It's the monthly birthday breakfast in Charlie's class, and I've volunteered to take food. I get up early, bake a double batch of muffins, and swear only a little when they sink in the middle and refuse to come out of their pan. This is not ideal, but okay; on the way to school I swing by Dunkin' Donuts and get a box of Munchkins, which delights Charlie far more than home-baked goods ever could.
He asks to carry the box as we walk the two blocks to school. This kid is proud of his donuts, the unexpected windfall. He swaggers with those Munchkins. I am feeling good.
When we get to the classroom we put the box on the table and he slips into class routine. I stand over with the other mothers. You need to know they're not bitches, despite what I'm going to tell you. I like them and I like their kids. I think, in the main, they're normal.
One of them says, "Ohhh, Munchkins! M. will be excited — she never gets those."
Another says, "K. will love them. I don't give her sweets at home, so this'll be quite a treat."
A few other comments to that effect and I'm feeling this nagging urge to justify myself. I say I baked, but it didn't work out. ("Oh," says one mother, "I don't ever bake. It's easier not to have that kind of stuff around.") I make a joke of my incompetence, when I know I'm a very good baker. I say the donuts were our emergency fallback. And then I hear what I'm saying and want to punch myself in the face.
I look at Charlie, who is talking, laughing, and cramming a Munchkin into his mouth simultaneously. (He is also riding his desk chair as if it were an angry bull. He goes the full eight seconds, and no rodeo clowns are harmed.)
I look around at the other kids. I know them fairly well. I like something about every one of them. I know their parents love them every bit as much as I love mine. But I get a little weird this time of year. It's hard for me to shake the knowledge of how improbable Charlie is.
And I suddenly wish I'd said, "I give Charlie Munchkins at least three times a week." Joyless granola, my pasty white ass: I want to say I stuff him full of donuts till they ooze out of his ears. I make my kid this happy all the goddamn time. "If you lick his skin," I want to say, "he tastes like honey glaze."
At seven, Charlie is worldly enough to want to be a secret agent. Smart enough — terrifying enough — to debate the merits of various kinds of explosives. Child enough to be rendered speechless by the gift of a set of "night goggles" for surveillance. And dork enough to gambol around in Technicolor footie pajamas, saying, "These are great for a secret agent. I can shove things down the leg!"
It's a tough day for me, Charlie's birthday. We've told him about how it happened, but he gets the edited version, meaning I leave out most of the pain terror vomit fear WE'RE ALL GONNA DIIIIIIIIE. It makes for a pretty short story. Ate pie, got sick, happily ever after.
So he doesn't know — can't and shouldn't — that all day long I look at the clock and think, This is when I stood in the aisle at the supermarket, tearing into that box of Zantac with shaking hands, panting and sweating from the pain. I think, By now we were in triage; in a quiet room to wait for tests; in an urgent conversation I was too drugged up to follow. I think, This is when they told me the baby had to come and wheeled me, fast, into surgery.
To shift between that and candles on a cake — well, the dissonance is profound.
Would it be better, I wonder, to live only in the moment? As Charlie gets older, the circumstances of his birth matter less and less, and I can imagine a time when I think of it only in passing. When 10:22 PM is simply the time I step on a LEGO as I go in his room to check on him, instead of that plus I heard your first cry and I'd never been more scared. I don't know; I guess it would be less disorienting. Less painful, minus the LEGO. But would some of the sweetness be lost?