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Personal Essays

Born, Still

A newborn wavers between life and something else. For the father, a walk in the woods elucidates the struggle between nature and nurture.

Julie Blackmon, Picnic, 2012. © the artist and courtesy Robert Mann Gallery, New York.

From the doctor’s notes: “At 15:02 the baby was brought out to the Resuscitation Table.”

The wind makes a human cry the day after the miscarriage. That is, the wind shakes the remaining brittle leaves of the little forest in Skullbuster, Ky., and I interpret that as a child’s whine. I am susceptible to such whimsy when alone in the woods. It’s the reason I come here.

The wind picks up. It has a gentle fury, like an ocean wave retreating across rocks. A hissing sonogram sound. The leaves swirl down the trail and the squirrels skitter in a slight panic. What am I becoming? Not a father any longer—or not a father, again. Everything feels still-born, half-born, un-born: the woods, the wind, the world. Nothing is complete. The hours have stopped and slowed.

Where is the “I” in this story? What right do I have to “go through” something? Who is the father of a miscarriage? He is nothing but a well of potential. He tries to become what the mother needs. He handles the payments in the hospital. He drives her home. He reassures her that this is but a small setback in the grand scheme. He tries to impress upon friends and family that time is long and one has options. He runs to the woods and hears a human cry in the wind.

“His color was blue. There was minimal respiratory effort and no tone.”

Another attempt.

It is the last month before what people tell him is a “big day” or a “blessed day,” depending upon their religious bent. It’s true. Some days are bigger than others.

He is in a different wood now. He’s got a big dog with him and miles of state forest trail. He walks. Past the marshes and bogs and the sound of singing summer frogs. A hundred fornicating amphibians laughing in unison as if admitting that yes, their sexual urges are odd and insistent. They are locked in hungry amplexus for days and scream for every blissful minute.

It is the last month before what people tell him is a “big day.” It’s true. Some days are bigger than others.

He walks past the 300-year-old rock walls that litter the landscape in eastern Connecticut, the colonial fields untended for a century, the enormous stump of an old chestnut. The dead tree periodically shoots new life from its roots but is always held back by the blight that wiped out all the chestnuts on the East Coast. He struggles to see no metaphors in the chestnut stump. He regards the chestnut stump—the size of a small car—and sees the eternally dying tree as nothing more than what it is: a clump of decaying matter. The dog digs in the decay. The man runs. He runs from whatever it is that nature is a mirror to.

So why does he come here at all?

He jams purple, skull-encrusted earbuds into his ears. He is listening to Far From the Tree, a book by Andrew Solomon (who reads in deep, mellifluous, yearning tones) about children born estranged from their parents. The children’s distance is deafness, or severe mental disability, or Down syndrome, or dwarfism, or criminality—that kind of thing. Basically, he is listening to Everything That Could Go Wrong. And as he listens, he tromps through the landscape of herons, thin trees, muck, and shallow lakes. Solomon’s book about being the father or mother to something unexpected and estranged is the book that fits his mood and fits the landscape. He doesn’t want to know “what to expect.” He doesn’t want tips and advice and shopping lists and a hopeful arsenal of diapers and wipes waiting in the basement. He is certain his son will be one of these children born far from the tree. He wonders where to put this thought. Not that there is a place to put thoughts, of course. They just come and go as the synapses desire. Not that synapses desire. They just wander and blurt and give rise to wandering and blurting people.

Thoreau:

I am a parcel of vain strivings tied
By a chance bond together,
Dangling this way and that…

He throws his thoughts at the marsh.

The parents in Solomon’s book are hopeful, depressed, tired, and sometimes ecstatic. They seem to exist on another, more enlightened plane where life and death and humanity are not fixed points but are on a sliding scale. He is now in that liminal tangle.

He felt his son kick this morning.

The chestnut occasionally produces a living offspring.

A parcel of vain strivings tied by a chance bond together.

“Stimulation was attempted and suction was also attempted.”

In the operating room, he sits on a tall metal stool of the type used in his high school biology class. Only the mother’s head, arms, and attending Bulgarian anesthesiologist are visible. She was just singing, in Bulgarian, to the anesthesiologist. The mood is jovial until the moment the boy is taken from his mother. The boy is blue and still.

The father sees a flash of blue baby (or imagines he does) as the nurse (hurried, professional) rushes him to the Resuscitation Table.

The father sees a flash of blue baby (or imagines he does) as the nurse (hurried, professional) rushes him to the Resuscitation Table.

It is interesting how, in the doctor’s notes, Resuscitation Table is capitalized. As if it were the capital of the state of Resuscitation, a place you could find on a map. The longer the road there, the less chance you have of arriving.

“Positive pressure ventilation had been started by 30 seconds of life.”

30 seconds of life.

The child has caught his breath for 30 seconds.

The child is waiting. Deciding.

The mother begins shaking uncontrollably on the metal table—some combination of shock and drugs. The father stays on his stool, clasping her hand. The breathless boy is in another room. The father cannot go to him.

He is imagining the boy made a choice.

The father is imagining there is some darkness he can’t quite see or understand, a shadow person, and that shadow is the father to the child and this is why the boy decided not to breathe. He considers this a trait passed on from father to son, this unknowable darkness, this swath of sadness, this strange desire to be anywhere but here, to live a life unknown in the woods, to realize his comforting yet terrifying dream of being totally alone, so near dead that it doesn’t matter, and to only breathe and look at the little ponds and woods and then die. The father is becoming the animal that he is—only instinct and present tense. To consider the future is too horrible; to rerun the past is too painful.

Why does he go to the woods? What escape does it promise? Some say nature expands the mind and senses and makes us more present in life. But he finds that each step on a lonely trail is a step through some door in the mind, a step inward, and there he finds a place to hide from everything. A place to decay before death. And he fears, in his panicked magical thinking, that it is knowledge of this place he has found in the woods that has caused the baby to decide not to breathe.

The nurse touches his shoulder. “Your baby is having a little trouble breathing,” she says.

“OK,” he says. And he stares, speechless, at the mother.

What right does he have to “go through” something, with a convulsing wife on the operating table and a blue son on the Resuscitation Table? The father is a mere observer. He notes time and season. He is simply there. Watching.

Heart rate by 2 minutes of life was below 80 and nonpalpable and thus CPR was started at 15:04.”

The naturalist Edwin Way Teale spent his sunset years in the Quiet Corner of Eastern Connecticut on a small parcel of land he named “Trail Wood.” His only son, David, had died in World War II. In his book A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm, Teale relates the many years he spent in Trail Wood doing things like watching spiders, experiencing weather, noting bird calls, and keeping meticulous journals of every shuddering tree and skittering creature—like some wannabe god noting each amoral shake of nature in his tiny kingdom. One chapter, “The Man in the Brushpile,” describes his four-year-long stint lying under a haphazard shelter of dead branches. While there, he noted birds and bugs and dogs and other fauna. He listened to the nearby stream. He kept notebooks and maps in this little shelter. He never mentions his son but it is difficult to imagine a non-grieving man doing such a thing. Only a grieving man devotes himself to lying in a shallow grave each day and listening to the universe chirp and burble around him. One day a tree blew over and crushed his brush pile and Teale, ever the non-Romantic, simply noted that “It had lived its life and come to the end.”

If the baby doesn’t breathe, there is much of interest to note in this wood.

The father in this story often takes his walk on Teale’s land. The big black dog jaunts happily down the mile of old colonial road that seems unchanged for 300 years. The dog chases a rabbit through Starfield and rolls on some stinking, dead thing in Firefly Meadow. Time is long here. Nature is varied.

If the baby doesn’t breathe, there is much of interest to note in this wood.

A person could spend years noting the drama of the ferns. How they spring up bright yellowish-green. How they hold their thin hands open to the dappled light that pierces the forest canopy. How they, in one autumn day, will turn brown and shrivel and sink into the loamy, black dirt.

“Infant developed spontaneous respiration and a faint cry.”

The exuberant dog pulls him forward. He’s got the baby strapped to him with one of those ridiculous contraptions—the kind with multiple straps and belts that hang like alien limbs. The three of them are walking in Trail Wood this autumn. The forest canopy is denuded but the underbrush is still bright with vivid, late autumn color: A bright yellow swath of goldenrod. Small white petals on a wild cucumber vine. Tiny, bright red berries on a flowering dogwood. The baby breathes against the father’s chest. At night the father sleeps with the sound of the baby breathing on the monitor. The child’s quick breaths sound like the shhh of dry leaves beneath his feet. Shhh. Shhh. The three of them run unremarked in the wood. The wide-eyed baby is gathering an impression of the tall birch trees cathedraling the small trail. Someday, the child will long for the trail and the trees. It will feel like escape. It will feel like home. A retreat. A mirror.

“The infant was stabilized and on room air with normal vital signs.”

I am the father of five, more or less. Two miscarriages. One stillborn girl with dark hair and a shrunken-apple face. A daughter who was born under a magic spell in a far-off land. And a son born blue and still but still living.

And for these five I have been the observer. This is my place in the story.

Jonathan Gourlay is the author of the e-book Nowhere Slow: Eleven Years in Micronesia. He is an editor at The Bygone Bureau and ESL Director at the University of Saint Joseph in Connecticut. More by Jonathan Gourlay