Most of us secure the details of the day we were born early on. We hear the story and repeat it enough that we’re pretty confident about the specifics, even though we weren’t taking notes at the time. No shock to my siblings, I always thought my birth was an important one. I was a c-section baby. My mom was on bed-rest for weeks. I was a month early. Someone in the storytelling said that my mom stood up the moment she got the “okay” from the doctor, and that I was born immediately after. I pictured her placing her feet on the ground as the ambulance arrived for the escort. It all ran pretty smoothly in my mind. Paula, Dan, and Matt had unimaginable fun at our neighbor Lucy’s house, staying up late eating green noodles, while Mom and Dad welcomed their new little and lovable bundle on the 1st of April. Paula, the adoring big sister, thought it was a joke and that she really had another brother.
What I have come to understand is that no matter how smoothly things may run, c-sections are uncomfortable. The green of Lucy’s noodles was spinach-inspired, and what so captivated me about them was the pool of butter and parmesan in which they swam. As for Paula, the novelty of having a little sister has long since worn off.
The couch I’m lying on is sprinkled with sliced almonds. The monitor beats and bleeps, practically dancing on the kitchen counter as Lexi voices little interest in sleeping, and the mommy moments continue past the PBS special I was meaning to watch, past the book I’m dying to finish. Dave’s hair is graying but his eyes still laugh as he rolls them at me from the brown chair: “What is up with this kid?” I was up with her, in her room, for much too long, and now all of the parenting books I’ve ever read glare at me from the bookcase: “What were you thinking?” I hear them say.
But, when Lexi was napping earlier that day, Caroline and I curled on the couch, listening to stories on cd. Caroline in her light blue ballerina dress, worn and washed so often, its tulle tutu a lot less puffy than it once was, its sheer overdress shredded with holes. A straw purse fell from her shoulder. Over that, sprung pink fairy wings; and somehow simultaneously over and under the wings, wrapped a practical green cardigan she’s just learned to button. Her hot pink tiara sat low like a visor, its sides secured with masking tape. She wore a sullied pair of pink tights and sparkly shoes having long since lost their luster, one pink and one red. She, my little fairy bag-lady, and I, as far from down-and-out as we could possibly be, resting together.
So tonight I spent equal time with Lexi, resting with her on the bed in her room, when really I should have given her the kiss and the hug and left her to fall asleep on her own. She was telling me all about her pink doggy, and how he can stay with us on the tow-blow (pillow), and she stretched beside me, her blue eyes approving as I closed mine tight then opened them wide. She lifted her head slightly saying “Shtopp, Mommy” but I knew she wanted me to peek-a-boo a bit longer. She left her pillow to share mine, and I thought how beautiful she is and how she and her sister do something to my heart—fill it; I guess it’s that simple. Simple enough to go from empty to full. Simple enough to dampen the sounds of a heart that once echoed and ticked like a motoring clock, with the soft, certainty of love for these busy little girls who’ve taken me over.
As we crossed the walking bridge towards Mom’s hospital room, Dad told me they called me “Baby Grand” after I was born, because c-section babies were not cheap. I loved it—I’m the kid who plays the piano—how perfect. How did I not know this before? And he told me, as the hospital doors opened for us, about the idiot nurse who said something about not hearing the baby’s heartbeat as they were wheeling my mother in for surgery. She came out of the operation convinced I was dead. But my dad told her, no, what must have happened, the doctor said, was they were registering only one heartbeat because my mom’s heart and mine were beating at the same time.
I grabbed that image and tucked it away as we tapped on her hospital door.
Our visits were not long. I don’t remember if that was for her benefit or ours. As Dad and I walked out that day, I told her I loved her, and she said, “I love you both.” Then just as loudly, though in a movie scene I would have imagined this second part as a whisper only she could hear, she said, “You’ll never know how much.”
Dear Mom, I know now.
Mother’s Day. This isn’t my first as a mom, but it is the first when my oldest daughter can actually say, “Mommy.” She can also say “Oh My God Kingee, do you need a haircut!” and she can tell her dad that she’s not “digging” the song he’s singing. It is what I say and not necessarily what I do, these days, as Caroline makes our language her own. She grabs words and phrases like candy—with parental perseverance, she’ll accept table manners just as voraciously—and most of the time, I love it. I love hearing myself interpreted in a musical little lilting voice. She rolls the “r” (something I could never do) in “Caroline,” Italian flair. “Baracuda” (Dave taught her that one) rings from her mouth like it’s a kind of perfume, not a toothy fish.
There are car rides, however. There are missteps and moments when I forget that her eyes are on me, and when I say eyes, I mean globally big and blue, and when I imagine all that those eyes see, I envision raptors atop mountains scouting prey. This girl is watching … and listening. Will some future Caroline wistfully reminisce: “My mother used to say, ‘Get off the road, you Jackass!’”?
What will Caroline and Lexi remember about me? Will I envelop them in catch-phrases; will I sit them down for lectures? Will stuff just come out and stick? Should I be developing some teaching strategy, as the little magnets form minds? What am I doing?
My own mother was not a motto-mom. She may have doubted her ability as sage, but I like to think that she knew her style and her audience. I probably wasn’t going to listen. Though I do remember, when I was in junior high and convinced that everyone was better, brighter, and prettier than I, Mom did assure me that Susie Slatkin put her pants on just like everybody else. My mother also had this tip for relieving tension: shape out the alphabet with your head when you’re showering. I attempted the ABC’s of stress relief just the other day, wrenching my neck in the process. Water cooled and decreased in pressure down my back as I stood rigidly, waiting for the pain to pass. Of all that my mom and I had shared through the years, why on earth had I remembered that little nugget? Had she ever walked me through exactly how she raised four kids, lost weight after pregnancy, managed to be the smartest woman I’d ever met? I wish I’d listened.
Without my prompting the other day Caroline jumped on the footstool in her bedroom, screaming “Rockstar!” then jumped down with a “Ta Da!” She once put smiley stickers on top of her Little People’s heads, saying they all had to wear hats because it was too sunny. Recently she held out dripping fingers as she was bathing: “Here’s a rain forest, Mommy,” she said, pouring the water into my hand. I figure, if at age two she’s already interested in music, sun protection, and the environment, then I’m doing okay.
When my mom was sick with cancer, I had this aching desire to ask her for final advice, wisdom that would stay with me forever, guiding me towards a not-yet-materialized loving husband, aptly-nurtured future kids, and a good life. I had this brief but powerful feeling that maybe she would say something to me that I’d be able to keep, to mark down on delicate paper with a thin-tipped caligraphy pen—those go-to words that would get me through. I knew then that I was being silly because that had never been her way. She had been showing me her way for 34 years. By then, I had sense and I had love. I had strength enough, even, to say good bye to her.
I know that (post-language acquisition stage!) Caroline and Lex will hear what I do so much louder than what I say. They will see what I do with color and clarity, and they will remember, not all, but pieces of me, just as I remember my mother—the pink of her pedicure; our shared penchant for the scent of a flowering gardenia; the sound of her stifled laughter when my brothers’ misbehaved.
I imagine I’ll not impose words to live by—I hope my daughters just spend their time living. And I hope that what I give is so soaked and saturated into them, that when I’m gone, they won’t be able to separate themselves from the memories of me. I hope they remember the feel of their mother’s hug, the sound of her singing voice, and the wave of her fingers as she stands on her porch watching them leave after a visit. Just as I remember my mom, I hope my girls will remember me: not all that we say (because how could that be possible?), but the familiar way we sit across from each other at the kitchen table, dipping spoons into our coffees, content in the talking.
“Hear lion waterfall, Mommy!” Caroline is standing by the bay window, her face turned to the outside, her little body turned to me—already trying to be in different places at once. There is a lot for an almost-two-year-old to see, after all. She is at the start of it, attracting everyone and everything: an elderly woman, a middle-aged man, a toddler boy, not-a-one can escape the pull and promise of this little girl. She draws smiles and awakens eyes wherever we go. Winter winds race to pinch and redden those cheeks of hers. Even the light coming from the other side of the bay window lands on Caroline with resolve, knowing she’s the one in the room most deserving of its attention.
“Baby ‘Corn hear lion waterfall, Mommy!” Caroline’s holding out a white unicorn figurine. The fact that it’s one of those “Little People” characters from Fisher Price escapes Caroline. This is a friend, and wherever we go, so goes Baby Unicorn, Mommy Unicorn, Kingee, Queenie, Dragon, and Maid Mary. Sometimes Stone Wall, Bed, and Food hitch a ride, and occasionally purple chair scores the invite, so I’m thankful that a few months back I bought on impulse a small, green felt bag with a monkey’s face on one side… soft, durable “Monkey Bag” is the ideal transport vehicle.
I’m sitting on the couch with another baby, Baby Alexandra, the 6-month old, who is mellow and smiley and patient and lovely and by all accounts a second-child. She’ll every-now-and-then cry when she’s tired or hungry, but for the most part, she’s come to understand that she will be be cared for … just as soon as her big sister has been cared for. We are calling her “Alex” and “Lex” interchangeably, so even her name is in constant movement—she is as soft and durable as Monkey Bag. I ask Caroline, “Baby Unicorn hears the lion waterfall?”
I like to think that I am a fun, strong, good mother. Caroline and I read books; we sing songs; we go to the playground to swing on the “wee-wee,” and (well, once) we finger-paint with food-colored vanilla pudding. But I had a rule (no tv for Caroline until she’s two) and as soon as Alex was born, I broke it. Now, when I nurse Alex, Caroline gets to watch “Dragon Tales.” It was the only way, the only way I thought at the time, that I could preserve my sanity. To be sure, there are worse things she could be watching, but the Dragon Tales theme song is as catchy as a common cold, following me to sleep, waking me in the morning, and bursting from my lips while I’m (well, once) cooking dinner. Irrepressibly contagious theme song aside, it’s been so interesting to see how Caroline has welcomed the Dragon Tales characters into her life. She talks of Max and Emmy as if she’s just left them in their playroom. She lights up when you ask her “Now what’s the name of the pink dragon? And the blue one?” Like her Monkey Bag companions, the DT crew has become a part of her world. Space is expanding around her—a wide open ball of fresh, welcoming, wonderful air—and Caroline is letting us all in.
So…the lion waterfall. Mr Pop is the guy in one DT episode who uses a fancy gadget to take sounds and transplant them. A frog “cockle-doodle-doos,” a cow “croaaaks,” and a waterfall roars like a lion. Although the television is off, this is what Caroline and Baby Unicorn hear as they stand by the bay window.
I am one who does not like to lose a friend. I really don’t. I need to stay connected to all of those people who were at one time important to me. I’ll take the annual Christmas card, the occasional email, the random phone call, whatever—I just like to think that the contact is a possibility, that the line is open.
The line to Mary Kate is as direct and immediate as they come for me, even though she and I, after we graduated from college, lived very different lives. She married Bobby and had her three kids before I even met my future husband, Dave. She saw me through several bad breakups, heard a bit about my stint as a lead singer in a band, and we kept in touch through the years even though at times it seemed we were speaking completely different languages. Just before I met Dave, I lost my mom to cancer, and three months before my mom died, Mary Kate lost her mother to cancer. It was the oddest of reconnections. For me, being Mary Kate’s friend was the only easy thing about watching my mom die. Mary Kate had done it just before me. It was possible.
We spoke even more on the phone during the months following our mothers’ deaths, and five years later, I will see a woman in the supermarket that looks just like her mom, get home, and pick up the phone. She will see my mom in a dream, looking really healthy and happy, and she will pick up the phone.
As Caroline hears the lion waterfall, I think of a story from one of those phone calls, when Mary Kate’s youngest—about the age of Caroline now—was in the back seat of the car, pointing outside of the window at his “nanna” who was on the other side of the window. I believed it then: that her mother was there, angel wings and all, to spend time with this irresistible little boy, this pumpkin-faced sweetheart who was welcoming everyone and everything into his growing world. She was not going to miss this. No matter what, she was going to strap on wings and fly to him. That baby saw his grandmother. He was at this glorious age where his wide open eyes were taking it all in.
Caroline is there right now. Right now. I wonder with awe and a tinge of jealousy what she is seeing, and at this very moment, I wonder what she is hearing. It may be that she hears the distant rumble of the trash truck; it may be that she hears the toss and tumble of the clothes dryer. Or, it may be that she hears the lion waterfall. I’m giving it to her. I’m allowing it as a possibility, just as I’m allowing the possibility of a visit from a healthy and happy angel. What I would do to mingle with them in that welcoming, wonderful air.