Once there was a baby boy. He was an intense and passionate baby. Before he was born, a couple of weeks before his official due date, his mother sensed that he wasn’t yet ready to be born. She could feel that he needed a little more time, just a bit more, so that all his nerves would knit together and he would be ready for the outside world, with its unpredictable loud noises and its occasional bright lights and the sensation of air all about.
But the baby was born anyway, despite his mother’s sense that just a little more time would have been a good thing. He took a long time entering the world – three days – and by the time he made it they, they being others who were not his mother, felt that extra caution was necessary in case he was sick after his long and difficult journey.
So in went the tubes and on went monitors and there he lay in a bright room with a paper cup taped to the top of his head. His mother held him in her arms in a rocking chair and fed him, and a few days later home he went, minus the tubes and the paper cup.
Soft lights. Quiet. Tight swaddling in a baby blanket. Constant touch. These were things that he seemed to crave.
Many years later his mother thinks of the word “swaddle” and can feel her hands moving invisibly: smooth out the square of flannel, fold down one corner, lay the baby diagonally down, up with the bottom corner and then across – tight – with one side and then across – tight – with the other. Presto, swaddle-o.
The baby wanted to be held all the time. If not held all the time he screamed and shook and made himself sick. So his mother held him all the time. She had a contraption she called the “Red Thing” that she strapped on when she got up, and into the Red Thing he went, so that he faced out. His thin legs dangled down. His thin arms dangled out. His head lolled until his neck muscles were strong enough to hold it up.
From dawn till late at night, the baby boy’s back lay against his mother’s chest and he faced out. She cooked with the baby dangling before the flames – dangerous! but she was careful – and she vacuumed with the baby swinging with the rhythm of the long vacuum pole, and she never sat down with the baby in the Red Thing because if she sat, he screamed.
They stayed in motion. Much of the time, the mother ended up pushing an empty stroller down the sidewalk because the baby screamed if he wasn’t in the Red Thing. When the weather turned cold, the mother buttoned her long winter overcoat all the way up and put a stocking cap on the baby, so that oncomers smiled at the mother and then shifted their eyes downward and smiled at the baby boy. It was a two-for-one smile.
When the mother did sit down, she took the baby boy out of the Red Thing and sat him on her lap with a stack of books beside them. They had two nursery songbooks that they were particularly fond of, and they – they meaning the mother – would sing their way through each page. This was long before the baby boy grew old enough to realize that he did not like the way his mother sang, and long before he had sisters, who backed him up on his “please don’t sing, at least out loud”-ness.
They read their picture books together, baby boy on lap, mother propping each book up while he reached out and turned the pages.
Where the Wild Things Are.
Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel.
Good Night, Moon.
Outside Over There.
Ferdinand was the boy’s favorite, the story about the little Spanish bull who didn’t want to fight, the little bull who wanted to sit just quietly under the cork tree and smell the flowers.
How many hours did the mother and the boy spend together, sitting on the couch, reading picture books? Many. Many many. Many years’ worth of many. It was their favorite thing.
When the baby turned into a boy, he went to sleep every night listening to stories on tape. He and his mother went to the library and checked out the stories on tape, and sometimes they bought them, and the boy knew the stories so well and loved them so well that once he was in bed he reached out and blindly pressed “Play,” not caring that he wasn’t anywhere near the beginning.
Once, on a long car trip, the boy woke from sleep to look at his mother and say, “Is this where we are?”
Years went by. The boy grew and grew. He grew until he was very tall and very thin, so tall that he towered over his tall mother. More years went by, and the boy turned eighteen.
One day, the boy sent his mother a text message: “Would you kill me if I got a tattoo?”
The mother would have been happy if the boy never got a tattoo, because she had been there at the moment when he was born. She could still see his newborn skin, so soft and paper-thin that touching it was like touching air. She could still remember crying in fury and sorrow the first time a mosquito bit that skin. That first scar.
But the boy was eighteen now, and 6’4,” and his body was his own. His body had always been his own, his mother reminded herself. She wanted to wrap her arms around that body and keep it safe, but. . .
What sort of tattoo would he get, his mother wondered, and where would he put it? She thought of the needles drilling down through the layers of his skin, the ink pushing below the surface, and how much it would hurt. She tried to think of other things. It was hard.
“Not as long as it’s a heart on your bicep with an arrow and the word ‘mom’ in the middle,” the mother texted back.
The boy did his research and saved his paycheck, and the day came when off he went, to St. Sabrina’s Parlor in Purgatory. He got his tattoo. There it is up there. It is not a heart on his biceps with an arrow and the word “mom” in the middle.
But it could have been.