On a late spring day in 1984, I stepped out my front door into the sunshine, proudly hugging my newborn daughter to my chest in a baby carrier we had purchased at a garage sale. Her little legs dangled out oddly, but I supported her neck with deep tenderness. I loved “wearing my infant,” as the La Leche League literature called it. Hadn’t I waited all my life for this perfect, iris-scented morning?
An elderly couple who lived in the square brick house on the corner were out for a stroll. They stopped to coo over my beautiful baby. In her English accent, the woman quoted me an old saying that would ring as true in my life as any Biblical prophesy: “When they are small, they make your arms ache. When they grow, they make your heart ache.”
Though only thirty-one, I cannot say I was naïve, having endured the stillbirth of our first child, a sudden cataclysm that had destroyed my innocence. Yet still, though both life and death gave me pause, I was blissfully unable that morning to imagine the years to come with any precision at all. Lacking data, it was all a haze of hope. Like most of us, I lived within a fervent and brave wish, that the future would go more smoothly than the past. Isn’t this how children keep being born into the world?
Just recently, now that our once dicey urban neighborhood has become hip, I’ve noticed myself succumbing to a classic old-biddy refrain: “I don’t feel like I belong here anymore. I hardly recognized anyone at the July 4th parade. It’s all young couples with little kids.” In response, a wise fellow-elder pointed out, “You and Gerry used to be one of those young couples yourselves.”
This should have been obvious to me, but oddly, it wasn’t. After all, life has happened so fast. While I marvel at the foreign new breed of neighbors, with their microbreweries, fancy strollers, open minds and endless energy, I gaze back as dreamily as I gazed forward on that May morning.
I am distanced from the sweetness of my first blush of motherhood by so many intervening events. How did I get from there to here? Perhaps not in one continous flow, but more in sequential awakening jolts, in between days and weeks of the inevitable nodding off we all do, even when we are determined not to.
The elderly couple drifted out of my consciousness decades ago, like the random phantoms who float through Dorothy’s dreams in The Wizard of Oz. Mr. Boni, a Vietnamese gentleman, a friendly soul, purchased their home and turned their pretty yard into an auto-repair lot. Oil dripped — how many years was it?– from numerous stored cars onto the lawn under the magnificent magnolia tree — the one that bloomed so profusely again this year. I kept wondering if we should complain to the authorities, stop the desecration of his land, but time kept getting away from me, as it always does, as it is getting away from policy makers, lost in their own fantasy that they have all the time in the world to do their own mindless thing.
Miss Mary used to hold court, cigarette in hand, on the front porch of the house catty-corner to Mr. Boni. In the early days she wore a white uniform, and we called her Mary-the-Nurse, though she wasn’t really. I know that from interviewing her for a graduate class in mental health counseling back in 2006. I dropped that Masters program because at age fifty-four time was no longer stretching out lazily before me as it had in my proper student days. Time suddenly seemed like a limited commodity. Maybe I regret my decision, or maybe I don’t. How can I look back on a path I never took?
What struck me about Miss Mary’s life story was how flat she sounded in the telling of it. Too many betrayals for one lifetime. Is it because our years are so filled with seeming betrayals that it is so hard to absorb their passage? While you’ve taken your eye off the ball, things happen. But who can possibly keep their eye on the ball? And would it make any difference?
When the elderly couple predicted all the heart-ache of my next thirty-five years, not particularly negating the richness that would pulse through it all, I nodded and smiled and sighed, as young people need to do. I had no idea that I would eventually lose four more babies in my womb, so the ones we planned were not the ones who came to us. I couldn’t imagine that we would adopt a little boy, and that he would struggle mightily with chronic feelings of being a stranger in a strange land, and we would learn more about chaos and bewilderment and non-egoic love than I would have dreamed. I could not imagine how my boundaries would be stretched with my teenagers and adult children as surely as my womb had been stretched, how their questions and reproaches would haunt me, how self-forgiveness and wonderment would become the saving graces of my advancing years.
It is hard to make out the trajectory, whether we look behind or ahead. Meanwhile, neighbors drop in and out, scenes switch, hope sustains us. And remarkably, without planning much of it at all, we grow wiser before our own eyes.