I was twenty years old the first time I willingly held a baby.
It was the day before my cousin’s wedding and my uncle was having a barbeque at his house in Denver. It was nearing the end of July and the Colorado weather was an odd mix of hot sun and cool wind, as if it couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be summer or fall.
I sat at a table on the deck with a plate of spicy sausages and fruit salad in front of me, quietly observing the interactions around me. Friends and family of the affianced couple were milling about inside and out, meeting and greeting and eating in groups. I could hear the sounds of the Olympics coming from the TV in the living room, could see people watching from the kitchen as they filled up their plates.
Sawing into a sausage with my plastic fork, I watched my female cousins at the other end of the table pass around somebody’s baby, arguing over who got to hold him next and making an awful cooing fuss. They were keeping up a continuous stream of nauseating baby talk, their voices raised to an ear-splitting pitch, giant smiles on their faces as if this were the cutest baby they’d ever seen. Which is exactly how they act with every single other baby they see. Content with my complete lack of maternal instinct, I sat back in my chair and nibbled on a strawberry.
It wasn’t that I disliked babies, I simply felt no pull toward them. Nothing like when I’d see a puppy and literally jump out of a (slowly) moving car to go pet it. With puppies I had no choice; the urge was undeniable. Sometimes they were so cute they made my heart hurt. But babies on the other hand, babies don’t wag their tails when they see you. They don’t jump into your arms and lick you and instantly love you the second they meet you. When babies smile at strangers, it doesn’t mean they’re genuinely happy to see them. That’s just the human instinct to mimic. I will say that the concept – creating a new being, the gift of life and all that – is miraculous and awe inspiring. But I found the product to be less than enchanting. Sure, babies are cute when they’re asleep, but that’s only because they aren’t crying or screaming or pooping, and even that’s not guaranteed. Add to that the fact that they look like aliens and really, I don’t see how you can blame me.
Luckily, in my family there were usually more than enough willing candidates to accept the position of baby-holder/drool-rag. But just to be safe, I always made sure to look extra preoccupied when there was a baby in the vicinity to avoid being asked to hold it and having to decline without appearing heartless. Aside from the fact that I didn’t have any personal desire to hold a baby, I also refused because I was afraid I’d drop it by accident and even more afraid that I’d want to drop it on purpose. (I’ve only wanted to drop a baby once in my life and it was terrible. The feeling and the baby.) When the occasional baby got thrust into my arms without warning, my main escape tactic was to stand frozen in place, staring at it in shock until someone took it from me. I admit that every once in a while I’d find myself considering the notion that a particular baby I’d come across was cute, but I’d always been happy to admire from afar.
So here I was, watching this baby (from a respectable distance) being circulated around the table as if he were a particularly desirable side dish. To his credit, he was quiet AND awake, a miracle in and of itself. And the back of his head (which was all I could see from my vantage point) had a few angelic golden wisps of hair. But that was hardly reason enough to lunge across the table and demand a holding. So instead I sat there and moved a grape around my plate. A quick glance around the table told me that the round blonde woman a couple of chairs down must be his mother; she kept glancing at him every now and then to make sure he was still there before continuing her conversation with my aunt. I didn’t blame her for her lack of attention; it was obvious that my cousins would sooner throw each other into a sewer filled with rabid rodents than let harm come to him. The baby itself had all of his attention focused on a toy dinosaur he was gnawing on. He didn’t seem to notice or care that he was being transferred from one stranger to another, and nobody seemed to notice or care about his disinterest in being coddled. All in all it seemed like a successful, if not pointless, exchange.
“Give him to Sam,” said my aunt from across the table. “He’s got to practice!” She beamed at her thirty-year-old son like it was his first day of kindergarten. He and his wife, Shauna, had gotten married the year before and everyone expected a baby in the near future. Shauna, who had been bouncing the baby up and down on her lap, turned and focused her attention on her husband. He laughed nervously, looking less than thrilled about the suggestion. Shauna gently handed him the baby and Sam took him and held him awkwardly away from his body. I could see a hint of panic in his eyes. I’d never before seen someone look less pleased to be holding a baby, aside from myself. That made me feel a little better. Until I realized that if the baby circulation continued I would be next in line, sitting as I was right around the corner from Sam. I tipped my chair back and popped a grape in my mouth, casually avoiding eye contact in case he had the idea to pass the baby my way. From the corner of my eye I could see him shift the baby around so he was facing out, and that’s when it happened.
The baby looked directly at me and, like a magnet, my gaze was pulled from my aunt’s hat straight to the baby’s eyes, which held my complete attention. He had my eyes. They looked wider and brighter, but they had the same exact mixture of gray and blue and they were looking into mine with such fixation it felt like they were pulling a piece of my heart out and holding it in the air between us. I knew for a fact that it was impossible for me to have had a child without knowing it, but for a tiny fraction of a second I wasn’t sure. If I had indeed had a baby, this would be it. This could be my baby. It looked like me. It felt like mine. I couldn’t look away. I felt a love for this child welling up inside of me, and it made me want to laugh hysterically and sob at the same time. It made me want to hold him.
In a very, very quiet voice I asked if I could. A few shocked faces turned my way, but Sam’s face held nothing but relief as he thrust the baby towards me. I took him in my arms and stood him up facing me, his tiny feet in their tiny shoes standing on my legs so his face was even with mine. His eyes were even brighter up close. He wriggled, wanting to face outward, so I turned him around and sat him on my lap. A few of my relatives were shocked into silence by the miracle that was unfolding in front of them. Some just watched with smiles on their face. The rest sat impatiently waiting for their next turn. My mom was the only one who spoke.
“Wow,” she said quietly, “he has your eyes.” A couple murmurs of agreement came from around the table. I nodded, numb. “What’s his name?” I asked no one in particular. The blonde woman I’d assumed to be his mother smiled and said, “Noah.” I repeated it, looking down at his little round head with the golden wisps of hair. At some point he’d grabbed my phone off the table and stuck it in his mouth, chewing on the bright pink silicone case; the dinosaur lay discarded on the side of my chair. I watched him gnaw on the corner of my phone, saliva dripping down the screen. It was the cutest drool I had ever seen. The mother suggested swapping it for the dinosaur because the drool might hurt the phone, but I said I didn’t mind. She shrugged.
I probably could have sat there with that child on my lap until the end of time, but I could feel greedy eyes on me, hands itching to pick him up and take him away from me. I felt like screaming No, you don’t understand! I need to hold this baby. This is my baby. Go get your own. But then it struck me that this might be how they all felt, with every baby. No, surely this was different. This was my baby. But despite that fact, he was soon taken out of my arms. I reluctantly let him go, and the only fuss he made was when I had to extract my phone from his jaws. Eventually, the mom – I don’t remember her name, or her husband’s – took back her child and they left. My cousins went off to play bocci ball on the grassy field bordering my uncle’s house. The rest of the party moved inside to watch the Olympics. I got up and moved with them, in a daze.
Noah was there at the wedding the next night, in a tiny suit with a tiny tie, golden hair slicked back into a side part. With far more guests present than there were at the barbeque, he was surrounded the entire night. His mom never him let go, and I wasn’t about to ask her to. I wouldn’t let go, if I was her. I never got to hold him again. There was no dramatic last-look kind of thing where we shared a long, meaningful stare. I did manage to get a picture of him outside, posing on a ladder he was attempting to climb. If I ever find that picture, I’ll attach it here, and maybe you’ll be as spellbound as I was, as I am. I doubt it, considering he was my baby and not yours. I can still picture his face in my mind, staring back at me with my own eyes, pulling free something inside of me that I never knew was there. I’ll never forget him. After all, there aren’t many moments that are as magical as the one in which you meet that one child that makes you someday want one of your own.