Lessons in Being

Dear Noah....

Dear Noah,

Welcome to our world!  We’re delighted with all 8 pounds 11 ounces and 21 inches of perfect you.  “We” are Mom Lisa, Dad Aaron, Big Brother Isaac, Grandma Bertha, Grandma Carol, and the rabbit Hazel—the members of your family gathered around you for your first week of life. I’m putting in writing some thoughts about your first days. When you’re older, you may want to know more about this time.

I used to think we could chart a straight path for our lives, toward a desired destination.  Life might throw us problems, but we would find a way to detour around them and continue on our way.  But I’ve experienced life quite differently, as a series of shatterings of the old and regatherings into a new form—a progression I’m not in control of, nor can I envision where it leads. This life you’ve just entered upon is challenging and full of mystery, surprise, and wonder.

Your birth on the 23rd of June was a shattering, albeit a gentle one.  Even before your arrival, you disrupted the flow of my life and helped bring something new into being.  The Quaker mystic Thomas Kelly writes of “aliveness on two levels at once:”

“There is a way of ordering our mental life
On more than one level at once.
On one level we may be
Thinking, discussing, seeing, calculating,
Meetings all the demands of external affairs.
But deep within, behind the scenes,
At a profounder level
We may also be
In prayer and adoration, song and worship,
And a gentle receptiveness to divine breathings.”
(from A Testament of Devotion)

Throughout the month preceding your birth, I experienced aliveness on two levels in a delightfully concrete way.  On one level, life as I had known it kept going on—meeting with clients, music-making, time with friends, house-keeping, and making appointments for the month ahead.  At another level, joy and thankfulness were bubbling within me in anticipation of your birth—and I lived ready to drop everything and head off for your home just as soon as I heard your mother say, “Come. It’s time.” It was a delicious taste of how I long to live.

Of course, birth was shattering for you.  All your old ways of breathing, eating and digesting were disrupted.  Lost was the darkened, fluid environment you had known—all its tactile stimulation, rhythmic pulsing, and fluid-born sounds.  New forms of touch, sound, sight, and smell bombarded you. As I cradled you close I could feel your whole being regathering itself into a form suited for postnatal life—the tremors, burps, rumbles from deep within, limb movements, cries, and fleeting facial expressions.

We were part of your regathering. Your mom most centrally. She provided your new source of food and comfort, cleaned and swaddled you, and held you close beside her in sleep. Your dad, Grandma Bertha, and I all took turns comforting you in your fussy periods—walking, jiggling, and rocking you.  Your four-year-old brother dropped everything and raced to you each time he heard you cry, exclaiming “I have to see.” It wasn’t worry that had him rushing to your side, just curiosity about who you were and how to be with you. He stroked your head gently, just like he had learned to do with his rabbit Hazel.

Your mom told me a story from when you were two weeks old. During one of your awake periods, she placed you on the living room floor, in your sling seat, and went to prepare something in the kitchen. She could keep her eye on you from there, and this is what she saw. Isaac stopped his play and sat down right beside you. He remained still and quiet, quite a feat for a rambunctious boy. He watched you closely; and whenever you grimaced or squirmed in your seat, he gently rocked the sling. When you began to fuss, he turned the switch that made your seat vibrate.  Already he had learned a great deal about how to comfort you—and he wanted to.

Your birth shattered Isaac’s life.  Mom and Dad went off to the hospital, leaving Isaac behind. For the very first time, both parents were away from him overnight.  Grandma Bertha, who had been living with him for two years, was there of course.  But it just wasn’t the same. Then when you came home, on your second day of life, you claimed a great deal of everyone’s efforts. No longer was Isaac the primary focus of attention.  And there you were—a new, puzzling addition to his family.

Isaac quickly started regathering his life into a new form. When I arrived after my sixteen-hour trip to your home, I found him sitting on the steps outside, awaiting me.  Grandma Bertha said he had sat there for most of an hour, eager for my arrival.  Isaac gave me a big smile, but then rushed to the car’s trunk to carry in my luggage.  He had an agenda for me. First, he drew me into his room to see “my big boy bed”—a change made in anticipation of you sharing his room in a few months.  Next it was time to eat a quick dinner and set right off to see you.  He and Grandma Bertha had visited you earlier that day, around noontime—so Isaac took charge.  He rushed me into the hospital, led me to the correct elevator, and then into the maternity ward. In his eagerness we burst into two empty rooms before finding you.  Then, with a big smile, Isaac climbed right into bed with you and Mom, and watched with delight as I had my first peek at you. When your dad brought out his camera, Isaac started taking pictures of you and all of us.

Back at home, Isaac accepted me as his primary playmate in this time of transition, leaving Mom and Dad freer to regather into a new form their lives and yours. But all play stopped whenever you entered the room, or cried. I loved watching Isaac with you.  When you were awake, he would come close to you, examining you with a big smile, his face glowing with what I saw as wonder, or awe.  He talked to you in the gentlest voice I have ever heard him use: “Hi, Noah.” Twice, he sat on the couch and with Mom’s help held you close to his body with a proud smile.  When I rocked you in your fussy times, Isaac stood behind my chair and tried to rock both of us. One night, your dad put you down on the floor beside Isaac’s bed during his “going to sleep” ritual.  But when you started to fuss, you were handed off to someone else so that your dad could continue reading to Isaac. Isaac became sad, because he wanted you to sleep with him. Within just a day or two, however, Isaac found a way to make you part of his nighttime ritual. He hugged each of us adults and blew us a kiss as he said “Goodnight.”  You were asleep behind a closed door. But as Isaac moved toward his bedroom, I heard him say in that special gentle voice, “Goodnight, Noah.”

Your birth shattered your parents’ lives, too. Gone were their old rhythms of sleep and work. You were there, around the clock, to be nursed, cleaned, swaddled, and comforted.  Pregnancy and birthing had taxed your mom’s body. She needed to heal and rebuild her strength.  More child care tasks fell to your dad than ever before. He was busily learning how to hold you and move in ways that comforted you so that your mom could get some sleep.  Your mom was missing Isaac, the old rhythm of playing and talking with him. Everyone was readjusting to the new family constellation.

Two scenes of this new family stand out for me.  In the first, your mom and you joined the rest of us in the living room.  Mom put you in your sling seat facing us and then sat beside Isaac for their first opportunity to play since your birth.  They generated a new game—fishing for sharks and dinosaurs.  Mom threw in her pretend line, and Isaac secretively arranged for a fearsome creature to emerge as she reeled it in. When Mom squealed with surprise, Isaac collapsed in laughter.  Your brother and mother looked at each other with such delight. I could see how special it was for them to reconnect in this way.  Your dad and I were there, talking and watching it all.  You looked about for a while, found your thumb, and fell asleep—within this new family circle.

The second is an outdoor scene, on your sixth day of life.  Isaac and I were sitting together in the rope swing hanging from your backyard tree.  As we rocked back and forth, we chatted about the cool breeze, the shapes of clouds, the birds flying by, a butterfly that came near… Grandma Bertha worked in the vegetable garden, right in front of us. And then you joined the scene, in a cloth sling that held you close to your dad’s chest.  He walked about in just the way that comforted you, and I think he was singing. Your Mom was inside, in bed, catching a few minutes of sleep before your next nursing bout. The peacefulness of the scene caught me. Each of us had already adjusted a bit to your arrival. I think it was later that evening that I told your mom: “I love your new family.”

Leaving you after a week threw my life into disarray once again. But you gave me a parting gift.  During your first days your eyes were seldom open after you suckled.  Almost all the time I held you, you were sleeping, fussing, or crying with eyes closed tight. I wasn’t expecting anything different when I held you for a few minutes before I left.  But you were awake and I placed you on my knees, facing me.  You looked right into my eyes and held my gaze for at least a minute, before turning your head to the side.  I found myself talking in the higher-pitched and exaggerated contour patterns called “motherese,” or to be more politically correct, “infant-directed speech.”  Your eyes searched for the source of the sound, and you turned back to my face several times. Suddenly I heard what I was saying:  “Here I am.  Memorize me. Remember me.” Our eye contact lives on in my heart, binding me to you across all distance.

Only as I was writing this letter did I start to understand a surprising, perplexing happening before your birth. Four hours into my trip to your home, I found myself chanting outloud “abide in me as I abide in you.”  Never before had I chanted by myself.  And why these words?  They are attributed to Jesus of Nazareth, whose words and acts have lived on in people’s hearts for almost 2000 years. I hear them now as an invitation to deep connection with you and your new family, as well as to the sacred mystery that holds all of us in existence.

The Sunday after I returned home, I wrote in my church’s Book of Celebrations and Concerns about you.  Here’s what was read during our worship service that day:

“I celebrate the birth of Noah Damon Petruski, daughter Lisa’s second child and my grandchild.  I celebrate, too, the wonder of life itself, the feel and smell of a newborn held close to my body, the joy of locking eyes, witnessing big brother Isaac lean close to Noah and speak to him in the gentlest voice I’ve ever heard him use—this opportunity to sense the deep interconnectedness of all life.”

With love and gratefulness,
Grandma Carol