Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” On the first of each month, Catching Days hosts a guest writer in the series, “How We Spend Our Days.” Today, please welcome writer CHRISTIAN KIEFER.
The truth is, it has been difficult to find the time. The baby is new and although she is my seventh child, my wife’s sixth, there are problems here that we are—that any parent would be—unprepared for, trisomy-21 in some ways being the least of the new struggles. Truth be told, we both wondered, my wife and I, if we would be able to love this child the way that we love the others, admitting such a dire emotional betrayal only in our most fragile moments, although it might also be admitted here that such fragile moments have come, as of late, more often than not. There has been the trouble of her heart, which, we knew early on, included a great ragged hole at its center, no metaphor at all but an actual physical problem which effectively meant that she was, at birth and up until the required open-heart surgery, in congestive heart failure. Our days and nights became a kind of endless dragging blur. Feeding tube in her stomach. Oxygen via nasal cannula. The one thing you do not really understand when such a child enters your life is that you will not be able to hold her, not in the way you held all the others, that your relationship to her will be a single hand upon her head, upon her chest, as she lies fettered by the various instruments of her salvation. What I wondered was this: At what point would I fail to revive a dead child?
But Vivian did not die and we did not wholly fall apart, although I know now what my limits are. The surgery came in late September, on my wife’s birthday. We took the other kids out of school and packed off to an extended stay hotel in Menlo Park so as to be nearer the surgery center at Stanford. The surgery was seven and a half hours long, hours in which my wife and I tried to hold together a sense of hope. When the surgeon emerged to tell us that he was done and that the procedure was successful, I did not feel any sense of relief. What I was dreading, what I had dreaded all that day, was seeing her afterwards, pale and broken, tubes draining blood from her chest, the sutures running a straight line up her breastbone. It was as I feared but no worse.
I could tell you about the weeks afterwards, my wife and I trading time at the hospital so that one of us was at Vivian’s side twenty-four hours a day, about how I would come back to the hotel after staying the night on the vinyl couch in Vivian’s room and would then take the other kids to the park or to the beach, my brain so fuzzy, my eyes so bleary that the whole thing began to take on the quality of an extended hallucination. But you have not come to these words for this. You have come to these words to find out how the words are made, where they come from, how one writer spends his days.
And yet some of that story—the story that has been on my mind—is why the words are coming so slowly now. For one, there is so little time. Our nights end at one am or two am and we are up again at seven am to get the older kids, our sons, ready for school. Today, as I write this, it is Friday, and the kids are in bed and I have just sat down to try my hand at writing something, not because I still have energy for such a thing but because I have these words to write to you, dear reader, and so I will see what can be mustered from what I can only call psychic exhaustion. And because necessity is the mother of invention, write something I do.
But let us get to that fact when it comes. First the morning. There are five sons at home of school age, but only four of them needed to reach a physical school earlier today as my oldest at home attends a two-day-a-week experimental high school that does not meet on Fridays. Nonetheless, the lack of this single drop off does little to alter the morning. The kids fight in the bathroom. They fight in the kitchen. They fight about who gets the front seat and who the back. But eventually they are in the car, playing with the radio. Their mother stands in the doorway and waves. We get to my youngest’s class on time, or close enough, and wave and drive the freeway to the next town to drop off the others. My car is empty now and I return to my audiobook, Thomas Hardy’s Desperate Remedies, and dash to Starbucks where I hope to have a single cup of coffee in peace and to read a story of two from the newly released edition of Peter Taylor’s The Complete Stories. I manage one or two and Taylor does what he does best: transports me to that other time and place, far from my Western upbringing, where things matter that do not even exist in my life. (During Vivian’s hospital stay I read Henry James’s The Tragic Muse, largely because the things that are at stake in James are so utterly pointless in comparison with the blood and tragedy of real life.)
I move to my car in the parking lot for a phone meeting with the graduate admissions representative I work with at the Ashland University MFA, a program located in Ohio but which I direct remotely from my home in California. The rep there is new to me and I am new to the program, having started there in January. After that comes meeting my wife and my teenager at an ophthalmologist’s office and we are glad to be told that all is well. On the way back home, I pull into the parking lot of the local Wal-Mart to make some additional calls for the MFA, laptop open on the passenger seat, and then it’s to the supermarket to replenish the larder and to pick up my diabetes prescriptions. There are long conversations on speakerphone with my wife as I am updated on baby Vivian’s progress feeding that day. Our lives are measured in milliliters of breast milk and in ounces gained or lost.
And yet through all of this I am writing, at least in the sense that the idea of story, of narrative, is never far from my thoughts, even with all this to push it away. I have been thinking of using an old, unpublished story as the kernel of a new book, something that would take place in Ohio amidst working people, the only people I have ever felt any kinship with at all. I have also been wondering at the principle character of that story, Tom Bailey, wondering how he would fare in the situation I am in, or how anyone does, and wondering too how he would fare, or I would, were the situation to be worse, for the unthinkable to have happened.
It may be unnecessary to say that my wife is with Vivian all day and that my errands are what we have arranged to divide the workload, at least on days when I am not physically teaching, days in which a different schedule takes hold. I have received the lesser of the labor, to be sure.
I pick up my younger son at two and then the other three at three, and it is close to four when I am home at last, the children tumbling out of the car, already calling to their mother with their stories and questions and needs. There is help needed with homework and discussions about reading and math. My wife doles out the snacks and we both deal with homework questions. The school sends home impossible crossword puzzles related in some faint way to the social studies curriculum and these newspaper-like documents have become the bane of my house and yet they must be completed lest the children suffer the kind wrath of their teachers.
The real topic, the true one, is Halloween, a holiday fast approaching. There is chatter about costumes and chatter too about Julian’s birthday, which is just a few days before. How I love these boys with their mad energy. How I hope their souls will be rich and bright through all their days.
Dinner then. Barbequed hamburgers so as to not create the extra chore of cleaning up the kitchen. I stand outside on the porch in the gathering dusk flipping burgers, thinking of Tom Bailey, imagining situations in which he would be forced to make decisions about which there could be no correct response, thinking that I might make something of his life and the lives of his people that was not so dreadful, so dour, as what I have done before, something with the seriousness of what I think of as literature and yet also with a glimmer of hope. I think of the great novels of Kent Haruf, how their multifaceted textures point to a life that is, in the end, livable and worth living. Might I reach for such a measure of grace?
My wife and I feed the children. She sits at the kitchen table with the breast pump making its rhythmic sounds that are almost words. In the boys’ bedroom, I read aloud from the Dungeons & Dragons novel we have been working through and then the lights are out and while it will be an hour or more before they settle down enough to sleep, my work here, at least, is done. Perhaps an hour remains before my wife and I convene in the kitchen and then in the bedroom to start the process of settling in Vivian for the night. Our daughter looks at me with eyes the color of midnight, not black and not the swampy color that had been the infant hue of her brothers, but a shatteringly dark blue. I hold her for a time, rocking her and talking at her. She will babble to my wife but seldom to me, no doubt part and parcel of the long hours my wife spends with her while I am out running errands and writing or trying to write or failing to.
When at last I am in front of my laptop, it is cool and the sun is gone and the house is quiet. I am fortunate to have a room separate from the house in which to do my work. It is a mess of books and musical equipment and papers and pens and art supplies and all manner of creative materials, but it is also the home of my mind. I sit down and think about Tom Bailey again, this novel I have yet to start, that I have thought about in the way that someone who knows he does not really have to time to write thinks about something, incessantly and without end and without writing anything about it at all. And yet here I am.
And so I write this:
Death brought the casseroles and Tom took them, each and every one, his hands numb upon the squared glass containers, many warm from the oven, others cold so that their foiled tops wept with moisture. There was nothing to be done but stand and nod and thank people for coming and answer questions about Sarah, yes, she was doing OK, considering, just tired, you know, and nodding again and nodding again and nodding again. Some of them he did not even know, their faces vague, their comments sometimes intending to offer the linkages he had forgotten, you know me, I’m Fisher’s cousin from up in Mansfield, and he would say, of course, and they would tell him how sorry they were, how the Lord works in mysterious ways, how we should all have faith in times of trouble, and if there’s anything I can do to help don’t hesitate to call, their faces screwed into masks of concern and grief that he knew was real and yet knew also was not their grief to bear but only a mirror of his own. And Sarah’s. At least you got to know her for a time before God took her away. At least there was that much. But in the deep black of his heart he wished the baby had died during the pregnancy and that they had not seen her at all, that the six months of her short life were simply erased from his memory and from his wife’s memory and from the memories of his two living children. That he had to make such a distinction, to call two of his children living, made him feel a stranger to himself but then he knew that this was who he was now, that this too had been added to the scales.
If there is a novel after this paragraph I do not know, although I suspect there may well be. It is, of course, all my fears wrapped up into three hundred (or so) words and it is also not the bright grace I was looking for when I was thinking of Kent Haruf. But maybe my heart is unsuited to grace, or at least the kind of grace I seek, or maybe the whole book just unfolds in the way it wants to, my own control, as the writer, the author, limited by what my characters want and by what they might do. I don’t yet know if I will spend time outlining the rest of it, working out the conflicts and ideas. I’ve done that in the past but it never quite seems to work in the ways I think it will as I still end up writing whole drafts that are, in the end, relegated to the ash heap. I start over with a new outline and run that through to the end only to find that it is, once again, the ash heap. Andre Dubus III has written that one should trust his or her characters to tell you, the author, their story, and I wonder if this is the course to take with Tom Bailey and his wife and his two living children and the weight of the scales, which are, I suppose, my attempt to measure what grace we have in our lives.
But it is late now, later that I want it to be, and the time has come for me to reenter the house, to check on all the children, to hold my baby in my arms, to watch some bad, late-night television with my wife. Tomorrow will be another day and maybe there will be thirty minutes here or there that I might grab hold of. Likely there won’t be but I am doing my best all the while. That’s all any of us can hope for in the end. I am lucky in that there are people in my life whom I love and who love me in return. That I get to spend most of my day serving them is a better hand than most of us are dealt.
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What writing advice do you give that you rarely follow?
- I tell my students all the time that ideas can come from anywhere—that they need only open the newspaper and imagine the situation that is presented there in skeleton form, that they could write about the people at the other table, that conflict can be small, that it’s the human heart that matters in the end. And yet I’m not someone with a raft of potential stories to pick from. Really I have to write what I write because I only really have one idea at a time.
2. What one word best describes your reading life?
- In some ways I’m a completest as a reader. I like to take writers that I love and work through them from front to back. I love 19th century writing in particular and contemporary writers who have clearly read that stuff (Josh Weil, C.E. Morgan, Lauren Groff, and others). I’ve read folks like Faulkner and Styron from front to back. I’m midway through Dostoevsky and Baldwin. Almost done with Thomas Wolfe. I’ve read eleven or twelve Henry James novels in a row. And now I’m back to Peter Taylor, a writer that both Richard Ford and Pam Houston mentioned to me almost the same week and who has become someone I return to. It’s a pleasure going through him in order. I’ve done similar read-throughs of Kazuo Ishiguro and Richard Ford and many others.
3. What is something you do every day?
- Tell my kids and my wife that I love them. I tell them all this so often that it’s almost become a joke but it’s the most important thing I do every day. Lately the phrase I use is, “I love your face,” but that’s just a way to change things up.
By Christian Kiefer: