The Everlasting Gobstopper of Youtube
The years my mother was sick, my penchant for those animal videos where one is raising another’s young bloomed in me like an infection. I sat back and let them reel off of their own accord: the one with the wild boar adopted by the herd of cattle; the one with the black lab nursing the orphaned tiger cubs; the one with the barn cat and her kittens plus a duckling—the voice behind the camera announcing in wonder: it arrived right as she gave birth. As if, get the timing right, a mother will mother anything. Thousands of these videos exist, in seemingly infinite combinations of species. We must be ravenous for them. The salt lick we crave like deer. The comfort of the everlasting gobstopper of Youtube.
Those years, it was a low-grade fever all the time, my need to have a baby. My mother’s neurological condition carried on without any name. Meanwhile, her memory and her ability to speak were being laced by a hole-punch. Her body did strange things no one could account for. She spasmed at night. Fumbled around for words. Couldn’t remember how to drive across the town she’d lived in my whole life. In the beginning, someone had given her a diagnosis: ALS. She would lose the ability to speak and then the ability to breathe in one year or two. She had kept this news to herself. No one knew of the decree until she did not die. Perhaps it was her withholding that cast a spell—after two years, no one could say what it was that hadn’t yet killed her. My need to know, to have some actual grasp of it, swelled into a flood that my mind re-routed towards something that glimmered like a solution: a baby—small creature, tangible, nameable, arriving out from the inscrutable dark of my body.
It was as if this act of seeing and knowing would degrade the very existence of mystery. As if it could pull everything loitering in the wings onto a lit-up stage to wail. It was logic that felt unassailable, the way I knew, if I released my hold on a glass of water, it would fall and shatter.
The reasoning was abstract. The practicality was something else. I was terrified of the whole mind-boggling process of growing huge, having my organs rearranged, and then: the turning-inside- out. This was surely something I needed my mother for. Surely it required inside knowledge, secrets, history. The thought of proceeding without her part in the passing-along of wisdom—or, it seemed, maybe, magic—that went back through the generations was paralyzing. Friends made jokes about baby clocks as if the body were a cute egg timer. But that wasn’t quite right. Both of our clocks were ticking. It was more like I was a car and my mother was a car, and if something didn’t change, we would collide.
But I couldn’t have a baby. Not living, as I was, on the edge of financial stability in a ruthlessly expensive one-bedroom apartment with asbestos in the ceilings. Not in a partnership that seemed to sprout new bitter fissures every time we took our eyes off it. I was twenty-eight and spent all day lying on a couch I’d gotten for free by the side of the road with a computer propped in my lap, working or not-working, my stipend funneling itself into the rent. I had been awarded an extraordinary and lucky gift, a writing fellowship, which turned out to wield a counterintuitive dual-edged sword: I had been given so much time, it was swimmable, open seas. Any of the little work I managed to do disappeared as the camera zoomed out to take in the scope of time I had to do it in. But, too, the fellowship had a strict end-date. After which, who knew? I could envision some dark, desperate swath of unemployment or some grinding shitty job where I might grab a second here or there to spend regretting the many hours I let slide by. My imagined future stress and regret bled into the present. A weird temporal collapse, a muddling of cause and effect.
This was compounded by the oddly seasonlessness of Oakland, California in a drought: every day, 74 degrees and bright as a surgical lamp. And by the ads, which had started to intersperse the animal videos: calm, feminine voices suggesting I freeze my eggs, to be on the safe side. The idea of a safe side of time. In California, “summer” fruits were bright and perfect and available all year: strawberries, avocados, figs. Young mothers were everywhere, ceaselessly jogging around the neighborhood lake with their top-of-the-line strollers, perpetually at the farmer’s market with their arms out for the peaches. They were all clearly rich and unbelievably radiant. This mirage-life made hyper-monitoring the passage of time seem like keeping a grip on reality. Inside my apartment, shades drawn, I checked my bank account for miracles and waited for some kind of news, some specialist to tell me what was wrong with my mother.
And then my dog died. The border collie I’d had since I was fifteen years old, who always walked so close behind me that I had to be careful not to kick him in the chin. Who had moved back and forth and back again with me across the country. Who I had had frequent cause to call Woe-Mop for the way he absorbed and laundered my grief into comfort. Who, everyone always said, had human eyes. For the last months of his life, I had been feeding him the most expensive, laborious food, lifting him gently to his feet when he collapsed. I had been checking a mental box every time I saw his tail wag, every time he took a treat—tabulation of his quality of life, tabulation of when to make the end happen. There had been those who insisted on calling me his mother. At the vet, that was their practice. In their records, the dog had my last name. As he grew skinnier, they’d tsk at the scale, but say things like: I bet you like all those new treats mom is giving you.
But I had never been his mother. Mothers hope to leave this world before their children. That is, in some deep-rooted tenet of evolution, the goal. There’s a period of intense care, and then the child stands on its own, grows up, leaves: a self-supporting satellite. Having a dog is more like the reverse, more like being a daughter. The dog’s death—I had known all along—was inevitable. What’s more, and worse, I knew it was a practice-run, a dip into the sea of ending that awaited me with my mother. It seemed carefully engineered, in fact: the dog, peering up at me, speechless, whose suffering I was in charge of mitigating and whose departure I was attendant to.
The lure of a baby was its glorious arrival—the wonder of a beginning. A baby, my brain whispered, would not only degrade the existence of mystery, a baby would superimpose an ending with a beginning.
The videos I was addicted to were intentionally and temptingly continuous—each culminated with the signal that the next was loading, like a smoker lighting a cigarette with the dreggy ember of the one before. A salve for the mind of someone like me, so consumed by the dread of ends that I found herself horrified in an airport’s terminal. The videos rolled on with their outlandish pairings: the centenarian tortoise who adopted a baby hippo, the macaque raising a stray puppy. The supranatural feel to them: the difference between an apple and an apple Jolly Rancher. Meanwhile, my mother had been shuttled into another MRI machine, had her blood pulled again for the lab. Meanwhile, the vet had a strange floral tin with my dog’s ashes delivered. I stood in the doorway wondering what to do with them.
Around this time, my mother improved. Her fumbling-for-words eased up. She stopped spasming and forgetting, started to sleep through the night. Spoke clearly. Became my mother again. Still no name for it, still no explanation. Her inner warring factions had reached an inexplicable truce.
And so I had my own armistice—something loosened its grip inside me. Breathing felt different, walking felt different. Looking in the mirror felt more like looking at me. I unglued myself from the YouTube spiral. A fog lifted. I got a new job. I got married. We moved away from California to somewhere cheap and bought an old house with multiple rooms and no asbestos. Somewhere with noticeable seasons. And then suddenly, all my friends were having babies, unbelievable amalgamations of their features, unbelievable reckoning with potential. They wrote to tell how, at all hours, they watched the baby sleep, how the jolts of terror struck in the pauses between breaths. The stuporous daymare of likely calamities: the car suddenly sinister, the maple suddenly unstable. The child was a frightening fusion of miraculous beginning and the horror of possible end.
But also, just a baby: a lot of work and sleepless nights and care. Not some glimmering solution to the passage of time, or to the existence of mystery.
I didn’t try to have one. The alarms had softened. What had seemed, before, inescapably logical took on a warped, mis-colored feel—like looking through someone else’s prescription glasses, or like recalling a bizarre bad dream. We adopted another dog.
The lure of the videos had seemed simple. Perhaps, when I was in deep, I would have explained it by admitting a weakness for the cute, cheesiness of it. I wanted a baby, and here were these comforting, remarkable animals showcasing the power and generosity of maternal instinct—piped right into my brain, over and over. How delightful, right? Or, how else to account for it? I think now it wasn’t quite that.
Some parrots eat clay to attend to a nutritional need; some pregnant mothers are instinctively drawn to coal or dirt to guard against mineral deficiency. Only when I had emerged from crisis-mode, from that cocktail of fear, jealousy and animal desire to get pregnant did it dawn on me that the seduction of these videos was the fiction of a world existing outside of the rules of nature. Not just a corny illustration of the magnificence of motherhood, but a testament to something more mysterious: a world in which the normal limits are undone.
No one, it seemed, is motherless for long on Youtube. FREEZE YOUR EGGS, the pop-up ads said, momentarily obscuring the great dane and her fawn. Upping the game. The canny algorithm turning its crank as it loaded the next video. As it obscured an end with the start of something else.
In some way of reckoning with this, it’s apparent that my nutritional deficiency was time. I was twenty-eight and healthy, but my mind had developed a scurvy-like preoccupation with each minute. Baby clock. Mother clock. Death clock. All under the surgical light of perpetual California sun. I had a sort of dysmorphic disorder that mis-saw, not my body, but the time around it. Amplified its passing. Each transpired minute had both the reward and the terror of an anorexic’s french fry.
The videos, though, offered the feeling that I was stepping out of time’s relentless grip. While watching them, some hand stopped its incessant ticking. Certain rules began to lose their authority; the strict border of the end, seemed vaguely crossable.
There is, of course, no such thing as the everlasting gobstopper—but what an alluring idea: something you can taste and taste and hold in your mouth that never diminishes. Something that never exhibits any of the inescapable deterioration of living. Of course, I knew better. Of course, if you had asked, I would have told you that there was no escape from time. That was the problem; I knew that was the problem.
And yet, immersed in my year-long Youtube spiral, I was offered a whirlpool so endless and deathless it soothed like religion. The everlasting.