Bryan Shawn Wang
They came to us freshly buffed, swaddled in striped hospital blankets, tucked inside clear plastic baskets atop metal carts. They appeared impossibly small. We lifted them out and cradled them and marveled at their miniature perfection, their darling fingers and toes and earlobes, their cherubic radiance. Without transgression to mark them, with no personal history to encumber them, they seemed capable of anything, everything.
In the face of such omnipotence, we soon fell servant to them. Like fawning squires and handmaidens, we anticipated their every need. Before they’d finished crying out we were there to rock them and whisper soothing words, sometimes surprising even ourselves with our tenderness. Like jesters we entertained them, our expressions clownish and our voices farcically high.
When they rooted, we fed them warm milk from pre-sterilized bottles, teats that were naturally textured, with a precisely calibrated rate of flow. Or we simply let them suckle, submitted to them our most intimate parts, those parts they had not already seized. We reeked of lactation and substandard hygiene, but we had relegated hygiene (our own hygiene, at least) to a lower status, a trifling preoccupation of some former self. Even the most squeamish among us, moms and dads alike, had become comfortable with diapering. With clinical efficiency we wiped their genitals, their anuses. We bundled everything up and disposed of the neat little packets of poo and pee. There you go, baby! All clean now! All clean, and still we bathed them every day, lathering them with soaps infused with chamomile and lavender.
The scent of chamomile and lavender: forever we would associate those fragrances with splishy-splashy time, with baby’s pristine complexion, with that comfortable weight gathered in our arms and against our chests, with the quasi-conscious state in which we drifted through those days. Suffering sleep deprivation so intense it was nearly hallucinogenic, we shushed and wheedled and chanted our singsong lullabies. We dreamed of dreaming again. And yet when they finally shut their eyes, we felt bereft, the absence of their need for us an abandonment or an act of thievery or fraud, as if someone had drawn a curtain across the miracle we’d spent a lifetime preparing to witness.
The miraculous turned ordinary; the ordinary, miraculous. These little messiahs produced signs on a semimonthly basis. They flashed their first smile, and our spirits quaked. They rolled from back to belly, and we sank prostrate before them. Their crawling, their babbling, the revelation of their first tooth—how could one not glory in such moments? Every milestone provided cause for examination, reflection, thanksgiving. They said Ma-ma and Da-da! They walked! They learned to ride two-wheelers, a tremulous run down the driveway akin to a fledgling’s inaugural flight.
They were our delicate little birds. Precious, fragile things. We fenced them in, leashed them, stoppered the electrical outlets, gated the stairways, cushioned every corner in sight. We believed through sheer vigilance we could protect them, prevent them from ever falling.
We didn’t hide them, however—we raised them up for all to admire. Any one of them could have posed as a catalog model for Osh Kosh or Sears. Any one of them could have inspired a sculptor. Exquisite, beautiful things. In these diminutive Adonises and Aphrodites we glimpsed fragments of ourselves. They had our noses—we’d never before appreciated the shapely proportions of our noses. They had our lashes. They had our lips. For a few years at least, we would borrow against their beauty. We still shied away from the camera, however. Leave me out of it, we said. Take them.
Although they were more pleasing, in an aesthetic sense, in other respects they weren’t pleasing at all anymore. Some had been terrible twos; others, fucking fours. Still others seemed incorrigible through and through.
Not that we didn’t try to correct them, each in our own way. We all had different styles of parenting, different theories, different values. This one spanked, that one spoiled, while the rest of us tried to figure out how to avoid doing either. We all took our parenting so seriously. To raise a child (not to mention two, or three, or even—those maniacal, pious, fecund Donovitzes!—seven young hellions!) was to be our most meaningful endeavor, our lasting achievement. We invested in our children. We’d taught them numbers and shapes and letters before kindergarten. We’d read aloud to them every night for the first seven years of their lives. When we detected even the faintest whiff of interest in an activity, we tore off in pursuit, enrolling them in lessons and clinics and camps. We hired tutors. We studied up ourselves, poring over books on competitive swimming, the Suzuki method, scouting. We drew up complicated calendars color-coded by family member. We chauffeured, we coached, we baked, we manned the snack bar. We raised funds. We cheered. We applauded politely. We encouraged. We nagged. We begged. We bribed.
For wasn’t this the essence of living? To raise productive members of society? To build the next generation?
But if this was the crux of it all, why were we so damn tired and grouchy? We couldn’t help feeling a bit miffed that the Miscavages’ youngest daughter had been handed all three solos in the sixth-grade choral extravaganza. We couldn’t help begrudging, just a little, eleven-year-old Grant Portman’s place on the high school chess team, his perfect record, his national rating. And the O’Leary twins playing, as freshmen, on a U17 premier soccer team that toured all over Great Britain during the summer. The best we could say for our children was that they were good kids, nice kids, and we loved them, unconditionally. Nevertheless, their pedestals were cracked and chipped and faded now, and underneath, vines of resentment had begun to creep. With determined good humor we tried to weed ourselves of these shoots of envy and insecurity. We gamely coaxed our children through their recitals and their matches, their homework and tests and report cards. We bolstered their self-esteem. We modeled poise and politeness. But next door the lawns and gardens and frankly everything else our neighbors took care of just seemed so much more lush. Why didn’t our children flourish like that? Our children were ignorant and apathetic: they didn’t know, and they didn’t care. They were too busy playing video games. We asked where their ambition was, when were they going to start making something of their lives, did they know in other parts of the world boys and girls would kill for the opportunities they enjoyed? We wondered when we had become so frighteningly fluent in parentspeak. It was a thought that invariably presaged an intense bout of middle-age angst.
Our days (weeks, months, years) had gained a terrifying momentum. Like a dog tied to the back of a moving car, we chased the relentless progression of our daily lives. Even socializing exhausted us—having to schedule time just to have a beer, having to steer the conversation around any potholes that had opened up over the years. Inevitably, the conversation degenerated into a collective whine about how everybody was living the same harried life. And we weren’t getting anywhere, either. If life came in a kit, we’d still be reading the directions, finding the pieces, starting over. Why couldn’t we just put the darn thing together?
We were too old, that was why. We had become—suddenly, alarmingly—too old. Not since puberty had we been so aware of our bodies. Of course in those days, we had no idea of what deception our bodies were capable. We had no idea we’d been saddled with something called a back. Oh, to take a good back for granted! Our backs complained nearly every day now. They complained whenever we sat too long, or stood too long, or let our littlest ones ride piggyback. Our littlest ones, we decided, could walk on their own two uncalloused feet. The tiny tyrants. The ungrateful sons-of-bitches. Once upon a time, we told them, children worked as soon as they could walk. We have to nag you to do every little goddamn thing.
Often, though, we didn’t even have the energy to nag. We felt depleted. Some of us had been just teenagers when they invaded our lives. Wasn’t that ironic? Our children had pillaged our childhood. Or they had appropriated our best years. Unyoked from our responsibility as parents, what might we have accomplished? We read about our old college buddies in Newsweek or The New York Times. Not often, but often enough. Occasionally they wrote to us, inviting us to visit, although their apartments—in places like Boston and New York and San Diego—had only one spare room. When would we visit, anyway? They had conferences to travel to, site visits, vacations (real vacations). They had frequent flyer miles up the wazoo. They claimed they were busy. Busy? we muttered, breathing through the mouth as we dumped a load of sheets into the washing machine. The middle one had wet the bed for the third time in a week. Busy. We fantasized about checking into the hotel off the interstate just so we could get a good night’s sleep.
Some of us, those who’d once been the thirty-something singles and the fortyish dinks, told everyone to just wait. It would come around.
Because raising a child as an older parent was not only a physical challenge, it could be a financial nightmare. Try going through three rounds of infertility treatment, none of it covered by insurance. It was considered elective, like a tummy tuck or a boob job. And adoption wasn’t cheap either. Still, at least those of us who’d adopted—at least those of us who’d adopted from Asia or South America—weren’t forever being asked about our grandchildren. We’d entered parenthood pushing forty or even forty-five. We’d leave it pulling retirement age. Some of us would die a natural death, and we still wouldn’t ever meet our grandchildren.
None of us—whether blue-hair or bleach blonde, six-pack abs or sagging tits—had the wherewithal to worry about grandchildren, anyway. We had adolescents in the house. Adolescence, that delightful coming-of-age when one discovered just how insanely stupid and inept and immoral one’s mother and father could be. They corrected our facts, our grammar, our manners, every choice we had or hadn’t made in our pathetically bankrupt lives. With brutal precision they highlighted both our shortcomings and the inescapable conclusion that we’d never be able to make up the difference.
Adolescence. We opened the bathroom door on our sons, catching them with lingerie ads from Macy’s in one hand and their . . . cock in the other. We caught our daughters texting dirty photos of themselves to boys they’d once thought totally gross. We gave them books about changes in their bodies and told them we would listen if they ever wanted to talk. All righty then, they said. They had long ago perfected the smirk.
Later we overheard them talking to their friends about oral sex and snorting Adderall. We cornered them and tried to begin a conversation.
They rolled their eyes and said, Oh my god, I was kidding.
Honey, we said. We remained calm. Talk to us, we said.
That was sarcasm, they screamed. Why do you always have to turn everything into something it’s not? Who do you think I am?
Such outrage! Such anger! Such disdain! Our own flesh and blood turned foe, the enemy in our home. Duh. That word like a blunt weapon. You don’t know the equation for a parabola? Duh. We fought the British in the War of 1812. Duh. It’s pronounced Albert Cam-oo. You don’t know very much, do you? You don’t know me. You won’t ever know me. Duh.
We’d forgotten all that high school trivia. It wasn’t important. But how we wanted to put them in their place! To beat them at something, anything—Scrabble, hoops in the driveway, a dinner table debate. To wrestle them to the ground and pin them, show them who had begat whom. Then tickle them until they begged for mercy, let them wriggle out from underneath, and feign submission when they climbed on top. Neigh and trot around on our hands and knees while they giggled and called us Daddy again.
There would be no more horseplay. They didn’t play at all anymore. They had schoolwork, jobs, sports. They had college applications. They had SATs. They had volunteer work to put on their resumes. They had friends. They had friends to gab to, friends to hang out with, friends to slap, friends to kiss, to gossip about, to pine after, to be so frustrated with. They had friends to be angry at, friends to be depressed over, friends to hate, friends to reconcile with, friends to miss so much they were going to die. They had never reconciled with us. They had never missed us. As if we meant nothing to them.
If we meant nothing to them, however, why were they so eager to leave us? Why did they beg us to help them move? Why did they let us arrange their desks? Why did they look so forlorn among their milk crates and suitcases and the plush animals tossed carelessly on their dorm beds? Why had they even brought those tattered old things? Why did they hug us in plain sight of their new roommates? Why did they insist on our driving up to fetch them over Labor Day? Why did they call us at least once a day during those first three weeks? Why did they stop?
They visited now. Instead of calling it home, they called it Chesterton. I’m coming to Chesterton for Thanksgiving, they said. I’ll swing through Chesterton after finals. I might have a free week between my internship and the fall semester. Otherwise I’ll make a trip to Chesterton during winter break.
They’d met people. They started bringing home (we wouldn’t relinquish that word) boyfriends and girlfriends, young men and women who looked at once too old for their age and staggeringly young. Our children introduced us and then began to describe our town’s history. They spoke with wry humor and superior attitudes, as if Chesterton were a tourist site, as if they themselves had no affiliation with the place.
We tried to reconnect them with their roots, but a flower couldn’t be unpicked. They now found their old friends, people they’d known their entire lives . . . awkward. They actually preferred these new friends they’d made. These new friends, whom we found at once smarmy and pretentious.
And these new friends were only the first of many. Or they were the one and only. Our children—our children—were getting engaged, getting married, getting pregnant. When had that happened? We’d gone on a two-week cruise to the Mediterranean, the trip we’d waited a lifetime to take. Couldn’t they have waited two weeks to announce their news? Were they really prepared for a child? It doesn’t matter, they said in unison. They often spoke in unison now, or in alternating phrases. It’s coming, he said. Whether we’re ready or not, she finished. They laughed, like it was all a lark.
They were raising their own children now, and we tried to help. They tried to let us. We were clumsy and insensible, however. We were fussy and outdated, indulgent and undisciplined. We couldn’t even fasten a diaper properly. It’s backwards, they said, unable to hide either their mirth or their scorn. Nonetheless, we babysat for them whenever they asked. We hosted family dinners, even though the in-laws deadened the mood.
Our children weren’t living far away, but they weren’t close enough for anything like casualness to develop. We worked up the nerve to suggest they invite us over. Of course they would, but they were really, really busy. We weren’t forgotten, we weren’t ignored. We were scheduled in, an appointment on their calendars, like a dental checkup or the office happy hour.
When we finally came, they took us aside and in a singular lapse they told us they didn’t think they could keep this up, their kids were literally driving them insane. Their faces carried the same expression of guilt we’d seen that time we’d caught them spitting in their little sisters’ ice cream sundaes. We told them we had felt the exact same way about them, once. We told them any parent who wasn’t a little bit insane was probably in a mental institution. Somehow this lifted everybody’s spirit.
It wasn’t long before we began falling, like leaves from an autumn maple. A few at first, floating gently away, and then a smattering, and then the whole lot of us—in one moment, clutching at what remained of our lives while fluttering uncertainly in the breeze, and in the next, detached and whisked away. We fell off the commode. We fell off our rockers. We fell down staircases. We fell into hospital beds, wheelchairs, assisted living. We fell into our caskets.
They carried us out. They said kind and generous things, words that surprised us, words that we didn’t deserve. They called us angels. We hadn’t earned our wings. They said we’d done our best for them. We could have done so much more. We had loved them, they said. We had tried to love them. Truly, we had. Finally, they set us down, and we did not mind, not very much, if we would never rise again.