The summer you were conceived had an apocalyptic feel to it.
It started with the heat. In our normally fair city, it sweltered past ninety for days. Your father and I made a game of finding ways to escape it, catching movies and eating at restaurants with AC and swimming in the lukewarm, mucky waters of the Willamette River. When it cooled off in the evening, we opened our windows wide to the sounds of the street, thankful for the relief night brought us.
Then came the fires. The blazes tearing down the Gorge sprinkled a light snow of ash on the city. They turned the sun into a bright, orange orb in the midday sky. To keep out the haze, cyclists peddled along wearing gas masks, and we latched our windows tight. Your father ran an air purifier 24-7, but it still smelled like a barbeque pit in our apartment. By the end of the day, my eyes would turn red and itchy.
Phrases like, “the new normal” became common that summer. We knew the cause and referred to it casually: “climate change,” we repeated.
Maybe you’re wondering, then, why we decided to have you. Why, under these circumstances, I would stop taking my birth control and spironolactone. What were we thinking, adding one more carbon-generating human being to a planet with too much carbon in the atmosphere already?
The thing is, your father and I weren’t always so sure about becoming parents.
When we moved back to Portland in 2010 after failed attempts to launch academic careers, we struggled with whether or not to have a baby. There were too many worries, as your father spent months looking for a job. In a moment of desperation, he submitted an application to the sandwich shop on the corner, not exactly the career we’d envisioned during the two years he spent earning his master’s in philosophy.
We bickered constantly over money and chores and driving etiquette. I struggled with compassion fatigue as he complained about the grade he earned in his logic class and the feedback he received from his thesis advisor and how he loathed his manager in that crappy little sandwich shop where the ingredients kept getting worse. I pushed him to be better, to find something worthy of his intellect, even as he insisted that maybe this was it.
“Love should be unconditional,” he said.
“Unconditional, sure. But we should be pushing each other to be better than this,” I said.
We both had it a little right and both had it a little wrong. Sometimes, I pushed when I should have just loved. When your father threatened to quit that measly job, I prodded him to stick with it. I watched as he hung his head over the bathroom sink, toothpaste foam dripping from his mouth and tears trailing down his red cheeks. Less often, I could have pushed harder. I could have insisted that he come with me and my family to Namibia to see your uncle get married. I could have said to him, it doesn’t matter that you’ve been underemployed, you deserve an adventure.
Eventually, though, we figured out how to get the balance right more often than not. We attended therapy sessions with mindfulness exercises. I laid my hands in his, describing the warmth of his skin, the comfort of his grip; we flipped positions and he put his hands in mine.
“What comes to mind?” the counselor asked.
His expression soured. “It feels wrong,” he said.
“Say more,” she said.
“I feel weak. Helpless. Like I’ve failed,” he said.
I’d believed us to be beyond gender. I thought we were, as my brother-in-law said during our wedding toast, “true equals.” How wrong I’d been to assume that we’d transcended the structures I’d studied while earning my own master’s degree in media studies. I thought that because I hadn’t taken his name as my own, we’d defied the standard definition of husband and wife.
So it was in therapy that we relearned what we meant to each other. I held the light and your father held the dark. When he feared failure, I offered hope. When he regretted the past, I recuperated it. When he loathed himself, I praised him. It exhausted me, always tending to the light, so your father learned to find it and hold it himself.
During one therapy session, we sat back to back on the couch leaning against the other. As I breathed deep into my lungs, he drank the air himself. His pulse syncopated mine, his energy radiating into my back, my being. We were separate and we were together; we were whole and we were divided.
Over years of sessions, we learned to listen to one another in the same way that we found each other’s heart beats with our hands. In his eyes, I rediscovered the tenderness that had brought me to him in the first place, and he found the spark he loved so much in mine. We went on little trips, mostly to the coast, where the beating of the ocean waves against the basalt lulled us into a trance, imagining that seemingly immovable rock chiselled away by a billion crashing waves.
For my part, I held steady. I worked a corporate job at a higher education coaching and consulting company–a job I did well and liked well enough with people that I loved. I started writing again, attending workshops as religiously as I once went to mass. I’d leave your father occasionally for happy hours and concerts and lectures with friends, returning to him refreshed and energized and able to be present.
All the while, your father both softened and strengthened himself. He found work chauffeuring and supervising and changing diapers for people with disabilities, people that valued his steady, deliberate kindness. He entered education, scrambling his way up the graduate school ladder, again, from an instructional assistant position into a special education teaching gig. Despite so many doubts and, one time, crying in his car while he listened to Camus, he made it through his first year of full-time teaching about seven years after we arrived back in Portland.
That summer, we celebrated ten years together with the ultimate adventure. In Croatia, we climbed down steep stairs and tiptoed across pebbly beaches to float in the Adriatic Sea. In Montenegro, we climbed up to a fortress overlooking a wide bay surrounded by mountains. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, we gazed at the bridge in Mostar with such awe—that bridge they pieced back together after it was bombed, a potent symbol of mended wounds. We reflected on how far we had come, thanks to the therapy, and how the years of underemployment were thankfully behind us. Under that bridge, we admired a family, the mother in hijab and father toting his camera both wrangling their four, adorable children.
When we arrived home, we began the work of making you. Despite the signs of Earth’s impending doom, we felt immense joy in this work, these attempts at alchemy.
The eclipse marked the end of that summer. Your father and I sat in camp chairs in the Halls’ backyard in Baker, looking up at the sky with those paper-framed glasses. We watched as the sun slowly dimmed, like a curtain was being drawn on the season. We didn’t know it then, but you’d begun already. It wasn’t for another two weeks that I’d realize my period was three days late.
We were naïve, then, in that moment as the crescent of light dissolved.
“Do I take off the glasses?” your father asked.
“Yes! Yes!” I yelled, knowing the preciousness of each second of totality.
We looked up with our naked eyes at the morning sky, now midnight blue, the sun a shadow surrounded by a flame of light. Stars speckled the sky and Venus gleamed like a diamond. We let out gasps and cheers, holding hands and smiling so big it hurt, like we’d reached the top of a roller coaster and were about to go screaming down.
I disregarded the Mexican superstitions about pregnant women witnessing totality, calling you my eclipse baby throughout my pregnancy. I registered for astronomy-themed onesies and crib sheets, and I wrote thank you notes onmoon-stamped cards. When I looked up potential names for you, I sought out those with meanings like ‘moon’ or ‘star’ or ‘sun.’ Had you been a girl, you might have received the name Theia, mother of the gods of the sun, moon, and dawn in Greek mythology.
You were a boy, though, so we named you for Theia’s son. The morning after I gave birth to you, your father and I settled on Elio as your name. It was appropriate, this name that means “god of the sun”—it signaled that you would become the center of our everything.
Those first few weeks, all of our rhythms shifted to align with yours. We went from the predictability of slow mornings, full workdays, busy evenings, and long wakeless nights to taking shifts watching as one of us slept with you, skin-to-skin, on our chest. We awoke to your cries or alarms set every three hours, me feeding and hand expressing and pumping milk for you. We scrambled to the hospital for doctor’s appointments, learning you were jaundiced andunderweight. For a few days, you wore a bilirubin blanket that radiated blue light against your back. You slept for stretches then woke with those whimpering puppy cries. We’d try five different soothing techniques before finding the one that would calm you. Every few days when a free moment arose, one of us would shower.
It wasn’t until you were nearly a month old that we finally took you out of our little universe (apartment, grocery store, doctor’s office) and into the bigger world. It wasn’t until then that we could finally step away from you for two minutes, to breathe and think about something other than you. When we took our first road trip to visit your grandparents, your grandma insisted that your father and I leave you for a little while.
We went to the grocery store to pick up more diapers and grabbed a cup of coffee. We drove up the North Hill and parked next to the Mormon Church, enjoying the view of the town and the silence. Occasionally, we broke it to talk about the past month, about how lucky we were to have each other’s help. We sipped on our coffees, admiring the parched grassy hills and distant Blue Mountains.
Can you forgive us, then, that it took awhile for the gravity of your birth to really hit us? Can you forgive us for losing sight, for a little while, of the world that lay beyond you? Can you forgive us for not realizing just how screwed up this planet was until after you were on it?
It hit your father first, this realization. I learned of it the way I learned about all of his obsessions: during our daily walks. We began this practice of walking together long before you were born. In fact, the first time we met back in college, we hiked Multnomah Falls. Throughout undergrad, we’d walk the streets and parks of North Portland, talking about existential philosophy or the work of James Joyce or our frustrations with the Bush administration. After we moved to Texas and adopted our dog, Zola, we continued the practice, despite the pulsing heat and humidity. Back in Portland after your birth, these walks became a measure of my recovery from labor—a lap around the track in the early days became multiple laps in the early weeks became a mile to the grocery store around a month became miles to Laurelhurst Park and back at about two months.
By the time you turned a year, we lived in the suburbs closer to your dad’s work. We’d spend a chunk of every evening, strolling you through our apartment complex past the duck pond and down the wooded path to the grassy park. We made runs to Target and circled through the loopy streets again and again and covered the same topics over and over.
Around this time, your father kept bringing the conversation back to Jay Inslee, the Governor of Washington State and a dark horse candidate for the democratic nomination. Inslee distinguished himself by focusing on a single issue: combating climate change.
“He’s making gains in the polls and has those 65,000 unique donors for the debate,” your father told me with Zola’s leash in hand as I pushed your stroller.
“Uh huh,” I said, raising the flap covering the plastic canopy to get a peek at your copper curl-covered head.
“I just think that climate is our best issue,” he said, his eyes staring toward Mt. Hood, bare of snow, in the distance. “If we don’t do something now, we’re fucked.”
On a rational level, I knew your father was right. I’d read about the IPCC report, which predicted more hot days, disappearing arctic ice, and decimated coral reefs. On an emotional level, though, I questioned your father’s reaction. I’d spent so much time in the prior years talking him down from ledges about his stressful work, that I questioned this worry. Maybe it was yet another case of him being the dark and me needing to be the light.
It was a heavy lift, being the light to this darkness. I groaned silently as he sat in front of the computer, type type typing. While he Reddited, I stood at the kitchen counter slicing up oranges for you. You punctuated his tapping on the keys with loud squawks from your high chair, not stopping until I dropped those glistening orange triangles onto your tray.
“You know, this is so Vince of you,” I said to him, referring to your Grandfather’s fear of a Christian apocalypse, a fear that drove him to homeschool your father and forbid Home Alone and push the creationist propaganda that drove your father to Atheism. “Ever think about that?”
He paused from his typing, his brow knitted.
“True. But this isn’t some biblical story,” your father said. “It’s science.”
One hot morning, we walked through the neighborhood to the elementary school playing fields. Two baseball diamonds bustled with pint-sized players in full uniform, their parents watching from the stands. Maybe it was seeing these families, so carefree and at ease, that inspired me to confront him about his Redditing, to ask him to cut back.
His lip quivered, his cheeks flushed and wet from tears.
“I just want a record for Elio, so that I can say I did everything I could.”
I held his hand and nodded. While you cooed in the stroller, I pulled your father close to me, letting him weep on my shoulder. He felt the pain, the sorrow, the regret, for both of us.
“If these tears could talk, what would they say?” Our counselor would always ask us when we cried in therapy.
These would have said, “Elio, I’m so sorry.”
In the months that followed, Inslee dropped out of the primary race. At that point, your father’s long Reddit posts on the computer became short concise tweets on his smartphone. To this day, I sometimes scold him for paying more attention to these screens than to me or you, for being absorbed in this virtual discussion at the cost of his presence with us.
But I get it, too, and I tolerate it as best I can, because I know he and I actually want the same things for you. I know this fight is important.
So on the cusp of Fall after your first birthday, the two of us dropped you off at daycare and headed into the city together. We carried hand-drawn signs, following the streams of children and teenagers through the streets to the park behind City Hall. He stood amidst the crowd, holding forth his sign, which read, “I am a teacher who supports STUDENTS on CLIMATE STRIKE” in his best, rickety print. I contributed a yellow, zigzagging lightning bolt above “CLIMATE STRIKE.” He drew a red apple next to “teacher.”
The air had an urgent energy, filled with the chatter of the kids that surrounded us. There were other adults out to support the cause too: grey-haired Marianne Williamson supporters and Extinction Rebellion members draped in bright red costumes and thirty- or forty-somethings like us, pushing their children, who observed it all with wide eyes, in strollers. More than once, another adult approached your father and thanked him for his sign. “What do you teach?” a woman wearing a wide-brimmed hat asked, leading to a conversation about the importance of public education.
It had been me, in the years prior, who came out to march against Trump’s election, to gather with other women on the mile-long Waterfront Park crammed with protesters the day after the inauguration, to walk the streets of Seattle with your uncle in the name of science, to rally at Schrunk Plaza in solidarity with immigrants. Now, we were there together, and it was your father’s concern for you, more than anything, that brought us.
So please, know that we are doing what we can. We are holding up signs until our muscles go weak, we are crossing bridges against traffic, we are chanting for “climate justice now” until our voices go hoarse. We are calling our senators and representatives and tithing our money to the cause. We are cutting down on plastics and new clothing and avoiding meat and recycling what we can.
We are doing this despite knowing that it may not be nearly enough.
A few weeks back, we took you to Herbert Hoover Park. Despite being in the thick of winter, light bathed the small playground where you toddled, top-heavy in your puffy winter coat. Your father followed you as you pointed to the different shapes you recognized: the rectangular bricks, the hop scotch numbers, the circles pressed into stones.
While the two of you played, I sat on the ground, trying to pump up the flat stroller tire. The wind whooshed in my ears, blowing the tire cap out of grasp. Then came your cry, jagged and high pitched. By the time I turned, you were already in your father’s arms.
“What happened?” I asked.
“The wind knocked him over,” your father explained, pointing to a picnic table you had hit.
I checked you over: fat tears dripped down your cheeks and a string of blood-laced saliva fell from your mouth. You must have bit your tongue or your lip, I thought, and said as much to your father.
Before I could find the tire cap, your father was already halfway home with you. I trailed behind, pushing the empty stroller as traffic screamed by on the highway. I arrived home to find you still frantic and your father pacing. I pulled you onto my lap and read you Little Monkey Calms Down, which helped some, and then Little Blue Truck, which brought you back to your norm.
I looked you over again–you were no longer bleeding. I checked your mouth and found no injury. I put you to the task of eating a lunch of grapes and crackers and cheese. Already, you had gotten over being knocked down by the wind.
But your father and I grabbed hold of each other. I reminded him you were okay, and that these things happen and they can’t be prevented.
“No, they can’t,” he said between sobs.
Caitlin C. Collins lives in Newberg, Oregon, where she works in higher education, supports her special educator spouse, and raises her 2 year-old son. In 2016, she was selected as an Attic Institute Atheneum Fellow, where she wrote a memoir about traveling to Namibia for her brother’s wedding. This essay is her first publication.