Into his son’s morning milk, which is oat milk and not cow’s milk, soy milk, or almond milk, he is counting fifty-six drops of Sucraid—ten, eleven, twelve—(because his son has a congenital sucrase-isomaltase deficiency, which means he has trouble digesting sugars.) Then he’ll add a teaspoon of Ranitidine (for reflux). Then two probiotic capsules (to keep plenty of flora in his son’s gut). Then a shooter of Gastrocrom (for mastocytosis, which his son may not have—they will just have to wait and see.) Afterward he will break open into his son’s bowl of applesauce a capsule of Pentasa (to help fight inflammation in his gastrointestinal system.) But right now it’s milk time. It’s 5:15 a.m., and dark, approaching winter in this woodsy suburb of Boston. He is counting drops of Sucraid—fifteen, sixteen, seventeen—while his son sits at the kitchen table, crying, as he does every morning. Down the hall, his wife is running the blow-dryer in the bathroom, naked save a towel at her waist. He imagines her head tilted to one side, her wet hair falling across her shoulders and breasts the way he likes. She is getting ready for work at Hanscom AFB, in an office with no windows, a job now that the seasons have changed she drives to and from in darkness. Two days ago, while carrying their son inside (he is four, and heavy, and sometimes still falls asleep in the car) she slipped in the driveway and crushed her knee on the pavement—the same knee she had reconstructive surgery on at 17, when she fell while skating, and now she says she thinks she feels “something moving around in there,” meaning the screw they drilled into the bone. She blow-dries her hair and he knows what she is thinking, can feel it through the wall that separates them. How much will an MRI cost? And will the knee require surgery? When they did the reconstruction they gave her morphine and she had an allergic reaction (the morphine didn’t work; she woke up in recovery screaming.) And he knows she is thinking about the IEP the school put together for their son last month, for kindergarten, the occupational therapy he will require, and how it was all so poorly written. And about whether insurance will get the reimbursement from his speech therapist to them in time for them to pay their rent on the first of the month. And her best friend’s wedding down in DC in the spring—he knows she can’t think about that or she will start crying because she has to tell her friend she can’t afford to go. “Do you need in here?” she calls over the sound of the blow-dryer. “Hold on,” he says. “I’m making his milk. I’m counting.” The Sucraid drips from its dropper bottle and he counts—thirty-two, thirty-three. He blocks out the sound of his son’s crying. Crying that is more like shrieking, like rain turning to sleet, like a knife through paper. Crying that started the night his son was born, a sound so unnatural and painful he and his wife knew something was wrong. But they were told, over and over, that this was just what babies did. Babies cried. Babies and toddlers and preschoolers. Morning, noon and night. They cried. They cried and did not stop, did not ever stop. And that’s how it went until by some unfathomable grace, after two and a half years of sleep-deprivation and hurt and tears, a doctor finally ordered an endoscopy and a colonoscopy, and they found out some of what was wrong with their son. And that is what he tries not to think about—what is wrong, and whether it is all physical, all in the gut, or if it is neurological and forever. There are words he knows now that he wishes he never knew, wishes no family had to know: aphasia, dyspraxia, sensory-processing disorder, fragile x syndrome. When their son had cried and cried and cried and would not stop, he and his wife fed him bottle after bottle of milk—more milk probably than he should have been given—and he knows now, maybe too late, that overfeeding a baby can cause bleeding in the brain. It kills him to think he may have irreparably harmed his son just trying to comfort him, feeding him milk. Forty-three, forty-four, forty-five. It kills him to think that his son’s infanthood and toddlerhood, and the people he and his wife had been, are gone. That the life he and his wife had known—the life of two kind and loving people who dreamed of a third, a child with whom to share that love—is gone. Mornings to lie in bed, holding each other. Afternoons to walk and talk and daydream. A warm meal and a good night’s sleep, and the feeling that everything will be fine, if not now then someday and soon. Gone. Gone. Gone. Replaced by a life utterly given over to the most basic and brutal of needs—where even pouring a cup of milk feels like a heroic task. And maybe it is, was and always had been. Maybe privilege kept him from knowing it. Which makes him somehow glad to know it now. Makes him think that if any gift has materialized from his suffering it is the humility he feels in the face of all that can go wrong in this life. Down the hall in the bathroom his wife pulls the plug on the blow-dryer. The sound fades out. Fifty-five and fifty-six. The last little drop. Then in goes the Ranitidine, the probiotics, the shooter of Gastrocrom. He takes the cup to the kitchen table and hands it to his son, who bows his head and eagerly drinks. And in the sudden quiet, the first and last of the morning, the gratitude this father feels (for his family, for the doctor who saved his family, for his job and his wife’s job, for the fall color in the oak trees out back where he has seen wild turkeys trotting in the mud, whitetail deer munching acorns, a brilliant red fox)—the gratitude he feels is a drop of medicine in the milk of his loss. ::
About the Author: Steve Edwards lives in Massachusetts with his wife and son. He is author of the memoir Breaking into the Backcountry. He tweets @The_Big_Quiet.
Story Song: "Jesus Was An Only Son" by Bruce Springsteen