almost one: the mystery of a baby year

He sits beside me on the carpet, staring at a bright blue book about fish, patting its pages and gnawing its cardboard spine. Late afternoon sun slants through the nursery window, catching wispy curls of his hair, strawberry blond or golden brown as the light shifts.

Every time he catches my eyes watching him, his face erupts into silent grin. I am lying on my side and he leans over to bat his pudgy arms against the curve of my stomach, soft and forgiving after three babies.

Twelve months ago he was still curled inside me, kicking and squirming. Now he has small ham hocks for thighs, plump cheeks he stuffs with fistfuls of peas, whirling arms that reach out with clumsy waves at any smiling face he sees.

He is on the cusp of turning one.

image

A baby year is a blur. In the beginning, night is day and day is night. Hours are days and days are hours. Life is flipped inside out like hundreds of tiny socks piled on the bed, laundry reproducing at stunning rates: burp cloths, spit-up soaked onesies, thousands of diapers tumbled to dry. Only the basics consume us: eating, sleeping, the occasional bath. The world spins by outside while we burrow into our cocoon: mother, baby, closest kin who love them. All the rest falls away and it does not matter.

The shifts happen softly and are undone as quickly as they come. The baby starts to sleep longer, then the pattern unravels. The personality emerges, then teething disrupts everything. The new normal is settled, then falls apart. Undaunted, the baby grows.

We parents sense – and rightly so – that the child we hold today is already transforming into a new creature by tomorrow. So we fumble to capture what is fleeting in photo or word, even knowing any secondary creation we attempt will fall short.

Because what we are trying to capture is us, too – in mid-transformation. We somehow sense that we are becoming, again, as this strange small person is becoming, anew. We want to remember exactly how we feel – which is exactly how this baby feels, smells, looks, and sounds, right now, today, in our arms – because it is momentary and momentous, all at once.

This is the essence of the baby year, the longest shortest time. It whizzes by us as each day drags. It lulls us into thinking we have regained rhythm and found our footing, and then it lunges forward into worlds unknown. It shifts like a kaleidoscope. We think we control the turning because we hold it in our hands, but the flash of color comes unbidden from the moving parts inside, the beauty we can never recreate.

I have been a mother for nearly six years. This is such a small sliver of my life. But conceiving and carrying and caring for these children has made me and unmade me and remade me in so many unexpected ways that numbers fail to capture.

On the floor beside me sits my third son, two weeks from turning one. Numbers fail to capture him, too. In the short span of twelve months he has gone from the dark womb to the bright day, from the muffled kicks to the determined crawl, from the first cry to the almost-word. Already I see glimmers of his grown self in his deep eyes, his ready joy, his centered quiet. He will not stop changing, even as he becomes himself.

A baby year transforms. It brings infant and parents around the sun just one time, yet we are transfigured for having seen all sides of this blinding bright, able and aware in ways we could not imagine a year before.

Maybe this is the truth my hopeful/jaded self wants to carry with me, into a world so tired from suffering and violence and evil and our own baffling self-destruction. That one year can change us. That we remain unpredictable. That today is important even as it passes.

My son will not remember a single day from his first year. I will remember it only in shadows and glimpses, a strange dream of deep naps on summer afternoons, tired hours on autumn mornings, moon shadows glowing through winter’s nights, spring green buds clasped in tiny fingers.

Still I pause in the blur, slowing to remember and recenter, steadying myself to witness a moment in the mystery of lives unfolding. One long sun-turned season of becoming again.

His and mine.

joy, meet relief

Can you hear it in their voices?

Once you cut through the baffled wonder and divide the nagging disbelief and set aside the stuttering astonishment, there it is: relief.

He is risen. He is risen? He is risen! It’s not a matter of simple punctuation. There are a thousand reactions to surprising news, and the Gospels cover nearly every one. Mary thinks she’s talking to the gardener. John and Peter race each other to the tomb. Thomas can’t believe his eyes.

But by the end of each of their stories, there is always a category shift.

The turn to joy.

image

Happiness is often distinguished from joy. One is fleeting; the other is lasting. One is surface; the other is depth.

But here’s a difference I hadn’t noticed until this Easter.

Until I nursed the baby in the wee grey hours of Sunday morning, the baby who had slept all night, finally, blessedly, miraculously slept all night after months of terrible waking. Until my only thought as my whole self relaxed to let him feed was relief.

And then I remembered how joy can come from relief. 

It is not exactly happiness, because we are so worn out that we cannot smile easy. And we are changed by what we have been through, wrung from worry and exhausted from fear. But we still feel this deeper exhale, this turning back toward trust, this unspoken knowledge that we will carry with us a wider, wiser, richer understanding because of the dark slog we have trudged through.

A loved one waits for test results. All signs point to the worst. Then the doctor calls to say, “All clear.” We sit stunned. We exchange glances, barely believing. Then we start to let down toward joy.

The joy that knows this could have ended a thousand different ways, all of them terribly. Yet it didn’t.

The joy that embraces not only a good ending, but a new beginning.

. . .

Each time I birthed my babies, I felt this joy-from-relief, overwhelmed in those spinning moments after delivery, surging with intensity that words fail to capture, a swirl of pain and exhilaration, delight and delirium, disbelief and astonishment. And always joy.

Knowing this moment could have ended a thousand different ways, so many of them badly. Knowing the stories of strangers and friends for whom death met birth in heart-breaking ways.

But then realizing with my own heart, seeing with my own eyes, whispering to my stunned self, that it wasn’t. That we were here and safe and okay.

Deep joy pulsed in each of those delivery rooms, bustling with nurses I barely saw and bright lights that paled around me while I watched a brand-new face blink open to a new world.

I wonder if Easter morning was like this, too.

Running from an empty tomb, scrambling to tell someone else, racing to see a body gone, feeling that heart-racing thump of no, no way, really, yes is this real, can this be? Desperate dreams and wildest prayers and all of them answered – he is not here! he is alive? – but not in ways any of them could have imagined in a million years.

His friends knew the joy that comes from relief. From knowing it could have, should have, would have been so different. Yet here they are. Life is categorically changed, and they are reeling from deepest joy.

Two thousand years later and we are still puzzling to parse out the meaning of that day. I still don’t understand this – the turning inside out of everything that makes sense, the upheaval of existence itself, the strange promise that a shadow of the same waits for each of us.

I do not understand it but I believe it in my bones and every time I feel my body release into the joy that flows from relief, I wonder if maybe we all know what it means to witness resurrection.

To sink into a possibility that you never dared to let yourself imagine, and to discover that it was exactly what you hoped all along.

3 things Thomas taught me about God

Dark-haired. Dark-eyed. Stubborn and spunky. Middle child. All things I am, too.

But this sweet Thomas boy – he is full of surprises. Every day he keeps me on my toes, reminding me that he knows his way. And his way in this world will be bright, blazed all on his own.

image

1) Thomas taught me how God is Creator.

Thomas came into the world fast and furious. The way he’s done everything since.

I write in my book about how much he taught me by his birth – which was natural and powerful and even easy. The utter opposite of the overwhelming induction that brought Sam into the world.

While we were racing to the hospital, I freaked out that the baby would be born in the car en route, so intense was the speed at which everything was flying.

But suddenly I looked straight at the clock on the dashboard and knew that I would be fine. Because he would be born at 3:21 am. I have never known anything with such perfect clarity before or since.

Sure enough, he ended up arriving exactly on time – as soon as we flew into the birth center, as soon as the doctor rushed in to catch the baby, and as soon as that clock ticked to 3:21 am. Crazy but true. Now that I know our boy who always makes up his mind in a split second, I’m not surprised. Thomas has always been a boy on his own time.

His birth taught me that I was stronger than I realized. That my body and mind were created to do hard and worthy work. His birth taught me that so much of a child’s personality is revealed in the earliest moments. And these innate qualities are not of our own crafting.

Thomas reminds me that each of us was called into being by a Creator who knew our lives before we took our first breaths. The mystery and wonder of that truth is captured in his birth story that still surprises me every time I tell it.

Just like the boy himself.

image

2) Thomas taught me how God is Reconciler.

Another truth I write about in my book (can you tell I have it on the brain since I finished final edits this weekend?!) is that Thomas’ temperament is not far from mine. Which is a nice way of saying that he and I regularly practice reconciliation and forgiveness.

The stubborn Irish temper I share with my second-born? It teaches me time and time again how God is slow to anger, rich in mercy. I wish I could be like that, too. But until my edges (and his) soften over time, this is a lesson that both Thomas and I will have to keep learning over and over. Good things we’re in it together.

Quick to laugh, quick to snap. My prayer is that we will both be quick to love and forgive, too. Like the God who is always waiting to welcome and reconcile, running down the road to meet us with a father’s wild, prodigal joy.

image

3) Thomas taught me how God is Trust.

Since the day we chose our boy’s name, the expression “Doubting Thomas” rubs me the wrong way. Sure, I get the Scripture reference. But every time I return to the story with fresh eyes, it strikes me that Thomas was far from cynical or snarky about struggling with the idea of the resurrection. Quite the contrary.

His faith already dug so deep that he demanded to know. He wouldn’t hide behind false fronts or go along with the bewildered crowd. He wanted to see with his own eyes and touch with his own hands.

Maybe he was the apostle who believed the deepest.

The story of Thomas’s name reminds me of doubt’s important role in the spiritual life. It is the stubborn twin brother of faith that keeps wrestling and probing. It is the hunger for understanding that refuses to give up and go quietly. It is the heart’s desire, strong enough to stay and search for truth.

So when I call Thomas’s name, I hear that invitation to Trust all over again. To keep wondering and wanting toward wisdom, asking to come close enough to press my fingers into the love of God.

 What have you learned about God from those closest to you – 

your spouse, children, parents, siblings, or friends?

the best secret we’ve ever kept

Dear world:

He’s here!

IMG_6183

And he’s beautiful.

And we knew it was him all along.

For 20 long weeks we kept the secret. From family. From friends. From every perfect stranger who would stop us in the grocery store and ask if we knew what we were having.

No matter who inquired whether this baby was a boy or a girl, my response was always the same.

We’re keeping it a surprise, I’d say.

My hunch is it’s a boy, I’d offer.

And if you listened carefully to my phrasing, I never told a lie.

IMG_6186

I always swallowed back the smile when people would assure me it was a girl. I can tell by how you’re carrying. I knew from the moment you told me you were pregnant. It’s got to be a girl this time.

I’d nod and chat about how it would be fun to have a daughter – because I always entertained a healthy dose of doubt, even with ultrasound techs and crystal clear pictures that claim to be “99% accurate.”

I wouldn’t know for sure until I held that baby in my arms.

But still we knew. And it was the loveliest secret we’ve ever kept, just the two of us calling him by name, delighting in the prospect of three boys, imagining what new personality might be added to the bunch.

We’d always loved the surprise before. Turned our heads away with resolve at the ultrasound tech’s instructions. Marveled at the discovery in the delivery room. Loved sharing the news with each family member and friend we called in the hours after delivery.

But after our miscarriage last year, my perspective changed. The loss of the unknown and the possibility was the hardest grief to bear. I wanted to know as much as I could about our baby.

So I wore him down, my dear husband who can be as stubborn as I. After a few months of convincing, he agreed to find out – as long as we kept the surprise to share with friends and family once baby arrived.

(And of course we never whispered a word of our secret to the two biggest blabber-mouths we know: Brothers #1 and #2, who openly had their hearts set on a little sister. “Mama, we already have a little brother!” our oldest would remind us exasperatedly.)

So on that freezing cold Epiphany day, we found out. And we both loved it. I will never forget the grin we shared in that dimly lit ultrasound room. Three boys!

Knowing made the waiting that much sweeter, that much more eager, that much more impatient. And now he’s here in our arms.

IMG_6159

So it’s a story of revelation – of secret and surprise. And a story of change and conversion. The choices we made for one child don’t have to be the choices we make for another.

But what a joy to share the news we’ve known for so long. Our boy.

Not simply a third variation on a theme. Far from any disappointed attempt to “try for a girl.” Nothing but a beautiful boy and brother and son and child of God all his own.

Sometimes I wondered, in that abstracted telescopic view we sometimes try to sneak on our own lives, whether I wished this baby had been a girl. After all, everyone around me was sure I wanted a daughter. Some of the bold ones went so far as to declare that they hoped I’d “get my girl” this time. Once or twice I felt that twinge of ohhhh when I saw an adorable dress in the baby department.

But when I wrote that I was smitten with this baby the second I saw him, it was no exaggeration.

Every time I thought of him – him – a goofy grin snuck across my face that I can only compare to that feeling of falling in love for the first time. He is exactly the baby I dreamed of.

So there you have it, world. From the girl who can’t keep a poker face, who always bursts to let loose the secret, who can barely hide a joke’s punch line.

Nearly half a year spent waiting to spill the beans.

He’s the best secret I’ve ever kept.

IMG_6173

labor’s stages: a triduum

A journey of four days, each unique.

Holy Week reveals itself in new shades every year, shadows of dark and light. It pushes through the broken, cold dirt of Lent’s long winter with a fresh green curl of hope.

With only a few short weeks to go before baby’s birth, I see these feasts through a new slant. Each like its own stage of labor, particular and progressing. Anticipated but still unexpected.

The gentle beginning.

The increased pain.

The powerful transition.

The final push.

The question is how to journey through all four, patient and present, without wanting to skip over all that comes between.

. . .

IMG_6135

When you know you’re in labor, call me, she says, a steady confidence behind her steely grey eyes that have seen thousands of babies birthed into the world. We’ll meet you outside the hospital so we can walk and talk and decide when you want to go in.

And we’ll go get you some food first, she adds, turning to pick up the Doppler to check my baby’s heartbeat. You’ll need to keep up your strength for what comes next.

Thursday is washing and feeding. Prepare your body: eat and drink. Let your feet be washed. Bend your own knees to serve others. Try to steel yourself for what comes next, the sacrifice and the suffering.

Except you can never ready yourself for what Friday will bring. It will catapult you back into the arms of God.

. . .

IMG_6136An empty due date comes and goes. I am the only one who notices.

Alone that night, I light a small candle. Another baby kicks and squirms inside me. Is it worth mourning when my body is rounded and ripe again? Of course. The heart once wounded never heals the same.

I remember how it broke me open, the birth-that-was-not-birth. When I walked into the hospital a month ago for routine tests, my whole body tensed at the memory.

I worry that contractions will trigger the fear and grief again. I worry that we could lose, again.

Friday is suffering and sacrifice. Step into a bare church, stripped stark of its presence. Listen to stories of hearts and bodies breaking. Remember the physical pain of love.

But do not forget that Saturday still waits. Dawn’s first hints that despair and loss will be overshadowed by strange new hope.

. . .

Baptism has many symbols, he explains, ticking them off on his fingers while the couple in front of me fuss over their newborn in the car seat carrier.

Water. Light. Oil. A white garment. And one more in our church that you won’t find anywhere else. Can you guess what it is?

IMG_6137My head snaps back to attention, lulled into laziness by baptism classes before and graduate studies before that. I wonder what our deacon means.

The tomb. Next time you walk by our baptismal font, take a look at its shape. It looks like a tomb. Or a coffin. Because we are baptized into Christ’s death before we rise with him to new life.

And we want our wriggling newborn to be plunged into precisely that, I think. Could anything sound crazier? Starkest darkness before the light.

Saturday is waiting and transition. Pause for a moment between death and life. Sit in the tension between agony and delight. Hold a candle to welcome the newest Christians, the ones who shape their lives to a tomb filled in sorrow and opened in surprise.

So do not give up when you fear you cannot make it through. Transition means the joy is almost within your grasp.

. . .

Do you know what you’re having?

Again and again, perfect strangers pose the question. I have to bite back the sarcastic reply before it slips past my tongue – I think it’s a baby – and respond with a kinder smile. We’re keeping it a surprise.

After Easter Mass the gathering space swells with people swarming into pews or spilling out into the parking lot. The grandmother of the family who often sit behind our motley crew reaches out to grab my elbow as I pass.

Remind me, are your boys getting a brother or a sister?

We’ll have to wait and see, I tell her. Not much longer!

She nods, satisfied. And turning to go, she adds, It will be a blessing for your family no matter what.

SIMG_6139unday is rising and revelation. The miracle bursting forth. What seemed impossible is now before our eyes in flesh and blood. Letting loose an Alleluia we have waited long to hear.

But still we hold traces of Thursday, Friday, and Saturday in our Sunday grasp.

To remind us how the journey that brought joy was a winding road through mystery and death. This year, as in every other year. This birth, as in every other birth.