I’m still thinking about your blowout with Lane, Wuck. We make ourselves susceptible to great pain when we internalize the attacks of people we don’t really know. I learned this lesson way too late as a gang pastor. Some wounded men will turn a heart like yours—sensitive and thoughtful—against you. My advice: shake the dust off your feet, my man. Onto the next town—or pool hall.
Which brings me to this: <quote-07>are you guys writing your entries before your turn comes up?<quote-07> My understanding of letter writing is that one must receive before giving. The conversation is better that way, right? Like, I’ve just read both your entries, and now I’m writing mine in response. I wasn’t playing show and tell, waiting my turn to cut and paste something I’d been crafting on my own all week.
It’s tempting, though, given what a week it’s been. Two days ago we began Washington’s indefinite Stay Home Stay Safe order.
I was braving the mob at a nearby grocery store when a formerly incarcerated friend texted me: “is this gonna be yr first lockdown? Lol.”
I’m curious how my years in relationship with guys on lockdown—visiting them, writing letters to their solitary confinement units—will alter how I experience this temporary quarantine. We’ll see, I guess.
Abram is here with me now as I write. Just as I finished typing the previous paragraph, there was a little knock on the door of my study (a room exactly the size of a prison cell, a homie once told me).
“Daddy, open it for me?” Abram’s voice sang . I opened the door. “I found you, Daddy.”
He entered confidently, my new celly, and plopped himself down in my knockoff mid-century modern chair. <quote-01>He’s taller now<quote-01>, in the midst of a wild growth spurt, blooming through several sneakers this season. Even so, the tall glove of a chair made him look tiny again, his pajama’d knees to his chest, like a little baseball where it belongs.
I asked if he was going to the beach (picture fog, pebbles, moss, and driftwood) this morning with Mama; the playgrounds are all off limits now. He is absolutely in love with Mama these days. When he sneaks into our bed each night, I feel his feet press between ours as he climbs aboard, exhaling with relief and adoration when he finally snuggles into Rachel, a firm elbow or butt pushing me aside for the requisite <quote-02>clearance<quote-02>. “I love you,” he whispers to her, sometimes minutes later, in the darkness. I get that once a week maybe, usually after reading a story to him in his new big boy bed. So his answer to my beach question surprised me: “I wanna stay right here, in Daddy’s office.”
“You don’t wanna go to the beach with Mama?”
He got up and looked at my books on the lowest floating shelf, grabbed a mechanical pencil, and lifted himself onto my knees.
“I wanna stay right here. In Daddy’s office with you, Daddy.”
Rachel appeared in hiking clothes at our cell door, ready to go. “Fine with me,” she shrugged, relieved; she shut the door behind her so the heat wouldn’t escape. I turned to my laptop and back to you guys as Abram crawled onto my lap and began scribbling away on a piece of paper between my typing wrists.
Beneath his insane pencil storms, I now spot the one thing I’d written on that scrap, a quick note to myself while reading your entry above, Wuck: “Zika virus.”
When you were sharing about Sarah combing the internet for what coronavirus could do to that Tiny Wuck growing inside, I remembered how the news was aflame with Zika when Rachel was pregnant. I’d just spent three weeks in the tropical mountains of Guatemala and Honduras—the mosquito-infested Zika hot zone—helping forge a direct-trade relationship between the new buyers of our Underground Coffee crop and the local growers. Rachel couldn’t help herself at the time, pouring through image after image of Zika babies online. We had nightmares of our first child emerging with a freakishly undersized, bird-shaped head.
It’s funny, just last night Abram said to me from the backseat, seemingly out of nowhere, “Mama pushed Abram out of her body. And then Mama and <quote-03>Daddy cried!<quote-03>” Rachel and I must have recounted his birth, the basics at least, recently. And so he mused aloud as we drove through the dark. This is what was on his mind.
We’d opted for a natural birth with a local midwife, so Rachel spent hours in labor at home before we drove to the clinic. It was there that her thunderstorm of pain and emotion finally culminated in a primal howl to the ceiling, there that I caught the baby in a slippery blur. When I saw his face, squinting and purple, come to rest on Rachel’s chest; when he finally opened into a whimpering sound and then a quaking—honestly, it hit me like seeing a kid pulled from a well, like seeing something innocent rescued from days of unspeakable darkness and confusion, utterly alone. Before my brain got involved, that’s just how it hit me, and I wept and wept—loud and instant and unrelenting. <quote-04>I loved him with a trauma-accident compassion love<quote-04>.
Rachel later told me she felt no rush, none of that euphoric mother-bonding. Instead, all she could think about was the baby’s head: Is that a Zika head? Does he look weird? She cried in fear and asked the midwife between gasps, “Is he...ok? He looks—” The midwife, calm as ever, said, “He looks normal and beautiful.”
So yeah, Abram, we both cried. And the differences in why we did give you plenty of info <quote-05>about how fucked up we both are<quote-05>. Even at your very first moments of life, we saw you through the veil of our distinct anxieties.
It took me several attempts to type that last sentence. Abram has finished his scribbling and is now poking the keys on my laptop as I try to write to you both. I keep having to clean up the crazy series of letters.
Though now I wish I’d left a trace of them; it’s 10pm now, and I’ve just returned to the green glow of my banker’s lamp, only the hum of the wash cycle in the garage to keep me company. It was another exhausting day. Scary too. This pandemic, man.
This Zika Virus piece of paper is still right here. I think I’ll keep it—as a bookmark, at least. I love it now. His head, after all, is as round and huge as mine. His doodles and decorations, the wild lines, they’re like a scribbling-out of what we once feared for him.
Could I use those wild lines to scribble out other fears?
Your recounting in your last letter, Murph, of Grammar’s homecoming really captures the specific threshold between your own youth and adulthood. I think my experience of Abram’s birth was a very different kind of threshold—maybe moving in the opposite direction? In the years before he came home to us, I’d been living an overly-responsible life of pseudo-fatherhood among the scores of abandoned youth I met in the streets and jails. Like an overworked older sibling with no parents to be found, I had long lost any sense of play, performing daily in a nonstop circus of saviorism, crisis, codependency, and resentment. I couldn’t fix the chaos of so many lives. Few were becoming the friends I’d hoped they could be, like we all are in Upland.
In my exhaustion I became fierce, arrogant, whatever got me through my seven-day work week. I didn’t know where to find the brakes, how to slow down or get off.
So when Abram was born, not only was I gifted a legitimate Excuse to Take Time Off, but my spread-thin attention found a healing focus, a smallness: this boy. I wasn’t “like” his father. I was his father. And his needs were so simple. I could, say, change his diaper like a pro and deliver him happily back to his mother, and the task—blessedly—was done. So, unlike the coming-of-age threshold that you described so well, Murph, for me having a baby was almost a return to innocence. I spent days with my phone turned off, days just rocking this little breathing infant in yellow terry cloth against my chest, days sifting through creased, instantly-familiar board books my mom had shipped north to us in a cardboard box.
Reading those story books each night, wiping his mouth at dinner and the tears from his cheeks, even today hearing his cartoonish little voice asking for the door to be opened from the other side—I didn’t know I needed it all so deeply. When I open the door to him, I’m opening one inside of me as well. Like some daily form of <quote-06>time travel<quote-06>, a return to the best parts of my childhood, the parts of me I didn’t know I’d left back in Upland.
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