The last time I was nervous about taking my son home from the hospital, he weighed around eight pounds. He was nearly hairless and his conversational abilities were limited. When agitated, I soothed him with milk and swaying and sometimes milk while swaying. When my son was a newborn, I watched him breathe as if my gaze was imbued with protective powers. We were tender with him as we did small things, like pulling a little shirt over his big head. He was our burrito, our bunny, our little man. He grew quickly. Those first nerves melted away to be replaced with newly exposed conundrums. Will he ever make peace with the potty? Where should he go to preschool? Why does he have a difficult time making friends?
We had a family meeting at the hospital. Present: Our son, my husband, a psychiatrist, a social worker, me. The main topic was planning his discharge, demonstrating we had after-care appointments set up with a therapist and a doctor. Our son shared his safety plan and things he learned about coping. The doctor warned he’d have bad days, even days when he thought about dying, and that was to be expected. The key to meeting these challenges head-on is how he deals with those feelings.
Suddenly, I pictured my face hovering above his to make sure he was still breathing. I was going to stalk him with questions regarding his current state of mind, feeling ashamed I knew myself so well. Would he have a moment of peace once home, or was I going to stare at him and agonize over a frown until I gave him a reason to frown?
When he was a newborn, I protected him from cold, hunger, falls, viruses, loud noises, and diaper rashes. There are many enemies of the newborn baby.
Now, his biggest enemy is housed inside that sweet, still-big head. I cannot pull him in from that cold.
He is home.
We asked if he’d like a special dinner to celebrate. Without hesitation, he listed off his favorite foods and we made it happen. It was delicious. We laughed a lot as we ate together around the table. From the outside, it probably looked like the dinner of a happy family. I couldn’t simply relax and enjoy the moment. The entire time, I wondered if it met his expectations. Was it making him happy? I want to make him happy. This broth is perfect! I gushed, hoping internally he’d agree it was so good, it was worth living for. Did he want some chopped cilantro, what if all it needed to make it stellar was chopped cilantro?
I’m putting enormous pressure on myself to inspire his happiness while knowing it’s foolish to count on things like a well-seasoned broth or a well-timed question. Unless he loves himself, likes himself, and feels hope, that brand of happiness is shallow and easily crushed.
I don’t want him to buckle under the million-watt spotlight of our focused attention, the weight of our stares, the bright wide smiles. We’ve never acted like this before, or have we?
He is not a newborn, but surely he is new-born.
He asked to be baptized when he was eight. We were thrilled by his decision to publicly profess his belief in the saving grace of Jesus. A few other kids were baptized that same day. They lined up on stairs wearing white robes over their swimsuits, which they changed into in the church bathroom. I sat up straight with a giant grin as tears pooled in my eyes until they fell. Baptisms always make me cry. When it’s your child, it’s doubly beautiful.
It was his turn. He stepped down into the baptismal pool, joining the associate pastor who asked him Do you believe? With a yes, he was rocked back into the water. He was rocked back up. There was no heavenly choir in the room, but somewhere in the invisible they rejoiced. He rubbed his eyes and smiled as we clapped wildly. Later, in the car driving to a celebratory lunch, he noted his underwear was soaking wet. It was annoying him.
“You didn’t take off your underwear when you were baptized? You had your swim trunks!”
He said he wasn’t swimming, he was being baptized. He didn’t know! We laughed. We still talk about his baptismal underwear, which probably had Spongebob or Yoda printed on the fabric. I love the image of my young little man’s baptism being a source of joy and a sign of faith, commencing with the sopping-panted car ride away; soaring and solemn one moment, cold buns the next.
A mother can’t stalk her son’s heart. She can think of advice or anticipate confusions, but she can’t tread inside. She can throw the undies in the wash with a chuckle, but she can’t wash her little boy’s heart clean or empty him of despair.
He’s been new so many times. Someday, a final new will come. With every beat of my heart, I pray it will be in the deep, gauzy future, beyond my little mete of earth.