When she was ten minutes old, the nurse took E. to a table across the delivery room and began squeezing goop into her eyes.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It prevents infection,” the nurse said. I nodded knowingly--Infection is bad!--and took her word as truth.
But I’ll tell you, Friend, it wasn’t pretty to watch—not the gooping of her eyes or the pinpricking that followed. She’d barely even opened those eyes and already, our welcome committee came bearing no fruit baskets, just pain following the pain she’d already endured. The hospital spared little time arming her against the infections of the world, leading me to wonder: If it’s so dangerous out here, why do we ever leave the womb?
It’s an observation Biss tackles in her new book, On Immunity, noting that since the womb is “sterile, the act of birth itself is the “original inoculation.” Microbes latch on, creating the child’s “ecosystem.”
But often that ecosystem needs help, which is why Biss argues passionately in favor of vaccinations, even if they aren’t always pretty. Of course, vaccinating children isn’t meant to be pretty; it’s meant to keep them safe—a small discomfort endured in the present to spare them a future plight. But this isn’t the view held by all, and the startling growth in the anti-vaccine movement seemed to have served as further impetus for Biss's rebuttal. And it’s a fine rebuttal— scientific and philosophical, historical and literary, too. She calls upon everyone from Achilles to Dracula to try to make sense of her own parental fears; fears quite rational in the modern world.
For all our allegiance to antibacterial soaps and bug sprays and wall socket covers, Biss knows what we all know: “A child cannot be kept from his fate, though this does not stop the gods themselves from trying.”
It hardly stops parents from trying either (see: antibacterial soap, bug spray, wall socket covers). And though our helplessness will always remain (not even Thetis could keep her son, Achilles, invulnerable), our parental transgression only occurs when the trying doesn’t. You know me, Friend, I'm quite the try-er. I’ll gladly rely on everything from wishing wells to four-leaf clovers if I think it might ensure the safety of my offspring. And even if it doesn’t, but it does no harm, I’ll probably rely on it anyway.
Which is to say, I didn’t need Biss’s book to tell me to vaccinate my kid. Didn’t need her to chide me to suck it up and deal with the goop and the pinprick. Sure, this wasn’t the entrance into the world I wanted to give E., but it’s the exit I’m more concerned about. And there are so many exits, Friend, we could all some help in blocking the doors.
Last night I spent the better part of an hour searching for Buzz Lightyear in the tall grass alongside the river. Against my advice, H. had lugged an unseeingly number of toys to the outdoor concert earlier that evening, and after we returned home, we unpacked the toys to find that Buzz was no longer among the others.
Of course, this was hardly the first time a toy had gone missing, but given Buzz’s cinematic history, I didn’t want to miss my chance to watch Toy Story 4 play out before my eyes. And so, I drove back to that park—now empty aside from the bands of 20-year-olds passing bottles of Boone’s Farm—and did a full sweep of the area.
I found no Buzz, just an expensive pair of sunglasses, which I left conspicuously on a nearby rock in case the former owner found herself sweeping the area later that night.
But on my drive home—just as I began to think Toy Story 4 was going to be a real downer—I received a call from my wife informing me that a friend of ours had snagged him, that we could retrieve ol' Buzz the following day. Friend, I was no hero that night, but at least I tried to be.
In Stephanie G’Schwind’s anthology, Man in the Moon, contributors offer their own versions of the failed heroics of fatherhood. Though on occasion, we’re left reading about failed fathers more generally. It so easy for fathers to fail, especially when children often begin their lives with such high opinions of them. Though as some essays prove, this isn’t always the case.
One particular essay that stuck out is Carole Firstman’s “Liminal Scorpions,” which begins with the unforgettable line: “I recently found a scorpion on my father’s desk, which I have since stolen.” The essay goes on to recount Firstman’s efforts to pack up a few key belongings for her ailing father, who has taken a trip to Mexico and decided he’d like to die there. Firstman’s father is hardly likeable (case and point: he demanded his wife and newborn daughter live in an army tent in the backyard when her baby noises became “too much of a distraction for him”); nevertheless, Firstman—now grown—gives her father his due, dutifully jotting down his requests and sending the items.
The scorpion comes into play because Firstman’s father was a specialist in arachnids, at one point amassing “at least a thousand jars…” Firstman describes both the cruelty of his collection, as well as the care with which he studied them. “By decomposing, they would have become part of the soil, thus contributing to the next cycle of life. But preserved, they inhabited a space somewhere between life and death.” Firstman’s depiction of her father serves as another form of preservation—for better or worse.
Long story short, my inability to find Buzz will surely cost me Father Of the Year. Though in truth, any number of past transgressions might’ve already cost me the prize. But as all of the essays in G’Schwind’s anthology confirm, perfect fathers are rarely worth writing about.
I like to think that relationships between parents and children thrive in these moments of folly. But having once served as the child in the relationship, I also know that folly can stunt the growth before allowing for the bloom.
You’ll know all of this in a couple of weeks, dear Friend, when you become the father. Good luck. I'll send good vibes your way.
I read this one in the delivery room, sitting couch-side while M. waited for the contractions to pick up. I’d promised myself I’d finish the book by the time her water broke (“Come hell or broken water!” I said with raised fist), which pleased M. just fine since it distracted me from a new comedy routine I’d been rehearsing entitled, “Ways to Amuse Your Wife When She’s In Labor.” (It mostly consisted of my making less-than-soothing ocean noises).
I was within sight of the end when the midwife stepped into the room, saw me reclined and enjoying a book, and—quite surprisingly—refrained from bestowing me with the tongue-lashing I surely deserved.
“Great book,” she said. “My husband’s listed in the acknowledgments.”
He really is, Friend. I checked. Turns out he was Butler’s former teacher.
Nick Butler, as you might guess, is a bit of a hometown hero around here, as he should be. His book recounts the interwoven story lines of four friends, all Wisconsinites, whose fame, dreams, and normalcy all plays a role in helping the book reach its crescendo. Equally exciting to we Eau Clairians, the book’s set right here in town, allowing us a unique familiarity not only with the place, but the kind of people (i.e. us) who inhabit such a place.
Butler gets so many observations right (“Winter in Wisconsin is the ideal time to avoid someone because our garments grow ever larger…”) that it’s hard not to see ourselves reflected in every line. Rather, perhaps we recognize ourselves all too well. Simply put, we needn’t dig too deep to find things that connect us to the story, and in the case of my own delivery room reading, the connections were almost uncanny.
As M.’s contractions began to quicken, I read the line, “When E. was born, I ruptured my uterus”—gasping at what I hoped wouldn’t turn out to be some kind of bibliomancy-induced prophecy. Not only had the book given us the delivery room scene, but the character's name was the same as our forthcoming child's.
“What?” M. asked from her place on the bed.
“Trust me,” I said, “you don’t want to know.”
Long story short, no uteri were ruptured in the making of our child. All went smoothly enough.
And as I held her for the first time a few minutes after her birth, lifting her to the hospital window so she could see the lake and the trees, I wondered which of the characters she might one day portray.
We’re only on page one of her life, thank God, and I have no intention of rushing this story to its end.