When my mother delivered her third son, her doctor told her she would never be able to conceive again. When she conceived her fourth son, her doctor said it would be a risky pregnancy, possibly even a deadly one. Both she and her doctor were Mormons, so things must have been dire if they were considering terminating the pregnancy. The story my mother frequently told was that her doctor gave her a choice: either your child can live or you can. And my mother steeled her nerves and responded, “We both will live!” I think it’s fine that we sometimes make heroes of mothers. We should probably do it more often. But when mothers make heroes of themselves, I get suspicious. Even when I was very young, I was unimpressed by her tale. My mother had chosen the standard option—both of us living—and it seemed negligent for the doctor not to have offered it in the first place.
But I was born two and a half months premature, weighing just shy of four pounds, and my mother was in Intensive Care longer than I was in an incubator. So maybe she was a hero after all. My maternal grandmother frequently reminded me that it was she, not my father, who brought me home from the hospital. She said I was so small she could perch me on the palm of her hand. Whenever she said this, she would extend her arm, as if offering me to myself. I wondered: how do you put a baby in the palm of a hand? I thought it made me sound like I was the size of a gumdrop. (A kid at my elementary school found his brother’s stash of pornography and at recess one day he described all the things he had seen. I thought: how do you put a penis in a mouth? I was still picturing the gumdrop).
I was a tiny baby, and my mother was recovering from a brutal cesarian section, and these things might explain why my doctor didn’t notice that I had a birth defect. A disorder of sexual development. But Mormon men are nearly always circumcised, and my doctor poked around down there enough to observe that I didn’t have much foreskin to fuss with, so he probably should have noticed. Growing up I was aware that I was incorrectly made, but I never could have said exactly how. Urination was always painful. My life would have been different if he had noticed.
One day my elementary school took a field trip to a roller skating rink. The men’s bathroom had urinals. I had very little experience with urinals, because I always used stalls, because I was ashamed. But all the stalls were full, so I did what I had to do. It was the first time I ever noticed a deodorant urinal cake; they rested atop the drains like white, dazzling hockey pucks. I was fascinated by the way they smelled. I snatched one up and stowed it in my backpack so I could study it later. On the bus ride home, the other kids recognized the smell and traced it back to me. This was not a good day, not after the other kids found a urinal cake in my backpack. Is a roller skating rink an appropriate destination for an educational field trip?
My parents must have cradled me when I was a baby. Someone must have. It seems impossible for me to never have been cradled. But neither of my parents were huggers, and I certainly wasn’t breastfed, and my grandmother held me in the palm of her hand as if offering up a dangerous thing for someone else to take. I don’t have any childhood memories of being touched. But does anyone remember the hugs, as individual units? Or do people only remember them as an aggregated sense of feeling loved? I’m not in a position to say.
When I was in my twenties, my father told me that he had tried to hold me once. Suddenly he wanted me to know. He said he tried to hold me, just once, but I rejected him. He said I cried miserably until he put me back down. So really it was my fault, he was implying; I was the aloof one, I did it first. I was a horrible, aloof, premature baby! “Your mother said I ruined your brothers, so I should stay away from you. She said, ‘You ruined them, and I won’t let you ruin another one!’ I ruined them, she said. You cried until I left the room.” My father was blaming me for something I did when I was an infant. And while I didn’t think too highly of my brothers, it never occurred to me that they were ruined.
I’ve always avoided meeting the families of my closest friends. I’m a creature of self-invention, I explain, and I prefer to think of them the same way. This might even be part of the truth. The rest of the truth is that their families make me uncomfortable. Walking into a home full of love is like stumbling into a restaurant where the menus aren’t in English. I’m glad this thing exists; its existence enhances the richness of my community; the knowledge of its existence broadens my understanding of humanity. I’m curious to experience these offerings, to the extent that I’m permitted and able. But none of it is really for me, is it? The palm of the hand is a terrible way to hold a baby.
© Nathan Curtis Roberts
[This piece was a finalist for the 2022 Forge Flash Nonfiction Competition and was selected by Sommer Schafer]