This is an essay I wrote in college some time ago…1997 to be exact… as I pursued my second degree. I ran across it as I packed and sorted things, preparing to move. I think it’s poignant, even after all these years. My daughter is a bit older now, and things have changed. But that feeling still remains, even after all this time. It’s about being there when Kristin, my first granddaughter, was born:
At the Speed of Light
A wormhole is a tear in the space-time continuum through which ordinary people can time-travel. I didn’t think of this idea; physicists did. Some of the more open-minded of them now say, right out in public, that there are mathematical formulas to support the concept. The only problem, according to physicists, is that you’d have to be able to move at the speed of light. Right now, that means all that would be left of us is a grease spot when we got to where we were going. That could be a problem. Well, I say you can do it while standing still. E.B. White knows what I mean; he did it at his summer retreat lake in Maine. He accompanied his son to a new experience there and thought he was having some profound thoughts about his own mortality. I think he was, quite simply, a parent who stumbled upon a wormhole.
There’s nothing profound about looking at your children as they grow and seeing the wonder of it all. There’s nothing profound about seeing their behavior and comparing it to how you behaved or looked at that age. All parents do it. It doesn’t mean we want to be that age again, that we miss our youth…at least not all of us. The less vain of us look back and realize how incredibly ignorant we were in youth; ignorance, in this case, refers to a largely innocent lack of knowledge, not stupidity. Life is difficult; it is a learning process. You don’t suddenly become omnipotent just because you’re twenty or even forty. I’m convinced, actually, that the older you become, the more aware you become of how much you don’t know, because life opens up more and more avenues as you go along. It is a map-less journey, full of bits of knowledge, some of which you get just by being and by doing. It’s like driving a car down a long road to a lake house. The first time you do it you suck at it and you’re a hazard to others on that road, however great you think you are. More experience makes things easier, less intense, and much safer for everybody; the more you drive, the better you drive. Nobody really wants to go back to the age of ignorance unless she can guarantee that when she gets there, A) she won’t be a grease spot; and B) she’ll have the benefit of knowledge. Unfortunately, we can’t always choose when we go back, or how. Parents go back without warning or forethought, because our children send us there.
You see, when we have children, new worlds open up for us, whether or not we want them to. We conceive our children in total ignorance most of the time, I’m convinced. We don’t have a clue what we’re getting into; we’re just in love
and we want to reproduce ourselves. Call it whatever you want to. Think about this: would a person actually choose to open a feces filled pouch three times a day and actually interact with its content? No! It’s about vanity; it’s about ego. Oh, but one day, after about nine months, a tiny, complete, helpless human being is born and oh boy do we have our work cut out for us then! It’s a new world! We learn what it is like to be totally responsible for the life of another human being. Now we think about mortality. Now we realize that the world doesn’t revolve around us. Will my child be safe? Will something I do harm her? What will happen if I die? Who will care for my child? We learn what it is like to experience undiminished trust; babies depend on us because that’s all they know. And we love them and our existence changes forever. It’s like electrocution: we’ve grabbed hold of something we can’t let go! Suddenly, with a shock, we have acquired a stinging sense of the continuum in which we exist and of which we are but a tiny, finite entity. The next age belongs to our children, ant it is our job to get them there.
My daughter was born too early in the morning on October 3, 1972. It was a time when they offered us moms-to-be plenty of drugs and in fact, encouraged them when there were more pressing issues than the birth of a particular human being. Late October 2nd and until Karen was born, there were more pressing issues, apparently, because I have only split second recollections of her birth, and those only came back over time, due to the drugs I was given. At the time of my angel’s birth I was somewhere in la-la land, which at the time was fine with me,since I don’t like pain that much.
Thank goodness I was still under the influence of those drugs the first time I saw my daughter. They kept me calm amidst absolute terror! There was the real world, tucked into a little white blanket, blinking at me. She had the most perfect peaches and cream complexion and the light struck her in such a way as to make her the most beautiful she could possibly have been at that moment. She had perfectly formed,little blonde eyebrows and perfect little fingernails. Her eyes were green and she looked at me as if she knew me, knew my voice. I’m sure she did. I said hello to my beautiful daughter, drank in the look of her at that moment, and in spite of my debilitated condition and the blissful ignorance of youth, I knew that this moment was extraordinary.
Karen was my own little miracle. For twenty four years she has been. I’ve taken her places I used to go as a child. No biggie; it’s what I know. When I watched her in those places, I wasn’t thinking about death, or wanting to go back, or wondering if it was her or me I was seeing. I was getting a glimpse of my youthful self through another perspective- seeing her do things I only saw in photographs of me: wading in the lake, picking flowers. It was, to over simplify, a chance to see how I looked and felt at the age of three, or nine, because at those ages I didn’t know squat, though I’m sure I felt perfectly brilliant. Through my child, I learned, and continue to learn, more about me. That is some of what E.B.White experienced with his son, I am sure. But time travel, a wormhole…that’s a different story. When you fall into one of them, you lose all perspective. There isn’t time to reflect. There isn’t time to take a breath! Time stretches, warps, and you are flung into times past and present, and into the blank interface between. Your mind knows that something incredible is happening, but before that thought can complete itself, it’s over and you are flung elsewhere. It is a helpless, completely awe-inspiring adventure and I think you have to be a parent to experience it.
My first wormhole happened the day my daughter’s first child was born two years ago. I was standing in the birthing room, helping to coach my daughter through labor. I counted and encouraged and supported my daughter and son-in-law, and basked in the absolute wonder of it. I was thrilled to be a part of this, my first real birth without drugs! Excited and a little scared, we spent the first hours in relative calm and we laughed a lot. As the pains grew worse, I realized how strong my daughter is, and brave…two traits I would never have used in a description of her previously. I watched my child progress through labor and wondered when she would cry, when she would falter. She didn’t, and I was proud, and glad to be Karen’s mom. My senses were bombarded. Maybe this is how you must feel in order to experience time travel.
As the minutes passed I became more relaxed about the whole process and about my daughter’s ability to handle it, so as E.B. White did, I reflected. I thought about how different having babies has become. Moms actually participate in their children’s births now, know what monitors are for and which ‘stage’ of labor they’re in. Fathers, and others, can actually come into the room where labor is happening; I had been sequestered like a Simpson juror or a leper. And of course, there are no drugs now. Some things are definitely better.
At ten o’clock, the sun peeked through the mini-blinds, filtered by the leaves of a tree outside the window. The light struck my daughter’s face and as I watched, drank in the look of my beautiful child, my heartbeat quickened because I felt a strong sense of familiarity and I wasn’t sure why. It was the only warning of what was coming. Before I could formulate the thought that she looked just like the morning of her birth…the light, her hair, her skin…that I felt the same love I had felt that morning all those years ago, my consciousness wobbled. Something strange was happening. I actually thought I might be about to faint. Me, of all people! Karen rested, her eyes closed. I brushed back her hair from her brow. In spite of hours of labor, she looked as beautiful as I have ever seen her. Karen opened her green eyes and we looked at each other in the same way as that morning twenty three years ago.
I felt a shift, felt myself going back, caught between being an older parent about to become a grandparent, and being an eighteen year old, new mother. I was looking for the first time at my child! I was stepping into the past from the present. I wasn’t just remembering; I was reliving that moment twenty three years ago, and yet I was here, standing beside my daughter’s bed. It all happened so fast I didn’t have time to realize what had occurred. The world ceased to exist; there was only my daughter and me. While my mind struggled unsuccessfully to assimilate the stretching and bending of time, another, the final, contraction began. There was a flurry of hospital green, hands, arms everywhere. I watched my baby’s face as she felt the final contraction, the first pain of parenthood.
“It’s a GIRL!”
She was peaches and cream, blonde, beautiful. To my left was my daughter’s beautiful face. To my right was my granddaughter’s beautiful face. She looked just like her mother, my child, had looked. My daughter was a woman, and in that exact instant, also my newborn baby, looking at me with trusting eyes. I was a new mother; I was a grandmother. My daughter was a baby and a mother, simultaneously! Time stretched and warped…at the speed of light…and my feet never moved from the spot.
Two hours is how long it took me to drive home that night; it gave me time to reflect on an incredible day. There was a flood of the usual memories: the time Karen painted the dining room with spaghetti sauce, the way she used to dance her diaper off, the night she drove the car into a tree at the age of three, the terror I felt the first time I fed her. How could that have been twenty four years ago? It was really only weeks ago, wasn’t it? Those sorts of time shifts can be explained; time flies when you’re busy. But what happened in that birthing room, the instantaneous flipping between past and present…that’s different. That’s a tear in she space-time continuum, a wormhole that you stumble into when the time and conditions are right. And it doesn’t take movement at the speed of light to get you there. It takes a child.