Yesterday my baby smiled at me for the first time, and my heart was filled with joy. Today 20 kindergarteners were murdered in their school. I cried on my nursing baby while I read the news. I read the news all day long.
A couple weeks ago, after telling her the story of my daughter’s birth, I admitted to my mother than I had never before truly understood why people were somehow more horrified by the deaths of babies and young children than of teenagers and adults. Losing anyone is horribly painful, and one’s own child worst of all, but it had seemed to me, before, that if one were forced to choose, it would be preferable to lose a young baby over an elementary school student, a little kid over a teenager. This idea was based on the logic that it is more devastating to lose a life-long friend, after building up decades of memories and shared experience, than to lose someone one has only just recently met, no matter how intense the initial connection might be. The only argument I could think of for why the death of a younger person might be somehow “worse” revolved around a notion of opportunity being prematurely cut short, and I didn’t think that factor could “outweigh” the impact of losing a loved one after that love that had ripened and strengthened and evolved over time. Wasn’t there, in the latter case, more to lose? Thus, the longer you knew the deceased, it seemed, the worse the loss would be.
The above is a very naive conception of love, in general, but its wrongness became much more glaringly obvious to me when I first became able to try to apply it to parental love. My love for my daughter, who is still a tiny baby with whom I only have 5 weeks of shared experience (plus the nine months she resided in my body), is already utterly complete. Yes, I will come to know her more fully over hopefully many, many years, and my appreciation of her will in some ways deepen and ripen and change, but my love for her is not going to somehow increase incrementally as a function of her age. The very idea is ridiculous. It presumes there is some limit on my ability to love her currently. It presumes that my love for her is somehow determined by an accumulation of events occurring over time, by actions on her part or on mine, by any number of mundane factors which are, in reality, rendered so microscopic by the enormity of my love for her, the vastness of the connection we have shared always, from *before* that moment when I first laid eyes on her, that they are truly irrelevant.
This must be why it is so often said that parenthood teaches us what unconditional love is. There is nothing she can do to increase or decrease my love for her. If love were something that could be possessed, she would already have it all, everything I can offer her. She does not need to live even another day to “earn” it. It is contingent upon nothing, certainly not the length of her life. As my mother put it, having a child makes you realize that it takes all of 5 seconds to completely devote your entire life to another person. Actually, I think, it does not even take 5 seconds. It takes no time at all.
My life is utterly intermingled with hers. This took no time after her birth to accomplish. It is simply a fact. I heard recently about some new studies which apparently show that mothers carry cells from their children embedded in their bloodstreams and even their brains, potentially for the rest of their lives. I’m not sure how well-established the science behind this is, but if it is true, it is consistent with my feeling. Even though her body appears to be spatially separate from my own now that she is born, I still have a very palpable sense that there are parts of me that live in her, parts of her that live in me.
The idea that she could die and yet I would remain living is just unthinkable. It is unthinkable. How could my heart ever beat again without her heart beating somewhere in reply, like a call and response chant? My very breath feels contingent on hers. How can I exhale without seeing her inhale?
The first time I left the house without her, the first time I was ever away from her at all, she was a little over a week old. For this first outing, I went shopping at Whole Foods. In the car on the way there, I felt like I was seeing the city I’ve lived in for over a year for the first time. Surrounded by shoppers in the grocery store, I felt like an alien from another planet. I couldn’t remember where anything was in the store, though I had shopped there many times before the baby was born. It was literally as if the person who had gone on all those previous shopping trips, that woman who was not yet a mother, had been someone else entirely. All I did was leave her immediate presence for a little over an hour. I felt dizzy and disoriented and not entirely there. I got back to her as soon as I could.
I am slowly learning how to leave the house and trust that she will be there when I return. Someday I will have to learn how to let her go off to school for hours at a time (someday, God help me, off to college). Today that prospect seems even scarier than it did yesterday. I can’t help but think, if my baby died, I might, somehow, with an enormous amount of help, muster the courage to continue living, but I would not be the same person anymore. I have been a mother for so short a time, and yet it is so clear to me that there is simply no other pain that could rival the pain of losing a child. Before I was a parent, I simply had no idea the scope of the love I would feel for my daughter, nor the scope of the suffering I would become vulnerable to by becoming her mother. My whole heart aches for those suffering parents in Connecticut tonight, whose healing will require nothing short of grace. May those mothers be comforted by the awareness that their babies are still with them, always, that they carry tiny pieces of their children embedded in their flesh and their hearts and their minds.
There is a Zen story my friend Mitsu told me a few years ago, after another friend of ours sadly lost his adult son. In the story, a man goes to see a sage and asks the sage to compose a special prayer he can say for the prosperity of his family. After careful consideration the sage comes up with this prayer: “Grandfather die. Father die. Son die.” The man is at first horrified by what seems like a very morbid prayer, but in the end the sage explains to him that having his family members die in that order is the greatest blessing he could ask for. Or something like that. I don’t remember exactly how the story went, but that prayer hasn’t left my mind since the news of the Newtown shooting broke.