Friday, November 16, 2007
It’s four weeks and five days since you were born and you are feeling your first rain. A few light drops on your skin. Your face closes itself in brief, uncertain expressions of surprise, trying to work out what is touching you.
I can taste lightning in the air, a metallic surge of freshness in the afternoon world. How soon before you know what this taste means? That something big is beginning and the sky will break wonderfully.
Your eyes are mostly shut while your mother holds you, swaddled in a white muslin wrap. We walk down a side street together my son, not far from home.
When she talks to you and says something about “your father” I feel proud and strangely jarred by the word, not quite ready to hear it. I’m still learning to fill it up with actions and feelings, an apprentice to its meaning. Even as we move down the street it is as if I have stepped into a painting or some moment in a film, into a family rhythm just starting to turn itself into me.
Already I find you addictive, the smell of you something I can drink and drink. Breast milk, skin, baby soap, all distinct and crucially soft, the ether binding us. It’s an amazing thing, the potency of this deep smell. The intensity of it is something I could almost tear at to dig inside and know and never be apart from: love’s violent closeness.
It reminds me of a writer who spoke of being unable to continue a love affair because of the smell of a woman he was seeing. Not that she smelt bad, but because she didn’t smell ‘right’. I know this feeling, this sign or warning against mistaken passion. Its animal power and how apparent it can become once we decide we don’t love someone in the way we thought we might.
Your mother’s smell to me is something perfect. I could live with it for a hundred years. The scientists say this is all a matter of antibodies, pheromones that guide us towards the healthiest mating possibilities and its better outcomes for the species. Maybe that raw biological compulsion is true, but there’s an emotional sense to it as well, as if the nature of whom you might love exists in their very skin, calling you. And so I choose your mother and she chooses me, and these choices give us secret pleasure, permeating us, bringing us closer. You come from that scent. Our skin.
I remember the morning you were born. The way you slid out covered in blood, screaming. Chased by the red dark field of your mother’s placenta, a galaxy.
I was surprised at how natural it all was. Not as ugly or violent or alien as the photos and film footage of birth always seem to suggest. To be there and go through it with your mother was to know it wasn’t like that at all. Even covered in blood there was a beauty to your arrival, a familiarity that did not trouble me. She cried as she reached down to you there between her legs. “My son, my son, there he is, my beautiful boy.” Her whole body shook while I knelt behind her, hanging on for dear life to support her back as she bowed down sobbing to love you.
At your mother and the mid-wife’s invitation, I cut the umbilical cord. It was so tough I felt as if I had to saw through it. Is this is where the story of Abraham going to kill his son for God comes from? This ritual of severing your child to bring them into life? I felt distressed that I might hurt you, that the scissors must be blunt - I was so sure of it - they’re blunt! - but the cord came apart and you were fine in your bawling way and the clip that was applied held fast to staunch the bleeding and that was that. You were now in the world and breathing, your own being entirely. I look at your belly now and feel some pride that this mark is associated with me. It was like your mother was giving me some small part of you physically and I feel a choking tenderness when I think of my mark upon you.
When you were passed to me I held you against my bare chest. I had nothing on but a pair of jeans and when I handed you back to your mother to be bathed I went outside to ask one of the nurses for fresh towels. In the hallways of the ward I looked like some kind of psycho killer: bare feet, no shirt, chest streaked with blood, eyes wild from the all-night labor. Who’d want to come here after seeing me? I was no advertisement for the joys of a natural birth.
What a night. It felt as if we had gone through some kind of fight to get you. Not a bad one, and maybe ‘fight’ is the wrong word, but it was a struggle. We fought for you, we really did.
How different and powerful these images and feelings are in my mind to when I first saw you on an ultrasound screen in Beijing, the city where we learnt for sure your mother was pregnant. The blur of the electronic images suddenly shifted, and then you were there before us: a spine, a head, a heartbeat, the pulse of your bloodstream, a hand – and such beautiful fingers, “just like yours” your mother said. “He’s waving to us,” she called to me. “Look.” And sure enough your hand moved in a pale light.
The truth is it was bad day in the world. Planes were crashing into buildings in New York, killing thousands. It felt as if this was the end of all things. War, terror, fire…
I could not really look at you that day, there alive on the radar of your mother’s belly. You could not fully exist for me. A world falling and in flames was all that was real. Turning my life into something unreal. And I resented how this moment of private and special grace had been buried by the day of September 11, how nothing – not even the first clear signs of my first son’s existence as a being – could overcome the power of those falling buildings, the violent craft sliding into my mind.
But today it is a rainy day and so little time has past and you have kept growing, inside your mother and now in the world itself. And the burning and the debris and the falling are all so small, past. And you and your scents of milk and soap and skin, you and your cries and those sounds I imagine as words sighing up from your unconscious when you open your mouth to speak delight, you in this first fragile rain so delicate on your head and how you are first feeling it, you and your mother and new words like ‘your mother’ and ‘your father’ that inhabit us in ways I can’t express, well it makes the world beautiful and calm again.
I am at your mercy. Saved and aimed forward. Not laying my hope on you because that’s too much and unfair of any parent. But seeing a hope in you, some faith in the nature of things.
I can’t wait to get you home. To bathe you and put you to bed. To be awoken tonight by your noisy sleeping, like some old man dreaming loudly. How does such a small boy manage so much noise? Your mother moving in the low light of the early morning to feed you, the stark, ravenous cry of your waking, the sudden muffling of satisfaction as you find her breast. Me falling back to sleep again, useless and male and better saved for the practical needs of the day. Taking you in with a glimpse, feeling myself born with you and born each time I see something new in you – born again and again when the repetitions of that newness are so fresh I suddenly see what it’s like for a child to feel a strong breeze or shot of sunlight and register the life of the world.
My first rain with your mother and you, this love brought down from the sky.
- Mark Mordue
* This story was first published in HQ Magazine, June 2002.