Our Version of Sweatheart
by Andrew Bomback
A sheep dog greeted us when we arrived at the first farm, and Juno immediately roped the dog into a game of fetch using a pine cone. Xenia and I brought our bags and food inside, and I set up Mateo’s portable crib while she nursed him. It was nearing his bedtime, so while Xenia put Mateo to sleep, I took Juno for a walk around the farm to scope out the animals. The farmer invited us into the stables to see three baby goats, born just an hour before our own arrival at the farm. He wasn’t the least bit interested in hearing about Mateo’s allergies and the science behind bringing an infant to his farm. He cradled the smallest goat in his arms and kissed its head. “You’ll be giving this one a bottle tomorrow,” the farmer instructed Juno, who was hiding shyly behind my legs.
Mateo was four months old and just diagnosed with something called FPIES: food protein-induced enterocolitis syndrome. He was allergic to common foods in my wife’s diet – dairy, soy, eggs – and developed severe stomach cramps and bloody stools whenever Xenia ate these items. There were two ways to treat this condition. Xenia could stop breastfeeding and switch Mateo over to a hypo-allogeneic formula. The allergist who diagnosed Mateo with FPIES advised against this strategy, because the hypo-allogeneic formula tasted so bad that infants often refused to finish their bottles and risked malnourishment. The second treatment approach was for Xenia to cut out certain foods from her diet and then gradually, every 3 to 6 months, reintroduce them one at a time.
In the meantime, to boost Mateo’s immune system and tolerance of allergens, the allergist recommended we take him to farms and expose him to farm animals as often as possible. Xenia and I are both physicians and therefore shared some skepticism about this last recommendation, but we figured it couldn’t hurt. That summer, we spent every third weekend at farm stays scattered throughout upstate New York. With Xenia fanatically avoiding dairy, soy, and eggs, Mateo was thriving. He smiled for all the farmhands, laughed and cooed on demand, and slept twelve uninterrupted hours every night. Our almost-four-year-old daughter, Juno, loved the farms, too. She put on her rain boots each morning and helped with chores, trudging through mud to feed the pigs, milk the cows, and gather the eggs. The farms were therapeutic for our entire family, mini-vacations from our regular, hectic schedules. We all took afternoon naps. We ate fantastic, home-cooked meals. We watched sunsets and marveled at so many stars in light pollution-free skies. Xenia and I held hands more that summer than any I can remember.
Our last farm stay housed its guests in large platform tents with wooden floors, canopied ceilings, and canvas walls. The farm advertised these accommodations as a luxurious version of “back to nature,” with each tent subdivided into a master bedroom, a kids’ bedroom, and a large main room in which we could cook with a wood-burning stove and eat by light of solar-powered lanterns. The kids’ room contained a bunkbed, and Juno begged to sleep in the top bunk. Xenia and I checked the railing to make sure that even if Juno rolled over, she wouldn’t fall out. We put Mateo’s portable crib just beside the bottom bunk and placed one of the lanterns on top of the dresser as a makeshift nightlight. We uncorked a bottle of wine and read books by lantern light. When we were sure both kids were asleep, we opened up the large canvas flaps that served as the tent’s entranceway, admired the night sky, and made love in the open air beneath it.
A few hours later a THUD awoke us. Our room was pitch black, as was the rest of the tent, and I crashed into walls trying to echolocate Juno’s hysterical crying. Xenia came up from behind me, using the flashlight feature on her phone to guide us into the kids’ room, where Juno was standing up in Mateo’s portable crib, leaning on the railing, crying into her elbows. I picked her up and brought her into the main room. I found my own phone and used its light to examine her body, which was miraculously unscathed. She was crying out of fear, not out of pain, I realized, and clutched her body to mine. Xenia entered the room, her face lit up by her phone. “Mateo’s still asleep,” she said. “I can’t believe he’s still asleep.”
We pieced together what had happened. The solar powered lantern had run out of juice and turned off on its own. Juno had woken up and needed to use the bathroom; she was trying to climb down the bunkbed’s ladder and missed a step in the darkness. Her fall ended in Mateo’s portable crib, but their bodies never touched. He was a stomach sleeper – to our and our pediatrician’s chagrin – and liked to nestle into the corners of his crib, so there was a fair amount of landing space for his sister that night. Both kids were fine. We cuddled with Juno for a few minutes, waited for her to pee, and then quietly tucked her into the bottom bunkbed. We went back to our bedroom, held hands under the covers, wordlessly acknowledging how lucky we’d just been, and drifted off to sleep.
The next morning, we were able to speak about it. “If she’d landed on the floor, she probably would have broken an arm or a leg,” one of us said. “If she’d landed on him, she might have broken his ribs, punctured his lungs,” the other one replied. Our doctors’ minds took off on tangents – head bleeds for Juno, spinal cord injuries for Mateo, deaths for either or both of them. Neither of us were religious, otherwise we would have invoked God or angels saving our children from what was our collective stupidity as parents.
Three years and one more child later, what I remember fondly about that scary night, besides our unbelievable luck in avoiding any major incident, was that we never blamed each other. We never retraced our steps and asked who had decided it was okay for Juno to sleep on a top bunk, who had wanted to put the crib in that room rather than ours, who had thought a solar powered lantern could run all night long.
On our home turf, of course, we blamed each other all the time, and this has only gotten worse as the kids have aged and a new infant has been added to the mix. We pit our parenting styles against each other. I mentally tally up what I do for the kids and what Xenia’s neglected to do, and she is silently returning the favor each time. We’re petty. For weeks I refused to read a parenting book simply because Xenia thought it could help me with Juno and Mateo. I didn’t need help, I insisted. When I finally acquiesced and conceded the book’s techniques yielded improvements in our kids’ behavior, Xenia said, “If only you’d read it earlier.”
But on that farm, in a pitch black tent and in the midst of an episode that scared us beyond words, we lay in bed and held hands and took the blame collectively, as a unit. We were both bad parents. We were on the hook together.
In the midst of a March snowfall, when summer seemed far away, the farm where Juno fell out of the top bunk sent an email to its former guests announcing that reservations for weekend stays were open. “Now is the time to think about reserving a tent,” the email said. “Detox from the digital world. Listen to the creek trickle over the rocks. Cook over the wood fire. Crack open some wine or beer. Relax.” I read the email off my phone, standing outside on a frigid train platform, waiting for my evening commuter ride home. I copied the link to the farm’s reservations page and texted it to Xenia with the message, “Should we do this again?”
At our wedding, instead of prayers, we asked our family members to read poems. My older brother read Thomas Lux’s “I Love You Sweatheart,” in which Lux praises a man who “risked his life” to spray paint those words, with their misspelling, on a girder above a highway. Our guests laughed, as they should, but then fell silent and appreciative, also as they should, when my brother read the last lines of the poem: “Love is like this at the bone, we hope, love is like this, Sweatheart, all sore and dumb and dangerous, ignited, blessed – always, regardless, no exceptions, always in blazing matters like these: blessed.”
We’d chosen Lux’s poem for its humor and its romanticism. As newlyweds, we envisioned a life together that would be fun and lighthearted but also “blazing” and “blessed.” I certainly wasn’t thinking of all the mistakes I’d make as a husband and father, and I doubt Xenia was, either. Neither of us would have guessed we’d do something as foolish as misspell sweetheart in a graffiti love message, but eight years later we barely escaped a family tragedy due to our shared negligence. And somehow our love for each other burned its brightest in the aftermath of this error when we equally accepted the blame. Putting our children’s lives at risk became our version of “sweatheart” – sore and dumb and dangerous but also blessed.
Xenia texted back, “Maybe. Kids would love it.”
My mind warmed itself with a fantasy of a summer night on the farm. Mateo fast asleep on the bottom bunk, Juno snuggled under the covers on the top bunk. The baby, too, sleeping soundly in a Pack-N-Play that’s now in our bedroom instead of theirs. Yes, I could have pictured our kids milking cows, grooming horses, or jumping off haystacks, but as a parent of three small children I was content with a dream of all of them simply asleep. And Xenia and I in that large main space, reading books by lantern light, sipping wine, wondering whether our bodies are too old to try for another round of outdoor sex. Regardless, we’d end up in bed, holding hands in the dark, no sounds other than the natural world outside our platform tent. This time we’d be celebrating a weekend well spent, an infant without allergies and his two older siblings (perhaps) getting along all day, our family, our marriage, our safety.
And we’d do so as a unit. On the hook together.
Andrew Bomback, a physician and writer, is the author of Doctor (Bloomsbury/Object Lessons). His essays have appeared in The Atlantic, The Millions, Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere.