Mon 16 Jul 2007
…or was that a pox on both houses? oh literate readership, weigh in. but Shakespeare can’t have meant me, in any case. i only have a rather modest little home. we don’t even have a cottage. surely my humble abode doesn’t deserve no nasty plaguepox…?
but it’s got it, dammit. a bug. a stomach bug has crept in with the summer weather, along with the requisite couple of seasonal earwigs who braved my soap-spray Berlin Wall along all the thresholds of entry. and compared to the stomach bug, the earwigs are pussies.
i don’t mind illness, in theory. i’ve learned not to wither inside when confronted by the urine/decay/detergent smell of hospitals, and while i feel bad for others when they’re sick, the helplessness of being completely useless at alleviating their misery – beyond provision of canned soup and the occasional cold compress and translation of whatever Latin name their symptoms may have been tagged with – doesn’t weigh on me much. they’re sick, i’m sympathetic…it’s what i have to offer. while a certain party who lives with me might swear that i whine inordinately when sick myself, i can assure you that that party is entirely unreliable as a source for these things and is, in fact, rather prone to embarrassing displays of lamentation about his own illnesses, coupled with a manly dose of stubbornness about actually taking anything to relieve
my ears his suffering.
but when the child is sick? oh god. we’re all wretched.
and not just literally – because whatever Oscar catches seems to travel through the house, carried on fat, curious, little hands – but literarily, epically, consumingly. Dante’s nine (or is it ten? clearly, i don’t actually read, just pick up cheap quotes from Reader’s Digest) circles of hell have nothing on being parent to a sick baby. not only do i feel like A Very Bad Mother for having failed to protect my child from whatever vermin are having their way with his little body, but the helplessness that doesn’t bother me when sick adults are in my care sits much more heavily on me when it’s O who’s miserable. because he is still so small. because he doesn’t understand why it hurts. because it is my job, as best i can, to make it all okay. and because i want to, with an urgency that must be hardwired into the biology of the species somewhere, at the primal level, just because he is my child, in my care. for him, i would take the nasty little poxplagues all on myself, and gladly.
but the poxplagues do not ask. i do not get to spare my child’s pain. sometimes i don’t even know how to ease it. and that, for me, is the hardest thing about being a mother.
and yet…and here i tread in waters deeper than i understand…i am not sure what we would be, all of us as people, if our mothers were able to take our pain for us, and would? would the extent of that protection deny us our own experiences, our own paths? leave us somehow like the foolish little boy-man from Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, who takes and takes and takes and cuts the nurturing tree down to a stump for a sailboat? (or something…something frivolous…i can too read, i swear. i just have a bad memory for narrative detail).
i don’t know. i have been blessed enough to have known, all my life, that my mother would do anything she could to protect me from pain, from illness, from hurt, from harm. and she & i have been fighting about that for more than twenty years now…me trying to surface and breathe under the weight of all those warnings, all that love.
i never understood my mother’s fear for me until the first moment i held Finn in my arms. the NICU is an assaultive, adrenalin-ridden, alarming place, rife with loud noises and harsh …and it stinks of that fear. i was ten hours post-delivery and had been wheeled back up to my bedrest room because i’d been busily passing clots the size of cats…but they came for us, up there, because he was going to die. and because he was going to die – i think of those words as punctuated, each of them, like whole sentences unto themselves, though i can’t remember if anyone actually spoke them aloud or what they said, at the time – they removed him from the isolette where he’d been heartily squeezing our fingers the hour before with tiny, magical fingers, and disconnected one of the many clattering machines, and laid him in my arms, wee creature, still bloody from birth and all his trauma.
and in the hour that followed, while he slipped away from us, our skin in contact with his, whispered to, sung to, told he was loved and wanted, Finn made me a mother. because i stopped tasting the fear of the NICU, stopped hearing the machines, stopped wondering what the hell was happening to all of us and where in god’s name we’d found ourselves and how we’d cope with this. we just…were. we got to discover him, the curve of his brow and the unmistakable presence of his father’s nose, just as any new parents might. but i knew. i knew he was dying. and for one second, at the very beginning, the fear and the helplessness almost swallowed me. i am shamed, still, by that second, by the “you are going to die” horror that washed over me…but it was all i knew of motherhood before it happened to me. i had thought all my life that it is death itself that haunts mothers, keeps them up at night worrying about whether their offspring are chewing their cookies thoroughly…even long after those offspring have gone off to college. what i realized, in that moment, is that it is not our own pain, as parents, that we fear…but that of our kids. their suffering. our incapacity to comfort.
loss may haunt, yes, and grief run deep and long. but in the moment, with Finn in my arms, all i cared about in the world was that he felt my joy in holding him, somehow. and so it was that joy that i focused on. for that hour, easy and natural like i’ve seldom ever been, i beamed out love and comfort, because it was what i had to give. because he was my child. because i didn’t want him to be afraid. i would have given anything to spare him, and couldn’t…but the pain of that incapacity was my pain, not his. mine i could bear.
in getting to be there, to be the comforter of that small soul…i got a peace that few other mothers of children living or dead ever get.
just before Oscar was born, i looked back at Finn’s birth and death and wondered whether this new baby would ever – god willing all go well, please go well, i don’t think i can do the aftermath a second time – get so much of me in a lifetime as Finn had in that hour. i worried a lot about those potential imbalances then, fearing, i think, that the second child might someday feel a queer shortchange in his prosaic, living place in the family…and totally inexperienced as i was in loving a child i got to raise, i was anxious about how a more normal entrance into the world might affect the intensity of feeling my still-grieving heart might be able to raise for this baby i carried.
i laugh now. every time O has a stomach bug, or a miserable cold, or cries out in pain, there it is…that same pang, no different…just as fierce. mother love. the primal need to comfort, and the helplessness of having to accept that that comfort is only ever partial.
i can not spare him. but i can love him through it. i hope that holds true for a long, long lifetime…and that the comfort he learns to find in it carries him through well beyond my days.
but i still hope he feels better tomorrow.