In our first days home, I didn’t even mind waking up every two hours. It was exhilarating–another opportunity to care for this tiny-toed miracle! After feeding, diapering and swaddling, I would place him back down, gently, and always on his back. Before returning to sleep myself, I would check to see that he was breathing. Then I’d check again.
It was hard to believe that this arrangement was permanent, that he was here to stay. He was so small and so mysterious; his existence barely corporeal. I never let him cry for more than a few seconds, day or night. It was my job to ensure that he knew he was safe and loved, even though he now had to do all the hard work of living. It seemed to me that the universe lay in wait for my first slip up, ready to reclaim him.
But as the days turned into weeks and then to months, I began to trust that he was in fact of this world. He was putting on a pound a week. He began to smile and then to laugh. He learned to roll over, and then to sit up and to crawl but never to sleep. He destroyed our lives and we loved him for it. He was constant, real. I began to relax.
We travelled with him, and at 4 months old, he filled out the entire bassinet on the airplane. We introduced him to family overseas and to all of our friends. Here, hold, him, you’ll figure it out. He’s sturdy, I’d tell them. We began to feed him solids; banana, avocado, cereal. Check, check, check.
Then one morning when he was 8 months old, I mixed some peanut butter into his oatmeal. We were lucky; other families have far more harrowing stories of the first time their child has an allergic reaction.
Still, after that day and the subsequent trips to allergists, we began to appreciate the need for caution. When he turned one, I gave him a chocolate chip cookie at his doctor’s office to determine the severity of his recently revealed allergy to egg. The reaction was delayed until we had already returned home, and suddenly I found myself rushing to the ER in an ambulance. I stayed calm, soothing the toddler I had just injected with epinephrine and knowing that I had seen the signs of trouble in time. I was sure he would be OK.
It was only later, back at home, that the confidence I had summoned completely disappeared. My mind whirled with what ifs. What if I had mistaken his lethargy for needing a nap? What if one day a teacher doesn’t realize he needs care fast enough? What if, when he’s older, he kisses someone who’s just eaten a sandwich with mayo? Nevertheless life went on.
Now, almost 2 and a half, he approaches the world with boundless enthusiasm, playing his guitar (which is actually a ukulele) with uncanny rhythm. “Great job everybody!” he says to his audience of stuffed animals. He loves cheese, especially when it’s aged and stinky, and insists on wearing the color blue every day. He knows “Good Night, Good Night, Construction Site” by heart.
With each new skill and unexpected utterance, it becomes increasingly difficult to reconcile myself to the idea that all of that energy, those opinions, that smile, are all susceptible to something as innocuous as a peanut. Or muffins (they contain eggs), hummus (contains sesame) or granola bars (may contain nuts). The outsize threat these things pose to him and therefore to us seems impossible. I want desperately for it to be impossible. But it’s not.
In order to keep him safe, we have to constantly face the unpleasant fact of his vulnerability. After all, we live in a world rife with hazards dressed seductively as birthday cake. I study his face with scrupulous attention to every millimeter. Was that spot there before? Is it a hive? Is this cough different from his usual cough?
I remind myself that all parents must grapple with the same understanding of their children’s mortality . But sometimes I wonder if others get to ignore that reality more often. To go grocery shopping or share a snack at the park without examining every package, to leave the house without Benadryl and Epipens in tow. They can whip up an omelet without thinking about the harm it could cause.
And yet, we play in public spaces and get ice cream with friends. We board planes and we trust his teachers and grandparents and babysitters to take care of him. We also stand back as he scrambles up the rope ladder on the playground and show him how to use scissors. And at night, I still check to see that he is breathing, once, before I go to bed. I put my hand gently on his back and wait to feel it rise, in a ritual practiced by parents the world over.