August 7, 2003
A little while back, I asked my mother if she could pinpoint a time when I seemed the happiest. It was part of some exercise or another, and you have to ask several people closest to you their opinions of your life.
Her answer surprised me. She said, “When your boys were born. I’ve never seen anyone so delighted in their children.”
And because it happens to have been my eldest’s 20th birthday this week, I had occasion to remember how it was, how that came on me, that love and happiness.
There is a photo of Ian, my eldest, when he was about four or five days old. It’s summer, and he’s wearing a pale green short set that sets off his rosy-gold skin and blue eyes. He’s propped up on an infant carrier on the couch, staring calmly and with curiosity at the camera. There is a wash of light falling from a leaded glass window that lends a softness to it all.
I took the picture and I say without vanity that it is beautiful. The light, the fresh softness of the baby and his luminescent skin, his steady gaze, even his tiny, pink, pointing fingers, combine to create a wonderful composition. It’s one of my favorites.
Every time I look at it, though, what I remember is how I felt. And more than that, when his birthday rolls around every year, as it just did, at some point during the day, I always think of that photo and go get it and look at it.
Every time, I am transported to that August afternoon, now more than twenty years ago.
It wasn’t the day I brought him home from the hospital, but a few days later. Everyone had gone home, his father had gone to work, and for the first time, Ian and I were really alone.
I had never been one of those girls who swooned over babies. I didn’t dislike them or anything, but when a mother brought a baby into a room, I was not one of the girls/women lining up to hold it, look at its tiny feet, coo over its perfect baby skin, or–God forbid–inhale its scent. I didn’t have baby dolls as my sisters both did–I preferred Barbies or Tonka trucks, thanks. Maybe I did too much babysitting or spent too much time around little children to be dazzled by the romance of them. I knew, deep in my bones, that they were hard damned work.
Not that I was opposed to having children. I supposed I would, as most people did. When I discovered I was pregnant, I was quite happy and I took to the whole business with a lot of pleasure.
Until about 8 months and 28 days into the process.
Which is when I realized I didn’t know anything about babies. About caring for one, understanding one, knowing how to make sure it was all right. Oh, sure, I’d gone through my classes, and my mother lived a few miles away, and it wasn’t like I’d never taken care of one.
But this one would depend on me entirely. I was in such a panic that I acutely remember awakening every night in a cold sweat, my hand on the baby safely inside. I would get up and pace until my heart stopped racing.
When I went into labor, it was all right. I was a good student. I was trained. I had a great female doctor. It was fine, and went according to plan, and there were so many people around–he was the first grandchild, first nephew, first everything–those first couple of days that I didn’t have time to think much. There is a sort of haze that settles around a brand-new mother, golden and protective, and it carries you through those first days.
But then, I was alone with him. He slept a lot. I watched him. I put my hand on his tiny back when I couldn’t see if he was breathing. I fed him and changed him, and it was all novel and made me slightly giddy.
When he woke up and I tended the usual things, I took him to the couch and put him in the carrier because it was too hot to hold him. I didn’t want him to overheat and we didn’t have any air conditioning.
He settled back, blinked, and gazed up at me. I gazed back.
We speak of love in a thousand metaphors. We struggle with it because it is so huge when it arrives. We speak of sunlight and flowers and songs in our hearts. We speak of steadfastness, and commitment. We speak of honoring another, and caring for them. I had loved, and loved deeply–my parents and my grandmother, my siblings and certain friends, and the husband who was not there just then.
I gazed at my baby son and I touched his tiny finger nails on his long, graceful hands. I stroked his peach-colored cheek and bent my head into his neck to smell him. Not baby powder or soap, but him. I breathed it in like a lynx or a bear, with ferocity, so that even if I were blinded, I would know him.
The world shifted. Entirely.
Even now, after living with that hugeness of love for so many years, it’s hard to express that shift that happened in that second. It was as if all the oceans of the earth–eternal and wild and powerful, with their roar and lushness—had combined to wash through me. So much love. So fierce. So soft. So huge.
It sounds so small to say I knew in that instant that I would die for this child, that I would not even blink, that there would not even be a choice. But until that moment, my own mortality had concerned me very much.
All the world, all of me, all I thought, was transformed that hour, gazing at my new baby son, who gazed up at me from his carrier and communicated. So I took my camera, and gazing with the new eyes of love, I took his photo.
Two years later, again hugely pregnant and fretting in the week before the birth, I held that now-sturdy toddler on my lap and voiced to my mother my most terrified thought, “What if I can’t love another child the way I love this one?”
She laughed gently, reached across the table for my hand. “I used to worry about the same thing before your sister was born.” Her smile was so gentle. “It doubles, that’s all. You’ll see.”
And when that son came home, like a little frog, dark and curly and beautiful, I had a day when I sat with him, and gazed at his hands, and breathed in his scent like lynx, like a bear, so I would know him in the dark or if I were blind. Next to me, his brother touched his fingers, his soft cheek, leaned in to smell him……
Till next time,