When she was pregnant with our son, my wife, Rebecca, and I watched a lot of documentaries. About babies. Learned how far we’ve come, medically speaking. More so how far we haven’t. Unnecessary inductions, impatient doctors pressuring women into C-sections because they can perform more more more while tallying tabs on their way to the country green. Telling women they’ve got the wrong hips, canals too narrow. Learned how little they know but say they know. And how many go along with and trust their authority. It’s terrifying when you think about it.
His name was Jonah. The joke was that he was born in the belly of a whale because his mom was real big and his arms weren’t right and that was the reason for it. Not all of us joked all the time, but when you’re kids, sometimes you go along with things. We were too young to know it didn’t even make sense.
That summer he’d come to the old quarry with us—Ian, Justin, Chris and me. Chris, he had a brother in a heavy metal band, and they used to get stoned in the barn when they’d practice. We’d gather up roaches and go toke in the woods before swimming. We were only around ten years old and didn’t really know how, but that never stopped us. Jonah must’ve done it right, though, because he just started laughing this one time. He sat on the rocky slope by the rope swing and watched us. Just laughing.
In the 1950s, a German pharmaceutical company, Chemie Grünenthal, developed and distributed a new miracle drug called thalidomide. It was marketed with different names for a number of ailments—Asmaval for asthma, Tensival for hypertension, Valgraine for migraine—but the big push was as a treatment for morning sickness in pregnant women. The drug, then sold under the brand name Distaval, was sold throughout the UK and other countries in vast quantities, and by the early 1960s, an estimated 10,000 babies were born with deformities. Most had malformed limbs—phocomelia—resulting in amphibious appendages, fused digits on their hands and feet, heart and kidney defects, neurodevelopmental abnormalities, among other things. Less than fifty-percent survived their first year.
Jonah became Flipper because of his arms. And the time he slipped from the slope and went into the water. At first he was just kind of thrashing there, but he managed to get himself back onto the shelf of rock in the shallow spot, right above where the ground fell away beneath the surface and it was just nothing for a long ways down. We called him flipper after that. Some of us. He said he didn’t mind.
One day we were on the far side, at the top of the cliff, maybe sixty, seventy feet up. Ian and Justin’s place was across the long field of tall grass and through the apple orchard where we’d eat wormy windfalls and chuck the rotten ones at each other like snow balls come autumn. Anyway, we’d gotten to where we’d jump off the cliff (Chris dived off one time on a dare!) and swim back across, and Jonah would just walk around. Usually by the time he got to where we were we’d be done and ready to go home, so Chris started yelling up: “C’mon, Flipper! Jump!” He’d toe himself up to the edge, bits of shale raining down into the dark water. But he never jumped. Until that one time he did.
Rebecca chose to go all natural from start to finish—no meds throughout the entire pregnancy, just prenatal vitamins, semi-balanced macros, and a nagging regimen of “Hey, babe, did you do your Kegels today?” No epidural. We even used a midwife. Everything was looking good, going well. Then, 5 a.m. and,
“Shit, wake up, it’s time!” But it’s never really time when it’s time. We learned that, too. Laboring usually takes a while. The clichéd movie scene of rushing to the hospital across town, everyone spazzing out, running red lights, dodging pedestrians—it’s not really like that, not usually. Just another thing they convince you, that when the water breaks it’s only a matter of minutes. We hung around the house for a good three hours before we even headed out. Like I said, everything was going smoothly. That is, until it wasn’t.
Our carrying on was too loud and we didn’t hear him hit. (By then we knew what we were doing with the roaches, how to hold the smoke in until our lungs were on fire and felt like bursting.) But his thrashing went on for long enough that someone—who can say which of us now—looked and said, “Hey, lookit,” sort of amused, and then again, “Hey, lookit,” and not amused at all the second time.
This is where you probably think he drowned or something, but we got him out. We even razzed him about it for a while: “What in the world were you thinking, Flipper?” We even raised him up because of it. We’d say things like, “You hear what ol’ Jonah did? He’s one wild motherfucker, this kid.” He stopped coming to the quarry with us after that.
It turned out there was a “sensitive period,” 34 to 50 days past the woman’s last menstrual period, after which the risks of exposure to the drug during gestation decreased significantly. Still, many were affected all over the world. Clinical trials were held in the US prior to Chemie Grünenthalcoming to an agreement with Cincinnati-based William S. Merrell Company to distribute the drug in America. Ultimately, the drug never gained FDA approval in the United States, due to resistance from FDA official Frances Oldham Kelsey, who believed more research was needed. And while there are no hard numbers as to how many pregnant women might have taken thalidomide, rumors have the potential number of tablets distributed to women all over the country by doctors who had been given samples of the drug to be in the millions.
A few weeks after he jumped, summer was near over and we came by to see him one day. His mom stood in the doorway and looked at us. “He had troubles in his heart,” she said. She said it just like that, too, which later we thought sounded sorta strange. Not “He had heart trouble,” but “He had troubles in his heart.” We never quite knew what to make of that. Standing there, she looked sad in a way that was almost thankful. Like it was one less thing to worry about now.
After, we walked down the road and cut through the woods across from Chris’s and back to the quarry. None of us felt much like jumping that day. Or any other days the rest of the summer, come to think of it. We sat for a while, the four of us on the lip of the high wall, throwing stones and looking down at the circles they made getting bigger and bigger below us.
The birth center has a suite for laboring mothers. A nice bed, a deep tub. Calm. Quiet. But our son wouldn’t turn, they told us. His crown was right there, covered in dark hair just like mine. But he wouldn’t turn and we had to transfer to the hospital. My pulse didn’t know which direction to go as I thought of the stories, babies being strangled by their own cords. Of rare incidences. Swelling, disfigurement. They used this suction thing—a vacuum, it’s called—to get him started. Less than a minute and there he was. Our boy. Everything as it should have been. Except his head. It was coned and bruising. “That’s natural,” they said, but I thought about the documentaries and the books and things and looked extra close. Just to be sure. Now, he’s three years old, and though Rebecca never took anything during her pregnancy, there are so many things they don’t tell you, so many things you never know. I still find myself waking in the dark hours and lying beside him as he sleeps. Counting his fingers and toes. Placing my ear to his chest to check his heart.