It used to be that when I thought of children’s lives cut short, I imagined the nineteenth-century ragamuffins in poems by Wordsworth and Blake—seven-year-old chimney sweeps and such.
That was before I had a kid. A twenty-first-century kid who knows no fear, and who has done a few things that were daring enough to compromise his safety.
Out of nowhere, when he was born, I had the jarring realization that, by giving him life, I had also given him permission to die. That’s what living things do. Other than tending to him as best I could, I didn’t have much control over his life’s trajectory. I thought of that as his decision. He wasn’t a character I could write out of a treacherous plot line. I had to respect the free nature of his soul, and not force my desires onto him.
But what, I thought, if I had just given birth to a kid who came to earth to only hang out for a little while?
I couldn’t imagine.
I had shared my body with him for three-quarters of a year. That’s no small thing. He was me; I was him. My body shifted and blurred; my identity wobbled. All those 75-mile rides to the midwife and then back home. Out-of-pocket money for the midwife too, and the breast pump, and the cloth diapers, and the impossibly small onesies—all of the preparations, the little things that made him feel so real. I couldn’t imagine all of that being for nothing.
And then after that, after he grew: the time spent holding him, feeding him, playing with him, washing him, buying him new clothes and shoes. Being so, so tired, but charging on, just for him, because he needed me. It’s an investment with no guarantee of return.
I am keenly aware that one freak accident could make all those hours and days and months and years bittersweet. Why? Because I’m a realist. I don’t live in a bubble. I’m not someone who would say, “I never thought it would happen to me,” because I know the craziest things can happen to anyone. Life is surprising. Just as I brace myself for wonderful surprises, I’m prepared for other possibilities. I’m not immune to anything; I’m no more special than anyone else.
Wordsworth and Blake have given way to Raymond Carver and Lorrie Moore. “A Small Good Thing,” “Dance In America,” and “People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling In Peed Onk” speak to me more now, because while I’d bet my kid will never become a juvenile chimney sweep, but—knock on wood—he could be in an accident, get a disease. Don’t even get me started on Rabbit Hole. Good God.
But the story that really swells my eyes isn’t fiction. I think of James Bulger nearly every day. Not the Boston mobster; the two-year-old who was abducted by two ten-year-olds at a Liverpool shopping center in 1993. The two-year-old who was adored by his parents, and left his mother’s side only seconds before the older boys lured him away, outside, then dropped him on his head by the canal, all while adults watched it happen. Adults continued to watch on as the boys walked a crying James nearly three miles down city streets in thirty-something-degree weather, to train tracks feet away from a police station where the boys could have handed James over. But instead, they tossed model airplane paint in his eye, threw bricks and rocks at him repeatedly, hit him over the head with an iron fishplate, took off his pants. I will spare you the details of his injuries, but they were horrific. To cover their crime, the boys—ten-year-old boys!—lay his body on the tracks and covered his head with rubble, wanting his death to look like an accident. He was still barely alive when they left him to walk toward home.
It’s unthinkable. And it could have been anyone’s kid that day: the boys confessed to trying to take other children whose parents scared them off. No kid should have to go through anything like that—cold, tortured, calling for his mother and getting no mercy. A fluke. His mother was buying sausages at the butcher, and this happens.
I’m not paralyzed by fear, but I do perform second-nature risk assessments of my surroundings. I’m on the lookout. I give my boy an extra kiss when I drop him off at preschool.
I think, more than anything—besides the thought of my kid enduring pain or being scared—it’s the thought of being robbed of possibility that’s frightening. What if I never get to see what he’d look like at fifteen? What if I won’t ever know what he’d choose as his college major? Would he recall things we do together now, and tell me how they shaped him? Wouldn’t it be so cool to have a beer together someday?
In honor of my wonderific kid, the playlist this week includes his favorite songs, which we usually listen to on the way to school. He has pretty good taste (well, according to me). I never imagined I’d have a kid who says, in his most serious three-year-old voice, that Michael McDonald is “the best real real real singer than anyone.” Yes, son, he is. The fact that my yacht-rock-loving, comically inclined, gutter-minded kid landed in my lap and not someone else’s makes me feel lucky. It was pure chance. A fluke.
I want to hang on to him for a long, long time.
“I Keep Forgettin’” – Michael McDonald
“For the Price of a Cup of Tea” – Belle and Sebastian
“Pumped Up Kicks” – Foster the People
“Pants” – Here Come the Mummies
“Love Will Conquer All” – Lionel Richie and Diana Ross
“It Might Be You” – Stephen Bishop
“Kentucky Woman” – Neil Diamond
“Hush” – Deep Purple (this clip mentions my dad’s Tex Ritter whammy bar action!)
“Start Me Up” – The Rolling Stones
“Mr. Brightside” – The Killers
“New York, New York” – Ryan Adams
“Kimball” has a storyline with layers on layers—the present sandwiched between a pesky past and a possibly promising future. It is full of children and void of them at the same time, and plays with the question of “What if?” Vallie Watson cleverly builds tension and suspense, keeping the text as calm as Kimball himself while the questions of familial loyalty, sacrifice, and motive tug at everyone around him. What does it really mean to leave something behind?
Joel Best’s flash is a quick walk through thick woods: there’s more hidden behind the branches in the paragraphs than you’ll probably see on a first read. Secrets, decisions, silence—“The Moments That Endure” is a series of photographs that captures what can’t be forgotten, but what, inevitably, will.
I won’t dare misrepresent “Spontaneous Combustion” as “playful,” but Sandra Kolankiewicz creates a macabre scenario that is…inventive. It’s the audacity of the central idea that is mystifying, and only a poem could pluck the evocative speaker out of the shadow of the cloud of dust settling around a former Piggly Wiggly.
Photo Source: Tom Clark: Beyond the Pale
I’ve seen your picture
Your name in lights above it
This is your big debut
It’s like a dream come true