Sunday, June 8, 2008
I first met Abigail Rose when we traveled to Orlando for her christening in February. My health situation had been rocky throughout the month of January, and I had this nagging feeling that Bill and the kids should make the trip without me. But I wanted very much to meet the latest addition to the family and get in a good dose of baby love. Unfortunately, I lacked the foresight to realize the effect that watching Amelia playing “little mother” would have on me.
Like many little girls, Amelia loves babies. She spent the entire weekend shadowing her Aunt Jane and seizing every opportunity to hold, change, or otherwise entertain little Abby. Even the backyard pool provided Amelia only minimal distraction from the little pink bundle and, then, only during her cousin’s nap times.
I found myself watching Amelia and Abby from afar for much of the weekend. As I witnessed my daughter’s nurturing streak bloom – cooing and comforting her cousin in motherese – I could not keep my eyes from watering. Every time I looked at them, my heart broke for my child who will someday become a mother without me there to love and support her through that most challenging of feminine transitions. And my heart broke for the grandchild who will never know me. And, honestly, my heart broke perhaps most painfully for me, for what I would never know.
Over that weekend I was able to keep my eyes dry enough to take photos of Amelia and her niece. I especially enjoyed taking a series of photographs of Abby trying to nurse off Amelia’s nose. The photos capture Amelia in a moment of pure and unadulterated joy, just as I imagine she will someday be with her own child. What was a bittersweet weekend for me was a weekend of bliss for Amelia. For her the only sad moment was saying “Good-bye.”
Abby spent this past week with us when Bill’s sister, Jane, came to help me while Bill was overseas. Poor Jane arrived at perhaps the lowest point of the last 4 months: the feeding tube had been pulled 48 hours prior to her arrival, I was on clear liquids and trying to weigh TPN versus hospice, and Bill was already on his way to Asia. To that background of drama, add a teething 7-month old, ornery 7 year-old boy, and one very solicitous 9-year old girl. That’s a lot for one 27 year old to handle. And, I have to say, Jane did so with aplomb.
Within a couple hours of arriving Jane had the kids out at the grocery store. From there she proceed to wash everything in the house: dirty laundry, robes, towels. You name it. New cleaning gadgets were purchased, assembled, and put to good use. Meals were made, children were told to behave respectfully, dogs were managed. Not once did she ask, “What should I do?” She just did it. This is the kind of person you need under dire circumstances. Outwardly Jane seems like the sweetest, most easing going person in the world. Little did I know that the heart of a firm but fair, loveable Marine lurked underneath that Barbie-like exterior. I was in awe.
While Jane managed the household, Amelia delighted in every opportunity to assist in the love and care of Abby. When Abby woke from her nap, Amelia rushed up the stairs to change her diaper and bring her down to play. “Mommy, I changed a poopie diaper!” she exclaimed excitedly. She balanced Abby on her little prepubescent hip, cooing and cuddling her like an experienced nanny.
Aidan asked Jane to take him to karate on Wednesday night. Abby was sleeping and Jane thought she’d last until she returned at 6:30. Abby awoke at 5:30. Since I was busy with dinner, I asked Amelia to watch her. Abby is a breastfed baby so Amelia and I could do little to satisfy her hunger so we just had to hold her off. “Mom, you keep telling me what a great mom I’m going to be but you’ve been a mom. Maybe you should hold the fussy baby,” Amelia observed after 30 minutes had gone by. “Honey, I’m frying meatballs in oil, I cannot hold her. You’re just going to have to do it.” I replied. And she did, without complaint, until Jane arrived home.
While the weekend of Abby’s christening was profoundly sad for me, even though it predated the placement of the tube, this past week I felt much more at peace. As I watched Amelia with her little cousin I realized that while I may never see her become a mother, I have seen her mother a child. And really, it’s the verb – the action -- form of the word that matters. Though I know it will be a loss for her not to have me around to experience her transition to motherhood, I felt in my bones that this sweet girl will someday be a wonderful mother. And I made sure to tell her so.
The night before Jane and Abby left, Amelia was watching Abby on the sofa when my darling children launched into one of their many disputes. Amelia, caught up in the argument, took her hands off Abby who then fell onto the hardwoods floors. Abby screamed, Jane teared-up and Amelia took off to her room to bawl. Of course, like all mothers my kids have already done this lots of times on my watch and the sofa was only 18 inches off the ground so I figured everything was going to be ok. But I did remember what it was like that first time Amelia fell, feeling worried and guilty. I tried to comfort Jane and double-checked my advice by calling a friend who is a pediatrician. Still, I think I did a lousy job of making Jane feel better.
I went up stairs to find Amelia lying in bed, eyes swollen and red. “I feel so bad,” she cried. I tried to reassure her that we all understood it was an accident but that she had learned a valuable lesson. “Unfortunately Amelia, mistakes are among life’s greatest teachers,” I explained. She was really berating herself for her mistake, “Amelia,” I interrupted, “you took good care of that baby all week. You changed her diapers, played with her, loved her. You did 99 things right and one thing wrong. You cannot focus on just the one thing that you did wrong.” I realized as I was speaking that this is what is known as a “teachable moment.” “Amelia, you are going to make mistakes your whole life. But if you only focus on them and not on all the good things you do, you are going to be miserable. You make your mistakes, you fix what you can, you learn from them, and then you MOVE ON,” I instructed, acting as if this process was second nature to me . I wanted her to get this lesson that I am still struggling with daily. “Ok, say aloud ‘I forgive you Amelia,’” I demanded. She did it and replied, “I still feel guilty.” “Ok,” I said, “every time that little voice in your head starts to make you feel badly about dropping Abby, repeat: ‘I forgive you Amelia.’ And just keep saying it until that little voice finally goes away.” I, of course, have no idea if this works, but the next morning Amelia seemed much better. And Jane, to her credit, gave Amelia another chance by trusting her with Abby again. I felt happy that, for this one inevitable maternal experience, I helped Amelia learn how to move past it. And, in the process, hopefully helped her take one step towards being someone who can forgive herself her transgressions.
I also loved being with Abby. She brought back fond memories of Amelia and Aidan’s infancies. I loved smelling her little head and playing peek-a-boo with her. I relished the feeling of her soft body in my arms. I loved the way she curled her lower lip when she was fussy. She was a great distraction from all the heaviness in my heart. And even got a glimpse of the goofy father Aidan will someday be.
But Abby gave me something more. As the week wore on, Abby grew fussier. She was sleeping poorly and we couldn’t figure out if it was teething, reaching a new milestone, the heat, or what. One night she had been screaming for over 40 minutes and I wanted to give Jane a break from the sound. I took Abby outside and started walking. Abby flailed her arms and legs wildly and arched her back in resistance to her pacifier, bound and determined to stave off the sleep she so desperately needed. I just kept walking with her along “The Loop” in the neighborhood.. As we walked I realized how different it felt to hold a screaming child that is not your own. I felt no pressure to make her fall asleep and I didn’t find her screaming in the least bit annoying. “Have it your way kid,” I figured, “You’ll have to give in eventually.” And I wondered if this was what it was like to be a grandmother. To be happy to relieve a tired mother for a little while and to experience all the joy of a baby without bearing the awesome responsibility of having to raise it. I decided that for the remainder of the walk, I’d pretend I was a grandmother so that I got to have that experience if only for 20 minutes.
The Loop has a pretty decent hill for about ¼ of the distance. Abby’s body finally grew limp about halfway up the hill. I can still walk The Loop slowly, but I wasn’t sure I could make it with a 15-pound kid on my chest. But I didn’t want to break my stride and the shortcut back to my house was through a lot of bushes. So I just kept going and hoped I could do it. As I reached the crest of the hill I was amazed. My little 80-pound body had done it. I carried her the rest of the way home and into Jane’s waiting arms. I was pooped but happy, “Maybe I have more left in me than I thought.”
When we said our airport good-byes. I was sad to see them go. I didn’t know how to tell Jane how much she had helped me through such a hard week. I knelt down to gaze one last time at Abby and she smiled. Inside I thought, “You’ll never know everything you gave me.” She smiled again and arched her right eyebrow. “Or maybe you already do,” I wondered.