23 Jul Crying Numbers
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"Crying Numbers"Written by Ashley Franz Holzmann
Estimated reading time — 20 minutes
The first week.
It’s all in the numbers. That’s how you understand anything of real value in this world.
At this point, we don’t need the baby monitor anymore. But even after all this time, I still need the static to fall asleep. It was a while ago when the baby started sleeping through the night, and I needed it through that transition. The monitor has one of those screens, too, that turns on if there is movement in the room. It really doesn’t turn on anymore. But sometimes I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and press the on button. Just to look.
Just to remind myself.
A healthy male in his prime will produce anywhere from around thirty million to an excess of one billion sperm during an ejaculation. Of that group, only so many make it to the fallopian tubes—fewer than twenty sperm ever reach the egg. Sometimes none make it.
I had met my wife in high school, but we didn’t date until after college. She went her way, I went mine, and for some reason both of us backwoods kids ended up in Panama City at the same beach during spring break. It was the kind of scenario we both completely hid from our parents, but that was the beginning. The first kiss escalated into a lot of other firsts that we just sort of blew right through that week. We had come so far since then. Getting married, the honeymoon in Florida. We decided to put our careers on hold and spend a few years together. It was a good call. But that was also before we started doing the math for everything. Realizing that we’d be in our fifties once the kids left the house. And that was if we had the first kid nine months after we started trying.
When it comes to trying to get pregnant, ovulation is at the center of everything. Ovulation is only a little window. Certain religions even track cycles so they can have unprotected sex around the ovulation cycle to prevent pregnancy. Even if a couple has unprotected sex and is trying to conceive, the odds are only stacked so much in their favor. A couple trying to get pregnant can still find themselves without child after a year. Something like 10-15% will take longer than a year to get pregnant.
You know, the real irony of having children with my wife was that we were actually both in the same health class together. Mr. Schuller was this old conservative values man from the middle of the century. He didn’t teach us much, but he did manage to tell us interesting anecdotal tales that had nothing to do with sex or reproduction. He never did tell us the odds of anything. None of the real numbers.
Like the odds for miscarriages. Most people don’t ever look these up, so they don’t realize that a spontaneous abortion can take place at any point during the first twenty weeks, but mostly just the first thirteen. And the numbers get smudged on this one, but the odds of a miscarriage are around one in five. Some experts believe the odds are three out of five. If it happens early enough, an uneducated mother-to-be will think it was just a late period.
When we finally decided to have children, it took us two years to get pregnant. And not just two years of trying to not try. We were actively trying. Two years of almost treating it like our part-time job. It took a bit of the fun out of it, actually. But we knew we both wanted it. We were more than ready for that next phase of our lives. When it finally happened, we were so happy. My wife was the one who told me we had to wait a few weeks. She told me how common miscarriages were and that’s what got me started on the numbers. On knowing the odds.
Most mothers don’t know to wait. They take the pregnancy test and they let everyone know they got the pink little circle or the triangle or the double lines. Then the doctor visit takes place and the baby’s gone. They never did the research to know how frequent it all is, how often things don’t work out. And the reasons are countless. Sometimes the body just rejects the baby. Other times, the mother smoked or drank too much caffeine or some other drug. Or maybe the mother is over 45 years old, in which case their odds jump up to a fifty-fifty chance of keeping the baby to term. Sometimes, it just happens. No one’s to blame and something just doesn’t line up.
We also went through a few false alarms in those two years. We made it pretty far at one point. We were a week away from telling our friends and family when my wife had another period. It was a rough point in our life together. But we kept trying. We knew it would happen, eventually.
Once your child’s born, there’s a one in 1,500 chance that it will pass away from SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). They just fall asleep one day and never wake up again. No one has completely figured out why. If the mother is seriously ill, the odds go up that the child will have difficulty. Any number of external factors limit the chances for the baby: smoking, drinking, eating wrong, drugs, even getting the flu. In America, the child mortality rate of children that don’t make it past their fifth birthday is around five for every one thousand. In some countries, it’s above a hundred for every thousand. America’s current population is around 310 million.
When we finally were able to tell our friends and family, I was so happy. We were making it; when we found out it would be a boy, happiness grew into pride. We took classes; pride turned to paranoia. We bought padding for everything, stocked up on band-aids and medicines and bought enough diapers to last us a year.
All those odds.
All those numbers stacked against all of us. And it has even gotten better over the years. That our species has survived this long is always a wonder to me, when I sit down and consider it all.
I guess you could say I was a nervous father. During our pregnancy, every day felt like a miracle. The idea that life was being molded in there. That our bits of protoplasm were forming into something that we would later shape in other ways, and which would shape us, was the most amazing feeling I had ever experienced.
Through the screaming and the drugs and the sleepless nights, there he was. The more perfect version of ourselves. Still pure from his lack of experience with the world. Not yet touched by the harshness.
We did our best to be informed. It was pretty hard stepping up to the plate with that. Cynthia was too drugged up to say yes or no to things, so there I was, remembering the classes and remembering what to say no to. What to say yes to. They try to sell you anything in that moment. Most of the time they just want to get off shift early. You can’t blame them too much, I guess. A job’s a job. And I have no reason to be bitter about our experience at the hospital. But there were a few moments where I thought they were trying to get over on us. I just had to keep reminding myself about everything. You can learn a lot from history. I mean, up into the 1950s doctors were still telling women to smoke while they were pregnant and they took x-rays of the babies.
Rhythms are quickly established during the first few days. Sleep when the baby sleeps. Anyone who doesn’t do that deserves to be tired. Babies are like cats with regards to the number of hours they sleep. Once the newborn wakes up, you just go through the motions. Change, feed, burp, rock. Sleep.
But, then, last night happened. I had the monitor on and I fell asleep to the static low hum with the volume set at 40%, just in case. At four o’clock in the morning, the baby started screaming hard. It was the loudest, most terrible scream I had ever heard him put forth. There’s something inside you when you become a parent. Something inside that doesn’t make those screams annoying. Instead, when it’s your baby, you just feel the screams like blows to the gut. I would do anything to soothe my little guy. Anything to make him feel better.
I would do anything to hold him. To give him that comfort.
To hold him, again.
It was all in the numbers, somewhere. That’s how it always was and how it always is. Anything of real value has to be measured. And life is the most valuable of all things.
He screamed for thirty minutes over the monitor. The motion sensor even came on, he was so active. My wife and I just laid there.
The baby had passed away two weeks ago.
The second week.
Mr. Schuller was the type of teacher that tried to tell stories to make points that never related to the lesson. He was always trying to teach clumsy ethical lessons during health class, pushing his opinions and way of life with the cavalier arrogance of a Bible-thumping illiterate. To be honest, most of us just let all that stuff flow in and out of our ears. But in hindsight, some of those stories were good for a young teenager to hear. They must have made some sort of imprint, I can still remember them.
Mr. Schuller once spoke for forty minutes about the future of wireless technology. How the future would be all about wireless this and wireless that. This was around a year or so before any of us had heard of WiFi. Dial-up modems were still the way to access the Internet, and we all had to wait a hot minute for the static and noise to run its course while we dialed in. Mr. Schuller told us how wireless was not a new thing. How an inventor named Tesla had done experiments with electricity that spanned miles and only consisted of wireless transmissions of energy. There was a whole strange point to the story, but that part has since been lost to me. All I remember is visualizing the light bulbs turning on at such a distance. It’s the image I think of every time the baby monitor hums.
When that screen pops on from the motion in my son’s room, I think of Tesla. I think of the wireless transmission to the baby monitor and I wonder how the energy is used.
Last night was the night I decided to stay awake. Four o’clock was always the time the motion began, when the movements in my son’s room would turn the monitor’s light on. When the noises would start.
Same exact time.
Every single night.
But last night, I decided I would change one of the variables. After three weeks, I needed to know. I was ready to start dealing with the loss and ready to start understanding what was happening. That’s what I told myself, how I rationalized.
The night dragged on, but I was able to stay awake. There was a low level of adrenaline keeping me on the edge, like the feeling kids get when they know Christmas is in the morning, except devoid of the joyful anticipation. I was blindfolded on a rollercoaster, going up a hill, and I had no clue when I’d take the plunge or how steep it would be.
I thought of my son and the last months he was alive. How we used to play around. I had gotten him a small stuffed fox with deep orange fur and beady eyes. He loved the thing and would tackle it to cuddle against its plush fiery fur. For the life of me I couldn’t find it anywhere after his death. It had just disappeared.
I stared at the clock on the night stand until it clicked over. Four o’clock. Right on schedule, my son started to cry. Last night was the first night I considered the numbers involved. Four was never a time that he would normally wake up. My son was always asleep until at least six. I tried to remember if he cried the night he passed away. If maybe he warned us and this was a way for us to finally get there in time. A way for us to do the right thing.
Parents sleep so little in those first months. It was entirely possible for us to sleep through him crying at four if he woke up several times throughout the night. I couldn’t remember. But thinking about it made me feel guilty. I shook my head and sat up to look at the monitor. Three weeks of listening to my son cry and I never had the guts to pick up the monitor to look. I wasn’t sure what I would see. I licked my lips to get the dryness out of my mouth. I reached to pick up the monitor and took a long breath. The room was so dark that looking at the screen was blinding for a few seconds. I had to let my eyes adjust, and when they did, I was gazing right into the crib. The sound of crying continued coming from the piece of plastic, wirelessly transmitting its way into my hands.
There was something there, something dark and blurry, but it wasn’t my son. I couldn’t tell what it was. It was almost like it was canceling out the pixels on the LCD screen. I had been waiting for so long to see him again, I never thought I would be staring at something that wasn’t a child. At a crying black blob of nothing. Was I crying, too? Maybe. I was having a hard time rationalizing what was happening, having a hard time breathing. My hands were shaking. And a tingling feeling kept creeping up and down my spine.
I had my finger on the power button, just to check. I needed to turn off the monitor for a moment. To let go. To say goodbye to my son. Three weeks of listening to the hum and then the cries was enough for me. My son was gone, and I needed to be able to accept that. Then, the black blob shifted and turned. It had eyes that radiated light, and the eyes looked right into the camera. Right into me.
I turned off the monitor as quickly as I could and tried to make myself continue to breathe. My brain wanted me to hyperventilate; my body wanted to do nothing except retreat into itself. I didn’t know what the blob was, or what it being there meant. I was trying to figure it out when I realized that the monitor was off, but the crying sounds of my son hadn’t stopped. The cries were real, and still coming from the other room.
I was shaking from the tingling feeling in my spine. But I decided to look. I needed to see. I looked over to my wife. She was still asleep. She always was. A part of me didn’t think she even ever heard the monitor. But the sound was clear and audibly coming from our son’s room.
He was still crying.
I got out of bed and made my way to my son’s room. The cries got louder as I got closer, as though they were being amplified. I reached the door. A part of me hoped to see my son again. To hold him. For everything to be a dream or some strange hallucination. He was still alive and well. SIDS never happened. What were the odds of that? I didn’t know. For once, I didn’t care. I forced myself to take a breath and I opened the door.
The second the door was open the sound of my son’s cries escalated to an intensely high pitch. Whatever was in the crib shot up to a sitting position. The eyes glowed with fire and they turned to look right at me. My ears were burned with the sound. The creature’s mouth was moving to the cries. It was the source of the sound. It had replaced my son. I couldn’t understand what was happening.
My wife was the only reason I woke up this morning. She found me on the floor outside my son’s room, the door to his room still closed. My clothes were gone and dried blood caked on the sides of my head, rivers of crusted red flowing from my ears. My body was covered in scratches. I asked my wife if she heard any of the noises from last night.
“What noises?” she asked.
The third week.
It’s been a rough week. I haven’t woken up in my own bed for a few days now. Sometimes I remember getting into bed. Sometimes I’m going about my day and I simply wake up and it’s morning. The stress has started to force me away from my wife. Or maybe it’s her distancing herself from me. We never talk about it, leaving me to assume that this is just her own way of coping. It’s logical.
People react to things differently. Her reaction has always been to sleep. To roll over. To zone out. She would do that all the time back in high school. Health class would start to get boring and she would go to the bathroom, do her thing. For some reason, I find myself thinking a lot of those days. How I used to stare at her in class. Fantasize about her when I’d get home from school. How much of my life started in high school? Why would those days never leave me? What if we had just never had a son?
Every day I wake up, it’s to the sound of myself screaming. Just like the sensation of urinating in your sleep, the dream revolves around the scream. A slow fade gradually brings the scream out of the dream and I realize I’m the one making the noise. Making the bed yellow. Bleeding on a carpet somewhere in the house. Some mornings I’m downstairs. Most mornings I’m at the door to my son’s room. The door is always closed. The last few days it’s been locked.
I’ve asked my wife about it, about the door, but she persists in giving me the silent treatment. I’ve been getting mostly stares instead of conversation. I feel like I’m back in high school, passing notes to try and communicate and having girls look at me like I’m a fool for asking them out.
My wife has even changed her clothes. Like she doesn’t want to wear the things I bought her. Or maybe the clothes remind her of our son. That would be reasonable. Sometimes I notice. Sometimes it’s like the clothes change in the middle of the day. Nothing extreme, just a color here, a hat there. It throws off the day just enough to be devoid of sense. Sometimes it takes me an hour to pinpoint it.
Sometimes she reminds me of Alice, another girl that I sat near in health class back in high school. Alice was something. She always wore white. My wife was Cynthia, though. Cyn. She is Cyn. We used to have fun. Back when we were dating. We would take turns DDing and we would just tear up a town. Sometimes we’d go out parking, even though we each had a place. And when it came to serious adult life, she was wonderful. Every time I got sick, she was there for me. Ice cream, back rubs, the works. It was enough for me to propose. I knew I wanted to spend forever with her. To be the one to dote on her when she’d get sick. The good old days. It wasn’t that long ago, but it feels like it was a lifetime.
Sometimes, when my son was inconsolable, I would turn on the TV. I was always lucky and found the right channel with the same shows. The dumb coyote never did win out. Always had an anvil or a ton of bricks landing on him. He seemed to have all the money in the world for gadgets, but lived out his life as a poor man. Never understood the meaning there. I suppose it was something about what’s right in front of a man—how that stuff should make him happy. Either way, my son ate up the vaudeville. Every time.
Tangents. I never seem to tell a story straight through.
Last night, I didn’t leave the monitor on. At least, I didn’t remember keeping it on. Maybe I did and I just lowered the volume. The nights have started to blur. It’s been a few weeks, now. It didn’t matter, either way: the cries started at the same time, and I heard them all the same.
For me, the most haunting part of this experience has been that I was the worried parent. I was the one who couldn’t sleep through him crying. I just couldn’t take it. I was paranoid about everything. I’d wake up every hour or two and walk into my son’s room and just check up on him. Check the thermostat to ensure it wasn’t too warm or too cold. Leave the nightlight in the hallway on. The things that reasonable parents do.
I remember now. The night my son died, he cried out in the middle of the night. Some time around four, I think. But I was too much of a zombie. Something had happened and I was at work late. By the time I got to sleep, I just wouldn’t wake up. Couldn’t transition from the sound in the dream. But I knew he was crying. A part of my brain knew it wasn’t the dream making those sounds, but I ignored the cries. I just wanted to get a few hours in. My wife was always a sound sleeper. She never even knew. When I asked her if she heard the sounds the night prior, all she could say was the same thing: “What sounds?” We were both hysterical when we realized what had happened.
Last night, the cries happened at the same time. Four in the morning. The same exact time as the night my son passed. Except last night, the cries ended early. Instead of half an hour, it was only five minutes. And then a pause. Silence. I thought something had happened. Maybe the cries would start if I turned on the monitor. But the monitor was already on. Like I said, I didn’t remember turning it on, but there it was. Glowing with the speakers crackling.
I took the monitor off my nightstand and I rested it on my chest. I gave myself a few seconds to adjust to the brightness. There it was. The dark blur. My son. Sitting up in the crib, looking at the monitor with the glowing eyes. There was no crying, though. We both sat there, looking at each other through the miracle of wireless technology. Through time and space. Through the crackling.
I tried to speak.
I couldn’t find the words.
The dark mass stood up and seemed to slide over the railing of the crib and out of the frame of the monitor camera. Something was about to happen, but I kept staring at the monitor. I started to hear sounds coming from my son’s room, just off camera. Whatever it was knew how to open a door, because the next thing I heard was the creaking sound of my son’s door swinging out into the hallway. It wasn’t a loud creak. Just enough for me to question whether or not I heard the door moving. Then the nightlight in the hallway went out.
I tried peeking my head over the edge of the bed, but staring at the monitor for so long had made everything else darker. I couldn’t see it, but I could hear it. Something was there. I held my breath to see if I could hear it. I could feel the air in the room shift with the air conditioner. But whatever had been moving had stopped. Maybe it wasn’t there. Maybe I was starting to lose it. Maybe my wife was right to be distant.
I took a long breath to steady myself. It was just the AC. Just the hallway light burning out. But then I heard something shift. Something was in the room, and it was resting directly next to my side of the bed. Everything fell silent. I couldn’t even feel my heart beating. My eyes teared up.
I clicked off the monitor’s screen and then I twisted the monitor around in my hands to use it as a flashlight. I moved slowly. I stopped breathing. I couldn’t hear it, but I knew it was there. I peeked my head over the edge of the bed to where I knew it was. I pointed the monitor.
Half a breath.
I clicked on the screen.
I saw it before the screen had reached its full brightness. Rusty orange and night’s gray blurred with the few rays of moonlight slicing through the blinds to color the plush face of a stuffed animal. The face of a fox with the body of a child. Glowing eyes of fire shot up from the edge of my bed and into my face.
I woke up screaming to my wife giving me CPR. My face was marked by a large, scabbed gorge.
The fourth week.
When I was a much younger man, being raised by my father, I was often told a story about a fox. My mother wasn’t around often while I was being raised. She was there, but that was just her body. Her mind was somewhere else. My father was the one who raised me, and every year that I remember being alive we went deer hunting. Those have always been some of my favorite memories. Ones and zeros that have always stuck around and reminded me about the best days of my life.
Out in the woods of upstate New York, you could walk for miles without ever seeing a trace of man. Just the trees and the wildlife. The animals we were hunting would always be the last things we would ever see. The math involved in it all was amazing to me. The odds. The numbers. How long we would spend in the woods compared to the encounters with our prey, sitting in a tree stand, walking through to try and push the animals one way or the other.
It was when we sat in the tree stands that my father would start talking, always at a whisper. He’d tell me about the fox that he would see when he was a boy, same fox in the the same woods. The actual woods that we would be sitting in while he was telling me the story. He saw the fox for years and never understood what it was doing out there or why it always seemed to find my father. My father explained it in his own way. He would always say, “A fox never dies. Not really. You can tell when you look in their eyes that some are thousands of years old. They carry knowledge in those eyes. They’re old. And if a fox finds you, they’re looking out for you. Sometimes that’s a reason to be worried. Most times, it means you’re doing something right with your life.”
I was never afraid of foxes, listening to those stories. I always thought they were lucky. A guardian type of animal. And as long as I was my father’s son, I always had a stuffed fox lying in bed with me. The same fox I gave my son the day he was born. Same fox that was in the crib the day my son left us.
Most of the time, when we would finally get a deer, it would go down pretty fast. My father would give me the first shot and if I missed he could usually get a hit. We’d look out into the woods, climb down the tree and head over to the deer. Most of them died with their mouths open, so they could get their last gasps in. I was lucky to never have to watch the last breaths, but I could always imagine how it must have felt. How those final pulls of air didn’t quite reach the lungs. The emotions that must have been within the mind of a creature that doesn’t understand the reasons behind what has just happened.
I was the one who found my son that morning. I stood there longer than I should have, but I didn’t need to pick him up. Not to know that look. The glossed eyes, the jaw slack with his mouth open. He looked just like the deer. When I finally held him, he was as cold as metal in the snow.
Memories. The more we gather, the more they seem to attach themselves to objects. I look at a rocking chair, and I remember being a boy. I smell a flower, I’m reminded of my wife. I see a fox, and… well. There are a lot of things I think of when I see a fox. Just like last week. Whatever it was, I wasn’t dreaming.
Life in the past week hasn’t been easy. I’ve been waking up in my own bed again, but the nights are still the same. Every night, the baby monitor is turned on and I hear it. When it all first started happening, I tried to get my wife to go with me to a hotel, so we could escape and not have to go through it all. I even had the car packed, and she still wouldn’t go. Wouldn’t even talk to me. She had a blank look that I’d never seen on her before. She was staring at me like I was insane.
A couple of nights ago, the volume of the crying was unbearable. Even with that, my wife never woke up. She just laid there like a pile of pillows. Her answer to everything. Alice was always like that.
Cyn, I mean. My wife. Always wearing white.
Eventually, all came to a head for me. I decided to end it all, and spend the night in my son’s room to settle everything. I brought the baby monitor with me and locked the door. I was going to stay there the entire night, no matter what happened.
I couldn’t sleep. I just sat there in the rocking chair, looking around my son’s room. The wooden toys, the polaroid photos we lined on the walls, the drawers of clothes, the table we used to change him on, and the crib. The empty crib. Midnight came, and then one and two o’clock. There was enough light from the moon to see the shadows of the clockface on the wall. When the clock came closer to four o’clock I stood up and held my breath.
The baby monitor turned on in my hand. I looked down for a moment and saw my son through the screen, standing there at the edge of the crib.
I started crying.
When I looked up, my son had the head of the fox with his eyes glowing. My heart started racing and I realized that I should take a breath. I took the air in slowly through my nose. There he was, the fox. The child.
The fox opened up its mouth and cried a loud human cry. I looked back down to the monitor and saw it was my son on the screen. I dropped the monitor and looked back at the crib, but the fox had climbed out of the crib and was standing in front of me.
I felt my nose start to bleed. My ears were on fire from an intense pressure. I knelt down and felt the weight of the world in my legs. My body wasn’t mine. My son wasn’t mine. My life was no longer mine.
The fox started to walk toward me, the eyes getting brighter and brighter.
I could feel the room shaking. My legs were numb from squatting down. I held my arms out to my son. He was beautiful. I closed my eyes.
Then it happened. He was there, in my arms. It was him. We stayed there for a long time. Until the sun began to rise.
I had to look. I couldn’t stop myself. I wanted to see if the fox had left. But when I pulled him back to look at him, he was gone. There was no fox. No child. I was alone in the room. I stood up and my legs buckled. I started to shake, and that’s when I woke up.
I woke up from everything.
I looked around. I was lying in my bed. My son’s fox was lying next to me. My fox. I raised my arm and saw the IV stuck in me. It was my bedroom, but monitors were next to the bed. I turned to see if my wife was there, but she wasn’t. How could she be? The room was bright. It was the morning. White walls, white ceiling.
Nurse Alice walked in. She always wore white scrubs, always clean. I made her tell me the truth. What had happened to everyone. My son, my wife, my father. She had a look on her face—how many times had she told me the truth?
That it had all happened years ago.
I was in hospice. My son had died decades ago. My wife had been gone for nine years. I had dementia and the moments where my lights turned back on were getting farther apart.
It was just a moment. A break from the fog.
I’m just like the coyote, chasing that dumb roadrunner. Living every day the exact same. Repeating the mistakes. That dumb coyote. Always getting the anvil dropped on him. There was no monitor. No coyote. No fox. There was nothing. Just a bunch of ones and zeros buzzing through my head, confused as to the order they’re supposed to stay in, mixing and matching to muddle up my memories. Just numbers floating around in an empty space. It’s all in the numbers. That’s how you understand anything of real value in this world. How many days did I have left? Did it even matter? Counting down to the end.
Credit: Ashley Franz Holzmann