For Father’s Day, we’ve unlocked our recent Longreads Member Pick, chapter one from Drew Magary’s new memoir on fatherhood, Someone Could Get Hurt (Gotham Books). Magary, who writes for Deadspin and GQ, has been featured on Longreads many times in the past, and he explained how his latest book came together:
I was in the middle of writing a second novel that would hopefully earn me a billion dollars in movie franchise royalties when my third kid was born. There were complications. I find that ‘complications’ is the universal euphemism for anything bad that happens during the birth and early life of an infant. It can mean anything, really: birth defects, mental illness, a lost limb, an ambulance driven into a tree, etc.
If you’ve ever experienced complications with a baby, you know that it immediately makes any other difficulty you’ve ever experienced in life seem harmless by comparison. Your life can be neatly separated into Before Complications and After Complications. They always say that having a kid changes you, but that’s a lie. It’s having a kid on the brink of dying that changes you.
So I had to table the novel for a bit and get this out of my system. I had to write about my third kid, and I had to write about my family as a whole, about this whole unit of people that needed to be strong enough to go through what we were about to go through. And that’s how Someone Could Get Hurt came to be. This is the first chapter.
Chapter 1: Malrotation
Our third child was born seven weeks premature with a condition known as intestinal malrotation. The doctor explained it like this: When you’re in your mom’s uterus, your intestines initially form outside of your body. Then they retreat into your abdomen, twist, and your abdomen seals up around them. If you’re unfortunate enough to be born with this condition (5,000-to-1 odds, though more common in premature infants), that crucial twist never occurs, and you can end up with something called a volvulus, which sounds like a kind of Swedish superhero but is actually a dangerous condition in which the intestines get kinked, like a garden hose, and the path of digestion is cut off, restricting blood flow. You must have your belly split open so that everything can be put back in the proper order, or else you will die. If you’re among the lucky souls born with properly ordered bowels, you should thank those bowels the next time they process a two-pound burrito on your behalf.
They found out that the baby had the condition when he began vomiting thick green fluid after his first feedings. The bile that he secreted to digest his formula was getting clogged in his intestines and was gurgling back up into his stomach, causing him to vomit over and over again. They placed a tube down into his stomach to suck up all the excess fluid and hoped the issue would resolve itself. Nights before the surgery, I stood by his isolette—an enclosed plastic incubator— in the NICU and stared at the output of that tube, praying that it would turn yellow or clear, hoping to God that he’d be spared the knife and that I’d never see that horrible green shit come out of him again. But I did see it again. I would come to the NICU during the day and ask the nurses if he barfed, my fingers crossed tight enough to break. And they often said yes, he had an “emesis.” The first time I heard the word, I asked them if “emesis” meant barf, and when they said that it did, I wished they had just said that he had barfed instead.
The vomiting wouldn’t stop. His insides weren’t going to just naturally fall back into place. He had to be opened. No one makes it through life unscathed, but you usually get a grace period at the start. My son would not be so lucky. At the time, he weighed five pounds—large for a preemie, but still just five itty-bitty pounds. No heavier than a dictionary. I wondered how the surgeons’ blades and instruments would fit inside him. Such a large surgery for such a tiny body, I thought.
The surgeon was talking us through the procedure as we all stood by the door to the OR. He had only a few moments to speak with us before our son had to go under. To wait any longer risked killing him.
“What’s the survival rate for this surgery?” I asked the surgeon.
“If I don’t find any salvageable bowel, the survival rate is zero.” Doctors never explicitly say your loved one will die. They say things like “the survival rate is zero.” It’s up to you to jump to the proper conclusion. “But if the bowel is healthy,” he said, “the survival rate is one hundred percent.” He suspected my son’s bowels were still viable, but he didn’t rule out the possibility that there would be “dusky bowels,” parts of the intestine that had lost blood flow permanently and were now dead and would have to be removed. Forever. I had never heard the term “dusky bowels” before. It sounded like a good name for a fantasy football team.
The doctor needed our consent before going ahead with the surgery. We didn’t hesitate for an instant. In fact, we felt as if we had wasted enough of his time already. It’s amazing how quickly you’ll agree to a procedure like this once you hear talk of survival rates. You take a leap of faith. You trust that a total stranger will know how to properly disembowel your child because you do not. He was a nice-looking doctor. He seemed to know what he was talking about. Fuck it. I signed the forms.
The doctor rushed back into the operating room to prepare, and a very nice NICU nurse named Kathy led my wife and me to our son, to see him one final time before he went to have his guts torn out. They had knocked him out with an anesthetic, so he was sleeping peacefully by the time we got there. He was in an isolette and had wires running from his mouth, chest, stomach, and foot. He looked like an IED. He was surrounded by a phalanx of adults who were all determined to prevent his death because the death of a child is the saddest thing in the world. He wasn’t old enough or awake enough to know that he didn’t want to die. We did all that worrying for him. Kathy opened the top of the isolette so we could kiss him on the head—possibly for the last time, possibly just another kiss in an entire lifetime of them.
His head was coated with a shocking mass of black hair. When a baby is born premature, it still has plenty of the mother’s hormones racing through its system. This can cause it to have enlarged genitals, lactating breasts (!!!), or a healthy head of hair. That hair eventually falls out and is replaced with new hair. But for now, our son still had hair long enough to get a side gig as a bassist. I bent down and let my nose glide along the soft fur, alternating between taking in his scent and kissing him on the head. I wanted to retain as much of the sensation as I could.
Kathy led my wife and me back out to the general surgical waiting room. They had updates on the status of all operations listed on a big monitor at the far end of the room. We could check on our son’s intestines like we were trying to catch a connecting flight to Milwaukee. The second I saw my son’s doctor and room number up on the board, I got a morbid thrill. THERE’S MY BOY UP ON THE TEEVEE! Then reality set back in and I could feel my heart withering. There were dozens of other people sitting in the room, and I felt exposed, naked, without any armor to protect myself. I just wanted to find somewhere for my wife and me to cry ourselves sick. Kathy saw us visibly breaking down in front of everyone and stole us into a private waiting room. I sat down next to my wife and stared off into space because the rest of the world seemed empty to me at the moment. Desolate. We took turns telling each other it was going to be okay because it helps in times of grief when someone you love tells you everything is going to be all right, even when you suspect that it’s a lie.
All I could think about was my son dying. I tried my best to avoid it but I couldn’t. I wondered what would happen if his intestines were deemed unsalvageable. Do they euthanize your child? Do they just leave him until he starves to death because he can’t fully digest anything? They can’t do that. The world couldn’t possibly be that cruel, could it? I envisioned being escorted into the morgue and holding a swaddled, nine-day-old corpse in my hands, and how that would make me feel. He wasn’t dead yet, but I had a clear idea of how badly it would hurt. My heart was firmly clenched to absorb the blow. I thought about whether we’d have a funeral for him. I didn’t think we would because that would just be too awful to put our friends and family through. You can’t herd people into a room and force them to stare at a tiny coffin for an hour.
I wondered if he could donate his organs as a premature infant. I wondered if we would bury him or cremate him, and where we might scatter his ashes. Maybe the Atlantic Ocean. He might like that. Maybe we would get a dog if he passed away, a little dog named Otis or Kirby that would bark and yip and shit all over the place and help us forget about this. That might help. Maybe nothing would help.
Maybe our marriage wouldn’t survive if he died. We’d been married nine years, together for twelve. I remember the night we met, in some shitty Manhattan bar that no longer exists. I staggered out of the john and there she was, drunk and smiling, as if she had been planted there by some magnificent benefactor. It took five minutes for me to get her full name right because it was an obscure Armenian name and I was too shitfaced to pronounce obscure Armenian names. God, I loved her. Only an act of extraordinary circumstances could possibly end us: a war, a natural disaster, an unspeakable crime, etc. And as we waited, I thought that perhaps these were those extraordinary circumstances. Maybe we would look at each other after this and see nothing more than a reminder of what was lost. Maybe we would drift apart and I would become a filthy hobo, working odd jobs and dabbling in surfing and heroin.
I couldn’t stop crying. My wife stood in front of me and I wrapped my arms around her waist and buried my head in her stomach. I told her all my fears in hopes that it would make us both feel better. I wanted to find a way through the grief, to emerge on the other side in a state of grace, knowing I was strong enough to live on regardless of what happened. But I still wasn’t certain.
And then my wife farted—a remarkably well-timed fart that made me switch from tears to laughter right away. God bless that fart. I needed that fart. I asked her to do it again and she declined.
She went out for water, and a different nurse, who turned out to be a real shithead (every hospital has its share of dud nurses), told us that we were being kicked out of the private room. No more VIP treatment for us. When my wife came back in, we both took turns calling the shithead nurse a shithead behind her back, and then we headed out to the main waiting room. The receptionist said there was a phone call for us from the OR with an update. The doctor had promised us a mid-surgery update to let us know if the bowel was viable or not—if our son was going to live or die. This was that phone call. The receptionist held out the receiver for me.
I have a chronic case of Walter Mitty syndrome. I’m the type of person that spends an unreasonable amount of time during each day imagining himself plunged into extreme circumstances. Any time I walk outside with my children, I look up to the sky to see if a giant alien ship has stationed itself above my house. Any time I go to Target, I take note of which items I could use as weapons should a zombie apocalypse strike and then the entire store becomes a stronghold for the last of the uninfected. Any time I get on an airplane, I think about crashing in the ocean and being lost at sea for years, teaching myself to fish using only the stitching of my wallet. I am constantly foiling imaginary bank robbers and sexual predators. I waste hours every day envisioning a life far more dramatic, far more macho, than the sedate circumstances in which I usually exist.
That’s part of the reason why I wanted to start a family. When you start a family, you’re signing up for drama. You’re signing up for worry. You’re signing up for life-and-death. You’re signing up for a life that means something more, even if it isn’t as fun a life as when you were single and drinking shots of Fire Water in the Giants Stadium parking lot. Kids make your life significant. They give your life a spine. On some twisted level, I was signing up for a moment such as this: to be there waiting and weeping as I clutched my fists and begged for my son to be all right. But now that it was here, now that it was so sickeningly real, I knew I wanted no part of such cinematic moments. I just wanted life to become normal again. Uneventful. Boring. I wanted to go back to the intensely aggravating march of daily existence. I wanted my son to live so that he could grow up to annoy the shit out of me. People tell you that you should never take life for granted but that’s wrong, because taking life for granted is an encouraging sign that your life is going well. I wanted that.
I took the receiver from the receptionist and braced myself.
From Someone Could Get Hurt (Gotham Books, 2013). Purchase the full ebook here.