Blanche McCrary Boyd
The pandemic finds me dropped out once again, less advertently than in the Sixties and Seventies, staring at these spring birds flitting around, these quiet trees growing, these flowers popping forward with no notion of a world medical emergency. I’ve been thrown back anew onto my in-breaths and out-breaths, thinking only occasionally about dying on a ventilator and the great big meaning of it all.
I never imagined I’d live to be 75 years old, never even imagined I’d make it through my thirties because of my addictions to alcohol and drugs, but here I am, 38 years sober and still breathing – somewhat uneasily – inside my layer of middle-class comfort with a wife and children. When our kids were small, we even had a mini-van. This is what love has reduced me to: Although I am stalked by a lethal virus, embedded in a society where blacks can be killed at will and the streets are on fire, although we are led by a president with the mien and brain of a peacock, I seem to be happy.
Falling in love and having children changed me. I was 54 years old when James and Julia were born, and, in a flash, the world became intelligible. Because here they were, these twins sliding sloppily out of my wife’s vagina, James first, and it was like, Oh my god, it’s a new person! It’s somebody else! And these were not composites, these were not anyone else who’d ever arrived on this planet before, and my revelations through psychedelics, which I still occasionally mourned, were instantly rendered silly. My shrink (brain doctor is the term I prefer) said, Well, you’ve never imagined what you’ve never imagined.
I’d known about children, of course, had even been one, and I’d seen those films of childbirths, but seeing a child born on film and seeing it happen in real time is like the difference between kissing your arm and marrying someone. These events might be mildly related, but one certainly does not prepare you for the other.
I hadn’t wanted children, I was just accommodating this woman I had, against my better judgment, fallen in love with, and she kept insisting. These two lumps of flesh were each about the size of a roast beef and nearly as red, and they arrived entirely helpless, yet with personalities intact, James so calm he didn’t cry. Is he all right? Yes, the doctor said, he’s just a laidback little dude.
Six minutes later Julia screamed through, and she might as well have been carrying a scroll of nonnegotiable demands. I hadn’t quite figured this out yet, but within months I realized that, after all those years of therapy in which I’d been hoping to change, to become less urgent, less difficult, less combative and unhappy (and maybe even not really an alcoholic addict or lesbian), I’d been born the way I am.
Getting born is a chancy matter. Within one week a healthy male can make enough sperm to double the world’s population of 7 billion (that’s a lot of sperm), and every woman has 350 to 400 eggs. So it’s just a big crap shoot, and everyone who takes a first breath here arrives as a unique confluence of genetics and circumstance. We are all entirely unique, but only as unique as everyone else, which has the unfortunate consequence of rendering uniqueness ordinary. This thought may seem confusing, but it’s at the root of art as well as conflict.
When I’d been sober a few years, I had the good fortune to become friends with the writer Annie Dillard, and, after she read a piece I’d written about my friend’s shotgun suicide, tears formed in her eyes. “You have no idea how moving you are.” I wasn’t sure what she meant, so she said, “All of those years you spent suffering, when you could have been reading.”
I could have been reading. I so admired the fact that Annie loved original sources, nineteenth-century accounts of pioneers, religious thinkers, science, and had produced the brilliant Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, but I’d always placed my own bets on original experience. I’d spent many years not only drinking and taking drugs but getting initiated by a shaman in Peru, traveling through the abandoned peninsulas of upper Iceland, letting an Indian guru give me shakipat trying to zap awake the light of god inside me.
I’d written about stock car races and tough man contests and hurricanes and growing up in the Deep South during American apartheid on a fucking plantation, and I’d acknowledged my redneck contempt for the pretentiousness of high art and classical music and modern dance and even tennis. I’d written about growing up racist, interviewed a KKK Grand Wizard, covered the Susan Smith murders, and recorded “Hot Rod Lincoln” with the Rock Bottom Remainders. I’d also helped found an independent institute for the study of radical feminist thought named Sagaris Institute and then, two years later, abandoned it.
Now, at 75, our kids are 20, and I spend a lot of time reading. Or, more often, listening to books, since my eyes don’t work the way they used to, because of the planned obsolescence of our bodies. How does my physiology know this process, making these spots and wrinkles and these other, deeper changes? I do understand that whatever force breathed me into this world will breathe me out, but I’m in no hurry.
After the kids were born, my writing career seemed to disappear, because it’s very hard to keep small helpless creatures alive. Leslie could only nurse them both for a brief time, and when I first put a bottle’s tiny nipple up to Julia’s mouth, she seized it ferociously, and I had this desperately relieved thought: oh my god, she’s going to live!
Years of happiness and exhaustion followed, while we tried to figure out how to raise and support our children. We both had good paying jobs, Leslie as a psychotherapist, me as a teacher of creative writing, but what on earth were we going to do about global warming?
Like all parents, we had to make constant, calculated choices, because it’s frightening to let children out of one’s direct sight and keep all those electric sockets covered and figure out what the little fuckers will and won’t eat. And what did they mean with those grunts and gurgles and meaningful looks? Why did they smile and hug us and let us kiss them? Why were they crying?
Risks may have been my chosen path, but those risks had been about myself. It takes one kind of courage to jump out of a plane, a much different sort to let children cross the street for the first time, or to leave them at a daycare center. Will they ever forgive us? I was actually crying. But they liked daycare, although Julia refused – and still refuses – to drink milk. After sitting stubbornly in front of a full glass through many play periods, we finally had to get a doctor’s note saying she was allergic, although she’s not.
Having children is a lesson in immediacy, a be here now that LSD guru Timothy Leary didn’t seem to know about, or about the demands and exhaustion that come with all that immediacy. I used to stop in a parking lot on the way home from work and read The New York Times and sob into the steering wheel.
I had never planned to love anyone this way. I’d always assumed love had to do with sexual attraction, and this was a mistake I had carried through many years of lesbian serial monogamy. But when I met Leslie, love was like a bowling ball sinking deeper and deeper into my gut, and bringing with it an unfamiliar peace. Still, when she said she wanted to have children, I was like: no, no, no, I am not parental material!
Leslie was 39 and I was already in my 50s. She would be their mother, their blood, but who would I be? And I felt homophobic about whether lesbians had the right--or the chops--to raise sons, if that’s who showed up in the birth lottery. Also, I would have no legal rights, and if a child were in an intensive care situation, I wouldn’t even be able to enter the room.
Leslie comes from a strong and supportive family, and I said, If something happens to you, you think your mother and brother would leave our children with big bad me? Now Leslie’s mother lives in the house behind us and we see her all the time, and when the kids were little, they could run through the woods to grandmother’s house, haha.
When we learned that Leslie was pregnant with twins, a boy and a girl, it was a jackpot, and I gave in. I’d become increasingly involved in the process of choosing her sperm donor because it turned out I had strong opinions (no surprise there), and soon I found myself writing x’s with magic marker on her butt and giving her hormone shots. I was surprised that, unlike other women I’d been sexually involved with, she took no pleasure in my inflicting pain and that I hated causing it. But this wasn’t sex, it was something deeper.
I was still refusing cohabitation at that point. The old joke that what lesbians do on a second date is rent a U-Haul mirrored my history, or, to be more accurate, I’d always either taken a hostage or been one, but now I lived alone and owned a wonderful condo in a building so eccentric I laughed out loud the first time I saw it, and everything seemed nearly perfect.
I’d written a good novel, just been ‘on tour’, been awarded a tenure I hadn’t sought, and then I went to a party at the writer Amy Bloom’s house and saw this woman sitting on the grass (who’s that?) and talked to her for five hours and, without knowing I was going to, invited her to go to Greece with me in the fall, because there it was, this bowling ball sinking slowly through my heart.
I even called my mother the next day to say I’d met someone. She asked these three questions: Is she white? Is she a prostitute? Does she own her own house? I said she had a job and owned a house and was not a prostitute, and I finessed the whiteness question by saying, she’s Jewish. In retrospect my response is shabby and condoning, but I thought my mother was doing pretty well for someone whose first response to my being gay had been to say, It makes me want to throw up, and we’d already had the race fight too many times to repeat it.
I kept saying to Leslie, you don’t want to live with me, I’m an asshole, I’ll give you a list of women to confirm it, but when she tried to buy the house across the street from me, I finally realized that, if I wanted this woman and these children in my life, I’d have to change. So I did.
I was the first person, other than the doctor who delivered our children, to hold them, and, a little later, when they were taken to the nursery to be cleaned up and checked out, I followed down the hall as if they were magnets. Our doctor walked behind me. When I opened the door to the nursery for the newborns, the nurse in charge looked me up and down. Who are you? Only new parents were allowed in this room, and I looked too old to have given birth any time recently. I turned to the doctor, half-smiling, half- panicked. You’re their mother, she said, and don’t you ever forget it.
But it wasn’t that simple and still isn’t. The law in Connecticut changed while Leslie was pregnant, which would make it possible for me to adopt James and Julia, but Leslie and I first had to be interviewed by the Department of Children and Family Services, and letters attesting to my character had to be written by her mother and brother. My history of drug addiction was confirmed but dismissed, because I’d been clean and sober more than 15 years at that point, and we both looked breathtakingly healthy and middle-class in our big house that Leslie’s mother had helped us buy. (I know, I know, I know.)
After the adoption was approved, I carried a laminated card to prove that I was their mother because I have a different last name, and we paid a lawyer to set up wills and powers of attorney, and we did a lot of other establishment stuff I never thought I’d have to face, like that minivan, and the Rosie O’Donnell gay family cruises, and getting flu shots and even a retirement plan. I didn’t know if I was being compromised or made whole.
Leslie was seven months pregnant when we finally moved in together. She had never lived with anyone, and I was, as my mother succinctly put it, a six-time loser. But this was a crazy, wonderful time for us, like shooting rapids through rivers we’d never seen.
During my drug years, I’d spent lots of high time contemplating my hands, because I’d understood that, scientifically speaking, we are all just a series of electrical valences and are composed primarily of space. So, druggily, I’d kept wanting to see through my hands. Now I wanted to understand the mystery of these fleshly arrivals as our lives became exercises in changing diapers and trying to get a little sleep and eat and feed them and keep them safe and still get to our jobs, and always the task was: What is the next right thing? Fear and responsibility could not be separated from joy and exhaustion.
AA has given me a certain kind of training about how to stay in the present: look down, there’s your feet, this is where you are, get in the minute you’re in. So this is where I am, sitting on my porch, immersed in my white American ordinariness, aging and with a younger wife (yes, we did finally get married) and these grown children who have been sent home from their colleges by the pandemic.
Until a few weeks ago I was teaching on Zoom, the kids were completing their coursework online, and Leslie remains in her home office daily, trying to help others. Nevertheless, there is a lot of leisure for us, meals together once again, walks on the beach or in the woods. Last night I watched two episodes of Avatar with my daughter, and the night before I sat with my son while he played Fortnite on the television in the basement. I’m too chicken to try it because I hate being bad at anything.
At first I hadn’t believed it about the pandemic, and it’s worth admitting that my first response had been to fly to Florida to buy an old convertible. I like cars, I’d already made these plans, and I was unwilling to forego them.
But on March 9, in the airport and on the plane to Fort Lauderdale, everyone looked nervous and embarrassed while we wiped down our seats and food trays. (I did as Leslie had instructed me.) I’d planned to leave the Solara in Florida with our friends and return in the winter, but, once there, I found myself cautious about flying again, so I drove the car back to Connecticut, and I could feel the tensions accumulating as I headed north.
Traffic out of Florida and though Georgia was heavy because the snowbirds were heading home too, but then the highways became increasingly deserted, and the hotel I stayed at in Virginia was nearly empty. I was the only person in the restaurant where I grabbed dinner.
“When you get here,” Leslie told me on the phone, “drive straight into the garage and take off your clothes and leave all of your things out there. I’ll have a robe for you, and you’re going straight into a shower.” She and the children were worried about me because of my age group, but I was more concerned that I had scared them, or, as I finally understood, possibly exposed them. Apparently I remain an iffy judge about my responsibilities to those I love.
I do know I’ve finally gotten old enough to let go of the things I can’t change. Eudora Welty wrote that a child feels indelible in the world but learns it is the world becoming indelible on her, and I’ve let go of most of my fears and even my ambitions. I play mostly in the shallow end of the pool, and I don’t even think it’s the shallow end anymore. (We don’t have a pool btw.)
I understand that I can’t fix global warming or cure this virus or get that peacock out of the White House, but the future belongs to the young. Or, as I tell our kids, it’s your problem now. And when your future gets here, it will still be today.
Blanche McCrary Boyd is a novelist, essayist, and journalist. Her most recent book, Tomb of the Unknown Racist was a Finalist for the PEN-Faulkner Award. She teaches writing at Connecticut College. More information available at blanchemcraryboyd.com
I’m Sober Now ::: Danny O'Keefe
Goodbye Booze ::: Charlie Poole
Be Careful There’s A Baby In The House ::: Loudon Wainwright III
Memo To My Son ::: Randy Newman
Who’s Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet ::: The Everly Brothers
All La Glory ::: The Band
I Am A Child ::: Neil Young
Hot Rod Lincoln ::: Commander Cody & The Lost Planet Airmen