local midwife whose only vulgar and insigificant qualification is the fact that she had delivered scores of healthy babies throughout the parish. (I intend to be a better father than Walter Shandy if I possibly can, though I’m naturally drawn to his ruthless academicism). I gave a copy of this book to Tanya’s sister D some years ago. I’m not certain she’s read it though, I have a feeling that the research demands of modern midwifery do not privilege eighteenth century fiction.
It’s a worrying read, as well as an enduringly funny one, especially for an imminent parent. Everything that can go wrong with Tristram’s birth does go wrong, but the very going wrongness is a comical attack on the pretensions of theoretical learning. Walter Shandy is convinced that nearly all babies are intellectually deformed as a result of being born head first and that feet first is the best possible birthing posture. What is known as a life-threatening “full breech birth” is, for Walter, the only way to go. Yet the delicious miracle is that Tristram survives, against pretty much all the odds and there’s a rare resilience in the book that is not always properly appreciated.
It’s also a book about what looks like bad timing, in which clocks play a pivotal role. It plays games with our experience of time, it makes time stand still and reminds us that the quantity of incident of which we’re conscious affects our sense of duration. It’s a book that already knows that time and space are relative. Walter is so concerned about his child’s education that he insists on writing a manual first so that he can do things by the book. Unfortunately, Tristram is growing much faster than Walter can write so that each chapter becomes obsolete long before it is completed.
I thank my stars that our little one will be born in a country where traditional and scientific concepts of childbirth are less vehemently opposed to one another than they were in the eighteenth century. I’m starting to know that the child will be born in Canada now, and I’m nagged occasionally by the logistics of bringing her or him “home”. What will be her or his “identity”? Will the complications of our distantly distributed national obligations confuse or inspire him or her?
Meanwhile, Tanya is coming to visit for a week and a half. We’ve been talking about this for a while, and she’s now equipped with a note from her doctor telling her she’s good to go. I start to put the house in order and drag the vacuum cleaner around from room to room. I get some of her favourite food in. She’ll be arriving in time for chilli that has sat in a slow cooker for most of the day.
I wonder a lot about the Canadian job. If I could just land that one I was interviewed for then everything would slide into place. Much as I love my current place of work, we are both still searching for a place where the pair of us can be gainfully and happily employed. Then I get an email from the relevant Canadian Head of Department — an unfailingly courteous and thoughtful individual who had managed the whole interview process with rare diplomacy. It turns out that they’re having trouble reaching a decision and he apologises for the delay. A few days later I get another message saying I didn’t get it. Darn. Damn it all to Hades. Of course it’s my own stupid fault for not anticipating the alienating effect of my paper (a controversial thesis suggesting that cinema was invented in Dublin in the 1740s). I tap out a quick polite reply that combines genuine respect for the courteous and hospitable way in which the Head of Department treated me during the interview, giving him the wholly erroneous impression that I’m a good loser. I stride out of the office on some errand or other.
This feels different from other professional disappointments. For the first time, this feels like a disappointment that’s connected to a sense of failing my family. This job would have provided for us in one place. It would have made secure Canadians of us all, would have set us up within reach of Tanya’s family and created a sound, safe, unambiguous environment for my unborn child. Of course, I didn’t know that I was betraying my child when I gave the paper — but this ignorance (like all ignorance) fails utterly to make me feel any better. Failing at anything now hurts far more than it ever used to. Professional failure means less and means more than it used to. It means less in that it’s not as important to me, and it means more in that it might mean more to other people. I’m no longer just letting myself down. I also want my child to think well of me, to think of me as a success rather than as a disappointed man. No child should have a disappointed man for a father and (above all) no child should feel that their own arrival has contributed to any sense of professional disappointment. Having a child means I can’t hate myself anymore because I’m not allowed. It’s not fair for baby to grow up with self-hating Dad. Even if I’m not to be any conventional version of a professional success, I have to interpret myself as a success, need to organize and understand my life as a success in its totality from this moment on.
In the meantime I try and discover the extent of paperwork that I can take care of before the big day. I take a trip on the DART back to the British Embassy where I’m handed (in exchange for cash) a brand new passport that will secure my international identity until 2015. I’m unaware at the time just how important it is that this was achieved so quickly and efficiently. The possession of a crisp new document cheers me inordinately. I have at last actually accomplished something.
One useful thing about our child’s projected May birthdate is that I’ll have five months not teaching, five months of marking, lecture writing and research, all of which can be plotted and arranged pretty much as I see fit. I’ll be able to devote myself to baby’s waking life with more devotion than I could in almost any other line of work. I’ll still have a gigantic stack of exam scripts to scribble on of course, but they can be slotted in as and when. If anything, exam marking will only serve to make tasks like baby changing look like an agreeable distraction.
Time is ticking by and I need to catch up with the unstoppable pace of events. I’m in a cleaning mode, excavating the vacuum cleaner and airfreshener. Several weeks of bachelor existence are about to come to an end for a short while. Yes — Tanya is coming home for a week or so. We debated it for a while, a trip planned before we knew Tanya was pregnant. Tanya becomes so depressed at the thought of canceling it, that we decide that we’re better off proceeding with it. Everything is structured around Tanya’s stress levels, yet these are hard to predict in advance.
On the Wednesday, Wednesday February 23rd, Tanya calls my office and she’s upset. Her flight has been cancelled. The guy on the end of the phone was most unpleasant to her, suggesting that despite the official explanation of horrible weather throughout Europe, the truth is that the airline in question sometimes cancels flights out of naked economic expediency. Tanya doesn’t take this well and becomes upset and then becomes upset about the impact of being upset on the baby. She becomes particularly angry with this guy she talked to, or rather, she gets particularly angry with me about him. We talk for a while, trying to calm things down. Pretty soon she’s booked onto a flight for the next day — same time, same itinerary. The only alternative would have been to drive to Toronto and see what’s going on from that airport — or else cancel the whole trip.
It’s a Thursday. Thursday February 24th. Back at work in the morning, now expecting Tanya on the morning of the Friday, I have another call from Tanya. This time, she’s complaining of cramps. There’s some evidence of confusion and anxiety over there in Canada in the early morning. Tanya is trying to get advice from family and I look things up at my end. All I can find with reference to her reported symptoms is the stark piece of advice: “get hold of your doctor”. I repeat this five word phrase. Flying today is forgotten. Take it out of the picture altogether until you’ve gotten yourself to the hospital. And so she does.
She decides to drive into the second nearest Hospital (a mere fifteen minutes away) and see someone there and then. She informs me before she leaves that early labour is a real if faint possibility but that our child is far enough advanced now. She or he is “viable”. So I might (but probably won’t) become a father today.
And then I have to leave her. She has to get to a hospital and I have to go work. She probably won’t be allowed to use the phone in the hospital anyway. Five hours ahead, still my working day is far from over and I’ve got to concentrate on old books and student grading. I need to work a photocopier and I need to do some stapling and also dig out a register of attendance. I need to act normally while knowing that there’s a remote chance that my child might be born today.
So I start teaching my postrgraduate taught MA seminar course on Mary Wollstonecraft knowing that Tanya might be going into premature and sudden labour. I carry my mobile phone into the room, waving it ostentatiously. It’s a shabby sort of room, the kind that never appears in the University brochure. The students spread out in a wide shallow semi-circle, looking expectant and just a bit nervous. As per usual, but I project my own nervousness on to them today.
“Generally speaking” I observe to my students “nothing could be more unprofessional than for a lecturer to allow their mobile to go off during class. But today, if this phone rings. I’m going to answer it.” I explain why, and the class looks more nervous than ever before.
The outline for today’s class was prepared some years ago. I’ve taught it in various forms around five times. I had no idea that this topic would come up on this particular day, but I find myself talking about Mary Wollstonecraft’s death. Tanya might be giving birth even as I speak, and yet I’m talking to these people about a pregnancy that kills the mother, talking about it because it’s a crucial part of a tragic story. I’m floating above myself, commenting bitterly on the extent of professional detachment that can make this possible. The facts are, however, that complications with the delivery of the placenta caused Mary Wollstonecraft’s agonizing and prolonged death, some two hundred and eight years ago. Some of her many enemies (those who, like Horace Walpole condemned her as a “hyena in petticoats”) asserted that she was the deserving victim of her own feminist theory because she chose to have a midwife in attendance rather than a male obstetrician (man-midwife as he was bizarrely termed). Her crime was trusting another woman rather than a man. The students are (as always) very interested in Mary Wollstonecraft and look up expectantly, taking notes with more than usual energy. We talk about her relationship (intellectual, oppositional) with Edmund Burke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau and her determination to act in accordance with reason no matter what the emotional pressures. We talk about the paradox that despite her life-long campaign to be judged by the same intellectual and moral criteria and men, she ends up being killed by her own maternal biology.
How can I talk about agonizing death by pregnancy at a time like this? The words come because they are familiar and practiced. I can talk about Mary Wollstonecraft with it having anything to do with Tanya while thinking only of Tanya all the while. I feel a sense of extreme disassociation. I’m aware that a physical body belonging to me is standing in a classroom in Ireland trying to teach, but where I am, I am unsure. I wish I could say that I was with Tanya in spirit, but I don’t know where I am. Fifteen minutes from the end of the two hour class, the phone does indeed ring, and with no apology, I run out of the room, and into the drab corridor.
The voice is Laura’s. My mother in law. The instant she speaks I know that at the very least nothing terrible has happened. In the split seconds it takes to hear the word “Conrad” I can detect at least that much. But insofar as she is talking and Tanya is not talking it becomes instantly obvious to me that something important has occurred. She’s slow and calm and tells me that Tanya has given birth to a boy. I’m silent for a moment before I’m able to say something very positive. I can’t for the life of me remember what. I’m only sure that it sounded disappointingly inadequate. I need to get off the phone and get things done. I need to wrap things up here and be by his side.
I hang up the phone and sort of stagger back into the classroom. I could have betrayed no very obvious emotion as I did so because I think I heard someone say “it’s a false alarm” out loud. In their faces I can see no trace whatsoever of my own elation and my own success. Because amid the fear there is a strong feeling of triumph.
I shook my head and meet the astonished eyes of my class. Not a false alarm. “I’m a Daddy” I announced. The poor dears clearly have absolutely no idea how to take this. I acknowledged their confusion. “This is probably the first time you’ve had a lecturer become a parent in the middle of class. If it ever happens again, I sincerely hope that it’s another male lecturer. In the meantime I’m at a loss as to how to adequately fill the next six minutes of allotted teaching time. Let me see…. Is there anything at all for me to say…? No, nothing useful or relevant or true comes to mind. No, I can’t bring myself to say anything relevant or true to do with eighteenth-century literature in the course of the next six minutes. Class dismissed.”
Dr Conrad Brunstrom is
unavailable for consultation at present
as he has suddenly fathered a child in Canada.
And with that I saunter into the night. It’s fresh, a bit drizzly but not especially cold. Canada of course will be especially cold, and that is where my heart is. I shiver in anticipation.
I feel alternately joyful, and terrible about being so far away. I’d planned to be the perfect birth partner, to be by Tanya’s side throughout, to do whatever it took to see her through things… and here I am three and a half thousand miles away. I’ve missed the whole thing. I even ordered the biggest fattest Birth Partner book I could. It hasn’t arrived yet — it’ll be waiting for us when the three of us get back to Ireland. I still feel like a complete deadbeat but I find my guilt is leavened by a new form of responsibility. Wallowing in guilt or self loathing is no longer a responsible option for me. Instead I find myself thinking of ways to make it up to the boy, ways of planning to be there for the big days in his life no matter what.
I am able to drive a car, much to my surprise — although thankfully I don’t have to drive it very far. I pop over our friends and neighbours opposite as soon as I get home — because there are keys to be left and messages to be sent. It turns out they’ve already heard the news and the whiskey is already prepared. As usual, their enormous dog, a rare Rhodesian Ridgeback (turns out Dog breeds don’t undergo any sort of postcolonial revision) called Schamba is confined in the front room while the three of us confer in the kitchen. Good Whiskey is located and poured and consumed with a degree of melodramatic rapidity. I feel it warming me, steadying me, taking a needful and predictable effect. Then the phone rings and Tanya speaks. It’s amazing to hear her voice, but I can’t say anything that will do justice to events other than promise her I’m on my way. She’s well but whoozy. My elation is punctured by her reminder that our son is a “sick little boy”, a phrase that will haunt me for the rest of the night. He needs me. I’m in the wrong place. What the hell am I doing still here? Surely force of will alone should be able to transport me there sooner. I hate to be a prisoner of technology — the same technology that can get me there in 24 hours makes me wonder why I can’t do it in twenty minutes.
Before long I’m back home doing some packing, grabbing garments from shelves and a few key documents… the most careless and rushed effort imaginable, despite the fact that I have no idea when I’m coming back. At least I have plenty of clothing still over there. I know I have to sleep more than anything else but I don’t know how to go about it. Then I switch out the light and start to toss and turn in the darkness,
After maybe (and maybe not) three hours sleep I find myself in a taxi, being driven along deserted streets straight to the airport. Four o’ clock in the morning and it feels even earlier. I’m in a mood to tell everyone everything and so I tell the cabbie my situation. “Jesus” he chuckles “you’ll be after calling him Houdini”. The trip takes no time at all in the darkness. As we arrive at the terminal I ask if his firm has any taxis with child seats. He doesn’t think so but it seems like an admirable piece of forward planning on my part and I mentally congratulate myself on it. I wonder if I’ll remember it when the three of us return.
The world news, both at home on the radio and here on big TV screens at the airport, is full of stories of the Pope’s ill health. The worst could happen at almost any time. This news terrifies me and I pray for John Paul to cling on for a few more days. I’m terrified that the Holy Father of global catholicism will die suddenly and Aer Lingus will see fit to suddenly ground its entire fleet as a token of some sort of respect. I really don’t know the etiquette in these situations, for all I know, the entire country will grind to a halt and I’ll be unable to get to London to get to Detroit. So I pray selfishly for the life of an elderly Pope, that he will rally for long enough to keep everything going, to prevent, or at least delay a reverential worldwide aerial logjam.
I am twice stopped by security for special screening, firstly in Dublin and secondly at Heathrow. I think it must be the stupid look on my face, or the fact that I’m shaking, or the fact my skin is discoloured by joyful and anxious tears. I’ve had very little sleep, and it’s as well that I’m overly familiar with the geography of both airports. Moving between terminals is therefore a mechanical not a deliberative process. I feel as though I am floating on top of my body, watching it helplessly move rather than watching or directing it. I discover that I’m way too early for my Detroit flight (again I’m sobbing as I explain) so I’m advised to wait and have a coffee. Terminal 4 is packed with people and there’s nowhere to sit. Suddenly, near one of the overcrowded coffee outlets, I spot an internet terminal. I fumble for an appropriate coin and buy myself fifteen minutes.
And I can see him for the first time. He appears to me as an email attachment in the departure lounge of one of the world’s busiest airports. He looks rather red but everything else appears to be in place, sitting on top of my brother in law’s caption “Your Handsome Son”. I can’t wait to see him move, to see this form animated and responsive, but I’m calmer now than I have been for nearly eighteen hours. I’m finding a peace at the centre at the centre of the least peaceful place I know. Fear is banished for a while but I’m choked up again by the presence of the multi-faith chapel, something that sticks out and claims my attention as never before. It’s thankfully empty and I slip inside. Before I can formulate a wish, a request, or a theological framework to encase such a wish or request I am in floods of tears again, sobbing helplessly if silently.
This can’t be allowed. I’ve been stopped twice by security staff and it’s critical that I look sane for the next eleven hours. With my head down almost between my knees I beg whatever higher cosmic powers may or may not exist to protect my boy, to keep him alive and healthy and promise whoever or whatever might or might not be listening to live a better life from now on. I know from now on that if I’m to keep things together I must avoid places of this kind, avoid places that are designed to provoke or even cater to the display of emotion. I can leak again later, maybe, but I must steel myself and look rational if I’m to penetrate the many layers of security that constitute international travel since Nine Eleven. The crossing places of the world are unsentimental places and crossing places that include the United States are now among the most unsmiling of all.
I shuffle out of the chapel and try to occupy myself. I look around for some toys for our nieces and nephews. The done thing, say all the experts, to invest in a few tokens of renewed affection for children who risk feeling a bit displaced by the new arrival. We don’t have any other kids ourselves but we’re used to being surrounded by them. A. won’t be expecting a present but I think he’d be vaguely reassured by one. C. is nearly twenty but presents don’t hurt. P. sort of assumes that our child is primarily a present for her anyway and will be dressing him up inappropriately from the moment he’s old enough to crawl. It seems odd thinking about any child other than my own, but this very oddness provides a useful discipline. Besides I want to tell them that they’re not loved any less because there’s someone new and urgent in my life. I want to tell them that they can never be replaced in my affections because no human being ever replaces any other human being. That love is not a pie with only a finite number of slices and that the more love is exercised and expressed the more it becomes available. That being a Dad will not make me any less of an uncle. In fact, the more overpowering my feelings for my baby boy are, the more affectionately I start to regard just about everyone else I’ve ever been associated with.
The phrase “sick little boy” continues to rattle around in my head, continues to test me. Is it, for example, possible that things are bad and I’m not to be told yet. That I was being misled just to ensure that I got there as quickly and efficiently as possible. Because were I to know the real circumstances, I’d just crawl into a corner and scream, or at least panic my way into messing up my own travel plans.
The plane is half empty, which is quite relaxing and allows me to be less conscious of my appearance. There’s no one sitting next to me in the aisle seat, so I can spread out a bit. I’m sure it’s dangerous to look too nervous on a plane now, what with talk of armed air marshals, so I take deep breaths throughout the flight. I even manage to watch a movie, an unexpectedly good movie. It seems I have retained the ability to judge movies. I can digest most of the food. What I can’t do is sleep, and the cumulative sleep deprivation is starting to take on a slightly trippy aspect. I don’t trust myself in conversation with anyone right now, not even the flight attendants, though part of me wants nothing better than to tell everyone I meet about baby. At least I’m moving now, in the right direction and as fast as any technology can manage, sometimes in excess of 550 miles an hour.
As I stumble off the plane, I feel even more acutely the pressure of impending impediments, the layers, the barriers of officialdom, the borders separating me from my boy. I feel nervousness as usual as I’m summoned to meet the US border guard. As an Englishman with a Swedish surname and an Irish address, traveling though the USA to get to Canada, I can get tangled up in over-explanations if I’m not careful. I decide that I must look too strange to be anything other than completely candid and so I tell him immediately that I’m suddenly a father. He betrays no emotion (as he’s trained not to), but does not slow me either. I’m through, into the luggage hall and soon venting my impatience with the carousel. I urge my bag to appear. If the baggage handlers only knew the state I was in they would surely locate my bag first and throw it early. Before too long, I’ve all that I need and marching towards the exit.
P., my omnicompetent brother in law, is waiting for me in the Arrival’s Lounge, a cold, bleak unfriendly sort of place. We hug, locate the car (which is Tanya’s car, the familiar reassuring looking red PT cruiser) and we’re on our way with admirable dispatch. Snow lies thick on the ground but it’s not recent and it’s not that cold and all the roads are fine.
He asks me how I’m feeling. I tell him that I’m on the way to the most important meeting of my life. He nods sagely. Father of three. If I have any sort of contemporary role model of fatherdom it’s P. It’s not that I’m planning to do everything that he does, but rather than he’s an inspirationally encouraging representative of the joys of paternity. It’s not just that he does a tremendous amount for his kids, but the fact that while doing those things, he is rewarded with a profound joy. That’s his aspect and his essence, and I want a piece of something like it.
The elements now at last appear to be conspiring to get me to my son as quickly as possible. Highway traffic is non existent and the main route into Detroit even seems smoother that normal, less pockmarked and dangerous. My new Canadian Permanent Resident card speeds me through the Canadian customs with satisfying smoothness and I feel I’m on home turf again. Compared to the crowds of cars and pedestrians that show down traffic in Dublin or London, W. Ontario is a very sedate sort of place altogether and it takes us no time to reach Tecumseh, one of the main thoroughfares of the small city. Parking just outside the main hospital entrance, I’m pushed to a desk full of smiling administration. I’m identified, nodded at and pulled inside an elevator while I’m still in a sort of daze. The elevator has a very slow, almost seductive voice that I will get to know extremely well. “Wait till you hear her say she’s ‘going down’” chuckles P. (he may be omnicompetent, but sometimes he’s twelve). Twenty paces takes me to the open door of a room and I can see her, the first thing and for a while the only thing I see in there.
Now I’m with Tanya in her room. Family friends L. and P. in are there as well , but they tactfully disappear, parting like waves on either side of my advance, and I’m in her arms for the first time in weeks. She seems very shaky but happy, utterly exhausted but quietly satisfied. I’m not worried about her at all at this moment, not worried by anything at all. The uncanny thing is that normally I’d be happy to stay there in her arms for half a lifetime, but even holding her is not the end of the journey. We don’t wait , or sit down, or say anything about recent events. She knows that no conversation in the world is worth delaying the next little trip for and I’m being led by the hand again and I can feel my heart rate accelerate. Tanya moves, understandably, very slowly, feeling her way with the sort of extreme care which gives the shortest of walks a sense of pomp and circumstance. We are not strolling, we are not walking, we are not marching but neither are we hobbling. We are processing.
So finally, in the early evening, around thirty hours after I learn of his arrival, I am properly inducted into the Kingdom of my child. It’s a layered, ritualized progress that will become very familiar to me in the days to come. Together we process down the corridor to the NICU, which turns out to be just round the corner. The corridor that leads to the magical kingdom is shabby and exposed with cables and wires hanging from the walls and ceiling, a tatty work in progress that somehow seems organic and full of possibilities. I’m somehow reminded of being a child myself, being taken hand in hand to see Santa Claus in some big department store in the West End of London. Because the entire hospital is currently being rebuilt around us it somehow more redolent of new beginnings. The more builders the better. The doors ahead of us are locked, but there is an open window beneath which are posted visiting privileges. As parents, as actual real life parents, we are the only category allowed in any time of day or night. Our names are presented and we are led in but not far. There is hand scrubbing first, an essential ritual that soon will become second nature to us. Then we head past one bay full of incubation pods, then to the next, my pulse racing, knowing that the contents of any one of these pods will suddenly be introduced to me as my offspring. I am pointed at a pod in the left hand bay. I recognize the name on it. I line myself up appropriately, and the curtains are pulled.
In the long Perspex box in front of me is the tiniest person I have ever seen. He is a rather red colour, but with a strikingly impressive head of hair, tiny, soft delicate looking hair it’s true, but he’s nonetheless comprehensively thatched. His eyes were closed when I first saw him but his limbs were moving, shuffling in a swimming sort of motion. Appropriate really, had he stayed his time he would be still floating around in warm fluid right now. He is restless, unsatisfied with his environment, aware on some crucial level that there was something unnatural about it. I am told that I could open one of the port-holes and touch him. My heart is pounding as I do just that, my whole tense twitchy sleep deprived system sent into overdrive as my finger connects with his skin. He is very warm to the touch. I fed a finger into his tiny hand — a hand smaller than my smallest finger. I’m shocked and delighted with how tight his grip is, how enthusiastic it is. I don’t want him to let me go again, ever. Then his eyes open and his eyes are huge, a very large percentage of his face. His eyes are liquid, of indeterminate colour and intent. Each time I look at them I imagine a different colour. I’m told very quickly that the eyes can change colour and won’t be permanently defined until he’s two years old. He stares at me and I stare at him and his interest is undivided. He continues to wriggle his limbs, getting his fussy wires and cords in a mess as though he’s aware that wires and needles and gauzes are profoundly alien and extrinsic to his true self.
His proportions are perfect but foreshortened. His head is very large in proportion to his body and his eyes are very large as a proportion of his head. There’s nothing sinister about this though, his very disproportions represent a logical, even elegant extrapolation of his extreme youth. He is what a very young baby should be. Stare at his skin and you see the same level of detail as you’d see on anybody’s skin, the same minute indentations and fine hair, the same tiny tremors and subtle, constant movements. He was not forced half-formed into this world. He is what he is. He is less than three pounds in weight and his lack of body weight gives him a transparency that only adds to the level of visible detail of his perfect frame. He is fully formed, lithe and active. He looks ready for it. He looks impatient and his impatience is infectious. I want the world for him and I want it soon. Immediately I see him in the box, I want to see him out of the box.
Even as I stare at him, the emotion of the occasion starts to become exhausting and I can’t sustain the sense of occasion for much longer. The simple lack of sleep starts to catch up with me, I begin to resent the exhaustion (since never in my entire life have I had an experience so worth staying awake for) and the effort of resenting the exhaustion starts to exhaust me.
After an interval of time that I could never measure, we return to Tanya’s room, festooned with flowers and cards and presents and other pieces of official and semi-official looking paper. Lazily I trawl through them, trying to separate the essential legal forms from the noisy special offers. We have thirty days to register a name… that’s the important piece. In fact it becomes hard to isolate the truly important and necessary bits of paper from the special offers, the congratulatory advertisements. Already the place is starting to look cluttered and uncomfortable.
I’m told that a fold up bed that doubles as an armchair has been set up in Tanya’s room where she’ll be for a few days. I can sleep beside her, next to the window, for the first time in months, albeit she’s a couple a feet higher than me. I feel almost furtive there in my improvised den, sleeping in a strange and unfamiliar place yet sleeping under the same roof as Tanya and my child. I can sleep at last knowing that she is inches away and he is yards away.
We wake up to Tanya’s dose of hospital food, which I get into the habit of supplementing from various sources, ranging from the canteen downstairs to a variety of local restaurants. Fried chicken, Indian and Vietnamese food is smuggled in and awkwardly balanced in a variety of containers around the small room. It is at this point that doctors, nurses and receptionists around me start to congratulate me on my timely arrival, partially assuaging the guilt that has contaminated my joy for the past twenty four hours. From feeling like a deadbeat dad who couldn’t even manage to be in the same country at the time of Liam’s birth, I’m suddenly hero dad who takes a big jump across the planet in his son’s hour of need. “Some dads take longer to get here from Leamington” (c. 40 miles away) is a frequently heard remark.
Only now do I properly learn what happened to Tanya on Thursday (was it only the day before yesterday? Wasn’t it an eternity ago in another lifetime? In telephone consultation with Dee and Pierre over the cramps she decided to go to the hospital, driving herself there. (What sort of deadbeat dad does that make me? — even Homer Simpson drove Marge to the hospital.) She spent a while in triage before it was determined that she was indeed going into early labour and then a kind of organized panic set in as she was wheeled into the delivery room and her true situation was assessed. Before long it became evident that our boy was going to have to be born immediately.
“My God, she’s still wearing jewelry” was something she remembers hearing while she was horizontal and mobile.
“Help me take off your jewelry, will you?!” comes a voice. The contractions increase.
“Now dear, remember your breathing…”
“But I haven’t been to any classes yet — they’re not due to start for three weeks…”
(As she tells me this I make a mental note to remember to cancel those classes.)
Her jewelry is torn off her (with her own help) while she’s still on the gurney, in rapid motion. Baby’s birth turns out to be one of those very very scary footling breech births. He’s coming out the wrong way and he’s coming in a hurry. He’s being held in place by a variety of presumably qualified people before a decision is made to put Tanya under full anaesthetic and perform a C-section instantly. According to Dr M, his birth caused everyone around to age significantly. Turns out that baby had also managed to put a true knot in his cord, a rare and complex accomplishment. Having done this strange thing, he suddenly became aware that he was no longer in a good place and that he needed to leave. Immediately and the wrong way round. He became as troublesome as he could as urgently as he could to accomplish this and those were the cramping sensations that Tanya phoned me about.
Dr M, who we discover from Tanya’s sister is a highly admired obstetrician whom midwives themselves would want to have in attendance in an emergency, performs an emergency C-Section with a full anaesthetic. When Tanya comes round from it, she’s traumatized by a very young looking doctor, or possibly student who pops in and asks her if she’s just had her entire womb removed. The casualness of this inquiry is as traumatic as the trauma it alludes to.
Once I’ve been filled in as to the full context of his birth, I start to become very afraid, afraid too late, afraid on my own, just as everyone else is popping corks and passing round chocolate cigars. I’m told that baby was given a particular number at the instant of his birth, a low number (a three I believe) that was meant to represent his chances of survival. Dr N explained how such things are calculated — he was very premature, he was the wrong sex, the wrong ethnic make up, and the emergency delivery did not give him (or Tanya) the benefit of steroids. A combination of good luck, medical expertise, and what is already being diagnosed as our child’s own special, deliberate and seemingly indomitable will to live have pushed him into the “doing great” category and he is being sung and celebrated throughout the building as hero-miracle. The congratulations we receive now seem very loud, and almost oppressive.
Because I dislike this tale of miraculous heroism, even though I swell with paternal pride every time I hear it. I admire my son the hero but it tears at me. I don’t like being told that he’s doing “amazingly well.” I would prefer “routinely well”. I am in awe of my own pride in him, I shake in the presence of his survival instinct, but there are some things stronger and more urgent that pride and I no longer want him to have to keep beating the odds. I want the odds in his favour for the remainder of his life. He can have a good few years out of the limelight as far as I’m concerned. Everything that is ordinary and humdrum and average about infancy and childhood suddenly seems immeasurably precious and cherishable to me. This is what starts to pray on my mind as I phone my family and purchase chocolate cigars.
Chocolate cigars are a neat idea. All the symbolism and none of the cancer. I buy an expensive box full from the Hospital store. I keep forgetting to offer them to people and we end up being stuck with them. The chocolate itself is North American of course — waxy and worthless and I find it easy to forget they exist. I stick them in the boot of the car, and a combination of sub-zero temperatures and ruthlessly compounded preservatives keeps them intact in there for a matter of weeks. Sometimes a chocolate cigar is just a chocolate cigar.
Back in the NICU, we’re introduced to the concept of “Kangaroo Care”, a bonding ritual that provides warmth and support for infants who are small and/or premature. This practice was originally pioneered in the so-called ‘developing world’ (initially Colombia) to help the survival rates of premature babies in areas where technology is severely stretched. It involves giving flesh to flesh contact between the “preemies” (new word — get used to it) and the mother, especially during pumped feedings. The positive reports of accelerating survival rates wafted their way back to the First World. How could we say no to it? It sounds so cool. How could we turn it down?
I pull a curtain around our pod, drag one of the more comfortable chairs into position and Tanya unbuttons. With mother sitting comfortably, our baby is lifted out and starts flailing, not with fear but with excitement. He’s placed on her breast and a tiny hat is placed on his head for additional warmth. I don’t know if he likes the hat. It looks scratchy and fussy to me, but the nurses insist upon in, since most heat loss comes from his large head. Within a few instants his breathing and oxygen saturation regularizes. As milk is pumped into him via a tube, the combination of food and maternal warmth causes him to relax and his eyes to slowly close. This is as happy as he can possibly be at his time of life.
When Dr N does his rounds, surrounded by his admiring entourage, he always seems happy to see us, considering us as part of the team and part of the programme. He continues to applaud the boy but publicly complains about his anonymity. Addressing his entire entourage he declares: “He (the baby) told me he was anxious about not having a name. He needs one soon.” Dr N. doesn’t seem happy treating numbers or even surnames. His is the loudest voice amid a rising clamour of people who demand that we name our child. Until we’ve come up with something, we feel nervous about meeting Dr N’s vigorous and compassionate gaze.
So we get to work on the whole name issue. Books of names are thrown at us. We browse through the books and start making lists. Our nephew and nieces have also assembled lists of possibles and impossibles that get pinned up close to Tanya’s bed. Most of the possibles, including “Keanu” make the leap straight to the impossibles. We’d always imagined we’d have weeks and weeks to make up our minds. We’d planned to wait till we were together and compare notes and do things in a leisurely way leading up to the birth. Instead we only had three weeks to start considering the issue with an ocean between us. Now everyone in the building and dozens of people outside it seem desperate to call our child something definite..
We decide that Tanya’s birthday will be the day to announce the name. Baby was born on Thursday (around 10am); I arrived on Friday (around 7pm) and the birthday is Sunday. Of course, there’s an anti-climactic aspect to the birthday in the sense that no celebration or present can rival the enormity of baby’s arrival, but there’s also a pleasant feeling associated with the proximity of the two dates. With this in mind I skip out of the hospital on Saturday in order to buy her a birthday card from baby, one that will have a new name on it. I don’t want to wander too far and I don’t want to be away from her for too long. It is of course freezing cold outside and I’m climbing over little alps of frozen snow just to cross the road. A convenience store a few blocks away provides what I need and before long I’m more or less prepared to celebrate the birthday.
The real birthday event is the public announcement of the name however. “Theodore” is a name I’d been touting for a while, discussing it with Tanya over the phone. Gift of God. It’s also Tanya’s brother’s middle name — which has some diplomatic value. It’s the great left wing cultural studies guru Adorno’s name, so he’d have a major twentieth century cultural theorist to look up to (there are , incidentally, too many Walters in Tanya’s family already). It’s also flexible. Theodore, Theo, Ted, Teddy… even Thad or Thaddy at a mistaken stretch. It’s patrician one day and proletarian the next, it’s vaguely American and vaguely Greek. There’s little that this name can’t do, and I want him to have it. Where and when he uses it is his own business. He can assert if proudly from the outset or he can keep it for special occasions, revealing it as an unusual middle name in some intimate moment of pair bonding.
The pace of nomenclature is moving out of our hands however. This is a penalty of a three week pregnancy. Our baby has a rich social network of people who are determined to call him something specific very soon whether we like it or not and some of these same people are starting to demand something other than “Baby Cassidy”, which is the only label on his pod at present. Tanya has told me about how all new babies are “William” until determined otherwise, thanks to the genial Dr Bill. We feel that we owe no small amount to Dr Bill, possibly even a name, though I’m troubled by the legacy of “William” in Ireland. We need a better gimmick than naming him after the doc, no matter how authentically wonderful the doc in question. Now my two year old nephew Jude, my brother Jeff’s kid, was obviously named after a song, after an amusing idea for yelling at him. Perhaps “William” would work as a Smiths song, as a way of reassuring him when he’s accidentally broken something: “William, it was really nothing.”
The nurses come to the rescue by forcing the pace and directing our inquiries. They heard I was coming all the way from Ireland, and immediately consulted an Irish-American book of names and quickly found something they all loved and started using. Of course, they assume I’m Irish, which is fine. However, I’m suddenly very grateful Theo is a boy — otherwise we might be lumbered with some rootless piece of inauthentic whimsy like “Colleen” or “Shannon”. The name they have all gravitated towards, thankfully, is Liam, an Irish variant of William, and something he’s already responding well to. Before long, Liam is a clear winner. It’s out of our hands, and everyone is using it. Tanya want to have the initials L.T.C.B. to stand for Little Tiny Cute Baby. I point out that Tiny Little Cute Baby works just as well. But he’s already Liam… he’s evolved beyond our control. As Tanya’s dad Walt points out… whatever name you choose, you’d better clear it with Liam.
Liam’s having jaundice treatment until further notice. Apparently this is very normal for premature births, a routine precaution. This means bright lights and shades covering his eyes and being wired up in a new set of ways. His entire pod starts to resemble a microwave oven. Like any-self respecting person, Liam dislikes this imposed treatment and expresses his resentment with excessive wriggling and a rather creased, strained expression on his face. I tell him that grown ups pay good money in salons to undergo this treatment which is covered by his Ontario Health Insurance. He seems to disbelieve me and wriggles even harder. It is as though he has a deep seated personal objection to the idea of remaining still and to being forced to wear anything over his eyes, anything that restricts his curious field of vision. He resents being trapped in one position for any reason and he moves rhythmically under the light, slowly, defiantly, maintaining a sustainable pulse of dissatisfaction with his condition.
I have to make a number of calls but to do so I have to leave the building. Most of the international ones are made swiftly but expensively using my Irish mobile phone from the car park of the hospital. Sometimes I have to switch on the car, just to stay warm, depending on the likely duration of the call, and sometimes I have to switch the car on just so that my fingers are warm enough to dial. Everywhere round about is piled high with snow which, by the end of February has lost any sense of novelty or excitement for any of the kids round about. Most people would rather be imprisoned in a hospital until it finally starts to melt. Or they say they would be.
We are literally being burdened by good wishes. When good people send flowers to a hospital, they sometimes seem to have very little notion of the practicalities of being on the receiving end:
“You are now the proud owned of the Botswanan River Orchid. This flower needs to be kept at exactly 87.5 degrees, should be sung to at least three times a day, and fed via a saline drip every seven and a half minutes.”
Guess what. Flower’s going to die.
These flowers and cards are continually in the way and have to be moved back and forth. When she’s eventually discharged it takes me two trips and the loan of a special trolley just to cart this mass of foliage down to the car park. Then there are trips to secure all of our tiny personal belongings. It’s like evacuating a hotel room except that the towels look very boring and not worth stealing. The car starts to teem with junk and it’s hard to organize the space there when it’s so darn cold.
Mostly we just spend as much time as possible staring at him and talking about everything he’s going to see and do. The NICU has become home for us, No hospital room, not Tanya’s parents’ home, not D and P’s home, not the car we’re still paying for, not even the house we own in Ireland (the place we’re a third of the way to paying for) the place where we put up shelves… none of these places is home in the way the NICU is, because home is now wherever Liam is and the prospect, distant but looming now, of not being allowed to be under the same roof as him becomes a horrible form of forcible eviction.
Some people when they become parents give the impression of wanting to raise the drawbridge on the rest of the world. “Nothing else matters now” they seem to say, “protect the nuclear family unit at all costs.” Staring at him, I feel very differently. Everything matters, as much as it ever did. More than it ever did. But everything matters with him as part of the everything. Politics and art and literature and sport and science and beer and sex and gardening and health and comedy and good old knock-down argument all take on a renewed interest because Liam has a stake in them. I feel more connected to the rest of the world than ever before. Something else occurs to me. If this little guy takes care of himself, he may just get to see the dawn of the twenty second century. Suddenly I feel dramatically extended. No matter what, I now have a meaningful stake in the second half of the twenty first century.
Tanya is due to be discharged in a few days. There is a huge sense of anxiety, guilt, pain, misery associated with leaving the hospital and together we try and find out if there’s anyway we can avoid going home. We have a social worker, a tall dark haired elegant (but rather nervous) woman, who periodically scratches her head on our behalf. We learn first of all about a place called Bedside Manor, just opposite the hospital that is intended to take people in who have a pressing need to be very close to the wards. Unfortunately we learn immediately from the same social worker (and others) that this place tends to be stuffed with med students. Then we’re learnt by way of back up, of someone called “Lou” who’s been in the habit of taking people in for some years now, someone who lives just round the corner, within sight of the hospital itself.
I purchase Liam’s first toy from the hospital store. It’s a stuffed dog, a Toto of an animal that resembles in miniature a toy I bought for Tanya some years ago. The creature is placed in Liam’s pod at his feet and stands guard. He’s a constant presence and is continually kicked and cuddled by Liam’s restless feet. Something tells me that this toy will never leave him, that the extraordinary circumstances of his birth will create a bond between dog and boy never to be broken.
Lou has been away however (in Hawaii we eventually discover) and she’s not to be reached. I (and the social worker) start to pile up messages on her answer phone. The universe has contracted strangely in the past few days. Having traveled three and a half thousand miles in a matter of hours, the prospect of traveling a few hundred yards from the hospital takes on unprecedented horrors. Eventually between I get a call back from Lou and she cheerfully acknowledges the pile of near identical communications that both the social worker and I have gathered.
I get to meet her just outside the hospital and I walk with her through the snow, pacing the distance between her place and the hospital. It’s short, and the room is fine, snug and homely. Lou herself appears to have found love late in life and is aglow with benevolence to one and all. By the time I’m back at the hospital, I’m feeling greatly relieved. I know for a certain fact that we’ll be able to do this. At last I feel I’ve accomplished something, done something that will bring the family closer.
Lou’s it is. But leaving the hospital at all is far more traumatic for Tanya than I had ever dreamed. Fool that I am. I’d never woken up properly to the full biological wrongness of leaving the hospital without the baby, of sleeping under a separate roof. She’s still frail on her feet in any case, recovering from the operation, and clumsy with the unfamiliarity of walking. So we move slowly, a few steps at a time, then a corridor at a time, then. In the entrance hall, there are tears, awkward fumblings with outer clothing. Outside it’s many degrees before zero and it’s pitch black — a perfect deathtrap for someone who is distressed and unsteady. At least I know where Lou’s is. Tanya doesn’t which makes this little trip all the more appalling for her. Actually getting Tanya out of the main hospital door is harder than either of us thought it would be and we need to pause and sob in the foyer. It’s freezing outside of course, and I recommend that I drive around and she hobbles in. The three minutes of driving are tough, the fumbling with the keys and the unfamiliarity of the surroundings. She starts to cry again as we turn away from the building, heading south and east. It’s a tremendous relief for us both when seconds later after only a couple of turns I pull up at the rear of a house. She has to admit that we’re close, almost within sight of the hospital. If it wasn’t so slippery it would be ten minutes walking distance.
In the freezing cold, encumbered by layers of clothing, too many pockets, and sharing too much of Tanya’s pain, I fumble with everything. I nearly missed the Stop sign by the hospital corner. I change gear too quickly. And even when I park behind Lou’s I have trouble picking out the key she lent me. Precious seconds lost or confused add to the swelling distress. We pick our way through the unfamiliar house towards a bedroom I know (unlike Tanya) looks warm and friendly and reassuring. All my efforts now are to see if Tanya can sleep. Once she’s tucked up however, the sheer exhaustion of her own distress makes its own point and she starts to drift off.
The second night is of course easier, the route familiar, the idea of routine established. Yet suddenly our hopes and fears are all up in the air again, thanks to my inability to put the phone and phone numbers in the right place.
An early morning phone call wakes me together with a voice calling from upstairs, someone I don’t know shouting down a stairwell, someone who turns out to be one of Lou’s other guests, the father of a man my age struggling in the same hospital. Of course I panic. I pick up a phone, press the wrong button or a button and the call is lost. Then I try to phone the hospital back and I’m struggling for the bit of paper with the relevant number. As I fumble, I torture and delay myself further with self accusation. My kid’s only a few weeks old and already I’m a deadbeat dad, someone who tripped and failed to respond quickly and efficiently enough to come to Liam’s aid. But I need to bite my lip and postpone my own lacerating inquiry to be together for Tanya.
We rush to the hospital and the emergency dissipates instantly. It turns out that Liam has picked up an infection and the nurse dealt with it by beginning a new IV which has to go in his head. Nothing looks good about an IV in the head, but it doesn’t seem to be getting him down, he’s still pink and wriggling. He seems more annoyed by the jaundice treatment. The situation is entirely stable but it looks nasty to the unprepared eye. She wanted us to know about Liam head before we saw it. So now we see it. And we feel better.
The preemies don’t have immune systems that we’d recognize or accredit. Infections that we get two or three times a day and quietly deal with involve a degree of sudden intervention and intrusive wiring. Liam doesn’t enjoy restricted movement so he’s always inclined to wriggle his way out of his necessary wires. Getting IV’s into him is a tricky business and there’s always the worry that they will run out of places on his body they can actually run them. So many wires, so many urgent needs, so little precious pink surface area.
I wander back to the little parents’ room, littered with magazines of breathtaking triviality. It amazes me that here in the NICU, life and death decisions are made on a daily basis and life is an incredible emotional rollercoaster, yet the magazines have an offensive triviality to them. Today J-Lo speaks of the painful pressures of fame and fortune, and my sympathy for J-Lo is limited.
The TV in this room, when it’s on, is equally set to something mind-bendingly trivial. It has become an article of faith that people under pressure require distraction… but I find the juxtapositions simply surreal and gagging. Trivia TV far from distracting me from my baby in a pod, only draws attention to the comparative enormity of the fact of my baby in a pod.
At this point speculative guilt starts to invade our perception of Liam’s little infection. Could we have given it to him? Is this supposedly wonderful Kangaroo Care actually to blame for the fact that he has to have extra needles sticking in him? Have we been loving him to death? Tanya’s sister Dee is visiting and reassures us by good naturedly abusing us and our ignorance. She tells Tanya that unless she actually picked up Liam and rubbed him back and forth against the line of her Caesarian wound, it’s extremely unlikely he could have picked anything up that way. Her characteristic bluntness is very reassuring and has all three of us laughing before long. I’m holding a digital camcorder at the time, trying to film Liam through the thick Perspex. It’s not the easiest thing and when I check later on I get some very blurred images, though I preserve some great footage of Dee laughing at Tanya.
Everyone is anxious for pictures. Messages from Britain and Ireland beg for them. Yet somehow it doesn’t seem the best use of our time, staring at him through a viewfinder rather than staring at him properly face to face. There will be plenty of time to take photos later on. Also, we want Liam to be staring at parents, not at cyborgs. The little bit of film I do get of him shows him in motion, his characteristically restless but rhythmical swimming movement. I take some film of Tanya and Dee as well, and of Dr M. who is passing. Our child will get to know what the guy who saved his life looked like, barely a week after his life was saved.
Talking to Liam involves filling him in on all the people he’s going to meet. The logisitical challenges of one day getting him across the Atlantic start to invade, but I’m not going to allow them to colour the up-beat tone of the conversation. It’s not something he has to worry about. Clearly he’s going to be a world traveler but there’s not way I can sell him on plane travel till he’s old enough to look out of a window. Perhaps it’s because he’s staring at me through a thick porthole right now that I find myself thinking about him traveling by plane. I tell him he has grandparents in London who will dote on him (in very different ways), three uncles (two of whom look confusingly identical) all of whom will buy him loud toys as a not so subtle way of getting at me. I can’t wait for it to all start. And at least we’ll get to pre-board the plane. At least people will ooh and ah at us and get out of our way. I’ve always envied those parents who get oohed and ahhed at, those whom crowds part for.
I tell him he has a cousin called Jude whose avuncular dilemmas are far more serious. Imagine if, as a mute infant, you are put in a car every so often and carried into an unfamiliar room to be confronted with two Daddies all of a sudden. Another (presumably evil?) alternate Daddy. At least Liam is to be spared that dilemma, or at least the dilemma will be far less personally troubling to him. He’ll probably assume that everyone’s supposed to have two identical uncles.
I tell him about the people closer to home. His grandpa Cassidy with the splendid inheritable hair who pops in to see him every so often. Chief psychiatrist to this whole city… nobody it seems for miles around isn’t the friend of a friend of one his patients. His grandma Cassidy who worries about Tanya and hospital food and brings in home cooked meals that we never quite find time to eat. I remind him about Andrea who comes in every so often to pour scorn on our ill informed fears and to coo and ooh and ah. I also tell him about his three local Canadian cousins: C who he’s already met (albeit briefly), A who will be caring and responsible and thoughtful, and P who will break his little heart in two and tyrannise over him for a period of years. I think about the lives he’s already influencing and my heart swells with yet more pride. I love to hear him discussed and I love to hear him flattered (provided words like “miracle” are avoided).
But above all I tell him about getting out. There are no windows in an NICU and nothing to distinguish night from day. A walk in the park and all that a park can contain takes on an extraordinary depth and splendour of experiential possibility. I dream about the moment when we walk out of the hospital itself, when he can be raised to the heavens and I can introduce him. “World this is Liam Theo — Liam Theo, this is World.” I live in anticipation of that moment and I find myself weeping for joy whenever I think of it. In my mind’s eye, the snow has finally melted, and the mud and slush that follows it has similarly passed. I’m carrying him through streets and across fields of freshly exposed green, past budding flowers to a soundtrack of pulsating polyphonic birdsong. A day in late April or early May. It’s bright but not oppressively hot, the kind of day where everyone wants to be outside for the first time since October.
More than anyone else in the pantheon of literature available to me, I become Joe Gargery from Great Expectations, earnest and desperate in my anticipation of innocent but detailed fun. The unsophisticated incorruptible blacksmith whose unquenchable appetite for simple pleasure is an antidote to everything that’s wrong with the life of adult Pip. Fifteen years of carefully cherished and proudly sustained academic cynicism dissipate and are replaced with a Dickensian refrain of “Wot larks!” It becomes one of my favourite things to say to my son: “wot larks”, Two syllables of innocence and freedom. Two syllables meaning the great outdoors, melting snow, blossoming trees and sheer virgin expanse. It’s a sublime self-infantilisation that makes every simply experience unimaginably complex and fertile.
Our long awaited appointment with the lactation consultant arrives. (I keep saying “our” when strictly speaking the advice is directed primarily at Tanya.) Lactation consultants are spread very thin within the health service and this one is quite an old fashioned, calm reassuring presence. Around this time we decide that Tanya should start taking the drug, which means there is one more thing to tell each and every medic who asks what she’s on before treating her.
The lactation consultation repeats something I’d heard before from nurses. If mother drinks a beer before she goes to bed, then the milk is more likely to come in the morning. So, baby’s first beer — not something I thought I was going to have to confront for a while. This obviously becomes an important research topic for me… because no son of mine is going to grow up drinking Coors Lite. That’s just not going to happen. I believe I can be a pretty lenient Dad when it comes to sex, drugs, rock and roll and choice of career, but when it comes to choice of beer, I’m fully intending to put my foot down from the earliest appropriate moment. Dropping into an LCBO on Tecumseh and Huron Church I pick up on two appropriate brands.
The most famous nursing beer of all time is of course Guinness, and its lactative qualities have been alluded to in many sources, including Anthony Trollope’s novelHe Knew He was Right. Guinness is available here in this smallish Canadian city, proper Dublin St. James’ Gate Guinness no less, but it’s come a long way… pretty much exactly as far as I have in fact, and it’s probably a little the worse for wear (much as I am). Along with the Guinness Tanya should try something that hasn’t wandered very far to get to her. The importance of seeking out whatever is local when it comes to beer drinking is an aesthetic principal that cannot be enforced too early as far as I’m concerned. One day I will be able to tell Liam about his very first beer, over a beer.
Eventually I determine that Tanya will drink a Walkerville for baby’s benefit. Tanya will find that this beer goes down easily enough, and the beer has a certain pedigree and above all locality to it. Adopting the firm maxim that the best beer doesn’t and shouldn’t travel, I determine that Walkerville has the great merit of being produced within walking distance of the hospital.
Tanya takes just a very little of the Walkerville after all of my plotting and planning. It seems that drinking a beer at the end of the day may be good for lactation in theory, but if it means that you have to get up in the middle of the night, it will tend to disrupt your sleep which is… not good for lactation — specifically not good for meeting the timetable enforced by baby feedings and breast pumps. It is astonishing how much of a day can be taken up wrestling with tubing, cleaning bottles, measuring time and effort and labels. By the time you’ve completed on pumping session you’re already checking your wristwatch for the next session.
We think we have everything in place. Tanya’s milk yield has been ever so slowly but still steadily increasing. She’s started taking some medication that seems to help with few side effects and the little bottles are starting to fill with precious inches of white gold. These bottles need to be labeled with a name, date and time and they need to be refrigerated. They’re good for a few hours at room temperature, a few days refrigerated and a few months if kept in the freezer, though some of the goodness is lost by that kind of treatment. The bottles need to be washed and sterilized and dried. We both feel as though we are employees within a high pressure manufacturing concern, one that will never give us a day off and keep raises our workload.
A Saturday morning arrives at Lou’s as my dreams are invaded by a smell of some kind. I’m unwilling to wake because I’m hoping that the smell is part of dreamland — something hygienically transient. After a while it becomes unbearably undeniable and I’m sat up in bed, waking up completely only to feel ready to pass out again. Tanya is awake too and alert to the crisis, whatever that may be. We pull aside the bed clothes and discover that half the bed is drenched in a thick yellow ooze that has emanated from Tanya’s Caesarian scar. I can’t believe that Tanya isn’t howling in pain — nothing this evil smelling can possibly be painless can it? Why isn’t she screaming? Tanya is certainly distraught — but distraught with frustration and irritation rather than pain. I run upstairs for a selfish shower — I need to purge myself of the hellish sludge before I can think straight. There isn’t much thinking to be done though. It’s back to emergency now… straight back, no other alternative, I think to myself. Returning to the room is like returning to the lair of something unseen, malevolent, and sudden. Tanya wants to reach for the breast pump before we go. Before she’s a patient, she’s a mother, doing the most important thing a mother can do in her situation which is why she still hates the thought of missing a feed for any reason. The production of milk is her overriding obligation as a parent and missing a feed has become the concentrated expression of maternal neglect. Overruling her, we wrap things up as best we may, promising to each other that we will reimburse Lou royally for all costs and damages.
Out in the thick snow I’m fumbling again for keys. I’d be in a sweat if the extreme temperatures would only permit it. Two minutes later, Tanya and I are sitting in Emergency — a different part of the same hospital altogether. In the middle of her processing she get scolded for accidentally taking a drink of water in between the different stages of her being weighed and checked out. In between tut tuttings, she is interviewed, weighed and admitted to the hospital again.
Neither of us want to miss Liam’s morning feed, but Tanya will certainly miss it now, so we agree to split up, or rather, for me to run off and leave her for a while. She’s being checked in while I run over to the other side of the hospital to see Liam. On my way in to the NICU I meet Tanya’s dad, who has popped in to stare at his grandson for a while, a fortunate coincidence because I can let him know what’s happened to Tanya and he can visit her while I visit the boy.
I spend a little time by his side, marveling as always at his perfection, wishing I wasn’t torn and that I could stare guiltlessly at him forever. Until he’s released. But before too long I drag myself back (frightened of what I might find) down to the ground floor, along the dark corridor towards admissions where I find her in a small room. An orderly/paramedic type guy seems to be panicking somewhat lecturing us both for some reason… stressing the seriousness of Tanya’s infection and thanking God that it was caught so early, As though either of us could really have ever missed it. (“It’s a laundry emergency if nothing else” as I told the Admissions receptionist.)
Dr Bill is on hand again, smiling, comforting, telling us everything and being reassuring about the infection. It sounds as though the erratic circumstances of the birth itself made the infection very likely. In addition to Liam’s feeding schedule there is now a cleaning and sterilizing and rebandaging schedule for Tanya. The hospital food with which she is provided is supplemented by my trips to the canteen and a few drive places outside (but not too far from) the hospital.
So now I’m living in the hospital again, other than a few hours at night at Lou’s and I’m running back and forth between floors. Wherever I am, I worry that I should be somewhere else. Although of course I don’t actually run. Running in hospitals now seems spectacularly unfunny to me. Goofy little men sliding down ward corridors knocking everything over is no longer any source of mirth. “Jerry Lewis, Norman Wisdom… I’m afraid we’re going to have to let you go. I know it says on your resumes that you have warm hearts and winning smiles but you are endangering the lives of everyone in the building.” Nothing about hospitals appears funny or silly right now, the smells the fluids, the routine and the costumes are all invested with a high seriousness. There is much to do with the hospital experience that is funny but inefficiency is not. I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever have a sense of humour again, whether I haven’t undergone my own sort of sympathetic amputation.
While sitting with Tanya as she’s propped up in bed one time there’s a knock at the door and a hospital chaplain arrives. The Rev. Y is a Baptist minister who is one of a team that ministers cautiously within a very multi-faith environment. We chat for a while and Tanya puts herself through the effort of explaining everything one more time. I’ve spent some time in the chapel downstairs, a small dark room that uses mirrors to give it a sense of added depth and purpose. It’s a space shorn of cross and crescent and everything else that could possibly give offence by being overly specific in its interpretation of faith. There is a book of prayers, some pious magazines, and an eclectic selection of holy texts on the book shelf. Every so often there is me, on my knees, concentrating, and doing nothing else but promising to try and live a better life… being careful not to offer it as a contract or a bargain, careful not to insult the intelligence of any higher purpose who might be listening in.
She’s around Tanya’s age, this chaplain, and seems to feel instinctively for her situation. Before long we’re in a little prayer meeting. My tears start to swell again and I feel an urge to repress this vulgar display of salt water in front of someone I hardly know. I don’t pay enough attention to what the Rev. Y is saying until I hear the word “Miracle” again and I start to feel angry. I’m starting to really hate that word, hate the sense of living on the edge, living within a category of the super-natural that I do not recognize and have no wish to legitimate. I want normal right now, I want humdrum and predictable. Secular ingrate that I feel myself to be at times, I do not want to be teetering on the very bring of divine approbation all the time.
Still, we appreciate the attention. Tanya’s also had the Catholic chaplain around, while I was away running errands. We attract the religious by now (we give off the right order), there’s something about our situation that carries a peculiar scent that religious types seem to be able to identify from some distance. It’s a smell of fragility, a recognition of the effort that goes into presenting a secure front to the world.
The NICU itself is meanwhile as close to feeling home as anywhere else. It’s where we both feel that we ought to be whenever we’re not there. There are an array of large comfortable chairs around the place which I get used to dragging about. We sit sometimes for hours at a time looking at Liam sleep, looking at his scores on the board, worrying about the next feed, the next visit etc. Even more than the feeds we want to be there for the Doctor’s rounds. These are quite unpredictable since the doctor can’t really be expected to spend and equal amount of time with each child.
Tanya is moved to a different bed in a different ward. Shunted from floor to floor as she becomes redefined and reallocated is tiring because of the repetition of explanation. Everything is new and strange, yet again, yet again. Transferring her from one floor to another is a matter of necessary hospital logistics but it’s a form of dislocation that has its own bad effects. It’s symptomatic of a kind of loss of control. She and Tanya should be in one place, the same place, with me holding them both whenever I’m not running errands. I running errands now of course, back and forth moving personal effects and liaising with the relevant desk staff to secure my own visiting privileges. In particular we’re concerned not to miss lactation opportunities. The lactation clock now supercede all other imaginable form of time measurement or management and arranging for Tanya to be awake with some privacy and the right sterilized equipment has become my chief responsibility. Whenever I go and see Liam now it’s with at least one small bottle of breast milk clutched in my hand. She’s not pumping as much as before the infection, but we’re confident it will grow and build.
I go solo with the Kangaroo care idea, feeling almost guilty at the prospect, like some kind of insultingly unprepared female impersonator. Tanya is upstairs and it’s all up to me for this visit again at least.. I pull the curtains and remove my shirt. The nurse pulls Liam kicking and wriggling from his pod. His kicks look less like fear than excitement, the excitement of having plenty of space around him to kick, a timely reminder of the fact that the universe is bigger than his pod. Then he’s on me and covered up again. I’m looking into his eyes which soon close again as the food and contentment kicks in. It’s an odd feeling, especially when we know it’s Tanya’s expressed milk that he’s being fed, knowing that nothing he eats or drinks for the remainder of his life is going to give him so much comfort. We stay like that for about forty minutes at a time.
When I can I sing Liam to sleep, or I sing and watch him fall asleep and persuade myself that my singing has something to do with the peaceful transition to dreamland. I run through a variety of songs (quite a few by Buddy Holly for some reason), jettisoning all those that cannot be sung quietly or do not have a memorable chorus. Songs that require my to change octave are soon deemed equally inappropriate. Eventually my repertoire is reduced to just two tunes – both of which have the merit of being familiar to me from my own childhood: the geordie ballad “When the Boat comes In” and the less geographically specific “The Big Ship Sails on the Alley Alley Oh.” After a while I eliminate all my other material, calculating that repetition and familiarity will have a bonding function and will speed up his associative instincts, getting him used to the sound of my voice quicker. I don’t sing the full version of “When the Boat Comes In” because I can’t remember it, and in any case it’s way too boozy.
The big ship sails on the alley-alley oh
The alley alley oh
The alley alley oh
The big ship sails on the alley-alley oh
On the last day of September.
Thou shalt have a fishy
On a Little dishy
Thou shalt have a fishy
When the boat comes in.
Dance to your mammy
Sing to your daddy
Dance to your Mammy
Let your Daddy sing.
Scientifically you can never be sure of these things, but I like to think that Liam recognizes these tunes after a while, that he hits a particular rhythm himself when he hears them. When he falls asleep while I’m singing, it’s not a matter of boredom I hope but of rather comforting repetition and familiarity. These two tunes will be his for all eternity. All I can say (without any quantifiable proof) is that when I sing them he seems calm, his eyes close very slowly and I sneak a glance at his scoreboard, enjoying the fact that his three lines become very predictable.
It is important to state and re-state that Liam is perfect. Stare at him close up and you will see him possess a minute but exact version of everything that a boy should have. If he is awake then he is rarely still. One time, the nurses discovered that he had turned a full ninety degrees to face one of his portholes, presumably to tap at it and investigate its purpose and structure. It’s clear that he’s identified the port holes as weak points, as points of access and therefore, logically egress. Thankfully he’s now too big to actually squeeze out of a porthole but this will only stiffen his resolve to devise an alternative escape plan. Within a few weeks he’ll start to tunnel out. If Tanya’s womb couldn’t contain him, he doesn’t see why this box should.
It’s clear at any rate that he as a very firm notion that the universe is bigger than his pod, that existence offers far more than being fed through a tube in a Perspex coffin. I can’t wait. I’m ambitious for him, but ambitious for the smallest thing. Right now he doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist or president of the world. He doesn’t even have to be an eighteenth-century literature specialist. He’s going to have fun dammit. Just a walk in the park is all I’m letting myself look forward to right now. But that walk in the park is absolutely immense. Sky, clouds, trees, flowers, dogs, birds etc… will all look like some sort of multi-media trippy fantasia after the NICU ward. His world consists at present of a pod, a clean white room outside a pod, and a couple of corridors that may or may not reveal other possible worlds. He will get more out each slight change of perspective than I will ever be able to appreciate.
And the next few months are as far ahead as I want to see. Of course, I’ll sort out a college fund and investigate his citizenships and I’ll make a will and all the rest of it. But my heart isn’t in these things yet. He’s so tiny and so restless that all my love and curiosity is still invested in the very small things, the tiniest signs of growth and independence. As he becomes divested of certain wires, my heart glows. He’s finally taken off the jaundice treatment and no longer has to wear those ludicrous shades. His eyes are therefore visible for more of the time.
This is while I’m with him. When we’re together, I find it hard to get too distressed about paperwork or long term plans. At other times, when I’m out and about or lying awake at night, I consider more practical yet more speculative issues. I wonder where he’s going to live (which means where we are going to live). I wonder how he’s going to talk. Will he grow up with an Irish accent or a Canadian accent? The chances of him growing up with an English accent are limited, ever since I was thrown out of that place ten years ago for being useless.
Wherever he grows up, won’t sound awkward. Here in Canada I talk “funny”. In Ireland I don’t talk “funny” because the most Anglophobic person in Ireland doesn’t hate the English because of their accents. It’s got more to do with the whole bitter legacy of imperialism thing. Whereas in Canada (and the States) a whole bunch of people “love” my accent, including a whole bunch of people right here in the hospital. There is of course an equal and opposite reaction to the way I speak that functions with pretty much Newtonian inevitability. The people who hate the way I speak hate it because it seems to them affected, and because they are annoyed by the anglophile snobbery of the PBS watching class of people who love the way I speak. I can respect that. They are not so much Anglophobes and Anglophilophobes. I think I’m an anglophilophobe too.
Any way of him expressing himself right now is good. Very occasionally we hear Liam cry. It’s the most beautiful sound imaginable and we can’t get enough of it, the energy and the need behind it. Baby crying in the NICU is not like baby crying anywhere else. All NICU parents are delighted by the sheer operation of their baby’s lungs. The crying of adjacent babies inspires something like envy. Like all other babies, one wailing of one preemie can ignite another and the infant din can take over whole sections of the unit. But it’s a happy healthy infection that doesn’t bother anyone. As background noise it also makes a welcome change from the incessant electronic “pings” that punctuate every aspect of this place. When we first arrived here we were terrified by the “pings”, inclined to run for a nurse whenever we heard one. Now we can tell the difference between Liam’s pings and everyone else’s and also the difference between meaningful and routine pings, the pings that declare that his breathing is dangerously erratic and the pings that are a plea for some sort of routine maintenance. Some pings we simply cease to hear.
Everything in this space emits a high pitched electronic protest. Things ping when you plug them in and ping when you switch them off. Some pings bring the nursing staff if not running then walking urgently, and others do not. Some pings are actually comforting, a reminder of the fact that the machines work, that the technology is singing and calling the trained staff.
As I look at him, I can’t stop myself from continually apologizing under my breath for my own absenteeism. Having missed the most important and difficult day of his life, I commit myself to making every other important day of his life, for the rest of his life. Missing Liam’s birth is going to haunt me forever. It will be a lifelong problem. At the very least I’m to be teased about if for as long as I live. Massive compensation is called for. Every conceivable extracurricular activity, every sporting event, every play, every recital, every appointment. I can’t yet determine what those sporting events are likely to be… baseball, hurling, cricket… the very shape of the bat he is to one day wield is as uncertain as our professional destinies. But whatever the rough outline of the hunk of wood that he will grasp even tighter than he’s grasping my pinkie right now, I will be there to see him hit a ball with it.
Liam keeps adding to this fantasy because he’s the Wildman, the restless kid, the one with the big searching eyes. You look at some of the residents in here, and they don’t seem to be trying, bless them. Not by comparison. They’re ever so sweet of course, and they’re loved to bits, but I wouldn’t call all of them players. They don’t all have much of a purchase on this world. Chances are they’ll all make it and grow up all fine, but they’re not exactly pounding the walls while singing Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life. Liam Theo is, or at least he’s doing the closest thing his physiological range permits. Surely he should be getting extra points for effort, for being a character already, for thinking outside the box.
He is constantly wrestling with his IV s, his monitors and his eyeshades (during Jaundice treatment). There is too much wire and plastic in his home and he doesn’t care for it at all, it seems to offend a kind of infant feng shui. There are, for example, two prongs in his nose that offer extra oxygen that will simply not remain in place. Usually he’s happy enough with just one prong. Part of him is clearly aware that being stuck in a pod with wires sticking out of you from all directions is no way to live. As he wriggles, he gets tangled up and is affectionately scolded by whichever nurse is on call.
“Why do you always get your cords in a knot.” Exclaims a nurse in tender hearted frustration.
“That’s why he’s here at all. Getting cords in a knot is something he’s good at.”
And I repeat the story of Liam and the true knot, the extraordinary feat of wriggling that forced him to leave Tanya’s body so prematurely. Even very experienced nurses start to gasp when they hear about it. Their jaws drop and they turn to Liam with renewed respect and wonderment.
This place in the hospital will always be an important part of his life for the rest of his life. There’s a big aftercare programme for Preemies, run by Dr N, a pioneering sort of effort that represents the culmination and vindication of his life’s work. It’s version of perpetual identity that is forged. Every so often they get some twenty year old Preemie, a hulking football player or a brilliant science major, just to inspire ma and pa as they stare anxiously at their tiny wired bundles. Once a preemie always a preemie, always one of a lifelong community of special knowledge.
The effort of hurrying between two floors of a hospital, alternately worried more by the mother than the child, the child than the mother, starts to exact a physical toll on me, Given that I have no medical competence whatsoever, it is my primary responsibility to exude confidence. I have a moral responsibility to look happy. I am happy but looking it puts a special strain on me. The past few weeks have been the most emotionally involving of my entire life and an extraordinary degree of work has gone into the task of fighting back tears. This feat I have accomplished at various points in my life for various reasons, but I have never had to keep working at it for day after day without respite. When you are fighting tears, either of terror or of joy, the whole top half of your head becomes numb and red. You’re prone to headaches and you can develop a sort of hum that deadens the world outside.
I eat at odd intervals in the hospital dining area, choosing from a limited range of bits and pieces, washed down with extra large cardboard cups of Tim Horton’s coffee. I sit by the window and look out at the snow-laden trees on Kildare (the name of our Canadian street is the name of our Irish county), stretching towards Tecumseh. The snow piles up on the roads, is swept away and slushed and then overnight is replaced. The snow makes Liam seem even more of a prisoner, under siege in this hospital and the happy affinity between springtime and Liam’s release date seems all the more significant.
I talk to Liam about the extraordinary position that I’m in. When we were an ocean apart Tanya would place the receiver against her womb and have me wish him goodnight. Now I’m hoping that he can put a face to the voice, if not yet a face to a name. I tease him about these former conversations.
“When I said I couldn’t wait to see you, I did not, I repeat NOT tell you to bust out as soon as possible.”
And whenever I can, I offer a finger to Liam Theo for him to clutch. I shake hands with my boy. I try and talk to him. I empathise with his dissatisfaction and incarceration. Sometimes I feel like a prison visitor. Here, loved ones are separated by Perspex, surrounded by guards and overbearing technology. Out of the corner of my eye I spot the other visitors. Some of them are preparing for the release date, the “Car-Seat Challenge” as they call it. Having weighed and measured and hummed and ha-ed, the final consideration concerns whether or not the infant can sit quietly in a car seat. It’s not that this is the sole or only qualification they need, only that it is the crowning confirmation of their freedom. Only then are they set loose on the world. To me, it looks like a parole hearing, though everyone else dislikes this sort of rhetoric. The long distant day of Liam’s parole hearing absorbs me. How will I manage if he fails? Suppose he keeps failing? Suppose he’s kept back here day after day, giving us false hope and fresh disappointment? It’s very much second order fear that I experience: fear of fear rather than anything too horrible and immediate.
Liam has a near neighbour called Tyler whose pod is usually just across from his. We make friends with Tyler’s mother, and always look forward to seeing the pair of them. Her lad has had his problems, problems to do with lesions on the brain, problems that make us want to beg and plead and pray on her and his behalf. Tyler’s progress give us hope, makes us feel in touch with a larger process. Liam will be Tyler one day, and we will be Tyler’s anxious ma, praying for her kid to sail through the last set of tests, desperate to take him home. There are of course many other babies, with whose parents we are on nodding acquaintance but Tyler is our constant point of comparison. It’s not that we want to be doing better than Tyler, in the sense that we wish Tyler any ill, in fact we want Tyler to be doing really well, so that we can plot a J curve for Liam, one in which Liam is doing better still.
For a couple of hours each day I escape from the hospital to take care of a few errands and communicate with the outside world. Everyone is driving carefully through the snow that barely gets a chance to be shoveled aside before it piles up again. These hours contain laundry, shopping, smiling at people and checking electronic mail. Congratulations start to flood in… which I love, but want to check and qualify. I feel sure that few if any of the people who are virtually back-slapping me have any idea how long a road this is going to be. I am rationing my own joy, just to be able to contain my fear. Some of my students ask if the kid’s name is Trismegistus, (the occult pseudonymous philosopher that Walter Shandy is determined to name is second son after), given the chaotic context of his arrival. They also ask about their second best guess which is “Lemmy” – as in “Lemmy out of Motorhead.” I don’t recall ever discussing the work of Motorhead in lectures or tutorials, so I’m slightly bemused by this suggestion. I write them back with the disappointing truth of “Liam” (close to Lemmy?), but tell them that we (meaning I) did think about Trismegistus. I feel for Walter Shandy in that he and I have both found events slipping out of our hands.
My errands offer relief and guilt in equal measure. I’m watching the clock whenever I’m outside the hospital, desperately trying to purchase things and launder clothes and be back at Tanya and/or Liam’s side. And still I’m always on the brink of tears. On one occasion when I pull up at Dee and Pierre’s, I find them both smiling at my salt water and they tell me that they were discussing the very issues of when I was going to crack up.
I am certain that my boy is going to make it. So certain am I that I don’t even have to think it in so many words to myself. I know for certain that he will live and grow and learn to eat and drink and spill and vomit and scream and do all the other inconvenient and precious things that babies do. He’s going to keep me awake for many nights and will do stuff that will frighten me to death Lord bless him. But I also feel sure that there will be setbacks, and soon. Liam Theo is going to get sick, pick up other small infections, be put on reduced feeds. In other words, he’s going to scare us first. It is impossible to remain calm and ration one’s fears without rationing one’s hopes as well. In order not to get too downcast I need to not get too far ahead of events and cherish each day on its own merits. But eventually, he’s going to burst out of that hospital, to be carried with pride through the sunlit streets of W. to cheering crowds (or crowds who I will convince myself are cheering internally). This will happen, after much stress and fear and disappointment and delay, it will happen as surely as the sun will come up tomorrow, but in the meantime I need to prepare myself for the darker times, the setbacks and frustrations. So much repression, so many squashed emotions, so many pressures to behave well.
We’ve developed the bad habit of looking at his scores on the TV screen above his head. On days when he’s lying asleep and barely moving (although he moves more than any of the other preemies), it’s as though the scores are him talking to us. From day one, they are a part of him, a part of the experience of seeing him and being with him. Our attention is always divided between the sight of him and the stats of him. On a big monitor over his head we see a series of pulsating lines. The top one measures his heart rate and nestling at its feet is a figure that shows his latest blood pressure readings. Beneath that is his saturation score, a white line that measures how much oxygen is in his blood supply. At the bottom is his respiration, probably the most erratic of the three lines. It’s the one I pay the least attention to. Generally speaking, we’re happy if the heart rate stays between 130 and 160 and if the oxygen saturation is in the nineties. Whenever things dip our own heart rate becomes erratic.
This show is addictive. It’s remarkable in that the more boring it gets the better it gets. We crave dullness. We can’t get enough of it. Some evenings, when he’s moving slowly but not violently in his sleep, when he’s recently been fed and his mouth is curved in what you could interpret as a smile, the sheer regularity of those numbers becomes quite hypnotic. We get told off for staring at it. After all, when Liam gets out, we’re not going to have the screen to stare at. We should be learning how to read him, not his screen but the screen is so darn distracting too. It occurred to me that is would be interesting if everyone went through life with these screens attached. Imagine being able to measure the de-sat potential of emotive conversations, the heart rate of someone you suspect to be lying?
I chat to the nurses, partly because they are all of them genuinely nice people and partly because I feel that I am doing something for Liam by befriending these tremendously important people. I explain to one of them about the three week pregnancy, Tanya’s M.S. and the fact that taking care of foetus helps to repair the myelin sheaths. Ever since Liam was born, Tanya has been feeling weaker again as her system is no longer working full stretch to protect the infant. She’s surprised and interested in this, and asks what the best thing for her might be?
“Perhaps I should knock her up again.” I conclude.
The nurse titters and trips away: “You’re bad. I’m gonna tell on you.”
Another time, late one night while I’m on Liam watch, I meet and getting chatting with a nurse whose teenage daughter wants to become a lecturer in English literature. This is such a rare and noble teenage aspiration that I’m drawn into a long conversation about it. I’m thinking about my job again, thinking professionally again for the first time in days, something that feels eerie, almost dishonest. I tell her that her daughter will have plenty of time to discover whether or not she really wants such a vocation. While taking English as a university discipline, she’ll learn to either love or hate the idea of full time academic work pretty quickly. It’s not as though she could fill in the wrong form accidentally and regret it for the rest of her life. It is pleasant to sit and talk with a mother about her child while my child sleeps beside me.
Throughout this time I am on a steep learning curve, developing a new unforeseen string to my bow, lactation consultant (that is, ignorant, unqualified an unpaid lactation consultant). Everything about our daily routine becomes about milk production. With Tanya laid up after the operation, Liam was of course put on formula. We’re told that he’s too young to co-ordinate the activities of drinking and breathing and so the stuff is sent down his nose in a transparent tube. When we eat, sleep, rest, move around the hospital is all about the production schedule. It’s something that inspires guilt and anxiety in heart-rending measure. Never have I stared so intently at Tanya’s breasts, each time looking supportively for every gleam of white, fascinated as the gleam swells into a tiny ball, drops under the pressure of its own mass and makes its way down slowly down plastic tubes and into the plastic bottle. If milk production is up on the previous attempt, then we’re overjoyed, if it’s down on the previous effort then it’s my part to console and find local, transitory, unimportant reasons for the decline, reasons that will not demoralize Tanya or have her blame herself.
Tanya’s infection has set back the milk production though. She’s desperate to produce adequate and sufficient milk and yet rest and recuperation are equally important. Napping becomes an obligation and therefore difficult to accomplish. At one point she was expressing enough to give him entire feeds, but now he’s back on the formula. It is hard for Tanya not to experience this as failure… yet the infection she received is a consequence of the emergency conditions of the caesarian that saved Liam’s life. Everything seems very circular and frustrating.
We research just about every substance that can possibly aid lactation and eventually decide to use a prescription drug (Domperidone). Even this risks Tanya interpreting herself as a kind of failure but by now we’re just anxious for milk to come. Liam is becoming ravenous, tolerating his existing feedings so easily that his dosage is constantly being raised. We’re overjoyed by this, but the corresponding pressure on Tanya becomes immense.
By about the Wednesday, the thirteenth day of his life, there appear a few signs that we must interpret as a setback. At this stage the emotion is disappointment and frustration, not yet fear. We try not to miss rounds in the NICU, which tends to integrate parents as far as possible. We peer at the cluster of clipboards as they process from pod to pod, slowly getting closer to us, craving that most elusive commodity, authoritative good news.
By the end of the second week we slowly start to admit fear again. The past couple of days have seen blood in Liam’s stools. Dr B. is calm about this but wishes to keep monitoring the situation. Tanya and I have learned to ration our fears and we refuse to let ourselves feel too much about this. There is no air of mania in the room.
Things don’t improve. Something needs to be sorted out. It’s Friday. Friday the eleventh of March. Now Dr B. is talking to us about blood transfusions, which apparently involve a very low and acceptable risk of infection. The first thing we both do is offer to open ourselves up, but it turns out that certain issues of consanguinity make this inadvisable. Dr B cannot rule out all possibility of risk with blood transfusions but he assures us that it’s very low. We of course are helpless. We are in the hands of medical authority and all we can do is agree to everything. There is another test, a scan that is not quite an X-Ray but which will hopefully determine what’s what.
Liam is taken downstairs in an elevator, the biggest adventure in his life to date. He is wheeled down dark corridors into a room with a scary yellow sticker announcing “Nuclear Medicine”. He is carefully positioned beneath an enormous imagining machine like a gigantic flat iron which is lowered slowly to just below his head. Staring out at us, he seems wonderfully OK. He seems very calm and trusting, and, idiots that we are, we’re pleased by this at the time.
He returns to his pod but he’s agitated now. He’s missed a feed because the test took so long and we think this may be distressing him. He seems frightened and possibly in pain. Dr B. has gone off call and the attending physician is now Dr S from London Ontario. Everybody speaks very highly of Dr S.
By now we’re being told by everyone to go away and rest. We drive, not to Lou’s but to Dee and Pierre’s where we’ve been promised a home cooked meal. Standing around in the kitchen, tired and teary we prepare ourselves to relax for an hour or so. Then there’s a call and I realize that I’ve failed to switch my mobile back on after we left the hospital and they’re trying other numbers. I’ve got the hang of switching it off when we go in, but I sometimes forget to switch it back on again.
I can’t remember much about the reported content of this phone call but it sends us straight back into the car and back to the hospital. We hurry inside but are then painfully kept at a distance. There are people all around Liam and there’s no space for us. Whatever is going on around Liam is engaging the full attention of everyone in the ward. We’ve been dragged back here and we can’t see him and we’ve been told to wait and we can’t wait patiently. All we can do is register our presence. I wander back and forth some distance from Liam’s pod, anxious to be in Dr S.’ line of sight whenever he should have leisure to come and talk to us.
Dr S is detached from his duties and coaxes us into a place of privacy. In the tiny room we hear for the first time the words “necrotizing enterocolitis”. They don’t at the time trip very easily off the tongue, though they do now. Dr S. tells us of the seriousness of the condition, but he also tells us that he’s very familiar with it and intends to treat it aggressively. I’m stunned and frightened. Anything that contains the stem “necro” can hardly be anything other than terrifying. Turns out it’s a bowel infection that particularly young preemies are prone to. It’s rare among babies who weigh more than 1500 grams. Liam topped out at 1498 and has been falling slightly ever since (something we were urged not to worry about). Suddenly it seems as though he’s rushed towards a high jump and fallen just short.
Doctor De Silva exudes confidence but it is impossible to ignore the fact that events are moving faster than he had supposed. A gaggle of people surround Liam, shutting us out. Again, a sense of helplessness and worthlessness overtakes me. I would take a bullet for this guy (should the circumstance arise, at least I like think) but now there’s nothing I can do. Again, I wish I had to option of cutting myself open — unzipping myself from head to tail to parade my internal goodies — here take what you want — take something — anything from me – just to give to him.)
If Liam were in London, two hundred kilometers away, then he’d have been treated far quicker. We start to suspect that the necrotizing enterocolitis might have been spotted earlier as well. If he were in Detroit, just over the border, the relevant equipment would be there too. We’re told that he’s having problems with his oxygen saturation levels and the ventilators here in Windsor aren’t up to it.
I phone up Dee and Pierre’s to let them know what’s happening but Pierre tells me that Dee is already on her way over to see us. Before long she’s with us, unable to disguise the fact that she knows a bunch about necrotizing enterocolitis, all of it very nasty..
Dee urges me to comfort him, stay as close as I can, say whatever comes to mind. I’m possessed by fear but I step forward. I talk to him about the trip, tell him to behave himself for the nice people from Michigan, do my best to advertise the ride. Doing this while choking back tears is more than I thought I’d be able to do. In the meantime, the front desk gets us a map and a phone number. Dee suggests that she drives, just because Tanya and I are too involved and emotional right now. Neither of us dissents. We barely have the energy to thank her.
We go down in the elevator with Liam and then our paths diverge. We run to Dee’s car, and the three of us pile in. As we turn out of Kildare towards Tecumseh Road we see the ambulance pull out ahead of us, sirens blazing, straight down towards the international tunnel.
“Go Liam go!” we chant. “Go Liam go!”
Liam speeds out of sight and we following his wake, sprinting towards the river. We speed through the tunnel faster than I can ever remember. There seems to be no traffic. Half way through it, Dee starts talking about the oscillation ventilator and suggests that we start raising money for one. This notion restores a sense of agency, it’s a suggestion that reminds us that we’re capable (at least in theory) of initiating events rather than just reacting to them. We’re stronger for the idea. When we get to the border post at the other side, Dee simply announces to the functionary that we are the family of the child who’s just been rushed to the Michigan Children’s Hospital. His robotic officiousness collapses and we are simply waved on. We are special people and the normal rules have somehow ceased to apply. We turn the corner and pass the Renaissance Centre, its gleaming towers together comprising the tallest building in the state of Michigan. The Land of Oz. But everything round about seems tall and threatening right now. Our pulses are racing and our faces are reddening with the effort and the pressure of sustained and necessary positive thinking. Keeping our worst thoughts at bay.
Following our easy instructions we make a couple of right angled turns and our destination is in sight. The building is large and easy to find, like all hospitals, it’s a massive rectangle standing out partially lit against the night sky. We creep into an immense multi-story car park and find our way into the building, having to ask directions from a lonely looking security guard. Scurrying though its darkened corridors we arrive at their famous NICU, our presence is registered and we’re sent back to a waiting area. The waiting area is quite nasty. Groups of parents sleep in various degrees of discomfort. Everywhere there are televisions on because it’s assumed none of us can do without them, that being alone with our thoughts would be an intolerable oppression. It’s Friday night horror movie marathon playing on every hanging set, something which Dee (who’s not really a fan of the genre at the best of times) in particular finds distressing. Tanya and I are numbed and rather less concerned by the bill of fare, no movie could shock us or frighten us more than we are already at a time like this. But the place, judged as a whole is certainly ominous and discouraging. Yet it looks as though we’re going to be living here for weeks and weeks to come. We’re thinking that this is the place that we’re just going to have to get very used to.
There’s nowhere comfortable here, nowhere that three people can sit and reflect or hold hands or pray. Finally, helped and prodded by Dee, I bully my way into the NICU itself where I’m finally greeted by a small youngish doctor of South Asian descent. It’s immediately obvious from her face that things are bad, that hope is not something they want to put on the menu because they can’t always deliver. Equally, however it’s obvious that they are busy, that they are trying, that they are working as hard as they can. In other words, this is the domain of fear.
I return to collect Tanya and together we scrub over their sinks. Their scrubbing regime appears to be tougher and more specific than Windsor’s. Here you have to stay scrubbing for at least five minutes. We don’t have time to reflect on this fact at the time, although later I do.
We’re brought along the corridor into a room full of incubators… unlike the Windsor NICU the place looks cluttered and overburdened with cords and lights and other essential technologies, more like a kind of workshop. We are brought to Liam and something within me dies. He is splayed, lying on his back with his eyes closed, pulsating. This hideousness is the effect of the oscillation ventilator. The young doctor returns to us fairly soon and says that a bowel operation will need to take place immediately. Everything about her says “don’t get your hopes up”. It is around this time that the real possibility of death starts to seep in. I hold Tanya but I need help. I need someone else to help hold Tanya. I need someone ever so slightly further away from this Hell to look at. I ask if I can run back to the waiting area and collect Dee.
Dee is lying across a few chairs, looking as though she has just managed to scrape a few moments of uncomfortable sleep. I wake her, pitiless and needy. “They’re operating immediately and they’re not optimistic. Please come.” I say a rough version of that, and she follows me, instantly awake and helpful.
Almost immediately, we’re told that the surgeon has arrived and we back up as the pod is uncoupled for transport down to the operating room. We whisper and sob messages to Liam, still stretched in his pod. We’re told that we’re to wait in a room right next to the operating room. That without actually watching, we’re to be as close as we possibly can, just so that we won’t agitate to be closer still and get in the way. We follow Liam as far as we can and then he is shunted into one elevator and we into another. We take one floor down and are directed to another darkened empty corridor.
The hospital chaplain is with us now. She looks young. Perhaps it’s her first day, but I can see fear in her eyes, or else I can see the reflection of our own fear. We don’t have the energy to consider how we might appear to other people. We are hustled towards a room that turns out to be locked at this time of night. We stand in the corridor, giddy and helpless while the chaplain runs to do something about it. Security is summoned to rummage for the appropriate key and soon we are seated in a space that would almost resemble a chapel if it did not also resemble an airport departure lounge, Like every other public room in the hospital it is dominated by a large television screen. We sit down and the chaplain immediately suggests a little prayer meeting that we are powerless to resist or even influence.
I can see or maybe feel a presence behind me before the prayers have gotten very far along. I know this presence, I know literally and symbolically who and what he is and who and what he represents. He is large, wearing medical scrubs and obviously and overwhelmingly a surgeon. That very moment I know that the angel of death has entered the room, that there can be no good reason for a surgeon to be with us so quickly and that what he is about to say will be unspeakably cruel.
He sits down and looks sad, though controlled. He looks as though he has had to say this sort of thing before and has thought about what’s best. Presumably he figures that it’s best to throw people headfirst into an icy cold swimming pool rather than push them slowly from the shallow end.
The only phrase that survives in the memory is the four words “not compatible with life.” Allowing a hiccup for its full absorption, the phrase released from me a loud animal how, an inarticulate, shaking sound that was only checked once my entire face was coated with salt water. Tanya was hit worse, whacked into mute incomprehension and dispassionate vacancy.
My wailing is selfish and it takes a while. Dee is holding Tanya. I remember to turn to her and tell her how much I love her. The love I have for her is the one thing that cannot be lost, that must be protected. I need to stay alive and sane if only to protect this one thing. I need to behave. So I say it too loudly and too often like I’m clutching at it, like it’s not safe and is falling apart. Even in the act of affirming love, I risk threatening it. I’m not expressing anything in fact. My “love yous” are the flailings of a drowning man.
We are swept of our feet — all three of us and are taken back upstairs in a trance. We are shunted into a small waiting room where we sit, feeling as though the walls are about to close in on us. Liam is being “made comfortable” and ready for us. The next thing we are going to be asked to do is to go over to our son and hold him and talk to him and watch him die. I’m not sure how we’re going to be able to do this — only that we’ve no alternative — it’s the only parental responsibility we have left and we have only one chance to get it right. We feel completely out of control at the very moment when self control of a kind is demanded of us.
Some time passes and I have no recollection of what filled it. Now we’re told that he’s ready for us and we stand up. I don’t know how we stand up. It makes no sense to me, I marvel at it, that my legs work under these conditions. That you can be told that you can go and watch your child die and that the brain can relay such a message to the lower part of the body and that the body will obey. I can’t believe that I’m walking and that Tanya is walking with me. Dee is presumably walking just behind us. Before we know it, we’re staring at him and he looks better than he has done since the previous morning. His cords are minimal and he looks very peaceful, though his face is now bruised with the trauma of all that’s been done to try and save him. He’s lived and he’s suffered and now he’s going to die. Nobody that tiny should have to undergo that much. Yet he looks as though he’s still ready to undergo anything.
I’m holding him as I weep, quietly and discretely. He weighs so little and yet so much. Before long Tanya is holding him and I am holding Tanya and I know somehow that this will be how the three of us will be composed until the end. We’ve reached our final position and achieved the parental attitude we must sustain until his heart stops beating. At the moment when Liam was passed to Tanya, his eye opens slightly, a brief hint and a reminder of the endless bottomless joy his wide eyes used to provide.
The room is dark and behind us, the NICU staff go about their humdrum necessary tasks. Clipboards are swapped and boxes are ticked. Babies pulsate on ventilators. Fluids are dispensed and replaced. Machines go ping. The three of us exist in a bubble, isolated completely from the ongoing and necessary work all around us.
We’re told that he can be removed from the ventilator, that it might make things “easier”. I immediately distrust that word. “Will he be in any less pain?” I ask. It turns out the pain (or lack of it) will remain about the same, but he’ll go that bit quicker. So “easier” meant easier on us. “We’re both in agony here.” I manage to say “but this isn’t about sparing us pain. Give him all the time he wants.”
We keep talking to him. I can remember little of what we said other than the fact that the words “love” and “always” keep coming back. “Always” is the word I feel most desperate to cling to and repeat.
Time has very little meaning now. All we know is that we’ve been here for hours and that it’s still dark. I feel a strange exhaustion, unlike any that I’ve ever felt, and exhaustion that carries within it no promise or possibility of relief. Tanya and I have no past and no future, we only have our place. We have only the fact of our having to be here. I had always imagined my own death in terms of who I might have around me. When, once upon a time, long long ago, three weeks ago, I had vaguely assumed that parenting was not something that would every happen to me, the part that most troubled me about this deprivation was old age, the fear of maybe even outliving Tanya and perishing in a hospital room round about 2050 with no one waiting at the bedside. Dying alone, a fear that grows and accelerates as life ebbs. Now it’s Tanya and I performing the cherished office of death partner for our son.
As we attempt to suppress our own agonies we become transfixed by the calmness radiating from Liam, his gentleness, his lack of fuss. Despite all the bruises on his body, the scars of extraordinary efforts to sustain a frame of extreme delicacy, there’s a beauty in his sheer endurance.
Life ebbs away from him by imperceptible degrees. His tiny body becomes colder in our arms and his breath less certain. After a couple of unspeakable hours, there is nothing to tell us that he is alive or dead. We can feel his death, every fibre of it, and we can feel his life at one and the same time. He’s never been more alive than within the excruciating slowness of his parting.
Just when we think he can’t last any longer, from behind us come Walt and Laura and Walter, alerted by Dee to Liam’s slow dying… rushing to the scene, driven by one of Walter’s closest friends. They run forward in turn. Walter seems to hang back for just a split second in shock. I ask Walter to kiss Liam immediately. Then the others all kiss him and step back again. The room has turned into a set of concentric circles with nursing staff around the outside, then Walter and Walt and Laura, then within that circle am I, holding Tanya, whose in a circle closer yet and at the very centre of the universe is Liam, whose heart still flickers, allowing the remainder of the universe to revolve around him. Liam stayed for these others, held out just in time for all his known family to gather round and kiss him before the last pulse fades.
It takes three or four checks from nurses and the attending physician to confirm that he’s finally gone. His heart rate becomes unimaginably faint and slow, baffling one nurse and requiring the confirmation of the doctor at least once. At one point he seems to have only about five beats per minute, clinging impossibly to the very margins of the world of the living. He seems determined to live as long as possible, to remind us of how much he enjoyed being alive, to reinforce the fact that no effort of will on his own part was wanting to keep him in the land of the living. I am in awe of him. It is hard to resist the idea that he is the one consoling us, the one supporting us. It was Liam holding us, always and only, it was Liam.
After the moment of snow white horror where time and space cannot live, there comes a whirlwind. With an unexpected or sudden death, the principal mourners are swept away by a fast moving train of a “to do” list. From the instant the pulse departs from a body, a clock starts ticking. If the bereavies are as “lucky” as we are, there will be people around who will do all they can, though the chief bereavies at the centre of the hurricane, the undisputed stars of the show, will still be left with a succession of important decisions to make in a very short space of time. First of all we’re told that we’re to take Liam to another room where he can be “taken care of”. I say “I’ll carry him” and there I am, staggering along the corridor, lurching along like Frankenstein’s monster, with my dead son in my arms. One of the nurses is next to me, making sure I don’t fall — I think. I’ve passed another incubation pod with a reddened uncomfortable inmate, wired up worse than Liam ever was and I start to well up with more tears. “Take care of the others” I whisper to her, barely audibly, as I start to choke on my own words. I limp on and on down a darkened corridor being led I know not where.
When our little weeping procession reaches the room that’s deemed appropriate for us, we await a series of rituals. There are books and pamphlets littered about the place, designed to placate and appease. There are seven or eight of us in the room, including the chaplain who does nothing now other than take up space. I spot Walter’s friend in the doorway, someone I subsequently discover did much of the driving. Are strangers an intrusion? Who should be in the room and why? Questions which may engage others. Personally she makes no difference to me in the here and now.
There are a bunch of other things that we can do that have also been deemed appropriate by people who must have some experience dealing the likes of us. More pictures are being taken. We’re given the option of bathing and dressing him for the first and last time. Everyone takes a turn holding him. Photographs are taken of Liam in his new clothing and continue to be taken and I can’t see the point. It’s something I can’t care about at the time, but I’m told that I’ll appreciate it later, this constant arranging and clicking. Tanya is still very numb and I’m terrified of what will happen when the full horror sinks in.
The crowded room is full of sobbing people waiting to be told what to do. I decide that my family deserve to know and that I should tell them right now. I don’t know if I’ll be able to tell them, but then I don’t know if I’ll ever be in a fit state to tell them, so it might as well be now, while the idea and impulse is strong. I’m pretty sure I shouldn’t use my mobile in the hospital so I’m directed to a bank of payphones just outside the NICU. Dee comes with me.
I dial the number clumsily from a payphone, unable to use my mobile, and get through immediately to my brother Chris, who’s staying with my ma and pa right now. He asks if everything is OK. After an intake of breath I tell him absolutely not, that everything is not OK and that he should brace himself. Then I must have told him that my son died half an hour ago. There’s a note of extraordinary tenderness and sympathy when he reacts to the news. I can hear his pain. I tell him that Liam passed away in a Detroit hospital … something like 10.30am London time. Chris asks me if I want him to tell Ma, but I decide it’s for me to do. She’s going to have to hear my voice sooner or later. Before I tell her, I make sure she’s either sitting down or close to Chris. I can’t remember what she says except that she tries to say something of comfort to me and something to communicate to Tanya. So I tell her myself and I can hear her poor old heart break, trusting that Chris is there to catch her.
Mum shouldn’t have to mourn a grandson. She deserves better than this at her time of life and after so many years of toilsome parenting … she deserves to have a grandson smiling up at her, someone she can spoil and enlighten. She deserves to be a loving grandma more than anyone I can imagine. Thankfully she still is one please God spare and protect the life and health of baby Jude, but amid the chaos of my misery I still feel that I have failed her. Having spent so much of her life taking care of me, she ought to have been able to simply spoil a tiny baby. Guilt is one of the earliest emotions to leave its distinct imprint on the wall of shock and misery that looked like blotting out everything else, for ever, the first passion to leave a print on the wall of endless whiteness that gets pasted across your imagination the instant you lose a child.
I’m back in the tiny room, crowded with family and my son’s dead body. More pictures are taken. I still can’t see the point of this but I submit to it. Later on, when we both crave pictures, I’m grateful enough.
The young doctor returns, prepared to look us in the eye and talk to us. Amazingly, I’m able to see her pain in this situation and I want to reassure her. She looks very frail, as though she knows she’s pulled a very short straw just by being on call tonight. I tell her that we feel confident that everything was done that could have been done and I also tell her that we were never lied to and that they were always honest with us. I have no urge to scream at people or accuse anybody. I can take no satisfaction in the discomfort of guilt of another. Maybe later.
I ask how we get him back to Canada… they’re told that it should be fine, but there are forms to be signed. We sign them. We sign away our right to an autopsy, since we already had the conviction of several doctors in two countries that necrotizing enterocolitis was to blame. (Twenty four hours earlier neither of us had ever heard of necrotizing enterocolitis and now it trips of the tongue with horrible familiarity.) Signing away any autopsy is essential to getting him across the border as quickly as possible. Though the decision is undoubtedly right, I worry that we could be made to sign anything in our present condition. Everybody takes a turn holding Liam. The chaplain has nothing much to say but hovers around. I don’t think her presence particularly bothers Tanya or I, but it seems to bother others.
Stumbling down the corridor we reach the car, right where we parked it about seven hours and an eternity ago. We drive through the early morning light slowly retracing the journey we made so quickly a few hours later. Detroit is coming back to life and this mocking daylight hurts me more than I can say. Everything to do with the entire concept of morning makes me angry. Everywhere I can see birds, cats, mangy looking dogs at street intersections. I’m aware that there must be insects. I resent them all for still being alive, I resent the fact that in the midst of death we are in life. I resent every creeping, crawling, buzzing, flying thing on earth for being alive now that Liam isn’t. I resent myself for being alive. Much, much later, I think of Lear and Cordelia and a rage that comes from the wrongness of how life is allocated. I think of the rage of the old man who at least has but a minute or two still to live himself.
We cross back to Canada through the same tunnel, only slower. Dee manages to lean out of the window and tell our story swiftly and starkly enough so that nobody has to reach into a pocket and display anything. The world seems the same, the streets of Windsor unaltered and uncaring, which is the really scary part.
We have entered a kind of spirit world. The religious dimension is particularly troublesome over the next few days and weeks. There are some good people out there whose hope is fervent but non specific and who don’t pretend to be able to interpret or understand any aspect of what’s happened — and then there are the predators, the ones for whom your own weakness is their opportunity. And such people have special antennae that are honed to pick up people like Tanya and I. Anyone who looks a bit damaged. Anyone who limps behind the herd is seen as fair game — or easy game.
There are people who keep it vague, who tell me that the ways of the divine order are incomprehensible. That the universe is working towards some good end that it’s wrong to try and make any sense of in the short term. And then there are those who immediately interpret Liam’s death as evidence of something/someone very specific, very interventionist, part of the direct dialect of Divine communication. These are the people I try and avoid and who pop up very occasionally when I least expect it.
As we pass through the early morning streets of the big bad Detroit, and small, nervous W., I’m reminded of the stuff other people are going through. Pierre, I know for a fact, has an especially tough job on his hands right now. Told of what’s happened over the phone, it’s been up to him to take care of the kids until they themselves can be told in a controlled and sensitive way. And he’s a very sensitive guy who’s never ashamed to show his feelings at the best or worst of times. But like the Dad he is and I would have liked to be, he keeps it together for the sake of the kids. He does his job. So he’s been sobbing internally while preserving a comforting routine around A. and P., getting them up in the morning, dressing them, feeding them, telling them off as and when required. An evacuation plan has already been agreed upon. We can’t really enter my sister’s house until the kids have been removed from it and we end up circling the block a couple of times, picking up some Drive-thru coffee and bagels until we see the blue-green Neon pull out and convey its cargo to a place of relative safety. Liam’s passing hurts others and I’m powerless to help them because for others to accept consolation from me would look like some kind of obscenity.
We get inside with our bits of food and collapse into adjacent chairs. We spend much of the next couple of days in these chairs, which start to resemble hellish thrones. We are encouraged to try and eat something and take tiny bites. I want to comfort Tanya more than I seem able but the wanting is the one thing that is keeping me together. I know that what has happened could make us hate ourselves and each other. As long as I have Tanya I have someone who needs me.
Unbelievably I find I can sleep, although Tanya cannot. I climb into the bed, unable even to weep, unable to think or to feel for a while. When I wake, I am still in a trance, I don’t wake to the sense of utter horror and despair. Not yet. It turns out that Dee and Pierre have done a bunch of stuff on our behalf already. I’m driven to the funeral home to make some preliminary arrangements. Tanya can’t bring herself to go just yet. I’m bookended by Dee and Pierre who help me through a conversation with J. J is used to dealing with weepy folk in her line of work, but we still run out of Kleenex half way through. I’m told afterwards that I remained calm and lucid and was able to carry on a constructive conversation and make decisions.
A day later, we are reintroduced to the kids. We are propped up in our armchairs, terrified of their terror, waiting for them to run in. A. looks sleepless and drained, feeling that something special is expected of him. He wants to do the right thing, and no one can tell him what the right thing is. He’s frightened of us a bit, and ashamed of feeling frightened of us, but he still does his part. (Some other people, full grown adults, are frightened of us and do not do their part.)
P. is heartbreaking and yet restorative at the same moment. Not yet four years old, she asks direct questions and shows up the ignorance of adults at every turn. So called grown ups are happy to smudge issues of life and death and the survival of personality after bodily corruption. If you’re secure within a dogmatic version of faith then you can talk confidently about clouds and angel wings and pearly gates. If you’re less confident then you collapse into cowardly abstraction, something the razor precision of infant curiosity refuses to put up with.
P. wants to see Liam, or the outside of him. She wants to hold him and talk to him, and has to be told several times that she’s not really able to play with him. So, she has the effect of saying the most devastating things and so releasing pain that needed releasing anyway.
Before they arrive (yes it must have been before) I make a trip with Dee and Pierre to the funeral home, a stone’s throw away from the hospital where Liam lived and took sick. I weep my way through a whole box of Kleenex as I sit in a dark paneled room while making a few basic decisions. Then on that same Saturday comes the nightmare from the funeral home that it sounds as though Liam won’t be able to make it back until Monday. Tanya hates the thought of being apart from Liam’s body, starts to panic. I start to accuse myself of having let Tanya down, of having failed to fight for Liam’s return, of being, still, a deadbeat worthless obscene parody of a Dad.
I make a call to old friends of ours from Reading back in England. He’s from Pittsburg and she’s from south of Moscow and they had a son who was suddenly taken as a result of a rare genetic disorder. He was a beautiful boy of about eighteenth months, someone who stared curiously out at the world and was happy to meet anyone. Within about twenty four hours of getting sick he was collapsing at home and dead before the ambulance reached the hospital. Tanya and I were there for the pair of them, sleeping on their sofa and taking them out and about. This was about three years ago and they’ve had another child since and then just recently another. They’ve lost their only child and then gone on to become a family of four. In the space of about five years then, they’ve gone from two to three to two to three to four. Nor are they people to hide their feelings. I have long regarded Jeff with a mixture of horror and admiration, someone determined to feel everything he can feel, an explorer in the world of grief, a pioneer, journeying through places where there is no profit and no healing.
“Hi Conrad, what’s up?” (or something vague like that.)
“The worst thing that has ever happened to you has happened to us.”
When he hears this, our old friend goes silent and starts to talk slowly and with immense compassion. I immediately forget whatever it was he said, other than that is was said slowly and with immense compassion.
“I love you guys, but I wish we had less in common.”
Listening to them, reminds me of the fact that what we’re going through is survivable. This does not persuade me instantly that we are going to survive anything, but hearing Jeff’s voice, its shape and its timbre, without particularly paying attention to what he’s saying, is a comfort. Comfort is more about form than content, it’s more about a rhythm and a courage and seriousness embedded in the sound of the words than in any of those words definitions.
We prepare ourselves at the funeral home to pick out a casket and to discuss a few more things. We’re not good with choices right now and we’re scared of having to pick and choose between these death boxes. Our dread is removed when we get there and we’re informed that there is only one casket small enough anyway so there’s nothing to decide. I go into the next room with someone in charge to see what it looks like and so prepare Tanya for the sight. I’m in a room full of coffins, tastefully arranged. A bottom drawer just inside the room slides out and out comes a white cradle. If it wasn’t for the fact that you knew that this particular crib comes with a lid, you’d assume it was a crib. It’s perfect and I know that it’s not going to be a problem seeing Liam’s body in there. It is in fact the least funereal thing he’s ever slept in. The Rev. Y, the Baptist chaplain at the hospital shows up. She’d spent some time with us after Tanya was readmitted and she was the first person either of us could think of to come and officiate. She’d annoyed me a bit with her miracle talk, but here in the funeral home she’s a valuable sort of person. To my surprise, she offers Liam a baptism on the spot, something I didn’t even know was possible. Instantly we say yes to it. Regardless of its spiritual efficacy or inefficacy it never occurs to either of us to deny it because it cannot occur to us to deny him anything. It surely couldn’t hurt.
The baptism turns out to be a good idea, though I am struck for the first time by the “forgiveness of sins” reference. What sins? What is there to be forgiven here? Liam Theo Cassidy Brunstrom never did a malicious thing in his entire life, never hurt anyone’s feelings, never harboured a destructive instinct, never did anything other than make people love him. What sins is this book speaking of? For the first time in my life, the doctrine of original sin ceases to be an abstract point of theology and becomes a direct attack on someone I love. Of course I do not protest. None of what is happening is about me anyway. This is a procedure. Of course I sit quietly and take it, only to grumble about it afterwards. Of course I behave, because we are bereavies now and bereavies have to be on their best behaviour at all times.
These things are better done than not done, probably. Much later, we discover that it’s the policy in many hospitals to offer a baptism while the child is still alive and still passing. We had a (nervous) chaplain on hand, but such a thing was never offered us. Suddenly we resent not having that option during the last hours in that room with Liam. It would have made sense, it would have been a naming ceremony. It would have been fitting. It would have passed the time.
Then when we got back, Tanya’s family turn out to have done something wonderful. In the middle of conversation we find ourselves hushed and called to order. They present us with matching necklace brooches, each gold, each containing a photo of the three of us in one oval panel and a lock of Liam’s hair in the other. The photograph was taken on the first day of Liam’s life and features the three of us in a sort of triangular formation. A blob of red is all that you can see of Liam’s head, but Liam can be read on the expressions on our faces – he’s the vanishing point of our concern and the look in his eye appears in our own. Beneath Tanya’s hair clipping there is one of Liam’s fingerprints. Beneath mine, one of his (slightly larger) toe prints. As we click these pieces of mourning jewelry around our necks (an awkward and rather unfamiliar procedure that is going to require a lot of practice) we realize that these trinkets are going to make it easier to let go of the body. Because some time soon, in a diminishing number of hours time, the lid is going to go down on his face, and we’re never going to see it again. When that moment comes, we’re going to have to reach for something solid, and Tanya’s folks have provided it. Taking care of these trinkets (which need to be taken off before showering and which turn out to require various corrective measures associated with the closing mechanism and the length of the chain) becomes a surrogate expression of caring. Of course, if we get it wrong, it becomes a new expression of pain and grief. If we accidentally shower while wearing it, or ending up losing the hair traces, then we risk reliving the entire trauma in a new expression of extreme guilt as though our own carelessness with these traces is to reflect our carelessness with Liam himself. This unforeseen danger however is nothing compared to the more instant utility of these trinkets. They give us something to clutch while Liam’s body is taken from us. How we’re going to deal with the lid going down is something that has been worrying me for the past day or two.
Turns out (of course of course) that the funeral home and cemetery know all about this trauma and have procedures to make it easier for us. Lots of people have procedures. But along with the institutional, familiar decencies, there’s something more instinctual at work within these kindnesses. Increasingly we’re being reminded of the fact that, on the whole, people are not scum. When presented with a clear opportunity to do something generous, affectionate or thoughtful, most people will take that opportunity. Most people don’t know what to do, and sometimes say so, and sometimes there is genuinely nothing that they can physically say or do, but within the unfeigned willingness to say or do something positive when they’re put on the spot, there’s a revelation for us. Already a large number of people are bringing food. Food preparation, even when the people for whom it is prepared can hardly eat, is one of the most natural releases people find in the face of the unspeakable, it’s a language that never offends.
Meanwhile, a crucial piece of reconnaissance is called for. The Heavenly Rest Cemetery have told us where Liam’s remains are to be deposited. We make an appointment to meet one of the senior staff there and head off to have a look at the exact plot ahead of the burial itself. I’m particularly keen to make this trip and get ahead of things emotionally, if at all possible. No surprises on the big day. There are clear skies overhead and it’s warmer than it has been in a while. Walter drives, but there’s sudden confusion over the location of this place. I thought it was going to be a different cemetery entirely, and there are several different ways of getting there anyway. People become frustrated, and I become frustrated with the frustrations of others. Getting lost hardly counts as any additional grievance right now, so long as everybody holds their temper. I cannot bear disagreement about anything right now. Earlier, prolonged discussion over the take out menu of a Vietnamese restaurant was more controversy than I could bear, Anything I force myself to eat right now is going to taste like cardboard anyhow. I feel, selfishly, as though no one around me has any right to get irritated by anything for while.
At various points people tell me that “I’m doing well.” I suppose this is better than being told that “I’m doing badly” but the underlying issue of being “graded” feels problematic. If I’m handling it, isn’t this an insult to Liam. Doesn’t he deserve my coming apart at the scenes? Shouldn’t I be in a drunken violent fit by now, screaming and waving broken bottles at anyone who comes within ten feet of me? How dare I stay sane at a time like this? Or, maybe he deserves my holding it together, repressing my own breakdown for long enough to help give Liam a decent send off. I decide on the latter. I wander onto the back porch with Pierre though and start to sob again, though gently, in a fairly controlled way.
“I know I may seem to be dealing with stuff, but it doesn’t affect the fact that this is not right. Not right.”
It occurs to me that I didn’t get to see Liam born but I got to see him die. How wrong is that? What kind of fatherhood is that supposed to be? The fact that I was away when he was born only seems worse now. The twenty four hours I wasn’t there now adds up to an appreciable percentage of his life. The first and last days of his life were the toughest and I missed one of them.
We finally arrive at the graveyard. It’s a large place but it’s sympathetically landscaped and variegated. With wrought iron over the entrance, curved pathways, and a one story administration building with a heavy alpine roof to it. We spend some time in the office, being condoled by an expert who explains our options. Being condoled is a strange subtle business that consists of a thousand inconsequential words and phrases. Being condoled is not unlike being coddled, or even cuddled. It is good. It is necessary. It is slow, however, something that involves freezing time altogether and we need to get on, because other people’s clocks are still moving. The graveyard official tells us of her own loss and becomes the first of many to “come out” as a parental bereavie. Over the coming weeks these people expose themselves, half reluctantly, half gratefully, to our questioning. There is a strange relaxation involved in meeting fellow bereavies. Conversation is so condensed and abbreviated because nothing has to be explained and emotions that cannot otherwise be communicated can be shared with a mere nod and a glimmer of eye contact.
We’re led to the site and I’m immediately struck by a large weeping willow tree that defines one end of a long rectangle full of memorials known as “baby land”. The rectangle is mostly full of flat rectangular memorial stones, though there are distressing vacancies for future residents. Even more distressing however, is the rumour that soon a new rectangular arrangement will be needed to cope with future demand. There’s a need to plan ahead in this business and children will always be dying. Flowers, real and artificial are various arranged around each stone, as are various toys: ceramic bears, plastic windmill and dumper trucks. Everywhere there is the word “angel”. It’s not a word that appeals to us. Liam is not winged in our mind’s eye and nor is he floating on a cloud. The survival of personality after physical death is a mindblowing topic that I dare not dwell on right now. One thing is certain, if such survival is determined in its form and content by the Hallmark corporation, then I hope to God we all just rot.
Despite such snobbish and impious reflections, Heavenly Rest’s “babyland” is undeniably moving. In contrast to the austerity of the remainder of the graveyard, this secluded oblong is a riot of colour, of toys, flowers, and colour photographs. This is the community that we will be joining and here will be the plot of ground that we will be maintaining. This is Liam’s home and more truthfully, it’s a home for the pair of us. It’s a fairly prestigious neighbourhood in some ways. The prime minister’s father and mother are buried only a matter of yards away in front of a large plain white stone. Over here at our end of babyland, we’re a bit close to the road, but the road isn’t that busy. I try to imagine the place in summertime, what the whole environment looks like with more cover, more foliage, more discretion.
When I was a child growing up in London in a small house with a long garden, there was a weeping willow that swept its sad twigs against a brick wall, a tree that we climbed until the branches became bruised and the bark ripped to shreds. From the tree was a view of the mainline rail tracks out of Paddington as well as of the enraged siblings you had climbed the tree to (temporarily) avoid. Bruised, limited, climbable and familiar, it was cut down years ago, but just seeing a tree like it (though much larger and probably unclimbable) summons happier memories of childhood. It turns out that Tanya’s grandmother had a tree like it as well in her place up in the Ottawa valley somewhere, so it’s associated with some of her happiest summer experiences as well. It also turns out she was so happy on those summer trips to see her Gran she never wanted to leave. So it’s a kind of tree that means childhood for us both and we each want to be close to it and for Liam to be close to it to.
A few yards in front of the tree, in its shade and surrounded by tresses of its long hair is a flat low plinth with a bronze statue of a youngish woman dressed in loose biblical robes: “Rachel mourning her children we are told”. Right at her feet in one corner there appears to be a vacant plot. Immediately we both covet it. Through our tears we have, for the first time since Liam’s departure, rediscovered desire. We want this corner for him. For us.
We inform L, our contact at the graveyard of our wishes, and soon afterwards we are phoned with the news the plot is available, with a few stipulations regarding the size of stone. I feel strangely shocked at my own elation… a twisted joke is half-hatched in my head about the fact that the new kid on the block immediately gets the corner office. Twisted jokes occur to me all the time, and I stifle them. I still need to consider other people’s feelings. Fitting in is more important here than any other part of the cemetery. All these children have more in common with one another than any of the other residents. We find ourselves walking around them, getting to know their names. One might not be particularly interested in who is buried next to one’s great grandmother, but the community of infants is another matter, a matter of shared experience. In the future we will get to see other couples visit here. Rarely do we exchange words, or even eye contact, but there’s an instant affinity with these people, a knowledge that they have travelled where we have travelled.
I also have to consider certain painful physical realities. Tanya’s infection has not yet healed. In the midst of death we are in life and life’s messy inconveniences. The infection from Liam’s birth has lasted longer than Liam did. It has lived longer, prospered and sustained itself, instead of Liam. It takes up his space. Tanya continues to need specialist care and so it’s arranged for a home visit nurse to come and help dress the incision, to check for oozing, clean it and bandage it. But she can’t come twice or more a day and I have to get the hang of it too. I was shown this procedure in the hospital but I’m nervous and slow and sometimes clumsy in execution. My fat fingers are not good at unfolding dressings so that one side stays sterile. My stupidity is a further strain on Tanya who is imprisoned and limited by the timetable of her treatments. I wish I was better at this kind of thing and I wish I could just pour all my grief into taking care of Tanya without getting my hands stuck to elastoplasts and spilling saline solution all over the carpet. There’s meant to be a sort of dignity to grief, a sepia-toned elegance that should allow us to float out of our bodies rather than being ruthlessly and stickily defined by them. No dignity exists though. I say it again to myself: Tanya remains ill with an infection that has lived longer than Liam.
The mornings are worst, because mornings are when you restate to yourself who you are and what you are. As the day wears on, the constant attendance of loved ones can make living and breathing worthwhile and sustainable. By early evening you can recognize the things that you have to stay alive for. But the first instant you open your eyes each morning is like a fresh bereavement. “You’re Conrad, you’re in Canada, you’re thirty seven and your kid’s dead.” Nor does our tragedy have the finality that we might have hoped for in our despair. We do not yet know that we can handle anything. Tough anniversaries loom. The first one I am dreading is the day we wake up and realize that Liam has been dead for longer than he was alive. This risks being a kind of fading to me and it frightens me. It’s not an anniversary that we expect to have to deal with in relation to our partners or our siblings or even our parents.
To have spent longer dealing with his death than enjoying his life seems a horrible thing to absorb, to have been a bereavie for longer than a parent. Tanya meanwhile is terrified by May 8th, his original due date, by the idea of having to visit a grave on the very day we were to welcome Liam into the world. To have had a day in your head associated with birth and wake up as the parent of an infant two months dead… is another dimension of trauma. We can’t imagine events further in the future. 1 February 2006, the first anniversary of our knowledge of him. 24 February 2006, his first birthday, 12 March 2006, the anniversary of his death. These dates are too distant and too hard and there are so many things to dread sooner that we don’t know how we’re going to prepare for them. All these days of the dead loom, ready to rub in our faces yet again the immensity of what we have lost. The brevity of Liam’s life and the probable longevity of our own present a horrible and continuing contrast.
Around this time comes a nightmare, a literal nightmare to accompany the living nightmare. We became so used to looking at screens to check Liam’s health and safety that we find we can’t live without a screen. Tanya wakes up in the middle of the night and yells that the screen is down, the screen is down, she can’t see the numbers and we have to fetch a nurse because she can’t see the numbers. I have to hold her and say nothing and try and bring her back up to date non verbally. This is a nightmare that I can’t heal — I can’t tell her that everything’s all right, because the nightmare is real. The very worst thing has happened. All I can do is hold her and cry myself.
The home visit nurse is very sympathetic when she turns up to help treat and change Tanya’s dressing. She’s from Liverpool originally and remembers losing a child herself when she was young. The child was I think stillborn and taken from her before she could even see her (or him). A different time, when grief was stubbornly assessed, apportioned and sometimes denied. She remarks that Detroit reminds her of Liverpool. The next time I look properly at Detroit I can see what she means. Large buildings built up against a wide river, jagged teeth separated by vacant lots. A highly internalized sense of failure, a sense that the city is a by-word for poverty and underachievement. I can see it now. My father was born in Liverpool and my son dies in its unofficial North American twin. I’ll always have a relationship now with the city of Detroit, a troubled urgent sort of relationship. Neither of us will want to go back inside that particular hospital though, not as long as we both live. But the skyline is going to remind me of beginnings and endings and will chill me whenever I look at it.
The Detroit skyline now means necrotizing enterocolitis. The monster that killed my son. My enemy. It’s not Detroit’s fault and not the hospital’s fault but the hospital is where it happened, and the hospital is hiding somewhere, somewhere behind those downtown skyscrapers. The hospital is skulking, like the disease itself, just beyond my line of sight.
I’m on the phone from time to time, talking to Ealing on a daily basis. And it turns out that my family are coming over for the funeral, two of them anyway, a brother and a mother and I find this a source of very great comfort. It’s the collision of two worlds – neither of them have ever been over here to see Tanya’s folks and Michael has never met any member of Tanya’s family. I’ve learnt from Chris that within hours of Liam’s death, my mother’s church of St. Gabriel’s has arranged an impromptu prayer time. This is meaningful, it gives Liam a London presence, a life and an influence in the neighbourhood of my birth and upbringing. It’s something we shan’t forget. We’re told that St Gabriel’s will keep his anniversary and he’ll be mentioned in prayers on the Sunday closest to March 12 for years to come.
Chris is functioning as mission control for my family. In the couple of days after Liam’s death I think he’s been standing on his feet in the front room without a break. He’s been making phone calls, fielding phone calls and arranging travel plans. He’s liaising with extended family and airlines and trying to disturb Tanya and I as little as possible. One of the things he winds up doing is editing together a collection of statements from the family that can go on a large bulletin board. Dee had managed to work on this, a collage of photographs interspersed with quotations from uncles and aunts and nieces and nephews and grandparents with a sort of poem of mine in the middle. This will go up at the Funeral Home and will be something other than a corpse for people to focus on. Hopefully it will become the main focus.
So on Monday evening, less than 72 hours after Liam’s death, Pierre and I drive across the border to Metro Detroit airport to pick up my mother and brother. We pick up a Tim Horton’s order on the way and for the first time ever, I roll up the rim to win a prize. It’s another cup of coffee. Major construction on the inter-states forces us to take an elaborate detour and I start to worry ever so slightly about getting to the airport in time to meet my folks. I resent my worry. I resent having to still worry about anything any more. Despair ought to have conquered fear.
Pierre of course finds his way though the dark and disturbing looking Detroit neighbourhoods. The airport is almost deserted, ghostly and somewhat cold — as though the number of passengers does not warrant adequate heating. Nowhere seems to be labeled as the point of arrivals and it’s with less than one hundred per cent confidence that we stand and wait behind some feeble looking barriers. The minutes tick by and I’m acutely aware that if we were somehow to miss each other, then communication would be rather difficult. Then a procession of people arrives and I crane my neck for the first glimpse. Suddenly I see them both and my heart misses a beat. My mother is in a wheelchair. It’s possible I saw her in a wheelchair once before, when I was about seven years old and she was seriously ill and I am jolted by a memory of an ancient fear. She’s not in a wheelchair for very long — it turns out that Michael’s instructions to Delta to take special care of her automatically activated a wheelchair service that they thought they might as well take advantage of. When I see my mother I find myself afraid again, for the first time since Liam died. I resent this feeling of fear, I can’t help but think that I should be excused it, that once the worst thing in the world has happened, there should be no room for fear. But here it is again, and I’m frightened for my mother’s health. I realize then that being bereaved does not guarantee any immunity — it’s not like chickenpox. I’m very relieved when it becomes clear that Mum can stand up and embrace me and the wheelchair can be jettisoned.
It’s a strange welcome, and nobody knows what to say. Neither my mother nor my brother can fully or immediately realize quite how much they’re contributing through the simple fact of physical presence. We pick our way out to the car park and I realize that it is colder than either my mother or my brother has much experience of. As we drive through the blackness, I try pointing out a few things (such as the big giant tire on the main highway) to Ma and Michael, not because I’m trying to distract myself or them, but because this is what I’d always planned to do some day. As we head over the bridge I remember the last time Pierre drove me this route, less than three weeks ago, on my journey to the kingdom of my child.
I contrast this familial presence with the worst forms of human contact right now. There are two kinds of people who annoy. There are those who are afraid to say anything, who say nothing, and who hide from you. Then there are those who think they have found some perfect turn of phrase, who believe that a form of words is adequate to our experience. These two kinds of people are both very rare. The overwhelming number of people who know of our experience fall into a middle camp, not knowing what to say but trying to say it anyway, falling over their words, stumbling, halting, mumbling and feeling inadequate. All these people do well because what comes across is not the content of speech but the effort of trying to make it and a passion and compassion within the effort is what reaches us.
Because I will not worship a being who communicates using dead babies. I will not bow my head and adore anyone or anything who has to kill my child just to get in touch with me. If he, she or it is so fucking omnicompetent then how about drafting a strongly worded note? Set some bush on fire or drop manna from heaven or part the Detroit River or do whatever has to be done with eclipses and comets. Or if violence is really called for, if it’s the only language he she or it understands, then how about me — how about getting Old Testament with me? Cover me with sores, take my eyesight, as many limbs as you feel you want, to take just leave my kid along. My kid never did you any harm. My kid never did anyone any harm. He never got the chance.
The next day I go for a walk in nearby Jackson Park with my mother and brother. It’s warm enough, though mum can’t walk too far at a stretch. They’ve chosen to visit (or rather, the visit has been chosen for them) at the least attractive time of year. In this part of the world there is little or no spring. The snow melts and then blossoms and leaves burst out of their expectant cocoons as though on an agreed word of command and then summer is here. It’s really very vulgar. Summer, Autumn (“Fall”) and Winter are the seasons and each of these seasons has its charms. The time of year that in Europe would be called early spring has little or no charm however. It’s about snow melting and creating great piles of mud and slush and stale cold water all over the place. It’s the single least scenic time of year, from a tourist point of view and I feel a little embarrassed on behalf of this part of the world as I try to show it off to my family. And of course as we hop through the mud of the park I’m acutely aware that this walk was meant to take place with my child in better weather. This was what I kept talking to him about when staring at his frustration and incarceration. A walk in the park was to be some psychedelic adventure, every flower, every dog, every bird, every passer by well worth staring at. Somehow, sharing it the perceptual life of a child has this rejuvenating effect, when identifying with someone seeing something for the first time, you forget that you know what it is that you’re looking at, you imagine what it’s like to see something in its full concrete intensity and complete abstract possibility. It’s what attentive parents get to share.
In the middle of the park is a 1945 Avro Lancaster bomber, mounted on a concrete plinth. The elements have not been kind to this specimen of wartime endeavour (although this particular plane never actually saw active service under fire) and in a few weeks time it will be removed to some less exposed setting and replaced with some more resilient replica display of martial valour. Michael points out a strange castellated building that looms over the north side of the park. I tell him it’s a Catholic High School. Michael points out that it has no windows of any kind.
“Yeah.” I improvise, “some wicked Godless children were caught occasionally glancing out of windows so they got bricked up.”
“And then they bricked up the windows as well.” concludes Michael.
I’m always amused by Michael’s conversation. It’s so light and precise and well timed. He’s a good listener and he pitches into discussion only ever at the most informed and apposite moment. Liam would have loved him. Strange, that even comic relief from grief becomes the occasion of more grief. Grief is rude and pushy like that. Grief wants a piece of everything.
Another trip out for Ma and Michael is to the sculpture park that runs along the river. It’s a highlight of any trip to this city and it gives us something to do. Mum and Michael climb into the car and I drive off with them down the wide Avenue towards the Detroit skyline.
“We’re heading straight for the river” I say. Then it occurs to me that it is an act of courage to climb aboard a vehicle driven by a recently bereaved father.
“Don’t worry. There’s a car park just before we get there.”
The park is extremely cold but the sky is blue and the under-appreciated Detroit skyline looks particularly well. Large chunks of ice are floating in both directions, under the Ambassador Bridge and towards Lake St Clair. There is a footpath for us to stroll along, a footpath divided with white lines to segregate genuine pedestrians from cyclists and roller-bladers. Mum couldn’t walk far, could not get any distance there and back I had to run back and move the car to meet her at the next car park. I was thinking again of what it would have been like to take Liam there, to show him the sculpture park at leisure and in summertime, to illustrate the variety of exciting ways in which human beings can be wheeled, can pedal and scoot and slide and glide.
The night before the funeral, there is a visitation. I’ve never I think been to one of these and I’m unprepared. This event is quite hard work. There’s more time for us with Liam first, then time for the family and then afterwards the strange procession is to begin. P, A., and C., are each affected differently by seeing Liam, though the gap in comprehension between P and A is vastly greater than that between A and C. A and C do not know whether they will be able to look at Liam, and are slightly surprised at themselves when they find that they kind. Surprised, but not less shocked and saddened. P, heartbreakingly, still wants to play with Liam. She wants to hold him. Our blood runs cold. Having exchanged anxious glances between us, we look at Dee and decide that it’s possible. So the four year old hold the new born dead child, just as she would have done had he lived. The irrationality of what we continue to fear starts to invade my imagination like a bullying sick joke. Why are we more worried about P holding him dead than alive? She holds him very securely and talks to him. She thinks he’s beautiful, as indeed he is. In her own way, she behaves as well as anyone else in the room, sometimes greeting people as they come in and explaining something of what happened to them.
But the main event is looming, an event which reminds us yet again that this is not our business, that this is what the world owes Liam and we have important parts to play in the drama that is required. Tanya and I have seats of honour, a kind of sick and twisted bride and groom, up by the casket, while a long line of people processes up to us to pay their respects. It feels like a wedding gone wrong. Most of these people are friends of Tanya’s family and I don’t know them from Adam. Some of them are Tanya’s work colleagues who I’ve got to know quite well. Best of all, some of the nurses from the NICU show up. As soon as I set eyes on them, I feel as though I want to sweep everyone else out of the way… “let these people through — they knew him for God’s sake.” The nurses themselves are crying. Liam’s death it seems was not routine, was unprepared for. He was clearly supposed to make it.
I tell everyone (other than the nurses and those who actually got to see him) to stare at the photos rather than the body. There’s more of him in the photos. Perhaps the best photos aren’t of him at all but the ones of us — not because we’re particularly pretty but because the best of him was contained in what he did to us. The look in our faces is the best reflection of what he was like.
Then we go back to the house. Mum and Michael are to stay there with us, which Dee, Pierre and the kids are to stay with Walter at Hanna. The funeral is to be at 10am, and we’re allowed to be there at 9am. Somehow, I don’t think we’re likely to oversleep and miss it.
The funeral itself is managed well insofar as we can’t imagine afterwards how it could have been improved as an experience. We’re there alone beforehand and we say goodbye to the body long before the thing starts. I hold him first and then Tanya’ the one who carried him for seven months, gets to be the last person to hold him in her arms. The body has become not so much Liam as a reminder of something that was Liam’s shape and size, a memory of holding Liam. Letting go of him for the last time proves easier than we had feared because we both of us know that we’re not going to get another chance to do it better. We know that this occasion has not been rushed and any future attempt to grab hold of him would be rushed.
Then the congregation are now allowed in and I can’t wait for this thing to start. Waiting quietly and patiently will turn out to have been the toughest part of the whole day. Tanya watches the congregation, looks at how they move, how they cluster and separate, and where they choose to sit, making mental notes on their overall organization and disposition.
“I can’t believe it. I’m looking at this sociologically.”
“That’s OK. You’re a sociologist.”
So Tanya has found a way of being professional, a way of exercising her mind in a way that will enable Liam to have his day and for her to play her proper part.
Rev. W. is directing things. There are prayers, which go on for a while.
Dr N. starts a sermon, derived from the tale of King David’s paternal grief in the Old Testament. The important thing seems to be that we should both eat something. Unlike the baptism service, he clears Liam of any knowledge of sin, so at least we’re spared that, though he does urge the rest of us to think urgently and doctrinally about our final destinations. All I can think of is that I think it’s unlikely I’ll ever die as gracefully as Liam.
Then I stand up and say something far vaguer and less confident, reading closely from a prepared text. It’s short and wholly inadequate but getting through it all without sobbing has occupied all my energy. I try and focus on people at the back of the room, recognizing a few surprising people. Behind me, stand Pierre and Walter, each armed with my script, my back up guys. I can hear them welling up, wondering what they’re meant to be doing there. They don’t realize that they’re helping me and that suddenly realize that I am after all going to be able to get through this.
The funeral space is “L” shaped with most of the congregation in front of me and a few to my right. I remember suddenly my student days when I was a voracious amateur actor. One of the places we used to perform was an “L” shaped room not unlike this one. Around the same size. I played King John in there. I played Oscar Wilde. I played in a self-penned comedy review: all in an “L”. Something mechanical that I derived from that experience kicks in and again I know how to move in that space, how to address both sections of the audience without it looking mechanical or metronomic. I know when to stare into space and when to make eye contact with individuals. I know which individuals I need to make eye contact with and which ones to avoid at all costs if I’m to keep going. My voice only starts to crack and the tears to choke on the very last line of the text. I sit down. I was playing a part, crafting my emotion, putting a form on it, making it artificial, but only because I thought Liam deserved it. He deserved to have a parent stand up and tell everyone how great he was. My own tears were spent writing the piece, not delivering it, sweating about it beforehand, not speaking the words… not until the text ran out and I suddenly realized there was nothing else I could do for him. Becoming detached from the emotion was the most emotional commitment I could make.
We had talked earlier about who was to carry Liam in his coffin after the funeral. Having cleared it with other potential bearers, it is agreed that my brother Michael will carry him from the funeral home to the limo and Tanya’s brother Walter will carry him from the limo to the grave. The job has to be divided up in this way because there’s no way you can get more than one person to carry an infant coffin. They would trip over each other.
Before too long things are at an end and we’re escorted to the limousine that will take us to the cemetery. We are deliberately spared the sight of the lid going down, though I think at this point we probably could have borne it. Michael carries the tiny box towards the car where it sits on the back seat, with Tanya and I on either side of it. The procession sets off on its way. I always knew of course that all funeral processions moved slowly (except for my Uncle Max’s procession through Sheffield, but that one was considered unfortunate in some respects) but only now that I’m in the front one do I fully appreciate how slowly they actually proceed. I know where the cemetery is and I know how long it ought to take to get there but I wasn’t prepared for the endlessness of a funereal pace. There’s a fittingness to it though, which shocks me even as I’m appreciative of it. It is “nice” to see how people will stop for us though. Passers by stop, bow their heads, remove hats… all that kind of thing. It’s Liam’s little life being acknowledged, becoming wider. All the while Tanya and I have our hands grasped on top of the white box between us.
It’s a beautiful day, very warm for mid March, though still rather muddy with all the freshly melted snow. I suppose things are better in the sunshine, but it doesn’t help when people point out what a great plot Liam has, or suggest that “Divine Intervention helped secure it” (“while we’re on the subject of Divine Intervention… how about ninety years of life and then the crappiest plot in the whole fucking cemetery — how about intervening in that direction…?”). Blue skies are better than cloudy skies — but I can’t look at them without thinking “how about ninety years of life and then have the funeral during a hailstorm?” So it’s going “well”. And when people ask me later how the funeral “went”, I can say “well”. This means that the weather was OK and nobody broke down or fell over and that the occasion was marked by an absence of fist fights or Tanya and I trying to wrench open the lid of the coffin. It was not marked by anything unpleasant like that. But neither was it marked by me suddenly waking up to discover Liam alive and well and in my arms again.
We get into position around the grave, next to the statue. There are chairs in place for Tanya and my mother, neither of whom are in a position to stand for any length of time. Once we’re all in position, Walter arrives carrying the coffin. The coffin in balanced in position at ground level and a few more prayers are said. Apparently the cemetery does not do the whole casket being lowered into the ground thing. That happens later once everyone has gone home. A child is irritated by this anticlimax, tugging at their parents feeling perhaps that they’ve been gypped. They were “looking forward” to seeing the casket go under. It was meant to be part of the whole deal for the child, part of the necessary order of service. Tanya and I find that we can leave, that we can walk away from the casket and the fact that we find we can do this comes as some relief to us. We get a lift back with Walter in his bright yellow Spongebobmobile. Pierre meanwhile drives our own car back to Pelissier. On our way we stop for coffee and doughnuts, and we discover that we can laugh.
Then we get back to the house which is full of people. Everyone is nice and we are nice back to them. It’s all performance, which doesn’t mean that it’s fake — merely that we’re all dancing to someone else’s tune, because these moves have been considered appropriate by people who at least realized that something has to pass the time. The whole affair is dry, by our choice. I think we’re afraid that it would be too easy to really hit the bottle at a time like this and that the results could be disastrous. Drunken wakes might be fine and dandy for funerals that are celebrations of a long and full life, but when kids are involved there’s no way that alcohol can do anything else than ratchet the basic vileness of things up a whole notch. Let me have a beer and I think I’d be screaming and vomiting and glassing the guests sooner rather than later.
One of the more cheerful things that happens is that a set of our housekeys is accidentally dropped down a drain by a family friend. Rather than stick anyone’s arm down a drain at Liam’s funeral, the City is called to retrieve them. Insofar as this lightens the tone considerably, we decide to treat this event as a blessing. The keys are retrieved and disinfected and, in the meantime, avoided.
The hours go by slowly however as we pile paper plates full of eclectic home cooked contributions and pretend to eat, until finally I decide that I can’t take any more tasteful music. I insist on the least tasteful thing I can think of: William Shatner’s cover version of “Common People” with its superbly inappropriate timbre of raw disgust. Already I find myself a passionate advocate of bad taste. Good taste traps the emotions and bad taste frees them. Good taste constructs the illusion that there are words that fit all emotional conditions and bad taste smashes that illusion. Something else that Laurence Sterne knew, I think. Sterne himself was dug up after he died and sold on to a medical school, only to be recognized and reconsecrated, much like Yorick the jester who Sterne himself brought back to life.
Quite soon after this, a sickening kind of normality starts to kick in which we were unprepared for. Having steeled ourselves to survive a series of necessary rituals, the deritualising of life is a shock we could never have understood. Other people need to get on with their lives. We’re not as yet expected to do anything, which only adds to the sense of falling further and further behind. The world turns and we stand still. It’s a new and frightening kind of solitude.
Before they go away a few days later, I find myself talking to Ma at Tanya’s parent’s house, talking about how easily and helplessly tears still come, tell her that I don’t know when I’m going to ever feel any different. She takes my hands in hers and clutches them with all of her strength and says “think how much worse it would be if you couldn’t cry” and I try and imagine a worse way of how I’m feeling, a blank faced desperation, a wall of silence and general refusal. Then I weep all over again.
I’m bored. Grief is boring. Feeling the same thing over and over again, remembering the same events, choking on the same tears for the same reasons is less than intellectually stimulating. I suspect we are becoming duller people as a result. Other folks may be the most patient and loving people imaginable, but after a while the whole dead baby thing just gets old, surely?. Nobody is so heartless as to say this out loud or even formulate this consciously, but it has to be a factor. It’s tiring to describe your dead baby and tiring to hear about it. If you thought the parents of living babies were dull just try listening to the parents of dead ones. At least living babies do stuff, occasionally, conspire to expand their repertoire. Liam’s repertoire is fixed and unalterable.
Grief is (quite literally) mono-tonous — it is one tone, one note played endlessly again and again until it becomes migraine inducing. I remember years ago a story about how someone in England was evicted from their rented home because they insisted on playing Whitney Houston’s “I will always love you” endlessly, without a break, twenty four hours a day. At the time I thought the eviction was richly deserved, but now I think of myself as a version of that person, endlessly playing the same song, only with headphones on, thank God.
Grief is tiring. It lies on top of everything else you still have to do and slows you down. Running a marathon in a heavy hat. It’s a form of obligation and heightened self-consciousness that makes you feel you’re wading though treacle while performing the slightest errand. Tasks become more wearisome the more pointless they are, the less they appear to generate any sense of profit or accomplishment. Grief saps the notion of goal orientation that has made all forms of work worthwhile ever since those East African hominids decided to stand upright and try and hold things. The point of work for us is now simply rhythmic, simply something else to get used to, to incorporate into our wasteful stupid useless lives.
Grief (in terms of its expression) is not wasteful but it is obsessed with waste and obsessed with time and its passing. Grief keeps working on stupid sums. If I take care of myself, I can fairly expect another 16,000 days on this planet. And I’m aware that I’m going to spend a portion of every one of those days in a Detroit hospital being told that my son has a few hours to live. 16000 days, 16000 times, the same shock, this same routine. I get another 16000 days, Liam got 16 days. A tenth of a percentage of what I have.
Wherever we go as the weather gets warmer and pedestrian life more and more viable, the streets are full of babies and pregnant women. I notice the babies and Tanya notices the pregnancies. It was the pregnancy that she in particular feels robbed of and so seeing these swelling women is very hard on her. If I’m robbed of a son, she’s robbed of a son and of a pregnancy. Allied to this particular feeling of loss is the sense of racking our brains to figure out what we could have done differently to keep Liam inside for longer, to have had him properly cooked. Sometimes if feels as though pregnant women are stalking us and taunting us with the sheep weight of their collective unspotted possibility.
One morning about a week after the funeral, after Mum and Michael have been returned to the airport, I reach for something less funereal to wear, and I end up putting on the Detroit Pistons shirt. I got it for Christmas — in fact I got two shirts, the home strip (white) and the away (blue with retro-seventies lightning bolt lettering). Like most Detroit shirts sold, this one has number three on it, and the name of Wallace on the back, after the defensive giant who blocks so well, who always wins the rebound, and seems to be everywhere that he’s needed whenever he’s on court. He also has amazing hair. Probably nobody in the entire cross-border metro-Detroit area looks less like Ben Wallace than I do, but the new bling containing Liam’s traces makes me look less absurd while wearing it, makes me look almost cool, gives the whole outfit a terrifying bad-taste chic. The idea of my dead son making me look cool is so disgusting and compelling that I can think of nothing else for the remainder of the day. I can feel Liam laughing at my embarrassment for the remainder of the day.
From day to day there is nothing that we feel like doing but we feel worse for having done nothing. Meanwhile we accomplish our target of doing one useful thing a day. We set out sights very low and meet very limited goals. Taking care of a piece of paperwork, sending an email , making a run to the shops or simply getting a bit of fresh air: each one uses up all our sweat and passion and intellect and oxygen over a twenty four hour period. Pole vaulting on Pluto. Meanwhile, the rest of the world gets back to work and starts to accelerate into the distance. Terrifying as it is to be the centre of attention at the moment of profound grief, it’s terrifying as well to be left behind, to feel that everyone around you has resumed a usual pace while you yourselves are left trudging far behind wearing heavy boots: the boots of astronauts and bereavies.
Tanya finds awkward and difficult focus in the issue of human milk banking, something she finds out about while surfing the internet in a way that I’ve yet to dare to try. She it is who can look up “necrotizing enterocolitis” its causes and prevalence and associated symptoms. She it is who can stick her head into the world of guilt and blame. This same world haunts me, like a dark alley way always available to one side of me, a cul de sac with no escape.
Nobody here in Ontario appears to have heard of this initiative, which is unsurprising because there are no human milk banks in Ontario. The only one in Canada is in BC, Vancouver, thousands of miles away at the opposite end of the country. Meanwhile in the states, in Europe, in Africa and Australasia milk banking has been accelerating year by year. Canada has rarely been socially or politically “behind the times” in terms of anything that is really worth doing, but right now she is.
There is a peculiar (and wholly unverifiable) version of events that suggests that my son died, indirectly, of AIDS, or rather of the worldwide AIDS scare. He may have died, not of ignorance but of fear. It turns out that rates of necrotizing enterocolitis among neonates who have been fed human milk are vastly lower than among infants who have been fed formula. Back in the early 1980s Canada had quite a few human milk banks, but in response to AIDS related anxieties, they were all shut down. Now in other parts of the world, screening programmes have ensured that the milk banks are reopening, but in Canada for some reason they remain closed.
Perhaps this is a triumph of legalistic risk assessment with sins of commission being regarded as far more actionable than sins of omission. If a hundred formula fed infants fail to develop an immune system in time, then it’s nobody’s fault, but if one infant in a hundred is accidentally infected with something via donated breast milk, then the writs will start to fly. This merely a fully costed realization of more pervasive social psychological truisms. The same logic determines that everyone must drive their kids to school because they would never forgive themselves if some freak accident occurred to them while they walked. Meanwhile most kids seem to be becoming clinically obese and may have their lives truncated as a result of that.
So then we start to direct some anger more politically. The formula companies have taken something that women produce naturally and turned it into a cash nexus. They are a presence in every hospital ward, or so it seems, any they sponsor everything they can, stamping their names on everything from ultrasounds to biros. If someone could have donated breast milk to Liam, he might be alive. Better yet, if breast milk were universally available via banks, then infants and parents (large numbers of them) would be saved not only deaths by necrotizing enterocolitis but from all knowledge of necrotizing enterocolitis. They would be spared even the fear and immense gratitude of ever knowing that their kid was ever saved. They would live blessedly dull and unheroic lives. I might find it as hard to pronounce now as the day I first heard of it. As it is, it trips easily off the tongue, with all the slippery familiarity of a known enemy. For the first few weeks I used to practice the phrase every morning when I woke up, I ritualized it. After that, the ritual was unnecessary and the phrase embedded for all eternity. I will never be too drunk to mispronounce “necrotizing enterocolitis.”
Yet talking to people about Liam, I don’t want anger to be the dominant, or at least the initial emotion on display. Liam’s impact on the world was not and cannot be one of anger or sorrow. Anything that comes out of our anger needs to become something better than revenge, something larger than personal renewal.
He was marvelous though. I keep telling myself (and others) this. In three countries over the next few months I find myself saying this over and over again. Liam Theo never did a single thing to piss me off. How many other Dads can say as much or as little? He never talked back to me, he never rolled his eyes at me, gave me the silent treatment or cursed me under his breath or left his stuff all over my house. He never got to break curfew or drag me into a head teacher’s office or make po-faced promises to a police officer. I never had to yell at him or threaten him, or curtail his pocket money or remind him whose house he was living in. There is beauty and horror in his innocence.
Again and again it is the perfection and innocence of his life that blows me away, that astonishes and shames me. When I consider the radiant goodness, the affection and trust that beamed from his enormous eyes, the unambiguity of his life and love, and then consider the shabby compromises, petty betrayals, stupid acts of selfishness and insensitivity that infest every aspect of my own life history, I find myself shocked by our unlikeness and then amazed that I could have fathered such a person. For two weeks, I felt redeemed by my own son.
This vision of radiant innocence offers me only very limited and temporary relief. Had he lived he would have lost that aura, or rather exchanged it, gradually for something more complex. He would have, very quickly, become a compromised, flawed, well intentioned, unpredictable and contradictory human being like the rest of us. Sometimes he would have pissed me off.
I wish to God he was pissing me off right now. I used to dream of him pissing me off — hoping it would be creative and original at least. Hoping I would hate his music because it sounded to me like some new form of ungodly cacophony rather than any tired old retro fad.
When I see his tiny face staring at me in my minds eye, I find myself first stupefied and then enraged by a cosmos that could possibly dictate that he should die while I continue to live. In those enormous eyes, pregnant with unknowable wisdom, there lived a purity of purpose and an energy of inquiry that shames me and angers me. He never thought a foolish thing and never had a hostile impulse. There is nothing he could not have done. He was pure possibility.
Yet feeling angry needs to take us out of ourselves and think on a larger scale. Millions of people all over the world go through what we went through and many of them go through it again and again. Bereavie parents are therefore the norm, not the exception. Ninety nine per cent of these folk have fewer personal, technological and economic resources to depend on than we did. Across what’s patronizingly and unidirectionally referred to as the “developing world” (implying that we are ahead of them and we are where they want to be), the phenomenon of losing a child is inescapable and familiar but still strange and wrong and unfair and cruel.
In this large tribe of worldwide bereavies, we stand out. As a result of the structure of university calendars we had longer to weep and grieve and howl and sit in sullen silence than anyone in just about any other walk of life. The time that we thought we were going to spend entirely devoted to nursing and bonding, we are spending brooding and wailing. As a result of convenient and well placed extended family we had the means to meditate. We are what you might call the Rockerfellers and Vanderbilts of the world-wide dead kid community. Absurdly privileged, outrageously cushioned and molly coddled, with the immeasurable luxury of time to reflect on our misery and its possible meanings and implications, Of writing this account. In global terms, Tanya and I are sitting huddled close together on the very summit of an immense mountain of pain, a mountain whose base is endless and expanding. Perhaps this gives us a good view of things. Losing a kid is not just the most horrible thing in the world it is the single most common most horrible thing in the world, yet something we could do something about if we put our collective so-called minds to it.
Even here, snuggled up in the midst of this web of deceitful privilege we lazily call “The West”, the number of people who have to deal with being a bereavie is vastly greater than is usually recognized. And we keep meeting them. They only really expose themselves to people who’ve been through the same thing, but once they know about Liam, they instantly confess. It’s not a happy confession, just an urgent point of recognition, a sense that they are for once in the presence of people who do not require very much to be explained to them. When bereavies meet, there is a strange relief that accompanies the very little that actually needs to be said.
When meeting that global minority of lucky bastards, the non-bereavies, I find it’s important to them that they try and say something. And nearly all of them do, when meeting you face to face. In fact there are only two ways that the non-bereavies can do the wrong thing. One is to say nothing when I meet them for the first time “after”, Complete avoidance of the subject is just insulting and hurtful. The other thing is when non-bereavies (you can tell from the look in their eyes) think they’ve found the perfect thing to say, the exquisitely appropriate little chunks of sententia that they think makes sense of what they think happened to us.
Once upon a time it was incumbent on all bereavies to shroud themselves in black for at least a year. Advertise their agonies in crude and direct terms. Nowadays this is considered both excessive and depressive, but I’m not sure that it was so bad. People would know you were damaged at first sight, they would let you get away with more. Perhaps the end of formalized mourning is intended not as a respite for the mourners but as the end of tedious and depressing rituals imposed on everybody else. Perhaps we’re too tired or too busy to have to deal with bereavies so we’re imposing normality on them out of sheer greedy convenience.
There is a tremendous difference, I have discovered, between talking about grief and explaining it. The first is a relief and the second is a burden. Talking about grief involves the sharing of emotions as and when they are felt, releasing both crazy and rational forms of pain and achieving some measure of catharsis as a result. Explaining on the other hand is telling a story, over and over again, reliving in the most horrible and exhausting way imaginable. If writing this narrative accomplishes nothing more than freeing us from the obligation to narrate events in sequential order, then it has afforded us some comfort. It was not, incidentally, written in sequential order. Rather, paragraphs of remembered emotion were typed out as and when they occurred to me, and only subsequently block and pasted into the order in which they must have taken place. (Describing the events of the night of March 11/March 12 2005 can only be done a sentence or so at a time, spread over a period of many months.)
By writing this highly impressionistic and vague and undoubtedly inaccurate account of what happened from 1st February 2005 to the spring of the same year, I hope not to free myself from the pain but rather from the fear of impoverishing my experience as I learn to feel better. If I can recall as much as possible of what I felt and paste it together in a present tense narrative, then maybe I can move on with my life without feeling that I have betrayed the memory of the most beautiful human being I have ever met. I’m hoarding memories so that I can let them go. Keeping things so that I can throw them away. I’m obsessing so that I can stop obsessing.
You may be waiting for one of those really redemptive conclusions that makes sense of everything, a rhetorical formula that can organize pain and therefore justify some notion of immortality.
As are we.