Last fall I watched a squirrel build a nest in the cherry tree that marks the center of our backyard. The squirrel gathered the yellow leaves from the ground in its mouth and darted up the trunk to a high branch, repeating the process dozens of times without pause. In the end it built a nest that seemed very large for such a small rodent and there, I assumed, it raised its young.
Every pregnancy book seems to devote some pages to how we humans have own instinctual nesting behavior. We prepare a shelter with a cozy crib, onsies and blankets, and soft hued walls. And there we bring our newborn child to nurture and love through the days and nights of their young lives.
When we were expecting Amelia we bought a coral colored carpet and pad to cover the hardwoods in the nursery. There we pictured her crawling and walking and, inevitably falling on her diaper-clad bottom. We purchased a simple crib and chest of drawers and chose a Noah’s Ark theme for the décor. Bill painted an old-fashioned changing table, purchased for $10 at the local thrift store, bright yellow and there I stacked her tiny infant clothes. I folded each piece carefully in my lab while feeling my daughter kicking inside of me. Each part of the experience was an act of joy and anticipation of the wondrous event before us.
Now, nine years later, I find myself building a nest of an altogether different kind. I want so much to leave as much of myself behind as possible and so I have started assembling a collection of items that Aidan and Amelia can return to whenever they have the need to feel me in some tangible way. It does not offer the safety and shelter of a nursery, but I hope it will contain some measure of comfort to ease their feelings of loss over the years to come.
For each child there is a box. It contains many of the usual childhood mementos, art projects, and the odd mother’s day gifts that come from the big hearts but limited creative abilities of preschoolers. I poured over them today, revisiting the evolution of their self-portraits from alien-like figures with heads and appendages but no bodies to recognizable images with exaggerated eyelashes and fingers. I placed all their report cards in envelopes and added their baby books.
In the last month I have begun filling the box with more atypical items. I have long wanted to burn the kids each CDs of special songs. Amelia’s CD has songs that remind me of her, like Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely.” Ever since she was born, that song had brought tears to my eyes. Then I added a section on songs every woman should know, my favorite being “Video” by India.arie. The third section includes all my very favorites from “What a Wonderful World” to “The Bitch is Back” by Sir Elton John. Her CD ends with “Love’s Divine” by Seal because he talks about coming through a rainstorm and finding sanctuary, and I want this for her desperately.
Aidan’s CD has similar themes with some songs that remind my uniquely of him. While I have never been a huge Celine Dion fan (don’t get me wrong, she has an amazing voice I just her songs just either hit me for fall flat), “A New Day” has always reminded me of Aidan because he felt so much like the answer to a prayer. I also included “The Boxer,” by Simon and Garfunkel, because Aidan is such a fighter and I hope he will be able to use all his tenacity and stubbornness to overcome his grief and sublimate it into something positive. Aidan’s CD ends with “Walking On Sunshine” because he loves it and “Fool In the Rain” because I want him always keep some of his impish qualities and that song has always struck me as a particularly playful romp.
I’ve already given them copies of the CD; they listen to the music at night before bed, and seem to enjoy having their own special CDs. But I burned extra copies with homemade liner notes that explain why I chose each song, either the memory associated with it our why I thought the song was so important to me or of potential value to them. And these I have placed in their respective boxes.
Over the past few days I started ordering gifts for them to open on their future birthdays in case I am not physically here to celebrate the anniversary of their entry into this world. It is so hard for me to imagine them blowing out there candles on a cake I did not make, to be absent from the days marking the hour and the minute I brought them into this world. So I wanted to leave something behind for them so they would know that I was somehow still a part of the occasion.
It was very easy to come up with a list of future gifts for Amelia. She inherited my love of books and I was able to remember which authors I loved at different points in my life. I cannot wait to introduce her to Madeline l’Engle, Judy Blume, Barbara Kingsolver and Anne LaMott. On other birthdays I will pass on special pieces of jewelry: the pearl earrings my parents gave me the Christmas before my 21st birthday, my diamond stud earrings, my watch, and the first earrings that Bill ever gave me.
Choosing gifts for Aidan has been harder given that I have never been a boy. I hit the usuals: Encyclopedia Brown and the Hardy Boys. For later birthdays I chose “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.” I plan to by him a nice chess set and some classic ties, but I still have several birthdays to figure out. For some birthdays I chose the same gifts for each of them. They will each get a Bible not so much because I want them to believe anything specific but rather because there are so many useful teachings in it that I think everyone can benefit from being exposed to certain passages. I’ve also bought them “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People” in hopes that when they inevitably feel the gross unfairness of their loss, they can find some sense of comfort in Kushner’s words.
I plan to wrap the gifts this week and write a card to go along with each. I hope I can remember what it is like to be different ages so I can find something meaningful and useful to write. Bill’s sister Jane is here with me and will help me prepare the gifts. Thank God, because I do not know how I am going to do this.
I plan to organize my writings into two separate binders and place them into the boxes so that they can someday know me not as the mother of their childhood but as the person that I am, I was. And lastly I will place the journals that I have kept for them since the first positive pregnancy tests so they have a record of their early years and some sense of their history to which to refer. In these journals I have written not about milestones but about their evolving personalities, funny sayings, and virtually any aspect of our family life that I thought interesting or worthy of note. I shared my own experience of being a mother, the joys and the challenges. I told them it wasn't always fun because I want them to know when their own kids are driving them crazy that parenthood isn't just about Hallmark moments: it is the good, the bad, and the ugly.
I suppose this all sounds very morbid, pessimistic, and defeatist. But it is the only way I can figure out how to find any sense of comfort and peace. Perhaps it is a ludicrous idea to think that a container of music, writing, and dusty memories can somehow substitute for the loss of one’s mother at such a tender age. How could a box hold all my love for them? There is no such container in all the world. But it will have to be enough, along with the love, memories, and lessons that I have already etched into their minds and onto their hearts. I need for them to have somewhere to go and find me when they need to do so.
But nesting can be dangerous. When I was 33 weeks pregnant with Amelia I was hell bent on cleaning the windows in our rental house. That night I had to go to the hospital for preterm contractions. I realized then that the nesting instinct might be a little too powerful. I almost became a mother a little too soon. I hope I am not making a similar mistake. I am not trying to hasten my death. I just hope I will feel more at peace knowing what I have left behind for them.