Notes on a Shorter Life

Twenty-five years ago, I saved an obituary written for someone I never met. Her name was Danielle. The paragraphs were written by a newspaper reporter, but really the story was written by Danielle’s mother, who is quoted for most of it: “She liked being in school and got good grades, her mother said. She loved dancing, running, climbing fences, and listening to music. Recently the nurses at Hopkins took Danielle to the ninth-floor playroom to enjoy Christmas caroling.” She was five.

In those days, my own kids were still small. I constantly found myself always looking ahead, toward things that hadn’t happened yet, unable to be grateful for the small stuff: When would he learn not to interrupt at the dinner table? Would she learn to swim before summer was here? Was he behind his classmates when it came to reading, or was it my imagination? They were silly, niggling worries, but I didn’t see that until I read what Danielle’s mother had written.

In a shorter life, there is no room for insignificant fears like mine. Danielle’s mother realized she needed to take stock every step of the way and be grateful for each tiny milestone. She knew she would never see her daughter in a prom dress, or what her smile would look like on graduation day. So she went as far as she could in the story of her life: “Danielle was not a finicky eater and liked seafood, steak, and all green vegetables. She even looked forward to taking her medicine. She dealt with it like a champion.”

I carefully clipped that newspaper story and put it in a file folder, where it would ultimately get old with me. That year I also took a part time job in a pediatric rehab center. I was the fill-in person on weekends, called a child life specialist, which sounded much more important than I was. My job was to play with the young patients who didn’t get to go home on weekends. My job was to make a long Sunday afternoon less long.

And that’s how I met Johnny, who had been in a horrific car accident several years before. As bodies went, there wasn’t much left of his. His facial muscles were intact, but sometimes there was a delay in his reaction, like a bad telephone connection. He could move his right arm. Brilliant smile. No speech. Many opinions, usually about what he would or wouldn’t eat for lunch.

His favorite thing to do on Sunday afternoons was to cruise the hospital’s parking lot with me and look at cars. My role was secondary — push his wheelchair and ask him questions, to which he’d give me hand signals that left no doubt about his feelings on the automobile industry. I was often the straight man, giving him chances to silently laugh at my ignorance. He always gave convertibles a thumbs up. Anything red got his attention. As we passed minivans, he would hold his nose and then look up to see if I was giggling behind him.

Without his ever saying a word, I knew his dream was that one day I’d scoop him up in my arms, strap him into a Corvette, and the two of us would speed up and down country roads for the afternoon.

That never happened. What happened instead was that one day a crash cart went sailing into his room, and in a matter of hours, everything about him had changed. But that’s when a funny thing happened.

“You were such a character, Johnny, you and those crazy sunglasses you used to wear,” his nurse said as she studied the monitors over his head. Someone else in the room laughed and said, “Remember this?” and in front of his closed eyes she duplicated the motion he’d make with his good hand whenever music played. We called it The Snake. She kissed that hand and sighed, “You sure were a dancin’ fool.”

That was the funny part. Were it not for the frail body of a child under the blanket, you might have thought we were at the deathbed of a very old man we had known and loved our whole lives. One memory triggered another, and there was enough material to fill a newspaper column, full of his unique history.

I searched the newspaper for a week after he died. Nothing was ever printed. I found myself foolishly wishing a newspaper reporter would call and ask, “Do you have anything you’d like to say about Johnny’s life?” or whatever it is they say when they have to make that horrible call. I had the words ready anyway. So I wrote them down, and put them in the file folder.

“Johnny P. loved to mold clay in his right hand but had no use for finger painting. His smile was legendary. Nerf basketball was his specialty. Johnny made a mess when he ate peas but never wasted a drop of applesauce. Without words and with facial muscles that had seen some hard times, he always let you know when you said something brilliant or when you had totally and woefully missed the point. He sparkled. He was eight years old.”

The Single, Most Terrifying Moment of Motherhood

A few months ago at a supermarket, with a snowstorm on the way, I realized what is so terrifying about motherhood. It had to do with locked shelves and a sea captain in 1926.

Bear with me.

Where I live, worrying about snow begins about a week ahead of the storm. I usually do my food shopping the first time I hear television newscasters losing their minds over the weather map. But I didn’t get to the store early this time, and I knew I was in for a long wait at the checkout.

In front of me, against the wall, was something I’d never noticed before — a large series of caged shelves, secured with a padlock. It was full of baby formula. That’s all, just baby formula.

I wondered if the supermarket got tired of so much of it disappearing from the baby aisle and locked it up here, in plain sight of everyone, so desperate mothers couldn’t slip a canister or two inside their bulky winter coats. I pictured those women in my mind, women who might steal, frantic to get home to a hungry baby. And that led me to the sea captain.

Ninety years ago Captain George Fried struggled to keep his ship afloat in a fierce January storm in the Atlantic. He received a weak distress call from a sinking British freighter and set out to find her. In blizzard conditions over the next 85 hours, the captain tried several times to rescue the crew of the sinking ship. When it looked hopeless, as it did many times throughout the rescue, he sent them this famous message: “I will not abandon you. I will not abandon you.”

When my first baby emerged from me, the doctor gently placed him on my stomach. I instinctively grabbed onto his squirmy body. He looked at me. And there. Right there. The single most terrifying moment of motherhood hit me.

Before that instant, I’d walked away from lots of stuff in my life. I’d stopped corresponding with friends who no longer suited me. I’d left boyfriends to deal with their broken hearts. I thought nothing of leaving projects half completed, conversations unfinished, and relationships in ruins. There was nothing to it.

That moment you become a mother, you tell your baby lots of things. Even if you’re just holding him and not saying anything aloud, you find yourself making promises you never made before. “I would steal for you. I would brave freezing water for you.”

And as the list goes on, you realize the one thing that will not happen. The thought arrives in whatever language you speak: “I will never, ever abandon you.”

 

 

6 Things I Learned from a 1950s Baby Book

Years ago my mother was visiting from Long Island. With fanfare she rarely called into action, she said, “I brought something for you.” She pulled my baby book — old and worn — out of a Walbaum’s supermarket bag. I could tell she had planned a little ceremony surrounding the hand-off. I tried not to show it, but I was not pleased.

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She was being practical. My mother was always practical. She said something about not wanting it to get lost, and then her voice trailed off a little. She was talking about a time when she and my father would no longer pull up in front of my house and stay the weekend. She was preparing for a future when we wouldn’t be able to gossip at my kitchen table over a glass of wine, or catch up on what my kids were up to.

I didn’t like it one bit. I wanted the book to stay on the shelf at her house, where it had always been. I didn’t want to be the grown-up in the family yet. That was her job.

But I took it from her that day. And now the baby book lives on my shelf, with the other three baby books I wrote in (the third one sparingly, my third-born would tell you, rolling her eyes). I don’t know when their books get shuffled off to their homes. Not yet.

I haven’t opened mine in a long time, but I did today. We had a new baby born into the family last week, and every time that happens, it seems like a good time to revisit it. And every time I do, I learn a few things I’d overlooked before.

 

1. My mother was a stickler for details. But on her first try, she got not only the day of my birth wrong, but the month, too. And her corrections are in a different color ink. Translation: I’ve never been this tired in my entire life. There must be a medical term for this level of exhaustion.

 

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2. In 1950, people were far less worried about babies swallowing beads. And the identification bracelet was tied to my wrist with a piece of twine. I can see this was not a foolproof system, but feel pretty confident I landed at the right house anyway.

 

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3. My parents thought I was the most beautiful baby ever born despite concrete evidence to the contrary.

 

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4. I came from an extended family of comedians. My Godmother wrote: “When Ed called this A.M. I was only half awake and forgot to ask who Little Linda looks like — Mama, Papa, or the Bendix fixer? . . . I hope she has Mama & Papa’s disposition — but please, God, let Linda look like the Bendix fixer!”

 

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5. I got off to an impressive athletic start, which was brief. I peaked at ten months.

 

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6. I learned early to write for all the right reasons.

 

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When I open the baby book, I study her quirky handwriting. I picture the exhausted young mother at 22, thinking she’d better write down what happened that day. Maybe even back then she was thinking that someday — far in the future — I could read it and know the little bits of my history that only she knew.

I wonder if she realized I’d hear her voice again, too. I’ll bet she did.

 

To the New Mothers From an Old One

In 1978, when I was about to give birth for the first time, my mother-in-law and my mother were full of information I would never need. Motherhood had changed since their day, when babies were on strict schedules and parents believed that letting them “cry it out” was in everyone’s best interest.

We were the New Mothers, and we were reinventing the parenthood wheel. We had everything figured out by reading books, Lamaze breathing our way through labor, breastfeeding on demand, and raising children who might never know a critical word but would always have a room full of soccer trophies to call their own.

I know. I know. It’s a new day, and by now everyone knows that my generation didn’t make fewer mistakes than our mothers had —just different ones. Everything is again different when it comes to babies, and I wouldn’t dream of getting into a discussion about baby sign language or sleep training, because I’m just that far behind in baby trends.

But maybe there are a few things that never changed and never will. So because I can’t see any patent disinterest in your faces as you read this, here you go, New Mothers — truths from an Old Mother.

* You will be holding your newborn, maybe even your first day home, and you will have a flashback of yourself as a teenager. You’ll hear the exact vile words you uttered to your parents, and see yourself as you stomped out of a room, amazed by how truly stupid they were. When that memory comes to you, you’ll wish you could go back in time and smack yourself in your fourteen-year-old head.

* When you find yourself tacking a sign to the front door for the UPS delivery person: “Do NOT ring bell! Baby sleeping!!” you will recall all those conversations you had with friends that started with your saying: “Our lives won’t change after the baby.” You might wish you hadn’t been quite so specific about your plans to backpack through Colorado with your infant strapped to your chest.

* You will glance down at your beloved cat or dog, the one you bought Halloween costumes for and gave a pseudo baby name. Suddenly it occurs to you that it can’t talk. And it eats off the floor.

* Your baby will roll over or sit up for the first time, and you’ll say out loud, “That’s really early to do that, right?” You’ll search the Baby World Records Book to see if he is a contender. You will throw around the word “genius” more than once, even if it’s just in your head. The first Kindergarten parent/teacher conference might rein this in for you. (Okay, it did for me.)

* The word “poop” will grace nine out of ten conversations and you’ll wonder why you didn’t talk about poop more often before this. That’s how fascinating it’s now become. I am not kidding.

* Under oath, you will declare that you cannot possibly love a second (or third or fourth) baby the way you do your first. Then someone will place that new baby into your trembling arms, and you’ll realize that love can be divided in two without changing one molecule. It’s non-mathematical. It’s magical. And it will come over you that very first second.

* In the middle of the night with a screaming infant, you will long for that pregnancy heartburn you believed was the worst thing ever. And here’s a little sneak peek into the future: When your baby is seventeen and out somewhere driving with her friends, you’ll long for the nights she was in her crib, even if she was wailing away. In other words, there is always something coming.

* For the rest of your life, when you read a story about a person who has done something horrible — something despicable and beyond forgiveness — you will think, although maybe not right away, “That is someone’s child.” You will know at your core just what that sentence means.

* Some days will seem many miles long. But the culmination of them will whiz by while you’re looking the other way. Try to laugh as much as you can. It’s one of the few sounds your child will remember for an entire lifetime.

* You will ask, and you will ask this a lot: What did I do before this? How did I love before this? Why didn’t someone tell me?

You just couldn’t hear them until now. Welcome to motherhood.