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The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Admission of Guilt

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I look into my son’s eyes, little dark-chocolate chunks visible in the otherwise hazelnut pools of his irises, and he holds my gaze. I see evaluation, suspicion. I see something that strongly resembles judgment. He sees through me, assesses the ruse, convicts the fraud.

Why am I ashamed? Where does it come from? I gape at him like I gaped at my own father, caught in one of hundreds of childhood lies: an act of pure endurance. If I keep staring with the stubborn constancy that only the guilty can muster, the sheer weight of my determination will surely absolve me. But here with my own boy, I lose resolve: my eyelids flutter, fear ripples through my jaw, my breath accelerates in a panic, and he’s onto me, closer to nature than me, more nobly savage, less ignobly civilized. In the same way my father knew I lied through the gaps in my remaining deciduous teeth, my own son seems to know something about his father that I don’t know myself.

Henry is two years old, sitting pantless in full lotus on the carpet of our living room floor, his posture perfect in his primal little body. He clutches a wooden replica of Thomas the Tank Engine, our only one, and an object of near lascivious covet between him and his four-year-old brother, Charlie. Henry casts his brother a wary eye and pulls Thomas close to his chest with each of Charlie’s passes. The crumbs on his chin and shredded wrappers on the floor evidence a fight with three cereal bars that he’s clearly won. Skin abrasions and streaks of snot down his face declare the victories of an immune system that’s working overtime against the chronic threat of infant mortality. His teeny-weeny shirt reads tough guy in a menacing font. Given the resolve in his eyes, the warning hits home.

I’m seated before him, probing him with hard-hitting questions to tease out new nouns, to force his developing brain into verbal demonstrations of deductive reasoning, for which he will be explosively applauded with high-watt paternal smiles.

“What color is the train?”

“Does he have wheels?”

“How many wheels does he have?”

Yet: my suspicion is that the questions are irrelevant and that what matters is the tone; not the pet-like interrogative tone I’m using with him now, but the ancient tone of an evolutionary feedback loop that we are both necessarily a part of. He and I are each fulfilling universal roles indifferent to our accidents of time and place. Biology hoodwinks us both; the parent guides the child, the child adapts and lives.

But something seems off. Mere adaptive processes ought go more smoothly… right? My desire to educate is spot on. However, his desire to please me seems overruled by the sense that my questions are both cloying and rudimentary. Colors? Numbers? Really, Dad? These things can be learned anywhere. He wants to discuss bigger things (I project), and something in his eyes is accusatory, doubtful that I am up to the task.

He doesn’t speak yet. He won’t remember this scene; his hippocampus is still developing and his first memory won’t likely form for another year. But I will remember, and the answer to the question “What is your role?”—which exists, granted, only in my head—is still alarmingly unclear. What, in the toddlerhood interplay of nature and nurture, is the role of the father? In asking these questions of myself, I orbit the source of my shame.

Last summer, I nearly killed my son. It was an accident, but the guilt I live with belongs to those whose malicious deeds are intentional. Criminal law would classify my actions (or inactions) as involuntary manslaughter or negligent homicide, and I’ve simply considered myself a shitty murderer in the year since “the episode.” I have little pity for the ignorance that another version of me could plead as to the manner in which I very nearly ended my son’s life.

*

IMG_4198We were living on the island of Oahu at the time. There, I crunched data in an air-conditioned, recently-constructed government office building that was imposed upon a less-recently defunct pineapple plantation which was itself imposed upon the ancient, volcanic grasslands of Oahu’s inter-Mauka North Shore valley. Although I was active-duty military, my work was indistinguishable from that of my civilian co-workers, except they could wear shorts and flip-flops and I was limited to stifling long-sleeve camouflage, a quiet reminder of my lower caste-status and that GI unambiguously means “Government Issue.”

My office was populated by post-recession college grads, largely with humanities degrees from liberal arts colleges, who all saw enlistment as an opportunity. We were all jockeying for a slice of the tectonically shifting American socioeconomic pie, and the hodgepodge of our backgrounds, coupled with the free-speech restrictions placed on military personnel, didn’t make for fun office chitchat. There was no personal cubicle decorating. Our desks were “hot,” meaning they belonged to no one person, and I often arrived at work with forensic evidence of a night-shifter’s late-night meals in and around the cracks of my keyboard.

On a sultry and oppressively beautiful morning like 364 others on the island, I arrived at work and saw a mound of little magnetic balls on “my” desk. The mound was voluptuous and breast-like in its metallic roundness, whole but atomized into hundreds of tiny versions of its magnetic self. I opened my palm and cupped it without hesitation. Its hard and icy texture was a stark contrast to the warm suppleness of its human-tissue likeness, but still (shamefully) satisfying to the hand. I found myself fondling it autonomically throughout the day, cycling through a repetition of three-dimensional shapes at which configuration I had gotten very good by day’s end. I asked around to a chorus of shrugs, and thinking I was doing a good thing for my two little boys at home, I squeezed the metal boob one last luxuriant time and pushed it into my lunch bag.

At home that evening, the boys were as captivated by the magnetic balls as I had been seduced by them. I pulled them into equal halves, and I congratulated myself on the introduction of a superfun, there’s-no-way-they’ll-fight-over this, democratic toy as we went about our night.

Charlie’s always been a poor eater. His fascination endless and attention span gnat-like, he subsists largely on nibbles between sprints to and away from the dinner table. Henry, however, was born voracious—the scourge of my wife’s nipples for nearly twelve months at that point—but the next morning he showed no interest in anything edible. He sipped disinterestedly at a bottle, emptying only a fifth of its contents before setting it aside and staring off at the wall in a daze. He spit up what seemed to be milk, and was given water. My wife and I agreed that he likely had a “bug,” something non-lethal, and certainly nothing to impinge on regular weekend family fun. The boys were set down for a nap, and when they were finally silent, I coaxed my wife to indulge our marital rights. We, too, then, napped it off, and dreamt sweetly about what we’d have for dinner.

Meanwhile: a baneful congestion. A harsh discharge. Charlie charged into our room with post-nap puffy eyes to wake us. I asked him if Henry was up, too.

Charlie pointed a tiny digit towards the hallway. “Henwy seeping.” He cackled and scurried away.

Meanwhile: an undead pallor. A cold sweat. A perilously low blood pressure. I arose triumphantly, strutting into the boys’ room to check on the baby. He was ashen and lukewarm, his breathing a pneumatic wheeze that would have alarmed any normal parent. A patch of bilious vomit stained the little pillow beside him. I called my wife into the room, and she responded with what I at the time dismissed as hysteria, an overreaction. Eloquent conjectures, a manic entreaty to take him to the emergency room.

I waved it off.

“He’s probably just got some bug,” I shrugged. “Charlie’s always sticking his hands in the toilet and pulling bugs out of the yard. He probably touched Henry or Henry ate something or…”

“No, this is different,” she replied with quiet panic.

My wife’s self-mastery is disturbingly Vulcan, so, in hindsight, I can’t account for my impatient dismissal of her concern as anything other the cruel narcissism of a man who believed that his role in his sons’ lives petered out post-coitus. All I could see was personal inconvenience, a rupture of the status quo, and a very late dinner if we left for the ER.

“I think he’ll be okay,” I said. “If he’s still cool like this in a few hours, we’ll take him to the hospital right away.”

buckyballs1My ability to persuade my wife to wait another forty-eight hours to take him in disturbs me to this day. I didn’t know Henry had accidentally swallowed some of the little magnets, whose attraction was so strong in his tiny belly that they were eating holes through his small intestine and oozing detritus around his otherwise immaculate young organs. During the ensuing three weeks of hospitalization, as I grieved over a colorless and sterile bed where plastic tubes of every conceivable diameter circulated liquids through my son’s swollen, dying body, I wondered: how far did my ignorance extend? Carrying on with the meaningless miscellany of the weekend while his body was being choked of life: cooking and eating meals, having time to be disgusted with the sequence of an iTunes playlist, having sex. Did it not blip on my radar that he might put one (or many) of these things in his mouth? Could I not abstract from the zillions of other things he’d partially ingested? Could I think of anyone but myself?

Unanswered questions plague me: to what extent am I actually responsible for these two little people, two little people who are existentially dependent on me? Should I have known about the Buckyballs controversy from a few years before either of their births? I didn’t know they existed, and when I learned, it was only in the context of my son’s near-death. Because I wasn’t a parent during the controversy, it’s unlikely that I would have paid much attention, let alone been personally concerned if I had known. But should I have known? My one job, post birth, is to keep them alive. And I almost failed.

I still wake at night in a panic of criminality. The image of my son’s unrecognizable flesh, inflamed, is scarred over my memory. A diaper or toy or insurance commercial will come on featuring a boy Henry’s age at the time of the accident, and I will silently remove myself from the room, abscond to the first available bathroom, and collapse to the invisibly piss-splattered floor, ragged sobs overtaking me. Any casual reminder can send me into a tailspin of post-traumatic stress.

But nothing happened to me. I thoughtlessly gave something dangerous to my children, one of whom suffered unquantifiably for it, and I suffered only guilt. For those living with it, guilt is compounded by the private truth that it is a decadent indulgence. There is an unspeakability to the death of a child but I find myself looking for punishment. And I welcome it. In sober, reflective moments, this strikes me as a kind of selfishness, a mutation phase in the taxonomy of narcissism. I imagine if there is a God, this is a thing he doesn’t forgive for the obviousness of its preventability: I gave you a will. Make the choice. Love the child.

*

Hospitals traffic in allusions. Their deliberate whiteness and antiseptic alcohol smell allude to a sterility both physical and spiritual whose intention is to distract patients and families from the inexorability of death. The Pediatric Intensive Care Unit exists on a uniquely melancholy plane. Like the drab lavatories retrofitted into ancient cathedrals but cloistered away in its unseeable basements, the PICU seems always deep in the bowels of the building or in a forgotten wing only reachable after a series of disorienting elevator rides. The long trek through a labyrinthine series of identical bleached hallways gives parents space to palliate raw emotion. One wonders if this construct is intentional. There is a lonely meaninglessness within the PICU’s rooms, like the vacuum of space or pre-human history. The cervical vertebrae become cemented in an act of involuntary self-preservation, eyes paralyzed forward to avoid seeing a child in a state that cannot be unseen. The peripheral vision is an anxious trial, a reminder that the world is filled with nameless tragedies and unknown catalysts of madness. One wonders how anyone could work in this hell every day, and yet despite the systematic dehumanization of the physical hospital (intentional or not) and the cruel impartiality of the staff (intentional or not), it was the very PICU staff who taught me about silent and tenacious love.

IMG_4197When, after thirty sleepless hours in the waiting room, I saw my infant son, a creature of objective innocence whose then-present state was caused by another willful agent, me, I wanted to die. I wanted to be the one in the bed, catatonic, chemically paralyzed, tiny magnets eating holes in my small intestine, leaking sepsis into my abdominal cavity to a slow, undignified death.

A host of surgeons and nurses visited us in our claustrophobia, offering vague reassurances or worries during lapses of stoicism, betraying their humanity despite the years of defenses built against it over their medical careers. As the staff flowed in and out of the room, acknowledging us or not, we were fed excruciatingly ambiguous morsels of information.

“You have a very sick boy.”

“Your child is in a very poor condition.”

“We are doing everything we can.”

Henry was always referred to in the nameless third person, a hedge of nonattribution that was maddening. My wife was present to overhear the surgery preparations from a pitilessly audible side room, hearing the anesthesiologist being scolded for causing a dangerously low blood pressure. Mentions of possible organ deterioration lingered in the hypoallergenic air. For my wife, voices became the muted screech of a snowy TV signal, a singularly evil white noise.

A hospital psychologist appeared, her presence suggesting that Henry wouldn’t live and that I was being managed. I gave monosyllabic answers to her painfully calm questions to conform to what I thought she needed to hear. From memories of normalcy, I forced out what I thought were indications of healthy grieving. Her visit, coupled with the heavy eye-contact messages of equivocal progress from one of the more confident surgeons, left us in a state of numb paranoia.

My wife couldn’t leave Henry’s side, so we agreed through an exchange of significant looks that we weren’t able to calculate the trauma it could cause Charlie to see his baby brother tubed up like a robot, and that I would take him home to pretend like nothing was happening for as long as it would continue to happen.

In our unhinging state, logic shifted. Motionlessness precipitated insanity; it made sense to simply do. I brought my wife incredible amounts of food despite the PICU staff also bringing her three meals a day from the cafeteria. Nothing was eaten. The miscellaneous became psychotic. When at home, I’d stare outside for the mail truck, the sun glaring through the humidity and drying out my eyeballs as I sprinted to the mailbox. When we received no mail, I’d return to the mailbox several times to make sure I had checked every possible corner of the slot. Pumping gas to a specific penny became an urgent pathology.

The first forty-eight hours post-surgery were a maddening ordeal that has left us a little fucked up. It was strongly suggested that Henry would die, that he would die miserably, and that we should consider considering the implications. The nurses in the PICU were keenly aware of the fine line they were walking, and they strode it gracefully. No undue hope was given, no unneeded worry caused. And then, when Henry showed improvement after a risky surgery and the sun seemed to shine again, the surgeon looked me in the eye and said clearly, “Your boy is going to live. He’ll have a little scar, but it will be like it never happened. He won’t remember any of this.”

I shuddered.

The nurses, too, reanimated, rehumanized before our eyes. It was clear to me that it had taken everything they had to not put a hand on my shoulder, to offer us mere sympathy, the useless painkiller of human grieving. What rang true of their love was their restraint, the will to not judge. While I hated them for what seemed robotic cruelty for twenty-two days, it slowly became clear that they acted so out of love.

The love I felt for Henry then and for both of my sons now is animalistic, a biological imperative. In the hospital I stared at his small self not really knowing him, only seeing glimpses of his nascent personality, and I wanted to bleed. I’d known him for as long in the flesh as I had when he was a hypothetical lump growing in my wife’s abdomen. Two years prior, he wasn’t even an idea.

*

IMG_4196My wife and I don’t talk about it. There’s nothing that can be said. We were there, we endured it, and now it’s over. Our only reminder, besides the pale little scar radiating from the incision point at Henry’s navel, is the painful beauty of certain sunrises, of selfless hands, and of the furious pace of life, the immutability of a true love between strangers that is only recognizable in wordless, semiconscious states.

I am back in the living room, sitting and looking at Henry.

Moving on from reasoning to fine motor skills, we are rolling a tennis ball back and forth to each other. He’s having a blast, here with his Dad, passing a tennis ball back and forth. I lose my sense of self, and only after the fact am aware that I, too, am having a blast. This is what we do.

Now, I am hypervigilant, constantly monitoring my intentions with my kids. I self-analyze. I interrogate my sudden anxieties over their future. What do you need from me? Tell me how I can help, I will do anything.

My wife fusses over scraped knees, persistent coughs, uneaten meals. This is how she loves. But I treat such things with benign disregard. I lose sleep over choices I made in high school that created circumstances from which I now have a limited pool of choices that I can make to give them more opportunities. Should I, as a child myself, have made better choices in the interest of two people whose existence I had no ability to even conceive of? I find myself exploring hypothetical anxieties circumscribing the requirements of life in the 21st century, when climate change and overpopulation will have altered adulthood for my sons. Should I have taken shit like that into consideration when I so recklessly called them forth into existence? I torture myself with these stupid, fruitless questions.

But, if not to grapple with these stupid, fruitless questions, what is the father’s role? My wife carried each of our boys, nursed them, allowed regions of her body to be destroyed, and has suspended her career for the five or so pre-schooling-age years. Her compromises are selfless. What do I do? My father’s generation seemed to be vexed that their fathers were never around—is my role to just hang out?

Henry tells me the answer.

Charlie towers on the edge of the couch at three-feet-tall, a keen hunger in his eyes for Thomas. Henry is briefly distracted by the tennis ball rolling between us and Thomas drifts to his side. In a flash, Charlie leaps down and lurches for the toy. In an equal flash, Henry detects the predator and retracts his hand, but Thomas slips from his grip and lands hardest-possible-side-down on the bony projection of his exposed ankle. His eyes reach mine, searching for indications of how much pain he should feel and how, accordingly, he should react, and some desperate wish to avoid it is betrayed in my eyes and he cries out. The tears are immediate; he has forgotten Thomas. Charlie quickly seizes the toy and scurries away.

Henry cries loudly but I am able to calm him quickly. He’s never been an intemperate kid, possessive of a preternatural control. Likely, the same control that kept him alive.

He holds out his reddish ankle, pointing to the locus of injury and sobs, “Kiss it?”

I bend to kiss his ankle, and he smiles with pure and absolute love. Then I know.

Coldly, hotly, silently, savagely: love them.


Andrew Higgins grew up in Ferguson, Missouri, and Cleveland, Ohio. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Belt Magazine, and The Vehicle, and he is currently a candidate in the Miami University low-residency MFA program in Oxford, Ohio. He studied Spanish and philosophy at Lindenwood College and the Universidad de Granada in Spain, and will soon separate from the Air Force and return home to Cleveland. More from this author →