We just had a medical scare with our month-old baby that turned out to be the result of a faulty infant test.
Even though it was not life-threatening, the possibility that our tiny boy had something wrong with him was enough to send me into a panic that lasted 36 hours; unhelpfully spent obsessing on the Internet and shedding a few private tears. But this is my life since this little being was born and became my partner, Brad, and my ultimate responsibility.
I have never seen anything as wonderful as what we witnessed on the day our boy's tiny head, then whole body, emerged into the world. My husband and I cried as we held him; and agreed on his name, Walter; and brought him over to our extraordinary surrogate to hold and to bless.
The four weeks of fatherhood since then have provided the steepest learning curve of my life with diapers, feeding, burping, swaddling, stretching, cleaning and clothing in a ceaseless circle of caring.
And also a profound lesson in love.
For the most part Walter has been a pretty easy baby, but he can be a bit scary when hungry or otherwise dissatisfied. The first time it happened was on the second night of his life when we were still in the hospital. The first night he slept so nicely, and Brad and I felt bad as we had to wake the precious one for feeding. The second night was... different. Walter screamed as one possessed -- with his tongue doing this crazy thin vibrating thing, and appeared poised to shoot out and wrap around my neck. But those screams don't happen too often, and I am able to handle them a bit better with every passing day.
Walter has, of course, changed our physical world. Our beautiful, minimal New York apartment has been transformed. Brad's writing office, formerly located in the second bedroom, has been banished to a studio a block away. In its place is the nursery with wooden crib, rocker and changing table.
On the big blue table in the living room, classic baby books are mixed in with books of Jack Kerouac's paintings, a classic Niebuhr treatise, and Frank O'Hara poems. Walter's reading time includes all of our favorite authors and the New York Times, as well as, Where the Wild Things Are.
A cuddly, pastel, ugly "rocker/cradle" now graces the living room because our amazing baby nurse requested it. Brad is just barely tolerating the blemish on the house's design. Fortunately, Walter will grow out of it in a couple of months, so Brad is trying to hold on.
But the most vivid change has been in our emotional life.
I love watching Brad with Walter. Brad gets onto the floor and goes eye to eye with Walter during conversations when they squawk at each other. Seeing the deep connection they have makes me love my partner of 14 years more than I ever have before. We have had such a wonderful life together as a couple, and now that Walter is here, we are something different. We are a family.
I'm frequently asked the loaded question of how much I am madly and crazily in love with Walter. I mostly give the questioner what they want with a nod of assent. But the truth of my emotion is more complicated and I'm still trying to articulate exactly what I am feeling.
I think maybe the problem is with how I have, up to this point, understood the word "love".
My experience with love has, on some level, been transactional. Whether with family, or friends, or partners, the formula was something like -- you love me, I love you, so we are "in love". My understanding of love has been based on a mutually agreed upon and beneficial exchange of emotion -- a connection that requires maintenance and expects responsibility of all parties.
Walter doesn't have any of that capacity. When he opens his eyes to look at me, I project onto the gaze of his eyes and the slant of his thinly grown eyebrows that he is curious, furious, intrigued, or searching, but "love" doesn't come through. At this age, it can't; he's an infant who is just beginning to awake to this world. His ability to love me (and hate, and be embarrassed, and indifferent, and love again) will come, probably pretty soon, as he rapidly grows in the myriad of ways that he is growing.
But for now, loving Walter, without any expectation, requirement to be "loved back" is what I do. And it is a joy to do it. I care for him, sing, read, laugh, watch, worry, and cry for him.
Walter has expanded my understanding of love to be more like the Greek word "agape", used in the New Testament to signify how the Divine loves us. A sacrificial love that endures no matter how much or little we can give back.
Which is what it means to be a parent.
Thanks Walter, for this first lesson in love. The first of many.