We step through the front door way and my bare foot lands on the slick painted surface of the wide front porch. It is raining and thank God because Joseph has been crying for two hours now and I have been pacing back and forth in our stuffy attic bedroom clutching this screaming baby to my chest the whole time, and the two of us together had just about used up all the oxygen up there. The rock salt lamp casts a warm glow over our bed and the little grey sound machine is supposed to duplicate the soothing underwater sounds of life inside the womb, but right now the warm glow is looking a little bit too much like the pits of hell and the roar of the sound machine is filling up my head with steel wool.
Outside he’s still wailing the wild scream of a suffering and now hysterical and now furious baby, but at least I can share the burden of listening helplessly with the rain. The pastoral scene that surrounds this little white farmhouse has long since given way to the night, and what light is left is only enough to smudge the field and forested hillsides with a grey like spilled paint water. With the screen of falling rain what’s left of the landscape might not be there at all. Hell, I could be asleep right now, I can’t even tell anymore.
For a moment the sweet damp smell of earth drinking the rain fills me up and I remember that my son is not punishing me, he is suffering. For a precious moment his cries soften to a pathetic sniffling and he allows me to hold him. My anger swells to sadness and I lower my cheek to rest on top of his head. His fine hair is soaked with sweat from the exertion of emotion. In the darkness you cannot see its reddish tint, the only gift his dad left him, so that in the sunlight it is as the finest copper wire. I praise God for the quiet and sing a few hallelujah’s that never leave my throat, but too soon the miserable shrieks burst forth with renewed vigor. His tiny fists push angrily at my chest. We are equally helpless, hopeless, angry, despairing.
This is the second night of this – this inconsolable screaming for hours and hours – and I reached the limit of what I could stand around minute 17. I picked him up by an arm and a leg and dropped him with less care than I would like to admit on his little mattress sandwiched adorably between mine and the wall, rolled on to my back stretched out to my full length and pressed my fingers as hard as I could into my eye sockets. We just lay there next to each other for a minute, Joseph screaming at this new injustice of abandonment, and me just trying to cry or think of some shatterable object that wouldn’t matter too much if I threw it against the wall.
I had already done everything I know how to do, and I was momentarily paralyzed by the certain realization that I am failing as a mother and I cannot possibly go on even for one more minute. But right alongside this realization was the knowledge that – like pumping blood down to my fingertips and back – this is not something that I get to quit until something with a little more authority than me says so.
So I sat up and hit the bed between my feet with my pillow a couple times and that’s when I noticed that it’s still raining.
That’s how we ended up here, pacing back and forth on the porch, my body feeling like the house we walked past holding hands, the house that looked just a little weather worn until we came around the corner and saw that it was really only the face of a house, balanced on a broken foundation and propped up by skinny two by fours held in place with what couldn’t possibly be enough galvanized three inch nails.
Joseph. I say his name out loud as though I am about to begin reasonable conversation in which I explain that he need only tell me what he needs and I will happily get it for him, that all this crying just really isn’t getting us anywhere.
He is in my arms the left one, ever so much stronger than the right, hooked under his bottom, his frog legs splayed and feet dangling one on either side of my hips. My right arm folds across his back, my too-long knobby fingers serving their newest most common purpose of gently cradling or forcefully restraining Joseph’s sweet little head against my collarbone so he doesn’t go flinging himself backwards in sheer frustration, which he attempts with some regularity.
My body is falling apart. My knees unwillingly produce the baby-bouncing dance that has become about as reflexive as walking or crossing my right leg over my left, but you can all but hear the bones grinding against one another as my framing shakes accommodate each labored bounce-and-step. The muscles running alongside my spine are wire cables ready to snap, and some days when I try to rub the soreness out of them I imagine that I can feel the beginning of a fray.
I wrap us in a damp blanket and lower us into the rope bucket swing. I bump into Ruby’s tricycle and kick it as hard as I can out of the way. It crashes weakly into the pillar holding the roof over our heads. This momentarily relieves my desperation. Then I wonder whether Elizabeth has heard it and whether she’s worried for Joseph’s safety. The swing calms him enough to nurse for a moment, and I bask in the luxury of sitting.
He takes a deep breath and begins again to wail, and I heave us out of the swing and make a few more laps clutching him to my chest, bouncing, swaying, rocking, jostling, stepping, to one end of the porch and back to the other. I imagine lying down on the floorboards and what the neighbors would think when they found us in the morning.
Then, without warning or reason, he stops crying. I don’t dare stop my shuffling jostling swinging dance, but I risk craning my neck around and peeking at his face. His eyes are closed! I make a quick bargain with God and try to restrain myself from thinking the word sleep.
Second after second go by and I begin to entertain the thought that maybe someday I really will sleep again. The wave of relief threatens to knock me down, so I maneuver us to the porch swing and lower myself carefully without altering the angle of Joseph’s head resting on my chest.
I use my toes to push us back and forth in the swing, and feel Joseph’s body grow heavy as finally he gives way to the relentless pull of gravity. Suddenly my heart is torn open, and everything floods in. The impossible miracle of this child on my chest. This child who was first only a light in my darkest ocean, floating in the numinous deep; this child whose life in the world began with a passage through the holy arch of bone, the oracle of my body; this child whose first earthly home was built of my arms and who rests here now but only for a few moments longer; this child who is inextricably and always my child, who yet belongs only to Creation, whose path travels through worlds I will never see.
I take a breath and coerce my body to standing one more time. I open the screen door with a thumb and hold it with a toe to keep it from slamming. I climb the stairs to our attic bedroom, still lit with a warm glow and filled with the rush of white noise. I kneel beside his bed and lower him with my breath held tight in my chest. As carefully as I can muster I pull my hands out from under his heavy body, finally loosed into sleep. His face makes an attempt at protest, eyebrows knit briefly together and mouth pulled up at the sides in the beginning of a cry, but it is only a flash before he slips through the last doorway into sleep.
I lie down on my face in my bed. When I wake it is morning and I have been dreaming about drinking beer for breakfast.