Spring came much too quickly. Winter was neither hard, nor long; it barely occurred at all. We had a small taste in Wisconsin and Minnesota, but the only sign of the season in New York was a brief disappearance of leaves from the trees -- an evolutionary vestige of a time when snow might have weighed too heavily on a branch abundant in foliage.
I didn't like spring anymore. It had been my favorite season, but now it reminded me of my mother's mysterious and worsening illness, which ultimately lead to her death in early June. Even though her time in the hospital and hospice was marked by damp heat and endless summery thunderstorms, the ominous messages I kept getting from Ohio as her condition deteriorated without explanation all arrived against a backdrop of supposed new life. I had continued doing the same stupid things I always did in spring: pointlessly observing Lent, acolyting during Holy Week, buying lilies for Easter, taking excessive middlebrow photos of flowers and trees, and anticipating the beach.
In church, there was always talk about how death held the promise of resurrection, but to me nature's annual rebirth now seemed to have the stench of the tomb about it. I preferred a frozen landscape. The perfume of the Easter lily now smelled to me the way it always had to everyone else: like a funeral.
I often felt like I was the only person still mourning my mother. This wasn't quite fair to my newly consorted father, who had been barely able to function for several months. I couldn't blame him; only women were strong enough to fend for themselves at an advanced age. As for my brother, who knew? I couldn't tell what he was thinking.
Because I wouldn't accept the hideous gravestone offerings at the memorial company recommended by the cemetery, we still had nothing for my mother's plot. I had contacted a stone carving business that had been operating since the early 18th century to do the design, but because the provincial graveyard in Columbus was extremely concerned with ensuring that the memorials be strong enough to withstand being struck by a riding lawnmower operated by a local adolescent, the actual stone would have to be hewn out of granite by a mainstream operation. The stone color selections would be awful, but at least the design wouldn't be terrible. But the back-and-forth on dimensions and measurements had dragged things out for months, and there was still no real progress.
Now that I was a parent, I realized how cruel I had been to my mother. I was already worrying expansively about my children, and their needs and concerns were still relatively rudimentary. I thought of all of the times over the decades when I called my mother with my hysterical health concerns. Of course she learned to be skeptical, but she was still my mother: when I was worried, she was worried. I realized how torturous this had been.
"Once she was born I was never not afraid," wrote Joan Didion, about her daughter.
Parenthood had already taught me a lot. Although becoming a parent always had its genesis in an wholly selfish act (either the physical act that led to natural conception, or the various motivations for wanting a child), I hadn't entirely grasped the extreme selflessness required once the children made their entrance onto the world stage. Of course I had known that I would no longer be living for myself alone. I knew that I would no longer be able to choose to radically alter my life according to my own wants and needs: joining a monastery, moving to an idyllic Thai beach, becoming a career non-heterosexual globe-trotting hedonist. I knew that I wouldn't be able to plan and take vacations whenever I desired. I knew I wouldn't be able to go out to bars or clubs or dinner parties whenever the mood struck me. I knew that I wouldn't be able to sleep as much as I wanted. I had heard that there would be days when I would have trouble finding time to take a shower, and that even the brushing of teeth would be difficult to coordinate.
I hadn't expected, however, that some very basic necessities would become optional luxuries. Constipation and dehydration became sought-after companions. Eventually I wouldn't be able to take it any longer, and I would guzzle water straight from the faucet, or scarf down whatever food I could find in the apartment in intense bursts of frenzied feeding.
Despite long periods of unintentional compulsory fasting, my belly continued to expand and increase. For the first time in 20 years I was not a member of a gym, and I couldn't even find time to go running in the park on weekends. Although we were finally making enough money to be frugal, Asaph and I eventually ended up joining the most expensive gym at which we had ever been members. We rationalized this theft of our children's inheritance by arguing that they wouldn't want obese and sexually undesirable parents, and that we would only ever be able to exercise during a designated lunch break and needed a gym very close to work. I repeated this to myself every time I took a chilled, eucalyptus-infused towel out of the miniature glass-door refrigerator and patted the sweat from my brow while staring at actor and singer Cheyenne Jackson as he performed abdominal exercises.
During our sojourn in Wisconsin, as we waited for weeks while dilated to three centimeters, I read The Elegance of the Hedgehog (L'élégance du hérisson) by Muriel Barbery. Despite a very awkward translation, I enjoyed the book well enough. One specific passage made me reflect.
I have no children, I do not watch television, and I do not believe in God — all paths taken by mortals to make their lives easier. Children help us to defer the painful task of confronting ourselves, and grandchildren take over from them. Television distracts us from the onerous necessity of finding projects to construct in the vacuity of our frivolous lives: by beguiling our eyes, television releases our mind from the great work of making meaning. Finally, God appeases our animal fears and the unbearable prospect that someday all our pleasures will cease.
Before the birth, I would have agreed with her views on television and children (I had never found belief in God to make anything about my life even remotely easier). I had certainly hoped that having children would distract me from myself. But once the children disembarked from Mary's womb, I realized that deferment of self-confrontation was not an option (if Barbery only meant le réveil mortel when she referred to self-confrontation, I had of course experienced that in early adolescence). If anything, I examined and scrutinized and challenged myself more closely than ever before and felt that changes and corrections needed to be implemented urgently and psychic priorities shifted posthaste. I was no longer just accountable to myself and to my wishy-washy formulation of God: I was accountable to two new persons who only existed because I had asked that they be called into being.
That said, I had forgiven my mother for anything and everything as she lay in her hospital and hospice beds, so maybe my children would be equally charitable at my end, as long as they knew that I loved them. I could only hope.
The father of a friend passed away. He and his male spouse were going to be sitting shiva (שבעה) at their upscale Washington Heights apartment, so we decided to go and to take the babies with us. This friend was a scallop-and-bacon-eating kind of Jew, so I wasn't expecting any covered mirrors.
We made the bizarre decision to walk the 80 blocks to get there. We were exhausted and frazzled when we arrived, having had to change the children's clothes twice to accommodate shifts in temperatures as we traversed neighborhoods of widely varying socioeconomic statuses. I witnessed at least one illegal narcotics transaction as we pushed our double-wide stroller through northern Manhattan.
There was little sitting going on at this shiva. Fire Island-esque dance music was playing, and images from my friend's father's life were being displayed on a large, flat-panel, plasma display high-definition television. There were plates overflowing with luxurious food and bottles drained of expensive wine. The babies were passed around to a series of beautiful and extremely intoxicated women. Asaph and I kept on guard, in case of drunken dropping. When it was time to feed them, we brought them out onto the grand terrace to escape the joyous hullabaloo.
A dour Israeli woman approached us. "Your babies are too cold out here," she said.
I thought of the day after my mother died, and how my father, Saint Asaph, Saint Joan, and I had been left alone staring at each other, with only the hum of the air conditioner to break the sullen silence.
I preferred this party, even though at the time of my mother's death I had felt that agonized somberness was more appropriate.
We decided to take the subway home. We had a lot of trouble fitting the stroller through the door of the vintage station.
The next weekend we were invited to friends I had met through Centfocs. Since Centfocs had gone South, I was allowed to socialize with them. They had a new baby and lived on the northern edge of Central Park.
We ordered Indian food, despite its resemblance to a recent diaper change.
Asaph taught them the ancient and trendy swaddling techniques we used on our own children.
Their older, two-year-old child had been sick, but they assured us that he had been better for over a week. He spoke in a broken mixture of Spanish and Korean.
Asaph and I placed our son in their unused bouncy seat and covered him with a customized blanket we had received from Israelis.
We all went out to the park before heading home. I slowly came to the realization that I had not been paying attention to part of the conversation that had been going on throughout our visit. The newborn baby and the mother had also been sick, just a few days prior. It had been a sickness involving diarrhea and vomiting, and they had been admitted to the hospital.
And I had placed our son in their bouncy seat! And I knew that the norovirus, named after the grim town of Norwalk, Ohio, near where I got my undergraduate degree, could live on surfaces for up to 10 days!
Dread washed over me like a decontamination shower.
Since there was Spanish-speaking going on between my two friends -- a Korean woman who had lived in the Canary Islands and a Spaniard man who had also lived in the Canary Islands (a region known for its distinctive time zone) -- I suddenly remembered that for a long time I had thought that the word marea, meaning "tide", had actually meant "seasickness", since the word for "dizzy" was mareado. I had found the restaurant named "Marea" on Central Park South to be a mystery.
I brought the children home, imagining the worst, vomiting-disease-wise
After the maximum incubation period passed, I relaxed a bit.
We had to bring the children to the pediatrician for their first vaccinations.
My heart was breaking as we made our way there, passing the restaurant Marea on Central Park South.
Led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, I thought.
The boy's vaccinations were more heartbreaking, because he cried as he had never cried before -- 100 times more intensely than during his ritual genital mutilation. The girl was already known for her energetic crying, for atrocities like being removed from the bath or having her clothes changed, and on this occasion she started her crying long before a needle got anywhere near her. There was no discernible difference in her crying after she had gotten her shots.
We hired our temporary Afro-Trinidadian childminder (before our hiring of a different, permanent, Indo-Trinidadian childminder) to spend the night with us the night after.
I was often so sick with sleep deprivation that I could barely work, even though typical American employers deemed two weeks of parental leave to be sufficient. (Federal law mandated additional unpaid leave, for those living off of interest income.) I thought about how the term "progressive" was totally meaningless and only used for self-congratulation by smug persons who hadn't thought things through completely. Often I sat at my desk wracked with nausea and headache, frustrated with and by all the moronity, incompetence, senility, and sycophancy in the world. A sinking ship, I thought, over and over. I grew extremely fond of a work colleague whose daily answer to "how are you doing?" was "I hate everyone".
However, every morning I had a bigger motivation to get out of bed than I had ever had before!
I wasn't wild about our new neighborhood. In theory, I could go running along the river, although it had some depressing associations.
I couldn't help but think of the time that my mother, father and I had walked up and down this bike and running path after our planned trip to Cornwall was cancelled (not postponed), owing to the 2010 eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland.
Other sections of my new neighborhood just seemed foreign to me.
There were lots of families with children. People were not especially friendly.
There were many fewer drunken young persons stumbling around trying to have an epic or fabulous time "on the town", because this section of the city was deemed highly unfashionable to and for the young and sexually acquisitive. In our immediate area, there were almost no restaurants, bars, or cafés of any kind.
I was unable to get used to my walk to work.
I felt like I was living on the edge. The edge of the city.
We spent most of our non-work time in the apartment. Early in the morning I would look out at New Jersey, the Hudson River, and Pier 99 -- a Sanitation Department marine transfer station where garbage trucks loaded up barges with foul heaps of refuse.
I tried not to think about the garbage being loaded onto barges on the river, where some inevitably must have spilled out. A new very expensive Japanese rice cooker helped, although, sadly, it had been manufactured in China.
When the button to begin cooking was pressed, the cooker chimed out the notes to "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star". It could almost have functioned as a robot childminder, although it would have been a waste to use on children too young to eat rice.
We were bleeding out money paying people to help us take care of the kids: our Indo-Trinidadian daytime childminder, sometimes an Afro-Trinidadian nighttime childminder, and occasionally a Russo-Cuban high-school girl from our building to help us give them their nightly baths and dinner. In olden days, our families would have been able to help, but Asaph's mother was in Israel, living on land that the Arabs had wanted back before 1967, and my own mother was demonstrably dead.
Work was stupid chaos.
At home there were big solaces: the arrival of smiles.
We took them to a seder (סדר) where they charmed the guests.
I had to celebrate the holidays of my people with discretion.
Still, it was nice to get out of the house for a while.
At home my observances were even more attenuated, in keeping with the strict terms of my marriage contract.
I hadn't observed Christmas either.
I bought no lilies for my office or our apartment. Our Indo-Trinidadian childminder had terrible allergies anyway. And because I had bought loads of them the previous year, as my mother sped towards her demise, I couldn't even look at them.
We went down to Philadelphia the following weekend. Asaph was almost done with business school. He drove down in a rental car with the babies and the childminder. After they arrived, he sent the childminder on a tourism bus tour of the city.
I took the train down after work. The woman sitting next to me was complaining about her restrictive Passover diet into her mobile phone. I was glad we followed the Sephardic dietary regulations in our house.
The bread of affliction caught up with me, and by the time I had arrived, I was stricken with unexplained abdominal pain. I was reminded of another train trip, to Baltimore for work many years prior, when I had been buckled over in agony the morning after eating unhulled rice at a trendy Union Square pseudo-Asian restaurant. The northeast corridor was not the ideal venue for bellyaching.
I slouched across the campus from the 30th Street Station. I thought that they should call it "New York Station".
It was the weekend of some sort of drunken bacchanal, so young Ivy League students were staggering around in various forms of skimpy dress. I thought about how we had dressed back when I was in college. With the exception of a few athletic guys playing sports on a warm day, it was almost never skimpy.
I located Asaph and the babies. We went to a pharmacy to buy over-the-counter pharmaceuticals that might help.
As I no longer had an appendix, I writhed in the comfort of our room at the Steinberg Conference Center, hoping that this would pass.
The affliction and the babies ensured that no more than 40 minutes of sleep was had all night.
I was relieved when the sun rose.
Our gastroenterologist friend responded to a message I had left, and said that mysterious abdominal pain had been going around in New York, or that it could have been caused by our Passover diet, even in its Sephardic variation.
Through an Ethiopian colleague, Asaph had arranged for a young woman to come to our room early in the morning to help us. As the pain had subsided, I slept for an hour after her arrival.
While Asaph went to class, the girl and I went to feed the babies outside. The air was crisp and birds were chirping. Most of the students were asleep.
This girl went to a significantly less prestigious college nearby, so she couldn't stop talking about how beautiful the campus was.
She had to leave at noon, so I pushed the babies around by myself after that.
There were memorials of more serious times.
I thought about what Faruq's grandparents had been doing at that time.
The drunken students began to awaken and roam about. I tried to keep moving.
Most of the men or boys were wearing special tank tops created for the weekend, along with novelty sunglasses. The women or girls were wearing the shortest of short shorts. Loud music began to boom from various Greek-letter fraternities.
I thought about American philosopher, classicist, and academic Allan Bloom, who had come to speak at my college in 1987, when I was 17.
The sexual revolution was precisely what it said it was—a liberation. But some of the harshness of nature asserted itself beneath the shattered conventions: the young were more apt to profit from the revolution than the old, the beautiful more than the ugly. The old veil of discretion had had the effect of making these raw and ill-distributed natural advantages less important.
I walked around the Quadrangle, examining the various gargoyles. Students were streaming inside, to attend an officially sanctioned party for the weekend.
I could hear the screams of euphoria from the young persons inside.
Instead of nostalgia, I felt a bit worried about the time when the two babies sleeping in the stroller in front of me would go to college.
Fathers and mothers have lost the idea that the highest aspiration they might have for their children is for them to be wise ... specialized competence and success are all that they can imagine.
Maybe the boy would to to a yeshiva (ישיבה) in an illegal West Bank settlement.
I looked for a quiet bench on which to feed the children.
Birds were still chirping away -- the only acceptable form of tweeting in my book. An adult woman walked by and said "good luck to you!" when she saw me giving the boy his bottle.
Little did she know about his issues with reflux.
I was really getting tired of New York, I thought as I surveyed the view. And how could we ever compete in the cutthroat mommy culture of the New York metropolitan area? And I was afraid of being a helicopter parent or a lawnmower father. But I was also afraid of being a refrigerator mother. I was afraid of all machinery-based parenting syndromes.
I wanted the children to grow up running through fields of flowers and butterflies.
I pushed the stroller back to meet Asaph, who had been taking a final exam. I passed a gigantic Greek-letter fraternity party, overflowing with revelers. The children were lulled to sleep by the thumping beats.
Were these "sick wobbles"? I wondered. We would never know.
I noticed that some of Benjamin Franklin's sayings were set into the sidewalk.
I was reminded of something I had read recently by Benjamin Franklin, the "Old Mistresses Apologue", from 1745. It was a treatise on how men should prefer older women as lovers.
A single Man has not nearly the Value he would have in that State of Union. He is an incomplete Animal. He resembles the odd Half of a Pair of Scissars. If you get a prudent healthy Wife, your Industry in your Profession, with her good Economy, will be a Fortune sufficient. But if you will not take this Counsel, and persist in thinking a Commerce with the Sex inevitable, then I repeat my former Advice, that in all your Amours you should prefer old Women to young ones. You call this a Paradox, and demand my Reasons.
The third reason was this: Because there is no hazard of Children, which irregularly produc'd may be attended with much Inconvenience.