In Utero; Infancy
97 First, enjoy this time! Never again will you bear so little responsibility for your own survival. Soon you will have to take in food and dispose of your own waste, learn the difference between night and day and acquire the skill of sleeping. You will need to strengthen the muscles necessary to sustain high-volume keening for long intervals. You will have to master the involuntary coos and facial twitches which are the foundation of infantile cuteness, to ensure that those charged with caring for you continue to provide food and clean linen. You will need to flex your arms and legs, loll your head to strengthen the neck, crawl, stagger to your feet, then walk. Soon after you must learn to run, share, swing a bat and hold a pencil, love, weep, read, tie your shoelaces, bathe, and die. There is much to learn and do, and little time; suffice it to say that you should be aware of the trials ahead so that you may appreciate the effortless liquid dream of gestation while it occurs, rather than only in hindsight. For now, all you need to do is grow.
There is one significant exception to this. You may have noticed that you share the womb with other objects. The most obvious and important of these is the fleshy tether attached to your abdomen, known as the umbilical cord. It is, quite literally, your lifeline, providing blood, nutrients, and vital antibodies, among other things. Already it has wrapped twice around your neck, and while this may not seem to you, who does not yet breathe, to be particularly dangerous or untoward, it can imperil your entry into the world. We will not lie—it could kill you. Now, be calm. You should remain as still as possible throughout the rest of your gestation. While this will do nothing about the entanglements already constricting your neck, it will go a long way toward preventing further looping or other complications—vasa previa, knots, cysts, hematoma. Any of these problems, by itself, is not particularly dangerous, but two or more occurring together can be big trouble, so you should maintain perpetual vigilance against the many temptations to move. Of course, there are some who would argue that it is unfair to ask a fetus to exercise impulse control. You, however, would do well to avoid those who complain about life's unfairness, and instead get a head start on building self-restraint.
Light and noise present the toughest challenge to your resolve to remain still. They come to you through your mother's abdomen, and you feel an impetus to move toward them, to stir the viscous bath of amniotic fluid with tiny fingers and toes in an effort to absorb the warmth of sunlight, or hear Carly Simon trill. The urge to move is natural and understandable. As will be the case throughout your life, no matter how long or brief, the choice is, in the end, yours. Simply bear in mind that most every choice will have consequences, and in this instance those consequences would likely be quite grave.
96 Your mother has one other child, your brother, who was a tornado in utero, so your lack of movement causes her alarm. We should mention that she is prone to unreasonable anxiety and nervous tension, minor disorders that have several underlying causes, not the least of which is the verbal and physical abuse she suffered as a child at the hands of her father. This is why she pokes at you and spends hours with a transistor radio pressed against her belly, trying to bait you into moving. Despite the fact that her abdomen continues to grow, she wakes one night convinced you'll be born an ashen husk, your fingers hooked forever into lifeless little claws. With this image lodged in her mind's eye she weeps, her hands laced together in a protective hugging posture under the swell of her belly. Now, a boy's aversion to upsetting his mother is among the more primal and tenacious instincts, and so you suffer an almost irresistibly powerful urge to kick and twirl, to give unmistakable evidence of your life, to turn your mother's sobs to relieved and slightly embarrassed little hiccups of laughter. Do not yield to this instinct, or you will put your life at risk. Protecting yourself now means you'll have many years ahead with which to repay her grief. Besides, you can rest assured that this is not the last time you will make your mother cry.
Eventually your father's hands, along with two unscheduled visits to the obstetrician for ultrasound and fetal monitor, soothe your mother's fears to a level she finds tolerable, and she wraps the transistor in its power cord and returns it to the closet, and stops staring for long silent hours at the television.
95 Although the biological goal of sex was achieved with conception, your father still has a hefty sexual appetite (as does your mother, though out of concern for you she will not admit it). To you his advances are terrifying. You hear him seeking entry with his tongue and other parts of his body, and your instinct is to recoil, which is perfectly normal— the perception of one's father as an omnipotent predator of great physical strength serves a vital function for most boys, and usually persists well into adulthood, though paradoxically it does not seem to preclude the desperate striving after his love and approval. You try to hold fast, but a stronger, more immediate impulse toward self-preservation takes hold, and you kick against the uterine wall, pushing away from the sniffing and growling at the entrance to your home, and as you drift slowly up the umbilical cord draws tighter around your throat, and a knot forms. Your mother, feeling you stir for the first time in two months, smiles and invites your father in, prodding him with the heels of her feet. They have sex, a rough pulsing in your warm world like the addition of a third heartbeat, and in that moment when you hear your mother moan you gain the knowledge of betrayal, what it means but also how it feels, and though it of course does not feel good you shouldn't be discouraged; we can tell you that no matter how long you live, no matter how mature or philosophical you may grow to be, almost all sudden enlightenment will feel precisely this way, like a boot in the stomach, like acid on your tongue, and the sooner you accept this the better off you'll be. In fact, you should be glad—at your age, to have understood and assimilated an abstract yet acutely painful concept such as betrayal is, in a word, prodigious. It indicates you have a better than average chance to succeed at the task for which you have been chosen.
94 Now the danger to you is quite grave. With the development of a knot, the umbilical cord will not tolerate any more tension. You must stay put. Having felt you move, from here on your mother will find every excuse to have sex, and you will have to suffer in absolute stillness. Your life depends on it.
93 Still, when she isn't locked in sexual contortions your mother is the safest, most comfortable home you can imagine. And since the likelihood that she will be the only home you'll ever know has increased exponentially, you should make an effort, when not cowering from your father's incursions, to enjoy every moment here.
92 One small, positive development in all this burgeoning trouble is you are nearing the end of gestation, and due to a precisely timed infusion of hormones you want to move around less as you approach your birth. Slowly you roll one last time, until you are fully inverted and in position to emerge from the womb. As a bonus, your father begins to find your mother less and less sexually appealing. It's not your mother's size that repulses him, but rather her distended navel, which juts ever longer from her belly like a severed finger regenerating itself. He tries not to look at it but inevitably can't help himself, and when the wave of disgust comes over him he feels ashamed and emasculated all at once, though of course he would not admit this even if he could. Thus you are left in peace to gather your strength, every ounce of which you will need, especially since, as we'd feared, the obstetrician did not detect the knot in your umbilical cord. Had the knot been noticed, he almost certainly would have opted for a cesarean delivery, thereby reducing the danger to both you and your mother. As it stands, with a vaginal delivery planned, things are likely to be hard, protracted, and quite dangerous.
91 Soon the day comes. Your mother knows in the morning; she has slept fitfully, and as she rises and waddles to the bathroom she feels the milder contractions begin like seismic tremors in the small of her back. You know, too. You sense the swish and shift and though you can't have any idea yet what it means, you're still not sure that you like it. For one thing, your mother begins, by and by, to scream, and you're certain you don't like that, trapped as you are inside the amphitheater of her belly. For another, the shift portion of the swish and shift causes your umbilical cord to draw even tighter, spurring your first experience with physical pain. Your mother's screams rise an octave, and the warm fluid in which you have spent your entire life flushes away, replaced by slick undulating walls equal to the fluid in warmth but hard, insistent, pressing from all sides, pushing you down, down, inexorably down and out of your home forever, and now you are certain you don't like this at all because no one likes change unless it is from something bad to something good, and besides the umbilical knot and loops have cut the flow of blood both from your placenta and to your brain, bad trouble indeed. Your heart slows, and the pinprick of consciousness grows hazy, fading from red to pink to gray. Something's wrong, your mother wails to the doctor and nurses. They ignore her; they are the experts, after all, they have done this a thousand times, and your mother is in pain and exhausted and probably not thinking right and should leave it to them. Your father tries to quiet her with a kiss, his lips and any real comfort they might offer trapped behind the minutely porous shell of a surgical mask. The delivery team goes on ignoring your mother's pleas until the image of you, stillborn, stiff and blue and twisted, returns to her, and she screams at them loud and long enough to be heard two floors down, in Oncology. At the same moment the fetal heart monitor sounds a frantic alarm, and its display of your pulse—dangerously low and still dropping—begins to flash. There is a great and sudden hustle. Hypodermic shots are administered; trays of gleaming steel instruments are deployed. By the time they pull you, purplish and limp, through the new orifice in your mother's abdomen, you are unconscious.
Your expression—eyes closed but not clenched, face perfectly relaxed, tiny mouth agape—is one of perfect neutrality. This is the expression you should wear for all your life, no matter how long or brief it is, so that no one, not even you, will ever know whether you are in ecstasy or anguish.
The doctor and nurses place you on a tiny table nearby and set to work, pressing with fingertips on your chest, suctioning your nose and mouth, and eventually they succeed in reviving you. You're moved to a protective plastic box and tethered to life by tubes, wires, adhesives both high- and low-tech, hollow needles the diameter of a strand of your father's hair. Despite the harsh lights and the stinging prick of the needles, this new home is not so unlike the old one. You are swaddled in piles of soft blankets, connected and held fast by the tubes and wires.
For a few days your situation is what's called "touch and go." Your parents receive a quick overview, complete with pamphlets and sympathetic embraces, of the myriad developmental problems that may crop up but are by no means, it is repeated time and again, a foregone conclusion. For now, let them worry about these things; they are the adults, your shepherds, and as adults it is their responsibility to suffer the knowledge of threats they neither understand nor can do a thing about. You have but one job, comparatively simple: surviving.
90 And it seems, eventually, that you will do just that. Your body temperature and blood pressure rise, your heart rate stabilizes, and your lungs begin to inflate on their own. Soon, to your dismay, the tubes and wires are removed, one by one, and you are taken from the incubator, forced once again to relinquish the safety of your cocoon, though you are allowed, as a small consolation, to keep the blankets. Do not be upset. These are all signs that the danger has passed, that your life has begun in earnest—you've become a person, fully formed, autonomous and self-sustaining.
89 And with this happy occasion comes the task we spoke of earlier, a lifelong proposition which is likely to seem a burden to you, but which we encourage you to try to think of as a privilege, a great honor. First, though, you need to understand this truth:
Although to you we may seem quite knowledgeable, even omniscient, we in fact know only one thing for certain, which is this: thirty-six years, one hundred sixty-eight days, fourteen hours, and twenty-three seconds from now, on June 15, 2010, at 3:44 p.m. EST, a comet that has broken away from the Kuiper Belt near Neptune will impact the Earth with the explosive energy of 283,824,000 Hiroshima bombs.
That's it. We don't know anything else. For example, we have no idea if you will live long enough to witness this phenomenon. There are things we can surmise, though, one being that if you are still alive when the comet hits, neither you nor anything else on the planet will be afterward. All of which raises the question—your task, burden, privilege, call it what you like—a question which men and women, great and not-so, of every color, creed, and sexual persuasion have asked since they first had the language to do so, and probably before:
Does Anything I Do Matter?
It is our hope that, with knowledge of the epic disaster to come and the advantage of our continued assistance, you will have greater success at answering this question than those who have come before you. And we wish you much good luck.