book excerpt

This Boy We Made

The day motherhood divided into Before and After.

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photo Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photo Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photo Getty Images

Paul found him that morning. Our twenty-two-month-old boy, staring and still, awake without a sound. A twenty-pound toddler in blue pajamas, lying across the only thing we allowed in his crib—a taut cotton sheet.

Tophs hadn’t smiled to reveal the dimple planted deep on his left cheek or hopped up on his short, thick feet to call for me. Even though he was almost two, he didn’t always call me “Mommy” or Paul “Daddy.” Sometimes he switched our names around or stole Paul’s pet name for me. “Baaaaaabe! Baaaaaabe!” The adult word in Tophs’s raspy baby voice never grew old.

He called his three-year-old sister, Eliot, “babe” too. They shared a room across the hall and often awoke together, but that morning, Eliot got up, ready to eat breakfast, and Tophs barely roused.

Paul handed him over to me in our bedroom. “He didn’t cry or anything. He was just up.” I didn’t usually put Tophs in our bed. Not only did I cherish my own space, but as a newborn, he’d rolled off my side of the bed one morning after I’d dozed off. Even though I’d called the doctor immediately and he’d stopped crying within a minute, I worried I’d fractured his skull or jilted his brain just enough to cause a small but dangerous bleed.

Now he was much bigger, so I folded Tophs, who seemed to store all his body fat in his cheeks, into my arms, then into bed, thankful for an extra hour of sleep. With Eliot’s preschool on spring break and Paul teaching on Grounds, I had a full day ahead of playing tennis with foam balls in the hallway of our University of Virginia faculty apartment, a glorified dormitory suite with cinderblock walls, or listening to music on the desktop while the kids stomped on alphabet squares. If the weather turned warm, we might walk through the gardens where students grew cantaloupes and lettuce, spices, and sunflowers and left extras at our door. No Starbucks drive-thru existed back then, so my daily trip out for a latte required me to load the kids into the van, drive fifteen minutes, unload them, strap them into a heavy double stroller, then guide that clunky monster through the door, sweat pooling under my pits, while a nice old man in classic walking shorts and loafers remarked, “Well, you certainly have your hands full, don’t you?” As a mother of two, just grabbing a coffee took straight-up balls.

I don’t know who or what woke us from that morning nap—was it Eliot, with her curly afro and sparkly tutu, running down the long hallway, or Paul, pulling on slacks for work? I do know Tophs reached for his blue kid-sized CamelBak and sucked down water like he’d been waiting days for a drink. As he lay on his back, his cotton pajama shirt quivered with each pump of his heart. I placed my hand over his chest. The beat’s too strong, too quick. But maybe it was nothing. Maybe it was the old me, noticing.

I carried Tophs into our small kitchen, seating him at the kiddie wooden table he and Eliot shared. He usually loved diced peaches in juice or what he and his big sister called “blue shoo shoo”: granola cereal in a blue box from Trader Joe’s. Instead, he turned his head away from anything I put in front of him, except for that water battle. He drank and drank.

If I couldn’t feed my child, I could at least change his diaper. I moved him to our family room with its airplane-aisle-thin carpet, only a slight upgrade from the student rooms above us. When Tophs was learning to sit up, I’d surrounded him with pillows or a Boppy cushion, because when he fell, as he often did with a body that was near the fifth percentile for height and weight and a head that measured near the eightieth, he basically hit concrete. It was on that hard floor I placed him while I opened the faux-leather ottoman to grab a diaper and wipes. Before I could finish, before I could pull each strap forward from the back and fasten them to the
front, before I could tug his blue pajama pants up toward his waist, he had fallen back asleep. Our son with the beautiful face, the one who loved to clap in circles around the apartment or doctor’s office or sidewalk, stretched out and still between us.

A picture, stored on our computer, shows Tophs rolled over on his left side. You can only see the back of his head, then his legs, slightly bent, and it’s only haunting if you were there, if you know that he’s not just another kid nodding off in the corner. I must have taken the photo as proof, to show the doctor in case this turned out to be nothing. See? I had good reason to be concerned, I’d say. She’d nod in agreement, maybe we’d share a laugh: Kids are such mysteries, aren’t they?

If Tophs was merely tired or recovering from a recent stomach virus—if this were no big deal but I overreacted and called the doctor—then I’d be the mother I said I’d never become: a mother ruled by fear, incapable of parsing fact from myth. Forget all the times I’d properly cared for Eliot, when I’d found a rash the doctor wanted to see or guessed right about an ear infection. Forget the fact that no parent gets it right every time. When I have to make a quick parenting decision, I put my motherhood on trial. I remember the slippery pieces of evidence that probably shouldn’t even be reviewed, like the face of a white male doctor who’d questioned my decision to give Eliot Tylenol for a fever under 102 degrees. “Fever is the body’s natural response,” he’d said, seemingly annoyed. Then, “Where did you say you live again?” As though living on the right side of the county line would explain my incompetence. The photo of Tophs would guard me from the shame I’d felt with that doctor. So would Paul’s opinion.

“This isn’t normal,” I told him, looking down at Tophs. “I think I should call.” My offering a litmus test, Paul’s chance to tell me to calm down but in kinder words. (We’d banned calm down early in our marriage.) Let’s give it some time, he might say. Paul was the steady one in our marriage with the reliable academic job, who still kept an Icy Hot container full of silver dollars he’d saved up as a kid in an old gym bag under the bed. He routinely shaved his head every few days and wore a white button-down shirt with slacks to work. (Black professors aren’t afforded the luxury of wearing jeans or sneakers to lecture.) I could count on Paul to avoid excess, unless it was a bowl of cereal near midnight, and to always think before responding, unless he heard a gospel chord on the organ. It’s no coincidence that I fell in love with a counselor. I found, still find, my footing in his measuredness.

We’d met on the green Charlottesville trolley twelve years before, his face not unlike our son’s now—full, brown cheeks and black eyelashes that swept down before curling, scooping me up right along with them. He already knew my name, had seen me around Thomas Jefferson’s Grounds. Thankfully, he wore a nametag. The youngest son of a Harlem preacher, he’d been named after the apostle.

A few weeks later, we bumped into each other near the sheet cake at a celebration for Black students. I was nineteen, flirtatious, and before I thought too much of the words, they flew out of my mouth: “Wanna get married sometime?” He was twenty-two and flirtatious, and before he thought too much of the answer, it spilled from his lips: “I was just thinking the same thing.”

The boy was an old soul. He invited me over to his graduate assistant apartment, a couple of rooms at the bottom of a freshman dorm, for grilled cheese fresh off his George Foreman. A scripture typed in cursive and framed in cheap gold sat on his bookshelf. I hated the gaudy style but loved the words: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways, acknowledge Him, and He will direct your path.”

This boy was safe. Gentle. We watched SportsCenter in the dark, my head on his lap, and he didn’t make a move. I thought of all the mediocre white boys I’d crushed on growing up, many of whom never even saw me. Maybe those days were over.

If Paul thought a trip to the doctor could wait, I’d believe him. Although this time it wasn’t Eliot’s nagging cough or Tophs’s acid reflux that caught my attention. My boy, who was barely hanging onto the growth chart with one hand, lay heavy as a rock on the floor.

“What do you think?” I tried to read the way Paul leaned slightly forward, how his hands touched together in the center, whether his eyebrows looked weighted and serious or light with thought.

“I trust your decision, babe,” he said, and often says. It’s not a bait and switch. It’s everything I should want to hear. My spouse respecting my knowledge, honoring the time I’ve spent raising our children as a stay-at-home mom while he worked as a professor by day and attended seminary on the weekends. But his words also emphasized that this was my decision. The sun would rise and set with me. I had the length of the horizon to fail.

I stifled my fear of being labeled a mother who exaggerates long enough to tell the receptionist all I’d seen: Lethargy. Racing heart. No food. Lots of water. No fever.

“We can see you at 9:30.”

This is where motherhood divided into Before and After.

In the Before, I pumped breastmilk, drove a minivan, and blogged about it. I returned to my alma mater, the University of Virginia, as a grown woman, and learned to push my kids’ double stroller past the campus buses without feeling too old and washed out. I drank my way to a Starbucks gold card and chose lattes over new clothes every month. With just four hours of sleep and a mocha in hand, I could do anything. Charlottesville, a city known for its beauty and history, started to feel like home, not just the college town I was introduced to as a skinny eighteen-year-old from Ohio.

Before, I tried to keep Tophs on the growth chart by feeding him good fats: avocados, olive oil, butter-drenched everything. “Roll his peas in butter,” Dr. Quillian, his pediatrician, had said. “Do the opposite of what we’ve learned as adults.” We puzzled over his lack of growth, that he’d weighed two pounds less than his big sister at birth. But with those round cheeks and feet so cute in tiny New Balances, with his rhythmic clapping and alert, curious eyes, no one truly worried.

In the Before, I wrote a column about raising toddlers in a college dorm where sleep-training Tophs caused a student to knock on our door and ask if we could “keep the noise down.” “Oh, you mean the baby?!” we yelled back. I walked the kids down to the dining hall for Belgian waffles and pointed to the trolley where Mommy and Daddy first met.

Before included training for a ten-miler because I was turning thirty and fighting the ghost of my undergrad self, who showed so much promise and would take over the world by thirty-five. Life was neither simple nor without grief Before, but I recognized its parts. I knew what was hard and what wasn’t. Being a Black mother in a city, and country, built for whites was hard. So was living with an anxiety disorder. These were heavy yet familiar crosses to bear. I knew their weight, knew where the wood notched. They were, I thought, enough.

After came three days after I crossed the finish line of that ten-miler and two days after my thirtieth birthday. In the After, Tophs stared at nothing, those eyes empty—a world fallen flat—as a nurse with thick glasses and mousy hair checked his pulse, then whispered, “It’s fast.”

Dr. Quillian didn’t work Tuesdays, so Tophs saw another doctor on the team we’d met. Dr. Marcus Potter was African American, young, and warm. She was the kind of mom I wanted to be friends with and the kind of professional I wanted my Black children to see.

Tophs sat on the crinkly paper stretched over the table as she shone a light into his eyes and listened to his chest. She lowered him back, palpated his stomach, then pulled him up to sitting. He still exhibited some strength, she noted. He didn’t let his head flop back. Yet neither the look on her face—part curiosity, part concern—nor her questions reassured me.

“Does he normally look like this?” I knew what she meant—his eyes wide and vacant.

“Is there any chance he got into medicine or something poisonous?” She looked at me, her straight brown bob framing her face, but then turned back to Tophs.

I mentally scanned the previous day. This answer would normally be an easy no, but a memory broke through and startled me with its potential for guilt: the day before, Paul had stayed home with the kids while I went out, and he’d mentioned falling asleep on the floor while they played. Even at three, Eliot acted like the mature, older sibling, so I hadn’t worried. Paul didn’t drink coffee, and unplanned power naps got him through long days. But what if this was Paul’s fault? What if, between seminary and teaching, he’d exhausted himself and dropped the ball? It felt like betrayal, but I told her the story. If Tophs had swallowed Windex or Tylenol, she needed to know.

She listened but didn’t seem alarmed. I asked about his brain. What if he were bleeding somewhere? Should we rush him in for a CT scan? But Dr. Marcus Potter wasn’t particularly worried about internal bleeding either.

The night before, Tophs had bit me hard on my shoulder in the buffet line at the dining hall, out of nowhere, and I’d dug my thumb into him, near his collarbone, forcing him to let go. I’d been angry in the moment, surprised by the pain. What if I’d punctured something? Why hadn’t I just endured the bite? What if I had put something in motion that would lead to his slow, labored death? I’d told Dr. Marcus Potter about the uncharacteristic bite but not my reaction. I’d been willing to tell on my husband, even my son, but not on myself.

“If he doesn’t perk up by this afternoon, why don’t you give us a call and bring him back in for bloodwork? Does that sound good? Are you comfortable with that plan?” I noticed how much she wanted to put me at ease. I would not be the pushy mother accused of false alarm, so that sounds good.

I remember maneuvering our stroller, standing by our van, and answering my phone, something I rarely did as an introvert, because it was Paul on the other end. But I don’t remember having Eliot with me. I only know she was there because the doctor’s notes capture her presence: “Mom and sister” the record reads. Did she, a quiet observer with a strong memory, trap her brother’s strangely still body in her mind that morning? Did she notice the nurse’s quick steps, the doctor’s uncertain face—or how the lack of an answer was not the same as saying “Everything will be okay?”

I worry that even when she seems content, when she’s playing school or reading a book, Eliot might sense this erasure—that as the more medically stable, independent firstborn, she’ll be haunted by moments when her mother could only see the child who more often fell outside the margins.

“Are you still there?” Paul asked.

“We just left. I’m getting them into the van.” He deserved a full update, but I couldn’t talk and keep the kids safe in the parking lot.

“Okay, don’t leave. They just called me. They’re trying to catch you. They want to do bloodwork now.”

Dr. Marcus Potter, a mother of young children, couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t right. She met me inside the third-floor office. “If we do the bloodwork now, we can have results by the afternoon,” she said. “I just don’t feel right about sending you home.”

In the After, the same nurse who took his pulse drew blood from the crook of Tophs’s arm. He didn’t flinch or squirm or whine. Later she’d tell me how much that scared her. Me too. It’s rarely Tophs thrashing about or crying that chills me; it’s the slow and heavy silence.

When we left the office for good, I didn’t yet know I was in the After, so I carried over routines from Before: I stopped at the Route 29 Starbucks for caffeine with Tophs slumped over my shoulder. Eliot, always cautious in public, must have walked closely behind me. I ordered a morning bun, and Tophs picked his head up off my shoulder long enough to eat half, the first
bites he’d taken all day.

He was sleeping again, the back of his head cradled in my left arm, when Dr. Marcus Potter called a few hours later. “Mrs. Harris, we got Christopher’s bloodwork back, and the results are concerning. I’m not even sure they’re accurate.”

Not accurate? What did that even mean?

“You all live close to the hospital, right? I want you to take him to the ER now.”

I grabbed the diapers and water bottles, the stroller and shoes, my purse and my kids, all without a scream or a curse, in under five minutes. I have lived much of my life this way—detached but efficient under real pressure, a panicked mess when no real threat exists. I am built for flight or flight. My brain, a barely balanced sprinter in the starting block of my body, craves permission—the sound of a blank shot through the air—to run at full speed. Sometimes my brain gets it right. More often, the sound was merely the click of spikes in the next lane, a kid jumping down rows of metal bleachers, a volunteer slamming the concession stand door shut.

As I stepped outside, Paul was running up the ramp toward me. Dr. Marcus Potter had called him at work, and he’d caught the campus bus home. My self-assured and practical Paul, who’d bought a pair of Rockports in his twenties because they were comfortable, showed up without delay or question. He ran, signaling how serious this situation must be, and I saw his swift movements as validation. For once, his angst matched, maybe surpassed, mine. In this strange and tilted world, panic emerged as the new normal.

We drove five minutes to the University of Virginia Medical Center, and, for the first time in my life, someone waited for us at the front. “Christopher Harris?” asked a man in scrubs. Only doctors and new teachers called Tophs by his real name.

I was ready to follow him, with Tophs in my arms, when an employee behind the registration desk stopped us. He did not offer us the Black person head nod and seemed instantly irritated by our presence. I wanted to honor his request for our address and phone numbers, our birthdays and insurance information. Sure, I’m a people pleaser. But I also can’t ignore the deep divide in Charlottesville. Mostly whites are the haves—the tenured professors, surgeons, bankers, and entrepreneurs—and it’s not uncommon to see Blacks in service roles. Everything in me wanted to please this brother and avoid trampling on his personhood. Yet, with his head cocked to the side as he typed, his voice monotonous, it was clear how little he cared about our son’s need for immediate help.

Finally, the man who’d greeted us spoke up: “If one of you wants to finish up here and the other bring him on back …”

“I’m almost finished,” Mr. Registration snapped, and I wanted to squeeze his neck until his mouth opened up wide and the pit of his stomach felt as fiery and desperate as mine. But when I think of that moment now, I’m not sure if I’m mad at a Black stranger for lacking empathy or pissed at myself for being the kind of mother who would let her kid suffer while she acquiesced. A mother whose desire to appear normal, to seem rational, to be liked, weakened her ability to care for her son.

The man in scrubs led us through double doors to a room on the left side of the pediatric ER, across from the nurses station. An old curtain I was scared to touch or let Eliot sit against separated us from a patient on the other side. As though moving in double time, a team of people in scrubs and white coats appeared and began assessing Tophs. I couldn’t leave the room, but as Eliot’s huge eyes took it all in, I worried that watching her brother being acted upon by strangers might scar her. I worried she was like me, quietly collecting threats, clutching them tight in her hands, until the day she’d look down and panic, unable to separate her own hands from the fear they held. Though she likely sat on Paul’s lap, in my mind, she’s crouched in the corner near the stained curtain with her pink junior backpack, wanting to appear as small as possible while observing every single move.

Tophs, awake but dazed, sat in a huge white bed while they poked his finger, started an IV, and drew blood.

“Why isn’t he seizing?” someone yelled.

I never heard that question. Paul had to tell me later. How was I so swallowed by the scene that I missed it? Our son should have been seizing. That’s what can happen when your blood glucose drops to 27mg/dL. The low end of normal is 70mg/dL. That’s why Dr. Marcus Potter wasn’t sure if the results were correct.

We walked the medical team through Tophs’s dinner the previous night—half a slice of pizza and vanilla soft-serve from the dining hall—and how we didn’t think he’d swallowed poison even though Paul had napped. We mentioned his recent stomach virus. When I told them that I’d fed him half a Starbucks morning bun after his appointment, the attending doctor popped her head up from his bedside. “Good mommy!” she said. What does it mean that the praise of this woman made me feel like a straight-A student and the arm of God? I met my boy’s need, even if I had backed into it through the tired fog of motherhood. I still can’t bring myself to imagine what might have happened if I had gotten more sleep the night before, if Starbucks hadn’t been my second home. Without food, how long does a boy with a glucose level of twenty-seven have? Would a coma have come next?

As Tophs, with dextrose running through his veins, devoured two ice pops and perked up, the staff seemed encouraged, their movements slowed. He would stay overnight for more tests, but the crisis had ended.

We waited there, in the After, relieved and numb, still mostly in the dark as to why a little boy’s body could come crashing down on itself.

Here’s the thing about After: it can stay forever.

Excerpted from THIS BOY WE MADE by Taylor Harris. Published with permission of Catapult. Copyright © 2022 by Taylor Harris.

This Boy We Made