Birth of an Online Journal
(I wrote this about four months ago at the request of the magazine Personal Journaling, which then never used it. As a spare essay, it comes in handy today.)
My son Alex had been alive two weeks. I had never heard him, never held him, and barely touched him. I knew I had to do something.
Alex was born in June of 1998, almost three months early. At birth he weighed 21 ounces. He had hands and feet the size of GI Joe's, legs and arms a little thinner than a magic marker. He lived in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit ("NICK-you"), a brightly-lit, broad, low room in a major New York City hospital. Our NICU was crammed with medical gear and clear plastic boxes called isolettes, where the premature babies lived.
Tubes ran into Alex's isolette. Blue tubes, green tubes, fat tubes, fine tubes. He had a clear, stiff tube down his throat. His mouth was open, but no sound came out because the tube was between his vocal cords. The tube was how he breathed. I pressed my nose to the plastic of the isolette, stuck my hand through the porthole, and my finger seemed monstrous as he grasped it.
"Some of these babies fall apart within six weeks," the doctor said. "Some take right off. Your experience will probably be somewhere in-between."
About 400,000 premature babies ("preemies") are born in the United States every year. The underdeveloped body of a preemie has problems with breathing, circulation, brain "bleeds," and maintaining body heat. Later possible complications include brain damage and cerebral palsy. Their common eye problems can cause blindness. Some people have stated that medical science shouldn't save every preemie it can, reasoning that some preemies go on to lives unworthy of the high cost and the parents' pain. That people say such things was one of the first lessons I learned after Alex's birth. Another lesson was the after-effects of another four new letters in my life: IUGR, or intrauterine growth retardation (or restriction). IUGR means a baby is no longer growing well inside a mother and might do better in a NICU isolette. Most preemies don't live if taken out at less than 23 weeks of pregnancy.
Alex made it to 29. Then they took him out and plugged him into tubes, and I was looking for something to hang onto.
I've been writing almost daily since age 13. I started keeping a journal in junior high school, but gave it up sometime before my twenties, when I was making a living as a freelance writer. Every few years I'd find a genre that became a passion, such as humorous essays, and twenty bucks made that way was sweeter than $100 from a straight news story.
At the time of Alex's birth, I'd just finished two years with a 100,000-reader chain of newsweeklies in Baltimore. One of my occasional, self-inflicted jobs there had been to write 500-word opinion pieces on various topics, from sex-offender laws and Christmas shopping to the TV show "Homicide." I loved the work. It was easier than getting names straight in news stories, and my own life and outlook could fit into any paragraph. And people seemed to like reading my opinions. "I always read a Jeff Stimpson column," a co-worker had said.
I'd never heard that phrase before. A Jeff Stimpson Column. A hundred thousand readers. Gee.
In early 1998, Jill wanted to return to her hometown of New York. Needing a job -- and an insurance policy -- I landed at a small business-trade magazine that didn't have much use for my take on TV or shopping. From 100,000 fans of my opinions, I dropped to none. So I started writing an essay a week about my life: moving, doing laundry, losing cats, expecting a baby. Part diary, part artistic expression, these pieces comforted me with the little illusion that I was still publishing in my latest passion. I mailed the essays to friends and relatives. "I got your essay, or was it a letter?" a friend asked. A little bit of both, I guess.
I forgot about writing essays during Alex's first month, when we learned that hospitals are not TV shows. Doctors claimed Alex was "too small to breathe" -- I still don't know what that means -- and the grandmother of another, bigger preemie peeped into our isolette once and winced as if she'd just seen a car wreck.
What Churchill called the torture of having all of the responsibility and none of the control settled over our lives. Then I remembered that I'd written a filing cabinet of articles about compelling lives, lives where old trusts - such as the belief that the medical profession is always on your side - went in the trash like a used IV. A hag screwing up her face at the sight of my son; our doctor dropping the phrase "fall apart;" and me, a lost new daddy needing a security pass to visit his baby's clear plastic home. If my life got any more compelling, I'd shoot myself.
I worked on the first Alex essay for days, afraid that I'd leave out the one detail that would make the story come alive like a pound of baby under bright lights.
When the first essay was done, I don't think I even mailed it before I decided to write a second. Then a third and a fourth, then one a week. I wrote on the computer at work and at home, in half-hour stints once or twice a day. I wrote paragraphs of NICU images and dialog in no order, then re-aligned them in re-writes. (This is still how I work.) Each finished piece was some 1,000 words.
I'd write about a specific treatment or episode for Alex, or what Beanie Babies he liked, or how his eyes changed color. Jill crying on the park bench; my holding him for the first time, for 10 minutes; the afternoon of the sudden spinal tap. The coming of Labor Day, Jill crying in our living room, and the people we passed on the street every Friday evening as they loaded up their Land Rovers. I somehow knew I would want to remember these details. I was also in a world few friends or family members comprehended - who in hell has a baby in the hospital with no end in sight? - and writing essays became a substitute for talking to people.
Days passed without Alex gaining weight. "We hoped he'd do better," a doctor noted, and something told me to lock such comments into quotation marks. I wrote of one nurse's astonishment that Jill could cry for five months. When Alex almost died of a lung seizure in October of 1998, I wrote how the doctor stood above us and intoned that he'd seem some babies "get this and get over it, and others get it and not get over it." I wrote it down when a doctor compared Jill's mother's milk to a natural disaster, and when a doctor told me that the "aggressive questioning" by Jill and me had altered the course of Alex's treatment "to his detriment." My favorite remains another nurse who "just didn't want us to ever think we were going to have a normal baby."
These comments seem as fresh and hurtful to me now, on the page, as they did the day they were uttered, and about here my journal also became part steam valve and part instrument of revenge. Why did people feel free to say these things? Stress? Callousness? I guarantee it wasn't because they thought somebody was writing it all down.
Meanwhile, Jill searched the Internet for info on preemies. Her search turned up a thriving online community of sites and bulletin boards, and we started e-mailing other preemie parents. I told a woman from the American Association for Premature Infants that I'd been writing essays about Alex and his hospitalization, and I was thinking of putting this father's perspective on a Web site. In mid-October of 1998, my essays -- gathered under the name "JeffsLife," which somehow doesn't sound egotistical to me -- graduated from paper and stamp to cyberspace. I deposited an announcement on every preemie or baby board I could find.
In the following weeks, growing numbers of parents e-mailed to say that they'd read the site, were thinking of us, and had to know when the next essay would appear. Through the essays the readers learned how Alex came home for four days in December, and they learned that something happened in a doctor's office a week before Christmas and Alex wound up in the pediatric ICU ("pick-YOU") with another tube down his throat. They followed Jill and me through January, 1999, as we choked on the prognoses of doctors whom we'd hoped would do better.
They followed us on the hunt for a new hospital, through the transfer of Alex on Super Bowl Sunday, and all the way to a new ward with very new nurses. I like to think readers shared our renewed faith in hospitals when one of the new nurses taught Alex to dance, or when an intern at the new place patted Alex's thigh and whispered, "We're sorry" before sticking him for a blood sample. All was not warm and fuzzy, though. I think the readers -- my readers -- shared our will to fight when a doctor swung her leg and ignored us at an important conference. Readers congratulated us on the day Alex came home for good from a blacked-out hospital during a record heat wave. Keep trying, they advised when I wrote about Alex learning to eat. Isn't he something, they marveled when I wrote about him beginning to stand.
Sharing Alex's moments -- moments most parents regulate to their camcorders -- became so engrained in my life that I started posting essays twice-weekly. Readers continued to e-mail that they often wondered what Alex had done that day. They wanted to know how his last surgeries went, and what he played with. They suggested essay subjects, sent presents and prayers, and assured me that they were always thinking about my little family. On days I posted an essay, I'd get a dozen e-mails. Soon the counter on the JeffsLife site registered 40 hits a day, then 50, 60, 70.
Jeff Stimpson had a column again.
I now post about eight essays each month. I'm relieved, of course, that many of the pieces now discuss jobs, marriage, or something else other than Alex in a hospital. ("I remember your early essays were hard to get through," e-mailed one reader today, I hope referring to the heartbreak of the NICU and not to my clarity of style.) My fire for revenge has cooled a little. My life has moved on.
Why do I still write two essays a week? For one thing, I've learned that writing a journal is easier than letting it all just slip by. I'm also afraid that essays remain my substitute for talking; chatting about what I went through comes as hard for me as for some war veterans. The most compelling reason: Alex is pinballing toward age three, Jill and I are getting to swap roles of breadwinner and homemaker, and we're all awaiting the birth of Alex's little brother. I'm looking forward to such rich material. (December 2000)
Get It Down
This is being written in a notebook on a bus. Six months ago, it would have been written in an office, out of the rain -- it's raining today -- and on a computer. But these days it's being written on a bus.
Six months ago, I went to an office every day, and at the end of each day I'd steal 20 minutes to write essays. Six months ago, I also had only one child, Alex, age 2. Now I have two sons. Edwin is six weeks old today. Edwin is still learning that you sleep at night and do stuff -- such as letting daddy work -- in the daytime. Last night I was up until 2:30.
Still, I have to write essays like this one. I write about two a week and post them on my Web site, and I like to think some people expect them. My site gets about 80 hits a day. I don't make any money -- pennies a month from Amazon -- but the hits have come to mean more to me than my paycheck. That may sound grand coming from a guy with two kids-
Oh, there's my stop. Hold on a minute.
Here we are on the subway. I'm returning home from moving our car to comply with street-parking regulations. Our car is still in Queens, though we moved to Manhattan two months ago. I would've moved the car this morning, except my wife Jill and I had to take Alex to the eye doctor. Tomorrow morning we have to take him to look at a pre-school. We had to wait an hour and a half to see the eye doctor. We want Alex to go to the right school, so we may see a lot of schools. I feel strung out.
About 10 weeks ago, before Edwin was born and two weeks after we'd moved, Jill asked me to take a long paternity leave from my job. After ascertaining that our home computer could handle uploading my essays and after weighing the pros and cons (pro: no friends in my office; con: don't all fathers, in the end, hate staying home?), I decided on the leave.
Wait a minute. Here's my stop.
Back again. It's dinnertime for Alex: chicken nuggets and chips. Before I have to burp Edwin, I'm getting this down while Alex fills my lap with shards of Pringles.
I have been writing for 26 years. From high school until about 1986, I wrote longhand and only in the typing did I decode my fat scrawl and the long arrows of insertion. (I'm left-handed, which means I write against the wet ink; for many years a productive day ended a smear of ink on my pinkie knuckle.) I've always found the time to work. When the day jobs started at 6:30, I've written at 5:30. When I was a freelancer setting my own hours, I'd start after midnight. When all I had was a Selectric in some public library, I'd pound it. When all I had was a Brother manual on a card table, I'd pound that. Mac, IBM, Wang, Smith-Corona: who cared?
Of course, I'd never had kids. Now-
Oh wait. Bath time.
I hadn't been on leave long before I saw that 20-minute blocks at the computer, or anywhere else, were likely to be shattered by scooping up Alex's toys, checking on a bumped head or a sudden crash, or answering the clarion of a bottle or diaper change. I've heard that some fathers skip this stuff, but I want to do it. It makes great copy. I got the feeling, though, that I just wasn't getting it down. Then-
Oh wait. Diaper for Edwin. It's- Wipies now!
-then, unpacking our bedroom, I found four old reporter's notebooks, mostly blank. On the afternoon after Edwin's bris, I wanted to write an essay about the ceremony: what we said, the people, what was served, all that stuff that evaporates unless you get it down. But I wanted a nap, too, so I picked up a pen, propped myself on my elbow in bed, took a notebook, and filled the pages. I even multiplied to figure out that 11 notebook pages meant a complete essay. I positioned notebooks and pens in the bedroom, the living room, the kitchen.
There's a crash. Where's Alex?
This is the fourth essay I've written in a notebook. Despite the labor and the renewal of ink smudges, the method works. They say two kids is four times the work of one. If that's true, and it is, then capturing four times the details is four times the work. I feel I do get most of the moments down before they evaporate. That's all I can ask of myself, or of any piece of paper. (February 2001)
Donít Seem Possible
Itís been three years since trouble began with the pregnancy that eventually produced Alex. Three years. My mother used to have an expression about the passage of such time: ďDonít seem possible.Ē
Maybe it donít and maybe it do. Alex is home for a long time now, walking okay, learning to talk, and eating Cheerios and French fries and other things off yellow. At bedtime he stands at the railing of his crib and wails harsh notes (he is learning how to accuse). Heís small; he hasnít added an inch or a pound in weeks. Slenderness is going to be stamped on him into his teens. Maybe so will that wobble in his eyes.
We all carry reminders of three years ago. ďIt sure makes me feel a long way from the world,Ē I was telling Jill just tonight. And itís been three years. Donít seem possible.
ďThatís one reason Iím looking forward to August,Ē I added. ďIíll be in a roomful of people who know whatís what.Ē
August is the next conference of the online community preemie-l. Iíve been invited to speak (or moderate a session, or maybe just sit there), the subject being the fatherís experience in the NICU. I think itís a necessary and unexplored topic. Fatherhood in the NICU is not completely unexplored -- the preemie-l site offers a good round up of books for dads trapped in a NICU -- but it sure is necessary.
I learned that men and women donít go through the NICU the same way at about 2 a.m. on October 9, 1998, when I fractured my finger on a trashcan. The trashcan was metal, my finger a pinkie, and the occasion Alexís first life-threatening crash. Enough was enough. There was the can. There was my fist.
Next day, over Alexís intubated and unmoving form, I held out my pinkie for one of his residents to examine. ďFractured,Ē she confirmed, and splinted it. Jill would never have thought to bust her finger over Alexís disaster, just as it never would have occurred to me to cry for five months. I never cried for Alex in the NICU.
Jill ranted, too. I lost my temper, really, only over the trashcan. Often, including on the night of the trashcan, I tried to stay calm and reasonable, trying to think my way out of the jungle. I tried to figure that hospitals were like police stations, medicine as fixed as law, and that medical professionals were on your side and accountable for their comments. (Over to whom medical professionals were accountable, my reasoning began to, well, wobble like a pair of little brown eyes.)
I donít know if rationality is a male trait -- Jill is pretty sure it isnít -- but it was my trait in the NICU experience. I was willing to stick it out with our first hospital. I was willing to believe they did their best with his discharge and that it wasnít hurried and muddled. I believed they were genuinely broken-heartened when he returned to intensive care. I entertained the notion of a trach. Donít seem possible.
Jill never wavered on the trach. She cried and ranted, but her emotions ran side-by-side with her intellect and her motherís intuition. That combination probably saved Alex.
I worked through the crisis. Maybe thatís a guy thing. I honestly -- and I know people say this but I mean it -- I honestly donít think I did a good job recording what happened three years ago. It should have been a diary: facts and numbers, a touch tedious yet strident in all the right places. I re-read the essays from Alexís first half-year and they sound as if theyíre whining to be published. I should have had more of Jillís rant. More piss. More trashcans.
Still, Iíve been asked to remember three years ago and cook up advice for NICU fathers. Iíll try. But I look at Alex walking just okay and worry that I didnít take the situation deeply to heart. I worry that there were paths I could have demanded -- fathers can demand of doctors, just as they demand of sons -- that would have bypassed many of our problems now. I donít know if Iím the right man to be giving advice. I distrust my judgment, experience, and even my memories. I wish I didnít think about the NICU anymore. Maybe thatís what remembering it is all about. (February 2001)
Three readers had a problem with a recent essay about snot.
"It was gross," said one. "I couldn't finish it," said another. "There are some things you just don't write about," added a third.
I respect their criticism, and am flattered that I apparently presented a side of childcare vividly enough to inspire revulsion. Reader three is correct: there are things you don't write about, and, though at least three readers may disagree, I have avoided topics that would be too offensive to readers.
And would embarrass my sons. When Alex was in the hospital, I thought what happened to him was never embarrassing, just invasive. I always tried to present his reaction to IV needles, MRI machines, and tubes down his throat as sensible and understandable. Who wouldn't cry at the fifth jab on the same wrist? Who expects a baby to fight a doctor? (If anything, I should have fought more doctors.) Jill said once that I always preserved Alex's dignity. I tried. Now he's home, and what's happened to him is, mercifully, more normal and less, well, gross: teething, standing, walking, combing his hair, locking himself in the laundry room toilet.
After less controversial (see "gross") essays, readers have praised me for the record I'm leaving Alex and now Edwin. My intention was more to remember the details myself than to educate my sons in the future, but if my sons someday read what I've written and enjoy hearing about a time of their lives that they can't remember, good.
If they do not enjoy hearing about a time they can't remember, that's bad. This could happen.
Jill doesn't understand. "There's a difference between writing about something that's gross and something that's embarrassing to your child," she says.
Not to me. My mum lived for gross. She had a Polaroid memory for my early, powerless years. She relished recounting the time my Aunt Frieda had to spank me for playing with the TV controls (it was 1964, and a black-and-white set with rabbit ears and a tiny oval screen: how many controls could it have had?). Mum freely yakked about the time I ate dirt in the driveway. In my teen years, mum once asked me to show her sister the warts on my hand.
"You ate dirt in the driveway?" says Jill. "How old were you?"
That's not the point. To my grandmother mum bragged -- I think she was bragging -- that I'd almost cried when one of my high school English teachers died. About my toilet training, mum positively turned into Oliver Wendell Holmes. "Don't talk about that!" my big brother fired at her once. "Give the guy a break!"
I was living with mum in my early twenties when an upstairs neighbor was making too much noise at 1 a.m.; she wanted to knock on his door and I wanted to skip right ahead to calling the cops. "Yeah," she told an embarrassed friend of mine afterward, "you went up there but you didn't want to go up there, Jeffrey, did you?"
I miss her every day, but you get the idea. No topic about her kids was taboo. She seemed to violate the trust that a former baby must have with a parent. You do stupid stuff from the cradle to about age ... well, I'm 39 so let's say age 40, and you have to hope that the world forgets. Which it does unless mom or dad keep dredging.
I would never want to dredge. Besides, I'm afraid of being wrong. I hadn't been weepy at the death of my teacher. She had been an iron-haired woman, snappish, snooty, imperious on her best days. She was replaced on the teaching staff by a laid-back, smart, ex-professor who loved fly fishing and Indiana Jones and who gave me A's. Him I liked. I would have told this to my mother had she asked.
But by then I'd learned it was better not to volunteer anything. Looking back I see that secrets were the first grown-up things I had. And in her last years there was a lot mum didn't know about me, a lot she could have known, and a lot she would have talked about. I'm sorry, and glad, that I'll never hear her.
Though she could've told my sons about me in the driveway. Somehow, I wouldn't have minded that. (March 2001)
Sizing Them Up
"If you are in business, you have competition. It's that simple." -- The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Marketing
"And great God, what a sickly, intricate thing a writer's heart is!" - Richard Yates
When I was 12, a guy named Harold opened a terrific hobby shop in my hometown. We liked him a lot, and used to kid him that we preferred to shop at the other, crappy hobby shops around town. "Competition is healthy!" Harold would reply. Harold was dead by the time I got out of high school. So I've never been a true, American believer in competition.
Most "competitors" are drunk or lazy, their only redeeming feature luck and a sense of timing - which is how they beat me. I have confidence built by experience: I got off the bus in Port Authority in January of 1984 knowing not a soul in seven million, and lived. I made a living freelance writing in New York City when rents soared into four figures and a glass of beer went to $4. I landed a staff position on a daily newspaper - never an easy find - in the worst recession since World War II. I'm proud of this record.
When I started these essays in the spring of 1998, a friend remarked, "Why don't you write about relationships? Not too many men do that." And I'm not sure there were, or if there were the hospitalization of Alex eclipsed any concern I had for competition.
I've pushed these essays in the past six months. I e-mail an essay a day to sites and magazines from The Christian Science Monitor to the teeniest, free e-zine. Nobody is too big or too small. Some pay. Some promise to pay. Most just swallow my e-mail and don't even burp.
My motives for this push are money, exposure of my work and traffic to this site, and an encouraging note from out of the blue on a bad day, such as the one I got on Tuesday from a men's (non-porno) site. "Your writing fits in perfectly ... It's tough to decide which (essays) to use because they are all really good." What a nice man. Makes up for the note that same day from The Christian Science Monitor: "We're going to pass on this for right now." (Both men were talking about the same essay.)
"I need to let you know that we cannot pay for your writing at this time," the non-porno guy added. "I hope that that will (change) if the magazine ever gets a sponsor." I understand. Again.
These non-porno sites - I've written porno professionally, too: those letters in the front of the magazines, a gig that didn't build my confidence but did tax my imagination -- are the second wave of my marketing. The first wave began two years ago, when I posted notices of new essays on bulletin boards. Eventually about a hundred readers a day came to my site.
Then I linked up with a homemade parenting site that gets a hundred hits in about an hour, and I sensed I was losing ground. So I've started looking at the competition. I popped up a parenting site and found another man, several men in fact, scribbling about kids, wives, and jobs with the same obvious lust for expression and freedom that I have. I see words about anniversary gifts, gutters, and kids glued to the TV, episodes where the dad asks too many short questions like "What gutter, honey?", alternates between hapless and all wise, and presents a package of Ward Cleaver, Andy Rooney, and Dagwood Bumpstead. I run a few keywords through a search engine (where would my insecurity be without the Internet?) and find columns self-published, self-described, self-made, self-marketed, and, it seems to me, selfish.
I've always tried to talk about myself by talking about others. I try to assign myself few quotation marks. It's more revealing, if the reader knows where and how to look. It's a subtlety so far undiscovered by the poor world.
No one else is doing what I'm doing. I tell myself it's that simple. Therefore, I'm only competing with one person. The question is, how good is he? (May 2001)
Go to Chapter III.
Back to JeffsLife home.