I’ve always had this fantasy that one day I would find a baby. I’d be driving down the road, or walking on the street, and a bundle would catch my eye—nobody else would notice it but me. Maybe there is a small toe sticking out, or an arm, and I know immediately that it’s a baby. I call the police, of course, but they just hand it to me to take home. Finders keepers.
Everywhere I go, especially when I am driving along long stretches of highway with so much trash littering the side of the road, I keep an eye out. Every discarded tee-shirt or tarp or trash bag could potentially hide a baby. I never slow down, or actually check, but I carefully consider whether a certain pile of trash would be big enough to harbor one.
I sort of forget how small babies are.
My last period is a bit dull—I can’t even remember now its start or end date, or how many days it lasted, or whether it was heavy or light. This is a bit disappointing, especially after all of the drama and fanfare it put me through over the past few months.
The most memorable was the time I passed a blood clot the size of my hand during our vacation in Aruba—it just slipped through my fingers as I was taking a shower. It landed with a splat at my feet and I stared at it for long minutes, letting the water run over my back. The clot was the shape of an embryo. You know those science books with the pictures taken inside the woman’s body—the translucent embryo floating in the blackness of the womb? This one would have been at the stage when the arms and legs are just tiny stubs, with a square-ish head and a body. I poked the thing with my toes and it slowly dissolved in the water and slipped down the drain.
I stood there a bit longer, considering whether it actually could have been an embryo. But no, no, there was no way.
I am fascinated by those shows on TV where women think they have food poisoning, go to the hospital, and push out a baby. How do you not know that you are pregnant? How is it possible to not know what’s going on inside your body? My boobs started to ache the day after my doctor injected me with my husband’s semen. It was Mother’s Day. I was getting a pedicure with my mom.
My fibroid feels like a pregnancy. It feels heavy and low in my abdomen and there’s a constant feeling of something—cramps? twinges? contractions?—in my belly. I feel it the most at night, when I am no longer moving around, going about my day. If I lie on my back, I can feel its weight pushing against my bladder, and my lower back aches. “It’s a good size,” my doctor tells me and holds up his closed fist to demonstrate—he has small hands for a man—and he means that as assurance right before he examines me. And anyway, how big is my uterus? It’s hard to know whether something the size of a small man’s fist in my belly is cause for concern.
The thing has to come out. My surgeon is an older man and he looks at me with sad eyes when he says, “But you are so young.”
At forty, I am too old for the following things:
TV shows about college and/or single women.
To be noticed by the young men at the pool in Aruba.
Face lotion without SPF.
Anything that takes too long.
Not having a uterus? Maybe, yes, I am too young for that.
“Are you sure?” the surgeon asks one last time during my pre-op appointment.
How is one ever sure about these things? We do the best we can, with the information we have available at any given time. Right now, it’s this: I am in pain and hemorrhaging every month. I drink iron supplements by the gallon to keep up. Our son is six. My husband has a bad heart. The freaky blood clot ruined my vacation.
I think about all the babies I could have had—with the blond boy I loved with the sparkly smile, with the Palestinian with the olive skin and dark eyes, with the dancer with the smooth hips and long fingers.
At some point, life has to go on. You tally all of the things that could have, should have, would have happened, and you say “fuck,” and then you move on. The uterus must go and let me live my life.
I am sure.
The uterus is not an organ you think about too much. It has one job, really, and once it’s done that, what is there to think about?
Until now, I never thought about mine. I knew from my OB that it was “tilted”— whatever that means—but other than that, I never paid much attention to it. But now I think about it all the time. I think about the space it occupied in my body and wonder what’s in its place now. I think about how my son referred to it as his “hotel” when I was explaining to him where babies come from. I think about it being sliced in half and pulled out of my body. I think about it in the specimen bag as it’s carted over to the pathologist. I think about practical things like where does my vagina end now? And if there’s no uterus and no fallopian tubes, what’s holding up my ovaries? Are they just hanging out there, in the pink sliminess of my insides?
These are things I should really ask my doctor about.
I am vaguely aware of the pain in my vagina when I wake from surgery. But everything hurts, everything is tender and sore, so I don’t pay it much attention.
The doctor mentioned before the surgery that he might take my uterus out through a small cut in my lower belly, or through my vagina. He couldn’t say for certain—it just depended on the size of the fibroid.
As the anesthesia wears off and I drag myself to the bathroom to pee, it definitely feels like I have just given birth to a baby. “Why does it hurt so much down there,” I ask my husband. “Oh,” he says. “The doctor told me he had to give you an episiotomy. Your uterus didn’t fit through your vagina.”
Even in my dopey, drugged-up state, sitting on the hospital toilet, holding on to an IV pole as I try to relocate by bladder, the irony does not escape me: I gave birth to my uterus.
I would laugh.
But it hurts too much.
You can never really be sure that you are done having babies. You can list all of the logical reasons why you “should” be done with babies: your age, the state of your marriage, finances, your love of sleeping through the night, and not having to wipe anyone’s butt anymore. These are all great reasons.
Then you see an announcement on Facebook—or several in a week, as it happened—and it suddenly feels like someone punched you in your non-existent uterus.
Rationally, I know I don’t want another baby. But there is nothing rational about this urge—it was not excised along with the offending organ. I mourn the ability, the possibility, the what-if.
I have never known anyone who found a baby on the side of the road. I don’t even think I’ve ever heard about something like that in the news.
But it’s possible. It could happen.
ZSOFI McMULLIN is a writer living in Maine. Her essays have been published by Motherwell, The Butter, Paste Magazine, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and several other publications. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People, where her Pushcart-nominated essay “This Body” appeared. You can see all of her work at zsofiwrites.com and find her on Twitter as @zsofimcmullin.
To become a parent in a hospital in a city somewhere in the United States you hear: Beeping machines, the institutional whir of apparatus such as a metal birthing bar that automatically lowers from the ceiling with the click of a switch, the squeak of rubber-soled shoes on linoleum sheen, the medical snap of a glove pulled on, the growl and roar of a woman who you are later surprised to learn is yourself, the knuckled clenching of her hands on the metal bar, a pause of silent fear, the bleat of an up-to-the-minute new, miniscule person.
To raise an infant you understand that you must become the owners of mountains of items, gear, devices, such required equipment as strollers (newborn carriage; upright jogger; portable umbrella stroller; add-on car-seat click tray with SafeAssure™ technology), vibrating bouncy seats, bottle warmers, feeding timers, car-seat adapters, and automatic milk pumps. This gear helps you transport, feed, comfort, but it also must be parented in turn—assembled, folded, stored, charged, disinfected, adjusted. You have a whole catalogue of new children now, littered around the house.
You hear: The din of advice from family, advice from friends, advice from co-workers, advice from your husband’s boss, advice from mommy bloggers, advice from elected representatives, advice from newscasters, from grocery clerks, from Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, the hated Pinterest, advice to slow down to rock her to sing louder sing more softly to bathe once a week at maximum to vaccinate right away to wait to let her cry try gluten free soy free dairy free to switch detergents, but whatever they say you infer what they all really mean is, never let anyone see your nipples.
As you learn a new, completely clock-worked dance with your partner, there sounds the tinkle of a very old tune, perhaps a Scottish fiddle song, to which couples have been swirling for centuries and the days roll into nights that collapse into days that become nights and you realize at some point that you are not really sleeping or even touching each other at all because she eats and cries a lot and life while beautiful is not really a Scottish fiddle tune but now more of a platonic Metallica marathon.
Someone advises you buy a white noise machine. You learn this is a lunchbox-sized device, available at all baby superstores, takes four AAA batteries. On one end of the cloud-colored box is a speaker, on the other end is a dial that adjusts to the settings: BIRDS, OCEAN, WIND, RAIN, HEARTBEAT. That night after swaddling the baby in the style passed down to you by the ancient tribes, you lay her in her bassinet and your partner switches on the white noise machine, which he is calling the noise maker (this would be funny to you—he never gets the names of things quite right—except that you are too exhausted for funny). He moves the device to the loudest setting and the baby’s crepe paper eyelids leaf down obediently.
In your own bed you lay flat on your back like the mummies, arms by your sides, and you hear the white noise of the noise maker floating down the hallway and into your airspace, sidling up to your ear, rolling in, an auditory fog that lulls you quickly into your own twilight sleep. Next to each other, holding your breaths, your pinkies brush.
It works. Your daughter is approaching a trimester old now, and she can get her frequency turned up pretty good (colic, they say, or reflux). The magical combination, you have finally discovered, is to turn the bath tap on as soon as the fall sun sets. You sit on the edge of the tub with your tiny person and your sore, flappy body parts, listening to the rush of the bath filling. Her face is out of this world, from another place you’ve never heard of. Her eyes are open more often these days; she looks like an endearing alien, all shock and pucker. In the tub, you cradle her sideways and latch her onto your breast. The tap is still gushing, baby gulps drowned out. It must sound to her like she is eating inside Niagara Falls, or somewhere more familiar, her former planet.
After the bath meal, drying off, the laying of hands, lotioning, swaddling, rocking, shushing, she is placed in her cradle with the noise maker on high. You have become loyal to the OCEAN setting. It works every night, despite the creeping feeling that this enchanted solution could in fact fail any minute, leaving you back in Metallicaland. You and your husband steal into your own bed down the hall. The synthetic, looped surf pipes in through the crackling baby monitor, which has a transmitter in the baby nursery and a receiver placed three inches from you on the bedside table. A fake ocean filtered through a transmitter carried by invisible radio waves, pushed through a plastic speaker into your ear, soothing you all, with a manufactured quiet, into the natural state of sleep.
One night at the end of that first trimester of parenting, you lie in the bed and think suddenly it must be time to give your body back to your partner, to yourself. You hear the faint remembering of a previous system of connection, long slow sessions of fusion, swift slam of thirst-slaking, rustle knock tear knead soft moan all that fucking. As the battery-powered waves roll onto their radio beach you reach for each other, sift around, try to be the way you’ve been before. But your body is an alien, come from a place as out of this world as your daughter. It is in its inchoate state, too, a nautilus. The lull of the ocean of rest is so loud that you cannot hear your foreign body at all. You return to your arrangement as mummies, bound together, and drift off.
More weeks pass. The baby settles in, acts more and more like she might stay around. You hear everyone tell you how to navigate—buy this brand of sippy cup, ask these questions when interviewing day cares, lay her down at this angle to prevent unexpected crib death. A turbulence. But quiet, too, is terrifying. Alone at home with the baby all day, you use as many devices as you can. The TV is turned up. The Internet always there. Tea kettle, radio, coffee pot, the toaster’s glowing coils and companionable ding. A swing that oscillates. Tesellating mobiles.
The energy of the earth is a circuit from pole to pole, you realize: zings and jolts supplying the system, sometimes knocking things out, towers and wires strung over the hills, in and out of houses, of hearts, of tiny pink mouths, an electrocuting love.
One night sleeping to the looped white noise of OCEAN, you dream a memory of the real ocean. You are a girl, about eight, visiting your grandparents in Florida. You have your own bedroom facing the Atlantic, which is about 150 feet from your windowed wall. You lie in bed at night, the giant breath of the sea inhaling, then crashing, in the black just outside. This, the ocean’s waves, its body, shushing, thunders over you, three-dimensional sound, wet and gaping. You remember.
Your daughter a couple of months older now. The world is still talking at you about how to be her mother. The strollers and wipe-warmers have made room, too, for toys―blocks that play “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” and baby dolls that go “waaaah.” It is getting busy in the house. You pack a box, items you feel you should let go of, to make room for other items, board books, doorway bouncer, something called a play mat (monographed)—the catalogue children helping you to raise the organic one. You place the noise maker on the top of the storage box.
That night the three of you lie in the mysterious new quiet. The sheet bunches. The baby whistles unconsciously down the hall. A neighborhood dog howls. You hear the zzzzzzt of desire click on, like the buzz of conductivity when a wire in the dark canister of a device brushes against its charged opposite, the sound of a current in a bedroom somewhere in the United States in a house in the suburbs.
NATALIE SINGER-VELUSH is a journalist and writer of creative nonfiction. Her creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Washington Post; Brain, Mother, the blog of Brain, Child magazine; Literary Mama; Alligator Juniper; Clamor; This Great Society; Huffington Post; and the 2015 anthology Love and Profanity. Natalie is the editor of ParentMap magazine, where she also writes about parenting issues. She is earning her MFA in creative writing and poetics from University of Washington and lives in Seattle with her husband and two children. She can be found @Natalie_Writes.
Some premature babies, the Neonatal Intensive Care nurses tell me, can’t afford the calories it takes to swallow. The first time they take my skinny, three-point-three-pound son off his IV drip to give him real food, they ask me not to watch. They have to run a tube through his mouth down to his stomach—babies this young also have no gag reflex—so that the calories go directly where they are needed, rather than being wasted in tongue and throat action, a method called gavage feeding, the same way foie gras geese are fattened. The instinct to rescue him from this specific invasion comes as a relief: my days are otherwise filled with fear, helpless and enormous and without direction.
The entrance to our nearest hospital butts against a curved driveway where people pick up and drop off patients or take advantage of the free valet parking. Behind it, before shifting into pure concrete and asphalt, is a landscaped grassy area with benches clustered around a fountain and picnic tables set at angles near the walkway to the parking lot.
It looks innocent enough, inviting, but it’s not. The first time I stepped on that walkway, I was looking down and jumped to the side as if it burned through the soles of my shoes. It was paved with bricks, most of them carved with the dedications of donors, bricks given in honor of someone whose name was usually followed by a date of birth and a date of death. What made them unusual was how close the two dates were—sometimes days or weeks, sometimes the same day. I wondered how long those babies had lived. Hours? A whole day? Minutes? Where were their parents now? Did they wake up on that date every year to face the grayness of loss?
My husband Ian and I called it the Dead Baby Walk and kept to the grass after that. We spent a lot of time at the hospital, sitting in Neonatal Intensive Care next to an incubator holding our premature son. He was so scrawny that he weighed less than our smallest cat; he’d been born seven weeks too early, and his lungs weren’t functioning properly. There was no way that I was going to start the day’s visit to him by being reminded of the fragility captured at the beginning of life and how frequently it can end in the opposite of hope.
“I don’t think I can go in,” I told Ian. We could see the birthing center, on the fifth floor of the hospital, from the parking lot. It was seven days after John’s unexpected, extremely early arrival, and I was leaving emotional shreds of myself all over the county as we made our daily drive up and down the New York State Thruway from our home to the NICU. There, locked away from rooms where real people, with normal babies, bore and laughed and kissed and nursed, my son took sips of air from oxygen tubes while another tube tried to clear an air pocket from around his lungs. He had air in all the wrong places and a hole in his heart and had never yet eaten anything not given by IV. The NICU—short for Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, the place for undercooked or sick babies (ours was both)—dragged on me like a small planet with its own gravitational pull, a force nonexistent for people whose babies had been born full-term and healthy.
Every day after being buzzed in the locked door and scrubbing my arms and forearms at the NICU sink (premature babies are also extremely susceptible to infection), I paused just outside the bright room, trying to arm myself against tears that were of no use to anyone. The incubators were shrouded with small homemade quilts made by a charity organization. John slept and blinked and cried under a pattern of cats sitting against a green background while Ian and I read to him from a book of traditional English fairy tales that I’d picked up in London. We sang the “Mockingbird” song over and over, and described the room that was waiting for him: the special mobile his grandparents had sent from England, the fairy tale–themed mural a friend had painted on his wall. I choked when telling him about the blue rug and striped curtains we’d bought. The care that we had put into those everyday details sometimes overwhelmed me.
Today I couldn’t get to the blue rug and striped curtains. Today I couldn’t even get as far as the NICU door. I couldn’t even get out of the car. Today the neonatologist had called early in the morning to warn us that John needed another chest tube to clear a second pneumothorax—an air bubble that prevented his lungs from expanding—and I’d curled up between my bed and the loathsome breast pump and sobbed as if tears could dissolve the pain and me at the same time.
In the parking lot, Ian brushed tears back into my hair. Neither of us had any platitudes. “Can you?” Another nod. A deep breath. A final wiping of nose and face. I swung my legs carefully out of the car and hauled myself up using the handle above the door, heading for the longer path around the curved driveway that avoided the Dead Baby Walk. My skirt brushed over the massive numbness in my abdomen, hiding a healing scar I’d never intended to have.
Two weeks before, I’d been grimacing every time I folded myself into a car and thinking that I couldn’t possibly stand the discomfort of pregnancy for the two months I had left. Three weeks before, we’d been hiking on a remote Scottish island, where the hospital was over an hour’s flight away from the island’s cockleshell beach—an hour if the weather was clear, a day’s wait or more when it was overcast. If my body had turned against me earlier, neither John nor I would have made it. The nearness of the timing still makes my breath short and my hands cold.
I had HELLP Syndrome. A vicious, rare illness that’s caused by pregnancy, with no cure except delivery. It hit me fast, progressing from slightly elevated blood pressure to nearly unbearable abdominal pain within twenty-four hours. By the time my obstetrician performed an emergency C-section, my liver was failing. When my son and I came out of the operating room, Ian was on the phone with my older sister. He froze, not knowing whom to follow as they whisked us each into our own intensive care units.
That first day, I sat in shock in the ICU, smiling automatically at the nurses because being nice is such a deeply ingrained habit that it’s almost pathological. I’d jerk awake when the oxygen monitor screamed to tell me I’d stopped breathing again. My fingers shook as they stroked the streaky Polaroid photo taped to the bed rail. John Henry, a thoughtful nurse in the NICU had written, 4 lb 3 oz, 17 in. I didn’t see my son until thirty hours later, when I was transferred from the ICU to the birthing center’s Mother & Baby section, surrounded by women with full-term newborns and visitors armed with balloons and flowers. Ian and I, three thousand miles from our families, navigated phone calls and inedible hospital food alone, no baby by the bedside.
That first time I met John, at some dark hour of the night, a NICU nurse lifted him, tubes and all, out of his incubator and into my arms. Our IVs tangled; Ian held an oxygen sniffer to John’s nose; I murmured happy nonsense, a normal new mother for a few minutes, ignorant of the month to come.
A week later I sat once again on the high stool next to John’s incubator. I hadn’t been allowed to hold him since that first day, due to the chest tubes, oxygen sniffer, and IV lines, so Ian and I took turns resting our index fingers in his little hand, living for the moments when he squeezed. We couldn’t do more than that. Premature babies are also extremely sensitive to touch. Stroking a preemie’s head or skin can drive him crazy.
The nurses—our friends by now—looked at us anxiously when we walked in that day, the day I gave up on hope and struggled to come in the door. They’d seen parents go through this before, and worse. The neonatologist wrapped us in her professional sympathy as she showed us the second pneumothorax on an X-ray and said John might have to be transferred to a tertiary care unit closer to New York City. I envisioned weeks of three-hour commutes to spend scarce minutes with him, and it seemed unbearable.
After seven days, two pneumothorax, a hole in the heart, and an extra bit of heart valve where it wasn’t needed, there was only one thing that hadn’t been tried: John had not yet had food. He’d lost slightly under a pound—a quarter of his body weight—while my pumped milk had been piling up in the freezer, the only offerings I had to give the gods.
The next day they decided to start feeding him. One milliliter of milk went down the tube to his stomach. The next time it was three, no calories lost to pesky swallowing. His breathing became less erratic, and they turned down the whispering oxygen. Within three days, John had recovered so well that it startled even the neonatologist. He was a full month old before his lungs were strong enough and his heart repaired enough for him to be discharged, but two weeks into his life he was tube- and IV-free for the first time and learning to eat on his own.
Those of us who have faced the potential loss of a child will never bear the pain of those for whom the potential became a fact. We may have stepped on the Dead Baby Walk, but we haven’t bought a commemorative brick. All I can say is that the fear has come close enough to unshroud itself, to touch the heart. Every parent fears losing his or her children. The physical hazards and accidents—cars, drug addiction, sudden peanut allergies, a million unthinkable possibilities—haunt us. It is something else, though, to have that fear cupped in your hand, to acknowledge it by name. To be warned: “Prepare yourself.” Because once prepared, once you know, the Dead Baby Walk’s existence stalks your footsteps. Like all traumas, it becomes embedded in our physical bodies as well as our psyches.
Before his third birthday, John was hospitalized twice for asthma. The second time was the same day we brought home his new baby sister. I held her while Ian drove away with John strapped in the back, his chest caving to expose ribs and diaphragm while he fought to inhale oxygen. His lungs had been too weakened by their early struggles; a simple summer cold caught his alveoli in a tight grip and laid him flat.
He’s seven years old now, and, if all goes well, on his way to being diagnosed asthma-free, despite the incessant coughing that exhausts him every time he catches a cold. I yell at him on a regular basis—brush your teeth! turn off the TV! please stop whining!—something I couldn’t have envisioned doing either during the NICU-month-of-hell or his later asthmatic episodes. He plays Minecraft, rides his bike, does his math lessons, throws a fit when I ask him to pick up his Legos. He’s a normal kid.
But I don’t feel normal anymore. Or maybe it’s that I have been normalized. Maybe avoiding loss, pretending death doesn’t exist, is the abnormal state. I’d hate to believe humanity’s fate is to walk shadowed with grief, sorrow slipping into us painlessly like milk down a gavage tube to a premature baby’s stomach. But on our hospital visits for John’s chest X-rays and to his pulmonologist, and when I returned there for monthly visits to the high-risk perinatologist during my second pregnancy (being at a 25% risk of developing HELLP or various other complications again), the Dead Baby Walk still made me jump like an animal that’s seen violence. Its existence reeks of trauma and fear. It’s a reminder of how linked we are: We clutch at the good moments, the small joys, while the greater sorrows, the losses that eat us alive, lie waiting beneath our feet.
ANTONIA MALCHIK’s essays have appeared in a variety of publications, and are forthcoming from The Washington Post, Orion, STIR Journal, and The Atlantic. You can read more of her work at antoniamalchik.com, and about her experience with HELLP Syndrome on BuzzFeed Ideas. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People.
If my life were a sitcom, or one of those feather-light family dramas paraded out each year with its supposedly new treatment of the same dusty issues, I’d have seen the plot twist coming miles out. My sister’s text message should have said everything. “Are you busy? I have something I need to tell you that I don’t want to text.”
While I typed that I was free, I thought of the plethora of things that could have happened. Had she or her boyfriend had another relapse? Did she lose her cat again? Was she going to ask for money to tide her over for the next month? Had I accidentally divulged one of her numerous secrets to our parents?
I didn’t have time to consider other possibilities because the phone was already ringing.
“Hey, how are you? What’s up?” This was me, anxiously trying to gauge the urgency of the situation.
“Sissy, I’m pregnant.”
When people get news like this, they make a big, sweeping statement, something like, “You could have knocked me over with a feather.” I used to think that those types of declarations were overwrought, but suddenly, I could commiserate. My head was reeling. I had to sit down and remind myself to breathe as I underwent a series of indescribable and permanent emotional transmutations.
My five-years-younger sister, a recovering addict with just months left in her several-year course of study in beauty school, was pregnant. The father was working on his own recovery. “He was scared,” my sister admitted when she described her boyfriend’s reaction to finding out he was soon going to be a father. “But then he wrote down this list of things he wanted to do for the baby. It was so cute.”
For the next few minutes, my sister paraded out a very thorough overview of how she came to discover she was pregnant. First, she said, she felt tired. “I didn’t even want to put on my makeup,” she said. The same day, all the other girls at beauty school told her that she looked like shit.
“I knew I was pregnant,” she said. “I told my boyfriend, and he said I was just being silly. He said, ‘You always think you’re pregnant.’ He and I got in a big fight about whether we could afford a pregnancy test. I walked out after the fight and went straight to the store. I spent the last two dollars in my account on some crappy store-brand tests. When I took the first one, there were two lines—faint, but pink. I tried again two days later. They were darker that time. I told Mom, and she said to wait, but I explained to her, you don’t get a false positive. It’s rare. Over the weekend, we went to the free clinic and they said I was definitely pregnant.”
“But … are you happy?” I wondered aloud.
“Yeah. I know it won’t always be sunshine and rainbows, but…”
I had been dying to have this very conversation with my friends and family for what seems like forever. I have wanted to have a baby since the day after I married my husband. We will celebrate our two-year anniversary in six months. In times of old, we would already have one baby. Our second would be cooking in my stretch-marked, vertical-lined belly. I would exclaim with fervor about how often I felt my babies kick, and I’d lament to anyone who would listen about my morning sickness, the aches in my back. I would wax poetic about the knowledge that a life was growing inside of me. This was supposed to be my time in the sun.
Instead, my sister was pregnant at twenty-two. My sister who had been kicked off my dad’s car insurance for having too many speeding tickets and at-fault accidents to remain insurable. My sister who has to rely on a healthy—no, corpulent—injection of funds from my parents to make ends meet every month. My sister who has relapsed several times already, and who doesn’t yet have a year of sobriety under her belt. My sister was going to experience the unbridled joy of parenthood, albeit on a shoestring budget.
I went to the refrigerator and wrenched the cap from a bottle of beer. I walked briskly into the next room, leaned over our mahogany wine rack, and grabbed the first bottle of white I saw. Without ceremony, I threw it in the freezer of our new gourmet refrigerator.
My grandmother had her first child nine months to the day after she was married. She’s Catholic, and whenever we talk, she chides me about not going to mass enough. Several weeks ago, I called her to chat. “You can call during the day?” she asked, incredulous. I explained that my new job was something I did from home, and that I was just a volunteer. “I see,” she said in disgust. I told her about how I was starting to ready one of our spare upstairs rooms for a nursery. I could hear her suck in her breath. “You aren’t pregnant, are you?” She spat the last bit like an accusation.
I cringed. At twenty-seven, didn’t I have the right to be pregnant? “No, Grandma. I just wanted to get the space ready for when we are.”
“Good,” she said, clearly relieved. “You’re not ready.”
I reminded her about the proximity of my dad’s birth to her marriage date, but it made no difference. For a reason I’m not privy to, she doesn’t think we should be having kids.
My husband and I own a five-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bathroom house with over an acre of sprawling lawn and mature woods. My husband works as an electrical engineer and I stay home, spending my time curating a startup Etsy shop, funneling my anger and passion into often half-baked writing endeavors, and cooking in our granite and stainless-steel kitchen. Admittedly, I am a terrible cleaner. My husband does all the vacuuming and the only mopping that actually cleans our oak floors. I tend to just spread around the dog hair and dust.
What about any of that made me an unsuitable candidate for parenthood? I wasn’t sure.
It took me weeks after that conversation to realize all over again that I was prepared for my eventual expedition into parenthood. More than half my planning is already done, for heaven’s sake. I know that I want to breastfeed, and which kind of bathtub insert I want for my children. I know that I want to give birth in a hospital where there are birthing tubs, and that I’d like to forego having an epidural, if I can handle it. I know exactly how many prenatal visits our health insurance will cover, and even when I’d like to conceive so that I’m not heavy with child in the hot summer months. Especially, I know that once I am pregnant, my life will change forever, and in ways even I cannot premeditate.
Immediately I sense that my sister is blithely unaware of the intricacies of what she will be undertaking. My first hint is that she doesn’t understand the three-months rule—that most women don’t tell people they’re pregnant until they’re three months along, as that is considered the point after which a spontaneous miscarriage is least likely.
“I’m twenty-two, though,” she says. “I’m young and healthy, so I’ll probably be fine.”
Just throw another dagger, I want to say. But I don’t. Instead, I play the role of the good older sister. I try my hardest to be supportive of her difficult decision and not to let her see how much I am personally and selfishly hurting.
I also fill the rest of my familial duty by peppering her with questions about things she has yet to consider. Has she thought about the price of child care? What happens if the baby’s father doesn’t stick around? Has she considered adoption? I tell her she really ought to keep it in the back of her mind, just in case.
Even as I mention adoption to my sister, I understand how it must sound. My sister and I are both adopted. We are the most different people you can possibly imagine, and that’s because we have vastly different genetic makeups, which I believe contained the hard-wiring for the people we would become.
When we were growing up, my sister refused to accept our parents as her parents. She felt separate from them, and she wanted desperately to be reunited with her birth mother. She was certain that when she did meet her birth mother, she would have the life she always dreamed of: love and unicorns and rainbow glitter skies. Of course, the rest of us knew it wouldn’t have worked that way, but we all loved my sister too much to explain the meaning of “closed adoption.” By the time she was five, my sister’s adoption became the banner she marched into emotionally-devastating battles; her birthday the scene of many a tragic lamentation and outburst rather than a day of joy.
I never felt the way my sister did. I understood what “closed” meant, and I loved my parents. Still, every good drama needs a plot twist, and mine arrived when I was twenty, when I finally learned that my adoption had always been incredibly different than my sister’s.
When my birth mother released me to my parents, she sent along a short letter, which was to be given to me on my eighteenth birthday. My parents gave me this letter two years late. The paper was blue and white, the words written in a lovely round script. “To the baby girl I gave up for adoption,” it read. “If I loved you a little, I would have kept you for myself. But I love you a lot, so I am giving you up.” According to my birth mother’s letter, on reaching adulthood, I could petition Catholic Charities to find her identity. I was astonished. Growing up thinking that I’d never know my birth parents, I hadn’t considered the whole world of possibilities that I now knew could be waiting for me. The prospect was a lot to take in.
“Your sister can’t know,” my parents reminded me, over and over again. “She would be devastated.”
Years later, as I was preparing to marry and move out of my home state, I finally petitioned Catholic Charities. In a matter of weeks, I was united with both sides of my birth family. From the outset, I was startled and pleasantly overwhelmed by the outpouring of excitement and love from the people whose genes I carry. It was, and still is, a fairy tale. Even in fairy tales, however, there is scar tissue underlying all that sparkling joy.
A great deal of sadness permeates my birth family—children tragically lost, relationships strained by lies and secrets kept—but one of the most poignant and untold stories revolves around my birth mother. At twenty years old and between colleges, she had made a hard decision for herself when she found herself pregnant with me. She knew that she couldn’t be the kind of parent she thought I deserved, and she didn’t want me to spend my life shuffling between various family members while she eked out a living.
In the years that passed after my adoption, though, the separation weighed on her. She listened extra hard when strangers spoke of their adopted children, and she looked closely at passing girls or young women who seemed close to my age. Every year on the birthday that we share, she and her husband would take a drive past the hospital where I was born. I can’t imagine how she handled the seven years between my eighteenth birthday and the year we finally met.
Even my newfound relatives bring up my birth mother’s sadness. As only family can, they paint their speculation and concern with a brush that manages to be both coarse and fine.
The only people who really matter in this are my birth mother and myself, and we have rested on the light assertion that we found each other at just the right time, when we were both finally ready.
“You wouldn’t have liked the person I was before,” I told her once, and I truly meant it. I didn’t even like that person.
There is so much baggage inherently tangled up in adoption that I have misgivings recommending it to my sister. But more than that, I have firsthand knowledge of a slew of things that give me deep concerns about my sister’s soon-to-be motherhood.
When we were growing up, my sister was always the difficult one. The chores I took on at age seven, for instance, were not inherited by my sister at the same age. I saw injustice in this, but it was explained away easily. “It’s too much of a fight to get her to set the table, honey,” my mom would say in her most exasperated voice. “Could you please just do it?” And with that, I would be off doing two children’s worth of chores while my sister screamed and cried and gnashed her teeth about things as simple as turning off the television or copying out a list of twenty spelling words.
As she got older, my sister’s issues only escalated. She was bipolar and dyslexic, with a wicked case of ADHD. She was also a serial perfectionist; if a paper my sister wrote or a homework assignment she finished wasn’t clean and error-free, she wouldn’t hand it in. That was only applicable in the classes she liked. In the others, like math, she simply didn’t pay attention. Not surprisingly, her grades were abysmal.
Other issues kept cropping up with increased frequency. My sister chopped off all her hair á là Britney Spears in one of her bipolar depressions, and shortly thereafter, she threatened suicide. Next, she started to lie about where she was on weekend evenings with friends, and on several occasions, I watched in awe as my younger sister was carted home drunk or high. Once, she ran away from home for almost two weeks. While she was gone, neither of my parents would call the police to report her as a runaway; they were too worried that they might give her a police record.
Meanwhile, from what ought to have been a safe distance away at college, I was slowly going insane. My mouth broke out in stress ulcers from all the phone calls from my parents, who vented their frustrations about my sister to me rather than to one another because they no longer spoke. I acted out in stupid and destructive ways, and I went from having a three-point-something GPA to falling asleep in all my classes and getting my first failing grades.
Most of my antics and issues went unnoticed, though, because things were even worse for my sister. Over the next few years, she turned eighteen and started drinking to incredible excess. That quickly escalated to serious drug use. In her post-high school years, my sister trashed several apartments across the state of Virginia because she was always messed up, and unable to function like a normal young adult. Soon after moving back home from a brief stint at a community college near JMU, my sister got incredibly intoxicated and tried to kill herself by overdosing on pills. She called a friend to say goodbye, and instead of accepting my sister’s decision, her friend called 911.
When the ambulance came, my sister was furious. At the hospital, a host of nurses fed my sister whatever you give kids who OD on pills, maybe charcoal. Maybe they pumped her stomach. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that somehow, they saved her.
My dad called me the next evening to tell me what had happened. I was in DC for two weeks of work training at the time, and when I got the belated news, I felt like my life was falling apart before my eyes and there was nothing I could do to stop the shattering. My sister and I may not have ever been close, but I did not want to lose her. She was my sister, my partner in many a silly crime. She was the girl who always woke me up on Christmas morning to tell me how she’d gotten around our parents’ elaborate holiday security barriers. Even though I always begged her not to, she never failed to divulge exactly what Santa had brought each of us the night before.
While my sister was recovering at a psychiatric hospital, I called her several times a day. I remember that it was hard to get her to stay on the phone. She was mad and her fuse was short. The nurses, she said, were mean to her.
Because my sister was legally an adult, she was able to check herself out of the psychiatric hospital and come back home. She was determined to stay sober, she said. That determination lasted a few days. After that, the Facebook statuses about trying to hide her binge drinking from my parents started coming fast and furious. My sister had blocked my parents from being able to see her page, but she hadn’t blocked me, and I had no qualms about playing the narc. Every time that I saw another indicator that my sister was back on the path of killing herself, I called each of my parents at their separate homes to rat her out. They seemed to think it was no big deal, that everything was fine. “You’re not here,” they’d say. “You don’t see her every day.” And as usual, they continued to speak to me and not to one another.
A few days later, I got a phone call at seven on a Saturday morning. My sister was on the other end, slurring her speech and telling me how sorry she was for myriad random things she’d done wrong. We had a long conversation, none of which she remembers. Finally, I managed to get her to tell me that she was at my mom’s house, that she’d been drinking and she’d overdosed on a handful of pills for a second time. I tried to call my mom, but my sister, who had broken approximately her fifteenth cell phone, was using my mom’s cell phone, and my mom was nowhere to be found. After watching my sister stumble around the house and howl at an imaginary maid on Face Time, I called my dad. He eventually called an ambulance and followed my sister to the ER. He stayed there by my sister’s side as she told an unfazed nurse about the astounding variety and extent of her drug use. Over the next few hours, my sister’s hallucinations grew worse. She told my dad in vivid detail about the ghosts in the hospital room with them. She heard them as clear as a bell and spoke with them as if they really were there.
My sister’s next stop was the same psychiatric hospital she’d been in weeks earlier. This time, however, a judge ruled that she could not check herself out. The hospital was still just a stop-gap measure, and an expensive one; my family needed to hastily find a long-term rehabilitation facility that would accept their health insurance. Within days, they found a place in Florida where a spot was open, and my sister was sent there by herself on a plane with a layover in Atlanta. We all bit our nails to the bone while she was en route; it was entirely possible that my sister might try to jump ship midway through her travels. We took our own separate breaths of fresh air when the rehab facility confirmed that my sister was in their care.
When her time at rehab ended, my sister got and stayed clean living in a halfway house in Pensacola. After a time, she tried to go back to community college to make my parents happy. By her twenty-first birthday, which stupidly coincided with the week of my husband’s and my open bar wedding, she almost had a year of sobriety. She handled the wedding so well that several months later, my parents convinced her to move back to Virginia.
At home, the stress of being near all her old, bad-influence friends was too much for my sister. Just weeks into the new arrangement, some stupid kid convinced her to have “just one” drink. Many addicts will tell you that there’s no such thing as “just one drink.” “One is too many, and one hundred isn’t enough,” my sister used to say. The last time I heard her say it was just a few days before she fell off the thirteen-month wagon. It was August, and my mother was supposed to come visit for my birthday. She didn’t know what to do about my sister relapsing, so she thought she’d bring her up for the visit, too. I thought about the boxes of good Virginia wine stashed in the basement, the main floor liquor cabinet, our wine rack. Mostly, I thought about the way my sister was when she drank, and I wanted to scream. Instead, I was quiet, mouse-like: my usual self. Luckily, my husband played the hard-ass. He said that if my sister was back on the sauce, she wasn’t allowed in his house. It was the right decision, but not an easy one even to relay. Days later, my sister was headed back to her Florida halfway house to start over again.
Somewhere in there, I am missing something. Although my sister has been back in Florida now for over a year, she still hasn’t hit a year of sobriety. I don’t know when she slipped in Florida, or how, but I know she has. So, with a rusty track record of staying away from substances, she is expecting a child. And she is thrilled about it.
My sister is taking in all my advice and my anxiety-filled diatribes like a champ. “I want to make this happen,” she says. “Everything happens for a reason, and maybe it’s time for me. I did all the stupid stuff most people do in their twenties, and I did it in my teens. It’s out of my system. I’m excited.”
I can’t imagine being so calm about being responsible for a life, especially when there has been so much uncertainty in one’s own current existence. I am flabbergasted, gob smacked. Mostly, though, I am jealous beyond measure at her grace and composure, her certainty, and the fact that she is going to have a baby, and I am not. She must sense it, even over the phone lines that span the thousand-and-change miles between us.
“You’re not mad, are you?” she asks me. “I mean, you were supposed to be the one having kids…”
“No, I’m not mad. Don’t be ridiculous. It’s not like you planned this. It’s not like you wanted to get pregnant to spite me. This has nothing to do with me.”
This is what I ought to say in my role as supporter, mediator, life-saver. It’s not exactly a lie. I just have not yet figured out how to verbalize—or contend with—my disjointed alternate worlds of past, present, and possible future. Not now, and maybe never.
BETH BAILEY lives in rural Michigan, where she is a wife and the proud owner of two fantastic and neurotic dogs. While finishing her first novel, Among the Stones, about love and the war in Afghanistan, Beth writes the occasional personal essay and has started working on a collection of essays about veterans of war. Her work has been published by Words After War. You can follow her on Twitter at BWBailey85.
My forearms and the backs of my hands are faintly speckled and sketched with blood. Like when, in grade school, you twiddled the ballpoint pen between your fingers and let the tip touch paper for quick, light slashes. Like when you made dots by pressing.
These traces on my flesh—they heal and are remade, but they will heal again—can pull a stranger’s gaze, can make him look away. Neither defined enough to signify cutter, nor dug-out enough to say crank sores, the marks mean something else.
Upon waking, Sciurus carolinensis, the Eastern gray tree squirrel abundant in my Atlanta neighborhood, yawns and stretches. It sees the world in color. Its hands bear vestigial “thumbs.” Its body temperature ranges from 98 degrees Fahrenheit to 102.
Its brain weighs 0.25 to 0.35 ounces, relatively large for a mammal, in proportion to body weight. This is not because the squirrel is extra-smart, but because it has parallax vision (it looks at you with both eyes at the same time to judge your distance, for the purpose of fleeing) and spatial memory (it doesn’t find buried acorns by odor alone—it remembers), and because a squirrel’s keen sense of hearing needs more gray matter. Its ears face sideways, like ours.
The family name Sciuridae is Greek for “shadow of the tail.” Used mainly for keeping warm and dry, the tail adds 17.8 percent of protective value to baseline when raised. Someone has measured this. Below the tail rests a cluster of blood vessels that the squirrel can dilate or narrow to warm up or cool off—no small matter for endotherms, creatures that make their own heat, like us.
You may detest squirrels. Many urban people do, given the raiding of bird feeders that goes on, given the chewing-up of attic insulation, which compromises our own heat-making, and given the mad, kamikaze severing of electrical wires. “Tree rats,” you may call them, ignoring the many differences. I love one.
In June 2012, I was making more money than I had ever made. My first foray into the corporate world, with its murky, ever shifting demands meant a nicer apartment, with a pool and gym. My girlfriend Joyce and I dined at snazzy restaurants. We talked about having kids. My boss flew me out to work in the home office, a skyscraper that gleamed in the San Francisco sun.
Abruptly one afternoon, by phone, I lost my job. Downsized and restructured, I drifted, uncertain about my future. Ours. Although I didn’t realize this when we met a few years earlier, the matter of children was a potential deal breaker, since Joyce half-wanted kids. “Not your willingness, I mean, but whether you would be open to the idea,” she said, vaguely.
I was. With three grown kids from two previous marriages—three, by the way, is also the average size of an Eastern gray squirrel’s litter—I felt ready to consider fatherhood with Joyce. But now I was jobless. Even before, there was a potential snag. Our ages differ by twenty years. The gap is wide enough to worry over, especially considering the already shorter lifespan for men. Twenty years is how long squirrels are estimated to live in captivity. In the wild, only about half that.
In August, a friend asked me to substitute as host of her literary reading series. A simple chore. Welcome the turnout, introduce each of three writers, and wind up the show, good night. But I felt nervous, an impostor. Although I had composed a few pieces that seemed okay, I was not a member of the scene, not a bona fide person of letters. I admired the others as they sped past, trailing bright streamers of irony.
Since I had planned to attend as a spectator anyway—and with, after all, not much else to do—I said yes.
We strolled in the near-dusk, making our way toward the coffeehouse. I saw a few people I recognized, no doubt bound for the same place. Suddenly, someone cried out, pointing to a spot in the street beneath a massive oak. We hurried over.
A tiny curlicue twisted slowly on the asphalt, its sparse fur (pelage, I would learn) unruffled, eyes open. Blood seeped from the nose and mouth. Delicate whiskers (vibrissae) twitched. About twenty-five feet above us, we spied the leafy mass of nest (drey).
Joyce’s artist friend Hilary retrieved an old tee-shirt from her car. She lifted the squirrel from the pavement as if handling smoke. Her fingertips arranged the fabric around its wee body, which all but disappeared. Most squirrels don’t survive their first year, and this one fell hard. Internal injuries, most likely.
Of the night’s event, I remember only the end, when Hilary approached me with the bundle, a cleaned-up nose peeking out. She had asked around—nobody wanted to take the squirrel home. Made sense to me, hardly a fan of the rodent class. Everyone probably recalled well, as I did, all the baby-bird failures of the past and couldn’t face another. Hilary tucked the corners, a final tidying of the package.
“It’s a boy,” she said and held him out to me.
At home, after a Google search, I witnessed myself driving to Publix, where I asked the pharmacist for a batch, please, of one-cc, needle-free syringes. Then to the infant-care aisle, where I seized a liter of Pedialyte. Next, PetSmart for a can of Esbilac puppy-milk powder.
Removed from his burrito-style wrap, he fit in my palm like a miniature doughnut with a licorice-whip tail, or like an exotic, oversized insect. He kept his eyes closed, as if to say either, “Let me get some rest, it’s been a long day,” or, “I can’t bear to watch what the human is about to do to me.”
I loaded the syringe with Pedialyte. Here goes.
As soon as he felt contact, he gripped the nozzle with bony hands and sucked, eyes half open now, gulping, as my thumb delivered a slow push.
Baby squirrels in the wild gain sixteen-fold their weight in two months. In humans, this would be comparable to an eight-pound baby reaching 130 pounds in the same period. The squirrel mother’s magic milk consists of twenty-five percent fat and nine percent protein. Compare Esbilac powder, stirred into Pedialyte: forty percent fat and thirty-three percent protein. Close enough, it turns out.
During those first weeks, Bug took six syringes of formula at each meal, with feeds about four hours apart. He would drain the first syringe, swat it away, and grope frantically for the next. In about a month, he was downing less formula and rejecting the syringe after emptying two or three. He munched bits of apple. A few weeks later, diced raw green beans, and broccoli stems. Shelled nuts. Before long, he was cracking into them himself.
“Imagine,” the wildlife rehabber tells me, “having a two-year-old child who is emotionally dependent on you—only you, they latch onto a single caregiver—and who will never grow up. I mean never.”
I think of my kids as two-year-olds. Hadn’t I wanted them to grow up? Of course, I did. Yes. And: no.
The rehabber is realistic in describing my options. She is predicting from experience how things will go. Did she say “emotionally”?
Until her, I didn’t know that people exist who specialize in the process of returning squirrels to their natural habitat, after well-meaning humans like me snatch them out.
“But it doesn’t always work,” she says.
I keep her number.
“The majority of mammals live solitary lives; estimates suggest that at least 85 percent of mammals can be classified as asocial animals that aggregate only briefly at a seasonal food source or to mate.”
—Michael Steele and John Kropowski, North American Tree Squirrels (Smithsonian Books, 2001)
Joyce and I watch squirrels jump, dart, and scurry in the park. On a flat surface, squirrels can travel as fast as 16.7 miles per hour. Their crazy trajectories, never in tandem or together, bisect each other across the grass and up the trunks of trees. Lyrics from a Patti Smith song come to me, the one she wrote for Robert Mapplethorpe as he was dying of AIDS. “Paths that cross will cross again.”
In the traffic behind us on North Highland Avenue, we hear a pop—the sound a plastic bag with trapped air makes as tires roll over it.
Together, we turn. The squirrel lies near the center of the road, still alive, hands clawing pavement, unable to drag the rest of its body. After a few seconds, stillness. A light, almost merry wave of the tail, goodbye.
How far away the curb must have seemed, in that squirrel’s fast-fading, parallax, big-brained vision. The Stephen Dobyns poem, “Querencia” (Spanish for “a secure place”), describes a bull tormented in the ring as the audience cheers.
Probably, he has no real knowledge and,
like any of us, it’s pain that teaches him
to be wary, so his only desire in defeat
is to return to that spot of sand, and even
when dying he will stagger toward his querencia
as if he might feel better there, could
recover there, take back his strength, win
the fight, stick that glittering creature to the wall …
The glittering creature in this instance is not a matador but an SUV, now a block away. No bloodthirsty crowd, only a few pedestrians who seem not to notice what happened. Maybe the driver didn’t, either.
One of the many reliefs of no longer owning a car is that I don’t have to worry about killing anything with it, but I remember instances. A thump, the glance in the rear-view mirror. That wad of flopping misery. My sick, jarred sense of a fatal suffering so great and so nearby, yet unfelt by me, impossibly, its cause.
In Dobyns’s poem, the afternoon proceeds messily, the bullfighter proves inept, and “everyone wanted to forget it and go home.” Joyce and I do, too. Cars make sad arcs around the squirrel corpse, which I know I should relocate before it’s transformed into a meat rag.
The squirrel’s up-tilted, almond-shaped eye, with that tight rim of lighter hair, is still moist and shiny. I’ve had my eye inches from Bug’s. Like this eye, his are strong-coffee opaque, yet suggestive of a depth.
The body is warm in my hands. I think of Hilary’s fingers. I feel crushed bone pieces, many bone pieces, jostle amid the limp flesh. Before situating it in the grass, I sneak a glimpse at the lower abdomen, the pink nub there. Male.
Tonight’s sunset must be glorious to somebody. On Elizabeth Street, I stand gaping, unfazed, at the orange-scarlet and indigo riot in the sky.
Scientists at Wake Forest University devised a chamber with an oxygen analyzer, put a squirrel inside, and gave it something to eat. The idea was to find out whether squirrels know which nuts are smartest to consume, i.e., which offer a “net value” (calories) that justifies their “handling costs” (effort taken to split the shell, determined by oxygen use). As you may have guessed, they do know. They budget every sliver of energy. Gray squirrels do not hibernate, which means that, even in the harshest winter, they forage. Searching and often not finding.
Squirrels budget, and so must we, the privileged. Dinner done—burritos, cheap New Zealand white wine—it’s playtime for Bug. He’s ready. He charges madly up and down the levels of his tall cage. We do this twice a day, to keep his skeleton supple and because I can’t resist him.
Metabolic bone disease is the main cause of death in captive squirrels. Like humans, when they are not exposed to enough sunlight, they make no vitamin D and can’t absorb calcium. I send away for Bug’s food. The fortified blocks, in sealed plastic bags from Florida, consist of pecans, protein isolates (whey, wheat), and thirty other ingredients, including vitamins D, K, E, as well as B-1, -2, -3, -6, and -12, with all the important minerals. A month’s supply, twenty-five dollars.
He springs out. Perches on my shoulder, rotates to inspect the room. Hops atop my head.
For the next hour, he scrambles over and across my arms, legs, hands, and torso—somehow he knows to avoid my face—pausing only to wrestle. This involves tumbling between my hands, losing then regaining the top position. Over and over.
He nips, and I feel the promise of his incisors, but not their full gift. The damage is done by his inward-curved claws. Evolved for tree bark, they slice and puncture flesh. I endure this abuse in trade for the moments between, when I touch his pelage, soft belly, and cold wet nose. His tail, plumy, snow-fringed, sifts through my fingers.
I offer a hazelnut, which he snatches and “buries”—finds a cranny in the sofa or an empty shoe or even a vacant pocket, jams the nut in as far as possible, and pats around the area. Scatterhoarding. During play, he will not stop longer than a few seconds.
In the mornings, though—yawn and stretch—he positions himself on the cage’s upper tier, where I can reach him, tucks his snout into the crook of my thumb, and submits to a few minutes of drowsy massage. As if he knows breakfast follows. He does know.
One of Emerson’s lesser-known poems, “Fable,” pits squirrel against mountain in an argument—the dialogue of big versus small, hashing out superiority. Says the squirrel,
But all sorts of things and weather
Must be taken in together
To make up a year
And a sphere.
And I think it’s no disgrace
To occupy my place.
It reminds me of Bergson’s Introduction to Metaphysics, where he writes that “many diverse images, borrowed from very different orders of things, may, by the convergence of their action, direct consciousness to the precise point where there is a certain intuition to be seized.” But toward what is Bug directing me? What am I expected to seize?
Squirrels mate twice per year, once between December and February, and again in summer. Estrus lasts eight hours. All day, males chase the female, who copulates with three or four. Each gets about twenty seconds. The older, dominant ones usually prevail, but not always. In “breakaways,” the female escapes to a secluded area for a few minutes of peace. She mates with the first male that finds her.
Bug’s downy testicles are huge, about the size of butterbeans, loaded with baby-making potential. In “active” mode, his balls weigh seven grams. They shrink to one gram when the season of lust passes. Why shouldn’t he get his chance? Even if it’s with a girl who’s just tired of going through the paces with more virile types and willing to take whatever guy comes along.
But I fear for him in the wild. Predators hover and lurk. Hawks and owls. Cats, foxes, and snakes. The hodgepodge of parasitic species that want him includes six protozoans, two flukes, 10 tapeworms, one acanthocephalan (thorny-headed worm), 23 roundworms, 37 mites, seven lice, and 17 fleas. There is also the odious botfly, which lays its eggs under the squirrel’s skin. Larvae become disfiguring lumps the size of olives, called “warbles.” Eventually, the pupa drop out of dermal holes to finish growing in soil.
What’s mating worth?
In the fall of 2013, I see reports of squirrel migrations in north Georgia. A bumper crop of oak acorns in the previous year led to a high birth rate, followed by a mild winter and rainy spring, which caused the supply of nuts from oak, beech, and hickory trees (mast) to dwindle. That’s one theory. Less obvious forces could be responsible. Naturalist P.R. Hoy of Racine, Wisconsin, reported gray squirrel migrations across his territory during three satisfactory mast years—1842 (four weeks, a half-billion squirrels!), 1847, and 1852. No one knows why.
In more recent history, our state has not seen a migration of 2013’s magnitude since 1968, a year when other stories pushed aside news of wandering Sciuridae. The war in Vietnam raged that year, with the Tet offensive in January and the My Lai massacre in March. Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed in April and Robert F. Kennedy in June. President Lyndon Johnson gave up on seeking a second term.
Quieter history was made in Greenwich Village. “In retrospect, the summer of 1968 marked a time of physical awakening for both Robert and me,” writes Patti Smith in her memoir. They had begun to understand what was possible, and what was not.
Winter’s almost here. Joyce and I continue our talks. I bring up parenthood more often than she does, she who has yet to become a mother (nulliparous). At the same time, I wonder about my fitness for doing the dad thing yet again.
For more than a year Bug was, other than Joyce, the last thing I saw before sleep, and the first thing I saw in the morning, his cage and towel “nest” situated opposite our bed. I woke to the squeaks when he dreamed.
At odd moments, almost every day, memories of him rise. Images. Sniffing inside my ear. Smacking on a chunk of avocado, his favorite. Balancing on my hand, his teeth scraping my thumbnail. Nuzzling me as, from the other side of the bars, I trace his flanks and ribs. I feel his heart tapping.
I see him leap from branch to branch in the forest canopy, his body made for this. The “overstory,” botanists call the green ceiling, limbs almost entwined, leaf and twig so close together that the vibrissae of tree squirrels grow longer than those of ground squirrels, the better to detect what’s near. There’s an “understory,” too, down where I am. Paths that cross will cross again. I picture him in mid-air.
RANDY OSBORNE writes in Atlanta, where he teaches fiction and creative nonfiction at Emory University. He’s the director and co-founder in 2010 of Carapace, a monthly event of true personal storytelling, and staff writer at BioWorld Today, a daily newsletter that covers the biotechnology industry. Represented by the Brandt & Hochman Agency in New York, he is finishing a collection of personal essays.