Saturday, April 27, 2013

Divide and Conquer



I once heard people with only one child referred to as Hobby Parents. This has never seemed fair. I had only one child right up until I had two and I don’t ever recall thinking that it was easy. In fact, in many ways, having two children is easier than having one. For one thing, you’re better at it; being a parent, that is. You’ve deposited all your failures into your first child, like a miniature human latrine filled with all the arrogant assumptions and parental hubris you acquired by commiserating with other over-informed, over-programmed, doula-hiring white people during your first pregnancy. Put another way, the second time around, you know that you cannot possibly prepare for having children any more than you can prepare for the apocalypse. You just stock up on canned goods, dig a bunker, and hope you picked the right god. Before child #2 arrives, you don’t read a single book. You don’t go to a single class. You’re too focused on the vengeance your first child is preparing to visit upon you in the weeks after #2 arrives. (“No, it is never okay to draw on the baby, sweetie.”

But then the new baby arrives and to your surprise, it is not so tough. The older child actually likes the new one. You manage the baby’s diabolical sleep patterns more effectively that you did the first time. You can change a diaper in the dark with your eyes closed. You may even have sex before the baby's first birthday, possibly even with your spouse. 

Then, as they get older, they actually play together. This is a revelation. You can be in your own home, sometimes for hours at a time, without interacting with your children. People with only one child cannot imagine this. It’s not that we don’t love our single children, but when you have only one child, you heap so much attention on him that he can’t help but think you’re interested in everything he does. Then, before you know it, you’re having in depth conversations about ancillary characters from the Clone Wars and wondering if 2:00pm is really too early to start drinking. When your second child arrives, it takes your place in this conversation. Within a few years, you are relieved from duty; honorably discharged from Pixar, American Girl dolls, Hex Bugs, Star Wars, Minecraft and everything else that people with two children must only feign interest in. It’s just easier. 

Until it’s not.



Some people say that having two children is hard because of all the scheduling conflicts, the logistical headaches that come with getting two kids to two different places at the same time; soccer and ballet, piano lessons and t-ball, Brownies and juvenile court hearings. But frankly, that sounds to me like the privileged whining of people with too many good options. If you can drive a stick shift, you ought to be able to manage the calendars of two elementary school children. Unless, like me, you occasionally reach a point where you can’t possibly give another shit. And then it’s not a matter of ineptitude, but of indifference. Did you know that if you forget to send your children to tae kwon doh camp with their personal water bottle, they do not, in fact, die of dehydration?

No, what makes having two children hard is that they fight. A lot. About the stupidest imaginable things. My daughter, the older one, has ways of manipulating her adoring younger brother that would make Stanley Milgram proud. He is the sweetest child around, but she can talk him into doing things that violate the Geneva Convention. She changes the rules of their games to ensure that she will always win. She makes him sit in silent observance while she plays with his birthday presents. And she is a fundamentally nice person! But, where her brother is concerned, she is a megalomaniac. She can do this because he worships her.

But even he has his breaking point. And when he snaps, our family goes to DEFCON ONE.
He will spend hours willingly surrendering the Lego pieces that he needs to make his Ninjago guy, but then she will take one without asking.

“That’s a rare piece and you knew I needed it and now I can’t find another one and now I can’t finish my guy and I told you not to take that one! I told you!” he yells.

“No, you didn’t. You said you didn’t need that one,” she lies.

“No, I didn’t! That’s the only one of those and it goes with my guy. You can’t take that one!”

“But I need it and you said I could have whatever I needed from the big pile.”

“But you moved that one into the big pile! I was in my pile and you moved it!”

“No. I just found it there. And you’re not nice!”

And so on.

They are both to blame.

For his part, when you act like a doormat for an hour and a half, you can’t get too mad when someone decides to walk all over you. And as far as she’s concerned, I know she’s lying and he knows she’s lying, but I’m not sure she knows it. In her world, just as in everyone else’s, there is the truth, but there is also her truth. And her truth is the one she believes.

I do not handle these fights well. I try to let them go and sometimes they resolve things themselves. For a while. But I’ve found that once they break the seal on the anger and the hurt feelings, there’s no going back. It is like seeing an ominous wet spot on an earthen dam. It's really just a matter of time before everyone downstream is going to need a lifejacket.

At some point, I try to intercede, which inevitably makes things worse. Even though I know that they are not really arguing about Lego pieces but about the power imbalance in their relationship, which can only be changed by social Darwinian forces beyond my control, I foolishly try to establish who took what from whom and whether this violated a specific, pre-stated prohibition against such “borrowing” of said Lego pieces; all the while being sucked into their irrational vortex of mutual victimhood. I cannot fix this because one cannot find justice in an inherently unjust world; the world of siblings.



All of this has an amazing byproduct. Not long after our second child arrived, we began splitting them up. We largely abandoned utopian notions of nuclear family outings and decided to divide and conquer. This changed everything. Sure, it prevents them from fighting because they are not in each other's presence, but that is not the true benefit.

I’ve found that spending one-on-one time with my children is infinitely more enjoyable now that I have two. I think this has something to do with how much each of them relishes being alone with me, and vice versa.  After my daughter was born, it was hardly uncommon for us to be alone together. Any time my wife left the house, there we were. Every time I took her to the park, it was just the two of us. When the boy arrived, that all changed. Now we were a threesome, at minimum. When I am with both of them, even our best conversations are less interesting.

“Dad,” the boy asks, “is it true that Buster Posey has never hit two grand slams in one game?”

“Yeah,” she adds. “That’s what I said because I don’t think it’s common for players to hit two grand slams in one game.”

“You’re right.” I answer. “It’s not.”

“But it has happened, right?” he asks.

“Probably.”

“But Buster Posey hasn’t done it,” she states.

“Not that I know of.”

Talking baseball with my children is a great joy. Not because of the content of the conversation, but because it’s happening at all. Like seeing a rainbow, it briefly blows my mind that it’s occurring, but no matter how happy it makes me, after a while, I’m ready to move on.



Then, one day, my wife takes my son to a birthday party and I am alone with my daughter. We ride the ferry into the city and collect lunch fixings from the farmer's market. We sit beneath the bronze statue of Gandhi, assembling sandwiches.

“Dad, who is he?” she asks.

“He was a man from India who showed the world that you could solve even the biggest problems without violence.”

“Like Martin Luther King?”

“Yes.”

“Did they know each other?”

“I don’t think so.”

“But they would have liked each other, probably.”

“I’m sure.”

She tears off a piece of baguette and pulls the soft dough from inside, rolling it into a ball before putting it into her mouth.

“This bread is really good.”

“Isn’t it? You know, before your brother was born, I used to bring you down here at the crack of dawn.”

“Because I wasn’t a very good sleeper, was I?” she laughs with rare self-effacing confidence.

“Nope. You weren’t. And you’d have me up so early that sometimes I’d throw you in the stroller while mommy was still sleeping and we’d walk all the way down Market Street. And this bakery would just be opening.”

“Was it a long walk?”

“Yes. But it was nice to walk as the sun was rising.”

“And then what did we do?”

“Well, we’d wait for the bakery to open and I’d buy a two loaves of warm bread that they’d just taken out of the oven.”

“Did we eat it?”

“Yes. We’d hop on the streetcar and eat a whole loaf on the way home. Then when we got home, we’d give mommy the other one.”

“We didn’t tell her about the one we ate,” she says authoritatively, remembering something she cannot remember.

“Nope.”

“But we saved one for her, so it was okay.”

“That’s right.”

“Dad? Can we do that again someday? Go to the bakery just the two of us?”

“Oh, I suppose we can make that happen.”



The following weekend, I will take my son to Baker Beach, just as I used to when he was a baby and his sister was off at preschool. We will dig holes in the sand and throw rocks in the waves. He will ask me about the fishing boats, heading out under the Golden Gate. They’re catching Dungeness crab, I will tell him. He will tell me everything he knows about crabs; they have pinchers, they walk sideways, they can make friends with dolphins.

“Tell me an imaginary story,” he’ll ask.

We will rest on the sand on a dirty blanket I pulled from my trunk, watching the surf casters pull perch after perch after perch from the waves.

“Once there was a dolphin and a crab and they were the best of friends,” I’ll begin...



Perhaps the best thing about having two children is how much you appreciate having just one.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Yearbook



There are many things to say about my middle school. So many factoids, experiential leavings, tragicomic anecdotes. Like my math teacher, the deaf World War II veteran who made us write lines when he saw our lips moving. Or the English teacher who sent me to the vice-principal’s office for publicly correcting her spelling of “greatful.” Or the rampaging flocks of seagulls that laid siege to the yard during lunchtime (we had no cafeteria), stealing sandwiches from unguarded six graders and shit bombing a student or two per day.

The school was located across the street from a sewage treatment plant. We once had to evacuate because of a chlorine gas leak. It was designed by the same architect who designed San Quentin. The dark tinted windows allowed us to see out, but no one could see in.

My town was a progressive one, even more so in the mid 1980s. Yet I somehow recollect that the majority of our black classmates were in the same homeroom, assigned to a husband-and-wife teaching team who were reputed to be adept at dealing with discipline cases. That nearly monochromatic classroom was flecked with some of our poorer white students and several children with learning disabilities. Presumably a nod to diversity.

I arrived a year late, in seventh grade, as a straight A student. I finished eighth grade by the skin of my teeth. My graduation present was my own phone number with a dedicated landline in my room. When I mentioned to my mother that some of my classmates had received larger remunerative acknowledgements of their matriculation, she looked at me and said incredulously, “For graduating from eighth grade? What other choice did you have?” A fair point, I had to admit even then.

As a newcomer, I had an eagle-eyed perspective on the pecking order of the schoolyard. I could see that by seventh grade, cliques had already formed. Reputations had crystallized. The pretty girls had been identified. The slutty ones had been branded. The cool boys had been crowned. The nerdy ones had been isolated like a collection of Patient Zeros. As a fresh face, I was a curiosity. The jocky guys knew me from little league, which opened the door to the in-crowd. The girls asked probing questions like What’s your name? or Are you going with anyone? I fielded the queries the aplomb of a blind trapeze artist, clinging to the bar for dear life until my audience grew tired of watching and left.

I recall the kind and comely Devon McDevitt asking me on day two, “So where did you go to school before this?”

“Why do you ask?” I answered with the grace and confidence of a possum caught in high beams.

She regarded me blankly for a moment, as if she’d offered food to a starving man only to have him pee on it. Then she rolled her powder blue eyes before turning huffily away, never to speak to me again.

Improbably, one girl decided to like me. This fact alone earns her anonymity here. She had a puppyish crush on me and routinely followed me home after school. But she had already been identified as uncool. Plain at best. Ugly at worst. Her retainer caused her to lisp painfully. What little chance I had of kissing a better girl would be lost if I so much as responded to the notes she passed me in class. I cruelly avoided her at all costs.

One day, after school, I was shooting baskets in the street with my mother’s boyfriend. The girl passed by the intersection a half a block away. She waved at us hopefully.

“Is that her?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I mumbled, looking away from both of them.

He rolled the ball down the street.

“What are you doing?” I yelled.

The ball bounced off her shapeless preteen legs and she had no choice but to walk it back up the block.

“Oh my God!” I said, running inside to avoid her stain.

Insecurity can make assholes of us all.

The two of them stood talking in the street. She was confident and friendly. She chatted calmly, seeming indifferent to my reemergence. Viewed through the window, she gained humanity. But the barrier added nothing to me. I remained inside with my twin companions; cowardice and judgment.

Eventually, she gave up or lost interest. I waited until she turned the corner before returning to the street.

“I don’t get it. She seems nice and she’s pretty,” my mother’s boyfriend said.

“Whatever. She’s lame,” I said. Accepting his opinion would mean acknowledging the arbitrary falseness of my own.

A few weeks ago, while rummaging through boxes in the garage, I unearthed my middle school yearbook. I’d forgotten that I’d saved it.  

I opened it. Each page untold a lie.

Devon McDevitt was more ordinary than comely. The geeky boys were no less acne-ridden than the most popular jocks. In fact, every face that I’d once worshiped now appeared indistinguishable from the ones that I’d regarded as cursed or afflicted.

I came to the photo of the girl who’d returned the basketball. There was an X across her face. I suddenly felt nauseous with guilt. Knots of shame tightened in my stomach. For many years I’ve blamed my middle school misery on my middle school itself. As if the contaminated edifice infected all those who crossed its threshold. There’s a piece of me that holds on to that story, but it is necessarily smaller since coming across my yearbook.

I was tempted to return the yearbook to the dusty box from whence I came, to bury it in top secret storage like the arc of the covenant. But I decided against it. Instead, it now sits on a shelf next to photo albums from high school, college, my wedding, and my children’s earliest days. These albums contain my fondest memories; frozen images of the moments that built my confidence brick by brick in the years that followed my middle school nadir. They do not erase the misery of middle school any more than they absolve me of the sins of adolescence. But they are proof that life got better, and mercifully, so did I.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Day Eleven



Having children changes you forever. On the list of things you don’t need to be told, this fact slips neatly between stapling your finger really hurts and grown men who wear backwards baseball caps are assholes. But the funny thing is, in my case, it wasn’t really true. At least, not at first. 

I do remember welling up when they placed my blood-and-vernix-covered daughter on my wife’s chest. I do remember being dumbly happy for several days after we got home from the hospital. I do remember staring at my newborn for longer than I normally stare at things that aren’t doing anything. But I don’t remember feeling like I had changed. Not meaningfully.

There were practical differences. Our grocery bill had inexplicably doubled. We now owned eight quarts of Purell. And my house smelled like a dairy on a hot day. But I didn’t really feel any different. At my core, I was the same person the day before my daughter was born as I was the day after.

Until the eleventh day.

“It’s probably not a big deal,” I told the advice nurse on the phone. “But my daughter has blood in her stool.”

The nurse asked a series of questions, clearly prompted by a script on a computer. Does she seem lethargic? Does she have a fever? Is she nursing? And so on. Then she placed me on hold.

I looked at my wife holding our lethargic, feverish, non-nursing newborn. We stood in the kitchen. Somehow, neither of us was terribly concerned. We’d done everything right. Natural childbirth. Cloth diapers. Breastfeeding. We were models of modern, progressive parenting; obnoxiously over-informed. We weren’t paranoid about germs, diaper rash, or taking the baby outside. As first time parents go, we had our shit together.

“Sir?” the nurse said, returning to the line. “We’d like you to bring her in.”

“To the pediatrician’s office?”

“To the emergency room.”


An ER waiting room is a bleak place. No one is happy to be there. We sat under blue florescent lights in chairs bolted to the linoleum floor. I wanted to leave. I was uncomfortable, but not nervous. I thought we were wasting our time. We’d been waiting for an hour already. If she was in any danger, I thought, they’d have seen her right away. This was CYA bullshit.

A mother sat between her two children in a row of seats near the tinted windows. Her pre-teen daughter had a large homemade-looking bandage on the side of her head. Blood showed through the gauze. Her eyes were red from tears, but she now appeared to be quietly managing her considerable pain. Her younger brother looked sickly, too. Their mother was exhausted. She was alone with a seriously injured child. Her hair was stringy and matted. Her eyes, fixed blankly in the middle distance, puffed out like a drug user’s. Her misfortune had begun long before this day. She had a sufferer’s countenance; the visage of someone whose life had not worked out at all like she planned.

She slowly became aware of me looking at her. I was careful not to show pity.  Her eyes fell on my wife, holding our limp child in her arms. Awareness returned to the woman. A sudden expression of intense concern came across her face, as though she’d just seen someone climb onto the window ledge of a tall building. Her concern then turned to the pity that I’d been so careful to spare her. Her mouth opened as if to say something to us. When words failed, she put her arms around her two children.

I got up and went to the reception desk.

“Excuse me. We’ve been here for an hour. I know other people have been here longer, but we’ve got an eleven day-old child with a fever of 103. Do the doctors know we’re waiting out here?”

“Sir, I assure you the doctors are aware and we’re going to get you in as soon as we can.”

“Okay,” I said, aware of my impotence.

I returned to my seat. My wife had seen the woman’s look, too. It had frightened her. She began to cry.

“Do you think she’s going to be okay?”

“Of course, she is,” I said, knowing that neither one of us believed I had any idea what I was talking about.

The large doors to the ER opened and a nurse appeared.

“Elizabeth Hairston?”

The mother and her children got to their feet. They walked past us. The mother paused near us as her daughter met the nurse.

“How’s the baby doing?” she asked my wife.

“We don’t know.”

 “Try not to worry. It’s a good hospital.”

“Thanks,” said my wife.

“What’s wrong with her?”

“She’s got a fever and some blood in her stool.”

“How old?”

“Eleven days.”

The woman sighed weakly.

“I’ll say a prayer for her.”

She followed her children through the doors. For the first time in my life, I was comforted by the thought of someone praying on my behalf.

We waited another two hours.


Inside the ER, we were sent to a large private room with a proper door instead of a curtain. I’d been to the ER many times and never knew such rooms existed. We were joined by a doctor who evinced the preternaturally calm yet clinical demeanor of someone who lives in a world of perpetual crisis.

“I’m Doctor Sequeira. I’m the pediatric attending” she said. She was an attractive white woman with a soft voice who looked to be about my age, none of which pleased me. On the whole, I prefer my doctors to look and sound like Jack Klugman. She had the lanky, muscular body of someone who competes in triathlons. The skin around her nose was inflamed, indicating a persistent cold. “So, tell me what’s been going on?” she continued casually, though with obvious medical interest.

We told her about the stomach discomfort. The spitting up. The trouble sleeping. None of which had alarmed us. But when we found streaks of blood in the diaper and her fever spiked, we decided we should call someone.

As we spoke, she gently examined our naked nine pound baby who seemed much smaller on the full-sized exam table. She cried weakly, sounding like a starving kit in an abandoned den.

The doctor looked at us.

“So,” she began, pausing pregnantly as though this was a full sentence. “You probably know that fever is a sign of infection.”

We nodded, though my nod was meant as an acceptance of her premise, rather than an agreement that it applied to my child.

“And when most of us get a fever, we have an immune system that kicks into gear and starts fighting that infection,” the doctor continued delicately. “The problem in that at—” She looked at a chart. “At eleven days, your baby doesn’t have an immune system yet.” She looked at us to make sure we understood. “So we have to give her one.”

“What does that mean?” my wife asked, making me aware, for the first time, the something was going to happen. “We did natural childbirth. No drugs. No nothing. We’re going to spread out our vaccines. I don’t want to pump her full of antibiotics at eleven days old.” My wife’s voice quavered in a way I’d never heard before.

“Yeah,” I added by way of support. “We’d really rather not put her on antibiotics. Are you sure we can’t give it a little time and see if she improves before we—“

“The problem is, at this age, we don’t have a little time,” the doctor cut me off. “If she has an infection – and we have to assume she does because of the fever – she…we…” she hesitated, choosing her words carefully. “It has to be treated very aggressively.”

“But wait,” my wife objected. “How do you even know what she has?”

“We don’t. We can rule out some things right away. And we will. But even if we rule them out, we won’t know what we’re dealing with until we get some other tests back. The cultures need time to grow.”

“Can we wait until we get the first tests back?” I asked.

Our daughter was crying more loudly now. The doctor handed her to my wife who lifted her shirt and bra and offered her a breast. She fussed and did not take it.

“We need to start her on broad spectrum antibiotics as soon as possible. That way, we’re addressing as many causes as possible right away. If the first test comes back positive and we know what we’re dealing with, we can be more targeted in our treatment. But for now, we have to treat her for everything.”

I looked at our baby. Through her fine corn silk hair I saw the faint freckles on the back of her neck; angle’s kisses, the nurse had called them in the delivery room.  They were the first thing I noticed about her. Perfectly normal, they’d said. Next I’d noticed her tiny nose. It looked like a ski jump. Where did that cartoon nose come from? And her eyes. Bluer than a public pool. The left one didn’t open as much as the right. She may grow out of it, they’d told me. Nothing to be concerned about.

Before she arrived, I thought often about what our relationship would be like. It’s all about the mother for the first 18 months, everyone said. I knew that would probably be the case, but I wondered anyway. What wordless conversations would we share? Would she recognize the timber in my chest when I read to her? How would we communicate for that first year and a half?

In only eleven days, I’d begun to interpret her cries. Hungry, wet, tired. I knew I was deluding myself, but I liked the idea that I was learning to understand her. She could tell me things. I could listen and respond. In a way, I thought, this will be the basis of our entire relationship. She will tell me what she needs and I’ll do my best to get it for her.

“The problem with babies,” the doctor began again, “is that they can’t tell us what’s wrong. When they hurt, they can’t tell us where. They can’t describe their pain. They can’t tell us their symptoms. So unfortunately, we have to treat them for everything.”

It was the most obvious thing I’d ever heard, yet somehow it had never occurred to me. Being a doctor for a baby is nothing like being a doctor for an adult. It’s closer to being a vet. Not because babies’ illnesses are different or their bodies are smaller, but because the patient can never tell you what’s wrong.

My wife looked at me hopefully, as if I might offer an alternative or a firm rebuke of the doctor’s prescription. My eyes drifted from hers to the baby in her arms. She seemed hardly human; born but not yet whole. Her tiny face was anchored by full yet delicate lips that held the last of her waning color. Her arms were short and weak. The tiny hands at the ends were good for nothing more than reflexively clutching fingers. Her helplessness became mine.

“Doctor, can you give us a minute to talk?” I asked.

“Of course.”

The doctor left the room and I looked at my wife.

“I don’t want to give an eleven day-old baby antibiotics,” she said fiercely. “It’s crazy.”

“I agree. Maybe we should get a second opinion.” I reminded her that my father had a friend who was a pediatrician. I could call him at home.

“Okay.”

I asked the doctor to come back in. I told her we wanted to get a second opinion. She, of course, knew the doctor I intended to call. Then she motioned me into the hall as my wife lay down next to the baby on the exam table, trying vainly to feed her on her side.

“I think calling Dr. Saffa is a good idea. I’m confident he’s going to tell you the same thing I am. But I need you to understand than we don’t have a lot of time.”

“What do you mean?”

“The longer we let the infection go, the harder it’s going to be to fight.”

“As in, it will take longer for her to recover?” I asked, sensing that she wasn’t saying what she meant.

“As in, at this age, we have about three days.”

“Until what?”

“Until we may not be able to fight the infection anymore.”


The doctor was right, my family friend told me. Infections in newborns were not to be trifled with. My wife sat on the exam table, holding our tiny child, grimly accepting the reality of interventive Western medicine. I asked the doctor to come in. I told her we were ready.

“The first thing we need to do is rule out meningitis,” she told us. “And unfortunately that means we’re going to need to do a lumbar puncture.”

“What!” my wife fairly yelled.

“A spinal tap. We need to extract some of her spinal fluid.”

I began to feel very cold. Sweat formed on my brow. The doctor looked at me.

“Are you okay?” she asked kindly.

“I’m not feeling very well all of a sudden. I think I should probably sit down.”

I took a seat and fought the nausea.

“I know it sounds awful, but it’s the only way to rule out meningitis, which can be fatal.”

I felt the color leaking from my face. My wife began to cry. I wanted to go to her and hold the two of them, but I felt certain that if I stood up I would collapse.

“I’m going to do the tap myself,” the doctor assured us. “We’re also going to need a urine sample, and unfortunately at this age the only way to get one is with a catheter. We’ll give her a little break after the tap. Then I’ll have the nurses come in and get the urine sample. The sooner we start running tests, the sooner we’ll know what we’re dealing with.”

“Okay,” murmured my wife, consenting with the same enthusiasm with which one agrees to an amputation.

The doctor went to a cabinet and removed a kit.

“We’re going to need her to be very still. Do you feel like you want to hold her down?”

My wife and I looked at each other.

“Some parents feel strongly that they want to be in the room, but if you don’t want to be, that’s okay. I can have the nurses come in.”

“I want her to know we’re here,” my wife said to me.

I got shakily to my feet and moved closer to the table. Our daughter had fallen asleep.

“Are you sure you can do this?” the doctor asked me, sensing my cowardice.

“Yes,” I lied.

“Okay. Then let’s roll her onto her side.”

My wife gently placed our daughter on the paper-covered table, exposing the pallid skin of her back. The pinkness that marked her Irish heritage was long since absent. She stirred and began to fuss.

“It’s okay, sweet girl. Momma’s here,” my wife whispered cinematically.

I petted her wispy hair. She was so damn small.

The doctor began to swab her back with Betadine, the ochre liquid staining her fuzz-covered skin. The cool liquid woke her and she began to cry. I placed a shaky hand on her legs, helping to curve her body into the fetal position that must have once seemed safe. The doctor spread a sterile blue square over her back. Then she took a syringe with an impossibly long needle and slowly inserted it into my daughter’s spine.

Newborns do not scream. That is not what it was. It was a wail of pure agony and betrayal. A baby does not know fear. When fear is stripped from the sound of crying, all that is left is pain. And it is much worse.

“Please hurry,” my wife pleaded while looking into her daughter’s twisted eyes.

The syringe slowly filled with clear, viscous fluid.

“Almost done,” the doctor said calmly.

She carefully extracted the needle.

“Done.”

She swabbed the spot on the baby’s back where the needle had been and covered it with gauze.

“Why don’t you just hold her for a while?” the doctor told my wife. She labeled the sample and handed it to someone who’d entered the room without my noticing. Then she returned to my wife and daughter. She petted the baby’s hair kindly.

“I’m so sorry I had to put you through that,” she whispered. “I hope you won’t hold it against me.”

I looked at her with admiration. Her skill was matched by humanity.

She turned to me.

“And I’m so sorry I had to put you through that.”

The three of us let out a laugh of relief.

“I may or may not hold it against you,” I said smiling.


The next three days were a blur. The catheterization was, if possible, worse than the spinal tap. The two nurses charged with doing it were criminally incompetent and possibly visually impaired. After watching them repeatedly stab our infant daughter’s urethra, my wife transformed into a she-bear, chasing them out of the room and demanding that Doctor Sequeira return. We were later told that the nurses had struggled because they weren’t used to performing the procedure on a newborn, which was like being told that captain only hit the iceberg because he normally takes the southern route.

We were admitted to the hospital. They took blood samples and stool samples to go along with the urine and spinal fluid. Our daughter had an IV taped to her splinted wrist, making her arm look like a baby seal flipper. She received a steady cocktail of antibiotics and fluids while we waited for cultures to grow. I lived on a diet of popsicles, stolen from the freezer of the pediatrics ward. My wife never left the hospital. I left only to retrieve clothes from home or to pick-up the occasional takeout meal on Fillmore Street.

It wasn’t meningitis.

We were turned over to the chief of pediatric medicine, who brought in the chief of infectious diseases. The tests kept coming back negative. She wasn’t getting any better. But she wasn’t getting any worse. Different antibiotics were recommended. Finally, on the third day, a diagnosis.

Salmonella.

We were practically ashamed. The doctors assured us that salmonella could be fatal in newborns, as if to make us feel better about what we’d been through. They sent us home with the proper antibiotics, which we gratefully accepted. Nevertheless, before we were even discharged, my wife was researching pro-biotics to restore our daughter's natural gastrointestinal flora.

We’ve speculated on how she got it, but the plausible explanations are either too absurd or too embarrassing to revisit. It took many months for her to fully recover. In some ways, I’m not sure she ever did.

After the spinal tap, another ER doctor saw how shaken I was and reassured me that she would never remember the pain. I believed that. But I’ve wondered often how much of her personality was shaped that day. I’m not a particularly spiritual person. When it comes to sentient souls, I’m a skeptic. But I believe it’s possible that some unconscious part of my daughter remembers what happened to her. Not many of us learn so early that the world is not a safe place. I wish I could unburden her. All I want is to make her world safe. But I can’t.

I learned that on day eleven.