We were still unpacking from a cross-country move — from Nebraska to Massachusetts, where I had found work as a college English teacher — when Hurricane Irene walloped New England. The crumbling Tudor we rented was bigger than our family of three required (or desired), and in our post–graduate school poverty we didn’t have much to fill it: clothes and books, a sofa, bikes Rebecca and I never rode, our son Wyatt’s toys. The night the storm hit, I lay awake listening to the wind. The sound echoed off the hardwood floors and bare walls, shrill and reedy, a steady thrashing of trees. When the rain set in, the house sizzled under its slate roof.
I hadn’t been anxious about the storm — not really. I’d been tracking it on TV and paying attention to the forecast. I knew we weren’t directly in the path of destruction. But enough had gone wrong in the two years since Wyatt’s birth that I knew better than to tempt fate by not worrying at all.
A tree could come crashing through the ceiling. A window could blow out and shower us with glass.
Until it was over, however, there wasn’t much to do but wait and listen and marvel at the storm’s power. I remember the pines lining the edge of our driveway, their rippling trunks and branches, splayed needles slicing the air. I remember the crackle of shredding bark on an enormous rotten oak out front. I’d never experienced such a sustained force of wind over so many hours. It was mesmerizing.
Our move East had been necessitated by a pair of crises. Bouts of unemployment during the economic meltdown left Rebecca and me mere weeks from homelessness, and Wyatt — with his blue eyes and blonde curls, all sunshine and prairie — was chronically ill. A series of shifting, catch-all diagnoses followed him from doctor to doctor: colic became a protein intolerance, became reflux, became the suggestion of autism. He put on weight but had low muscle tone. He could say and repeat words but couldn’t really talk. And though he was meeting developmental milestones for growth and development, by two he still required the attention of a newborn. He raged and whined, napped in fitful spurts, spent half the night crying.
If Wyatt played at helping with the chores, or if he had a peaceful afternoon nap, I’d think we were turning a corner, that the sweet boy we knew was inside him somewhere might now come blossoming out. It’s what we thought with each new doctor’s appointment, too. In the weeks following the hurricane, we discovered from a geneticist at Boston Children’s that his glycine numbers were high and his carnitine numbers were low. From an allergist we learned he had milk and tree-nut allergies. Each new clue brought with it changes we thought might somehow break the spell. We ditched the almond milk an old doctor had suggested in favor of rice milk. We went gluten free. On the advice of a nurse practitioner, we began giving him melatonin before bedtime.
Exhausting every option until he was healthy was our duty as his parents. There could be no rest otherwise. We didn’t know whether he would one day get better or if this was how life would be from now on. The uncertainty of that was something we endured, day in and day out.
We sought comfort where we’d always found it, where it was free: outside. Pine needles and blue skies were an antidote to drab doctors’ offices. He could scream — the sky wouldn’t care.
On my birthday in November, a breezy and bitterly cold afternoon, we drove to a nearby state park and walked the edge of a pond, the three of us in our winter coats, searching for pebbles to toss into the water. “Here, here,” Rebecca and I said, wedging them up and holding them out to him in our palms. One after another, he took them and flung them and laughed at the splash. The moment was so pure and free — and normal — that while it lasted, the sleeplessness and struggle of the previous two years disappeared like one of those pebbles to the bottom of the pond. Had someone spotted the three of us right then, we might have looked like any other family out for a walk. We might even have seemed enviable in the way strangers sometimes seem when you imagine their lives in passing.
The truth was that no one — not our family and friends back home, and, really, not even the doctors — understood what we were going through. We hardly understood it ourselves. The way we had hunkered down against the hurricane, lying in bed helplessly listening to wind blister the trees outside: that was how we experienced the effects of Wyatt’s illness. We waited out his raging and hoped it didn’t destroy us. That’s how Wyatt experienced his own body — gut pain that crashed over him in mysterious waves.
Every night at one, two, three in the morning, he woke and clunked across the floor in his saggy cloth diaper and climbed in bed with us. He rolled, flopped, squirmed. Long and lanky, all knees and elbows, he couldn’t get comfortable. When frustration boiled over, he screamed. The screaming turned to hitting, head butting, fingernails clawing at our faces. I remember shouting into my pillow: “Stop it! Stop it! Stop!” One night, too exhausted to care anymore, I pulled the comforter over my head and let him thump me until he wore himself out.
I moved downstairs to sleep on the couch. Rebecca took care of so much during the day — diapers, bills, meals — that I hated to hand over the nighttime duties, too. From early on, I’d been the one to get up with Wyatt, to hold him and sing in his ear. It was something for me to do, a way to channel anxiety. Now I had a job to preserve; I had to rest. Night after night, I lay in the dark, listening — vigilant to the point of paralysis — while he screeched himself hoarse and Rebecca tried to cope. The jags could last fifteen minutes, an hour, longer. The quiet that followed them offered little relief. I waited for my heart to stop pounding so hard, my breath to even out.
Outside, piled on the roof and lumped in fat mounds in the yard, snow insulated everything, absorbing and exaggerating the quiet. Some nights I heard an owl out there. A barred owl. Eerie and familiar, its barking rang out over skeletal treetops in the woods across the street, as beautiful a thing as I’d ever heard. Other nights, nothing. The quiet felt heavy, severe. These nights were studies in helplessness, and I don’t know how we endured them. Only that somehow we did. Only that sometimes when the howling wouldn’t stop, and when nothing Rebecca or I did could make it stop, I prayed for Wyatt to die. Because I loved him. I loved him and wanted him released from pain. Those nights, love itself was a challenge to endure.
Over the months I spent on the couch that winter, I kept telling myself things would get better in the spring. I fantasized about hiking, canoeing, gardening in the backyard. All my life, spending time outside had saved me. The loneliness I felt as a kid on hot, too-long summer afternoons could be redeemed by wading a creek behind our house, hunting crawdads, watching insects fizz the shallows. In my twenties, smarting from a breakup, a spell of backcountry solitude opened me to the possibility that someday I might love again. Nature saved me — why shouldn’t it save Wyatt?
We consulted a speech therapist who believed in getting kids outside. On one of our earliest sessions, we met up at an organic farm/Audubon sanctuary in Concord, not far from Walden Pond. It was February, a blustery afternoon, ice sparkling on fence rails and the hoods of old tractors. The dirt roads frozen hard under our feet, we walked from barn to barn, looking at cows, chickens, horses, and hogs. Wyatt was a fidgety, grabby mess of distraction, and Rebecca and I spent most of the day chasing him and imploring him look, look, look. At every stop, we corralled him for a photo with the animals.
From the photographs, the speech therapist put together a storybook I could talk to Wyatt about at bedtime. “There you are at the farm,” I said, turning page after page. “There you are with the chickens. There’s the cow.”
“There I am,” he started saying.
We took him to the farm as often as we could, and week to week he remembered where his favorite animals lived, and how to get to them, and he took our hands and guided us there. That he loved the farm meant there was something inside him, some spark, beyond the reach of his pain.
In the weeks we couldn’t make it to the farm, we still had a burgeoning New England spring right out the front door. As days grew warmer and lighter, I’d come home from work and take Wyatt out to wander the yard, trailing him as he gathered sticks or poked around under rhododendrons that hadn’t been pruned in years or picked rocks out of the cold dirt in the garden. On one side of the house a grassy hillside edged by a thicket of trees sloped sharply away from us. Among the trees — gnarly and old, black-barked, its limbs hanging low to the ground — was a dogwood. Sometime not long after Easter it blossomed, petals as smooth and pale pink as a morning sky.
One afternoon, Wyatt and I stood among the blossoms. It was chilly, turning gray, and in the distance spring peepers sang in the marsh behind our neighbor’s house. I bent a branch and let Wyatt peak inside a blossom. He touched a finger to its creamy white center, its gold-crowned florets. Then he held out his arms to me. He wanted up. On a branch nearly as high as my head, I sat him up and let him find his balance and for a moment took away my hands. He giggled and looked around. When finally he wanted down, I took him down. But then he wanted up again, so I shrugged and picked him up. I sat him on the branch, took my hands away. He thought it was the funniest thing in the world to sit there, taller than me, king of the hillside, king of the sky. For the next half hour, it was a game we played. He demanded to be lifted into the tree, then demanded to be taken down. Over and over on that chilly afternoon, peepers singing, pale pink blossoms floating in the air around us — because our trauma wasn’t the only story — I lifted him into the dogwood tree.
What I didn’t know that spring afternoon was that Wyatt was sucrase intolerant (which means that his body doesn’t produce enough sucrase enzyme to break down sugars for digestion.) I had never heard of eosinophils or eosinophilic gastroenteritis. I didn’t know, and couldn’t have known, that his entire gastrointestinal system, from his esophagus to his colon, was on fire with inflammation. These details only emerged months later, after he had seen a pediatric gastroenterologist and had an endoscopy and a colonoscopy. The first night on a medicine the gastroenterologist prescribed, Wyatt slept in his own bed for nine hours straight.
Though medical intervention didn’t solve all of his problems, and healing has brought challenges of its own, Wyatt is largely on the mend. He hasn’t cried in the night in years. Language delay still makes it hard for him to communicate, and he blows up from time to time. But he’s five. Five-year olds blow up. Occasionally, however, I still wake up at two a.m., adrenaline pumping, sure that something’s wrong. I catch myself being overprotective of him, worrying too much. In quiet moments, alone in the car on the way to work, I recognize in the turn of my thoughts no small amount of hate and anger for what we’ve been through, for those nights I prayed for him to die.
So it’s a big step for me to allow that not all of my memories — even from the dark times — are traumatic. That trauma isn’t the only story. That some nights, in deep despair, instead of crying I heard owls.
It’s a big step for me to allow that just as Wyatt had to try to tell stories through his pain, I have to try to tell stories through mine. And when I try to tell a story about the owls I heard, or about pebbles tossed into a pond, or pale pink dogwood blossoms floating in an afternoon sky — when I make a story from those things, the natural world that had always saved me saves me still. I return in memory to any moment and find the natural world offering itself, again and again.
I remember a few weeks before the endoscopy and colonoscopy, Wyatt surprised us with the most crystal-clear sentence he’d ever uttered. It was early one morning, and we were in the kitchen eating breakfast. It was such a stunning sentence; Rebecca knelt down and asked him to say it again.
“I want to go outside.”
“I want to go outside and use the scissors and pick rhubarb.” He gazed up at her, grinning, a shaggy mop of curls hanging over his eyes.
On our way out the door, Rebecca counted the words on her fingers. Twelve words. Had I heard that? I want to go outside and use the scissors and pick rhubarb. We hurried around the side of the house and through the wet grass to where the day before we had introduced him to the rhubarb plant and explained that its stalks could be cut up, mixed with sugar, and baked into a pie. Rebecca pulled back a leaf and showed him where to cut. She held his hands in hers. After a few quick clips of the scissors, he ran over to me, thrilled, the leafy red stalk in each fist a story to tell.