Lindy felt the early tugs, her womb becoming tidal and loud, the fetus, turning, crying out a tiny beast. A braying sigh.
He calls to her. He calls to her.
And his voice moves against her flesh, an undulation, his kick a caress. His moment moaning, a lover’s groan of touching, trying to find that home, that light, he swims his lament to be.
From the hospital room in January, I watch the ice, the city in ice sinking below us, and I watch the strangers in rubber gloves slip their hands inside Lindy, slip their fists and wrists into her, feeling for him.
The night passes into daylight, daylight into anxious night. Their hands are translucent in rubber gloves, her slime glistening along their fingers, her vulva, purple, swollen like a black eye or a cut deep on the scalp.
The baby’s pulse races and screams at all those hands probing.
I hold Lindy close and I count her breathing. I feel her breath in my face. I think about the baby’s breath, try not to think it, force a jovial patience, wait, eat sandwiches, watch the ice of the city watch the smoke stacks of the city and cars moving slowly over snowy roads.
I dream a remembering of Lindy, crossing the living room, bare feet padding across our blue carpet; I dream her moving in slow strides, strands of blonde hair shifting across her face, her smile, her breasts jiggling under her tee-shirt. She glides to me, deliberate and certain. After eight years of marriage, she takes my hand, whispers, “it’s time to make our baby.” I follow her.
I dream this baby to hurry, slowly, to take what it needs and hurry, slowly, so that nothing will stop our coming together.
The baby cries out, still inside her, and I watch and wait, slowly, slowly, I watch and wait.
At the end of two days they take Lindy away, into the room where they might have to cut her.
I follow, confused, swept into a nightmare of red and black and running in place while the bogeyman comes.
The forceps are silver and shiny, and he holds them near that hole in her.
He says things to us and we nod, numb, exhausted, dumb as beasts, dumb as can be.
I am at her head speaking softly, it will be all right, our baby’s coming, it might be a boy, it will be a baby, baby, oh baby, just breathe. You’re doing so goooood oh baby, baby.
Nurses in blue uniforms move around us, circle like stupid birds around the doctor, his voice thick with authority.
He slides the silver steel inside her. I cannot see, but I guess her hole looks like an animal wounded, red, blue veins on an old man’s hand.
I watch and wait, whispering to Lindy, trying to be there but feeling my failing because I keep remembering other women. I remember them in cheap motels. I remember in an alley off city streets, and I remember, even, making this baby. I pushed myself hard inside Lindy, wanting to feel her feel it come. I remember my mother, drinking, bouncing off the walls, bunny-hopping off to bed my father drinking with her, both of them gone, gone away.
And I always remember my grandfather hung himself in the back room of our house. I was four and in my jammies and Grandpa was swinging by his neck.
And the steel is inside Lindy And she breathes like an animal And the doctor buzzes and the nurses hover And I don’t want to remember anymore.
And they make him come.
He is purple and covered in muck, his face pinched from the steel he cries out, sucking air and begging, and I gasp, laugh, ride the light and love and dream of no more pain or loss– no more grandpa swinging from the light fixture, neck the color of a swollen vulva, no more Mommy giggling away away away, no more women I don’t know, wrapped around me in blind escape.
I dream hard the dream of knowing him, this baby boy coming to us;
Sheehan, Sheehan, of knowing and only remembering, And being with Sheehan.
He is out, hanging in the doctor’s hands, slick and red as a skinned animal.
I hold scissors and in the blue bright blush of surgical lights, I set the blades to the puce-white cord still connecting him to Lindy.
Something spins slowly around us, doctors, nurses, friends, Lindy, me, this new life blinking, confused, covered in meconium skin purple-white as a dead man’s forearm flesh.
When I press the blades together a single drop of blood, almost black in the blue light, seeps along the stainless steel and I hear the flesh separating, feel it ripping along the sheen of silver smeared barely waxen.
A single bird, small, leaps inside my chest, turning to pure spirit to pure joy as we watch, crying.
Could my father have felt this when he first saw me? Could his father before him? My grandfathers? Sheehan’s grandfathers?
The snip of my scissors sets him free. Sheehan, he becomes Sheehan now, and that bird inside me wings free too, wings, wings its way inside me.
On his third day we are back home. There are three of us now, and many others, all our connections compounded by friends, the TV chattering, kitchen awash in coffee cups, cereal boxes, a constant drone, “Don’t wake the baby” in a stifled laughter. Lindy’s fat breasts, dripping watery milk, thick with it.
Our nights become sleepless as a wind. Our nights become his calling to us, our baby, our boy. Oh Sheehan, hands, feet, cries, red hair in spiky down And perfect, perfect for us, with us. Such a repudiation of all my failures, such a validation come flowing with his cries at 2:00 a.m. 3:20 a.m. 5:07 a.m. cries our boy, sobs our baby. Come, come to me, and we always do.
He is so tiny and delicate. I hold him like a lace web. I change his diapers, carry him to Lindy’s breast, gently swoosh bath water over his frail body.
I kiss his ears, whisper secrets to him. I can balance him in my hand. His face is innocent yet somehow ancient. Do you know me baby boy? I’m your Daddy, your Daddy-o.
What do you know? Nothing? Everything? I’m here, baby boy, I’m here. He stares at me, gurgles, yawns. I have never loved like this before. Did my father touch me like this? Did my grandfathers give their hearts the way Sheehan takes mine? I press my nose into his soft hair, inhale his sweet scent. I touch his skin, his fingernails, tickle his long, curving lashes. Oh Sheehan, Oh father, Oh grandfather, we are all together now.
Then as days become a week and the week draws into a another, Lindy’s mother is holding Sheehan when she sees a movement in his eyes, something she’s noticed before. Look at this she says look now, there. She is pushing Sheehan towards us like a specimen. Do you see that? She looks at Lindy her voice afraid. There’s something wrong Sweetie, I’ve never seen anyth… I can’t stop myself; I interrupt — What do you mean? What are you saying? I hear my voice, am surprised by its coldness, There’s nothing wrong with my son! I take him from her, turn away, stare into his face. In his eyes there is a quivering, a strange crackling, I hold him close, look back at Lindy and her mother, He’s fine. It’s nothing. I say into their silence.
Within a week, his cries, too, become something different than what they’ve been. His sweet morning coos become the squealing of a rusted hinge, or an animal, wounded, or a small bird screeching. Scared? Abandoned? Beak trembling in a long, desperate, inconsolable weeping. I push my fear away, stuff it. Father? Grandfather? What is happening? I breathe deeply, tighten my fists. It’s all right, I say into the silence, Everything will be all right.
I am four years old, my grandfather is hanging, his eyes fixed on my small face.
I am five and my mother is telling me that I am a perfect boy, and that I will always be the most special to her. I am six and she is whispering, Shhhh, here comes your father. Don’t cry, don’t whine, be everything he needs you to be, only be better than him, be perfect. You’re better than anyone, and I’ll always love you. And then she takes a long slow drink of vodka and she smiles at me, and I am eight, twelve, fourteen, and she kisses me, touches me. My father stares, sips his scotch, mumbles something cold and ugly. I mumble back and he is lifting me by my shirt front, waving his fist in my face saying, Anytime you wanna try me, Anytime you think you’re man enough. And I recoil, a coward and a child two years old, four, six, ten, then twenty-two, but still a child with women, not my mother, not my wife, touching me secret, secret and I am perfect for them. I must be perfect so that they will love me and my father’s anger won’t kill me, so I become perfect, except for the minor fact that I lie all the time.
And now, although I know it’s not this simple, I know it’s hoping too much, I have come to believe that because he is part of me, the best part of me, maybe the only truly good part, that only my son, will help me stop the lie that I must be perfect. I will become what I know I can be, I will become what I am meant to be, with my son, sliding through warm mud, fighting with snowballs, riding motorcycles by the river, eating corn dogs, Cheetos, weeping for the Chicago Cubs, battling mutant warriors from far away planets and those from inside our hearts, together. For my son, I will find the path to be something more than the sum of all my pain.
Only when Sheehan cries, he cries, screams, whispers, sighs through a dark, freezing breeze like a ghost bird, mouth agape, falling, crying,
Something is wrong.
Sheehan’s crying, screams to us, something is very wrong.
Sheehan is on Lindy’s breast, trying to suck, when he arches his back, turns a gasping purple-red, bites down hard enough so that Lindy cries out. A dozen times a day he has these fits; tiny gums clamped, muscles contracted, his limbs and spine, usually so limp, become hard as overcooked meat. He writhes a swirling scream, a demand against wind and stone, sunlight and water.
WHAT’S HAPPENING TO ME?
Lindy holds him and comforts him, and I stand apart, stare at him, his pale skin, tiny, red, beakish lips, hands, already long and slender, nose, toes, fuzzy red hair. His eyes twitch like short circuits and around me a low, cruel buzz begins, a low, cruel, steady buzz.
Lindy, I say, my voice is a board creaking, Lindy…Lin…
But she cuddles Sheehan, Doesn’t look at me. Everything that was ever going to be, everything that was going to become, begins a slow unraveling.
At the doctor’s office the women assistants move like white, starched things, Lindy and Sheehan and I sit and wait. Sheehan’s countenance is flat as sleep, eyes wide open, unfocused, his expression is a dull page from an old magazine. Lindy and I are rotating between numb, dumb, slipping away, forgetting our names our purpose our fear and then caving into that fear. Torture in its purest essence, is anticipation and impossible hope ending at Sheehan’s gaze.
We sit waiting for the doctors to tell us some new bit about Sheehan. His muscle tone is a tad limp. Open wide, there now, they say prodding him, poking him, every day a new doctor, spinning him around in their machines, tossing glimpses to one another. Today a nurse approaches and says, Nothing to worry about, it’s just routine, only we need to inform you that 1 in 2,000 patients suffer an immediate, violent and fatal allergic reaction to this dye we’re gonna shoot into his head before we put him into the machine.
Lindy’s face shifts from numb to terrified. The nurse says, as if to settle the matter, Oh, it’s nothing to worry about, only 1 in 2,000. But we know it’s another huge needle, it will turn his blood black, his body is already red, scarred, wounded from so many needles. Sheehan is on Lindy’s lap, his face is empty as a clean table. She lifts his arm, limp and thin, Shoot dye? Fatal? She mutters softly, not questions, barely even words. I say, It’ll be all right. She looks at me, Fatal, she says, once more, and bursts into tears. I speak again, It’ll be all right, I say, knowing that I don’t know that, knowing that Lindy knows I don’t know, then I add, We have to do this, and Lindy, staring through me, says, I know.
Inside my chest where my heart should be, a ghost bird is flying into a terrible wind, a frozen, winter wind, and its eye is covered in ice, and it has no voice, and it is fading out of itself; falling and falling. Sheehan takes the dye and breathes. See, everything is fine, says the nurse, as if it were clear and simple, as if our fears were self-induced.
Then they take him to the machine, white and silver-chrome like a pair of giant forceps, glistening.
He has an infant seizure disorder, the doctor says, I think we knew that, I say trying to control my tone, can you tell us what it means? He’s going to be all right isn’t he? He’s okay, right? And always the same answer, Well, we’ve got lots of tests, and there’s no need for alarm. Can you excuse me a moment please… and I look at Sheehan and then at Lindy and Lindy looks at me. I say, Why is this happening to us? She shifts Sheehan in her lap, slides her fingers across his cheek, gently as soft breathing. She doesn’t answer. We sit in silence and we wait.
Something happens then, Lindy won’t look at me, and I can’t look at myself. It’s as if your wife has walked across your living room carpet, be it blue or beige or white, a thousand times, and so many times you’ve watched that walk, her smile, her breasts, a wisp of hair falling across her face, then something happens and you never see any of it again. Or your husband has assured you, ten thousand times that he loves you and then something happens and his mouth still makes the words, but those words, once real as firewood or concrete become meringue of dust.
Lindy holds Sheehan and she whispers to him. I float around in a dark place where an old man with pressure in his head drags a steamer trunk, covered in stickers from Alabama, stands upon it, attaches a rope to a sturdy light fixture and looks out the window of the knotty pine room where he has decided it all. He sees the snow on evergreens, and perhaps wonders what? About relief? Sweet, sweet, relief from all that pressure in his head? About living so far from what makes any sense, from mint juleps, and the Cascade Plunge all-white public pool where the little black kids can’t come in? And if he double-checks the knot, does he take the time to think about his son, my father? About his grandson, me, sleeping an unlocked door away? About Sheehan, whom he’ll never know? And as he steps off into some dark place and relief, does he think about what...
Sheehan does not grow, he stays the same: at six months his face is white/pink, freckled, dimpled chin; at nine months his arms and legs are overcooked spaghetti laced with the bones of dead birds; at a year his toes, nose, nails, flesh are all human, but behind his eyes it’s blank as fog over snow.
I lift him by the scruff of his neck like a sleeping puppy, he hangs limp. I kiss him, and whisper and rage at him, his face never changes, he is silent.
I set my hand on Lindy’s arm, feel her move away. She says, looking into his eyes, I love him so much and I know, I know too… As she speaks she looks away, looks away from Sheehan, away from me, speaks slowly, her words falling, I know, he’s not here. I snap at her, He’ll be all right! He’ll be just fine! I become my father, my grandfather, my words are their words too. Lindy looks at me and starts to speak, But if… she begins. I cut her off. No “buts”, no “ifs” My words are cold stones. I stare into Lindy’s eyes and speak again, Sheehan will be just fine.
He has cerebral palsy, the specialist says, and Lindy begins to sob. I say, Lindy, it’s okay just because he has C.P. doesn’t mean he’s going to be retarded or something. Does it Doc? I ask, turning to him. He doesn’t look at us. We are right here before him. Lindy, weeping, in a red dress, her shoes wet from a puddle splashed through to hurry to this place. I in blue jeans, a grey sweater my head throbbing as 101 Strings butcher Hey Jude from invisible speakers. We are right here in front of him but he doesn’t want to see us; he doesn’t want to say what must be said. The other doctor, his partner is more direct. He has sharp, assassin’s eyes. He turns to us, his words like thorny branches, Well, he begins, factually speaking in 80% of C.P. cases there is substantial retardation.
What? I ask, more a gasp than a word. He stares at me takes a breath, In 80% of… he hesitates, looks into my eyes, Are you all right? He asks. And the dark place outside me becomes inside me too, a part of me exploding: OF COURSE I’M NOT ALL RIGHT I scream, standing up, guts tight as an old knot, YOU JUST TOLD ME MY KID’S GONNA BE A RETARD! And a phone rings off stage, and both doctors move for the door. Assassin-eyes gets there first, his wingtips click down the hallway. The other doctor pauses, turns to us, I’m sorry, he says, still avoiding our eyes. Then he looks up and speaks, I know it’s hard with a first… but there’s no reason you can’t have another… a healthy… He hesitates, looks away again, I’m sorry, He says, stepping out, quietly closing the door.
At night in bed I reach for Lindy, touch her hair, whisper her name. She feigns sleep, shifts away from me. I stare into the darkness surrounding her, try to see her through the blackness, then I turn away too.
The days all blend together now. One afternoon Lindy walks into the living room where I am sitting alone. She looks at me and speaks, You’ve never been really honest with me. She says this without malice, matter-of-fact. I stare at her, ashamed, stunned. I love you, I say, weakly, but she rejects this. You love too easily, she says, You’re a victim of your charms. But wit and charm and “I love you’s” won’t help you now. I don’t know what to say. Sheehan is asleep in his room. The house is deadly quiet. I do love you, I say, finally, but the words sound hollow even to me, and then, suddenly, blurting out, I say, I’m not to blame for Sheehan! I am shocked by these words. Lindy pauses, considers, speaks slowly,
No. No, you’re not to blame, but… She stops, looks into my eyes. In her face is all the sadness of our days. She turns and walks away.
Lindy and Sheehan and I are alone, her mother, gone our friends, gone, and I look at Lindy and she looks at me and there is nothing left for either of us to see.
Months break over us. Sheehan is dead only he eats, breathes, defecates, trapped inside some kind of being that no one will ever understand. Which makes us twins, he and I. Twins in our blood, in our double-jointed thumbs, in our jaw lines, in our slender arms and legs, in our eyes, both vacant now; in blood and sinew and spirit we’re twins, descendants of my father hating me, of his father, who killed himself to escape us all. We are father and son all right. And all of it keeps spinning out and down like a bird falling to a perfect death.
I can’t handle this, I say to Lindy, Why is this happening to us? She stares at me. In her eyes I feel my Grandfather’s heart, my Father’s anger, my fear and abandonment and loneliness. Lindy speaks quietly, Why can’t you just love him? He’s your child. I can’t speak, look away. I have never been so alone. When I look at her again all I see is a death dream of legacy.
Two times I live the death dream, dance to the death dance in perfect rhythm. First, driving through Wyoming, mountains, red cliffs, craggy as old flesh blown by archaic winds, by new winds, hot barren, dry as desert dust. I am driving, Lindy next to me, Sheehan is on the back seat. He is 10 months old. His body has grown a little, his mouth open like a hole in a wall, he stares but isn’t staring: He begins to moan, AhhhhhhhhhhhAhhhhhhhhhhhh! loudly, over and over; AhhhhhhhhhhhAhhhhhhhhhhhh!
When this began, a month ago, Lindy and I exchanged looks, almost remembering what hope meant until we learned there’s a name for this, Vocalizations, it means nothing. It’s just something these kids do. The doctor’s words echoed. It means nothing, nothing, nothing.
He was not there and he is not here, yet he rocks back and forth, rocks and rocks.
Like a stupid wind or the moan of machinery dying.
I am drunk, driving too fast. I feel quiet at the hot wind, the cruel sun, the desert in my mouth, at the purity of this emptiness, the barren landscape, my barren heart.
I drink more, faster, push the accelerator harder. I mutter to the hills, to Sheehan’s moan, to nothing, I don’t care about anything anymore… I don’t feel anything. I sense Lindy pulling away from me; we can’t find each other. I can’t see her smile, hair, bare feet, just as my words are dust in her ears.
I drink again, feel the liquid slosh at the corners of my mouth, feel it soak into my beard, feel deeply content in the sudden, sure knowledge.
That I needn’t live like this.
That I can’t live like this.
That I will not live like this forever.
I will drink; I will rage; I will hurry up and die.
Hurry up, goddamnit! Goddamnit, I will die. I WILL!
I cut a deal then, with myself, with the hot red clay, I’ll wait five years in case Sheehan needs me, though I know he won’t, he can’t. I glimpse him in the rearview mirror. Drool covers his chin. I hear his idiot mantra, AhhhhhhhhhhhAhhhhhhhhhhhh!
I hate him. I love him and I hate him. This is your child fallen into a well, moaning forever as you search, seek, but never find. This is your child, head in an invisible vise, the steel handle turned too slowly to see, while you stare into eyes at nothing, nothing. This is your child. In the rearview mirror I watch my child the front of his tee-shirt is soaked, connected to shiny lower lip by a long quivering strand of spittle.
His arms flop about, head bobs on his shoulders like a broken toy.
I promise myself that it will all be over, Five years I whisper, I’ll be what, thirty-eight years old? Yes, wasn’t Christ thirty-something when they nailed him to his cross? I mumble softly, crucifixion, crucifixion. Sheehan chants,
Lindy turns to me, What? She says. But I don’t answer. We hurtle into the unbiased heat, empty landscape, to the only song my son will ever sing,
I dance the second death dream a year later. It is an autumn evening, October 3rd, 6:50 p.m. Winter and spring and summer have blended into more of Sheehan, an empty swirl of pain, grief, perfect anguish. I am at home alone with him, and the sun is setting. Lindy is out, having drinks with friends, getting on with her life, but I can’t. I am alone with Sheehan. He is still vocalizing but now too, he’s discovered his hands, slender, delicate as insect wings, but red and chapped as he shoves them into his mouth, bites hard on his wrists, dangles fingers down his throat, vomits, swallows, then shoves them back in again, over and over, spittle and slime soak his shirt sleeve. Self-stimulation the experts tell us to the stench of puke, sour bile. I try to feed him dinner. His hands are hornets hovering, lashing, swarming his mouth. Sweat runs down my forehead, under my arms, as I hold him, grip the spoon, try to get mashed egg and rice into his gaping, bellowing mouth. He moans a loud AhhhhhhhhhhhAhhhhhhhhhhhh! as I hold his wrists, a louder AhhhhhhhhhhhAhhhhhhhhhhhh! as I pin down his hands, and even louder AhhhhhhhhhhhAhhhhhhhhhhhh! as I begin to tie his arms to the chair.
Then, as if invited by his anger, a heavy seizure comes, a bad one, like all the other bad ones, his face a mask of solid agony, head quivering, body cracking in two. The sun is setting red, orange and pink through the locust trees. All along the sky the sunset paddles its way upstream into shafts of red, orange, pink light and this light, although illuminating Sheehan’s torture, feels warm and gentle. It is fading now, falling and fading. I see it as my last real friend. The night is coming after us.
Finally I sit in silent darkness, my broken child draped over me.
My sigh is something less than breath, something absurd, embarrassing, shameful, and suddenly I know, I can’t do this any longer.
I go and get my small, black handgun. It was once my grandfather’s gun, once my father’s gun, and I walk, almost floating back into the room. It’s funny, I can’t feel my feet on the hardwood floor. I can’t feel my spine or my flesh.| I feel the way Sheehan looks when a bad seizure has passed, settled, finished, spent. I am lost in a delicate, soft swoosh, like the sound of a body falling.
I caress that black steel in the darkness. I taste it, feel the acrid joy, a kiss of oiled metal along my lips, on my tongue. I hear it calling in my grandfather’s southern drawl, chanting our legacy; I hear it call in my father’s cold disdain, and I think, I’m not really going to do it, I just want to see how it feels.
Sheehan lies in my lap. He is limp now, soft as the freshly dead, still as something spilled, soaking into flesh, white and blank, eyelashes, long and curved, hands, legs, forehead, ears, nose, fingernails, smell of puke, palms, creases in his palms, jaw, head, lips, bones, soft and still and silent as windless, autumn branches. The night is now fully upon us: no more bird songs, no sounds at all. There is such a silence, such a stillness, rivers stop, winds die, fall leaves lie flat beneath my skin.
I cock the gun. I tell myself I won’t do it, but I stare at Sheehan’s pale temple, put the gun into my mouth.
Sheehan and I are alone in the darkness.
Sheehan and I are alone.
We are disappearing. We are disappearing.
I fondle the steel, let my eyelids close to silence and darkness and legacy.
His sleep is a small precious stone, gentle as the fingers of a warm breeze. I open my eyes, watch him breathe, let the gun drop slowly to the floor.
Inside me, this moment changes into something never felt before, a flutter of feathers as two birds, falling, pass down through a blind, silent prayer, whispering goodbye to dreams and hope, pass down, falling, and whispering goodbye.
I hold Sheehan tenderly, in sleep, voice quiet, he breathes, hands still, in silence, slumbering, his spirit is a feather on a quiet river, his person, his being, some kind of impossible, painful, incomprehensible gift.
For Sheehan and me, there is no ending.
Twelve years have passed since that night when, For the first time since the birth, I wept. In that moment, something passed between Sheehan’s sleep and my soft weeping, something about loving him and letting go. We sat in that silent darkness, I felt my baby dreaming. His breath was Lindy and I saying goodbye. His breath was my grandfather’s breathing, His breath was my father loving us. His breath was my breath, we breathed as one; Together and apart through the years to come, we would live our ghost birds dreaming, as we live this long slow breathing.
Cover design and internal graphics, from his glass tryptic Ghost Birds, by Roy Carpenter. Final photo of Sheehan Trueman by Ginger Ninde.
Deepest Thanks to An Idea (By Ingenious Piece) for their initial sponsorship, curation and support for Sheehan