My son, Timmy, is just over two months old—nine weeks to be exact—and he won’t stop crying. He seems to hate his brand-new world and all things in it, including his crib and his rattle and his mother and me.
Colic, say the doctors, but the kid hates eating and he hates not eating. He hates sleeping and he hates not sleeping. He hates being held and he hates not being held. He hates light and he hates dark. He hates hot and he hates cold and he hates all temperatures in between. He is full of fury.
I have fathered Jack the Ripper. At the moment, in these early–morning hours of August 28, 2003, I’m taking a break while my wife, Meredith, sits in the laundry room with our howling little hater.
A pediatrician suggested placing him in a basket atop the clothes dryer. The machine’s warmth and its humming motor have worked their magic, to be sure, but only on my exhausted wife, whom I last saw in a state of semiconsciousness.
Meredith and I are first-timers at the whole baby thing, a pair of rookies, and we are not only incompetent but we’re getting scared. I’m scared, in fact, at this very instant. In a few minutes I’ll be shutting down my computer and returning to duty, except I have no clue as to what my duty actually is.
Right now it’s 1:10 a.m., and Timmy has been crying since . . . well, since he was born. Nothing stops him—not for long. We’ll pick him up and snuggle him and walk him around the house, and for a short while he may (or may not) settle down. But then he tightens up, fidgets, squirms, and eventually convulses in a deep, full-body shudder, as if electricity has just sizzled through his bones, and then his face goes wrinkly with hatred and he lets out a Frankenstein screech that wakes up the nomads in Libya.
We’re afraid the police will come. We’re afraid neighbors will nail bomb threats to our door. We’re afraid, quite literally, that our little boy hates being alive.
Our nerves are shot. We’re exhausted. We have no family nearby, no wise and experienced relatives, no one to spell us for even a few hours. Worse yet, the pediatricians and their nurses seem fed up with our panicky phone calls. Over and over, they use the word colic, or the word fussy, as if we’re too dumb to remember that these are the words they’ve been uttering for weeks.
We’re afraid, quite literally, that our little boy hates being alive.
We blame ourselves, of course. This morning, I’ve been sitting here at my desk, listening to the baby-din, wanting to cry, and only a few minutes ago I found myself suddenly horrified by the thought that my own hot temper and occasional rages may have been transmitted to my infant son.
More horrifying yet, I worry that during Timmy’s womb time he somehow absorbed the knowledge that for years prior to his conception I hadn’t wanted children. Did his biology know that Meredith and I had nearly broken up over that issue during our courtship days? Did the cytosine in Timmy’s DNA, or the proteins of his brain stem, somehow program resentment and disgust and outright fury in a kind of organic reaction to his father’s selfishness?
Meredith and I feel responsible. More than responsible. We feel guilt. We are older than most greenhorn parents, and although neither of us says so, we’re both chewing on the possibility that our crusty, over-the-hill chromosomes combined to produce Timmy’s wretchedness. (Would Jack the Ripper have been Jack the Ripper if his parents had not crossed genetic paths?)
On her part, more practically, Meredith worries aloud that her type 1 diabetes may have infected her breast milk, or may have poisoned Timmy’s pancreas, or may have otherwise caused our son all this unrelieved unhappiness. Also, because she’s a type 1 diabetic, Meredith underwent induced labor. “Maybe Timmy needed more time inside,” she speculated yesterday. “Being forced to wake up—wouldn’t that upset anyone?” (I call this her premature-ejaculation theory.)
Last night, during my 2:00 a.m. baby duty, I hit on what appears to be a miracle. An imperfect miracle, a miracle in need of fine-tuning, but a gift from the gods all the same. It is the song “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”
Sing it in the dark, sing it in a rocking chair, sing it long enough—maybe 45 minutes, maybe an hour—and Timmy stops crying. He sleeps. He sleeps without hatred on his face. When I mentioned my discovery to Meredith this morning, she looked at me skeptically. “So you put him in the crib?”
“Well, no,” I said. “I tried, but he—”
“He woke up crying, right?”
“Right, and that’s where the fine–tuning comes in.”
“Lots of luck,” said Meredith.
I nodded. She was right. Song or no song, his hatred for the crib was a problem. Moreover, there was an issue with the song itself. “It’ll drive me crazy,” I admitted. “Last night it almost did. It’s short—only four lines—and it’s a goddamned round. Try singing ‘merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily’ for a whole hour.”
It’s taken a few days, but I’ve made progress. Partly deletion, partly rewriting. Among other things, I’ve tightened up the title. I now call the song “Row, Row.” I’ve deleted the merrily stuff. I’ve deleted the boat and the rowing. I’ve deleted the stream. In fact, I’ve deleted almost everything but the melody, and as Timmy and I sit in the dark, rocking in our rocking chair, father and son, I invent filthy lyrics to keep myself sane.
True, I adore that final line, “Life is but a dream,” but it had to go. You don’t sing about a pair of horny pigeons and end with “life is but a dream.” It does not fit. Not with pigeons. Tonight, I’ll branch out. Buggering mice, maybe.
Although I haven’t written much since Timmy was born, I now sit in the dark and produce some of my best work in years. No pressures to publish. So far no bad reviews. I’ve finally found my subject.
Bleep, bleep, bleep like mice, Gently up the bleep, Verily, verily, verily, verily, Firmly bleep the bleep.
As I mentioned earlier, Meredith and I had come within a whisker of calling it quits over our deadlock on the children question. She very much wanted kids. I very much did not. And so it happened that on a late night several years ago we exchanged heated words on the subject, each of us digging in, and eventually Meredith announced, wearily but bluntly, that there was no future for us. I was hurt by this. I asked her to leave, which she did, and for a couple of weeks we saw nothing of each other.
Now, singing “Row, Row” in the dark, I recall only bits and pieces from that period of silence and separation. I was appalled that Meredith could love something that did not exist, in fact the idea of something that did not exist, more than she loved me. It seemed cold-blooded. It seemed heartlessly reproductive.
In the end we met for drinks on neutral ground, in a Cambridge, Massachusetts, bar, and for several hours we learned a great deal about each other, not only emotional things but also the contents of our personal histories, the biographical facts that had brought us to this bar and to this impasse.
Meredith talked about her mother dying. She talked about her father, a good man but sometimes a distant man, a man who too often seemed absent from her life. She talked about her sisters, one of whom had been institutionalized for decades with severe schizophrenia, the other of whom had twice attempted suicide (and would later succeed).
She talked about the dream she’d been cultivating since she was a little girl, the dream of a happy, normal family life. “Maybe it’s a fantasy,” she said, “but don’t I get to hope for something?”
On my part, I opened up about pretty similar things. An alcoholic father. A father who often scared me and who sometimes didn’t seem to like me much. I talked about the tensions in our house, the late-night shouting matches between my mom and dad, the cruel words, the brittle silences that followed for weeks afterward. I also expressed, as best I could, my suspicion that I’d make a far less than ideal father.
Meredith and I managed to work it out. In that Cambridge bar, and in the weeks afterward, the realization began to stir in me that I, too, yearned for a happy, normal family life, even if I remained terrified of failing. There were no promises, exactly. But there was a prospect. Three years went by, and Meredith and I got married, and our son was conceived, and now I sit here in the dark, rocking my precious, life-hating Timmy to sleep, singing an unprintable new edition of “Row, Row.”
The miracle hasn’t panned out. In some ways things seem more hopeless than ever. Although “Row, Row” will eventually put Timmy to sleep, he continues to wake up screaming after a half hour or so, often after only a few minutes. The crying has become infectious. Meredith is crying—a lot. I’ve cried. All three of us are ragged with fatigue. Not only am I exhausted beyond exhaustion, but I’ve also exhausted all possible combinations of dirty rhymes. I’ve turned to politics. Bush—tush. Rice—advice. Rumsfeld—beheld. Cheney—rainy.
First names, I’ve discovered, are much easier. I have fun with George and Don. I have a shitload of fun with Dick. Condoleezza has proven difficult, but like my poetically minded friends, I have no scruples about cheating with near rhymes.
My masterpiece is a version of “Row, Row” that I sang to Timmy just last night, a version in which every word but one must be redacted. It goes like this:
Bleep, bleep, bleep Dick’s bleep, Bleepily bleep bleep bleep, Bleepily, bleepily, bleepily, bleepily, Bleep Dick’s bleeping bleep.
I am going mad, of course, but Timmy doesn’t notice. For a few blessed minutes, he sleeps. And perhaps one day, if he survives his life-is-but-a-nightmare infancy, he will thank his father for this solid foundation in modern dirty-mouthed political discourse.
Two and a half weeks pass. Things have changed but not for the better. Timmy has lost a quarter pound of bodyweight. He blinks away tears as he eats; he chews more than he sucks; he vomits; he hisses at us; he hisses and he shrieks both at once.
Meredith, I’m almost certain, lies awake wondering if our beloved baby boy has inherited the afflictions of her two disturbed sisters. The hissing and the shrieking reproduce the bedlam of a psychiatric ward in Connecticut in which her older sister has resided since Meredith was in tenth grade. Inevitably, given what we know of genetics, the blaming has revved up a notch. The guilt has thickened. I worry not just about Timmy but equally so about Meredith. I don’t think she can handle much more.
Though I try not to let on, I’m also concerned about the limits of my own tolerance. As I sing “Row, Row” in the dark, my thoughts seem to rattle around without content, or without objective and realistic content. I fantasize sometimes. I pretend none of this is happening. I pretend I’m teaching history to my son as I sing about John Wilkes Booth going merrily down the stream.
This morning I found Meredith sitting outside Timmy’s bedroom. She was trembling with . . . I don’t know what. She was trembling with all that has been and all that still is. I had seen her weep before, but never like this.
Behind the closed bedroom door, Timmy was shrieking. I didn’t decide anything; I just did it—loaded all three of us into the car and drove to an emergency room. Seven hours later we departed with three prescriptions: Xanax for Meredith, Xanax for me, and a drug called Prilosec for Timmy.
Our son was found to be suffering from acid—reflux disease. His case was severe. We were informed that acid reflux can be difficult to diagnose, especially among infants, who are unable to articulate where things hurt or how things hurt or why things hurt or even that things hurt. They can cry. They can shriek and hiss.
We learned today, along with a great deal else, that insomnia is a common symptom of acid reflux; we learned that the condition is caused by a relaxation of the lower esophageal sphincter, which in turn permits stomach acids to drain into the esophagus; we learned that those acids can produce intense pain, especially in the sensitive tissues of a baby; we learned that the word colic (sometimes called infantile colic) is descriptive of a set of symptoms (frequency of crying, duration of crying) but is not a diagnosis of organic cause; we learned that we were not to blame; we learned that Timmy hated only the terrible pain, not the world. All that was today.
Now it’s 11:17 p.m., and the house is bizarrely silent. The Prilosec did its magic—not instantly, but very nearly so. The Xanax also worked. Meredith has been sleeping since late afternoon. I’m feeling extremely fine. Until two hours ago I had been sitting in the dark with Timmy, even though he no longer needs me. He, too, is feeling fine. He sleeps peacefully. He is in his crib.
In a few minutes I’ll get some sleep myself, but for now, as I scribble down these few words, I’m content to sit here listening to the all-is-well hum of our baby monitor, its soothing electric buzz coming from some unpopulated and distant galaxy. I’m riding the jet stream of Xanax, true, but I’m also feeling a kind of nostalgia, the sort of backward–looking, tongue-probing surprise one feels after an aching tooth has been pulled. I don’t miss all the horror, of course. But I do miss surviving the horror. I miss our rocking chair. I miss holding Timmy in the dark. I miss “Row, Row”—enough to feel acutely what is missing.
This sensation, whatever it is, reminds me a bit of what I’d once experienced in Vietnam after a firefight ended, when something that was so excruciatingly present became so shockingly absent. I had been afraid my son would die. I am still afraid. I will always be afraid.
It occurs to me that one day, when he is a senior in college, or maybe when he receives his doctorate from Stanford, I’ll have to let him take his chances out in the killer world.
At that point—or maybe when he is elected to his second term as president—I’ll probably allow him to apply for a driver’s license and (if he’s very careful) use the family car to go out on his first dangerous date, though I’ll be singing “Row, Row” in the backseat.
Tim O’Brien is the author of numerous novels, including The Things They Carried and Going After Cacciato. This essay is adapted from his latest, a memoir, Dad’s Maybe Book, is out now.
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