Sarah Hepola

The Fabulous, the
Terrible Mr. Lumpyhead

Mr. Lumpyhead was born too early to a mother too young.

Because she was too young and too fond of things like drugs and alcohol, which help people forget unpleasant realities like their unwanted pregnancy, this too-young mother never bothered to go to a doctor during her pregnancy. When Mr. Lumpyhead was born too early, he was also born without a brain. The too-young mother panicked. She went back to drugs. She left Mr. Lumpyhead at the hospital.

That’s when Mr. Lumpyhead came to live at the foster home where I work. I call him Mr. Lumpyhead because he has this amazing terrain of a head. His head has cliffs and peaks and ravines. It’s because he had too much fluid in his cone-shaped head, so they drained the fluid, which collapsed the skin into this bumpy pattern, because Mr. Lumpyhead doesn’t have a skull. I’m not sure what he has or what creates the shape of his lumpy head, because I don’t really know much about medicine, least of all about how a baby survives without a brain.

My favorite story about Mr. Lumpyhead is how when he was a tiny screaming baby, he liked to lie on top of the dryer. He liked the way it rumbled underneath. It makes me think of those coin-operated beds in cheap motel rooms. My second favorite story about Mr. Lumpyhead is how he holds my finger when these tremors shoot through his body. This happens all the time, like whenever I’m holding him, and it’s kind of like voltage is passing through him — his legs stiffen and his eyes roll back and his mouth hangs open. His hands shoot out as if they’re grabbing for something, and that’s when I put my finger in his palm. He’s got an amazing grip. We stay like this until the tremors pass.

Sometimes, Mr. Lumpyhead projectile vomits. Projectile vomiting is something that some people (someone like, say, me) thought was this invention of Hollywood and stand-up comics but is real. Oh boy, it is real. When Mr. Lumpyhead wants to vomit, there is this little gurgle in his throat, and he pokes his stiff tongue out of his mouth about three times, and then he lets fly. The vomit runs parallel to the floor for about four feet, unless something is there to block its powerful trajectory — something like, say, me.

The doctors performed two MRIs. “There is nothing there but a brain stem,” they say. “Just a blank space where the brain should be.” There must be something there, we say to the doctors. We’ve seen him track things with his eyes. We’ve seen him turn his head when someone comes in the room. Sometimes, when we are telling him how awesome he is, Mr. Lumpyhead looks at us and smiles. He smiles. “There is nothing there,” the doctors repeat.

One night, I ran into an old newspaper colleague at a bar. A guy known for being drunk and salty, he was on this occasion (owing to some private turmoil), particularly drunk and salty. He asked me what I was doing these days, and I told him I was, you know, working part-time at this, well this is weird but, I missed working with kids so it’s a … it’s a foster home for children with catastrophic illnesses.

“One of them was actually born without a brain,” I say.

His smile drops. “You’re kidding.” He stuffs a cigarette in the side of his mouth. “Can’t you just kill him?”

This hadn’t crossed my mind. “He’s sweet,” I tell my friend.

“He has no brain. Isn’t he, like, freakish?”

“Actually he’s kind of handsome. But he has this cone-shaped, bumpy head. So I call him Mr. Lumpyhead.”

“Mr. Lumpyhead?” He exhales dramatically. “I guess he doesn’t mind.”

“It’s a term of affection.”

“How long can he live like this?”

“There are cases of people living up to 10 years.”

“Without a brain?”

“Well, he has a brain stem. So he has reflexes and he cries and when he was a baby he liked to lay on top of the dryer because, I think, because he liked the motion. I used to be scared of him. I think everybody did. But now he’s my favorite baby of all.”

My friend is silent as he cocks his head to the side. “And what are the advantages of his living 10 years? Who exactly does it benefit?”

Hmm. I want to say it benefits Mr. Lumpyhead. Except I think about him getting older, squirming and screaming in bigger and bigger cribs, his fists growing the size of mine, so that when he has tremors he grabs onto my entire arm and squeezes it hard enough to leave bruises. I think about how maybe it benefits me, or the people who work with him, because we like to think we are good people who care for brainless babies. Or maybe it benefits society, because I believe we have to take care of and love even our weakest children. If not, what are we? But these ideas are premature and ill-formed in my mind.

“I guess it benefits the foster home and the state,” I say. “Because they get insurance money.”

“That’s just cruel,” my friend says. And then, after another dramatic pause, “So this is your new job?”

I nod. “It’s tough sometimes. We’re sort of missing some things.”

He laughs. “Yeah. Like a shotgun.”

My favorite outfit to dress Mr. Lumpyhead in is a yellow fleece jumper with a hood. Because of the hood and the way the thing zips up, Mr. Lumpyhead looks kind of like a boxer. And when he has tremors, his balled fists shoot up like he is boxing, and I hold out my finger so he can grab it, and I always laugh. “Look,” I say to the other people in the room. “He’s fighting.”