Loving an Agonizing Read

I rarely laugh aloud while reading, and almost never cry at the written word, but while lying in bed, 11:30 Saturday night, alone (which my husband -- who was away -- will be happy to know,) I smiled, laughed, and then almost cried, as I read an essay from Steve Almond's book (Not That You Asked): Rants, Exploits, and Obsessions.

My family tends toward a bent sense of humor. From an early age, my sister and I coped with our twisted lives (drug-daddy! klepto-grandma!) by developing twisted comedic sensibilities. Together, we're willing to turn almost anything into a punch line. It's how we manage emotions (or maybe, we're just warped.) Almond, letting loose on the intense and usually private fears all new parents have of screwing up, hurting, misreading, miscalculating, forgetting, accidently killing their vulnerable newborns, presents the topic in a particularly comedic, male, extreme, I'm-not-gonna-admit-my-vulnerabilty-without-a-fight style which made me laugh. Lots.

That made me wonder. Why? What hit me so hard in this piece from the essay about the hours immediately following his baby's birth?

In the maternity ward, the nurses tell us not to worry. They tell us to get some rest. We are both totally in awe of the nurses. If the nurses told us the bathe the baby in lye, our only question would be, "Should we heat the lye?"... I am for the first time alone with Baby, whom I was supposed to swaddle into a tight little burrito, though she looks more like a defective veggie wrap. As I set her down to sleep, she throws her arms up in the air and waves them like she just doesn't care. Later on, it will be explained to me that this is normal, something called the Moro Reflex. For now, I am briefly convinced baby has a future in hip-hop.

Almond goes on to describe how he accidently tips his daughter from her side, onto her stomach, into what he calls the "Position of Death" and how he tries to fix it:

Gravity--that first cruel joke--sends her tumbling off my hands and onto her shoulder. Her muscleless neck twists at a grisly angle. "Baby," I whisper. "Baby!" I give baby a light shove. But Baby does not move. "Baby", I plead. " Please don't be dead." Baby, curled up like a brine shrimp, remains dead.

Okay, I got it. I know why I loved this essay. Typing it out helped me think. What made me laugh at Almond's words -- laugh in that terrified, oh, God, I-hate- those-fears manner -- was the same literary ingredient that enraptured me in the very different Suicide Index by Joan Wickersham. Truth. Comedy edged truth. Elegantly phrased truth. Unfussy, unsentimental truth.

For me, the best books, the best essays, the best poems, make me say oh God, me too about things we can barely admit to ourselves. Things that when we read them, remind us that we are not alone, not even in our crazy-times. Reading Almond I knew I'd not been alone. From the moment my pregnancy test confirmed my future, the fear of doing one incredibly stupid thing and then losing my baby had me by the throat forever.

That's the thing about being a parent. It's not the diapers, the midnight feedings, driving around at three in the morning to get her to sleep. It's this: In the time it takes for the baby to enter this world, every bit of serenity you have disappears. All equanimity rests on Baby being alive. Please God, healthy. And one more thing, please, God. Bring her contentment.

And it never ends.

Birth, death, and love: sometimes I think it's only the shock of recognition, the me-too of reading that keeps me from insanity each time I wake. It's having writers like Almond being willing to tell the truth, even when it hurts.