Guilt (September)

The conclusion to our writer’s saga of contemporary fatherhood, where all is revealed and most are forgiven, including a postscript with advice for new parents.

It’s been a month, and we’re in a good routine now, broken only when Jack gets his first head cold. Dr. Heiss gives him some nose drops and weighs him—over 11 pounds now, the little ogre.

Since he’s dropped his purple umbilical stump, we can bathe him in the tub now. We hop in together. He is a slippery devil but loves to float, relaxing to the point that he salts my bath with a wee squirt of baby pee.

I am getting regular flare-ups of guilt now. Guilt for not spending more time at work, then after getting sucked down that vortex and putting in late hours, feeling guilty that I can’t help Patti more. She is completely consumed by the baby, feeding him out of her own body, waking with him in the night and tending to him all day. To let her rest more, I get up and bring the baby to her in bed, then top him off with a bottle. Then I get up again at five to deal with the loaded diaper and warm the milk in the dark, feed it to him and then pee while still holding the Goober.

Still, whenever I take a minute to myself, I feel I am robbing someone else of my help, at home or at the office. I have to get over it.


* * *

Patti is going back to work and takes Jack with her on a shoot. He is quiet and helpful and adored by the crew. Amazingly, Patti manages to work with him around.


* * *

We eat spicy pizza.

I wake up at 3 a.m. from a vivid dream. I had killed a five-year-old son of a family with whom I was camping. The older brother, eight years old, was the prime suspect. When the severely burnt body was discovered under the campfire ashes, everyone came to me for consolation. I thought that no fingerprints were possible under the circumstances, though I realized I had not really been careful enough and was very lucky. I had the feeling I would carry this around with me forever and it would punish me terribly even if I were never caught. The police began to interview me, and I woke up with my heart in my mouth.

How scary! I’ve always hated camping.


* * *

Work is tense and my boss is a crab. Rumors abound that he may soon jump ship. I sit like a fist in a meeting, bad tempered and overtired. I think about how I dashed away from home this morning, away from Patti who was chipper and lovely and made me a special breakfast and Jack who was lying in bed, quietly watching me dress with wide blue eyes. I’m a fool. Count your blessings and stop looking for trouble and angst. Will I never learn to have a sense of humor, to lighten up and chill out?


* * *

The doorman rings the buzzer from downstairs. Jack is crying. The dog is barking. I can’t hear what he says and am more intent on calming Jack down. Fifteen minutes later, Pipsi appears in a huff. She wonders what the hell we were doing, why we kept her waiting, she’d had to have a sighting of Mike Kahan in the lobby, we are inconveniencing her greatly, she should never have come but I’d said that we would be ready to go out with her at two o’clock…

“Stop,” I say.

She does.

“Look, you’re going to have to cut us some slack. It’s chaos around here.”

“You said you’d be ready at two o’clock. It’s twenty past.”

“I know. Look, just because we said two, doesn’t mean we’ll be ready on the dot.” I hesitated. “Things are different. You’ll just have to learn to deal with it.”

“I don’t see why you can’t control things. It’s just a baby. Why is he crying like that?”

“He’s a baby.”

“Babies don’t cry like that.”

“Well, this one does. He’s fine.”

“And why is that dog barking?”


* * *

I write to my friend Tommy. He just got married.

Red rimmed eyes
Difficulty concentrating.
Tendency to eat junk.
Anxiety and paranoia.
Obsession with bodily functions.
Inadequate hygiene.
Delusions of grandeur.
Falling asleep at desk.
Running with new crowd, losing track of old friends.

Tommy, friends don’t let friends reproduce.


* * *

Patti and I used to play computer adventure game called “Zork.” You’d encounter various obstacles and try everything you could think of, use every tool and weapon you’d pick up to crack the puzzle or defeat the beast.

He’s just a little boy who woke up on his own in the dark and cried but nobody heard him.Now we call the baby “Zork Jr.” He’ll get irritated while breasting and shout out or punch PL in the chest. Nothing will distract him until he hits on the bottle but then that’s no good, too. We carry him around, joggle him up and down, pat him on the back, rub his tummy, check his diaper over and again, wave a rattle, a toy, offer the pacifier, but he just crabs and complains for up to an hour or two. Then the very thing he rejected 10 minutes ago makes him happy and content. Little bastard.


* * *

New baby. The long, inconsolable crying jags are over. He takes long, deep naps, then wakes up and is totally good natured. Sunny and funny, trumpeting a fart and then pooing at the breakfast table (while Houndy drinks out of the toilet…they make quite a pair).


* * *

Jack’s supposed to be into high-contrast black and white images. We show him cards and mobiles with faces and bold graphics. He is far more interested in our taxidermy collection.


* * *

I reread my letter to Keir. It’s been sitting unmailed on my desk for weeks.

I’m not sure what I was thinking, really. The more time I spend with Jack, the more I can see how it must have been for him to have lost his own child so long ago. How the hell would you ever get over a thing like that? I can’t imagine, even after a month, being without my boy and having no idea in the world where he was and then discovering that he’s as far away as the planet’s geography will allow and no hope of ever getting him back. Now I understand his nostalgia and his inability to deal coherently with me. I thought he was shedding crocodile tears over me in that room over the Dorset pub but that awfully cruel assumption shows how little I really understood about human nature. I don’t know that I’ll ever have a normal relationship with Keir, but I don’t need to pour salt into whatever wounds he has left.

I send him some baby pictures and congratulations on becoming a grandfather.


* * *

I wake up at 4:45 a.m. Frank walks past the bed, and I think, “Oh, no, I never walked him last night. Or did I? Maybe he hasn’t peed in 20 hours and is roaming around like a bloated ghost, preparing to let loose on the rug.”

Then I hear a croaking sound from the bassinet and I think, “Oh, no, the baby. He’s been asleep since nine. He must be famished.” I get up, heat up a huge bottle of milk, carry the baby to the rocker but he only drinks a tiny amount and then crashes. I push the nipple into his mouth, but he won’t respond. I try to jiggle him a bit to get him to open up, pries up his eyelids, nothing.

I return him to the bassinet and then lie in my own bed, my mind racing with anxieties. What’s wrong with him? Why is he sleeping so deeply? Why won’t he eat? It’s so weird. And his diaper is bone dry after nine hours? Does he have a blocked bowel? Kidney failure? What? I snap the light on and turn to Dr. Spock.

I flip past roseola, rubella, and scabies. I learn that babies with cystic fibrosis have faulty sweat glands. When you kiss them you can taste the excessive salt. I kiss Jack on the lips. They taste very sweet. He doesn’t stir.

Back to Spock. Diphtheria, spasmodic croup, whooping cough. Check the bowel movements. You may find roundworms, creature that look like fat wriggling earthworms. I lift the back of his diaper. No bowel movement. No worms. Yet.

Grand mal epilepsy, broken bones, do not induce vomiting if the child ingests caustic lime or liquid auto polish. I check the floor under the bed. No empty chemical containers.

Laryngobronchitis can inflame the epiglottis so a child cannot breathe. He will drool and become unwilling to move his head in any direction to preserve the small passage in his windpipe through which he is managing to breathe.

Jack won’t move his head, that’s true, but probably because he is unconscious.

Here we are: Crib death, SIDS—

“Every once in a while a baby between the ages of 3 weeks and 7 weeks is found dead in bed. There is never an adequate explanation…”

I wake Patti for an opinion.

She says, “What time is it?”

“Just after five. Listen, do you think something’s wrong? Isn’t it odd that the baby won’t eat anything and won’t wake up?”

“Not really. I just fed him and I changed him. At four.”


“Go to sleep.”

“Good night.”


* * *

Flip side. Jack is in bed. Patti and I are in the living room. The TV is on, and so is the breast pump. I’m lying on the couch in the middle of some long-winded speech about something or other when Patti says “Shh. Do you hear something?” She turns off the pump, and we both laugh guiltily as Jack’s loud crying escapes from the bedroom. I go in to see him, and he seems so sad and lost. I pick him up, and he stops crying, then sobs hard a couple of times and clutches at my shirt, pulling himself into my chest. It’s the first time that I feel he needs me for emotional sustenance as well as for food and diaper changing. He’s just a little boy who woke up on his own in the dark and cried but nobody heard him. When I hold him, he holds back, and I feel relief wash over him.

“Don’t worry, Jacky,” I say. “Daddy’s here.”


* * *


The most valuable stuff I learned about being a parent I never found in any of the dozens of books on the subject I read. And neither, of course, will you.

My story isn’t new. It’s your story, and the story of your great uncle’s neighbor’s parents. It’s the story of taking what you get and doing the best you can with it. It’s simple, but it took a lot for me to learn it, and it’s still easy for me to forget.

I set out to overcome what I saw as a long line of other people’s mistakes. It seemed to me that my parents and my parents’ parents were flawed and uncaring. Maybe they were. But when it came to my role in the story, my birth as a dad, the responsibility was all mine.

Ironically, though, my influence wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. I see now that no matter how many books I read or how many doctor appointments I attended, nothing was going to turn out as I expected. My mistake was thinking that meant I was a failure, a sign that I didn’t matter.

What did make a difference, what always did and will, was my heart. I love my wife and I love my boy. My real job is to care and to do everything I do with the fullness of that heart. My personality, my brain, my stubbornness, my ego, and my past did all they could to upset my heart’s intentions, but in the end, it didn’t matter. My boy was born, and he showed me the love I am capable of.

He showed me that love is not a hose you aim at a target, it’s an ocean you splash all around you. Loving my boy deepened my love for my wife but also for my mother, my sister, and even my father, whom I’d lost so long ago. When I became a father, I realized that I couldn’t undo what I thought all my flawed father figures had done. But I could see what they had done from a different perspective, not as evil, but as a simple case of people trying and maybe not living up to what they’d hoped.

It’s a distracting business, life. There are so many paths we can take, so many forces buffeting us, and it’s hard to stay on the straight and narrow. But the fact is that there isn’t a clearly marked, well-paved road—there’s just a direction, and anything we do to keep headed that way will be just fine. The direction is toward love, toward helping and sacrificing and supporting and caring and just plain being nice to people. Keep your eye on that compass, and no matter how you stumble and even if you have to crawl, you will do OK.

Another thing while I’m on this soap box. I am just a tiny twig in the tree of my family. And just because some of the other twigs don’t seem to have grown toward the light doesn’t mean I shouldn’t bother. I feel sad for my uncle, who doesn’t speak to his sister or his aging father. I feel sorry for Mike Kahan, who, not long after Jack was born, died a horrible death surrounded only by people who hadn’t known him for long. I feel sorry for couples who divorce, kids who feel unloved, parents who grow old and die alone. I can’t say why those things happen. But it seems that if I can do what so many people told me throughout the year of our Peanut, relax and enjoy, forgive and forget, go with the flow and let my heart be my guide, things’ll work out. It’s hard to try but it’s all I can do.

Humans are crude and oafish beasts, stepping on our own toes, fouling our own nests. If we can just trust ourselves enough to follow our hearts, perhaps we can add a little bit more good to the next generation, which in kind can add to the next and before long, well, you might just have something.

At least, that’s what I’ll tell my boy.


TMN Contributing Illustrator Danny Gregory first learned to swim in the canal behind the Lahore American School, to kill ticks at Canberra Grammar School, to snap bras at the Kibbutz Givat Brenner, to light a match with one hand at Princeton University, and to mount sheep at the Northwestern School of Taxidermy. He is the author of several books and the obligatory blog and lives in Greenwich Village (with his first wife and son), where he does not attend NYU. More by Danny Gregory