We stand together, Hubby’s arm around my shoulder, and gaze at the newborn child who sleeps in his car seat on our table. The same table that we’d sat around just a few weeks before when we first learned of the tragedy unfolding in this new baby’s life. Somehow, pie crumbs and coffee cups have brought us to this: a beautiful new child with an uncertain future now depending on us for his every need. The sense of unreality that I experienced on my way to pick him up still clings to me. I am slow to process all of this. A part of me is beginning to feel a frantic sense of panic. Have I forgotten all I used to know about infancy? About newborns? This baby is so much smaller than I remember. Memories and bits of babyhood, facts and numbers and needs come flooding back in a disorganized barrage of thoughts, memories, fears.
The baby, unaware, is sleeping. His brow is wrinkled, a pucker of concern cuts a line between downy eyebrows just barely beginning to be visible. Even in his sleep he looks tense, anxious. I think back to the days of colic and reflux when Eldest was this age, how we barely managed to make it through each day. The late nights, the ringing in our ears as he cried inconsolably for hours on end, the mountain of laundry as we struggled to keep the milk inside the baby long enough to make him grow. There had been two of us, both healthy, and Eldest was our only child. I can’t even begin to imagine how things must have looked for Baby’s family in the few short weeks of his life so far.
I hold Baby, laugh at the faces he pulls. His eyes are that indescribable shade of blue that may well one day turn brown. He is tiny, so very small that I marvel he could even be four weeks old. He seems so fragile, so new. He seems, in the way all newborns do, to be just a bit unfinished. Hubby fixes a bottle (formula being a new skill we must now learn) while the kids and I sit on the couch, wonder at the amazing way life begins. His fingers curl around my pinkie, Middle Child notes how tiny those little fingernails are. Eldest laughs as Baby’s little-old-man forehead, how it wrinkles as Baby studies us, his mouth working, eyes struggling to focus. There is a hush to the moment, a sweetness that I feel deep in my bones. Hubby returns with the bottle and takes Baby gently on his lap, settles him in the crook of his arm, feeds him. You could never tell that eight years have passed since he last fed a month-old baby. It is as natural as it was back then and I am blessed, moved by love that comes so easily, by the acceptance and devotion that my children show so naturally, the steady support and love my husband gives so freely that makes an unfamiliar situation feel comfortable.
We fall into a routine, caring for Baby while trying to keep up with the usual pace of life as best we can. Some days are much easier than others. Once a day I call Baby’s mother, touch base with her. Some days she is despondent, her husband is slipping farther away as organs fail and infection rages. Other days, her voice holds hope: Today he sat up. This morning, he knew her and they had a lucid conversation. The days after those hope-days are the worst, when he has slipped back into that in-between place and taken her hope along with. Some days when I call she does not answer at all.
It is hard to picture the darkness and tragedy unfolding on the other end of the phone. Hard to connect the baby flourishing here in our family with the life unraveling on the other side of the city. As days blend into weeks Baby changes, becomes settled. Colic seems to be a thing of the past although reflux stubbornly remains. He changes day to day as a new baby will, growing and learning. I find that it is impossible to hold back love, even if I had wanted to. I learn that everything they tell you about adoption and foster care is true: it is as easy and natural to love a baby that is not biologically yours as it is to love one that is. Love is not found in the double-helix of DNA or in tidy rows of paired genes. Love is found in the heart and in the very marrow of our bones and it is blind to biology.
In the dark hours before morning I find myself rocking, soothing with the familiar motions of mothering and I marvel at how deep these feelings are. I know now that you can adopt a child and love him as deeply as your own, I know now that you can foster a child and love both him and his mother so much you are willing to face the heartbreak of giving him up. I know now that the human heart is made to be broken, that it is not loving and losing that shatters the soul but rather never loving at all. The words of a counselor friend echo in my heart, “It is better that this baby bond with you and lose you, because he will have developed the ability to bond again. It’s the babies who never bond that fail to thrive.”
It is now just a week before Christmas. We have put up lights, decorated a small tree. We are reminded by the baby in our arms of the baby in the manger so long ago, another foster-child of sorts whose broken heart would beat for the least of these, for the widows and the fatherless and those in need. I feel it in my own heart, the openness of a soul broken wide by love. I had not noticed the way I’d hidden my heart, the way it had become muffled and smothered under a protective layer of safety, until it lay bare and open and feeling, awake again.
The phone calls grow more sporadic, the news when it comes varies wildly between improvements and deterioration. It is late one evening and Christmas music is playing quietly in the background and I am holding Baby in my arms, rocking gently, wrapped in the warmth of the moment. The phone rings, and the moment crashes down: whatever hope had been held out, whatever prayers for healing now lay broken. There is only the bare, hard truth of the direction this is going: Baby’s mother sobs as she tells it, as she breaks under the weight of a decision no wife, no mother should have to make. They have done everything they can, and everything is not enough.
The week before Christmas, she chose to take her husband home to die.
It is wet outside, the brightly colored Christmas lights reflect garishly in pools of rainwater on the front porch and the music continues to play and the fire is flickering and I don’t want to tell my children what is happening, don’t want them to know how fragile life is. In the morning, I will go and get Baby’s thirteen month old brother. We will give them the best Christmas we know how. We will pour our love into these small boys and into these moments and this bittersweet season and our hearts will lie open to whatever God wills next. In the dark hours after everyone is in bed, Baby is fussy and nothing seems to soothe him. I pace the living room floor trying to keep his cries and mine from waking the rest of the family. The rocking and pacing and swaying do not work and on this night, it is the jagged rhythm of my sobs that soothes Baby back to sleep.
Continue to Part three…..
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