Winner of the 2014 Neil Shepard Prize in Non-Fiction
“Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.” – Edna St. Vincent Millay
I know the word: colic. I know the last waves of exhaustion held aloft, in a voice—not a story but the margins of what comes before the end or after once upon a time. Colique: French, pertaining or relating to the lower intestines—pain, discomfort, severe. From the Greek, kolikos. Knowing this proves nothing, but it gives the mind a place to dwell, a refuge.
I shawl her. I wrap her in pink blankets. Blue blankets. Green blankets. Sometimes I microwave a tube sock filled with black rice and rest it across her abdomen, think of heat on sore muscles, think correlative. But there is no answer, just the singularity of her discomfort, the night becoming its own erasure.
In my arms, baby girl, you are safe. In my arms, baby girl. We talk too much of legacy. Of feeling home when we say it. I read once that the dead are afraid of the living. We know the future controls the past, so weep now baby girl, because you are safe, here, in my arms. The O of your mouth when you coo, the O of your mouth when you scream: they aren’t so different, and neither is my touch, my shoosh or kisses to your skull-still-shaping. The tectonics below your skin—how like time it is to distinguish the noise of your nights, to settle the weight I can press from my lips to you.
How often in one night can the lungs expand to secrete not breath but the fear of darkness human-born due to clenched eyelids—time-controlled night, of the setting, the forced quiet of the spectral: tenebrosity, that unlit gloom? In the womb, the omnipresence of dim, but now she’s sombered, resigned to the nourishment daylight brings.
Secundus, that silent philosopher, wrote that the Universe is an eminence…a self-generated object of contemplation…a nourishing ether, a globe that does not wander. How holy. How prefatory, the ability to do anything because one first has to predict it.
Sleep comes, a fight that is not fought, because every language has its own silence even amidst its boom. The din, the fear of night or pain—it must be so confusing to have been born and given permission to make, light and dark, awake and asleep.
I don’t think I’ve ever met an angel. Only the image of an angel can please us totally. Perhaps, in the shadows of headlights-through-trees projected onto my ceiling, I’ve seen—imagined—a new dream, a precious dream, faith—but the days are distinct and night has only one name: prayer. For the first three months of my Jorie’s life, she suffered, and I prayed. If prayer is the most effective—and dangerous—form of repetition, an infant’s screams of pain must be close behind. I remember holding her, wanting to hold her even closer, I remember breathing in pattern with her, gulping, my throat catching every time she stopped long enough to inhale—she vibrated, shivered, took root deep inside herself. I couldn’t counter her pain with soothing, but I tried.
Night: the part of the day after sundown and before sunrise.
Day is a part of night like fear is a part of terror. It’s only the intensification that separates them.
I can think of no more essential terror: the faith of light, the strange and persistent yawp amid realizing the day ends and night ends and somewhere in the middle is the difference between the uncanny and the fear of abandonment. Realization of such complexities isn’t the half of it: Experience, Oscar Wilde tells us, is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.
I half-remember Marian, half-remember the stories told years later of how she watched me when my mom worked, how she became the other mother. Marian had silver hair. Marian had brown hair. Marian was 60 years old. Marian was 40 years old. Marian lived across the hall. Marian lived down the hall. The apartment complex. Crystal Lake. The sidewalks, small figure-eight pool—deep enough only to wade, or so the pictures attest—the times I picked things up off the ground: a displaced shingle from the roof; a dead robin, its eye sockets hollowed to the bone, its feathers stiff with rain water and July sun; a discarded popsicle stick; a bike pump that belonged to no one; some old chewing gum; a pop gun, pointed directly at the camera. Marian recorded this boyhood mischief with snapshots from an old Polaroid. She clicked the shutter button, shook the developing print, and put it in her back pocket to later give my mom.
The evidence: this entire cardboard box of Polaroids showing little boy hands holding little boy things, things either thrown away or left behind. During the long nights with Jorie, I sift mentally through these photographs, lose myself in the graying edges, the faded writing at the bottom of each Polaroid: Gary, age 4, pool, dead robin, why? A recreation of moments too subtle as all memories return to time.
I wasn’t alone those nights awake in Jorie’s nightmare. My wife and her gentle hush, her softer hands across Jorie’s brow, her slow rocking: the dance all parents learn early, practice when fathers pace the delivery room nervous, practice when mothers stretch painful ligaments. A slow swivel of the hips, loosed, unchained, a refrain, something wholly lost in, a making visible the moment of attention, of affection, and soon our bodies match the rhythm of our voices as our voices soften to flesh themselves.
I hoped to ease Jorie through the night, nothing more. Maybe set the stage, refine what I hoped for years later, explain through rocking, swaying, that I knew how to listen. I kept waiting for the moment when she’d become keenly aware of everything her body was doing to keep itself alive.
Peter Paul Rubens painted a father tearing, with his teeth, flesh from a son. Saturn devouring one of his children, 1637. The O of the baby’s mouth, Saturn’s hand gripped tightly to his sickle, his calves bulging, a black cloth covering what makes him him and his knee: a soft, clean place for the child’s head to rest as Saturn rends and rips. The violence, the vertigo of stillness, how art captures and releases simultaneously our deepest. I think of art when in the arc of Jorie’s screams because I read once, Perhaps distraction at its most fruitful is a state of richest expectation. But what am I expecting? Something infinite like silence or easement? Something of an unseen moment where I am not?
Rubens paints three distinct, gleaming celestial bodies above Saturn’s head, to the right of his sickle: the planet Saturn and its moons, exactly as Galileo had described, and so the painting depicts not a father’s wrath or degenerate’s fucked-up hunger but rather an eloquent demonstration of influence, an astronomical mirror. Here Rubens makes invisible the moment of renewal. Here Rubens comments upon, distracts what’s seen through what we can’t un-see. The power of visible violence is that we can close our eyes to it, but we can’t close our ears to screams without using our hands.
For four months I read American Literature. I don’t mean some of it or around in it or even exclusively it. But all of it. From Columbus’ journals to the ecstatic verses of Charles Wright, from Equiano’s slave narrative to Faulkner’s multiple narrators. I’d never before been immersed like that before, and the light at the end? My Ph.D. qualifying exams. During those same months, Jorie screamed. At night, once my wife and son went to bed, I’d read, underline, highlight, absorb, recoil, bounce, obsess, laugh, and cry. I’d warm bottles, jostle Jorie on my knee keeping her balanced with one hand while I spined and read Cotton Mather’s musings or Cummings’ ekphrastic messes with the other.
When her screams became syncopated, when her tears turned dry and her cheeks reddened with heat, and I couldn’t bare her pain any more than she could, I’d pack her in her car seat, cover her with a thick blanket knit by my wife’s great-aunt, and put her in the back of the car. We’d drive, wait for the bumps, the dips and curves, the lights-not-lights-lights of neighborhoods, the streetlamp’s punctuation of the car at night: the roving shadows of bare tree limbs and overpasses, the way they engulf slowly, first the front seat, then the back seat, then again and again. Winter-Michigan dulled us with its repetitions of silence and dark.
My wife and son safely asleep at home, and Jorie quiet, either asleep or mesmerized enough to forget to scream, to feel, we’d slalom the wet streets, the snowbanks and black-ice patches commonly unseen, but if you live among them long enough, you can anticipate them, see them in spite of yourself, feel the front axle’s tug and pull and know well-enough never to counteract it, to roll with it, to let gravity be gravity. The road is wide when you don’t fight it.
Once I sensed Jorie had relaxed or fallen asleep—parents know this trick intuitively: a distressed child rocked by the predictable motion of traffic will sleep the sleep of dreams—I’d make my way to Westnedge Ave, the main drag through central Portage and Kalamazoo, turn left, and pull into the deserted Home Depot parking lot. The lot, with its huge swath of open space, never-off lights, and good visibility to the outside world—we’d never go missing without a witness—made it a perfect place to park, to crack open again the spines of Nature or Leaves of Grass or “Sinner’s in the Hands of an Angry God.” For fear of distinguishing the vibration, the lull of car-sleep, I’d park around back of the store, keep the car running, the music low, the heat on, and I’d read while Jorie slept. When she’d start to wake, we’d do a few laps around the lot, pass the ghosted forklifts, stalled, never-started, left for anyone to take except, what would you do with it? Dumpsters full. Of what? Peeking through the lids: stray lumber, miscut 2x4s, sheets of ply broken or uncut or cracked, insulation pinked and wet from winter’s spray of ice and rain and snow, sometimes an old truck tire or wires, cables, things salvageable on a nicer night. And soon she’d stop her stirring, settle again.
Sometimes I’d crawl into the backseat to sit next to her, angle myself to catch the streetlights on my book without spraying the remnants of them off the white pages into Jorie’s eyes. Watching her chest rise and fall, reading for every atom belonging to me, and I could taste the blossom, the Oversoul, Nature, what it meant to think holy, to see the language leave my lips silently in the rearview mirror and reflect back empty, meaningless outside context, outside the silent conversation my eyes had with Jorie’s breathing. Language tastes like salt hills, like the sweat it takes to make it. A sleeping child. Until finally I am sated and she is rested, and I remember, yes, wanting to be palpable, useful to something larger, and so I read on tired and full with something like assurance.
To hold something. Dearly. As important. As if your life. But we have to let go, too. Eventually. Dr. Ken Canfield, author of The Heart of a Father, writes about how to resuscitate an estranged father-daughter relationship thusly: Ask your daughter to name three ways you can support her in the coming year.
1) To support: bear all or part of the weight of; hold up. A list of things I’ll never say to my own kids because I heard them too often as a child and couldn’t understand them even then: Because I said so. Are you trying to light up the whole neighborhood? What did your mother say? Are you okay to drive? I’m not okay to drive. No story tonight; we’ll read two stories tomorrow night. How many times have I told you? Money doesn’t grow…Do I look like I’m made of money? On trees. We don’t have to tell your mother about this. As long as you’re living under my roof…Ever. I’ll treat you like an adult when you start acting like an adult. Payback’s a bitch. Stop acting like your father. Like a girl. Like your mother. When I was a kid…That’s just stupid. One, two, two-and-a-half, two-and-three-quarters…I’ll give you something to cry about. This hurts me… Don’t make me come back there. More than it hurts you. You’re going to poke your eye out. Seen, not heard.
The problem: who said what? Parent or child? And when?
That’s for me to know and you to find out.
2) Dr. Canfield: When a father abandons a relationship with his daughter she can become frozen in time relationally with the opposite sex. “Placed on the other side of.” “Contrary.” “Standing against, opposed.” “Set at odds with.” I want to teach her that opposite is outdated, that the concept is self-defeating. But I can’t. Because it isn’t. Outdated, I mean. Elias Canetti writes, There is something insane about the demand that everyone must gather by himself the articles of his thinking and believing; as though everyone had to build by himself the town he lives in. It takes a village, my grandmother used to say. Rebuttal: every village has an idiot. So we want to teach our daughters how to remain unfrozen relationally, but how do we teach what relation means, what sex, and why opposite? Canetti again, this time paraphrased, Of all the words I know in all the languages I know, no word is as concentrated as the English word “I.” And from that platform we teach relationships, we teach worthwhile and happy and hope not to abandon, hope not to distill a message dependent on binaries? Politics. Who we want (to be, to date, to abandon) has little to do with who we are and a lot to do with definition.
3) The three toughest things for any father to tell his children: “I am sorry.” “Will you forgive me?” “I was wrong.” Studies show that men tend to spend more time with their sons growing up than they do with their daughters. I want, of course, to buck this trend, to be aware of it while simultaneously relegating it to my subconscious so that I don’t spend time but spread it, enjoy it, forgive it its passing too rapidly. To satisfy myself, the kids. Something larger? (Again, I come back here?). Satisfaction may be described as an internal affect resulting from the acquisition of pleasure and/or avoidance of pain. Avoidance of pain. Yes. Ideally pleasure comes purposefully: I take Jorie apple-picking; I take Auden, my son, to a basketball game; I take Jorie and Auden to the zoo, to see the giraffes, the elephants, the scorpions; I take Jorie to Gymboree; I take Auden to Gymboree. I take, I take, and I hope they take, something away or something to heart. Regardless if the relationship is healthy or not, it still has some sort of effect. But it has to fulfill, be fulfilling.
This essay should have begun with a grasshopper because it’d been a long time since I’d seen one and then I did, in the backyard today, voluptuously green, greener than the green grass and green weeds. I followed him into the trees, deep into grief, or loss, or nothing at all. And we watched each other. I could have grabbed him, held him in my cupped hands, and he’d have been silent, perhaps agitated and annoyed, but his noise, the stringed instrument of his legs, couldn’t have sang in the cramped space between my palms. But I didn’t grab him. I didn’t stare at him for long. Instead, I walked back to the porch where Jorie was sitting crosscross-applesauce, grinding a piece of sidewalk chalk to its nub, scribbling big green circles, darkened and formless, telling me, “Daddy, I’m drawing you. Wanna see?”
Gary L. McDowell is the author of five collections of poetry, including Mysteries in a World that Thinks There Are None (Burnside Review Press, 2016), winner of the 2014 Burnside Review Book Award; Weeping at a Stranger’s Funeral (Dream Horse Press, 2014); and American Amen (Dream Horse Press, 2010), winner of the 2009 Orphic Prize for Poetry. He is also the co-editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry: Contemporary Poets in Discussion and Practice (Rose Metal Press, 2010). His poems are forthcoming or have appeared in The American Poetry Review, The Nation, The Journal, The Laurel Review, and others, and his lyric essays are forthcoming in Gulf Coast, DIAGRAM, Green Mountains Review, Massachusetts Review, and others. He live in Nashville, TN where he is an assistant professor of English at Belmont University.