He was a very old man. Hunched over and faded, he looked like a wisp, a memory, an hourglass whose sands had almost all slipped from one side of eternity to the other.
My little baby was sleeping in my arms, young and pink and new. He saw her. Slowly, he shuffled toward me on the arm of an aide who looked like she wished she could do something more than walk the hallways with an old man.
“Is this your baby?” he asked in a deep voice that still held some of its strength.
“Yes, it is. Would you like to see her?” I uncovered a bit of the blanket to reveal the dark hair and curled lashes of my child.
He looked in but didn’t say anything. I wondered if he could see or if his eyes had already abandoned him.
After a minute, he said from some far-off place, “I have a little girl.” Then turning to his aide he asked, “Is this my little girl?”
“No, it’s not Charles,” she said, her face softening to him.
He nodded slowly. “I have a little girl,” he repeated.
“She’s all grown up now, remember?” the young woman pressed his arm and smiled.
“Yes, yes,” his voice trailed off.
“What’s her name?” I asked, then immediately regretted it.
Charles peered up at me but didn’t see. He was looking for the memory he couldn’t find.
“What’s her name…?” It was not there. Shame filled his eyes in hot pools of tears. Desperately, he looked at the dark-haired woman by his side. “I…I…I don’t remember her name.”
But he remembered enough to know he that he should.
This woman did not know his daughter, not really. “Isn’t it Susie?” she offered. “The one who came to visit you last week?”
“Susie,” he tried the name on his tongue and then looked at my daughter to see if it fit.
“I’m sure she’s beautiful,” I offered.
Something in Charles changed. His eyes lit up with old light and he smiled at me like a brand-new daddy. “She’s perfect. Don’t tell her momma but I think she’s the most beautiful thing I ever saw.”
“I’m sure her momma feels the same way,” I grinned.
Charles rocked back and forth like he could almost press into the memory.
“Would you like to hold her?” I asked.
“Naw,” he said sheepishly. “I might drop her.” But he reached out his curled fingers and stroked her hand. “I have a little girl,” he whispered. He could not take his eyes from her so he could not see the tears in mine.
Some days, I think that parenting is my undoing. It is not. It is my becoming.
From the moment I knew I held a child in my womb, I was changed. Something in my heart opened that could never be put back. I was altered. Every woman who has ever known she was a mother, whether her arms ever held a baby or not, knows it is true. A mother can never again be anything but a mother. It stays there, in the deepest part of her being like a healing scar, a memory of being all at once undone and all at once completed.
Years from now, when I hold another baby, it will be my baby. When I long to go back in time, it will be to these days. I will think of my children when they do not think of me. I will look on their grown-up faces and drift back in time to a place where they are all with me, like before, and I will long to have them with me still.
These are the beautiful days that define me, the beautiful days of my making, the beautiful days that are mine all because I have a baby girl.