One December morning, two of my lifelong dreams intersected in my bathroom. I had just taken a pregnancy test and was still gulping at the affirming blue line when the phone rang. My hand trembled as I put it to my ear, assuming it would be my husband, Mark, psychically intuiting the new state of my womb. Rather, it was Christopher, a literary agent from New York. He’d been my boss 13 years earlier when we were editors at a publishing house, and I’d recently reopened the friendship by sending him my first novel.
“Oh, Christopher? Hi,” I said in that hyper, guarded tone that usually gives something away. He asked if I was okay, and without hesitating, I answered, “No. I’m pregnant. I just found out. You’re the first to know except for me, of course. Mark doesn’t even know. But since you usually tell the father first, maybe you’re the father.”
“Wow. That would be interesting,” he joked in a fake, nasally tone we would use with each other to make our long days reading bad manuscripts a little more endurable. “My boyfriend will kill me.”
“Actually,” I continued, rambling, “You’re probably not the father, so don’t tell him anything yet. Don’t tell anyone.”
“That shouldn’t be too hard,” he said, “Since we don’t really know any of the same people.” Then he paused and switched to professional when he said, “But now the news I had for you is going to be a lot less exciting.”
“I love your novel and think I can sell it.”
Before I phoned Mark, I went outside and sat alone on the gray cement steps of my rental apartment. The December cold bit hard, making me even more alive in that moment I still consider one of the most vibrant in my life. I sat with this full, shaky feeling racking my body and my heart, unable to distinguish which of my two dreams about to come true was impacting which of the sensations coursing through me like a happy drug.
It would seem that the baby was mostly responsible for the full feeling, but he was barely the size of a rice grain, and it would be another ten minutes before I launched into my conscientious eating for two. Maybe it was it that I’d toiled for five years on Body and Blood, that first novel that was going to rescue me from a life of mediocrity and teaching English as a foreign language. And as for the ineffable joy pressing on my heart? Baby or book? I really couldn’t say which pushed harder, how exactly the joy divided statistically. I’d wanted a baby since I was a little girl, raising my family of dolls in my grandmother’s chicken-less chicken coop. I’d wanted a book since as long as I’d been writing stories for those dolls. In that moment, on those steps, the dreams, the bliss, the hope for how my life would be better, were inseparable. It was a package deal. Baby and book. I felt elated and not a little superior, like I’d taken home the gold in the all-around fecundity event.
The following months were the sweetest of my life. Not unlike the way I blurted the news to Christopher, I outed myself to anyone who sent me a glance. I wanted to publicly savor the whole 40 weeks of gestation, instead of trying to be more covert about projectile vomiting in the restroom at work or hiding the belly that on my small frame announced itself quite early. I also told everyone who knew I was an aspiring author that I’d placed my novel with a solid literary agency and would probably have a book deal any day.
Basically, I spent my pregnancy teaching English, sleeping like the dead, planning for the baby with Mark and secretly plotting out my life as a successful novelist with a child. Here’s how it was supposed to go:
I would lose the baby weight instantly and look waifish in the arty clothes that I’d buy with my six-figure advance. My husband would take weeks off from his work as a psychologist and accompany me on my 12-city tour. He would hold our sleeping child in the back of the packed room while I read at every chain bookstore from Seattle, Washington, where I’d recently been a writing colony resident, to New Britain, Connecticut, where I had spent the better (and worst) part of my childhood. In attendance at these reading would be ex-boyfriends and some of the cheerleading girls who were indifferent toward me in high school. And they’d have to acknowledge that I was a fabulous success compared to them. I mean, how lucky was I to have a great career and a beautiful baby when they were all — they wouldn’t say this, but I would know — struggling with either divorce or infertility. In some cases, both. After the readings, I’d expense dinner with my little family and quietly relish my good fortune. I wouldn’t need Oprah’s Book Club –I wouldn’t be that greedy — but I wouldn’t be too terribly shocked if she called.
Well, on September 12th, 1998, after twenty hours of back labor, during which I repeatedly and vociferously informed my sister and husband that they could go fuck themselves, my son, Phineas, came into the world. He was fiercely beautiful, with huge eyes that devoured me, and, most importantly, he was, I thought, healthy. One half of the Big Dream come true. Almost enough to distract me from the reality that the last of the rejection letters from the top New York publishing houses were coming in, each one a cruel stab at my literary infertility. The editors were kind and encouraging and very sorry that they could not muster the interest to take on this darkly entertaining novel, or they didn’t feel connected to the protagonist, but were sure it would have a terrific sale with someone closer to that journey she was making.
Christopher sent me copies with little hand-scribbled notes questioning the editor’s ability to recognize a great book or, sometimes, decrying her choice of shoe style. As if we only wanted a fashionable editor anyway. As if we could afford to be that bitchy and picky. He did not include a rejection letter in the baby card he sent, but he probably could have since another rolled into my mailbox the next day.
I held my child. I nursed him. I loved him beyond reason. My husband took a month off from work and we stumbled our way into being three together, instead of two. And when I told myself this was enough, Phineas and Mark were enough, I could taste the lie like bad chocolate. My son filled my life, but he didn’t displace my dream of being a novelist. That dream was so much a part of me that I could no longer name where in my body it lived — my heart, my head, my soul, wherever that was. The dream co-existed with my new state of motherhood, but, unlike motherhood, it wasn’t coming true.
Mark and Christopher acted as my pep squad. They didn’t talk to me so much as rally and chant: move on to something else. Don’t let this suck you dry. They meant I should write another book, and I might have tried. But something else came along.
It was eczema. An unsightly, chronic skin condition that would turn my infant son’s lovely face and tiny body into a sometimes bloody, sometimes desiccated battlefield in what became my war against the inflammation that tried to dominate him. Eczema is not fatal. Children do not scratch themselves to death. But it is an insidious, allergy-based condition with elusive triggers and, in our case, an even more elusive cure.
Suddenly, my previous life — the one I had a few weeks before as a mother with a healthy child and an unfulfilled book dream — was something I longed to go back to. In my worst, sleepless nights, I prayed for it. Wasn’t that easy? Wasn’t that just whiny self-indulgence when I was the only one itching for something?
Now it was both me and Phineas with itches that we couldn’t get at. His was physical, right on the surface of his skin. It was red and horrible from endless cycles of scratching and the ensuing sleeplessness. Mine, an itch to be a novelist, was wedged inside so deeply that it felt like I would never reach it. The physical manifestations were less obvious, but Mark said that part of my happiness died when my novel didn’t sell. He said he could see it like a shadow across my joy.
I lived a long time inside my frustration, with my itchy self and my incurably itchy child. I was too sleep-deprived to realize where the two fed each other, almost parasitically. Phinny’s rashy skin became the gallant host for my writer’s block. And if I once sought a book deal with single-minded obsessiveness, then I had unwittingly substituted that desire with finding a holistic cure for Phinny’s eczema, one that didn’t include the standard protocol of high-potency steroidal creams.
Months rolled into a year, two years, and all I had to show for my efforts were frayed self-esteem and a child with skin that looked like it had been burned. We’d tried acupuncture, diet, chiropractic adjustments, Chinese herbs. Our linen closet held stockpiles of snake oils bought in late night internet splurges — time I could have been writing because I certainly wasn’t helping my son. Nothing helped.
I missed writing like an asthmatic misses breath. And yet I couldn’t face my novel for the rewrite it needed. It smelled rotten, like failure. I acted like I had a choice. Like writing offered me a chance to say, no thank you, I’m not going to choose you — unlike my child who offered me no choice but to fight for him.
Then came a summer night when I couldn’t sleep and my husband found me at my computer combing the eczema sites for some clue I’d missed. What if we were just using the wrong laundry soap? Maybe it was our drinking water? I looked up at Mark, thinking, God I must look dreadful to him, and how to broach the subject of a new water filter? I could feel the exhaustion pushing my eyelids closed and the beat of panic in my heart that refused to let me sleep. On another night, Mark might have said, Enough already, come to bed. But that night he must have really seen through me to the raw patches.
He tugged me away from my desk, took my face in his hands and said, “I know you want more than anything to change this. Me, too. And right now there’s nothing we can do about it.”
“But there has to be!” I begged. “I can’t give up. I feel like he’s going to die.”
“Phinny’s not going to die of eczema,” he said firmly. Then he pulled me into him, and I cried from a place that was so much older than our little boy. It was one of those primal cries that drags on the lungs and turns your heart inside out in an unexpected cleanse. And somewhere through the snorts and gasping inhales, I remember saying to Mark what I was really thinking: “I feel like I’ve died.”
Maybe I knew it before that night, but not in any conscious way. But that night was when I saw that if my child’s illness and my writing were inextricably linked, then so, too, was our healing. Well, I knew that Phinny needed me to help heal him, but I was too short-sighted to see what he had to teach me about finding my way down a pothole-littered street of writing dreams to where it intersected with some larger avenue of hope.
I wish I could say I just started writing again. I didn’t. What I did was take a few steps back from trying to cure my son. Instead of constantly railing against the affliction, I tried to settle in next to it for a while. Though I wasn’t very good at passive, that was the time when Phinny began to get better.
A few months before, a friend had offered us the name of a homeopathic doctor, one who treats illnesses with remedies from the plant, animal, or mineral kingdom. I’d left the name and number on my desk, then finally, in that less fretful time, followed my instinct and called him. Within a week, Dr. Dan had us in his office for a three-hour intake. At the end of the session, he gave Phinny a remedy in the form of a little white sugar pill. It felt peculiar, mysterious. But it didn’t matter. It worked. For both of us.
Within a few days, Phinny’s red patches started to lighten. After some weeks, he could run around the house naked without trying to tear his skin off. He didn’t heal completely, but our lives came back to us in waves of relief, sleep, laughter, breath. I remember, for the first time in years, noticing that I could breathe.
The hardest part was going back to my novel. I began by holding it in my lap and getting used to the stench. Soon, I could revisit the characters I had turned my back on three years before. I apologized to them. I cried buckets over the sale that was supposed to change my life. And then I started writing again, as if I had no choice.