Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Long View

Today, Cait is sixteen weeks and four days pregnant. She is beautiful, her energy is coming back, the nausea is going away, the test results look within the right ranges: so far, so good. I am so excited at the prospect of being a parent! And I am encouraged that so many family members and friends with kids are excited for us to join the tribe. It says something that they wish us so well at such an early stage, that despite the potential for [and their experience of] exhaustion and frustration, they are so eager and happy for us. Both Cait and I are blessed to be younger siblings, and to have had wonderful experiences with nieces and nephews, as well as friend’s kids, that suggest, to us at least, that we’re pointed in the right direction.

The Chicago doc says that fatherhood is more a state of mind than a physical change; unlike the moms, “future” dads do a lot of speculating and watching, but don’t experience much directly and personally until the child arrives. That makes sense to me. So far, caretaking and bearing witness seem to be the things I can really contribute on a day-to-day basis.

Driving down to the doctor's office for our first second-trimester visit this morning, Cait and I both marveled at Morning Edition's "The Long View" feature interview with Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of the 1981 book about grief and suffering, When Bad Things Happen To Good People. The interview is one of the best radio programs I have heard in a long while and I highly recommend devoting the roughly 8 minutes needed to listen to the whole thing. In the interview, reflecting on his teenage son's painful, tragic death from a genetic condition, Rabbi Kushner revisits the basic insights that led to the writing of the book:

"What I realized is, Where did we ever get the notion that worshiping power was the greatest compliment we could pay to God? Why is power the most admirable virtue? If I, walking through the wards of a hospital, have to face the fact that either God is all-powerful but not kind, or thoroughly kind and loving but not totally powerful, I would rather compromise God’s power and affirm his love...The theological conclusion I came to is that...God chose to designate two areas of life off-limits to his power: he would not arbitrarily interfere with laws of nature, and he would not take away our freedom to choose between good and evil."

After Katie’s death, a doctor friend of the LaPlante family offered referrals to two kinds of therapists. The first, which I ultimately settled on, was basic talk therapy. The second, which I tried and rejected, was what I jokingly referred to as “pen-light therapy,” but is more commonly known as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). EMDR is a common and well-received treatment for PTSD, in which the brain is stimulated, through eye movement, to heal parts of the brain broken by traumatic experience (it’s more complicated, but that’s the basic gist). My experience of the process was of paying $250 to have a person wave a pen light against a darkened wall while touching my thigh and repeating Katie’s name, but no doubt there are more accomplished practitioners of the therapy. A friend who is working to get her acupuncture degree is looking into combinations of acupuncture and talk therapy to address PTSD in veterans, and a recent New Yorker article about psychiatry suggests that combinations of therapeutic approaches often bear out as good as or better results than prescriptions or talk therapy alone.

Looking back, I think that the Indiana doc’s approach to therapy was to allow space for grieving and sense-making, while also hammering home three or four basic insights into the grieving process and living after grief that affirmed generally the value of life and living, and specifically the value of my own life among the people I loved. These were simple, temporary structures to lean against the building of my life and keep it standing until the foundation could be put back together, but they worked. One of the first things the Indiana doc said, and then repeated at pretty much every other session, was that one day I would be sitting watching my child at a little league game, see the back of a woman's head, think for a second it's Katie, and lose it. And in this gentle mixing of two possible experiences, seemingly divergent, a new kind of narrative was suggested: I was young, I would remarry, I would become a father.

As of today’s visit, the heartbeat is strong. Cait feels good. We are feeling some very tentative enthusiasm for things. I don’t mean to presume anything about the potential experience of parenthood, other than to try to anticipate and act with humility and grace. One of the recurrent themes of this blog is an attempt to accept the fragility inherent in being alive, and the beauty that such fragility offers in the contemporary world. After watching Jim and Pam deliver their baby in last week’s episode of The Office, Cait and I signed up for a whole bevy of new-parent courses offered at the hospital where she will deliver. If Jim can diaper a football and cat, it seems, I’ve got some work to do to catch up.

Two days ago, I was offered and accepted the Jones lectureship in poetry at Stanford University, where starting this fall, I’ll be teaching undergraduate creative writing courses for the next two years. I am ecstatic at the opportunity to continue to work in the creative writing department, among so many talented peers and faculty members who have shaped my writing and writing life, and I look forward to putting in the time and energy to similarly support other, younger writers, as well as to grow in my teaching and continued writing. The group of poems I submitted with my application for the lectureship came from an elegy manuscript I finished last fall, “No Season.” Seven of these poems were accepted this week for publication by The Missouri Review, which means that the bulk of the manuscript will soon be published in various journals (see the left-side menu for links).

“No Season” follows the unexpected arc of grief and mourning, within the eventual context of finding new love. There’s this great moment at the end of Rabbi Kushner’s interview, where he says that his relationship with God hasn’t changed all that much during his lifetime:

"My sense is God and I came to an accommodation with each other a couple of decades ago, where he's gotten used to the things that I'm not capable of and I've come to terms with things he's not capable of, and we care very much about each other."

For me, finishing “No Season,” reflects the sense I’m capable of generating at this point in my life, regarding Katie’s death and my experience of living after it. If that sense contains inconsistencies, or even seems to embrace certain contradictions, I’m okay with that. There is a kind of reverence that I find personally meaningful in both having written those poems and now stopping their writing. I don’t believe that there is a clear beginning or end to love, any more than there is to life, but there are new manifestations of both that, if we’re lucky, get born again into this world, needing us to be better versions of our current selves. Probably, I’m cribbing that from somewhere else, but I can’t call to mind from where, exactly.


Stephanie said...

Congrats on the lectureship. Does this overlap with the Stegner, or has the Stegner ended? I'm all confused.

As for fatherhood, my friend Andy said once, "I think for the first two years, my role in life is to carry my son's stuff." Not sure if that's every father's experience, but it always made me laugh.

Much love to the Evans three.

Stephannie said...

So happy for you two, John. Big congrats. My little boy just turned one year old in February, and I can hardly believe how fast it all goes by. It's the biggest cliche of all, but it's also the truest. Sending y'all much love and hoping you'll cherish every moment.

Sarah Stapleton said...

Wow, John! I just read this (a little late) and not only are we super excited for you and Cait to be parents, we are also super excited about your fellowship! You will be a fabulously inspiring instructor and I envy the undergrads who have the priviledge of being in your class! :)