One day you’re a child staring up at the night sky, wondering about those stars. Then suddenly you’re a grown man, holding a child of your own, looking out of a hospital window and still wondering about those stars, because you thought this whole shebang would make sense by now, and what’s up with that anyway?
Where to begin this story? How about this: Seven years ago Kristen and I had tickets to see one of our favorite bands, Over the Rhine, but we never made it to the concert that night because Kristen’s water broke and we had a baby instead, and we named him Annen Isaac, which means something along the lines of “from the water comes laughter.”
Or maybe I should back up another decade to the summer of 2003 when I asked Kristen to marry me, she said yes, and then she left the country to spend a year studying Nietzsche in cloudy England while I stayed back in Missouri reading Holy the Firm on repeat, and when she came home for Christmas break I gave her a copy of Over the Rhine’s latest album, Ohio, which includes the song “Suitcase” about a relationship that is on the brink of falling apart, and for the rest of that year we wrote each other letters and emails about what the flip we were getting ourselves into, tying the knot and all. I mean, given the knowledge that everything around us is always at risk of falling apart, how do we build a life together, and toward what end? Where is this all headed, anyway?
Or how about the time I was at a concert in the fall of 2008 and the guy with the guitar said, “You know, vote for your candidate, vote your conscience, but don’t expect it to change the world overnight. Want to really change something? Go meet your neighbors.” And I adjusted my expectations that fall but still voted for the guy who quoted Alice Walker when he told us, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
By the way, did you know that, according to NASA, the pictured starburst cluster in the Carina spiral arm “contains thousands of stars more massive than our Sun, stars that likely formed only one or two million years ago in a single burst of star formation”??
Anyway, fast forward now to last Thursday. I had made great plans: I would get the brakes checked out on the van, I would organize the basement, I would get all caught up at work, I would clean up the yard, I would finish painting the nursery, all before this third baby of ours arrives in early December.
Then came our October surprise. What we thought was just a trickle of fluid at noon on Thursday became by bedtime the mighty waters, so we left our dishes on the counter and our living room a mess, dropped off the boys at my parents, and rushed to our midwife at the birth center where we planned on having the baby, and the midwife told us this was too early and we would need to head to the hospital instead, so we drove to the hospital, expecting that Kristen would just be put on bed rest since we could’ve sworn she didn’t seem to be going into labor, until after midnight when she did actually go into labor, and at 4:09 AM a baby came out and the nurse told us we have a beautiful son and we laughed and cried for our new baby boy until the nurse told us that oops! we actually have a beautiful daughter, so we laughed and cried for our new baby girl instead. Ellery Pearl, our “precious joy.”
This is where things start getting blurry. That was ten days ago. Kristen is still camped out in the NICU with Ellery for typical premie feeding stuff. My other two children spent all of this time being passed around among grandparents, pretty sure they never left the state of Missouri, but who knows. I stopped by the house after two days at the hospital to find the dishes cleaned and our beds made. Food in the fridge. Flowers and a six pack of beer on the table. All of these small gifts and more given by the village we have around us, friends and family who are getting us through, neighbors who say they’re just going to feed the dog and instead clean everything in the house, and for a few brief moments last Sunday I basked in all of this gratitude and joy and I held a small child and kissed my wife and thanked the cashier in the hospital cafeteria for all of this goodness.
Then Halloween happened. The kids came home for the night for trick-or-treating. Ori Benjamin (poor middle child, just now entering the scene, his first name meaning “light,” and I can’t remember what Benjamin means, “son of my numbered days” or something depressing like that) . . . anyway, Ori chose to be a firefighter a long time ago, so that was settled, but at 4 PM Annen still didn’t know, so we grabbed a sheet and cut some holes in it and made the most awesome looking thrift-ghost in the world, then we ate some pizza because Kristen’s mom was there to help remind me that my children needed to eat dinner, and we were almost ready to trick-or-treat with some neighbors, but Annen wanted his orange bucket from the basement, so I went downstairs to get it, but by the time my foot hit the second step I could smell the stench of sewage. I hit the light. Streams of sludge covered the floor, and I don’t know about you, but in our basement, the shelving is mostly for appearances but the floor is where you put stuff, so the streams of sludge flowed around boxes and plastic tubs and random objects. A neighbor appeared and helped me move our things and clean what we could, then another neighbor sensed that my blank stare meant that I didn’t know what to do so she said very slowly “Call a plumber,” and so I did, and even later that night when I remembered that I failed to lock the door at work, yet another neighbor appeared to read books to the boys for 20 minutes while I went to lock up. Can you tell yet that we’ve been sustained this week by the goodness of the real live human beings that we get to call friends and family and neighbors?
I’ll tell you right now: this story you’re reading is just one more of my small disasters this week. Expect no narrative arc, no organizing principle. Adjust your expectations. The next morning I stood in the sludge-filled basement with Keith from Bob Hamilton Plumbing as he stared at the crazy arrangements of pipes along the wall and said it looked like a work of art, but what he really meant was, “Who installed all of these horizontal pipes with NO DROP at all so that food and other filth has been building up in these pipes for HALF A CENTURY!?!” And then Keith and I sat down at the dining room table where he told me that he and his wife have just gone through their own NICU experience, and their son is now seven weeks old, and we both nodded when he said thank god for NICU nurses, and we both nodded when he said thank god for Medicaid, and we both nodded when he said thank god for our two healthy babies when so many things could have gone wrong like they often do. Then Keith gave me the hard news about the cost of removing 50 feet of cast iron pipe full of stank and meat chunks still in there from the Eisenhower years and replacing it with something that resembles respectable plumbing, and I just laughed and signed my name and laughed some more because I didn’t know Keith well enough to know if he’s the kind of plumber who could handle the sight of a grown man weeping over an invoice.
The next day I had to go to work, which was supposed to be the highlight of this week, because I had arranged for Over the Rhine to come perform concerts in Pilgrim Chapel on Wednesday and Thursday nights, and my to do list included tasks like “pick up kegs from Martin City” and “move altar to make room for lots of guitars” and “you get to hang out with one of your favorite bands, so try and be cool.”
First thing Wednesday morning I got a call from the lead singer to tell me that a certain hotel a 12th and Baltimore (which shall remain nameless) had shut their water off for the day and the entire building was in fact a construction zone except for the second floor, yet they sold folks hotel rooms as if nothing was awry, and I needed to find a new hotel for them ASAP because they need quiet rooms, and water. So I did, I made adjustments, and hey, the rest of the afternoon was smooth: their arrival at the chapel, sound check, the 15-minute power nap, the opening of the doors, everything right up until five minutes before show time when the band called from the hotel to say the lead singer had food poisoning and couldn’t perform.
So I had the honor of stepping in front of an expectant crowd to tell them to go home and come back tomorrow night and we’d figure out something else, which we did, turning Thursday night into two sets, which was a great solution for 85% of the people, and when you consider the fact that you can’t please all people all of the time, 85% is pretty damn good. So we had two incredible crowds show up in this small room that I’ve come to love, two crowds show up to hear this music that I’ve come to love, two crowds full of people who apparently needed a good cry as much as I did, because who knows what they all have going on in their own messy lives? There was one couple with tickets to the second show, but they showed up early for the first, and I had to turn them away and tell them to come back later, and the wife walked away with tears in her eyes because, she said, they couldn’t stay out so late since her husband feeds homeless veterans early every morning, and when she turned around and came back and I saw her eyes just begging me, I said please come in, we will have room, oh please stop crying, we will make room.
But what I really want to tell you about is the second set, because after a week of nonstop surprises and interruptions and disasters and emergencies and crazy task lists and phoning friends in desperation and everything that is set in motion just falling the fuck apart, I briefly fell into grace. For two hours I sat down in the back pew with my partner of sixteen years who had taken a break from the NICU to come listen to these songs in this room, and when the band played the first few chords of “Suitcase” this all came rushing in, a moment that quickly passed and yet was more pregnant than I knew and wanted to be born like RIGHT NOW, this moment of grace, this single burst like a star formation, simply noticing that everything around us, yes, is always falling apart, the best laid plans, the purest ideals, the god damn plumbing, all falling apart. And yet we keep getting put back together, keep adapting, keep being made whole, keep being born again because of the kindness of friends and family and neighbors and total strangers and plumbers named Keith. In the beginning there were the dark waters of chaos, and somehow (who knows how?) out of that darkness keeps bursting the most brilliant light and precious joy and raucous laughter, and we can’t really control any of it except that we get to choose daily how to participate in this life together, and I don’t need to comprehend the source of grace in order to bow in awe at the wonder of it.
I could tell you more. I could tell you about our tears Friday night when we both finally realized how exhausted we are. I could tell you about our tears Saturday night when we walked in a park and acknowledged how lucky we are (this is not tragedy; we are not suffering). I could tell you that whatever happens on Tuesday night, we can all still wake up Wednesday morning and greet our neighbors and help grace burst onto the scene. I could tell you about right now as I’m trying to get comfortable on this ugly vinyl chair while Kristen lays sprawled on a heating pad and wearing my awesome Death Star t-shirt and reading the notes of love that keep pinging on her phone while we wait for our next chance to hold our beautiful Ellery. But I’ll stop for now, until there’s something else that baffles me, which means probably Wednesday.