I wrote most of this a couple of months ago when Nora was a newborn, but the first few months are not that conducive to finishing blog posts.
New babies put you into a liminal period, both in your own experience and in how others treat you. People congratulate you on pregnancies and new babies in a way they don’t congratulate you on having a two-year-old, a fourteen-year-old, or an adult child.
All seven billion of us were once someone’s remarkable newborn, but it’s somehow hard to believe. Especially when you’re drunk on the newness of your own, simultaneously alien and delightful: look at her eyelashes! Her tiny fingernails! Feel the skin behind her ears, can you believe it’s that soft?
Strangers stop you and tell you about their children who are now adults. They look at your baby with something like yearning. “They grow up so fast,” they tell you.
Two things stand out in my memory about how I learned how precious newborns are to grownups:
One is what would happen when we’d pass a stranger with a baby and hear its thin newborn cry. “Oh, that’s a really tiny baby,” my mother would say with appreciation, as if enjoying a delicious food. (People say similar things to me now – strangers on the street, the customer service rep hearing Nora’s cry in the background over the phone.)
Another is my mother telling me that Cabbage Patch dolls were bought not just for children, but by old women who missed having a baby to hold. (I didn’t realize until reading old newspaper articles that the company had a whole schtick about the dolls being real babies to be adopted rather than purchased. The current equivalent is reborn dolls.) It impressed upon me how valuable a real baby must be, that years later people want to cuddle a fake one.
On one of Nora’s first days home, Jeff walked around the kitchen with her. “Nora, those apples are older than you. Nora, that loaf of bread is older than you,” he told her, and we both marveled.
A friend was amazed that his newborn daughter’s feet were so soft. “But that’s because they’ve never been used as feet!”
I remember sitting with newborn Lily, seeing the tiny blood vessels beneath her skin. It blew my mind that they had all formed over the last few months. The miniature perfection of them, created by my own body without my knowing how.
When I read Peter Pan as a child, the thing I remember most is the depictions of childhood as simultaneously fleeting and eternal. Looking at Anna’s smiles, I often think of the description of Peter, “the most entrancing thing about him was that he had all his first teeth.” (There is something really lovely about baby teeth, so small and even.)
The last line of the book describes how Peter will come to the window of Wendy’s daughter, and her granddaughter, and so on: “When Margaret grows up she will have a daughter, who is to be Peter’s mother in turn; and thus it will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless.”
When Lily was born, Jeff’s mother was very sick with cancer. A few days afterwards, she went to the hospital in terrible pain and was kept there while they tried to find out whether she was about to die. I sat on the sofa with Lily on my lap, waiting for Jeff to get home from the hospital.
As I waited I listened to a mix of lullabies a friend made me, and one of them struck me to my core:
“Nothing’s ever yours to keep
Close your eyes, go to sleep.
If I die while you’re asleep
Don’t you cry, don’t you weep.”
– Tom Waits, “Lullaby”
I sat there with my terror that Suzie could die very soon and leave the family without its core, that Jeff and his sisters would soon be robbed of their mother. But also, staring at my baby, knowing that she wasn’t mine to keep, because she wouldn’t stay a baby. She’ll be this way once, and then she’ll be replaced by new versions of herself, ones who talk and drive a car and move away. And eventually death will part me from her, and from Jeff, as it eventually parted Suzie from her family — one by one it will part us all.
At bedtime Lily sometimes gets sad and scared about death. One night she told Anna “I’ll always be your sister,” but began to cry inconsolably when she realized that “always” is only until one of them dies.
The idea of death parting our family again is in some way too terrible to think about, but I also feel the familiarity from those days in a house teetering between new life and impending death. I tried to comfort Lily while I thought over the words that help me deal with the unbearable: Nothing’s ever yours to keep.
The life extension people say we should all be outraged about death, should be fighting it with all we have. Like Lily, we should find it unacceptable. I don’t know if I don’t feel outraged because I believe death is inevitable, or if I believe death is inevitable because I’ve tried to come to acceptance.
Already Nora’s a different baby than she was when she came home in June. Then her eyes were unfocused as she tried to make sense of the room, her little mind clearly blown by almost everything. Three months later she’s much more capable, able to smile and look around and bring your hand to her mouth to gnaw on. I try to drink in these days with her, each new thing she does, the smell of her skin. When something’s not yours to keep, all you can do is enjoy it now.