What’s in us when we’re born? I don’t expect I’ll know the answer to that complicated question before I die. Scientists and doctors are working diligently to unravel what I’ve consistently felt was the final frontier, the brains in our heads. There’s a long way to go. Was being a caregiver programmed into me before I developed consciousness? Was I destined to feel and analyze everything the way I always have before I was ever verbal? Is it because of genetics that I routinely sift through what I think are the depths and mysteries in everyone? Who knows? Michael used to tease me, saying I was going to be very disappointed when after years of poking around in his heavily guarded interior, I’d discover that nothing was in there. Ha! That wasn’t true. Whether we or anyone else gets to the bottom of ourselves or not, I think that like the autonomic engine that ensures we inhale and exhale, that our blood flows, that we digest and so much more, is not confined only to essential body functions. Minds or souls or whatever the intangibles are, likely are humming quietly away too, driven by mechanisms we don’t wholly understand. At least that’s what I think.
“What’s your damage?” At fairly regular intervals during our long life together, that question was posed to me by Michael, who unerringly could sense the slightest shifts in the most essential core of me. I shifted frequently. I can’t quite describe how I sense undercurrents in other people, but for as long as I can remember, I’ve had awareness of what’s stirring below what is discernible on the surface. I guess I’d say I’m a vibe receiver. I think that ability might be part of what people call a high emotional IQ. In many ways, my intuitive piece is often more a negative than a positive attribute. And, unfortunately, I can’t say that in my life, I’ve gotten a lot of reciprocity in that intuitive department. I can probably count the times that people spent their time probing my psyche as much as I did theirs. I don’t really care because keeping a scorecard isn’t my thing. But I was forever grateful that Michael, despite his teasing, could always could feel my below-the surface ripples and graciously asked about them with that snarky question. I had a safe place. Because, indeed, even small bits of dissonance often caused some damage to my overall sense of well-being. As Michael reminded me, his problem with being in our relationship was that as long as I knew that someone was having a problem, I’d be having one as well. Which meant he did too. The cost of intimacy. Over time I managed that issue by limiting my exposure to large social gatherings during which the traffic of unspoken undercurrents was often overwhelming. In self-defense, I also cultivated a somewhat hermit-like existence. Despite my ability to socialize, I’m more introverted than I appear, a protective device driven by survival instincts. I mean, who needs extra worry in this complex world of ours? I’ve always had plenty of my own.
I’m still analyzing how the stress and anxiety of Michael’s five-year cancer siege affected me. I think the biggest takeaway from my experience has been the sense that I spent so much love and energy during that time, that there isn’t any left for anyone new in my life. I feel the same level of intense emotions for those who already populated my world before Michael got so sick. But, after his death? I have no interest in establishing powerful feelings for anyone new. I definitely don’t want to take care of another truly sick person again. I spent everything on Michael. I have no regrets. But I know I saved one little corner of my mind, set aside for the possibility that my son, my youngest child, might become a dad. I’ve always loved babies. I hoped that if I lived long enough for him to have one, that the absence of new emotion which has been my norm for the past five plus years might abate in that case.
I love babies. And I know exactly why. Babies just are. Their behavior is driven by the purest of motives. They need food. They need sleep. They need to feel warm and many of them need to feel dry. They need body contact. They have no ulterior motives. They’re not manipulative. They are oblivious to social dynamics. They do what they do no matter where they are, or who they’re with, without a shred of embarrassment. To me, the artlessness and candor of infancy is a welcome relief from the machinations that start showing up as cognition develops. The purity of a relationship with a baby is beautiful and brief. As exhausting as the management of a helpless new life can be, the pleasure found in those moments is like nothing else. Matchless.
I’m not a novice in the practice of newborn care. I had two of my own, happily when I was ready for them, enough wild oats sown that I was content to be parenting. Even though there were sleepless nights, bouts of inexplicable crying, and uncertainty about what the squirmy infant really wanted, for the most part, I remember that being fully in charge of a portable person, was definitely a psychological advantage to what came later – the ever-changing autonomy of a small self-directed person. Having a modicum of control was a comfort for me. A lot less chasing around was an added bonus.
Thirty years after becoming parents, we were fortunate to have been right in the hospital when our adult daughter had her first-born, our grandson. I wound up retiring from my job to become his caregiver from about age 7 weeks to almost three years of age. I spent more time with him than I did with my own kids as I was always a working mom.
Grandson number two came along in 2014. Unfortunately by that time, Michael’s cancer, diagnosed in 2012, had come roaring back at the end of 2013. What I’d hoped to continue, following the January birth of the new baby, which was the caregiver role that I’d provided for his brother, was off the table. Michael was in the midst of chemo which rendered him tired and immunocompromised. I welcomed the new little boy on the morning of Friday, January 17th without Michael at my side. Fortunately, he was able to visit the hospital later, a welcome gift as at one point, we weren’t entirely certain he’d live to meet this baby. Still, as my daughter’s family was living across the street from us, being with the newborn was still an almost daily occurrence.
Those two grandsons are now twelve and eight. In early November, my son and daughter-in-law’s little girl was born. I was eager to be there for them and for her. I wanted to afford their little family the same attention I was able to give my daughter’s. I grew up with extended family around me. I think the benefit of having support when starting out with a new baby is a special comfort layer. I wasn’t sure of how much love I could find in myself but I knew what I wanted to do. And so, for every day but one, I’ve spent time holding and rocking the baby while giving her parents a little space for a nap or work or whatever they choose.
My life-long fascination with babies asserted itself immediately. My granddaughter was born with her eyes open. I know that visual focus takes awhile to develop but watching her see whatever she’s seeing was instantly intriguing. When her eyes are closed, especially when she’s in her REM or dream sleep, a myriad of expressions rapidly cross her little face. What’s going on in there? Some people say nothing. But I’m not convinced. Smiles, frowns, furrowed brows are not all about digestion, are they? No one can say with certainty although there are many educated guesses and benchmarks being set by those who study infants. All I know is that holding a tiny sentient being that morphs every day is endlessly interesting to me. I’m hooked.
Tomorrow my granddaughter will be six weeks old. I stare at her constantly. She’s growing fast, suddenly much longer and heavier. Was her body pre-programmed to do that? Or is it her nutrition or simply a combination of nature and nature? Will she be tall like my son or more diminutive like her mom? Even though she’s not supposed to be able to see very far, she’s holding her head up high and craning her neck to look around. Does she only see light and shadows? All things I can’t know. She seems serious to me. My son seemed like that too when he was quite small. I have so many questions. I know some people think that watching a baby is like watching grass grow. Not me. In a short time I’ve become engaged and attached to this tiny being. The other day I recognized the emotional surge that can only be love. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I really did save some space for someone new after all. I intend to enjoy her as long as I’m lucky enough to have this family nearby. Baby time is short. She could be the last infant I ever know. I intend to make the most of her.