I’m still thinking about your blowout with Lane, Wuck. The pain we open ourselves up to when we get too close to people we don’t really know. I learned my lesson way too late with this as a gang pastor. Some wounded men will turn your sensitive, self-critical heart into a boxing gym you can't escape. My advice: kick the dust off your sandals, bro. To the next village, I mean, pool hall.
Which brings me to this: why are you guys writing your entries before your turn comes up? Makes it feel less like a conversation and more like passing the guitar around a circle, taking turns showing each other the new songs we’re working on in isolation. Feels better to me to be in conversation. Like, right now I just read both your entries and I’m going to begin mine in response. I wasn’t waiting my turn to cut and paste something I was crafting on my own all week.
It was tempting, though. What a week it’s been. Two days ago we began Washington’s indefinite Stay Home Stay Safe order.
There was a mob at the grocery store the afternoon before quarantine began at sundown. My formerly incarcerated friend texted me that day: “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. I guess it depends on how long this lasts.
Abram is in here with me now.
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, Neaners told me once during the few months he called it home).
“Daddy, open it for me?” he said. 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 knees up 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. His answer, as such, 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, 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 our heat wouldn’t escape. I turned to my laptop and back to you guys, Abram 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, earlier this morning: “Zika virus.”
When you were sharing about Sarah combing the internet for what coronavirus could do to that Tiny Wuck growing inside her, I remembered how the news was aflame with Zika when Rachel was pregnant. I had just spent three weeks in the tropical jungles of Guatemala and Honduras—the mosquito infested Zika hot zone—helping along a direct-trade relationship between the new buyers of our Underground Coffee crop and the local growers. Somehow I’d forgotten those last months of Rachel’s pregnancy, the nightmares of our first child emerging from her body with a freakishly undersized, bird-shaped head. Rachel couldn’t help herself at the time, looking at images of Zika babies online more than she’d admit.
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, in the last week. And so he mused aloud as we drove through the dark. This is what was on his mind.
Rachel and I did both cry, but for different reasons.
We opted for a natural birth at a nearby center, so Rachel had been wailing for hours with me at home, a thunderstorm of pain and emotion culminating in a primal howl to the ceiling as I caught the baby in a slippery blur, as the midwives ushered my wife and the wet mystery onto the bed and I backed up, floating, as I finally saw his face land on Rachel’s chest, squinting and purple, as he finally opened into a whimpering sound and quaking. Honestly, it hit me like seeing a kid pulled out of one of those deep wells or storm drains, after days of unspeakable darkness and confusion, utterly alone. That’s just how it hit me, before my brain got involved, and I wept and wept—loud and instant and primal. <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 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>.
It took me several attempts to finish that last sentence. Abram has finished his scribbling, tired of the Orthodox incense he found, and is now poking the left side keys on my laptop as I try to type to you both. I keep having to clean up the crazy series of letters with the delete key.
I now wish I’d left a trace of them here: it’s 10pm and I’ve returned to the quiet green glow of my banker’s lamp, only the hum of the wash cycle in the garage to keep me company.
I’m definitely gonna keep this Zika Virus piece of paper, though—as a bookmark, at least. I love it now. His head, after all, is as round and huge as mine. His penciled doodles and decorations, the wild lines are 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 narrates your own threshold between 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, angry brown boys covered in ink and attitude, dying for a place to finally be safe and cry. Like an overworked older brother with no parents to be found, I had long lost any sense of play, becoming a nonstop circus of saviorism and codependency and resentment. I couldn’t fix the chaos of so many lives. Few were becoming the friends I hoped they could be, like we all were in Upland.
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 super 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. Unlike most of my work as a pastor, organizer, and advocate among shattered lives, with this baby I could, say, change his diaper like a pro and deliver him back to his mother, and the task, blessedly, was done—simpler than LEGOS. So, unlike a coming-of-age threshold that Murph described so well, 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 just sifting through the old, 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 now 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.