Six years ago my wife gave me a pair of house slippers. My first ever. A domestic present I thought signaled some new phase of my life. I thanked her. Tried them on. Plush fur lined the inside. I stood up to make a show of enjoying them. Then she handed me a much smaller set of slippers. These had monkeys stitched onto the top of the feet. This is how she told me.
Prior to this we had a fight. Several. The theme of each was my wanting to be a writer and her wanting to have a family. It was a question of time. How much of it we were given and what we would do with it. It was a question of passion. Where it rose in us and how we would dole it out to the world.
My son came out blue, cone-headed, and silent. I was holding my wife’s leg, watching everything. She did not make a sound during labor. Silent willfulness held sway in her. I was handed scissors and a wet, translucent chord. I cut. A splatter of blood hit my chin. The silent baby was swept to the corner of the room where more nurses than I knew were there tended to him. I did not breathe. Did not breathe. Not breathe. Then I heard his cry. That spangling noise that reorganized my life in the way I had been told it would but could never believe.
I stayed awake all night holding my son in the rocking chair. That time felt sacred. Still does.
I stayed awake writing in that rocking chair. His sleeping body slung into the crook of my non-writing arm. I was afraid my time to write had disappeared but I was going to make this work. Silent willfulness would hold sway in me.
We brought my toddler son to the Associated Writer’s Program Conference in Seattle. We stayed in a hotel room. Due to time change he woke up at 4 a.m. By seven that morning he had pooped in the bathtub, used the hotel room phone to call the police to our door, twice, and ate a worm outside.
At the conference, Seamus Heaney told a story onstage about being a younger poet and having a famous older poet come to his home. The older man looked at all the kids “Vomiting about,” and asked, clearly put off, “You see a lot of your children, then, do you?”
My daughter came fast and screaming into this world and has neither slowed nor quieted since. Her smile now lifts her onto her toes and is everything to me. But at first, between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. when she had her bottle and slept, I edited a friend’s novel manuscript in hopes that she would edit mine in return. I sent those pages back with the imprinted circle stains of baby bottles.
My third child, a boy, brought the noise of labor from my wife for the first time. When it came time to cut the cord, instead of being a pro, a three-time-veteran, I was leaning over the bathroom sink washing my face, trying to quell the nausea, and not fall and crack my head open on the marble floor. Something I later learned was called a “Code Blue” over the speaker system. “Code Blue. Code Blue,” is the poor hapless father crashing to the faux-marble tiles.
Ernest Hemingway’s story “At the Indian Camp,” in which a man listens to his wife endure three days of a violent labor until it becomes too much to endure and he cuts his own throat, comes clear to my mind later that night in the hospital room. For the first time I understood the story. I understood the love and helplessness that made him slide the blade.
Before I met my wife I had long stretches of time to think and write. But back then my writing mentor told me I was not writing anything worthwhile because I was not writing about myself. He hit a nerve. I was emotionally closed off. Sealed away. I felt sick after he said this and I could not get out of his office fast enough.
I told my father what my writing mentor told me. My father said my mentor was right. But that that will change. I was young. Wait until I had something to truly love in the world. The wells of strength, ingenuity, and love you cannot understand yet will seep up. I was offended. My ego screamed I have something I love. Yet I was just told I was no good at it.
I saw my writing mentor in line at a grocery store early one morning soon after he called me out for writing flat characters, the root cause of which was some inner cowardice. It was very early. I had not slept. He had gotten up to make blueberry French toast for his family. I looked at his domestic items and sensed that he had something more important than writing stories to teach me.
My wife frequently walks into the room and tells my children to be nice to their father. To me. I had no idea they were bossing me around. I try to pour my kindness onto them and they take advantage. I laugh at moments like this.
My days are filled with my children’s needs. Each is so immediate that everything feels choppy now. My thoughts don’t have the long stretches of time to wander over and create narratives I once did. Now someone is always touching me. I am a jungle gym. Consoler. I have to clean my children’s bodily fluids. I have to be close. Look close. Am close. Family sometimes feels like something that is just a matter of proximity. In one day of this I swing from exhausted to elated. I swing along the full range of emotions.
I see a lot of my children. My children are thunderclouds. Veined with brilliant light. Full of noise. Their presence is felt in the bones. They leave the most fabulous puddles. They wash over me every day and drain me and they leave everything feeling renewed.
There are moments I turn a corner and see them playing quietly in a beam of end-of-day sunlight and I am stilled. I look at them and forgive my parents for everything they ever did that hurt me. How could my parents have done anything other than felt perfect love for me in their imperfect lives? This is how I feel looking at the light. At the child. I wish I had a word for this feeling.
My children are genius poets at recreating our language. At looking at the world. I try to capture everything. My son sprints into the house. “Dad. Dad. We found a place Ninja’s learn how to drive.” He is full of joy. His imagination ablaze. “Teenagers,” My wife corrects and my son and I are both disappointed.
“The sky is breaking apart,” my daughter yells out the window at the setting sun, the colors ablaze beyond the suburban water tower.
The baby can make any noise and we are overjoyed.
I can no longer read stories where bad things happen to children. They hurt too much. I have now held up crying, laughing, and sick children. I’ve held children up to swat at wind chimes. To “eat the wind,” as my opened mouth daughter likes to yell when riding on my shoulders. Because of this I can no longer hold up the weight of stories where calamity falls on the innocent.
“I’m wearing eyelashes,” my daughter’s voice rises from the din in the back of the car.
My writing mentor was right.
My daughter looks up at the crescent moon and yells, “The moon. It’s not all together.”
My father was right.
“How do you make blood?” my son asks.
“Who put all the dirt under the road?”
“Do my toes have fingers?”
“Tomorrow hasn’t happened yet, right?”
It’s very hard for me to access that younger man who had powerful doubts about having a family. My children, even the baby, feel like they have been a part of my life forever. I am saddened by my previous doubt, but I share it in case my children someday feel it too. I want them to recognize it as human and natural. Decisions that are part of the passage they will have to navigate.
“Dad. I have a big question for you. What does the tooph fairy do wiff the the teef?”
I studied Faulkner and Walker, Proust and Kafka, Baldwin and Angelou, Monroe and Alexie, Allende and the rest like they held the keys to language.
I call my children sweet-pea, chicken butt, and smoosh face like all language was meant for these endearments. Like all lessons only needed time to plow over me and leave their truths.
I write in the books I read. I keep scraps of papers in every pocket to record my thoughts that could be a seed to a story. All of my clothes have ink stains on them. I have been known to write on my hands.
My son stops eating his blueberry French toast and holds up his hands with doodles on the palms. “Like daddy,” he says.
I wanted to be a writer.
My wife wanted a family.
We have a family.
I am in the trenches of domestic life. Surprisingly, this life holds the grist of, and access to, the full canon of literature. My children’s vomiting about is the raw material of literature that shook me to my core as a young man. They swirl about me with their magic energy. They drain and refill me. They teach me how to read their lives and mine. They give me the heat and love to look closer at a world. They take my time and focus my time. Their vomiting about. Vomiting about. How I love their vomiting about.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.