My desk is crammed with paper items and I immediately got sidetracked from my objective–finding a document. Each drawer I opened revealed sign posts to other times. I realized my life could be considerably pieced together by whomever rooted around in the piles. Two deep drawers contained unsorted cards, letters, drawing and photos from many decades.
I shuffled the photos. My children stared back at me, busy, happy, worried, loving, annoyed, surprised, sassy. All aged before my eyes. I pondered how time and experience had molded them.
All children are born into a voluminous web of longing, desire, and hopefully, love. Some are not born easily, on a doctor’s timetable and certainly not with all the world at their naked feet. Some leave the aqueous mysteries of womb with fierceness and some with solemnity. The unique creature each baby is peers out at us with surprise and acceptance: this is the place to be. For now.
I had been informed at age twenty-one, after my first marriage, that I had a very slim–emphasis on very–chance of pregnancy due to reproductive problems. My core trembled with distress. After a couple of weeks I decided it was alright. Maybe some women were not meant physically or psychically for mothering. I was working hard to heal from some life-altering events, so allowed this might be best. And I was in college, studying creative writing, painting, sociology, art history. The man I’d married was a sculptor, obtaining his Master’s degree. We were poor but there was much to aspire to and to accomplish.
But a prognosis such as I was given should note dramatic exceptions. I got pregnant and gave birth to three of five children and every time it seemed an astonishing thing. Maybe the doctor had been wrong. But her concern about the reliability of my reproductive capacities was not.
My children did not arrive in a timely fashion. They were born prematurely. The heftiest was five lbs. four oz. This was thirty-five to forty years ago, when premature babies were always considered very high risk. Interventions often seemed desperate and minimal. Very tiny newborns were placed in Isolettes–really, incubators for human babies– in the hope they would survive, then grow well enough. That they would have minimal damage internally and externally. The probabilities of things going wrong outweighed any optimism.
There had been warnings of things going askew almost from the start with intermittent cramping with bleeding, warning of a disastrous early labor. At six and one half months, there was no stopping my body’s insistence on slipping Naomi into earth’s atmosphere.
It was a night of a swirling blizzard. I was cold, fearful and overcome with the beauty of snow. It took longer than I expected, but I hovered on the rim of consciousness after being administered an alcohol-solution IV (something no longer done) for hours along with other medications. The foot of my bed was raised up to encourage her to stay tucked inside longer. Labor and childbirth were experienced as though underwater, from a distance. I wondered how she felt about it.
And then she arrived. My first daughter was born shining through her skin. Her luminescence overtook all and burst into my awareness as hope in the flesh. Her tiny voice ensued like the cry of a new bird, insistent, soft. It was a moment of reckoning. For the doctors: She breathes but how much longer? For us: She breathes and so she will carry on. Even as she was attached to a monitor that noted any interruptions in vital functions, even as each sudden alarm cast a dark shadow across my prayers, I felt her spirit rise up to greet the world.
Naomi was born two and a half months early; she weighed two and a half pounds. She fit neatly into the nurses’ palms. Tiny veins traced purplish-blue designs under fragile skin. She held a purity and innocence despite her hard work of survival. I could not touch her; it was not allowed back then, not until she grew stronger, gained weight and could eat on her own. We watched nurses and doctors through a nursery window, saw her wriggle thin limbs, saw how unready she had been to come. Staff reached into the portals of her Isolette with gloved hands to check vitals. She accepted feeding tubes with forbearance. Her father and I pressed against the cool glass, watching our daughter stretch inside a glass box. We wanted to break into the room and that glass, pull her close forever.
That first time I whispered, “She has artistic hands, oh, look at her long beautiful fingers!” It was terrifying to not hold her, feel helpless in the face of so much wonder. I was not encouraged to keep breast milk flowing; she was too weak to nurse. And it was not the way in nineteen seventy-three. I wept hard over it.
For over two months she remained there. We drove forty minutes to the hospital each way many times a week. Each visit increased our longing. But Naomi grew strong; her eyes began to focus better and follow us. She finally breathed well and drank from a bottle.
She came home at last, into the lushness of spring and our arms.
Caring for a preemie infant, even one with no serious issues, is not without challenge. There was finicky digestion that presaged allergies, sleep issues, skin sensitivities. She quickly tired of being touched, so foreign was it to her realm of experience. There were painful ear infections, a fickle immune system. But in the midst of this was a reigning delight. Her tenderness of spirit and probing curiosity were evident as soon as she began to better interact with others and the environment. Her determination to thrive and explore were heartening. As for me, being a mother was an epiphany, a series of lessons in love.
A first word uttered was “moon.” Her eyes were two blue stars glowing in the center of my universe. Large, round and keenly focused, their new acuity informed me of intrigue once unseen. She was indeed an artist; her hands guided me in making new the ordinariness of things. I discovered how to be accountable not out of obligation but out of devotion. How, in fact, to build another life, a far finer one. Her very presence, as well as the duties required, aided in saving me from myself. I think it can be said that my first daughter taught me how to love without expectation. To know God in a more intimate manner.
Each child gives us a chance to find the best in ourselves. As we go along for the journey a child’s presence and needs define a new life together. One’s first child unearths a great and ancient story of primeval bonds, of the boundlessness of familial loyalty. The first child informs us of ourselves in ways we cannot imagine.
Before Naomi, I had given little thought to parenting; I had babysat only a handful of reluctant times. But my knowledge was hourly expanded with skills soon diversifying. Moment by moment, I became more willing to traverse that rugged, breathtaking terrain. I realized parental love fills a bottomless well from the inside out; it is there despite our errors.
Naomi plumped up and communicated with us but didn’t speak sentences until well after she was two. We worried a bit. But she spent hours building complicated designs from blocks and other more random items. We watched her, loathe to interrupt. Her concentration was uncanny. She could sit at my feet and play while I wrote poetry and stories. She did not have any disabilities that we could see. Instead, she became a gifted student. Her need to gather knowledge, make sense of the universe and create of its components were an intellectual engine that drove her. But quietly, so that teachers commented on how she seemed to disappear at times. Her way of being was marked by tenderness toward others, as well. The capacity for stillness and observation grew. She increasingly focused on visual arts although she also had excellent aptitudes for mathematics and science. She completed her Masters of Fine Arts at Carnegie Mellon University, and became the visual artist she was meant to become.
Time has altered some things but not all. Her passion for the arts and for learning have taken her many places. She is no longer the quiet one off to the side. She has been making all kinds of art for many years– sculpture, installations, performance art, videos and photographs, printmaking, drawings–and teaches at a liberal arts college, as well as coordinating the art gallery. Exhibiting often and winning prizes, she has also attended many artist residencies here and in other countries.
The infant who appeared delicate and weak in doctors’ eyes and spectacular in ours defied the odds for that time. She became strong in body and mind, and has hewed her path with tenacity and vision. I cannot begin to tell you how much I admire her charitable heart and independent spirit. Her courage to create despite the obstacles that being an artist presents. She has made my own world a more habitable and happy place.
This is a very brief story of one of three children who were not supposed to be here. And there are two others, also welcomed, who were given to me to help raise. They each inspire and intrigue me. Do you begin to see why those pictures waylay me. I am in my sixth decade. That is how motherhood is; it is never truly set aside.
My drawers remain stuffed. They need a full day of attention. And my thoughts are still full of color, tumbling, rushing, rippling as I contemplate all the treasures. What a grand tale every life is. What an exotic, a lustrous thing.
A prescient poem by Naomi, age 12. Her website is www.naomijfalk.com.