Memoir

Impossible Rooms

My son is two years old now. When people ask me what he’s like, I say he’s like his mother: happy, unafraid. He’s receptive to the world, and trusting of it. That’s not the way I was when I was a kid (I’ve been told; I remember). It is, however, the way I wish I’d been, and the way I am trying to be now, as a parent. Some days I feel like I’m pulling it off. This has nothing to do with the happiness I feel when I see him. To know this kid is to love him. He wanders into the room—sometimes holding Dog, sometimes wearing his mom’s shoes, shuffling around with a serious expression—and my day becomes 100% better.

Recently I’ve been having a hard time sleeping, which always happens when I’m having a hard time working. And it occurred to me this time that one of the reasons I’ve been having trouble with my work is because the old trick that used to get me into my writing—take a familiar situation, and then ask yourself: what’s the worst thing that could happen?—actually whips me into a state of mind that, as a new parent, I have spent a lot of time and energy trying to avoid. What’s the worst thing that could happen? I’m not even going to say it.

For the novel I’m working on now, I’ve been doing a lot of research on climate change, and on how things look for the planet going forward. In case you’re wondering: things don’t look good. There’s not much to be optimistic about, and I hate to be the one to tell you that, but it really shouldn’t be news. But here I am, bringing a kid into all of it.

Here’s what I remember about my son’s first two years of life. I remember taking him to the hospital with a fever when he was six weeks old. Because he was so young, and because his fever had reached a temperature that seemed to make the doctors officially worried, I had to hold him still, sitting up on the hospital table, as a young and worried Member of the Hospital Staff sanitized a small circle on his lower back, and then gave him a spinal tap. I remember his face going from placid to shocked to contorted with pain, and I remember his scream (even though I’ve heard it many times now, that one still plays on loop—I can access it anytime), and I remember the panic I felt at not being able to explain to him why this was happening, when it would be over, and that he shouldn’t be afraid, even though I was afraid. I remember him, sometime later, walking down stairs, then falling down stairs, and splitting his head on the concrete. I remember the sound of that collision—an apple, thrown against the wall of a barn—the quickness of it: we were there, immediately, at his side, but his blood was everywhere, and we were frozen. All we could think to do was hold him to our chests, try to catch the blood with our hands (as if it were our job, now that the blood was out of his body, to keep it from the ground) and sing to him. More basic stuff: fingers in cupboards, the quick panic of looking up from a phone and not seeing him where you expected him to be, the hazards of being on eye-level with dogs. Less basic stuff: he wakes up wheezing in the night, pulling for breath, his little ribcage straining and plain below his skin. He’s fine. He’s OK. They have medicine for that, and he’s cheerful about taking it, which he may have to do for the rest of his life.

After the spinal tap, the doctors required that he remain in the hospital for three days. The fever was down, he seemed fine, but he had to stay there, in relative isolation, in the safety of the hospital, until the tests came back, and ruled out a list of infections that could kill him. They moved cots into his room for his mother and me. The nurses we loved. The doctors struck us as alternately distracted and incompetent. (Two hours in, a young doctor burst into the room and told us the test had come back, and we were free to go. Already? my wife asked. Oops, he said, wrong room.) My memory of this hospital space is that it was one very long hallway, and it was easy to go into the wrong room, because all the rooms and outer-doors looked the same. When you couldn’t sleep, or had to go to the bathroom, you made the long walk down this strange, impossible hallway. At night, they turned off the hallway lights, and as you made your way to the bathroom you could see into the various patient rooms, if they were lit up, in a way you didn’t during the day. It was like standing outside of a house, at night, looking into someone’s living room: every detail popped and lodged, seemed both foreign and emblematic of something you should recognize, but don’t. One night, through one of these windows, during one of these walks, I saw a nurse, cradling a baby, feeding him with a bottle. She was dressed head to toe in what looked, to me, like a blue hazmat suit. She wore protective eyewear, and a mask. This elaborate outfit was not to protect her, of course, it was to protect the baby from her, and any infection or germs she might accidentally introduce into his unstable, vital constellation. This baby was so small it did not look human. The way this nurse held this baby, it was just like a mother would. I could tell, from where I was standing, that this baby’s life, whatever it might be, however long it would last, would be limited. I don’t know how I knew that, I just did. I hope I’m wrong about that. I stayed there, in the hall, watching until it seemed like privacy was required, and then I shuffled back to our room. I remember, then, understanding that we had the healthiest baby on the hall. It wasn’t that we shouldn’t be worried, it was just that it wasn’t our time to be as worried as we were—that our stay here, unlike so many other families, was a formality. I’ve never felt so lucky, so directionlessly grateful, for anything in my life.

There are a few lines that come near the end of “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned,” a story by Wells Tower. They come in the final paragraph:

Where had the good times gone? I didn’t know, but when Pila and me had our little twins and we put a family together, I got an understanding of how terrible love can be. You wish you hated those people, your wife and children, because you know what awful things the world will do to them, because you’ve done some of those things yourself.

I’ve always admired the way Tower takes his time to deliver these lines: it’s a story of antic misdirection, and this very real seeming sentiment, when it finally comes, sneaks up on you and lodges perfectly between your ribs. But now that I’m a parent myself, those lines no longer resonate for me, they no longer seem true in the way they once did. You have a child, and all you want is more love, not less. You become greedy for life. And you also become willing to undergo any hardship, as long as that hardship is not passed down.

I used to take pleasure in imagining violence. That pleasure I used to feel, it’s left the building. And it has taken with it the way I am most used to working—asking my story, and my characters: what is the worst thing that could happen? That’s not a question I’m interested in anymore, it provides no more fertile soil. Violence, for me, is no longer pleasurably abstract, a means to a story’s end. Everyone is somebody’s mother; everyone is somebody’s son.

So what to do now? I’m retraining myself, trying to approach stories in a different way. An eye-squint, a slightly different angle—it’s not so hard. It’s just that it came as a surprise to me, what parenthood has done to my interests as a writer, and to my ability to imaginatively walk down whichever corridor I choose. There are some doors I’d rather keep shut, some emotions I am now unwilling to tap into, and manipulate, in my work. All you can do, when your child is hurt, is hold him to your chest, and sing to him. You do your best. Eventually, though, not even that will be enough. But I don’t need fiction to tell me that.

Ethan Rutherford’s work has appeared in Ploughshares, One Story, American Short Fiction, and the New York Tyrant and has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories. His first book, The Peripatetic Coffin and Other Stories, was published in May 2013 and was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, named one of the “Best Books of Summer” by Publishers Weekly, and long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Award. He lives in Akron, Ohio.