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Authors: Michael Lewis

Home Game (9 page)

BOOK: Home Game
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THERE IS A
warning sign before the trouble begins, but I miss it. The afternoon I bring Tabitha home from the hospital is also the day of our neighbor's glamorous wedding, in which Quinn and Dixie are to be the flower girls. In walks Tabitha, and off flounce her little girls with other grown-ups to the Mark Hopkins Hotel, to have their hair and makeup done, and then lead a bride to her doom.
Good
, I think,
the little monsters are gone for the day, and Tabitha will have one day of peace in the house, before the war resumes
. But when I deliver Mother's Milk Tea to her in bed, I find her sobbing. “I just wanted to be there when our little girls walked down the aisle,” she says, as if they, not our neighbor, were getting married. This is unusual; her mind has a slight tendency to race to some tragic conclusion, but she usually stops it before it arrives. I hug her, pretend to sympathize, tell her that it's no big deal to miss just one of approximately three thousand occasions on which her little girls will dress up like princesses and preen in public. And she appears to agree, and to feel better.
Fixed that one
, I think, and move on to the next. A family is like a stereo system: A stereo system is only as good as its weakest component, and a family is only as happy as its unhappiest member. Occasionally that is me; more often it is someone else; and so I must remain vigilant, lest the pleasure of my own life be dampened by their unhappiness.

On this first night, even after the girls return, it is not. I can't believe it: Five people in the room and there is nothing wrong with any of them. I'm like a man who has fallen from a ten-story building only to get up and walk away without a scratch. I'd count all my blessings, but I'd run out of fingers, so I stick with the big ones. For the first time in three attempts, my wife has given birth without needing doctors to save the child's life or hers. She's so physically robust that she declined a second free night in the hospital and came home early. Our baby is healthy and—a first in my experience of newborns—reasonable. He cries when he's hungry and weeps before he farts and otherwise appears to be satisfied with the world as he finds it. Even his older sisters have gone into remission. Eight hours of the full princess treatment distracts them for a few more from their suspicion that a new baby brother means less of everything for them. We spend an hour in front of the fire like a fairy-tale family, listening to them relive their first wedding. “When we walked down the aisle, they played Taco Bell's Canyon,” Quinn says knowingly. (Named for its German composer, Johann TacoBell.)

When they're done, they yawn and go off to bed, sweetly, like fairy-tale children, and leave us with fairy-tale leisure—which we use to decode this year's Christmas cards, stacked up and waiting for weeks. There's the drummer in the rock band who sends us a card each year but each year has got himself an entirely new family. Not merely a new wife but, seemingly, new cousins, aunts, and uncles. Who are they? There's a couple we've never seen, apart from in the picture they've helpfully included, but who say how nice it was to get together with us not once but twice in 2006. Who are
they
?

Two happy little girls sleep in their bunks, and a new baby boy sleeps in the contraption Tabitha has rigged up beside our bed—having given away the expensive co-sleeper she swore we'd never again need because she was done having babies. In time she joins him, and so I curl up with Malthus's
An Essay on the Principle of Population,
a new edition for which, oddly enough, I owe an introduction. “I think I may fairly make two postulates,” writes Malthus, before advancing the most famously wrong prediction about humanity ever made. “First, That food is necessary to the existence of man. Secondly, That the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in its present state.” And off he sets, with the cool hysteria of the Unabomber's manifesto, to argue that my biggest problem circa 2007 should be a shortage of corn. On the other side of the Bay, fireworks explode. It's New Year's Eve.

Just before two in the morning, I'm prodded awake. It's Tabitha, with a look on her face I've never seen there before. “I'm sorry,” she says.

“Okay,” I say. “What's the matter?” But I already know it's serious. She's fighting very hard to hold it together. Her eyes dart around, and she fidgets as if she itches in fifty places at once.

“I don't know,” she says, “I'm really, really scared.”

She's like an addict in need of a fix that does not exist. She's terrified. Worse, she doesn't know what she's terrified of. All she knows is that she can't be alone, can't even close her eyes in my presence without shuddering with fear. “I think I might need to go to the emergency room,” she says reluctantly, and she might. But it's two in the morning, we have three small children in the house, the neighbors are all gone, and the nearest blood relation is two thousand miles away.

“Tell me exactly what you feel.”

“As if something really bad's going to happen.”

Tears fill her eyes.

“I feel like I don't have any control of anything. I feel like I might be going insane.”

Five minutes later I'm leaving messages on doctors' voice mails with one hand and Googling with the other:

Childbirth. Panic
.

At the top pops alternative translations of Psalm 48:6 (
Panic seized them there, / Anguish, as of a woman in childbirth
). Skipping down, I find what appears to be a relevant entry:
Post-traumatic Stress Disorders After Childbirth
.

“Have you ever heard of this?” I ask her.

“No,” she says. But then a lot of unpleasant things can happen to a woman after childbirth, and you don't hear about most of them until they happen to your wife in the middle of the night.

“Don't leave me alone,” she says, trembling beside me.

I don't think I've ever seen her scared of anything, and she is now more frightened than I've ever seen another human being outside of the movies. She's the little kid in
The Sixth Sense
. She sees dead people. Still, born with the ability to remain calm in the face of other people's misery, I feel more curious than alarmed. People who actually are going insane don't know they are going insane. Googling on, I finally come to a plausible-sounding Web page written by a psychiatrist named Christine Hibbert. “Three common fears experienced by women with a Postpartum Panic Disorder are: 1) fear of dying, 2) fear of losing control, and/or 3) fear that one is going crazy.”

It's like finding the picture of the red-throated diver in the bird-watching manual right after you've glimpsed one for the first time.
Postpartum Panic Disorder
: So now the thing has a name. Roughly one woman in ten experiences it after childbirth. How, then, could we never have heard of it?

At length a doctor calls back: Stay with her, she says, and do what you can to calm her down. But she may become completely hysterical, in which case she'll need to go to the hospital.

The next six hours offer a new experience. She can't sleep; she can't close her eyes for fear of her mind thinking some terrible thought. But I know—or think I know, which amounts to the same thing—that she's suffering from some chemical glitch that would repair itself in time and that a pill would fix instantly. What she feels has nothing to do with who she is. It's a state of mind triggered by an event that she will never again endure. She might just as well have turned bright green for a day. But she doesn't know this. She's sure as Malthus that this terror is going to be with her forever—and yet she's as brave as she can be about it. Amazingly, the only thing that makes her feel better is me. I fix her tea, rub her back, and try to enjoy being the sane one for as long as it lasts.

ONE AFTERNOON I
find my wife standing in the kitchen preparing, once again, to cry. The pills they gave her instantly silenced the brain screams. She's gone from being terrified that she's losing her mind and that everyone she loves is going to soon die to being, occasionally, sad. I'll come across her getting dressed or sterilizing baby bottles, standing as still as a lady in a Vermeer painting, with tears in her eyes. There's no point in asking what's the matter—you might as well ask a flat tire why it doesn't have air. She's enduring this strange hormonal postpartum deflation that has nothing, really, to do with her. She's gone from needing to be rescued to wanting to be comforted. Which is, in theory, where I come in.

On the afternoon in question, the girls snack on tubes of yogurt, which they will now eat only if they come frozen just so—even though they aren't meant to be frozen. I walk in, note them squabbling madly about who gets the grape yogurt and who the strawberry, see the pools growing in Tabitha's eyes, take her in my arms, and ask, “Do you two have any idea how lucky you are to have a mom who takes such good care of you?”

Dixie, preoccupied with the Battle for the Grape One, does not hear me, but Quinn looks up for a moment, stares at us, and says, “There's lots of good moms.”

It's her new trick, to render cold and dispassionate judgments about her parents at their moments of greatest vulnerability. Two days earlier she and Dixie were both home sick, and I went off to my office, consumed with anxiety, to figure out (a) how expensive it was going to be to build another bedroom for the baby (very), and (b) how I was ever going to work again when I didn't sleep. At the first opportunity Quinn snuck into the TV room, clicked around the TiVo, found a biography of Bill Gates, and called Dixie in to watch it with her. An hour later I returned to find them both waiting for me: Quinn with hands on hips, Dixie forlorn and grasping a handful of berries.

“Daddy,” said Dixie seriously. “I got some berries from the Gulf Stream waters.”

“Why did you do that?”

“So we can eat them. Because we are poor.”

Which seemed like a sweet reaction to the Bill Gates documentary, until Quinn fixed me with her I'm-hereto-speak-the-truth-to-power stare and said, “We're poor, Daddy. And you didn't tell us. You lied to us.”

As always, it's hard to say whether it's developmental or just mental. Must the seven-year-old mind discover for itself every possible way to offend other people before it can settle on a more sociable approach? Is this just the bug that comes with the software upgrade? I don't know. At any rate, as I stand there with her mother crying in my arms searching for the words that will encourage her to be sweet, I come up empty. “Your mother takes really good care of you and me and Dixie and Walker, and I'm really proud of her,” I finally say.

“You're just saying that to make her feel better,” says Quinn.

Just four weeks after the birth of my son, both of my daughters are living, in effect, outside the law. They act as if they have nothing to lose, and, materially speaking, they don't. They've behaved so badly, for so long, that everything that might be taken away from them has been taken away: TV, candy, desserts, playdates, special dinners, special breakfasts, special outings with parents. They are like a pair of convicts in a Soviet gulag with nothing more than they need to survive—and still they continue to subvert the authorities. Oddly, their teachers all say that at school they remain little angels.

One evening it's just me and the little angels at the dinner table. Tabitha nurses Walker in another room. I have just tried, and failed, to settle the tenth dispute of the evening—who will sit in which seat—with a coin flip. At first they loved this new approach to conflict resolution: It was fair, it was interesting, it was new. And then I pulled out the coin to flip it:

“I get to call it!”

“No, Quinn, shut up, I get to call it!”

And off they went again, at the tops of their lungs—which they will do, I now know, until Quinn clobbers Dixie with a hairbrush or Dixie rakes her fingernails across Quinn's chest or some near-mortal wound is inflicted. Earlier this very day, seeking solace, I described their strange case over lunch to a good friend who happens to be a social psychologist. “Do you know the data on siblings across species?” he asked, before I was even half done. I didn't. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “Half the time they kill each other.” He ran through a few species: Sand-shark siblings eat each other in their mother's oviducts; hyena siblings eat each other the minute they get out. The blue-footed booby is especially ruthless: “If their siblings drop below eighty percent of normal body weight,” he explained, “they peck 'em to death.” That would be Dixie, whose teeth marks can now be found on her sister's legs.

I glare at my children, they glare back at me. They think I am weak, I decide. They want to play hardball; they don't know what hardball is. They will now learn. Yet another generous neighbor has brought us yet another extravagant dessert: a ginger and molasses cake, topped with whipped cream. But they are grounded: no desserts for a week. In better times I might sympathize with their predicament. I might toss them a crumb. At the very least I would sneak my cake later, alone. Not now. I cut myself a large piece and crown it with whipped cream, all the while feeling two pairs of eyes tracking me around the kitchen. Heaping great dollops of molasses and whipped cream onto my plate, I sit back down. Their own sad plates are decorated with cold, half-eaten vegetables.

I coat the first bite in whipped cream, swipe it once through the molasses, and, slowly, raise the fork to my mouth. Then I see Dixie's face. Her lower lip trembles and tears stream down her sweet little face. It's an involuntary response to a horrible realization:
Daddy doesn't care. He's going to inhale his yummy dessert even though he knows Dixie can't have any.
It takes a few seconds for the sobbing to kick in, as she runs from the room.

“See what you did, Daddy!” shouts Quinn, chasing after her.

Through gritted teeth I shovel the ginger and molasses cake—but as I do I sense, uneasily, that I've read this story before. I wait until everyone is asleep and then dig it out of my bookshelves.
Will This Do?
was what British journalist Auberon Waugh called his memoir. On page sixty-seven I find what I'm looking for, Auberon's description of his father, Evelyn:

On one occasion, just after the war, the first consignment of bananas arrived. Neither I, my sister Teresa, nor my sister Margaret had ever eaten a banana but we had heard about them as the most delicious taste in the world. When this first consignment arrived the socialist government decided that every child in the country should be allowed one banana. An army of civil servants issued a library of special banana coupons, and the great day arrived when my mother came home with three bananas. All three were put on my father's plate, and before the anguished eyes of his children, he poured on cream, which was almost unprocurable, and sugar, which was heavily rationed, and ate all three.

When I first read that passage, I thought:
What a monster
. Now I think:
The poor guy
. “From then on,” Auberon concluded, “I never treated anything he had to say on faith or morals very seriously.” “That was the only time,” I can imagine Evelyn replying, “when I treated my children with the barbarity with which they treated me.”

The next morning I wake up and go to the bathroom to shower and shave. Stuck on the bathroom mirror is a dark blue Post-it. The handwriting is unmistakably Quinn's:

Meany Meany

You Are A

Meany

DAD

After that, all is silence. For the next week no one says a thing about the incident. I remove the Post-it, the girls behave better, they even get desserts. But of course no day passes without my wondering, however briefly, (a) just what damage I might have done, and (b) how the incident might play in, say, a memoir. On top of the risk that you might actually screw up your child is the risk that, even if you don't, she'll think you did and blame you for it. Finally one morning, as I drive Quinn to school, I look in the rearview mirror and ask, “You know that cake I ate when you couldn't have dessert?”

“What cake?”

“You know that note you wrote and stuck on my mirror last week?”

“What note?” she asks. I remind her, but she has no idea what I'm talking about. Not the first clue. She doesn't even remember her sister's tears. “The problem with me,” she says seriously, “is that I only remember the stuff that is a long, long time ago. I'll probably remember it in 3000.”

BOOK: Home Game
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