Poems & Essays

21 Sep

It Doesn’t Last Forever

General/Column No Response

When my son was two months old, lightning struck Mount Charleston, the highest peak of the Spring Mountains range, and caused a forest fire thirty minutes northwest of our home. Responders tried to contain it, but it quickly spread and proved monstrous, raging for weeks before it was immobilized. A dark smoke cloud blanketed the sky above our house. Solid blue peeked around the edges, taunting us with the sunlight we were missing, while tiny flecks of ash fell like snow flurries in the burnt-scented air. In the evenings, when my husband and I would have ordinarily taken the baby for his stroller walk and let the outdoors absorb some of his colic-wrath, the sun turned blood red.

It made me nervous, not just because of the air quality or ominous view. I worried that I had somehow willed the environment to metamorphose itself to match my emotional state. Now it was seared, and in an endless cycle of damage, just like me.

Every day that summer, when afternoon trembled into evening, our newborn shifted his daily cries of discomfort to full-blown rage. They started as a complaint, built to a fretful fussing, then erupted in blaring screams. I could recognize their sonorous rhythm—two long wails, four short punctuating shrieks, one that sounded like a period at the end of a sentence, followed by the loudest one that reintroduced the cadence. The vein on his right temple would grow three-dimensional and dark as he stared skyward and poured adult-sized tears.

***

Colic is still something of a mystery in the medical and parenting worlds. Nowadays it’s mostly agreed upon as a digestive problem, but no one knows why some babies suffer from it and others don’t. Aside from a few options of occasionally effective over-the-counter drops, there is no real cure or method of prevention.

Guilt, I found, is the most prevalent side effect in mothers. Guilt for the inability to fully relieve your baby of his pain when you’d gladly take it on yourself. Guilt for your lack of coping skills when you have an otherwise healthy baby with no legitimate medical problems. Guilt for snapping at your husband for no reason. Guilt for wanting to disappear.

***

Three weeks after my son was born, I was invited to brunch by a group of friends and acquaintances. It was my first time away from him. I tried to shield my reality from the other women, feeling I was somehow complicit. My baby had shared my body since the beginning of his existence. If blame rested with anyone, it rested with me.

I wore sunglasses not just to shade my eyes from the shine on the restaurant’s bright patio but to hide the fact that they were glassy and lifeless as buttons. I fastened my pink cardigan across my chest to conceal my asymmetrical breasts, one engorged and perpetually trickling milk.

One of the women I didn’t know well mentioned that her son, now six months old, had suffered from colic. She was still alive, I noted. And sane. I leaned toward her, desperation steaming from my every pore.

“What did you do?” I half whispered, half hissed, as though I supposed she had some secret antidote to prescribe.

She smiled. “There’s really nothing you can do,” she said. “If there was some big trick to stopping colic, the whole world would know about it. There were a few things that worked some of the time—holding him and bouncing on an exercise ball, walking around the block with him strapped to my chest. Nothing worked all the time, though. As bad as it sounds, I would practically throw him to my husband as soon as he’d walk in the door from work.”

I groaned and looked down at the Hollandaise sauce on my plate.

“It doesn’t last forever,” she said. “Three months or so. Then it’s gone.”

But my son was only three weeks old. Had she forgotten that, from my side of the table, three months was an eternity?

At least she was a veteran, one of the few who had lived through the fray. The solidarity I felt with this woman, whom I barely knew, now surpassed that of friends and relatives whose children hadn’t had colic. I was convinced that the parents of silent babies I encountered in public were out to get me. They existed solely to advertise to the world what babies were supposed to be like, silently proclaiming what I knew to be true—we, my son and I, were flawed. Abnormal.

Though never uttered in my presence once I became a mother, a phrase I’d grown up hearing everywhere came to mind: Good baby. What a good baby. He’s such a good, quiet baby. We’re so lucky; she’s a good baby.

Which only meant that loud, discontented, restless babies were not good.

Too late, I learned that the worst of colic usually occurs between six and eight weeks of age. Before my son was born, I had scheduled his baptism for seven weeks old.

Relatives flew in from the other side of the country to see this angry child, donning a crisp, old-fashioned-style baptismal gown from Lord & Taylor, be welcomed into the church. I nursed him on a plastic chair in the ladies’ room before the service, but the calm I had intended didn’t last.

He cried during the opening song. He cried when the priest asked for his name. He cried when his godmother, my best friend, dutifully carried him to the baptismal font. During the latter half of Mass, my husband took him to a utility closet where he could have dark and quiet, rocking him until he passed out. The guests were gracious back at our home, where we drank Bellinis and ate lox and bagels and fresh peach cake, but I knew none of them had ever seen such an unhappy baby.

***

No, my baby could not stop crying. But then neither could I.

I cried as I ran my gamut of parlor tricks, sometimes landing on one that would quell his screams, if only for a few minutes.

I cried when I had five minutes a day to myself in the shower, listening to my husband try to calm him in the living room while my tear ducts and milk ducts expelled liquid with as much ferocity as the shower head.

I cried for his pain and his overshadowed beauty.

I cried for my old life and the resulting self-abhorrence.

I cried for my marriage, the edges of which we could both feel begin to singe and curl like paper held above a flame.

I cried for my own mother two thousand miles away.

I cried from exhaustion while I nursed, gazing down at the finally content, nuzzling form oblivious to my tears splashing his newborn hair that looked like dewy grass in the darkness.

I cried for motherhood and my unpreparedness for it.

***

I didn’t know yet that my son’s colic would subside when he was four months old. I didn’t know that the baby in our future would giggle when his father lifted him high in the air, squeal with excitement when he saw a dog, and smile at every relative who held him on Thanksgiving. That his contemplative but humorous personality would emerge and soothe my shell-shocked soul like a balm.

I knew none of this, and couldn’t have pictured it if I had. But by autumn, we took him for his first hike on Mount Charleston, of which nearly twenty-eight thousand acres had been charred. From his perch on my husband’s chest, our son seemed to give equal, wide-eyed reverence to the darkened skeletal remains of bristlecone pines as to the brilliant gold foliage of undisturbed Aspen trees.

Caroline Horwitz has an MFA in creative writing from Chatham University. Her work has appeared in publications such as Animal, Lowestoft Chronicle, The Summerset Review, and Nevada Magazine, among others. She lives in Las Vegas with her husband and son.

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