Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Deciding Forever

I am besotted. Absolutely besotted. Just drunk with the delight of holding in my arms this most recent reminder that, even while exploded oil wells destroy ecosystems and we argue about whether the administration has been angry enough about it, there is reason to be optimistic.

A baby will do that to you. He will get you up in the middle of the night so you can go tearing down the interstate to be there when he is rolled out of the delivery room still squinting against the new light. He will make you laugh and cry and tremble with both exhilaration and fear all within his first hour of life. He will open his eyes and stare at you with a look that, the inability to focus notwithstanding, says, "I don’t think we’ve met, but you look very familiar and I feel quite certain that you would move heaven and earth for me. Is that right?"

It’s been nearly 28 years since I sat outside the delivery room at University Hospital in Augusta awaiting the arrival of the first baby that would grip my heart with his tiny fist. I was alone and every so often would calm my thoughts long enough to read a few pages in the paperback book that kept me company. I can still feel the raised letters of the title on its cover. It was cold and I got up every few minutes to jump-start the circulation in my legs.

Just a few minutes after 2:00 a.m., Dr. Natrajan pushed his way through the big double doors. "We have a baby!" And a few minutes later, a nurse pulled a curtain back from the nursery window and pushed a bassinet to the front for me to get my first look at my nephew. I couldn’t see his face very well because his feet were pointed away from the window, but that didn’t interfere with the conversation that I’d been waiting for nine months to have.

I told him how much I loved him already and I told him all the things we were going to do together and I think I might have mentioned that there were other people who loved him, too. And, suddenly, he twisted his head up and to the side as though he had sensed that I was there. He opened his eyes and, for just a second, they met mine.

I’ve revisited that moment over and over as the baby became the towhead toddler became the long-legged kid became the broad-shouldered teenager became the handsome groom. I revisit it again as I stare into the face of my baby’s baby.

Jackson Carl Bradley was, like his daddy, born in the middle of the night, but for him there was not just one royal attendant. There were a lot of people standing in the hallway staring through the nursery window as the nurse bathed and measured and pricked and swaddled, a lot of people – grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts and friends – taking pictures and cooing and making ridiculous, but necessary comments about who he resembles.

The writer Elizabeth Stone said, "Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body."

For some of us it is not our decision, but someone else’s, that results in open heart surgery. The first time it happens it is like electric shock, unexpected and startling. The first time it happens there is a great wondering: How did this come about? How do I do this? Am I allowed to do this? The first time it happens it’s a little like falling down a rabbit hole and discovering that nothing, most of all yourself, is the way you thought.

But, then, if you’re fortunate enough to be around when that momentous decision gets made again, you – having learned about the incredible elasticity of the human heart, having learned that a child never has too many people loving him or her, having learned that there is nothing nothing nothing quite so affirming as the tightness of tiny arms twined around your neck – dive right in, steeled for the electric shock and all that goes with it.

When most of the crowd had left to go home and get some sleep, when Jackson and his sweet, brave mama had been given a room of their own and when both grandmothers had had their turns at cuddling and inspecting, I got mine. I touched his cheek with the back of my finger, I nuzzled the top of his downy head, I watched his chest lift and lower in tiny little baby breaths.

I sang a song and said a prayer and made a promise, a promise that is a secret just between Jackson and me.

Copyright 2010

Monday, June 07, 2010

Then and Now

A computer hard drive is a lot like a junk drawer. Every so often you have to go in because there is always the chance that, back in the corner with the pennies sticky with Kool-Aid, under the two-year old church bulletin and in an envelope decorated with Hello Kitty stickers, you may find the key to the safety deposit box or your mother’s engagement ring. Don’t ask me why; that’s just the way it is.

I finally broke down and bought a digital camera just before my vacation last month. I was spending Memorial Day trying to figure out where on the computer hard drive the camera software had "automatically" saved my pictures when I came across something that I’d forgotten was there, something that made me lift my fingers from the mouse and keyboard and just stare.

It was a portrait shot, one of those they make in the church fellowship hall, of me at 19. My hair was short and bore the distinct evidence of having been blown dry in an effort to pull out the curl I tried to pretend wasn’t there. I wore a simple green dress and a scarf tied at my neck in the way we did things in the mid-70s. Despite the obvious fact that the shot was old, something about it felt not just familiar, but current as though I’d been looking at it recently.

Computers are, I used to tell the college students who worked for me and taught me how to use them, magic. With little more than a binary abracadabra, I managed to pull up on the screen beside the 19-year-old face a photograph from my vacation, the 53-year-old face.

The hair, thanks to modern chemistry, was the same color, but the more recent photo evidenced the white flag I had finally raised to its determined curliness. The eyebrows that, it was once pointed out to me, I smooth down with my fingertips when I’m uncertain or avoiding answering, had lightened over the years but both sets still resembled wide strokes of a calligraphy pen. The green eyes looked a little paler, but it could have ben the sunlight.

The smile, though, the smile was exactly the same – a straight line with the slightest upward curve at the ends – and I realized that it was the smile that made the old photo seem so unsurprising.

Mr. McKinney, who taught theater at Wesleyan, explained to us once that no human face is exactly symmetrical. Each one is close enough that our vision compensates for the differences and we think we are seeing in any given face two identical halves. He proved his point by taking a photograph of a student we knew, cutting the negative down the middle and then creating a full-face photograph from each half. One of the created faces looked exactly like the student and the other nothing at all like her. One was beautiful, the other grotesque.

I thought about that as I stared at the two faces. No one had split me, but the two photographs did represent two halves – youth and adulthood. The 19-year-old has freckles. She wears no make-up; life has not yet given her a need for a mask. There are no lines across her forehead or at the corners of her eyes. She looks up and off as though she is watching the future advance toward her.

The 53-year-old still has freckles and they shine through the makeup she wears, as the magazines say, to even out her skin tone. She is squinting just a tad, making visible the shallow furrows between her eyebrows, a sunburst of tiny creases at the outside of each eye.

But there is a difference beyond the wrinkles. The woman, the woman who was once the girl, looks straight ahead. Her eyes are focused on what is here, this moment. Her eyes have seen the future that the girl imagined and have recorded that future in memories both good and bad. Dancing with excitement or crying with despair, her eyes have drawn in the light that makes all things grow.

The girl looked away – toward the future, but also in fear, fear of disappointment and disappointing. The woman, I knew and could see, was no longer afraid.

That, of course, is the beauty of age. The luminosity that comes from experiencing the best and the worst and surviving both. The radiance that arises from a heart that has been broken and healed. The winsomeness that emerges from the accepting the fact that perfection doesn’t always mean flawless; sometimes it means whole.

I glanced from one photograph to the other. Girl to woman. Woman to girl. One I was. One I am. Asymmetrical and lovely nonetheless.

Copyright 2010