Something Was Eating My Brain, Too: On Beth Ann Fennelly’s Heating & Cooling by Andrew Bomback

“Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs” by Beth Ann Fennelly can be purchased here.

1

I know I am falling for a book when I stop to photograph a passage. Pictures and videos of my kids take up most of my iPhone’s camera roll, but every once in a while a page of text interrupts the photos, a marker that I can fall in love with someone else’s words like I fall in love with images of my children.

Recently, on the train into work, I took a photo of a short passage titled “Mommy Wants a Glass of Chardonnay,” from Beth Ann Fennelly’s book of micro-memoirs, Heating & Cooling.

If you collected all the drops of days I’ve spent singing ‘Row, row, row your boat’ to children fighting sleep, you’d have an ocean deep enough to drown them many times over.

Those words inhabit their own page, centered amidst a sea of white space, as so many of Heating & Cooling’s short entries do. I’ve never encountered the term micro-memoir before reading this book, and the 52 pieces that comprise the slim volume could be called something else – flash non-fiction, mini personal essays, prose poems, even aphorisms for the briefest sections – but I prefer the term Fennelly chose. The book’s 52 short pieces could stand alone, but together they tell the story of her life, and, at least that morning on the train, my life as well.

 

2

I texted the photo of “Mommy Wants a Glass of Chardonnay” to my wife, with the caption “Just read this.” She texted back, “We def are not alone in this problem.” And then, moments later, another text bubble appeared. “Does reading that passage make you feel better or worse?”

The day before, a text from my mother – “Are you okay?” – had interrupted my Monday morning clinic. I assumed the text was a mistake, sent to the wrong person, as her question came without any explanation. I didn’t answer. Then the same text appeared a minute later. I replied, “Yes. Why?” She texted that I looked sad the last time she saw me. My wife and I had just welcomed our third child two months earlier, and my mother was wondering aloud, via text, whether I was experiencing some fatherly version of post-partum depression. “Dad and I are trying very hard to make things a little easier for you,” she texted, finally arriving at the reason for her texts. “I think you know that, but is there anything more we can do to help?”

“Kill Mateo,” I entered into my phone, my thumb hovering over the send icon. My mother doesn’t have the same sense of humor that I do, so I ended up deleting those instructions and texting back, “Babysit for us this or next weekend so we can have a quiet night out?” My mother sent me back the okay emoji sign, followed by an emoji of a smiley face and three kiss emojis.

“Better,” I answered my wife.

 

3

Mateo, our three-year-old, no longer our baby and thrust into the role of middle child, was acting out every stereotype of a jealous older sibling. He was regressing – accidents in his underwear – and rebelling – refusing to eat dinner – and acting out – biting, pinching, scratching. This behavior started towards the end of my wife’s pregnancy, and we optimistically hoped that the excitement of a new sibling would alleviate the problem. My wife posited that Mateo was responding to her growing belly and, thanks to pregnancy-induced fatigue, her increasing inability to meet his needs. She could no longer pick him up. She could no longer chase him around the house. She could no longer bend down for more than a minute to tuck him into bed. “He sees you replacing more and more of my responsibilities,” she said, “and he doesn’t like it, and that’s why he’s going after us. It’s the only way he can act out his anger. It’s sad.” With Mateo and his older sister, my wife had experienced the opposite of postpartum depression, a euphoria and almost manic energy that infected our household. She hoped this would happen again and lift Mateo’s spirits right alongside hers.

Instead, Mateo’s pre-baby antics were just a harbinger of what was on the horizon, as if he was a hype man getting everyone ready for the real performance.  My relationship with him deteriorated with each passing day. I tried to circumvent the inevitable conflicts by pre-planning our encounters, offering up canned jokes and orchestrated activities when I greeted him in the morning, helped him get dressed, or toiled through his bedtime routine. I put his socks on his hands and waited for him to tell me where they were supposed to go. I started his books on the last page instead of the first. I spoke in an English accent until he asked me to stop using a funny voice, and then I’d immediately switch into a brusque and sloppy Spanish that aped the villain, El Guapo, from The Three Amigos. Sometimes Mateo laughed. Sometimes he got upset and bit or pinched me. And sometimes he’d simply ignore me and my act, which was the most painful response, far more hurtful than the biting or pinching. Why was I doing this if he wouldn’t even recognize my efforts?

Someone at work asked whether a scratch on my face was the handiwork of a cat, and I answered that my son had done it to me that very morning. I said, “He’s my bully,” and we shared a laugh. However, the anxiety I felt towards Mateo at times reminded me of the way I interacted with bullies when I was in elementary and middle school. I avoided Mateo when I could, and when I couldn’t, I switched into performance mode, placating him, soothing him.

 

4

The baby was ten weeks old when I read Heating & Cooling, and when Mateo wasn’t trying to yank out his new brother’s legs, he was taking up to two hours to fall asleep at night. I stood by his door and ushered him back under the covers each time he got out of bed, turned on the lights, demanded that he needed to go to the bathroom or asked for one last cup of water. I tried to be patient but inevitably, each night, after an hour or more of these rituals, I lost my temper. “You’re feeding him,” my wife said. “You’re giving him exactly what he wants.” I knew this, but I couldn’t help myself. I eventually sat on the side of his bed, holding his body down with one hand pressed firmly on his back, the other hand splayed out over the back of his head. “It’s like restraining a psych patient,” I told that colleague who noticed the scratch on my face.

I confessed to my older brother that my outbursts, all the yelling I was doing combined with the physicality required to control Mateo, felt like a form of emotional and physical abuse. “If a hidden camera was following me,” I said, “and you watched that footage, you’d say there was something seriously wrong with the father.” My brother, who has four children, empathized but warned against continuing this pattern. He’d done the same thing with his youngest child, and he now felt guilty seeing how often she, at age nine, erupted. Neither of us extended the conversation to its logical conclusion – had we failed our children? – but perhaps that point was already understood.

 

5

In the micro-memoir, “I Survived the Blizzard of ’79,” Fennelly relays the story of her father taking her and her older sister to church in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime snowstorm. Her mother was away in Canada, visiting family, and unable to return home due to the weather. Her father, left in charge of the girls and completely unequipped for that responsibility, marches them out into a blizzard to attend Sunday Mass. The sisters follow their father through waist-deep snow. They watch him yank on the church’s locked doors and stare into darkened windows. He knocks and then, realizing there will be no answer, turns them around. The girls follow him back into the snowstorm, retracing their steps that have already been covered by the heavy snowfall. Their hapless party of three are the only souls outdoors.

I read “Mommy Wants a Glass of Chardonnay” on my way into work, and I read “I Survived the Blizzard of ’79” that evening, standing outside on a train platform waiting for my evening ride home. I was bundled up in a hat and gloves and scarf, but still shivering as I turned the pages, and the tears that dropped from my eyelids when I came upon the following passage could, conceivably, be explained by the wintry weather I was up against. I doubt it, though.

Finally, I did it, what I’d been contemplating for the last half mile. I shouted at my dad’s back, asking for his scarf. I didn’t want to ask. I wasn’t a child who asked. And I knew he must be cold, too. Yet I asked, and when I did, he turned, already unwrapping his red and black striped scarf. He squatted and tied it around my neck, he wound it once, he wound it twice, he wound it three times, he smiled at me, his handsome Black Irish smile, and behind his scarf, which covered my neck all the way to the tip of my nose, I smiled, too. And thought that I might make it, after all. Why are people nervous to become parents? Children are so accepting. So stupid. For years – would you believe it? – for years, I’d think of this as a happy memory, my father snugging his scarf around my neck.

I took my gloves off, felt a stinging cold on my hands as I fished out my phone, and snapped a photo of those words.

Later that night, when I showed my wife this passage on my phone’s screen, she said she didn’t understand why it had moved me to tears. “Because maybe I’m not fucking up Mateo,” I said. “Maybe I’m being too hard on myself. Maybe he sees past all the mistakes and only focuses on how hard I’m trying to help him, how present I am for him.” She raised a skeptic’s eyebrow at me.

My wife was right to question my response to “I Survived the Blizzard of ’79.” I shouldn’t have read the story and empathized with the father. I should have been aligned with the adult Fennelly, who looks back on that episode with a mixture of self-pity and self-righteousness. “[E]ventually I realized that if he were to footslog us over two miles round-trip at nineteen degrees below zero, he sure as shit should have dressed us in scarves.” And now, as a parent, she views the care she takes dressing up her own children for inclement weather as a direct rebuke to her father. So three-year-old Mateo may be “stupid” enough to “accept” me, but will he feel the same way looking back on his childhood?

 

6

I only teared up once more while reading Heating & Cooling, at the end of a section called “Another Missing Chapter in the Parenting Handbook.” Fennelly’s nine-year-old daughter believes she’s contracted a brain-eating amoeba after swimming in a neighbor’s pool, and for weeks she refuses to let water touch her body. No more swimming. No sprinklers. No baths or showers. Mother and daughter clash each night over trying to force a comb through the young girl’s increasingly dirty and tangled hair. Fennelly tries to force the issue by bringing her to a water park, but her daughter sits off to the side, reading a book of Greek mythology under a towel perched to protect her from happier children’s splashes.

This micro-memoir ends with Fennelly out for drinks with friends, a temporary escape from the hostilities at home with her daughter. Her friends convince her to find the humor in her daughter’s crazy ideas.

Laughter wasn’t the best medicine, but it would be all I’d have hereafter. In time, she’d get over her fear, on her own. By then, the sickness had spread, because something was eating my brain, too: knowing that she’d had her first problem I couldn’t solve, and knowing there would be more of them, and knowing that she’d known that already, and had decided, in her mercy, to spare me.

The heartache of parenting isn’t the only or even dominant theme that runs through Heating & Cooling. Virtually all of its 52 essays are focused on the limitations of our knowledge and power, as when a clueless Fennelly finds herself at the mercy of conflicting recommendations from an air conditioning expert and the contractor who built her home office in the collection’s title piece. Or when she and her husband watch a writer friend, labelled “the memoirist,” fail in toasting his wife on her birthday by misremembering the location of their first date. Or when she offers to help her widowed mother make an online dating profile just weeks before her mother is diagnosed with breast cancer.

7

Put slightly differently, the micro-memoirs in Heating & Cooling evoke how little control we actually have over our lives and the lives of the people we love, whether it’s our parents, siblings, friends, or children. For some reason, I was only moved to take out my phone and snap a picture, or occasionally rub away a tear from my eye, when Fennelly was writing about these failings in the parent-child arena.

Not for some reason. I know the reason. The reason appears in “Another Missing Chapter in the Parenting Handbook” and “I Survived the Blizzard of ’79” and even in the half-joke that is “Mommy Wants a Glass of Chardonnay.” The kids will be alright – they’ll fall asleep, get back into the water, avoid frostbite – through their own resources, not our own. The well-intentioned parent can only get his or her kids to that “alright” a bit faster and a bit safer. Usually. But not always.

Certainly not always.

 

Andrew Bomback is a physician and writer in New York. His book, Doctor, will be released from Bloomsbury this September.