Thursday, April 16, 2015

when you put your arms around me, i get a fever that’s so hard to bear

1. fever isn’t such a new thing

When I had my one-on-one consultation with Dani at Sirenland, I debated out loud whether it made sense to end my memoir with a celebratory chapter about Dash’s birth.

“It’s a book about learning to live with uncertainty, and I don’t want to wrap it up too neatly. I think there should still be some uncertainty.”

She answered more as a parent than as a writer. “Oh, there’s still plenty of uncertainty.”

After B and I broke up, I tried to nail my world down, even as I let it open up. I asked my landlord for bars on my windows, even though I lived on the second floor. He told me to give it a few months. It was like he knew.

Then I met AK and fell in love. The little storytelling voice inside me said, This is your happy ending. Two bad things happened to you: Your mom died and B broke up with you. But now you finally get to live happily ever after.

I was twenty-eight.

Pop off in case of fire.
I wouldn’t have expressed it so smugly, but that’s what security is—a kind of smugness. A couple of months, or maybe only weeks, into our honeymoon phase, Ferdinand got sick and listless. She wasn’t sure what was wrong at first. The vet said something about his heart. I drove to her house feeling shaky, toting a bag of chicken flavored treats and a sparkly blue ball. What had happened to my newly perfect world? My sparkly blue ball? How could cats get sick if I was in love?

I wrote a prose poem about the world cracking and becoming fragile again and posted it on my blog. I just spent a long time looking for it and didn’t find it. Apparently I’ve been blogging for almost ten years. I found entries about neighbors I don’t even remember and posts in which I over-enthused about dinners with friends who weren’t that great. I think that’s how I used to blog: OMG, you know what’s awesome?? Everything!! I thought that was what blogging was. Maybe that was what blogging was in 2006. Maybe I was just more aspirational in general. Now people have Pinterest for that.

2. fever with thy flaming youth

I don’t know if you can have a honeymoon phase with someone who poops on you semi-regularly, but you can definitely fall in love with that little pooper. And when you’re in love, you feel protected. You’re in a bubble, and you believe it’s made of something more durable than soap. Something thick and clear and safe, like whatever dental dams are made of.

Jamie gifted us with a bag of baby-related odds and ends, the stuff no one would think to put on a registry. Gas drops. Diaper cream. A thing that sucks snot out of little noses. Infant Tylenol. I looked at the medicine shelf of our changing table and thought that those things were for other babies.

"We been hawkin' headlines, but we're makin' 'em today!"
Then one night I came home from seeing Newsies* at the Pantages to find AK in bed with a fussy Dashaboo. He was sort of sleeping, but he made a moaning sound as he sucked at his pacifier. When I got up to feed him a few hours later, it occurred to me that we should take his temperature. For the first time, we broke open the rectal thermometer.

His temperature was 103. My adrenaline started pumping, my own heat rising. It’s okay. Babies get sick and then they get better, I told myself. My body told me, No, no…remember? Bad things happen to us. Heartbeats stop. Cancers grow.

I called the nurse line on the back of my insurance card. They asked me if he had a bunch of symptoms that he didn’t have, which I hoped was a good sign. He was not listless. He was not having difficulty breathing, although sometimes he breathed kind of loudly. His fontanel was not pulsing in a weird way.

But he was under three months old, and when babies are so young, all roads lead to the emergency room. AK Googled some things. “It sounds like spinal taps are pretty standard at his age.”

The only Spinal Tap I'd be excited to encounter.
We packed the diaper bag. My hands shook. I couldn’t stop myself from crying, but I also couldn’t let myself fully go there, to the land of self-pity that a good crying session demands. This is not about you, I told myself. Be practical. Stay focused. Do what you need to do. I dug my nails into my neck.

By then it was early Easter morning. Huntington Hospital was empty except for one sleeping homeless man. They ushered us in and squirted infant Tylenol into Dash’s mouth while they took his vitals. The nurses were friendly and attentive. I tried to read their faces. Were they too attentive?

Soon his fever came down and he started smiling again. There was my Dashaboo! A parade of doctors and nurses and techs came in. Off the record, said one young doctor, I don’t think he has meningitis, which is the thing we’d be most worried about. So maybe no spinal tap.

My heart stopped racing and slowed to a jog. They did a urine test and a blood test and a chest X-ray. So many new things in his day—his first taste of something that wasn’t Similac or Generic Brand Similac, his first needles, his first cancer-causing rays.

Usually I’m terrified of medical results but blasé about medical treatments. I can take the pain, just tell me I’m going to live. But Dash couldn’t console himself that way, and I hated watching him suffer. I almost wondered if some part of me that had immunized myself against blood draws and cold stethoscopes and surgery had finally released a floodgate and admitted that discomfort was, yes, uncomfortable.

They told us it looked like he had a virus. Apparently this was a good thing. They gave him an antibiotic shot in the leg just in case. We came home mid-day and missed Easter with our families. There were a million things we needed to do, but instead we just huddled together, shaken and grateful.

3. sun lights up the daytime, moon lights up the night

A few days later, the results of Dash’s urine culture came back positive for bacteria. The mild virus was just a coincidence. The fever had actually been caused by a UTI, which could have been caused by something as simple as poop getting where it shouldn’t or as serious as a mis-wiring of his plumbing.

The latter would probably be fixable with relatively mild surgery, and the part of me that had learned not to catastrophize could handle this information. Things were fixable. We weren’t out of the game. His pediatrician ordered some tests, which we’ll be doing in a week or so.

Another part of me felt like, Of course. Of course your child, Cheryl, will be less than three months old when his first medical saga begins, because this is your destiny, now handed down to a child who doesn’t even share your genes. It didn’t feel so much like a curse as a job. My job was to go to a million doctor appointments and take pages and pages of notes, and in exchange, my child and I would get to live.

Stay with me.
Of course, that is not my job, and no such deal has been struck with the universe. Into the Woods is my favorite musical of all because it’s about how happy endings don’t last forever; but neither do sad ones.

4. never know how much i love you

It’s been kind of a stressful couple of weeks. It’s hard to work part-time at a fulltime job; everyone has this fantasy that you’ll use your minimal hours to do their thing. It’s hard to have almost zero downtime. It’s hard to find daycare. It’s hard to fail constantly in all realms and immediately pick yourself back up because you have to, because you signed up for this and you know it’s the only way to grow.

Nutty guy with a UTI.
Cliché as it is, seeing Dash smile his gummy smile and laugh his new, incredulous whoop makes it all worthwhile. It brings out a kind of glee I thought lay deflated somewhere in my distant past. There was a night a couple of days back when AK and I were talking about some Dash-related difficulty while he sat on her lap. He smiled a sleepy, sly smile, like, What do you know, Mama? And we both cracked up because of his perfect comedic timing, which cracked him up more. We sat on the bed together laughing and laughing. None of us totally knew why.

I signed up for the problems I have right now, and I think these are the good times. Happy, even, if not an ending. Hopefully not an ending, right?

*Quick review (contains spoilers!): Stories about poor people uniting against the man (Les Mis, etc.) usually make for good musicals. And Cathy and I hearted the 1992 Disney movie Newsies, based on the true story of a newsboy uprising in Jacob Riis-era New York, so much. But then Disney went and Disney-ized it even more for the stage version. In the movie, the fellas rise up against Joseph Pullitzer and win, meaning that he isn’t successful in raising the wholesale price of the papers they sell for a penny.

But apparently the triumph of the proletariat is just too dull for Disney, so in this version, the lead newsboy lands Pullitzer’s daughter and gets a job as an illustrator at the World, the same paper against which he just launched a strike. Disney’s message: Everyone being able to feed themselves is not a happy enough ending. You have to join the elite by means of a fluke talent. They might as well have had him become an NBA player.

Say what you will about Rent’s Vaseline-lensed take on 1980s New York (another musical with an uprising and a song about escaping to Santa Fe), but at least none of the characters gets rich. At least, twenty years into its run, it is still the vision of one guy, not the product of a corporation’s Not So Secret Committee On Maintaining The Capitalist Status Quo.

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