Friday, May 6, 2011

National Short Story Month and the Near-Death of My Son

Since May is my son's birthday month, here's one way I'm celebrating: With a tale involving short stories...

May is also National Short Stories month. NSSM was started by Dan Wickett of the Emerging Writers Network and Dzanc Books. (Thanks for the cool logo, Dan!) In a guest post at Fiction Writers Review, Dan explains how the idea came about--and how EWN and others are celebrating short fiction. (NOTE: Above titles ARE live links...don't know why it doesn't appear that way.)

PF's birth was traumatic. I was well into labor when I got yanked from the Jacuzzi in the birthing suite at Pennsylvania hospital. The midwife ran me through a tunnel below Eighth Street on a wheeled stretcher and into the OR.  The baby's heartbeat had dangerously slowed.

"I should be praying," I thought. "I should be doing something."  There were a million people running around. I asked the obstetrician, "Is my baby gonna die?" She was too intent on her work to give much of an answer.  The anesthesia worked, so I didn't feel the knife cutting through seven layers of tissue. The birth felt like someone rummaging in a drawer.

My husband stood up to watch, but he sat down when he saw the blood.  Someone brought the baby for me to look at.  PF was big--full term and over 9 pounds. He had large dark eyes, his face was speckled with blood, and he gazed at me calmly.  He seemed interested.

During labor, the placenta had separated from the wall of the uterus, and we were both in danger. A day and a half later, while a nurse was feeding him, PF stopped breathing.  They rushed him to intensive care and intubated him.

He was the biggest baby there. The preemies looked to be almost a different species.  My husband was watching when PF pulled out his breathing tube. The kid was done with hospitals.  He came home on a breathing monitor, which continually malfunctioned, but his breathing remained stable.

PF's early claim to fame was that he slept through the night from birth.  We set a timer and woke him up for  midnight feedings.  I considered it divine intervention. In fact I was overwhelmed and depressed, and that I could rely on him to sleep gave me a small feeling of normality.

In those time-lost days of C-section recovery, I cuddled my son and read the short stories of John Cheever.  They reassured me.  The world I grew up in was still there, despite the financial stress of my new marriage.  Cheever's myth of privilege and family disconnection gave my sadness a focus, helped me feel less overwhelmed.  Emotionally, I'd come apart. If I wasn't me anymore, I wasn't anyone. I had no faith that I could be a mother to the mysterious being who'd been pulled from my body.

Cheever's The Day the Pig Fell Into the Well describes a family's attempt to maintain its sense of being special, or favored, by refusing to admit the mediocrity of the choices they've made. Reading it, I inhaled the atmosphere of our family's summer house on Cape Cod. I "shared with (the Nudd family) the feeling that the clear light of July and August was imparting something rare to all their minds and careers."   This promise fails as the Nudd children become grown.  Toward the end, the "realization that none of them had done well made (their mother) sink back in her chair." This comforted me.  There was a reason for their despair, and possibly for mine; I felt compassion for the Nudds, who told each other the pig story yearly because the truth about how life had drowned them was too painful: "What made the summer always an island, she thought; what made it such a small island? What mistakes had they made?...Why should these good and gentle people around her seem like the figures in a tragedy?  --'Remember the day the pig fell in the well?' she asked."  Everyone jumps on the old story, relating their parts as if scripted, and Mrs. Nudd feels better. Life can go on.

In The WASP culture where I grew up, the world Cheever explores, emotional disconnection was a choice that enabled people to maintain their feeling of privilege.  Having a child unmoored me.  But I knew even then that I was privileged to be able to make different choices where my own children were concerned.
Always telling stories...

On his way to Istanbul, Junior year
23 years later, as my son is about to graduate from college, I still love the story, but now I read it from a different perspective.  As a family, we have dealt with the tough stuff.  My fragile infant son has grown into a man of compassion and wisdom.  In Mrs. Nudd's words, he has "done well." And that's going to continue.


Catherine Stine said...

Sweet story and sweet photos!
Sons are so excellent!
I understand the feeling that reading helps one get through all kinds of tough times. During my teen years, my mom used to say that us kids reminded her of the Glass kids in the Salinger novels. That gave me a sort of grounding frame for all of the weirdness. So, we were messed up, but we were saved by our talents!
Later, it was Gail Godwin's Violet Clay and Mary Karr's Cherry. Today? God, too many novels to cite here. Right now, I'm reading Chris Beha's memoir The Whole Five Feet, and really relating. I relate to Chekhov's own struggle as a person trying to find himself within a sort of crumbling family structure. And it goes on. Perhaps that is one of the biggest functions of literature-as a tool to identify self, and to guide.

HelenQP said...

Yeah, books can be a compass, a map, and a way of organizing the self. (All those hours spent reading in the closet as a kid after I was supposed to be in bed.) Your mother was perceptive. Good points!