What kind of real mother would film the death of a child?
James Casebere, Landscape with Houses (Dutchess County, NY #8), 2010, digital chromogenic print
I disturbed a nest of baby rabbits under the catmint as I hacked back the dead sprawl. Something moved under my loppers. Five nestlings, each the size of a small teacup, curled into each other, wrapped in a tender blanket of down shed from their mother. Eyes closed, mewling and wriggling in my grasp. I wanted to protect them, and I wanted to kill them.
Baby rabbits, or kits, as they are known, have no smell, apparently so predators don’t detect them. Now they would smell of me. Their mother would reject them because of their new sweaty-hand-and-dank-garden-glove scent. I felt for this sweet brood, but turned instead to my garden. This is where I coaxed blue campanula to come back after winter, and tried to keep order among the reckless bee balm and catmint. A mother rabbit, a doe, can birth six litters in a season. I didn’t want them ransacking my garden, nibbling my asters to stubs, disrupting the line of creeping phlox by chewing them ragged. Nor did I want my dog to find sport in them, playing a macabre game with a score tallied in limp bodies. I gave the brood to our neighbors, who passed them along the block to Illinois Bob, an obsessive collector of rodents and other beasts. Motherless, those thumpers died, but at least not on my watch.
Later, in summer, I found a lone kit, wet from my hound’s mouth, lying damaged on the lawn, roaring silently. His mouth stretched wide, tiny see-through teeth vibrating. He made me think of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” the image that stares out from dorm room posters and kitchen towels and mouse pads, reminding us that human distress can spiral out for eternity. It’s called “Skrik” in Danish, capturing the moment in a life when raw pain prevails.
I filmed my tiny screamer on my phone, thinking it might be useful for some later project, as a record of anguish. I filmed as he ran out of shriek, until his mouth barely quivered ajar. He no longer had strength to raise his head from the grass. His crying slowly lost its desperation, trailing into a soundless mew. Did he cry for his mother? Was she hiding under the wild mess of golden rod and dock by the garage, or watching from a burrow beneath the deck? I knelt beside him, a surrogate parent offering comfort by being present. As if a parent’s presence alone could be enough. A parent of any species. In this case, a human mother with a camera, recording his torment. Watching him, I felt both invested in his suffering and detached. Sympathy and cool voyeurism coiled together. I shivered.
The sun blared directly above. Steamy. Sweat trailed into my eyes, down my arm onto my camera, and still I shot my little film. Mid-shot. His dappled fur was slicked flat and shimmered with dog slobber, but his body was perfect and unpunctured. Close-up. A fly settled on his eye. Extreme close-up. How quickly the shiny jet bead turned dull, its intensity clouding opaque. I felt a slight guilty sourness for observing his life spool away in the hot sun, for not thinking him worth rescuing, but he was a wild thing, a pest, not my offspring, not a creature I valued. I put his body in a jewel bag and tossed him in the brown bin.
Those we nurture so carefully can dissolve from our grasp, no matter how tenderly we blanket them. The downy cradle can unravel.
What kind of real mother would film the death of a child? A mother like me would photograph her son on the cusp of dying. I did, when my now-almost-grown first-born was a baby. I was an attentive enough mother. I did some of the “right” things according to the cultural norms of mothers I knew in New Zealand, where my son was born. I did not drink alcohol or coffee or eat soft cheeses when I was pregnant. I birthed at home, nursed on demand, used cloth diapers, introduced solid foods according to a pediatric calendar. I let him do things that were not prescribed: eat dirt from the flower pot, scoot naked around the garden, and look at colorful books fastened with clothes pegs to the side of his stroller. He was a happy, plump baby. When he got a cough, I took him to the doctor, three times, and then to the hospital. There, my son barely breathing, convulsed with fever and pneumonia. In the photograph, he is behind bars, encaged by a high-sided hospital bed, his pallid little body wearing a diaper, a drip, and an oxygen tube. I want to reach in and touch him, make sure his flesh is still warm and his chest is still rising and falling. Did I photograph my baby to record his anguish, or as a totem to his health? The image preserves a moment faded by sleepless nights and time, reconstructed as a memory in the slip-in plastic envelope of the photo album. It speaks to the isolation of illness, a solitary infant sequestered from his family. My boy’s tiny hand on a book shaped like a train. The grinning face of his Humpty Dumpty doll. White hospital sheets creased sharply in the center. Photograph has become memory, a past so examined by my son that the album covers have loosened and are pulling away.
As I was writing this, a colleague lost her two-year-old grandson from pneumonia. His parents had done the “right” thing in taking him to the hospital, but the child was sent home and did not wake. I felt sorrow for that family, and a wash of relief that my boy survived his pneumonia, as well as the thigh impaled by a bike peg, the concussion, the appendicitis, the knee surgery, the ear surgery, and the varieties of physical and emotional anguish over the years from which no amount of vigilance could protect him.
Good fortune can turn on a dime. Those we nurture so carefully can dissolve from our grasp, no matter how tenderly we blanket them. The downy cradle can unravel. We humans are part of the natural web, after all, no matter how we try to disengage. Natural order is unlike the cosseted plants in my garden, the intentional linearity of blues, whites, and greens. Instead, its unpredictable beauty tangles, entraps, erupts, chokes, and frequently kills. My boy survived. The hospital photograph remains in my album, as a failed memento mori. I wear a pendant of charms that I fondle like a rosary: a silver dove, a garnet heart, and a skull threaded with tiny pearls. I do remember death, and I hope that in remembering, I am somehow protected from its disorder, or at least, that my loved ones will be safe.
My neighbor has a different relationship to the mess of life. Illinois Bob invites chaos into his parlor, revels in it. He cultivates the persona of a rebel. Maybe that’s how he attempts to keep real destruction at arm’s length. But when I look closer, I see a tangle of organization and disorder, care and neglect, nurture and murder, not so dissimilar to my own arrangement with reality.
We have a lot of wildlife on our block, because of Bob. He loves squirrels. One day I counted twenty scampering on the grassy parkway in front of our houses. I was intrigued that he could have such a heart for them. He cares for them, while I loathe them. The squirrels like Illinois Bob. He feeds them peanuts in their shells. He used to feed them birdseed. The rats, too, loved Bob back then. They would dine in his backyard, then slink to our pond for a drink. In winter I would see their dark forms skulking across the snowy lawn and disappearing under our back deck. Their numbers increased, until Bob started killing them with his BB gun. One day, he shot eight. He protected the squirrels like his own, yet he stalked the rats that he attracted. Not all animals have the same value. He watched the rats in his sights for hours. Then he pulled the trigger, again and again. The capacity for tenderness and death are wrapped tightly within us; the rescuer capable of nurturing and hanging on to life—or discarding it.
The neighborhood tolerated Illinois Bob and liked him well enough. He was a quirky, humorous guy. He seemed to fancy himself a blow-stuff-up, shoot-’em-up, good-for-a-drink-and-a-story guy, the kind of guy it would be fun to go hunting with at his Tennessee cabin, if you had a bottle of Jack and liked hunting and dynamiting things. Or at least, the neighbors and I acted as though that would be fun, when he told us his stories. In reality we were a bunch of office-paled professionals whose experience with explosives was limited to James Bond movies. Our lives were quietly controlled. We admired each other’s ambitions and gardens and homes, but enquired little about any decay in the façades.
Bob wore a taxidermied squirrel on his shoulder to our block party. I thought it was real. He sat around the fire and spun tales about how back in the day, when he went to the local high school, the students had to swim naked. First the boys had to sprint through a shower on the floor, spraying icy water into their nether regions. He told us how the shock made their scrotums shrivel and their penises shrink; which is about when the block-party ladies from the fancy big houses up the street drifted away from the brazier to check on their children dismembering pumpkins, and the men sifted across to the beer cooler to talk property taxes and football.
Illinois Bob definitely added character to the block, the euphemism people use when an individual almost conforms to social norms, but misses the mark. He added Republican character to a Democrat block, drunkenness to conventional daytime sobriety, a hillbilly house behind a groomed frontage. His front garden was photographed for the local newspaper. He grew a neat row of hostas and impatiens along the path to his porch and blew the fallen leaves off his lawn every day, several times a day, even in summer, when leaves don’t fall regularly. In the photograph you see the hostas and the impatiens, the tidy lawn. You see Bob with his ponytail and his Grateful Dead t-shirt, a hose in one hand and a beer can in the other, at ten in the morning. Nunc est bibendum. Now is the time to drink.
I came to both detest and pity him. He regaled me about gun rights and emailed me birther conspiracies about the nation’s first black president. His life, like others around us, was on the skids, and for that I was sorry. I sympathized with his slide. Maybe, as the structure of his life came apart, he focused on what he could influence—sustaining creatures smaller than him. Still, I was riled that I had to pay to replace the soffits on my house when the squirrels chewed them apart. Bob fed them in all seasons, boosting their numbers and attracting rats. The rats made burrows in our yard. Our dog choked on a peanut meant for the squirrels. The squirrels bred until the neighborhood yards were overrun and the pear tree was stripped of fruit. They lived in his house. They were family. I don’t know what his wife thought. The couple’s own children had grown up, and moved out, and back, and next door, never far, but clearly the urge to nurture compelled Bob to keep the wild things unusually close. We try to look after what is in our circle of care, what we think we can control, when all that is around us spirals into chaos. I really don’t understand how the Dow falls, or what derivatives are, or how corporations can shed millions of workers in a day. The language of recession is hollow—it reveals nothing of the work of merely holding on, of pretending that life is the same.
Once Bob said hello to me with a squirrel on his shoulder. I assumed it was stuffed, until it jumped on his head. Beyond the tamed front garden patch, unruly yews wound across the porch and over the crawl space piled with glinting beer cans, where rabbits, rats, and squirrels darted. The side of his house visible from ours was covered in creeper, concealing the windows and crawling along the gutters, peeling paint from the siding and slowly tearing tarpaper from the places where the boards had rotted off.
We heard them scratching and mating in the night and saw them leaping from fresh holes in our new soffits into the trees and onto the power lines.
The squirrels sat up on the roof, gnawing at the eaves. There were so many, spreading out and chewing into our attic and the cavities above my family’s beds. We heard them scratching and mating in the night and saw them leaping from fresh holes in our new soffits into the trees and onto the power lines.
They were among us. In our bedrooms, scampering across the white linen and up between the windows. In our office, waiting silently for us at dawn. In the glasses cupboard smashing up champagne flutes as though they were at a Greek wedding. We didn’t invite them. We never knew how they got in. It’s a mistake to think wild things can be tamed, just as we are mistaken if we think protection is fully in our realm.
Illinois Bob and his wife put their house on the market. Apparently they hadn’t paid their mortgage or property taxes in years, so foreclosure was likely. Recession had bitten hard into the good neighborhood. It seemed that some people clung to the artifice of order, mulching their parkway trees and keeping their boxwood hedges trimmed, but beyond the screen doors, they were quietly panicking about their retirement savings, their mortgages, employment hopes, and their kids’ college funds. We could smell the wildness beyond the parkway. The control we all thought we had was falling apart and giving way to quiet despair. Houses were going unpainted for longer, the holiday decorations seemed sparser, the landscaping crews less regular, while the suitcases and piles of furniture sitting untended outside emptied apartments appeared more frequently.
A neighbor lost his job, divorced, sold his house, hit the bottle, and was down to his last twenty dollars. There were several houses for sale on our leafy block of mainly Victorians, Italianates, and Painted Ladies. The owner of the blue two-flat was selling because she was addicted to prescription painkillers. The brick house and its coach house were subject to a short sale after the owner hung himself and was found by his son, who had just finished high school. There was a sense of middle- and working-class townsfolk barely keeping it together, of a failure to make sense of how life worked, of the held-togetherness coming apart, a spiraling away from the center in the way our parkway maples send their seeds helicoptering down in unexpected gusts. My family was secure enough for now, in health and work, but the connections seemed more fragile. Amid anxious nights, I wondered how to pay the mortgage if my husband lost his solid job, how to cover health costs when the insurance vanished. In dreams, I rehearsed for disaster. By day, I tended my garden because I could contain that, at least.
My eldest son, a high-school senior, began his college search. I wanted to contain him, but I knew that foot-binding would be fruitless. All of the latent worries I had pushed down since he was a baby started boiling up to my hot surface. I was afraid of the fragility within him, and all the frightening possibilities of the world. They were possibilities that I was oblivious to in the thirty-four years before I had him, when life seemed perennially in bloom and opportunities boundless. Now I wanted strangers to be kind to him, as they were those nights in the hospital when he struggled for breath and whimpered for me. He did not know my catalog of fears and I did not tell him: the sophomore throttled by a tie, the freshman impaled in a car crash, the cousin’s blood clot, the cousin’s strep-infected boil, my own line-up of college friends ruined by drugs, accidents, illness, love, unravelings.
Instead I propelled him forward, making him do his laundry, clean his room, make his own appointments, open a bank account, as if happy independence could be guaranteed by white and dark laundry piles and a made bed. I was excited for his freedom and wanted him unfettered, while knowing that his departure would be a sort of mini-death. The infant would remain only in memories and photographs, the boy shedding his boyness, to return only sporadically. My boys loved looking at their younger selves in photographs, but frequently transposed themselves as the protagonist in stories. What will be left of these boys in my life? What relationship does the porcelain skin and wide oval stare have to the acne and hooded glare of the teenager? The adoring gaze of the five-year-old holding the newborn becomes the barely-there glance between siblings stalking toward adulthood.
America seems large, the world larger, and I know that children sprawl out wide, as my own mother discovered, and countless mothers of immigrants, travelers, and pioneers in covered wagons have experienced since the first great migrations reverberated with their children’s absence. Like the rabbits in my yard, parents closely watch their helpless young, and then all but cast them to fate or luck, watching nervously from the hedgerows to see if they thrive.
Illinois Bob’s unraveling sped up after his mother died. He’d lost his job when arthritis clawed his hands and he’d lost his market value. Watching out for his old mother had kept him stitched together, in a reverse of parenting roles. After her death, he focused his watchfulness on the squirrels and lawn. He strode up and down the line of hostas in his yard, blowing leaves and drinking beer at all hours. I don’t know where those leaves were coming from, so thick and fast well before fall. He tinkered endlessly on unfinished and unfathomable house projects, moving boxes and throwing junk in the alley. His wife moved first. Then Bob, officially, though he came back every few days. He sat with his legs stretched down the porch steps, chatting to his extended family of gray squirrels.
The outside was relentlessly coming in. Creepers and squirrels know no boundaries if you give them the chance, and even when you try to control them.
My house became quieter. My growing boys spent more time away as the open road shimmered in the distance. One night in winter the icicles hanging off the eaves glowed red and orange. I rushed to the window and saw a bonfire on the chilled white waste of Bob’s backyard. Flames surged up toward the moonlit spire of St. Edmund’s Church across the alley. Three snowy nights in a row I saw Bob lurching tipsily from the house, throwing his leftover junk into the pit.
In spring I spent my first night alone at home for years. I’d imagined calm as merely the absence of noise—balls thudding into the basement walls, wrestling matches, bickering, sniffing, and cracking of knuckles. There would be no dirty socks peeled off by the sofa, shoes and backpacks dispersed inside the front door, and peanut butter congealing on unrinsed knives. But the moment I had longed for seemed silent and hollow, and I was restless until the clatter of my children and husband returned. My son and I forged on with college applications and financial forms, and looked on websites showing distant campuses with sun and youth and promising hopeful futures, ivy growing on old stone, and sundials inscribed Ultima Forsan, Perhaps the Last, and Vulnerant omnes, They All Wound, and Ultima necat, the Last Kills. I didn’t want to think of a last hour, or what could wound or kill, or who might be watching, so I pushed my fears back down again and sought order in my garden.
The bank owns Bob’s house now. A realtor told us it’s a teardown and that the woodwork is all chewed up inside. Ferns and rabbits overtook the front garden. There was a ferret on the loose in the bedroom, squirrels sitting inside on the sofa, and rodent feces throughout the house. Bob had carefully built a bathroom right in the middle of the living room, but hadn’t repaired the chew holes in the upstairs bedrooms, so green tendrils crept down the plasterboard and across the floors. The outside was relentlessly coming in. Creepers and squirrels know no boundaries if you give them the chance, and even when you try to control them.
Three of the rose bushes I planted in my garden last fall survived the snowy winter but have been stripped of their spring leaves. My husband erected fortresses of plastic fencing around them to save them from the latest batch of rabbits. I see my new phlox plants are nude, their pink flowers erased overnight. I’m furious. As I step off the back deck, I see a tiny dappled rabbit cowering, quivering. My scalp tingles with rage and I look around for a weapon. I reach for a solar light embedded in the lawn, imagining its javelin-like end spearing the rabbit. But the creature dives under the deck and is gone.
Toni Nealie writes and teaches in Chicago, where she earned her MFA in nonfiction from Columbia College Chicago. She previously worked in magazines, politics, and public relations in the UK and her native New Zealand. This essay is part of a collection in progress about journeys and homelands.
To contact Guernica or Toni Nealie, please write here.