And NASA Found Water on Mars

by RYAN KAUFFMAN

 

 

I’m holding your mother’s hand. No, I’m squeezing it. The lights are off and the 12-inch screen glows snowflake and I’m distracted by the painting on the otherwise sterile wall of a red and white striped lighthouse basking in an orange sunset and your mother squeezes back. If I squint, I think the nameplate under the painting says “Untitled by Mary: UP Health Systems Receptionist,” and I’m struck by the fact that someone who’s chosen as her profession to register and file paperwork of patients, that someone willing to be labeled and categorized by her work, also has a keen eye for manipulating paint to render life-like shadows atop a piece of canvas. And why did Mary, the receptionist/painter, decide to leave her work untitled instead of giving it a name like Sunset or Keweenaw or Everything Will Be Okay?

The nurse rubs gel on your mother’s abdomen and apologizes to me for the cold that I can’t feel. She tells us the machine will take a few seconds to warm up. This


What I mean to say is this: I am your father, but I don’t want you to call me that. I want my name to be one that exudes warmth and comfort and guidance. Not the German vater, nor the Spanish padre, and certainly not the French papa or the southern pa.


machine is used to conduct ultrasounds – seeing what lies behind, under, or within the opaque by way of measuring echoes. It’s a method we borrowed – no, appropriated – from our very distant, yet astonishingly similar, biological relatives. Dolphins, though residents of the ocean, are the mammals whose brains, anatomically speaking, most closely resemble ours. Like us, their thoughts are divided between two hemispheres, one rational or analytical in nature and the other creative. The only difference between our brains and theirs, at least as far as marine biologists like Giovanni and Maddalena Bearzi have been able to conclude, is the absence of the human corpus callosum, which is a broad band of nerve fibers that connect, and allow interaction between, the right and left hemispheres.

As a result of this separated structure, dolphins are probably unable to distinguish


Call me dad, or daddy when you’re still small enough for me to hold. And I will hold you until my knees give out and my back splits down the middle.


random shapes to their right from faces, but they are able to analytically assess a situation without creativity tainting the empirical data. In place of the corpus callosum, dolphins have a thick bone that travels from the crown of the skull into the dark recesses between the brain’s hemispheres and the R-Complex, or brainstem. When a male swims up to a pregnant female and sends a sonata of clicks and hums toward the fetus, this bone is thought to receive, and vibrate with, the echo, allowing the creative hemisphere to transfer the sounds into an image of the unborn.

The black and white image, clear lines in the snow, appears on the screen ensconced in a cone. The nurse tells us that the cone is the uterus, and that the little grayish bump in the middle is the amniotic sack. Your mother squeezes my hand as if to say this is real, but I’m still stuck on dolphins. What do they see once their brains interpret the sound as image? Can they see it even if they close their eyes? When the


But I can’t, in good conscience as Dad, sugar coat our interaction with the animals, and world, around us. Perhaps your comfort should come in the knowledge that I will always tell you the truth. You will know this because I will tell you, probably when you are too young:

The city Taiji, Japan conducts an annual hunting season on dolphins from September to April. When a pod is spotted off the coast, fishermen move their boats into position. A crescent moon between the pod and the open ocean. One man from each boat lowers a hollow steel pole into the water, I will tell you. Hits the pole with a hammer like a macrocosm of the triangle. Dolphins hate the wave of sound this creates under the wake. Tinny ring strengthens and weakens like the sine curve on one of Leibniz’s graphs. They swim in the opposite direction. The fishermen reposition their boats and repeat until the moon has shrunken and completely closed off the bay, then they drop nets and begin the physical hunt.

I will tell you this as you sit on my lap, rocking forward and backward and forward again in the chair with chipped white paint I inherited from my own father. Or, I will tell you this at breakfast as I pour 2% milk over your Captain Crunch.

Many of the dolphins – up to around 2,400 of them – will be killed for their meat and oil. The oil is used to fuel lamps. The meat, though unusually high in mercury, is eaten by the residents of Taiji with no regard for poisoning. When a boat comes up alongside a dolphin, a man takes a long spear and thrusts it into the animal’s cervical region. Severed brainstem. Death. I will tell you this method replaced throat slitting as an attempt by the Japanese Department of Fishery to be more humane.

This is the world you’re coming into. This is the world you are in, I will tell you as you reach for your spoon and gather the first scoop of milk and cereal.


nurse says we can look inside the sack, I hold my breath and stare at the screen. The sonogram machine hums and I think I can hear the squeaking wheels of a gurney coming from the hall. The opaque sack becomes translucent, then transparent, and I can see you for the first time. You look like a bean, small enough to balance on the tip of my finger, smaller than the organisms I read about in the Scholastic News magazine in the waiting room – the ones who possibly live in the flowing saltwater rivers NASA has discovered on the surface of Mars.

                  Here you are, nestled inside the body of your mother, life within life, a spark in the brine, a feeling I will never feel and can’t possibly understand, and NASA has found water on Mars. I don’t know which is greater, or why I need to compare the two, why I can’t imagine the life that will be yours without the analytical hemisphere of my brain interrupting with anatomical, and astronomical, fact. Why, if I’m going to be honest, I feel the need to do enough thinking for both of us, at least until, at 36 weeks, you will be able to begin thinking for yourself.

                  I can hear your heartbeat. 175 beats per minute, a pace that would mean a heart attack or stroke for me. Your mother gasps and covers her mouth. Her fingers curl into mine and I look again at Mary’s painting – the way the red and white stripes become more defined, deeper, when hit by the orange rays of the setting sun, the water waving and white-capping into the illusory distance.


This is a lie. I don’t care what you call me, as long as you call me, as long as you can recognize my face when you’re bundled in my arms.

What I mean to say is this: You are of me, but I’m not a part of you, at least not the way your mother is, and I don’t know what to think of it, how to moderate the pull between anxiety and patience, how to ignore the feeling that, throughout the beginning of your life, I am useless. But I can hear your heartbeat and there’s a lighthouse in the room, and sometimes, even a false beacon is light enough to keep us from crashing into the breakwater.