Chapter 2
Alacrity in Sinking

Photo Credit: Natalie Lape

I struggle to learn certain things, most of which revolve around the very simple notion that I can not control every situation or solve every problem. A therapist from my early twenties told me this need for control comes from a place of either anger or guilt. Liam had his brain operated on, Thursday, October 1, 2015. It was a date we had for all intents and purposes been waiting for since June 16; I remember the date of his diagnosis so clearly. And this was one of those occasions that reminded me just how little agency I have in this world.

More than any other season, Autumn is a reminder that things have changed, are changing, always. It was a cold morning in Manhattan, the wind punching me in the face as I walked east on 29th. I was wearing blue jeans and a plain black t-shirt and I was shaking, more from nerves than from the bitter weather conditions. A few days prior, Jacklyn had noticed a slight change—the slightness of which could only be caught by a mother. We rushed him to the pediatrician, upon whose observation our neurosurgeon, Dr. Jeff Wisoff, ordered us to come into the city for the procedure.

The last image I have of Liam prior to the surgery is him, calm, skin well-hydrated from the fluids they had just removed, with a “JW” marked on his head. I am a man who is passionate about words. I study and teach words, language, rhetoric every day. Yet I can not come up with an appropriate description of what it feels like when your newborn son is about to have his head sliced open. I have one word, and it is not so much a word as a gesture, a combination of relief and fear. Fuck. I can not remember if Jacklyn was crying, but she certainly hadn’t lost control.

Dr. Wisoff and his surgical team completed the operation without complication, or, as he put it, “there were no surprises.” The procedure was actually rather quick: 1) anaesthetize the baby, 2) cut into baby’s head and abdomen, 3) insert ventricular peritoneal shunt to relieve pressure, 4) run tube from shunt to abdomen, 5) close head and abdomen. The hour-and-a-half it took the surgeon to achieve these steps felt like, not an eternity, but rather a moment outside of time altogether, as if suspended somewhere out in the deep black of our ever-expanding universe. Over the next twenty-four hours the incredible team of nurses in the pediatric intensive care unit monitored Liam and as quickly as it began, we went home, our baby boy with his new life-saving head-plumbing (one my favorite of Dr. Wisoff’s metaphors).

There are three words I use only ironically, if ever: lucky, fortunate, and (especially) blessed. They are the three most common words people use to spit in the face of human reason and even the strongest willed people turn into useless piles of wilted cabbage at their utterance. I remember when I was a child in Catholic school every winter receiving the Blessing of the Throats. As we would wait in the procession the priest would form a cross using two candles and, touching the cross to each of our throats would pray:

“Per intercessionem Sancti Blasii, episcopi et martyris, liberet te Deus a malo gutturis, et a quolibet alio malo. In nomine Patris, et Filii et Spiritus Sancti.  Amen.” [1]

This is the blessing of St. Blaise, an Armenian physician and bishop during the early Roman Empire. A preventative cure for throat and all other diseases. On his way to jail, having been arrested by the emperor Licinius, Blaise saved—by miracle—a young boy from choking on a fishbone. Having committed the distinct crime of being a Christian in the early fourth century, the miracle did not save him. He was beaten, his skin removed by iron combs, and his head thoroughly chopped off. [2]

I remain hopelessly unsure of what to make of my family’s situation. And I find myself struggling to find the proper logical language to be as I am in the world in which I live. I will not say we are lucky, fortunate, or blessed. Those words are entirely too supernatural. It is almost a new identity, but I think it is fair to say that to be a good father in general requires a man to become many things that he was not before. Less impulsive. Less time in the reptile brain.

A wonderful and fairly recent (1996) novel that has gotten far less attention than it deserves is Daniel Askt’s St. Burl’s Obituary. His protagonist Burl (whose name is not the name of an actual saint not any actual human being, but an onomatopoeia, a gutted gluttonous guttural, a noise your stomach makes when it rejects the condition or amount of food one has taken into his body; a hypocorism of Burleigh Bennett, the name must be read as in this Patton Oswalt joke, 8:35 into the video, [3]). Burl is one of the latest in a long tradition of literary antecedents. Burl is a descendent of Shakespeare’s loveable knight Falstaff and John Kennedy Toole’s Ignatius Reilly, whom Walker Percy describes as “a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one.” [4]

The tale is at first fully loaded in its implausible and gastric excess. The gargantuan Burl, a journalist, labors over what to eat and drink at Gardenia’s and enters a living “surrealist painting” in which he finds himself “among the dead.” He has witnessed a murder. As the plot unfolds, Burl flees west from New York to Las Vegas and eventually Salt Lake City. The novel is, like Don Quixote, picaresque and romantic. The novel takes serious turn when Burl realizes his close friend Engel has become infatuated with Burl, because he has a fat fetish. Horrified and embarrassed by his physique, Burl’s narrator laments empathetically, “Our own lives are invisible to us,” and I would add, until they’re not. Burl undergoes bariatric and cosmetic surgery and returns to New York with a new identity. The most poignant moment in the novel, its most astute observation of the human condition comes when Burl (now Abe) attends his own funeral:

“It was like being a ghost…It was tragic that people never got to experience this while they were alive–everyone, all together, dwelling however momentarily on the meaning of one’s life. This must be the essence of prayer, this collective outpouring of wonder. That’s what it was, wonder. How was it that he never felt more than sorry at all those other funeral services he’d attended in Salt Lake City? Perhaps, though, one can only mourn oneself. We are like sailors bobbing in shark-infested seas. Treading water, the men cling together even as they are picked off one by one by the greedy jaws of death.”

Burl’s is an existence of half-death, the sublimity of which has been philosophized as long as human have thought metaphysically about the nature of their own existence. Both Edmund Burke in the eighteenth century and Epicurus two millennia earlier assert death is the highest order of human fear [5] [6]. Most of this fear comes from a lack of our ability to know what to expect of the afterlife. My grandfather, having converted from Judaism, was one of the most devoutly Catholic men I have ever known. He also knew that he was a good man. His fear of death and his holding onto life even as the effects of cancer and old age consumed his body was astounding to me in this regard. Burl gets to experience something none of us do: our own death. The novel sets up this premise in its opening: “This was before Burl had written his own obituary.”

I have feared for my son’s quality of life since our doctors diagnosed him with hydrocephalus those few months ago. The shunt is a barely visible bump toward the back of the right side of his head. As it plumbs away the excessive fluid around his brain, this insignificant bump serves as a reminder of that fear of death that at times overwhelms me. And I can not say with any conviction that my fears are not of my own death. Perhaps my son’s condition reminds me of the fragility of my own existence, my own inability to control my own circumstances. At the same time, his precious attendance makes me profoundly happy. He eschews most of my anxiety, and he motivates me to be a better person. A better man. A good father with a strong work ethic and an even temperament. The newness of my fatherhood aside, I have learned generally the importance of ceding my need for control.


To Cook From the Book:

Pan Roasted Veal Chop with Shiitake Cream Sauce

It should be no surprise that veal is one of the cardinal sins of vegan philosophy [1][2]. For others, myself included, veal is among the tenderest and most prized meats

2 Comments Chapter 2
Alacrity in Sinking

  1. Madge October 5, 2015 at 12:30 pm

    Profound… certainly have a way with words. I see many great writings in your future. Some day people will quote your words…

  2. Angela Kirshak October 5, 2015 at 9:18 pm

    Sending positive vibes your way and agreed… Veal is super yummy!


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