Wednesday, March 27, 2013


The other morning I went into Jasper's room to wake him up, as I have had to do every morning since Daylight Savings started. It was 7am and barely light. His room was grayscale. I climbed onto the bed and snuggled his body, kissed his hair. He didn't respond. I kissed his cheek.

Jasper,” I whispered. “Wake up.” His mouth hung open and his eyes were closed. “Jasper,” I said, a little louder. Still nothing. In that dim light he looked like a corpse.

Jasper,” I said, loudly and sharply, and shook him.

Yes,” he said, popping up, perfectly fine. “Sorry,” he said, because he could tell that I was really freaking out.

You scared me,” I said, trying to catch my breath, trying to slow my heart down, trying not to cry.

Sorry,” he said again, abashed. Then he went downstairs to play some Minecraft before school.

It was a trick of the light, it was a function of my fears, but for a second I thought my son was dead.


When I was seventeen I attended a summer program called Governor's Scholars, also fondly known as “nerd camp.” Kids from all over the state of Kentucky converged on a college campus (in my case, Murray State) to live together for several weeks. For most of us it was the first time we had ever let ourselves relax into unfettered geekdom, knowing that we would be accepted unconditionally. It's hard to overstate the value of that.

I learned a lot of things there, but one surprising thing I learned at Governor's Scholars was that I was not a real Christian.

I had joined my church on Easter Eve of that year, which also happened to be my seventeenth birthday. It was one of those solemn, candlelit occasions that made me feel very close to the mystical. And so I considered myself no different from the other kids at the camp, though I had not brought my Bible with me and had no intention of taking a shuttle bus to a local church on Sunday. Just because I didn't talk about Jesus all the time didn't mean I had no faith, I told myself. In the same way that I might listen to the Cure but not dye my hair black, I might pray when I was alone but felt no desire to tell everyone else about it.

We played a bunch of games at Governor's Scholar that I suspect must have come from team-building manuals. One of the games we played in my small group divided everything that might be valuable in life into pieces. There was a piece for A Beautiful World. There was a piece for Money, and Successful Career, and Happy Family Life, and Closeness to God. We were all given a certain number of points, with which we could buy the pieces that were most important to us. The idea, I suppose, was to force us to think hard about our priorities.

Almost immediately the bidding for Closeness to God became intense. Everyone wanted that piece, no matter the cost. I quickly saw that by giving up on Closeness to God, I could obtain almost everything else worth having in life. I got A Beautiful World. I got Helping Others, and a Happy Family.

Which is perhaps not the lesson the instructor intended.

Once I revealed myself to be a closet secular humanist, the game dissolved into mutual distrust. I thought the other kids were stupid. What was the point of Closeness to God if you had absolutely nothing else? I mean, maybe that was OK for the Middle Ages, when most people's lives were nasty, brutish and short, but in 1988, when we had access to penicillin and clean water and college scholarships, it seemed downright ungrateful. They, in turn, thought I was going to hell. Look how quickly and easily I had abandoned God, and for what? Earthly pleasures? Without God, they sincerely believed, the rest was meaningless. If the purpose of the exercise was team building, all it did was to alert everyone to the fact that I didn't belong on the team. Unfettered geekdom was one thing. But apostasy? There was no place for that in Kentucky.

Temperamentally I've always been inclined toward belief in the ineffable. I'm easily moved by the poetry of the King James, by the beauty of Early Netherlandish painting, by the pathos of O Sacred Head Now Wounded. I have been bound by faith and tradition and ritual to the miraculous. I have thrilled to the rap of the scepter on the massive cathedral doors. Still, I realize that there has been a part of me that has stayed resolutely bound to the earth.


Jasper has always been very interested in death. When I was his age, children were shielded from it and didn't generally attend funerals. We've tried to be open and honest, albeit age-appropriate, around the subject. His great-grandfather Otto died when he was two and we took him to Southern California for the funeral. I had to take him out of the service, though, when he started loudly requesting to see Otto's body.

A few months later he started pretending to be dead and asking me to perform his funeral.

He would lie on the floor of the living room, sometimes with pillows piled around him, other times with blocks. He would close his eyes and lie very still and instruct me to start talking. And so I would ad lib for awhile about how much I loved him and how much I would miss him, trying as hard as I could not to think about what I was doing or saying, attempting to treat it as lightheartedly as I would any other pretend game. Jasper would lie there and soak up the praise. When his funeral was over he would sit up and ask me to conduct another one.

Which gave me a very weird feeling when I spoke to Balthazar in the delivery room that night after he was born, because I felt that I had rehearsed.


I can no longer believe in the Resurrection. That doesn't mean I don't understand its power. In fact, I think I understand it more than I did before. I consider the Resurrection to be the most compelling, ingenious narrative ever created, a testament to the creativity and intelligence of humanity.

It's The Greatest Story Ever Told.

A beloved son dies. His mother mourns. Then after three days he rises from the dead. Mary is blessed among women; no other mother has ever received such a gift. Jesus comes back, temporarily, and then he ascends into heaven and takes his place at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.

In one deft move Christianity has solved humanity's gravest, most intractable problem: the awareness of our inevitable death and the deaths of our loved ones. Our fear for ourselves and our grief for those we love has been mitigated. Jesus is our representative in a ritual sacrifice. Of course we still die, because even Christianity can't solve that biological imperative. But we no longer have to be afraid. We don't have to mourn those we've lost, though of course we do anyway because we can't help it. They're OK, though; they're in a better place and we'll see them again. Death has lost its sting.

When my brother was about twelve, he told my parents that it was much more likely that Jesus had a twin brother than that he arose from the dead. We laughed at the literal turn of his mind. But he was already expressing a fundamental belief in and respect for the laws of the world we live in. Which is something he and I share.

Sons die. They don't come back.

I bought an Easter lily anyway, in memory of Balthazar. I'm thinking of going to church on Good Friday. I mean, I have no problem with the part of the story where a socialist rabble-rouser named Jesus is murdered by the state and is buried as his mother Mary mourns. It may not be The Greatest Story Ever Told, but it's a good one, a story of this world.

When I was planning Balthazar's funeral, the only poems that spoke to me were about the eternity of the earth and our oneness with the universe. I knew that they were where I hoped to get, eventually. I believe in this life, this earth, the hyacinths and baby geese and goddamn cherry blossoms blowing everywhere.

Thursday, March 21, 2013


I'm staging a boycott.

The things I am boycotting: the men's NCAA basketball tournament, my birthday, Jasper's friend L's birthday, spring, Easter.

It's a terrible year to boycott basketball, I admit; Louisville is the number one seed. No one here cares, but it makes me feel connected to home to follow the tournament. This time last year I was filling out my bracket with my usual ineptitude, basing my prognostications on nothing, getting really excited when I lucked into an upset. I watched a bunch of games. I ordered a pizza on April 2 and watched the Kentucky-Kansas final with Jasper.

Balthazar was, unbeknownst to me, already dead. I can't do it again. I can't pretend that it matters at all.

L and I have the same birthday. This year his party is on April 7 at his house. Last year it was on April 1 at playdatePDX. Really, that day was was the worst, worse even than the day I found out, because that was the day, I believe, that Balthazar died. It was a day that was filled with the kind of worry and anxiety that you hope is unfounded. That you convince yourself is silly. That party, in particular. The heat of hundreds of little bodies running and jumping, and the deafening noise of them. Eating the cake to try to get Balthazar to move. Pressing on my belly trying to get him to move. Accepting the indulgent smiles and answering the solicitous questions of the other moms, who were so kind and pleased for me and completely unaware of my increasing panic.

He was alive at the party, but that was the last time Balthazar went anywhere. I've already told Jonathan that he may have to take Jasper to L's on the 7th.

I'll be 42 on April 2. I asked for a necklace I found in the Sundance catalog. It's a gold chain with a small vermeil charm in the shape of a Moroccan door. It has one diamond, which is my birthstone, and Balthazar's, and Jasper's. You could have it engraved with one letter. The letter, of course, is B.

It seems churlish to say my birthday is canceled, but I don't know how else to communicate how I feel about it. I guess it's just been folded into Balthzar's. It can no longer exist as a stand alone day. It will always be coupled and will as a result will always be sad. I don't mean to be petulant, but that's how it is.

The only day that means anything is April 3.

The necklace is really a gift for Balthazar's birthday, not mine. I also thought that I was going to get a tattoo, Balthazar's name in Balthazar font over my heart, but Jasper will stop loving me, he says, if I get a tattoo. He says that some adults he hates have tattoos, but he won't tell me who they are. Since Jonathan did not seem enthusiastic, either, I scrapped the idea. For now, anyway.

Spring happens whether you like it or not. Already the blossoms on the trees outside Voodoo Donuts are the same pinky mauve as the store's facade. Each day when I walk of the hill after dropping Jasper off at school I think, Balthazar was still alive today. Very soon I will reach the day when I will think, today he was not.

Last year Easter was on April 8, five days after Balthazar was born. This year it comes before, on March 30, which is good. On March 30, Balthazar was still alive. But the Easter candy in the grocery store annoys me. The pastel colors annoy me. The bunnies and the chicks. I haven't even allowed myself to think about the Resurrection. The pagan symbols are irritating enough.

Events in my life are conspiring to make this boycott easier. I start a six week contract copyediting job on Monday. My days are spent in meetings and marathon telephone conversations, tech support and project overviews and email. The money is welcome, of course, but the distraction is also appreciated, right now.

Though I should be organizing my memoir. I promised myself I would have it done and ready to show to an agent on April 3. Now I'm not sure that I'm going to meet my self-imposed deadline. I started this book in June and even I have to admit that ten months is a pretty quick turnaround. An extra month or two won't hurt and will probably help. It's just that the symbolism is important to me.

I've been thinking a lot about how I am going to honor the day. A babyloss mom I know took a meal to the Ronald McDonald House on her daughter's birthday. I thought that was a lovely idea. I tried to think of some community service I could perform, something to do with babies, or kids.

When an adult dies it's a little bit easier to know how to memorialize them, because you know what they cared about in life, what they enjoyed. I could have a bourbon in memory of my grandfather, or donate blood at the Red Cross (though not at the same time). I could eat some Russell Stovers in memory of my grandmother, or write a check to Emily's List in memory of my aunt Ellen. But what would Balthazar like? What would he want me to do? Who knows? All I know is that if he were here he'd want to be with us. Doing whatever.

I may eat a ham and cheese croissant, or a chicken pot pie. Those are the only things I know for sure that he liked.

I was feeling kind of shitty about my inability to think of an appropriate tribute when it occurred to me that I'm writing him a book. I work on it every day. I think about him every day, of course, and then I take what I've thought and try to make some sense of it, impose some order on it. I tend to devalue writing because I've done it for so long it no longer seems like anything special. But maybe writing a book for my dead son is the best way for me to honor him and I don't have to kill myself to find some other perfect, grand gesture. Maybe what I'm doing is enough.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Family of Four

We all have beliefs that are so deeply rooted that we don't even realize that they are merely preferences, not absolutes. Here's one of mine: a family is four.

I come from a family of four; it may be as simple as that. But in general I prefer symmetry: Palladio, Islamic textiles, matching sets. Eight Wedgwood plates, four squares in a windowpane. Asymmetry offends my sense of order. You don't play threesquare. There is no threetop at a restaurant. How do you choose teams when you are only three? How do you take a vote? How does a kid fight back against his oppressors when he is outnumbered?

When I was growing up only children were relatively rare, but in middle school I had three friends who were onlies. This statistical anomaly must have had to do with the fact that all of their fathers had died, and the school we attended was designed for children who might need extra nurture. As a result I always associated being an only child with tragedy, though I was confused about the nature of that tragedy, focusing not on the loss of a father but on the subsequent absence of (hypothetical) sibling(s).

Then in high school I was friends with an only child whose father was not dead, but an artist. Like the kids I had known in middle school, my friend received financial aid to attend our school. Which was probably how being an only child also developed a one to one correlation with (relative) impoverishment.

I felt sorry for the only children. It was like being a Freudian: all I could see was the lack. My swim team was full of big Catholic families, and they appeared to me to be grossly oversubscribed: packed station wagons and shared bedrooms and ValuPacs of Fritos. Two children in a family was a neat and tidy arrangement, like a tailored jacket.


Siblings are like strangers who ended up on the same Greyhound bus. Maybe you while away the long hours from Louisville to Naples conversing about anything and everything. Maybe you share your snacks, repel the creeps and crackpots, watch each other's stuff when you go to the bathroom. Or maybe not. Maybe you turn your face toward the window and ignore their tentative overtures. Maybe you try to tell them about Jesus, or they harangue you with some theory about how JFK really died, or you steal their ipod when they're not looking. It just depends.

You don't have any control over the bus, either. Maybe it's going to New Orleans, and has a bathroom and air-conditioning that works and comfy seats. Or maybe it breaks down somewhere in Indiana during a snowstorm in the middle of the night. Maybe the driver falls asleep and flips the bus halfway between Phoenix and Palm Springs and you try to get the roof emergency exit to open but it's stuck and the engine is on fire.

My brother was born when I had been alone for six years, and I fell upon him the way a hiker in the Copper Canyons might fall upon a spring. At last I had a traveling companion. Our bus was deluxe, but it had some serious problems with its wiring.

There is material evidence of our bond: a photograph of me in my green leotard, curled up in the crib with a rheumy-eyed and cranky Scott, reading him a book about gymnastics. A poem I wrote about him (my one and only love poem) in which I rhymed 'funny' with 'money', 'like' with 'bike'. A red velveteen Little Lord Fauntleroy suit I picked out that I then had to coax him to wear. But most of it is unremarkable and unremembered: sitting at the kids' table at Thanksgiving. Watching the spelling bee. Holding hands on the beach. Riding the bus.


The winter I was ten, and my brother was four, I announced to my parents that I would be filling the Christmas stockings that year. This followed a Christmas in which my stocking had contained a small plastic bag of hot chocolate mix and a plaid ribbon. My stated aim was to spare my brother a similar holiday disappointment, but my mission was broader than I realized at the time.

My mother conceded the responsibility of the stockings without complaint; it may, in fact, have been a relief. No one thought to put me on a budget, and so I bought stuffed animals and GI Joe, books and Hot Wheels. I filled my own stocking with chocolate and perfume and soap and books and earrings from Stewart's department store, anything I could think of. The first year was a success, so I became the permanent Christmas stocking manager. Long past the year Scott stopped believing in Santa, I continued the lavish tradition.

When my brother was old enough, he took over the task of filling my stocking. I was apprehensive. I'd become so accustomed to filling my own wants; how could I trust someone else to do it? He was a teenage boy; how could the gifts be anything but disappointing?

The Christmas I was twenty-two, Scott ate at a bunch of different fast-food restaurants and collected the plastic cups, because he had noticed I had no drinking glasses in my new apartment. My stocking was filled with plastic cups. To my astonishment I loved them, the movie tie-in cup and the Uof L football cup, the garish, ironic, awesome cheapness of them. It was my favorite Christmas stocking ever. Go figure.

There was a deprivation more serious than the absence of trinkets from Santa from which I had hoped to shield my brother, and in my misguided way I had thrown He-Man and Crabtree and Evelyn at the problem. But then without realizing it, without even knowing what he was doing, my brother showed me that I had it all wrong. He knew, before I did, that 'it's the thought that counts' isn't just some bullshit that cheapskates say. A plastic cup from Hardee's, if it came from my brother, was worth a lot more than those stupid cloisonne earrings I had bought for myself with my father's credit card.


My brother came to New York for Thanksgiving, when he was a sophomore at Bowdoin and I had upgraded from my firetrap room on the third floor of a building next to Rat Rock to a studio apartment on the same street. I was double booked; my second date with Jonathan was scheduled to take place at the West End on the night my brother arrived. I didn't want to blow off either one of them, so I made Scott and Jonathan sit together and make awkward small talk and eat bad bar food, because the West End sucked by then, or maybe it always had, even when Kerouac went there.

The next day Jonathan went to his grandparents in Connecticut and Scott and I went to Thanksgiving at the Williams Club. He didn't know that you don't get free refills in New York City and I didn't want to be cheap and controlling, so we spent about twenty dollars on Coke and then, feeling like imposters who had infiltrated Edith Wharton's drawing room, we escaped, walking through chill and exhaust past the Morgan Library and into midtown. There was girl trouble and I offered all the wisdom of the year I had spent in therapy. On Sunday I put him on the 9 train back to Port Authority, and I worried about how he was going to find his bus in that melee of people without me to help him.


My brother's two oldest children are four and two, and best friends. When he describes their relationship to me, the way that his daughter follows her brother, believes everything he says, and how his son will confidently share with his sister the truths of the world as he finds it, truths that are often completely wrong, I think of my brother, when he was little, holding my hand as I attempted to lead him somewhere, not really knowing where the hell I was going, either, and I think of Jasper, with no one to lead and no one to follow, making his own (I hope) sure-footed way.

Let's hope Jasper is a Modernist, comfortable with asymmetry and with making family where he finds it.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Guns in the Basement

Jonathan and I try to do something fun on Fridays. We go to Zell's for breakfast, or Pok Pok for lunch, or take a walk on the Esplanade, or see a movie. Since we almost never go out at night, the tradition functions as our weekly date. This past Friday we didn't do any of the usual things. We went to Fred Meyer and bought all of our household supplies for the month. Then we drove to Keith's Sporting Goods in Gresham and sold Jonathan's guns.

For the past eight years there has been a shotgun and a pistol in my basement. Unloaded, disassembled, firing mechanisms removed, locked-up and hidden, but there. I am temperamentally and politically disinclined toward guns; my method for dealing with the fact of the ones in my house has been denial. Though they belonged to Jonathan, he has been conflicted enough about them that in eight years he hasn't touched them, either. They were our Tell-Tale Heart, buried under the floorboards yet always audible, beating a slow steady rhythm of danger. Jasper didn't know we had the guns. He's afraid of spiders and never goes in the basement. He could never have put the disparate pieces together even if he found them and somehow managed to cut through all the safety locks and cases with a plasma torch. But those are just excuses.


I had never been in a gun store before; it was packed. The reports of mass stockpiling appear to be true. The customers were mostly men, and mostly middle-aged or older. One little girl with a strawberry-blond ponytail and a pink fleece jacket rode in on her father's shoulders. We waited in line for half an hour. One silver-haired guy in hiked up jeans and a windbreaker, the kind of man I could pass on the street or in the grocery and not even see, kept up a steady stream of chatter. “There was no place to park, this place is so crowded! Thanks, Obama!” he said to no one in particular. “I had to drive all the way here from Hood River. Thanks Obama!” I wondered if he blamed Obama when he tripped on a curb or hit his thumb with a hammer.

The Lane County sheriff came in and was ushered to the front of the line. I examined the holsters and gun cleaning kits hanging from the walls, and the tasers in a glass case. I tried not to look at the assault rifles behind the counter, the kind Adam Lanza used. Everyone seemed matter-of-fact, as though the guns were merely objects, like porcelain vases. They did look oddly inert, lined up and pricetagged like that. It was weird and unsettling, to observe firsthand the mass delusion that turns instruments of death into collectibles.

We couldn't get the best price for the guns because they were beginning to rust, a consequence of being ignored in the basement for eight years. Keith suggested to Jonathan that he find another place to store his other guns, because of course he assumed we must have other guns. No one would sell their only guns! He also said we should be thankful to live in Oregon and not in California, where the gun laws were much stricter. I tried to look as if I were thankful, while wondering just how lax Oregon's gun laws really are.

Fifteen minutes later Jonathan had a check in his hand. It's not a morally perfect solution. It won't be my son who gets a hold of those guns, when he's sixteen and we catch him smoking pot, but it could be someone else's. Best case they will sit in someone's drawer or gun rack and never be fired. Really they should have been melted down and turned into whimsical garden sculpture.


When you have a stillborn baby you surrender, forever, the illusion of control. If the person you love most and are charged to protect can die like that, you can no longer pretend that terrible things happen for a reason, or only to people who've been negligent in some way. You are forced to give up the idea that you can prepare for everything, that if you are good enough and smart enough and diligent enough you can prevent the worst from happening.

Guns, as far as I can tell, are owned by many people merely to bolster their false notion of control. Jonathan has worried that not having a gun will leave him vulnerable and unable to protect us. He worries that not having one is being unprepared. That he would feel like a fool if something went wrong and he was unarmed. It's tempting, when you realize just how many weapons are out there, to feel like you have to join the arms race. But danger often doesn't come from the direction you expect.
You can prepare for a home invasion and get a child with leukemia. You can build a bomb shelter and be paralyzed by a drunk driver. You will probably never encounter the psychotic gunman; instead your depressed son might encounter your shotgun and turn it on himself.

I'm not against reasonable preparation; I've got bottled water stacked in my basement. And one person's “reasonable” can be another person's “insane paranoia.” But the truth is, we are all vulnerable, all the time. It is the human condition.


Ultimately, Jonathan made the decision to sell his guns not because of politics or Newtown, but because of Balthazar. When Balthazar died, he consciously chose the side of love instead of the side of hate and fear. And I guess I have too, though I hadn't thought about it in those terms. It means admitting that we are vulnerable. It means risking looking foolish. It means reaching out to people, accepting help and helping where we can. When you choose the side of love, the guns have to go.

If the apocalypse comes, our best chance for survival will be in cooperation with our friends and neighbors. We will rely on the relationships we've made, not guns.