March 12, 2012—In the emergency room, time gets mutilated. It often seems to cease. Waiting for a doctor, waiting for a procedure, waiting for results, waiting until you can’t help suspecting the waiting is actually a bracing for a terrible blow. I find myself wanting to move time forward somehow, but there’s no way, so the impulse to do something ricochets in my mind like a bullet off the walls of a vault. In the moments when time has halted, the mind ricochets with worry, with the imagining of the worst.
Our curtained room is right next to the nurse’s station that has a speaker broadcasting reports from approaching ambulances. “Patient having difficulty breathing,” one report says. “All limbs swollen,” another says. “Patient unresponsive. Eyes rolling back into the head,” another blares. We wait. We want to be told we can leave this place. As we wait and hope, I stare at a baseball.
I see baseball everywhere. It’s a condition, like the one Charlie Brown had in the Mr. Sack saga, when the round-headed boy’s love of the game he always loses blooms into something bordering on mental illness. The story, first appearing in a series of Peanuts strips from 1973 and in an animated TV version in 1983, begins in a way reminiscent of another great work on becoming unhinged, Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” but instead of the protagonist waking to find himself transformed into a giant insect, Charlie Brown wakes to find that the rising sun has transformed itself into a giant baseball. He sees a baseball in a scoop of ice cream. He sees a baseball in a full moon. Finally, he develops a rash on his head in the shape of a baseball. He shows it to his friend Linus.
“I think you’d better see a pediatrician, Charlie Brown,” Linus says.
A few days ago, my seven-month-old son, Jack, started running a high fever. Jack’s our first kid. He hadn’t been sick before. When the fever didn’t go down, we took him to the pediatrician. He was quiet most of the way there, and then started vomiting. They pricked his finger for a blood sample, and some high numbers in the reading prompted the doctor to order more tests at the labs in the hospital across the street. There, two technicians tried and failed to get any blood from Jack’s veins. They opened wounds on both arms and both hands. He screamed and cried until he had no tears.
“He’s dehydrated,” a technician said.
We used a plastic bottle cap to tip water at his contorted mouth. The technicians tried again to get blood. I held his feet. One technician held his arms. He screamed. My wife bent over him and tried to calm him by nursing him.
“Mommy’s here, Mommy’s here,” she said. Finally, one of his tiny veins opened.
“Hallelujah!” a technician whooped. Dark blood drained through a tube from his arm and into a container. Jack kept screaming.
The X-ray was not as prolonged or as awful, but the image may stay with me longer: my baby, still smaller and lighter than the larger of our two cats, strapped into a Hannibal Lecter restraint, his arms pinned in an upraised position next to his reddened, scream-creased face, the technicians scurrying out of the dim room as the machine hummed and Jack howled and my wife’s raw voice kept reaching and falling short of comfort, “Mommy’s here, Mommy’s here, Mommy’s here.”
There was some relief at the end of that night, a nurse from radiology who was herself a mother of small children finding us afterward and telling us that the preliminary reading of the X-ray was negative. We thanked her. We drove home, still not knowing what was wrong with our baby. I noticed the moon, huge and full and low over the buildings of our neighborhood on the far north side of Chicago. I needed it to look like a baseball. It looked like a baseball.
Charlie Brown visits his pediatrician while wearing a sack over his head to hide his condition, and his doctor advises him to go to camp. At camp, his fundamentally inept true identity is hidden by the sack, and he becomes, for once in his life, totally at home in the world, where he dispenses wisdom and provides quiet leadership to a group of peers who elect him camp president and love and admire him, affectionately calling him “Sack” or “Mr. Sack.” It can’t last. Charlie Brown wakes one morning feeling good and decides he’s going to meet the world as he really is, unmasked. His bunkmate watches, stunned, speechless until the suddenly revealed round-headed incurable chump exits.
“HE is our camp president?!?” the kid says.
I moved to Chicago from somewhere else several years ago. There was no one reason for the move. Not least among the reasons or lack of reasons was that I liked that there was baseball here, a lot of it, and I also now understand that there’s some part of me that wants to put a sack over my wounds, over my fundamentally inept true identity. Moving to a large new city enabled both of these core compulsions, baseball and self-abnegation. Years went by. Mr. Sack worked, Mr. Sack wrote, Mr. Sack stared out through his eyeholes at a baseball-speckled world. Finally, Mr. Sack and spouse decided to give parenthood a try, and a baby was born. In the baby’s first moments alive, bloody, he screamed up at this feckless, smitten loner, who was by this one fierce gaze forever unmasked.
After the trip to the hospital labs, my son continued to struggle with the high fever. It went on for days. Each day would include a period in which he seemed to be getting better. His fever would come down and he’d stop writhing and crying and he’d smile a little, even laugh. The weather got nicer. One of the days, we took him out behind our building, into the parking lot that looked onto an alley, and we basked for a few minutes in the sun. I pointed to the alley and told him that we’d play catch there someday. I’d seen the closest thing to hell I’d ever seen—my baby with his arms pinned against his head, suffering—and the future vision of the two of us throwing a baseball back and forth in a garbage-strewn alley…it was heaven.
He dove back into misery soon enough, another bad night. The next day, once again he had a brief spell when he seemed to be getting better. As he played on the rug I went online and ordered tickets to a baseball game at Wrigley in June, what will be Jack’s first game. I needed to see baseball in the future. I saw baseball.
But this morning, before the sun came up, his temperature suddenly plunged way down. An on-call doctor told us that our thermometer was probably broken.
“If that’s actually his temperature,” the doctor said, “he needs to go to the ER right now.”
We found another thermometer. Same number.
In the car, my wife sat in back, hugging Jack to her chest. I drove through red lights on Devon and then Ridge, headed to the ER. We’d been dressing Jack lightly the past few days, trying to keep him cool, but now he was wrapped in blankets and had his winter cap on. The cap was white with two arcs of black stitching: a baseball. That’s all I could see of him in glimpses in the rear-view mirror as I sped to the hospital. My wife’s arms and the blankets and the stitches of a baseball. My world.
Here at the ER, we wait. We are instructed to remove Jack’s footie pajamas in exchange for a hospital gown made for a small child, not a baby. They need more blood, and when they see all the wounds already on his arms and hands they have us remove his socks so they can probe for a vein in his foot. But he keeps his cap on. I focus on that baseball, cling to it, as if by hanging on to the baseball I have the power to hold on to a world where my son is OK.
I have no power over anything. Jack’s temperature seems to be edging back up, but we have no idea why, or why it plunged in the first place. In the Mr. Sack saga, the rash on Charlie Brown’s head that prompted him to go to his pediatrician goes away as inexplicably as it arrived. The numbers in Jack’s previous blood readings had been high, a point of concern, as was his plummeting temperature, and at the ER, after waiting and waiting, the doctor enters and tells us the number from the blood pulled from his foot. It’s a low number. I’m not sure what that means.
“He’s going to be OK,” the doctor says.
My wife begins crying.
“You’re going to make me cry,” the doctor says.
I don’t cry. I can only cry over certain things, preferably things that have no direct relationship to me, such as when a baseball legend gets his number retired. We wait a little longer for some discharge papers, but now the waiting is easy, like being at a game and waiting for the first pitch. My wife brings Jack to the front of the room and opens the curtain so he can look out at the many shiny machines. He’s still wearing the white cap with two arcs of black stitching. An orderly passes by and notices the cap. The orderly says something about the cap that makes me have to turn away, back into the room, to hide my unmasked face, my tears.
“Someone’s ready for baseball,” he says.
JOSH WILKER, author of “Cardboard Gods, An All-American Tale,” lives in Rogers Park and continues struggling with the Sisyphean boulder of his childhood baseball cards at cardboardgods.net. He’s on twitter @cardboardgods.