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A boy’s life

 

 


You were conceived at the Honeymoon Hilton in Bensalem, PA, and your cells began dividing on the ride to Quebec. By the time we boarded the train back to Trenton, I just knew.

Nonetheless, your existence was officially confirmed by Bunny, who got me a free pregnancy test at Lower Bucks Hospital during her midnight shift. I was holding the baby-blue push-button phone on my lap, waiting for it to ring. “Congratulations,” she said in her hospital operator voice. I was transformed, and the joy felt almost forbidden – nothing like the first time someone told my teenage self I was going to have a baby.

I’d be several months into my 20s by the time you were born.

It might have been the very next day when I was making my bed, radio on, and “Danny’s Song” came on. The words made me sit down on the bed, “Pisces Virgo rising is a very good sign, Strong and kind, And the little boy is mine.” That was how I knew you’d be a boy, as illogical as it all seems now.

Not long before your birth, Dad and I – in search of our better selves, and a little redemption – went to a prayer meeting your grandmother enjoyed. The pastor saw us sitting near the front and asked if he could pray for our unborn baby. He put his arm around Dad and placed a hand on my belly, and everyone in the room bowed their heads. He prayed aloud. I don’t remember the words exactly, but I remember him saying that you would be a blessing to us, and to the world, and that God had great things in store for you. It sounded right, and it felt like an insurance policy, or maybe a transaction with God. In return for seeking him out, he would make sure that you would be OK in the world.

I deliberately selected the most progressive obstetrician I could find. He believed in gentle birth. He was building a birthing center in Yardley, and it was supposed to be ready in early 1980. Just in time.

Your “due date” was Leap Day, but you weren’t ready to make the leap. At my check-up that week, the doctor looked at me and said, “We can be patient a little longer,” and so we waited. Two false alarms brought us to the birthing center in the middle of the night – driven by Dad’s parents, because we didn’t even have a car of our own yet – and the doctor’s staff arriving with supplies, since the birthing center wasn’t quite ready.

But the third time was a charm – we got there around dinner time, me and Dad, your grandparents, and Aunt Jean, and we settled in. Dad was able to keep his mind off things by watching “M.A.S.H.” which was on from 9-9:30. (Trivia – it was Episode 193, “Back Pay,“) and the crescendo of my labor kicked in just as the show wrapped up. You were born within the hour.

Ten days “late,” on your own terms – right on time.

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The miracle of birth, as seen from my vantage point, included the look on Grandmom Robidoux’s face, mother of eight, having for the first time the opportunity to witness a birth. And it included the intensity on my sister’s face, who was holding the mirror so I could see it, too. And it was the magic of the moment as the midwife laid you across my belly, umbilical cord still tethering us, and your 10 tiny fingers splayed as you filled your lungs for the very first time with oxygen and sent it back out into the universe, a cry for a safety net in a world where gravity was taking over from the security of your personal baby pool.

I reached for your hand and you clutched my index finger with all your strength. Our eyes locked. I swear, you smiled. You stopped crying as if you’d found what had been lost, and the tears of instinctive love came to me. I looked at Dad and realized the name we’d settled on, and the reasons why, we’re out the window.

After nine months of deliberation, we’d settled on your name, Neil, a Gaelic name with Viking roots that made its way to popular favor in the states by way of Scotland and Wales, the land of your mother’s mother’s  people. A name shared by the first earthling to step on the moon. It means champion. How could you choose a better name for a son?

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“Let’s name him after you,” I gushed to Dad, who had no choice but to nod in the affirmative after what he’d just experienced. James, a form of Jacob, means supplanter, and that is how your double identity was born. James supplanted Neil, although I never intended to call you Jimmy. In fact, we’d thoroughly discussed and agreed that we weren’t going to make you a junior. We wanted you to be your own person, have your own identity, be a champion.

But all that was lost to the moment when I saw my beautiful son and somehow realized that there would always be some part of you, as a boy, that I might not fully understand. You belonged to us, and for all the internal labor I contributed to nourishing you and bringing you into this world, we were suddenly two completely different beings.

As soon as the cord was cut, they wrapped you in a thin blue blanket and handed you to Dad, who gently slipped you into a warm bath. Your whole body relaxed – your arms extended toward the ends of the earth as he cradled you, returning you to a familiar baby pool. Your legs floated, and your unusually beautiful feet splashed from water to air and back, easing you into your new reality.  You didn’t make a sound.

By morning, the ground outside was covered with a layer of snow. Dad walked to Wawa to gather some provisions – maybe a banana and some coffee. And a short time later, we were taking you out into the world, headed for home. No hospital bureaucracy. No needle pricks or blood tests. No strangers taking you from my arms and checking for defects. The perfection of the experience would never be replicated for me.

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Thirty-eight years later, it has all been foretold. You are a Pisces [Gemini rising] strong and kind. You are blessed, and you are a blessing. You are a champion. You are a junior, but you are uniquely you. Water soothes your soul. My sense of connection to you is natural, concentric, like the miraculous cord of life that sustained you and joined us as one – something you will never fully understand because of our chromosomal differences. You are a man who has had to learn to live his life on his own terms – without a constant hand to hold in times of uncertainty, without your father’s cradling embrace to ease you into a familiar place.

The forces that brought us together have created a natural space between us.  That is the truth of a boy’s life. That is the beauty of what love between two people has wrought, two people who are fortunate to create a miracle and see the promise of the future in the eyes of a child, a unique being who reflects the best of both of them.

Happy Birth Day to you, to me, to us.

The Shape of a Mother’s Heart


Today is Aimée’s birthday. I gave her some gift cards and a little crystal elephant necklace last week when she came up to New Hampshire for a visit. Sounds lame, but after 37 years, picking the right gift is still as hard as finding the right words to express what she means to me.

Nothing seems to measure up.

Fortunately, the universe sent me inspiration.

….

Pregnant at 16 is not where I ever expected to be, but there I was, eating for two; my future – our future – unsettled. I imagined that there was no way for me to be a competent mother. I had barely made it through Algebra 2. Things between me and my boyfriend had ended before I knew there was a baby coming, and there was no looking back. Without much family discussion, it was understood that the best thing for my baby was not necessarily me – not at 16.

By June, someone pointed me in the direction of an adoption agency, the Children’s Home Society of New Jersey. I agreed to go to counseling sessions, to fill out the preliminary paperwork – at around the same time the boy who had loved me from a far, and who had planned to be my husband since 8th grade, professed his eternal love for me, and for my baby.

I told him he shouldn’t give up his freedom for the burden of a girlfriend with a baby.

He still never listens.

It was also around the same time I began to sew an elaborate baptismal gown to dress the baby in for when she left me, and the hospital. My intention was to relay a message to the fortunate woman who was to become her mother, who would recognize the love that went into every stitch. I wanted her to know that this baby hadn’t come from just any wayward teen mom, but rather one who had managed to recreate her heart into the exact shape and size of a delicate dress, fit for an angel.

It was a true labor of love.

With no skills, beyond the basics of ninth-grade home-ec, I purchased a few yards of white dotted-Swiss, some lace and yellow satin ribbon. Not knowing if this would be a girl baby or a boy baby, I instinctively picked up two daisies to add to the coat of the three-piece ensemble, and five delicate buttons – three yellow luminescent ones for the overcoat and two tiny duck buttons for the back of the gown.

I labored over this project for weeks, using my mother’s old cast-iron sewing machine, a relic from the 1950s. It had a sticky foot pedal, a temperamental bobbin and a dull needle, but I was not deterred.

By August, the outfit was finished, not coincidentally around the same time I stopped meeting with the social worker at the Children’s Home, and around the same time I’d accepted that the boy who planned to be my husband was truly, honestly, whole-heartedly excited about being a dad.

By September 12, my beautiful baby girl was born, and I had never felt so perfectly suited to anything in my life. Loving her was more than instinct – it was like we’d been together forever. Meeting was just a formality. I already knew everything about her, from her familiar nose to her exceptionally flexible toes.

By December, a dear woman from church, Debby Clarke, had stopped by with a gift from the heart – unlike me, she actually had skills and had sewn a beautiful baptismal dress for Aimée, trimmed in pink, with a lacy bonnet. I didn’t mention the dotted-Swiss gown to her, and accepted it with sincere gratitude. By January, Aimée was baptized in Debby’s dress, and the three-piece dotted-Swiss, already relegated to storage.

Over the course of my life I have lost track of plenty of significant items, some I have been searching for, with no luck, for years.

So when I went up to my closet this morning, hoping to find an old photograph that might punctuate a birthday post for my daughter on Facebook, the swatch of dotted-Swiss draped over the side of a cardboard box under the weight of some stored sweaters caught me off guard. I had almost forgotten about it.

I tugged on the sleeve and pulled out the dress. Next to it, a pile of once-important papers was harboring a length of yellow ribbon. It was the little bonnet, which had somehow gotten separated from the dress. I instinctively clutched the fabric to my chest and started for the stairs when I heard myself sobbing. Halfway down I turned around and went back up to the closet, tossing sweaters from the box until I found the third piece, the jacket with the daisies and tiny yellow buttons.

I sat down on the floor and carefully slid the sleeves of the gown into the jacket, noting the elastic had lost its stretch. I snapped the snaps and smoothed the wrinkles, running my finger along the hem, admiring the workmanship that I’d forgotten went into this little dress that had never been worn.

I marveled at how beautifully the yoke was seamed to the bodice, and how both hems were hand sewn admirably straight. Somehow, with no guidance, I managed to attach the tiny sleeves to the flowing garment without puckering the delicate fabric, and judged the circumference of a baby’s wrist, tacking elastic in place, stitch by stitch, turning the cast-iron balance wheel of the sewing machine by hand.

And that’s when it hit me.

I will probably never in my life be able to put into words what motherhood has meant to me, but if pressed, I would say that it feels a lot like holding a three-piece antique dotted-Swiss christening dress in my hands, a remnant of a place and time that changed everything. Every stitch, a labor of love; sewn with the best of intentions, perfect in all its imperfection.

Happy Birthday, my Beloved.


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Written Sept. 12, 2013.