It was a quiet ride home. Quiet but not uncomfortable. More just satisfying. It had been seven days of work, each one ending at nearly midnight. And this one was the last. I had seven more nights ahead of me that would each stretch from midnight to past sunrise. But in between the two weeks of work, I had a single day off. And so here I rode, on the verge of my short weekend, humming through the night around me, watching for vagrant deer along the sides of the road and listening to NPR’s Chapter a Day as Susan Sweeney read from a book about a private eye digging through the newspapers, back alleys, and ball field secrets of Chicago. I didn’t really know what the story was about (I’d only caught bits and pieces up until that point), but I knew that there was a murder, an old woman coming out of prison at the far end of her life empty and beaten as a disemboweled punching bag, and a private eye connecting the crumbling corners of a cold city like an astronomer charting the dead gods in the thick night. It was quiet there in the night with the tires sussing cool concrete and Sweeney’s voice playing out low across the FM frequency. I was tired, worn out, but comfortable with the steady progress of the car and the measured progress of crime fiction.
It’s been nine years since his birth. Not exactly nine – that point came and went more than a month ago. And it’s probably been closer to ten years since the boy came into being, hidden from our eyes, “knit in the womb,” as the saying goes. But, it’s been around nine years since he’s been causing us joy and sorrow and hell and heartache with his own exposed fingers and noises. These nights play hell with my emotions. I switch from a child of the sun to a walker of the night. I need to sleep in dark corners of the house at odd hour, padding the walls and my ears with an artificial silence while the day chirps on outside. The kids – especially during these summer months – are creatures of the light. They rise with the sun, bustle about the house, tumble in fits of sibling rivalry, the older ones trying diligently to correct the craziness of the littles, and shrieking and playing and laughing. And so, when I rise, there is work to be done. There’s work to be done in the sun. And then, after children fall to cool sheets and glow-in-the-dark stars, there’s more work to be done. Work with the perpetual motion of steam-powered machinery whirling away in the night just as it does in the day. And so I get tired. And short. And it shows.
But, it was a quiet ride home in between those two stretches of seven days. And it was there in that quietude that it struck me that IH was nine years old. Nine years have come and gone. In those first days, I had called my own Mom for reassurance at three in the morning after he wouldn’t stop crying. He just sobbed and screamed, inconsolable, unrelenting. I’d hold him and the closeness of my skin to him seemed to comfort him, but as soon as I laid him down, he would sob. And so it went for 2 days and 2 nights. Until we reached the point where we just never put him down. And when the night closed in around me on the second night, I slumped onto the floor, my arms propped with pillows, watching rerun after rerun of the Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Something had been wrong with him. But he was in my arms. And it was ok there. So we sat. And when the DVD ran itself to the end, I knew I had no choice but to sit there in the quietude, to mutter to my Pop that I didn’t know what I was doing, that I loved this child more than anything, but if it wasn’t meant to be, then to please be gentle with the boy. He sat in my arms as I prayed and, at 2 days old, he looked up into my eyes. I looked down into his and I knew then, after all, that IH wasn’t mine. I was just a guardian, a guide, a teacher. IH belonged to the flowing universe, the goodness that wraps us all. And it was ok. So life comes so it can go. I am just a shepherd, a teacher, a tender, a catcher in the rye. I help and I hold, but I was never meant to have.
I rode in that dark quietude for the fifteen minutes between the plant and my house. The nights around here are like good poetry. The phrases are brief and sparkling – never lengthier than the stretch of my headlights through the unwinding roads. And the stories are quick as deer hooves, kicking suddenly through the weedy ditches and the sparkling eyes of coyotes passing quickly with the rows of corn. Quick, brilliant, and secretly folded back into the dark of the world waiting all around. I drive and am comforted by the small stretch of road that has been given to me to behold momentarily and then to leave behind. I stop for a minute by my prayer spot, turn the car off so that I can hear the world. The night rushes with the wind and the distant lake. The engine ticks a few times as it comes into equilibrium with the undeniable immensity of the wind. It smells like grass here and like dirt and old leaves too. The bats flutter beneath the moon. And the life moves on around me, even out here, even at this hour, hidden by my wide, groping, night-blind eyes.
When he was three days old, we took him back in for his well check and they said he’d lost twenty-five percent of his body weight. A ten percent loss in the first few days is normal as the newborn sheds excess fluid and then starts putting on fat again. He wasn’t nursing effectively though. And there, beneath the exam lights, even our sleep-drawn eyes saw what the doctor saw: an exhausted, pale, and drawn newborn. There were IV’s and some extra nights in the hospital, followed by some modifications to our nursing practices. He is nine now. He’s healthy, funny, filled with insight that only a nine-year-old can give to his exhausted father. And, on my drive home after those seven days of the evening shift, as I slumped in my seat, exhausted and satisfied, I realize he was halfway out of our household. I mean, he may not leave when he’s 18, or he may leave and return, or he may be back for summers, or he may not even make it to 18 or I might not make it to his 18th birthday, or a million other maybe possibilities could unfold in the quick blink of the near future. But, for all practical purposes, he’s about halfway done here.
I left the ticking engine of the car behind me. The night listened for a minute to the grit under my slight steps as I came to the grassy opening in the woods. And then, as I knelt and became quiet as my breath, the noises started up again – whirs and croaks and all the noises that come from the dark and fold back into the dark so readily. I am just a passerby. I’m not too good at much. I try working the job I’ve got. I tend to the tasks I’ve been given, but I feel often like a once-not-too-handy farmer who, on his way to feeding his own hungry family, stopped for a moment by a snowy wood.
What do I do? What am I to be?
Nine years and he is still here. Thank you, Papa.
That was seven nights ago when I stopped by the night-thick woods. When I listened to the waves crash out there, beyond the moon-lit boughs. When the animals chirped and peeped their generational desires for a moment before they passed them on through their DNA to the next and the next. He is nine now. I knelt by the grassy opening to those woods and traced a sign of my faith in the loam beneath my fingers. A thanks.
And, as I sit here now, leaving a reminder in black-and-white for my own eyes to remember his ninth year when they are even older and more tired, he sits watching a movie, and I can’t stay much longer, writing words that are just as fleeting as symbols drawn in the dirt. For I have miles to go… and miles to go.
from the collection of: d. heidel