Deaths and (Re)births, Part 1: The Descent

About a year ago I read Kathryn Lynard Soper’s The Year My Son and I Were Born: A Story of Down Syndrome, Motherhood, and Self-DiscoveryThe book is one of those precious cerebral volumes whose penetrating insights do so much more than simply relate and describe their subject matter accurately. Instead, they engage in a new retelling of the central human drama of birth, death, and rebirth. (A BCC review of the book by Steve P. is here).*  Indeed, human life can be perceived phenomenologically as a series of births, deaths, and rebirths, in which the thick, palpable materiality of some of our experiences destroy us, but then resurrect us to live again as beings who have undergone a metamorphosis. Inspired by Kathryn’s memoir to tell my own story of death and rebirth–how I found myself inserted into the Great Human Story–I’ve (crudely and clumsily) written an essay about one transformative and worldview-altering experience in my life, divided into 5 heart-on-my-sleeve parts. The first part is below. I’ll likely publish the parts each day over the course of the next week or so. 

I especially need thank my wife for consenting to publish these experiences, which are obviously quite personal. It should go without saying that everything expressed here is from my own limited, often confused point of view, and doesn’t explicitly represent her experience.

*Kathryn’s recent 4 part “Theotokos” series delves into these themes and others even more explicitly.

Part One: The Descent

The entire year of 2004 is mostly a blur. Though only eight years have since passed, I have very few memories of that year and even fewer that I can recall in vivid detail. On one of those days I can recall returning home from work, trudging slowly up the steps to the small two-bedroom apartment in which my wife and I lived, newly graced with the presence of our twin son and daughter, born a few months before. I winced as I climbed, consciously slowing my assent, wanting the short journey to the door—like Zeno’s speeding arrow that never arrives at its target—to never end. I was physically, totally exhausted and had been since the day of the twins’ birth, but the wince derived from anticipation of what would inevitably greet me behind that door. Taking a deep, resigned breath (and feeling guilty—again—for not wanting to come home) I turned the door handle and stepped inside.

It was, by now, an all too familiar scene: baby clothes, diapers (some used, some not), bouncy seats, and a hundred other little items related to child care were scattered all over the floor and the furniture. Bits of sepia-colored carpet could be seen here and there, islands in a sea of infant detritus. Looking across the room and into the small kitchen my gaze rested on my wife, Amanda. “Disheveled” would hardly describe her appearance. She was in her usual half-dressed state. Bedraggled tresses of her unkempt brownish-blonde hair shot out in a dozen directions. If I recall accurately, she had essentially stopped doing her hair at all except for on Sundays when we would attend church services. Makeup and other self-grooming habits had also suffered a similar fate. She had one of the twins in one arm (I forget if it was Ethan or Mylyn), perched expertly on one hip while finishing up dinner. Two surprises, then, reminding me that my prophetic abilities were not wholly omniscient: One—she was not in the rocking chair holding both babies, as was normally the case. Quickly surveying the room I could see that the other baby was in one of the bouncy seats, being (no doubt briefly) distracted by some children’s show on television. Two—she was making dinner. Dinner was an enterprise she had long before mostly given up, with the occasional exception. Our normal routine was to have me return from work around 7:00 pm and then quickly depart for the nearby Wendy’s to pick up dinner for us both.

I gingerly stepped onto one of the islands as I made my way to the kitchen, calling out my usual greeting. She didn’t turn around, but verbally acknowledged my presence. Before I could enter the kitchen the baby in the living room began crying. Amanda turned to me, her face emotionless: “Here.” I took the baby in my arms, raising it up in the air and cooing, so I could see him or her smile. Amanda made her way into the living room, picked up the crying baby, and waded through the Sea of Infant Flotsam and Jetsam to the rocking chair where she began nursing. Not more than a minute passed, however, and the baby I was holding also began to cry. “Bring (him/her) over here,” Amanda called to me, in a flat, indifferent voice, a voice that did not, however, match her facial expression as she smiled lovingly at the two babies now positioned on the custom nursing pillow made for twins that we had found online prior to their birth. I still marveled that she could nurse two babies at the same time.

Looking around the apartment, my heart sank (again) at the hurricane-like devastation I saw before me. No, it was not a surprising sight, but a discouraging one, as always. The kitchen fared no better than the living room, with dirty dishes, pots, pans, and food stains adding to the debris. Like so many days before this one, I would again have to decide; my entire life, in fact, had been reduced to the daily repetition of this one decision: help my wife in some sort of significantly constructive way or dig into the nearly untouched mountain of homework and studying that had piled up during the course of the semester. Either way it would be an all-nighter. Again. The twins had spent their first five weeks of life in intensive care and had finally arrived home just a few months before, trailing oxygen tanks and heart monitors. But they wouldn’t sleep for more than a few minutes at a time. We had not really slept in months. I felt like Camus’ Sisyphus, who was condemned to manhandle a boulder up the side of a mountain and then watch it roll back down again for eternity. Sisyphus’ challenge was to discover any sort of purpose or meaning in that one everlastingly repetitive act. Of course, Sisyphus had no choice in his task but to physically repeat it over and over again, against his will. Sisyphus’ descent to the bottom was eternal. I, on the other hand, theoretically could choose, but…surveying the damage one more time and my wife slumped in her rocking chair—there was really no substantive choice. Our descent into discouragement and despair scraped against the same texture of eternity. I began clearing the table, burying my shoulder and my neck into the side of my now familiar boulder, bracing myself to once again begin pushing.

§

Part 2: The Fall

Comments

  1. I’m already loving this and can’t wait for the next installment. I can feel the despair and exhaustion in your writing. In fact, my stomach turned as I recalled those early days of parenting, school, and work. I’m so interested to see where this story leads. Knowing you, it will reveal the best of possibilities for our weakened human condition. Write on!

  2. Man, this almost gave me a panic attack, Jacob. Great writing.

  3. Bless your heart. There are times when there is just no time and so much to do, and so little energy to do it.

  4. Jacob, I’m pleased beyond words to read part of your story here, and to have some small connection to it.

  5. I did not enjoy reading this — hit too close to home. Our twins were born healthy, but they had a just-turned-two-year-old sibling, and they had colic. One or both began screaming just before I’d get home and would continue until about 1 or 2am. And then wake up again at 3 or 4 for feeding. And this went on for two or three months. That may not sound all that long, but it’s long enough to lose one’s sanity. It wasn’t just that I was sleep-deprived while working full-time and trying to finish graduate school, but the constant screaming and the inability to do anything to ameliorate either their distress or that of their mother created a sense of abject helplessness. Ugh. Just thinking about it makes my heart clench even now.

  6. Fabulous story, Jacob — can’t wait for more. Thanks esp. to your wife for letting you share!

  7. Jacob, thanks for being real. It’s so refreshing and heartbreaking all at the same time. I had heard once that parenthood was just like Groundhog Day…the same thing over and over. I like your example of Sisyphus a little better.

  8. Thanks for reading, all. I appreciate the comments. A few people elsewhere have asked me for some incidental details regarding the time period. During the time I’m describing here I had been married for a little under 2 years. We were living in Orem at the time. I was in my Junior year at BYU. The twins had been born a few months earlier, in November 2003.

  9. I appreciate you sharing this, Jacob. I’m looking forward to the rest.

  10. Excellent writing. I felt I was climbing those stairs with you.

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    Makes me glad I’m an empty nester… You pulled me in; looking forward to the rest of the series.

  12. Wow. Great, great writing.

  13. Norbert says:

    Wow, does this bring back memories. I wasn’t a student when our twins were infants (I was in my 30s), but that despair is really something.

  14. Our oldest was born a week before the first day of law school. No trouble with the delivery; no colic; no real difficulties similar to this and yet there was still some element of that descent. As homework piled up and nights dragged on with rocking the crying baby, my mental image was not of Sisyphus (we had experienced nothing of the difficulties you and your wife endured) but rather simply of a man standing in a small room with both arms outstretched pushing against walls that were closing in. Given that the experience of first-time parenting can evoke these impressions in young fathers, I cannot imagine the paradigm-altering event that it is for young mothers to whom a far greater burden falls.

  15. It’s true John, when you have multiple responsibilities that try to consume every bit of mental and physical energy you have, even just one child can do you in. I never know if it is completely accurate to say that mothers bear a far greater burden, particularly when fathers do all they can to actually be fathers. But I certainly felt that way in our case, that my wife bore the greater burden.

  16. Jacob, John C. directed me to your posts, thought I might find something useful. Wow. We have our first children, two 9-month old boys and it’s a mess. My wife is Wonder Woman, somehow taking care of both of them during the day, where I only have to manage them for a couple of hours at night, and help her on the weekends. I definitely can relate to the picture you’re painting here. (We cook only on Sundays, and Wendy’s is a popular choice! Does it count as cooking if we get a rotisserie chicken and rolls from Costco?)

  17. This brought back very recent, harrowing, memories. My husband would always come home discouraged and would usually choose to zone out (no longer in school) and I just didn’t care – PPD. I think we ate dinner at night – it’s hard to remember with that fog surrounding the memories. Thanks for a male perspective on the stress of babies.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 8,865 other followers