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Creative Nonfiction Prize

CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize: "Wolf Howling at Moon" by Linda Rosenbaum

We've published the five stories on the shortlist for the 2013 CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize. In "Wolf Howling at Moon" Linda Rosenbaum tells the story of her son Michael.

I sit on the red ottoman by the fireplace, leaning towards the flame, rubbing my hands together to increase the warmth. Winters are cold on Toronto Island. I seldom sit still this time of year unless I make a fire. 

I hear children laughing in the background. I know the sound should make me happy. It doesn’t. I’m tempted to cover my ears.

“Come here,” Robin says, “I’ve got one of us returning to the island after bringing Michael home from the hospital...and his fifth birthday party...the kids digging up dinosaur bones...” 

My husband is nearby, making DVDs from videos of the children when they were young. I’ve been listening to the sounds, of good times, all morning.

An abrupt cut in the soundtrack. I hear a clarinet. Unmistakably Klezmer. Michael’s Bar Mitzvah. 

“I’m good,” I say to Robin, using the expression our twenty-three-year-old daughter recently taught me to replace “no.” Robin laughs hearing me say it, but I can tell he’s not sure why.  

I lie. “I’m happy sitting over here for now. I’ll come look at the videos later.” I know he doesn’t get it. I don’t want to see the videos. Too bittersweet.  

We adopted Michael when he was seven days old. After picking him up from the hospital, we bring him straight to the noon-hour ferry leaving from the city’s downtown waterfront. As the horn signals our arrival on Toronto Island, I walk down the boat’s gangplank with Michael in my arms. Robin is steps behind, proudly pushing the big, elegant navy blue and steel English pram borrowed for the occasion. 

Unbeknownst to us, a crowd is waiting. Dozens of neighbours clapping, yelling and cheering, welcoming our new family home. 

In the centre of the crowd stands a bunch of goofy-looking musicians, members of the island’s homegrown marching band, wearing handmade costumes of rags and lace, feathers and beads, looking like cast offs from Mardi Gras ’54. They come complete with tuba, drums, trumpets, and tambourines. “The Arhythmics,” they call themselves. Entry into their ranks requires nothing more than good intentions and a well-tuned heart. 

The sometime tuba player yells out “Hit it folks.” On cue, a chorus belts out “Happy Birthday” to welcome our baby as the community’s newest member. 

It is such a happy, hopeful time. Robin has so many plans and dreams for his son. They will build a crystal radio set together and make volcanoes erupt from test tubes. He’ll teach Michael to make a raft out of 2x4’s, fly a kite and throw a perfect pitch over home plate. Finally, someone to watch Formula One racing with. 

Five years later, we throw a birthday party in the grassy fields of an island meadow. Trillium are pushing up under budding dogwood. For our Treasure Island theme, Robin and I give to Michael and neighbouring children yellowing maps left behind on our land by once-roaming pirates. Hand-drawn sketches lead them to gold doubloons, then to “dinosaur” bones bought cityside from a butcher at St. Lawrence Market. Fortunately, considering their delight, the children are not yet aware. The pirates and dinosaurs hadn’t roamed simultaneously.  

Then the diagnosis, the following year, 1993. Michael is six. Upon our pediatrician’s recommendation, we take him to the Child Development Clinic at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. His many physical and behavioural problems, evident since the first day, aren’t going away. 

“It’s time,” the doctor tells us. 

“I have the results from last week’s tests,” the clinic’s director tells us. “I’m sure the wait was difficult.” 

She was right. But it wasn’t only the week that had been tough. In some ways, Robin and I had been waiting for this moment since we brought Michael home. During that wait, there were times I actually hoped one of Michael’s many doctors would find something wrong, with a name to it,  so we could get on with the business of fixing things. More selfishly, I thought a diagnosis could expiate the stream of guilt and shame Robin and I were drowning in from Michael’s many problems, and our inability to make them go away. 

“After discussion with my staff,” Dr. Roberts begins, “we’ve settled on a diagnosis.” The fluids in my stomach take a nosedive. 

The doctor rifles through her desk, eventually pulling out two sheets of canary yellow paper. Without saying a word, she hands a copy to both Robin and me. A hand-drawn outline of a child’s face is sketched on the page. Various features, including eyes, nose, ears, and mouth are filled in, with handwritten labels attached to each. 

Robin and I look up from the sheets and stare at each other.  “It looks exactly like Michael,” I say flatly, as if shell-shocked.

“The resemblance is uncanny,” Robin adds, “It’s eerie.”

“The drawing is used as a teaching aid at medical schools,” Dr. Roberts says, “to train budding pediatricians. ” 

I look down at the drawing again, and for the first time note small letters printed on top. The sheet is titled, Common Facial Features of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. I look at Robin, also studying the drawing, and notice a slight smile on his lips. I understand. He’s read the title, too. It’s the smile that comes upon discovery of something excitingly new, beautiful, profound, or so wrenchingly awful you can’t deal with the feelings it brings. 

“Oh my god,” he says in subdued voice, eyes still glued to the paper. 

There is no room for disbelief or protest. Flat midface, short nose, indistinct philtrum, thin upper lip, minor ear abnormalities, low nasal bridge. Check. Check. Check.

I knew little about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, just enough to know that his birthmother must have been drinking when pregnant with him. Michael is brain-damaged.

Most doctors know nothing about the devastating effects alcohol has on a fetus, Dr. Roberts tells us, nor the developmental disabilities associated with it as the child grows.

 “Unfortunately, there’s little research on what the future holds for Michael. Recent findings are based on children diagnosed in their teens,” Dr. Roberts says. “They hadn’t been diagnosed early enough for caregivers to make significant interventions.” 

Robin is slouched in his chair, eyes moist. I am unusually quiet, unable to dam a torrent of tears. 

“If early interventions had been made,” she continues, “the children might have fared better. Michael is only six. He has a much better chance of success in life.” 

The majority of those studied led lives as predicted. They had dropped out of school, were living on the streets, unemployed or on welfare. Some, repeatedly in and out of jail by the time they hit twenty.
“Take heart,” Dr. Roberts adds, trying to soften the blows. “You two have already done a wonderful job with Michael. Most kids with FAS can’t bear to be touched and many don’t bond with their parents. The fact that he is so warm and connected with you is a testament to your love and hard work. He’s lucky to have you.”

In the nineteen years since the diagnosis, we’ve tried our best. Tough love, soft love, plain love, always love. We’ve done everything family, friends, professionals and our hearts told us to. Time outs. Logical consequences. Reward systems. Changes to diet. Various therapies, special needs camps, treatment centres, tutors, social skills programs, therapists. 

Michael, now twenty-five, has become a lovely, soft-spoken young man, kind of heart. Also a school dropout, unable to keep a job or function in the world without helping hands.  He lives in a group home during the week, with us on weekends.

“Mum, I want to show you my new carving,” says Michael. He has come out of his bedroom to join me by the fire. “I’m starting an owl, in the round.”

Five years ago, Robin signed Michael and himself up for woodcarving classes. 

“Maybe this will be it,” Robin and I continually said to one another before each attempt to help Michael find something of interest, build confidence, bring a little joy.

After one year of classes, his large bas-relief Wolf Howling at Moon, carved from a thick piece of basswood, was finished. Third Place, Canadian Woodcarving Competition, Novice Category. The next year, Pike Swimming Through Waves. Third Place, Ontario Woodcarving Championships. This year, Bear Upstream with Salmon.  Second Place, Ontario Woodcarving Championships. 

I walk with Michael to his bedroom. What I see is a chunky block of wood clamped to his desk, a few edges chipped away. Yet, similar to Michaelangelo who saw the Pietà within a block of Carrara marble, I know that when Michael looks at his piece of wood, his heart, hands, and eyes are envisioning an owl within, wings spanned, eyes fierce and glaring, waiting to take flight.

“I can’t wait to see what you’re going to do,” I tell Michael. Then, to my surprise, add, “How about taking a short break? Dad has some videos he’d like us to see.”

Image: Wolf Howling at Moon by Michael Christmas.


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