Birthdays: sweet cake and salty tears
If my life were a movie, I’d be standing in a field of snow, late afternoon sun slanting daggers of light across the crisp, glittery surface. I hold a stack of calendars to my perky chest. A wind rips through, blowing calendar pages into the ponderosa pines, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009… I reach for a drifting page, catch a rumpled sheet and clutch it in my slippery, numbed hands. What’s this? January 2005? I reread the tiny scrawl in the grid of squares and recognize it as my own. January 9th: our baby is born. January 10th: ventilator out. January 15th: we hold Col for 1st time. January 21st: infection, antibiotics, steroids, blood transfusion.
Cut to real life: Col, age 4, has received 6 rubbery lizards from “Aunt” Maggie for Christmas. He lines them up and ceremoniously names them with a tap on their squishy heads (“iguana-don,” “lizardly lizard,” “geckofriend,” “stripey guy.”) Next, they get tossed into the doll stroller, wriggling in a reptilian orgy, while Col zooms them through our house. Enter 2 ½ year old sister who promptly crashes into the stroller like a sparkling comet (Rose received from Maggie a whole Walmart shelf-full of beaded, lacey, satiny hair accessories and they swing from her ears, arms, neck and uncombed hair). Rose strikes like lightning; the yellow speckled lizard is snatched. Clothes-tugging and screeching follows.
Eventually the kids are coaxed to use their words and share. Like a peacekeeping translator for two tussling nations, I sit with them as Rose asks to “please hold a lizard (pronounced “liz-ud”) for two minutes Coley.” “Set the timer Mama,” she instructs me. And Col reluctantly releases one—not yellow speckled, but green with brown streaks (stripey guy?)—to his sister’s hands. Col hawk-eyes her, bristling when she pulls its stretchy tail, the way my friends with newborns do when Col comes at their swaddled bundles with a hundred eager, dirt-dipped fingers.
And this is my everyday: peacekeeping translator, carseat buckler, crumb sweeper, lullaby crooner, toilet scrubber, pen cap finder, explainer of things.
But once a year I am that Mama in a field, anticipating a birthday – the completion of a year and start of a new one, wondering how 365 days have blown into the wind since I last stood here. And the taste of each birthday, swirled with the flavor of where we’ve been and where we are now, has been sweet cake and salty tears.
When Col was a newborn, born 3 ½ months premature at 1 pound, 12 ounces, our every movement urged “grow baby, grow.” Holding him skin to skin was shown to promote growth and while he snoozed, his floppy body splayed on our chests, we told him stories of Durango, because preemies who hear their parents’ voices grew quicker. I pumped breast milk—special preemie milk, higher in protein, minerals, and containing more antibodies and fat than full term milk—8-10 times a day, stacking gallons of milk in the NICU freezer, while Col received just a dribble each day. Col was weighed every night and each gram packed onto his foot-long frame was a small victory.
One night I sorted baby clothes (sent mostly by my generous, fashionista Uncle Sol) on the carpeted floor of our room in the Denver Ronald McDonald House. I had just washed and dried them in the 3rd floor laundry room as if I had a baby to snap into the ridiculously cute, blue onesies. While we wiped our hospital baby’s bottom with a cotton ball, wondering what his face might look like without the tubes that trailed him like a stalker, someone believed that this boy would someday fill the seams of a 0-3 month romper.
On his due date—still in the hospital and tethered to an oxygen tank—Col reached 6 ½ pounds. I remember the oddity of crooking him in one arm while the other was free to position my nursing pillow. It no longer took two people to get him safely nestled on my chest. I no longer had paralyzing nighttime anxieties that his fragile body would slip from a nurses hands and shatter on the hospital floor. He suddenly wore real clothes (instead of the tiny open-down-the-front shirts sewn by volunteers) and his cheeks pillowed with baby pudge. A strange thought flittered in my brain for an instant: “this is going too fast.”
Then, home for a half year, Col still a moon-faced, sling-riding baby, I ran into a friend and her ten-year old son. Her sky-scraping son moped and skulked, asking for a ride to his buddy’s house, for some money for a soda; my friend was visibly annoyed. At that moment I couldn’t imagine ever feeling anything but an almost choking love for my son.
And now Col is on the cusp of five. (And I’ve since been annoyed with him and also seething with fury; and yet when he’s not with me, his shadow rattles around my heart and mind).
And there’s something about five that looms like a distant peak, more there than here.
Perhaps it’s that five marks the entrance into school and maybe it’s selfish to say, but I can’t imagine being away from my son for the whole length of the day’s light. I also can’t imagine home schooling, entire days unfurling while the two of regard each other again, again and again. And so, there is a decision to be made, and as of yet, no answer.
Perhaps it’s the calendar pages lodged in the trees; if a child’s first five years can go this quickly, surely the next will unravel like a sweater in the beaks of crows.
Today Col and Rose were discussing whether it was “really snowy” outside or just “a little bit snowy.” I told them that the year Col was born was one of the snowiest winters here at 6512 feet. “But we were in Denver that whole winter, because Col was in the hospital there.”
Rose: “Was Col sick?”
Me: “Sort of. He was born early and needed help. Most babies stay in their Mama’s bellies for nine months, but Col came out after 5 ½ months.”
Rose: “Dat’s not a good idea Coley.”
Col: (to me) “Did you forget?”
Me: “Forget what?”
Col: “That I was supposed to stay in your belly for nine months.”
Me: “No honey, you just came.”
Rose: “Did the doctors fix him?”
Me: “They did. And Col fixed himself; he was very strong.”
Col: “Did I pee on the nurse?”
Me: “You did.”
Rose: “Some bugs are alive, and some are not alive.”
And for now, I’m back to my everyday: peacekeeping translator, carseat buckler, crumb sweeper, lullaby crooner, toilet scrubber, pen cap finder, explainer of things.