Vas Deferens, Bears & Jacob:
Why I Listen To My Children Breathe

Photo by Seniju
Vas Deferens, Bears & Jacob:
Why I Listen To My Children Breathe by Jesse Goolsby

“You do what you want,” she says, “but I know you live a couple hours away. It’ll be hundreds of dollars to transport Jacob to the mortuary. I want you to know that there are options.”

“Can we take him?” my dad asks. “Can we take him to the mortuary?”

“You can do what you want. He’s your child.”

After some legal paperwork the nurse hands Jacob, wrapped in a white towel, to my parents. The nurse has taped the seams so it won’t open in the car. She leads my parents to the back freight elevator and presses the ground floor button. My parents ride the elevator down alone and walk my brother across the parking lot. It has just rained and the car’s door handle is wet. My dad places Jacob in the backseat of their car, but my mom tells my dad to put him in the child seat, so he does, trying to locate Jacob’s back in the bundle to position him correctly. Dad stretches the safety harness across and snaps it together. When my dad starts up the car the radio comes on loud, and my parents both shoot their arms out to turn the volume down.

I don’t remember Jacob. Calling him my brother sounds right and honest and healthy, but here’s what I have: (1) two photographs: one of his months-old body spidered with clear hospital tubes trying to keep him alive, another with the whole family at Christmas; (2) rumors of a tape recording of his funeral held by a cousin in Utah; (3) my father telling me one night, unprompted, that the nurse all those years ago smelled like baby powder, that it was raining when she wrapped Jacob up, that he thinks Boz Scaggs was on the radio when he and my mom reached to turn the volume down.

I’m thirty-three years old, walking home from the bus stop, off a little earlier than normal from Pentagon duty. It’s early autumn and the first Halloween decorations have just begun to appear in doorways and front lawns. As I near my home I see Sarah and our three kids from across the street. They have yet to see me, and I pause for a moment and watch the four of them—Sarah on the front door steps cradling our newborn, Abby, and Ella and Owen scribbling with sidewalk chalk, not yet slugging one another. It’s in this completely routine moment that I realize I’m a father. Why this fact hasn’t felt as incredibly powerful to me before, I’m not sure—there have been thousands of similar scenes, more telling moments of responsibility, minor hardships, and moments of extreme pride—but this Wednesday afternoon the epiphany overtakes me, and I drop my computer bag and sob on the street corner.

The next day three-year-old Owen bounds from the sidewalk and chases his bouncing ball into the street, right in the path of a speeding mini-van. The sound of screeching tires and my scream freezes Owen in the middle of the road. I know I’m watching his death, and the van’s slow-motion stop gives me time to see Owen’s wide eyes on me, his arms at his side, his blue “I’m the Big Brother” T-shirt, an elm tree in the median, the heavy, red van closing and closing in and closing in, but somehow stopping just in time, the front bumper gently nudging my son’s shoulder.

Still fresh from the vasectomy doctor’s he’d-faint-and-the-bear-will-eat-him zinger, I haul Ella and Owen to the zoo. As we stroll the grounds I find myself sizing up the various animals, trying to determine which ones I could take down one on one. It’s stupid, but my vascular prowess has been questioned and I need a theoretical win. From the animals we see that day, the no-way-in-hell list includes (but is not limited to): lion, elephant, rhinoceros, hippopotamus, tiger, gorilla, moose, anaconda, oryx, and cheetah. I give myself a fighting chance against a beaver, a smaller ostrich, prairie dogs, and most salamanders. I let it slip to the kids that I think I could take an otter one-on-one and Ella asks, “How about a giraffe?” I want to say yes, but among the other issues (stomping feet, massive frame, neck swings), I wouldn’t know where to start. Bite the leg? Still, I say, “Probably.”

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Jesse Goolsby is the author of the novel I’d Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). His work has appeared in Narrative, Epoch, The Literary Review, The Greensboro Review, Redivider, and the Best American series. He is the nonfiction editor at The Southeast Review.