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.

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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.

the holy sacrifice of the mess

In French, the word for the Catholic Mass is “la messe.”

First as a student and then as a resident of France, this translation always struck me as slightly irreverent. I understood its Latin roots (Ite, missa est – “Go forth, the Mass is ended” – gives the same root of the word for both French and English). But every time my roommates asked if I was going to “la messe,” the word always landed awkwardly on my Anglo ears.

Because Mass was anything but messy! Quiet and calm, peaceful and prayerful: these were the mot juste to describe Sunday mornings.

Way back then – in cool stone churches full of holy hush, pews lined with the reverent faithful, prayers intoned with perfect pitch, solemn and sacred – the whole point of Mass was that it was a foretaste of heaven.

And I soaked up its beauty like the bright-eyed girl that I was.

Now? Mass is a mess. With two squirming kids in the pew and a bored baby in our arms, we are living a different definition of that French faux-translation. Stuff gets dropped, spilled, scattered, and torn. Tears are shed, fits are thrown, whispers turn to shouts and (worse) screams.

But lately, as my husband and I try to stay faithful to the parental duty of herding cats in the pew while we half-hear the homily, I find myself seeing this holy sacrifice reflected in a whole new light.

Because our life at home is a mess, too.

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No sooner is Mount Laundry conquered than the baby soaks the sheets. No sooner is the kitchen floor mopped than muddy sneakers smudge trails from the back door. No sooner are the bathrooms scrubbed spotless than they are invaded by an eager tooth-brusher, a reluctant hand-washer, or – worst of all worst – a sick child who almost made it to the toilet.

We adults try to keep up, but kids rule the roost when it comes to livable levels of clean.

Translation? La messe.

Living in the mess can be a sacrifice. I idolize living without clutter, but I am called to live within chaos right now. Because the contours of my life these days circle around three small children and all the work that comes with loving, teaching, feeding, cleaning, and caring for them. This is the sacrifice I’m called to – to let go of my need for control and to let growing children live in all their wonderful mess around me.

It will not always be this way. Some day I will clean the house, and it will stay sparkling for a week. Some day I will have a single laundry day rather than an hour each evening spent washing, drying, and folding whatever three small bodies have produced. Some day, I hope, I will be delighted to discover how my grandchildren turn the house upside down with their visits, too.

But today? We are living in the holy sacrifice of the mess. 

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Sometimes I catch glimmers of what an un-messy life once was or what it might be again. The shiny kitchen counter after I wipe it clean at the end of the night. The quiet moment of prayer in a suddenly empty house after everyone rushes outside to play.

But such moments are rare. More often I am right in the messy middle. And I have to remind myself – a hundred times today, a thousand times tomorrow – that God is here, too. I wrote these words to myself in Everyday Sacrament, and perhaps I wrote them for you, too, that “if I’m honest, the God-in-chaos is the God I meet more often.”

So can I let my expectations slide in the church pew along with me? To embrace the holy sacrifice of the mess there, too?

I’m trying. I catch the eyes of tired parents around us, and I know they are, too. We smile ruefully at each other while we wrangle a runner heading up for the altar or a toddler toppling over the back of the pew. We know this is hard and holy work, living the sacrifice here and the sacrifice at home.

And we’re trying to trust – perhaps as all of us do who try to follow in faith – that the outward chaos of our lives does not define our inner center. Because a life full of love and service and sacrifice does not have to look beautiful to be good.

So into the mess we go, where life is still holy. Are you there, too?

Ite, missa est.

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what we hold tight & what we let go

I finally tossed the stack of papers into the recycling bin, the post-op instructions we brought home after surgery. That laundry list of every possible complication and horrific side effect, the worries you watch for like a hawk when you first come home from the hospital, clutching the doctor’s instructions as if they were a lifesaver.

I felt a little sheepish when I realized the papers had been sitting on the bathroom counter for so long, spying at me each time I helped a child brush his teeth or wash his hands. Why did I think I needed to keep them around for weeks, even after surgery went fine and healing went as hoped and that healthy boy now runs around laughing and shrieking, never skipping a beat?

But this is what you do when you’re struggling to keep your head above water.

You hold on.

 . . .

After each birth it took me weeks to throw away the official discharge papers from the hospital. What if something awful happened to me or the baby? What if we didn’t know what to do?

When nursing got hard after each newborn, I desperately clung to the lactation consultant’s suggestion sheet until it fell apart in my hands. What if what she said held the answer? What if I could just find the secret trick to make everything magically ok?

When we came home from well-check visits during each baby’s first year, I dutifully kept every list of developmental milestones, as if I could simply check off what I wanted like a shopping list. What if they didn’t grow on track? What if I didn’t catch the warning signs in time? What if I failed the ones entrusted to me?

Secretly I convinced myself as a new mom that the secret to surviving – healing, adjusting, learning how to live anew after each transition – lay hidden within some expert’s black and white words on the page.

But it didn’t. The secret lay within my growing ability to trust.

And to learn what to let go.

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I remember the day I gave away my stack of parenting manuals, the ones I poured through as a first-time parent. Sleep, feeding, development, illness, milestones – I read every chapter religiously. Those books became Bible to me in the wee dark hours with a screaming newborn or a sleepless baby or a feverish toddler.

But then one day, when baby #2 was nearing two, I realized I never read them anymore.

Sure, I sought Dr. Google’s advice on the regular like any modern parent. And I had long ago memorized our pediatrician’s phone number. But I had started to trust my intuition more, too.

And I learned the hard way, as every parent learns, that children never match the ideal descriptions in any book. We are all more mysterious and unpredictable (see also: human!) than any expert could predict with perfect precision.

This, I am discovering, is a huge relief.

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Guideposts are helpful along the way. We would be lost and frantic without them when we start down an unfamiliar path.

But then we have to set down the map, leave behind the guidebook, get our own bearings, and make our way into the wilder and wondrous world of getting to know reality as it looks us in the face.

Which, for parenting, means learning to read and respond to another human being’s needs, wants, fears, faults, temperament and challenges. Another human being who is as messy and stubborn and delightful and frustrating as we are, too.

Today the only books and guides I keep on the subject of parenting (see the photo above) are wise ones that offer more questions than answers. These are the companions I want on this journey.

Because what I am learning now is this. At each stage of life, a key question will arise: what do I hold tight and what do I let go? 

The measure of my peace will depend on my answer.

Right now I know there are plenty of things I cling to that I should let go. (A few small examples: my need to exert control over young children’s temper tantrums, my delirious desire to sleep 8 straight hours, my frustration with a home that will never stay clean for more than 4.5 minutes.)

I want answers to these questions, solutions for these puzzles, experts for my uncertainty. I am still holding tight to what would serve me better to let go.

In time I will grow some more and let these slip through an open hand.

I hope.

 . . .

There are deeper lessons here. About what faith means. What trust invites. What we let ourselves learn as we grow in courage to leave the experts behind.

This is another kind of knowing, a way in the darkness, a calling within the stillness of soul where God dwells.

Because nestled deep in the heart center, when all is stripped away and we are left alone with our God, there is nothing to let go but fear. Nothing to cling to but love.

And love, it appears, has been the answer all along.

how to speak their language

He loves math. I do not. We have to learn how to love each other.

When I say he loves math, I do not mean it as mere preference or interest or opinion. I mean it as the air he breathes, swallowing numbers in hungry gulps, pushing answers back into the swirling world of equations around him.

I mean it as the water in which he swims, life-giving and all-surrounding and impossible to isolate from the basic fact of his existence.

He watches the numbers at the gas pump like a hawk, tallying up how much more we spent last week. He clutches the grocery receipt like a treasure map, rushing in the back door to his toy cash register to add up the sum again. He does division as a kindergartener that I worked on as a fifth-grader.

This stumps me sometimes.

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A few weeks ago when he came out of surgery, barely able to flutter open his eyes, still groggy from anesthesia, he started multiplying the numbers on the monitor screen next to his bed: if you take the oxygen rate times the heart rate, you get 9800. 

The nurse turned, wide-eyed. He’s a math guy! An engineer, maybe? A scientist?

I do not know. He is mystery.

. . .

I never intended to have children to pass on any particular part of myself or my spouse. Heredity is too strange and humility too important for anything else to have factored in.

Yet I still puzzle over how drastically different these children can be. Yes, this one has his nose, that one has my cheeks. But their minds are wildly and blessedly their own.

I cannot even comprehend how differently they see the world, even though each is his own unique product of the equation of same mother plus same father.

Thankfully we are more than the sum of our parts or the product of our parents. How pale and predictable the world would be if our temperaments or talents could be so easily summed up.

But a child who sees the world in numbers? Words fail me.

I know how to snuggle up with our boy who loves books. He and I can pull a pile of tattered paperbacks onto the couch and lose ourselves in a sunny afternoon. I breathe in the warm scent of his hair, dark like mine, and remember hours of my own book-strewn childhood stretched out on the library floor.

I trace the words on the page with my finger like my father did for me. I watch my son’s brain turn and click as he starts to understand how letters make words and words make sentences and sentences make stories. He loves this. I do, too.

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But I cannot choose to connect only with what is easy and immediate. What looks like me or my experience. I also have to meet my children in strange lands and unfamiliar territories.

I must let each of them lead me.

And right now one wants to teach me how numbers are as fascinating as words, how equations are as beautiful as paintings. I make jokes about how I would be lost without my iPhone calculator, but this is unhelpful in the long work of learning to love deeply and differently because of having these children in my life.

So what if one of my sons surpasses me in knowledge long before I feel ready to let him take the lead? So what if another one’s personality seems so different from mine or his father’s that it baffles us at times?

Stepping back and learning from each of them is my daily challenge. And a grateful gift. They remind me that faithfulness, not comparison, is the heart of this calling.

. . .

Years ago I heard the physicist and author Brian Greene talk about how his father encouraged him as a child. Even though they spoke different languages.

He was a composer, musician, singer, vaudevillian. So music was his language. From a young age, I got very excited not about science, but about mathematics. Because my dad taught me early on the basics operations and I became captivated by the idea that by using these little operations, you could do things that nobody had ever done before. My dad would set me 30 digit numbers by 30 digit numbers and have me multiply them, big sheets of construction paper. No one had ever multiplied those numbers before.

His dad didn’t love math, but he loved music. And he loved his son. So he realized that he had to learn to translate and nurture a gift he didn’t himself possess. Or even understand.

This is why I have to learn how to love math (at least a little).

Because each child will need something different from me. Each child will invite me to grow in new ways. Each child will grow into someone beyond my imagining.

And as their parent, I want to meet each of them where they are.

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baby’s first holy week

Sweet boy, here we are. In the holiest of weeks.

It all started on Palm Sunday. You solemnly gumming the long green palm in your father’s hands. Your brothers waving their palms wildly around the air (bonus points for whacking a sibling in the eye). Me watching all of you, half wondering why we bother to bring you to church, half realizing that the wonder of Holy Week is to see it through a child’s eyes.

We will take you three boys to church three times this week: Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday. I will prepare for each outing as I prepare for nearly everything as a mom of littles: with low expectations and plenty of snacks. As always, Holy Week will be nothing like what I envision and exactly what I need.

But here is a small secret I will share with you and only you. (Because you are new and mute and thus good at keeping secrets.)

You already know what this week is about. 

. . .

On Holy Thursday we wash feet. You know about this, too.

You know the warm water into which you stretch your wriggling limbs, your eyes darting to bathtub tiles as if you remember this sensation from long-ago, the wet dark warmth of womb. You are slippery in my arms holding you fast over the awkward tub ledge, laughing as your feet dance through clouds of bubbles.

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This holy week, we will slip off shoes and tug off socks and pour warm water over each other’s feet. There is so much of God in this simple truth of washing. How we serve one another in the most basic and bodily ways. How we help to transform dirty into clean. How we bend low to hold what is holy.

Remember this truth you already know. Keep teaching me.

. . .

On Holy Thursday we break bread. You know about this, too.

You know how to lunge for a crust of whatever we’re eating, chasing crumbs around your highchair tray with pudgy fingers. You join us at table now and open your mouth wide for a share of our food. And when you corner a big-enough piece and carefully connect hand to mouth with concentration, satisfaction stretches across your plumpest cheeks.

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This holy week, we will cup our hands to receive the One who came to be bread. There is so much of God in this simple truth of feeding. How we feed the least among us first. How we break ourselves open to become love for each other. How nourished we can be by the smallest taste of the divine.

Remember this truth you already know. Keep teaching me.

 . . .

On Good Friday we kiss what we love. You know about this, too. You are besieged by brotherly affection: kisses smacked on the top of your soft head, arms wrapped fierce around your tender neck, small hands tugging your toes. You erupt in grins when I cuddle your chin and you nuzzle your nose into my shoulder when I kiss you goodnight.

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This holy week, we will wait in line to bend down and venerate a stark wooden cross. There is so much of God in this simple truth of loving. How we lift up what the world overlooks. How we let what is soft meet what is hard. How we give daily thanks for life, even its sacrifices.

Remember this truth you already know. Keep teaching me.

. . .

On Holy Saturday we wait. You know about this, too.

You are already resigned to the fate of third children, waiting while someone else’s need is greater or screams are louder. Your wide eyes soak up your surroundings while you wait your turn for attention, quietly filing away whatever you glean from the chaos around you.

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There is so much of God in this simple truth of waiting. How we must keep faith through long stretches for a dream to grow. How hope can be the heaviest weight to bear. How love wins despite evidence to the contrary.

Remember this truth you already know. Keep teaching me.

. . .

On Holy Saturday we tell stories. You know this, too. You grab clunky board books at naptime as I whisper well-worn words in your ear. You bat the pages back and forth, and a knowing smile curls across your cheeks as we rock to the rhythm of rhymes I memorized ages ago.

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There is so much of God in this simple truth of telling stories. How stories make us who we are. How the divine mystery speaks through holy word. How sharing long-ago tales makes them real again before our eyes.

Remember this truth you already know. Keep teaching me.

. . .

On Easter Sunday we sing and we feast. You know about this, too.

You clap your hands for lullabies and Old McDonald, each new verse like an Alleluia of joy. You gulp down sweet peaches and smooth pears, devour messy scrambled eggs and slimy avocado chunks. You delight in music and meals, whatever sweetness is offered to fill you up.

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There is so much of God in this simple truth of singing and feasting. How celebration sets all five senses on fire with joy. How we are an Easter people, hard stones of our hearts rolled away to find an empty tomb echoing promise. How we cannot keep from singing.

Remember this truth you already know. Keep teaching me.

. . .

This is a hard and holy week. This is a hard and holy life.

What a gift to share it again, anew, with you.

until it stays open

God breaks the heart again and again until it stays open.
(Hazrat Inayat Khan)

You have two choices when you feel it happening.

You can let your heart stretch to the point of ripping open to the beauty and agony of living in this mortal world.

Or you can pull the protective shield back over the vulnerable center.

You can break or you can burrow. I have done both.

Only one gives life.

. . .

This morning I will drive to the hospital early, before the roads crowd with commuters, before pale sun softens dark sky into grey. I will carry my son into the surgery center. I will let strangers wheel my baby away and put him under. I will watch the clock and chew my nails and pretend to read while the surgeon operates on him.

A quick and simple procedure, the nurses promise. He will be fine, logic and lots of wiser people assure me.

But what if? I still wonder.

Always this is the winding worry that wraps around my thoughts. We each know the exception, the unexpected, the fluke, the tragedy. We press the threat away, shove the rare possibility to the farthest corner of our mind.

That cannot happen to us. It will not happen to us.

But still my heart beats and fears to break.

. . .

I think back on The Big Times I had my heart broken. My brother’s death. That awful break-up. Infertility and miscarriage. Friendships forever changed.

I dealt with them well and I dealt with them terribly. We are all works in process.

But whenever I let the heartache change me, when I let my bruised soul stay stretched out so much longer than I thought possible, when I made the grueling choice again and again to let this loss soften my sharp edges into empathy – that was when I discovered God.

As if I were tripping over an obvious root on the path – oh! there you were all along! – and remembering that this was exactly how growth happens: you love, you lose, you live on changed.

Does God break our hearts on purpose? Make us suffer to learn a lesson? Theologically I bristle at these thoughts. This is not the nature of love.

But I do know that something strange and surprising happens when I sit with loss. When I refuse to push away pain. I find God in the midst of it. 

I learn how God’s heart breaks over and over again with ours. I begin to understand again how the mystery of dying and rising is the shape of loving wisdom.

Even when I want to protect myself from pain, small scared creature that I am.

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Today I will open my heart up again in a tiny way to the terror of loss.

Today I will choose to lift up in prayer those who lie alone in hospital beds with no one to worry over them.

Today I will try to remember parents who are losing their hearts and minds right now as their beloved child suffers in their arms.

Today I will make myself sit with the uncomfortable truth that all my children will know pain, loss, suffering and heartache deeper than I dare to imagine for them. None of us are spared this truth.

But today I choose to wedge this heart open with love, too.

I choose to see my oldest son’s sparkling blue eyes and wonder at the gift of his life in mine.

I choose to let him go again into the wide world that can hurt but also heal him.

I choose to give him time, presence, comfort, attention – all the simplest things that children crave – by giving up all of my own.

Letting go and letting our children change us. These are two of the hardest and holiest practices of parenting. It is an unrelenting school of humility, this daily learning to love the creatures we help to create.

But how good it is, too, when our hearts widen beyond what we thought possible. When we see what starts to happen when we stay open.

. . .

He will do just fine with this, his doctor assured me earlier this week.

He’ll do better with it than you will, she added, looking at me over her glasses with a doctor’s wisdom and a mother’s empathy.

She is right, of course. I believe this in my bones.

But if I let my worrying heart break open and stay open – here and now, again and later, a thousand more times through their childhoods and beyond – then maybe I can do better, too.

Maybe I can pull from broken fear and leap into wider love.

i sing it for you

I roared at them tonight.

And when I say roared, I mean bellowed from the very core of my being – the tired, angry, frustrated, exasperated, unheard and unnoticed depths of my body and soul, from which I was completely and utterly and maddeningly sick of having asked, cajoled, coaxed, pleaded, begged, demanded, and commanded them to listen to me tonight. To obey me.

And when they did not, I roared.

I had already taken away dessert when fit upon fit was flung over dinner. I had banished bath once they started fighting with each other and throwing trucks over the banister. I had threatened even to storm out of the bedroom without a single book read, a single song sung, a single prayer whispered.

None of it mattered. None of it made one whit of difference.

So standing there simmering, alone and exhausted at the end of a lonely and exhausting week, I roared at them. I don’t even know what I roared, something stupid about how I was going to yell even louder than they had EVER HEARD ME YELL IN THEIR LIVES if they didn’t just LAY DOWN AND GO TO SLEEP RIGHT NOW DEAR GOD HELP ME I AM LOSING MY MIND.

And as all terrible tyrants eventually learn, tirades tear down even the stubbornest among us.

I stood there in the dim dark (lit only by nightlight, oh it was pathetic) and listened to my angry racing heart throb in my ears and caught the solemn wide-eyed stares of a hundred stuffed animals watching me with pity.

Then one small boy started to whimper into his pillow.

The other reached out to me with thin striped pajama arms, desperate for a hug.

I caved. Of course I caved, a thousand times I caved, oh Christ of my heart, my stupid, stubborn, selfish heart, I caved.

I crawled into bed with one and kissed the warm fuzz of his forehead and whispered for forgiveness and promised to do better tomorrow. I sang him a soft penance of a lullaby. One extra verse, just to be certain.

Then I turned and tip-toed into bed with the other, wrapped my arms around his scrawny neck and pressed my lips to his tiny ear. I told him I loved him for always, even when I was mad I loved him always, even when I was tired and frustrated I loved him always. Did he know that? Yes, he loud-whispered back, yes he knew that.

Then I asked him what I could sing, what sweet song he could hear that could possibly right a night of wrongs, what ancient hymn I could borrow that would help heal the broken words between us.

Lullaby, he replied. I want Lullaby.

So I sang. Lullaby, and good night.

The final verse ended, trailing off with guardian angel promises into the settling dark around us, I turned to kiss his forehead one last time to go.

But as I bent towards his small round face, moonlit from between the curtains, he stopped me.

Mama, do you know what’s funny? Whenever I hear you sing that song to the baby when you’re putting him down for nap? I think you’re singing it to me, too!

Hot tears pricked the corners of my eyes; I caught my breath and held it fast. How can they be real, these children of mine, maddening and mystifying all at once? How can he understand exactly this, without understanding what it means at all?

Oh sweet one, I finally told him, once I let that last held breath slip heavy into the silent space between us. I am singing it for you, too. 

I am always singing it for you. For all of you.

He smiled softly. This I saw clearly, even in the grainy dark of their room.

From the other bed I heard one more rustle of sheets and the flip-flop-turn of a not-yet-asleep brother: Mama, I think that, too. I think you are singing that song to me, too.

We are all echoes of each other, of someone else’s love.

If there is any song I hope to sing, with this small beating gift of a life I still wake each new morning astonished to find offered to me once again, it is exactly this:

I sing it for them. They sing it for me. I sing it for you.