Newborn Babies and Death

If they're lucky, (like they all should be) they learn that being alive means being surrounded by color and light and softness, and all wrapped up in love.
11/26/2012 07:28 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

My daughter, Louise, slept for the first three weeks of her life. Twenty to 21 hours a day. She slept so much that I actually called the doctor's office, convinced that something was wrong with her, because there was just no way that I finally had two children and it was... actually kind of easy. Then, one night, she came to life like a stormy little thunder cloud. She even lived up to her big sister's reputation for being a terrifyingly demanding baby. She cried a lot. Inconsolably. For hours.

Doctors don't really know why some babies are colicky. They think maybe it's related to digestion or over-stimulation. Some doctors blame anxiety in the mother. All they can really tell you with any degree of certainty is that they'll grow out of it by the time they're 3 or 4 months old. Both of my babies screamed for at least three hours every evening, red-faced and tightened up with little muscled fists. We would sit at the table together for dinner in the fading daylight, pretending to enjoy ourselves for the sake of my fragile domestic sanity, my husband exclaiming that the veggie dogs I'd microwaved were delicious, while the baby screamed and screamed in the carrier strapped to my chest.

They're wondrous, newborns. Doctors don't know for sure why babies cry like that, but I'm pretty sure I do.

I watched my grandmother dying last winter. She had breast cancer that eventually settled into her brain, and she slowly became less and less like a person inhabiting a body. At first, she spent almost all of her time here, with us, being alive and full of anxieties, and over the course of a few months, she slowly existed more and more in the place people go when they die. At the end of her life, she slept almost all day; long stretches of sleeping, punctuated by waking moments of serenity where she would stare through the world with faraway eyes. She talked to people who were gone. Sometimes she woke up in a panic, unsure of where she was. She would cry like a child, calling out for someone to hold her hand. She craved simple things, like ice cream and sunlight on the back porch steps. Watching someone die made me a better mommy to my second newborn daughter.

At the end of her life, my grandmother slept for 20 of every 24 hours. She made expressions in her sleep. The whisper of her eyebrows would raise and her toothless mouth formed silent words. Her hair was gone. Her head was covered in a fine, soft fuzz. She was always cold. She marveled over the heat of another person, clutching at their hands and saying, "You're so warm!" I watched as she plucked at the fabric of her white bedding with aimless fingers. I saw how she looked through me unless I startled her back into being. If I wanted her to really see me, I had to yell her name, "Grace!" She would blink into existence for a moment, register my face slowly and smile, then drift back into the place between worlds.

I understand that both of my daughters knew what it was like to be dead when they were born. Over the first few weeks of their lives, they plucked and stretched and peered their way into themselves, into their places in the world. They took their time coming away from that other place. They woke up in increments over the course of a few weeks, the sleepiness of pre-existence clinging to them like cotton and smoke. When it was time, they let go of the place from where they came. They came into life, just like my grandmother came into death.

Why wouldn't a new little person cry and cry and cry, given that they used to not be born, and now they were awake and cold and confused in a place where everything was new and shining and relentless? Where sounds and light and sensations, most of them beautiful and some of them terrible, just wouldn't go away, where every time they weren't sleeping they were somewhere unfamiliar? Why wouldn't they cry, especially in the evenings, after seeing everything, feeling the wind and riding in the car, being passed into arms and being held against bodies, after keeping it together for hours and hours, taking everything in? Then, when it started to get dark, the world closed up shop and everybody huddled up under a ceiling and the sun was gone and your mother hummed softly and said, "Sleep now, darling. Just close your eyes and shut out the world and its wonders and be still."

I would cry, too.

Newborn babies are so wise in their first days. They become like us so quickly; they become a citizen of this world. They quickly get hungry and wild for being and its captivating sensations. If they're lucky, (like they all should be) they learn that being alive means being surrounded by color and light and softness, and all wrapped up in love. Everything they do is new, and it's wonderful and magical and most of all, worthwhile. Most of them don't even want to sleep, once they really wake up, and I don't blame them.

I believe that when babies are born, they're smarter than we are. They know what it is like to be dead. They know everything that we don't know, that we don't have to be afraid of not existing.