The World Goes Round: On Life, Death and Keeping Busy in the Year That Changed Us
Five hours before our son was born in North Carolina, someone used my credit card to rent an Airbnb in California.
“Who’s he on the phone with?” the nurse asked Laura during a contraction.
“The bank,” Laura said.
“Right now?” the nurse said.
“Seems that way,” Laura replied, her tired brown eyes cutting across the room toward me.
It was sunny outside our eighth-floor delivery room window, room 848. Across the street, I could see songbirds drinking out of the puddles on the rooftop of a Baptist church. In my ear, a customer service rep had questions.
“Do you remember your pin?” she said. “Are you sure you haven’t traveled anywhere?”
Our baby’s heartbeat thumped over a scanner.
“I’m sure,” I said.
It was March 6, 2020, a Friday. I was 40 years old, and I’d envisioned what this day might look like for some time, and I’ll say that in none of those visions was identity theft part of the plan. But 2020 kicks like that.
Laura and I had done everything two people could do to prepare. The previous night, we had a last meal as a non-parent couple at a busy Italian spot near the hospital. I took a picture of her ducking over the top of her plate and smiling, like she does. Our bags had been in the corner of our bedroom all week, full-term full. We parked with no trouble. Didn’t sprint down the hallway. I heard stories of other friends racing to have their babies unexpectedly. We looked like we were walking into a movie theater.
For most of my 20s and 30s, I was—how should I put this?—parent-curious. Far more curious than parent. During the years when I didn’t want to have a kid, I went through a divorce, and the two circumstances were not mutually exclusive. Then, a few days shy of 36, I met Laura at a pancake breakfast. She cured most of my concerns about anything in just a few words.
We spent the first two years of marriage helping to take care of my father, a stroke victim who was the star of our family. His favorite saying was, “it’ll get better one of these days,” and then in January 2019, he ran out of days.
I wept for weeks and took long walks in the woods. I’d stop at a clearing and swear he was there. I’d speak out loud to him, give him updates on the news and home life, and I swear sometimes I could hear a response.
He would’ve thought that was silly. My father stopped believing in God and the afterlife when he was in Catholic grade school. He loved to tell the story of how on the first day of the first grade, an old nun walked in, sat behind the teacher’s desk, and had a heart attack and died in front of the class. “Her head went like this,” he’d say, motioning with an open hand, laughing to the point of tears. “Boom!”
A few months after Dad died, we spread some of his ashes in the Chesapeake, where he was a charter fisherman. On the way home, Laura and I talked about expanding our family. A few months later, a technician took a few swipes over some gel on Laura’s belly and introduced us to our son. He would be due in March 2020, she said. We choked up, all the troubles and refreshes of our pasts now lined up like a thousand mini-miracles.
The next day, my literary agent wrote and said a publishing house wanted to buy the book I’d pitched with a co-author. He said it would be due in September 2020.
Two of the greatest moments in my life, back to back, and two that would require a lot of work at the same time. Plus, there was the matter of my day job that takes up about 60 hours most weeks. I started to panic mildly. Throughout the winter of 2019 and 2020, I’d spend one weekend getting the baby’s room ready, and the next making a reporting trip to eastern North Carolina, where the book is set.
In February, we had enough reporting done to start writing. Laura had a baby shower that month. I mapped out a writing schedule that would allow us to get to the 90,000 words in the 30 weeks before the book deadline. She filled the new dresser with baby clothes.
“I’m worried,” Laura told me a few weeks before her due date. “It seems like a lot.”
Of course it was, and of course we had no idea what 2020 was about to bring.
We checked into the hospital at 12:05 a.m. on March 6, officially. We weren’t wearing masks. We weren’t sanitizing elevator buttons. We just walked past the television screen that says “Number of babies born today” and it read “0.” Around 7:30 a.m., the anesthesiologist gave Laura an epidural. Around noon we were waiting still, and so I checked our bank accounts, and saw that $600 or so was gone.
“Can you confirm your address with me?” the representative said.
“I promise it wasn’t me,” I said.
“I know, but I have to do this.”
Around that time, 2 p.m., Laura started pushing. Nearly five hours after that, she gave him life. I’d heard about this moment. I’d heard that it’s impossible to comprehend. I’m still working on it. I know this: when the doctor pulled him into her rubber gloves, I lost my breath and sobbed on Laura’s knee.
He was born at exactly 7:44 p.m., and when a nurse wrote his tag, she wrote it in military time, 1944. That number also matches the year my father was born. I can’t count the number of hospital visits I’d spent with my dad, listening to a doctor or nurse ask him the question, “What year were you born?” and the way he’d proudly say, “nineteen forty-four.”
He wasn’t able to answer that question in the end. But he retained other things, more important things. One afternoon my mother turned around the corner of his nursing home to find him sitting in his wheelchair at the end of a long white hallway singing, “Shine on, shiinnee on, harvest moon.”
It’s an old showtune, but we had no idea where it came from. His brother would later tell us it was the song of their childhood. When he was a boy, apparently, my father and his siblings would pile into a car with their uncle George and aunt Gertie and head to the Chesapeake to catch minnows and search for shark’s teeth.
My great uncle George was the funniest man in the world, a second-generation Irishman who told stories with a flair I could only dream of. He was the kind of old man all the kids wanted to be around. He was also the man my dad considered a father. His actual dad, my grandfather, was pretty mean and violent, and my dad regularly ran off to live with George and Gertie.
On those Saturdays riding to the Bay, uncle George would start a showtune and the kids would join in. “Shine on, Harvest Moon” was one of the most popular.
After 74 years of life, that’s the song my father remembered in the end.
Dad’s fishing boat was named Nevitt, uncle George’s middle name. Nevitt’s also my middle name, and Laura’s dad is named George.
So now here was our son, George Nevitt Graff, a descendant of all that, born the week before the entire country would seize up.
* * *
Often when the world seems to not make sense, I think of the Chesapeake.
Specifically, I think of blue crabs, the Bay’s moody jesters. To be honest, I spend more time than I should admit thinking about blue crabs. I think about steaming them, of course, picking them, eating them, mixing them up into cakes, the price of a bushel. But I also think about their well-being. With each new season I wonder how their journey’s going—they travel north up the Bay toward Baltimore each spring, then south back toward Norfolk and the warmer waters of the Atlantic each winter. They spend all their lives in those mixed-up salty-fresh waters, back fins swimming and front pincers ever out and on the defense.
Blue crabs are fascinating creatures, as far as cannibals go.
Each spring they molt, shedding their outer shells and turn “soft” for a short while. They’re particularly vulnerable to predators during that time, so they try to find a safe spot in the mud and seagrass. Then they emerge, larger and to a more dominant role on the crab court.
They either have short memories or answer to a different God, because a big crab will eat a smaller one or a softshell in a heartbeat. I hope it’s an unsatisfying meal, at least. In the world I want to see, even crabs understand regret and empathy.
In this year, I’ve witnessed some of the best of this world and the worst of it. My day job as editor of a local media organization requires of me a steady examination of justice and poverty and failed systems. This year I witnessed 1,000 people line up for 100 affordable homes on a cold and dreary January day. I’ve met small business owners who lost their way of living. I’ve gotten to know parents who lost children in senseless shootings, and the family of the victim in one of 2020’s most high-profile police shootings. I covered marches upon marches. Sometimes I look up and wonder what we’ve looked like this year from the sun’s perspective, our hostile little selves on our little ball of rock and gas hurtling around it this time. It must be disappointed in us.
In late June, I had lunch with a civil rights legend from my part of the world, Harvey Gantt. He was the first black student to attend Clemson University, then the first black mayor of Charlotte, and in 1990 he came within a few percentage points of being North Carolina’s first black Senator.
“I think we’ll always remember what you were doing in 2020, what you were doing pre-2020, and what you were doing after 2020,” he said.
When someone like Mr. Gantt, who’s now almost 80 and has lived through what he’s lived through, says this is a pivot point, you must listen.
What we were before 2020 and what we were after 2020 will be different things. Isn’t that, in a way, fascinating? Death and fear aside, of course.
I think of 2020 as the year we all molted like soft crabs. Hiding in the mud for some time, defenses down, hoping to survive until our shells are hard enough to protect us again. And if we’re lucky, in the meantime, one of our own won’t try to eat us.
* * *
Hello, 2 a.m.
The mutt is on the floor next to me, shooting me an earnest stare, wondering what the hell. If anyone’s had a bad 2020, it’s Gizmo. Before this year he was the prince of our 1,200-square-foot home. The woman of his dreams, my wife, paid him all the attention a good boy could want. He’s a mop of white, with one brown eye and one blue eye, part terrier, part hound, and all hers. Now in the back bedroom, Laura is exhausted and sniffling. Our newborn is in her arms, hungry and shrieking.
A laptop is hot against my thighs, cursor blinking, blinking. Taunting, taunting. Damnit, I mutter. I’ve fallen asleep with it there again. It’s late August, the deadline’s just a few weeks away, and the chapter I promised myself I’d finish is unfinished.
We live on a street shaded by willow oaks about three miles east of the center of Charlotte. On my phone, for the umpteenth time this year, there’s commotion about a flare-up in downtown involving pepper spray and protests. As the editor of a local publication, it’s my job to wonder whether I should be there; as a husband and new father, it’s also my job to know when to wonder such wonderings out loud, and 2 a.m. with a sniffling wife is not that time.
I try to make sense of what I can see through the screen. I flip over to Facebook, which should be a CDC-restricted site between dusk and dawn, because there I find my extended family arguing over political memes.
I have no scientific proof of this nor the time to go find it, but I’m convinced that our brains—at least in those born before this century—haven’t evolved to catch up with the machines we’ve made or the information they allow us to consume. Life-and-death videos and updates are ready to hold our eyelids open at any moment. This can’t be corrected, I worry, the pureeing of awful news in our minds.
Speaking of that, the case numbers are either good or not good, depending on who you ask. It’s waiting in the breath of every next person we pass, they say. They say now we should cross the street when we see someone walking the other way. Fear of the person coming toward us has been part of America’s problem for decades, and now doctors tell us it’s the only solution. Stay afraid of the next man. Imagine that: What we need to do is exactly what we don’t need to do.
On my phone is the song I’d fallen asleep to, my most played song in summer 2020: “That’s the Way that the World Goes Round.”
The lyrics—You’re up one day and the next you’re down. It’s half an inch of water and you think you’re gonna drown; That’s the way that the world goes ‘round—insist that we try to stay even and keep things in perspective. That would be good advice tonight, if it didn’t remind me that the artist who made the song, the great folk musician John Prine, died from the virus, too.
I put my feet on the hardwood and pet Gizmo.
“Should we go see what they need?” I ask him.
I close the blinking laptop. Gizmo clicks behind me as we walk into the room with the crying baby, and there in the dead of a summer night, my sniffling wife looks at me, shakes her head, and laughs through tears.
“You have holes in your underwear,” she says.
And that’s how we made it through at least one night in 2020. By laughing at my holy drawers.
* * *
We’ll remember this year for the laughs, I hope. I have to think like this because the alternative is too bleak. Besides, what kind of father would I be if my son grows up hearing me say that his birth year was the “worst year ever”?
It was, in so many ways. Except for one very big way, and in that way it was the best.
The nights now, back there in those first six months of my son’s life and the virus’s hold, blur together. In some ways, the bad news does, too. The day in the hospital with the identity theft and the baby birth seems like years ago, and it seems like yesterday. But what I know is that George is a captive human being now, easily amused, sitting up, chunky, and in the moments when he laughs I never want 2020 to end.
His head snaps back and forth whenever someone sneezes or yawns or a door shuts. He likes when I whistle. He’s not much help when he’s on my lap and a chapter’s due, but he’s good at slapping the keys. When he’s fussy, we’ve found two things that help: Taking him outside, and playing music for him. I’ve checked the label and that prescription of fresh air and music is good for adults, too.
Outside, I hold him above my head like an airplane, and he drools down on my face. I’ve made up voices for morning and for evening. When he bounces in his bouncer, I bounce with him and sing a lyrically genius song I made up about bouncing that goes: bounce, bounce, bounce / bounce bounce bounce.
It’s the most natural thing I’ve ever done, loving George. Turns out I was raised to be a dad.
But there’s no question who’s the hero of our house. Laura is the toughest and most consistent person I know. It’s my duty to say that as a husband and as a journalist who documents true things. She insists on order and schedules and lists. The older I get, the more a feather in the wind I am, chasing questions more than answers. Her, though, she’ll probably set a reminder on her phone to even read this essay—sometime between warming up the bottle and his next bounce session. We wouldn’t make it without her.
I finished the manuscript on time, turning it in a day early, actually, but only because she was the author of keeping George growing and healthy. I missed a family vacation to make it happen, and I missed every Sunday dinner with her family, and took a week out of town by myself in August to knock out 30,000 words. We finished with 95,000. I’ve written thousands more words for my day job, covering all the other struggles in 2020. In fact I’ve done just about nothing for myself this year, and I still haven’t been half as selfless as Laura.
I’ll confess, too, that after I turned in the book in September I had a brief digital rendezvous with an older woman.
Her name was Jean. She was in her 90s—“92 to be exact; I’ll be 93 on Voting Day, November the 3rd,” she wrote. She’d been quarantined for six months, she said, and she just wanted to tell me that she liked my work. It was a small gesture from her, but in this contentious year, when most readers write only to tell you what they don’t like about you, her note was like a hug.
“I have enjoyed some of your articles so much and should have written to you sooner,” she wrote. And I think we should all take note of that: In 2021, if you like something or appreciate something, say something. “Stay safe for that young son,” she closed.
I told her she’d made my year, and then I thought about it for a second and hit the delete button a few times and told her she’d made my month.
A couple of days later, also in September, Roger Angell turned 100. The great writer and son-in-law of E.B. White, Angell was 93 when he wrote a widely acclaimed New Yorker essay, “This Old Man.” It included a line I’ve thought about a lot this year: “There’s never anything new about death, to be sure, except its improved publicity.”
Indeed this was an excellent year for death’s public relations department. But if you looked closer you could’ve found life, too. A group of friends I have in Charlotte took to dropping off four-packs of beer at each other’s houses at random this summer. Sometimes we’d come home and there’d be one sitting there, and sometimes we wouldn’t find out who the giver was.
But mostly, when I try to make sense of 2020, I look to two places: First, to the people who’ve experienced more than I have, the Harvey Gantts and Roger Angells and my new email penpal Jean, people who don’t have many years to spare for something like a quarantine. And second, I look to people about George’s age.
On both ends, they help me understand that the only purpose to all of this is to do the best we can while we’re here, and try to leave it a little better for those who come next.
As I write this, I’m at the dining room table, and it’s morning. He’s in a plastic chair with a seat belt around his waist. His outfit is striped blue and gray, and his orange bib is drenched in spit. His wide blue eyes gaze up at Laura. She’s mashed up some avocado for him, and each time she takes the next fingernail-sized scoop toward him, he holds his mouth open and starts breathing short, hard, excited, anticipatory, hopeful, eager, trusting breaths. Underneath the chair, Gizmo waits for any leftovers. And after each bite, our little soft crab laughs.
Shine on, son.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
Photo by @rykie.rach/Twenty20.com
Michael Graff is the editor-in-chief of Charlotte Agenda. His work has appeared in publications around the country, and he's been a notable selection in Best American Essays and Best American Sports Writing. Reach him at [email protected].
I loved this!
Thank you for such a fine perspective on 2020. It has been a year to remember, to say the least, but the most important point of your story is WE ARE BLESSED! It’s nice the way way you ever so gently reminded us of that fact. Bless you, bless your wife and son!
This has been an incredibly bizarre, unusual, crazy year for all of us. And you’re right, I think 2020 will be a catalyst similar to global weather events. We will remember pre 2020, 2020, and post 2020 as different segments of life. But among all the crazy, we still have control over ourselves, and can make this year and our lives what we want them to be. Many laughs have been had, and many great memories have been made. –Ryan