Nearly fourteen years ago, in the middle of the night, my daughter was born in a rush. She is not a person who rushes to things, it turns out, but she has a mind full of curiosity and delight, and so although I know that the mechanics of childbirth would surely give other explanations for why she came so quickly, I prefer to think her rush of arrival is simply of a piece with her eagerness about the world around her.
She was born a little after 2am, and when she was twenty-three hours old, a nurse brought her to me. Having had one child who slept in twenty-minute snatches for months, I had asked that they keep this little sister in the nursery on her first night, and only bring her to me for feeding, so that I could get at least one night with some sleep in it before she and I went home, and the sleep deprivation began in earnest. So an insistent nurse brought her to me at 1am and woke me up and informed me that it was my job to wake up the six-and-a-half-pound human she held. Because, “this baby hasn’t eaten in three hours, and it’s time.”
Expertly holding my daughter in the crook of her elbow, she showed me how to annoy a newborn awake: take your thumb and press it gently into her palm until her fingers curl, run your finger along the bottom of her bare foot until it squirms away from the tickle, unsnap the tabs that hold the tiniest white cotton kimono shirt closed and rub her little chest to stimulate her to open her eyes. Then, she handed the stirring, but still not awake, child to me and stood there sternly to watch me try. My daughter, I would find out within two days, is a champion sleeper. That night, I followed the nurse’s directions half-heartedly while she lurked reprovingly in the doorway. I looked down at the closed eyes and the pursed pinkness of mouth and the quietly squirming limbs that were trying to get away from my soft touch. I unsnapped the tiniest white cotton kimono.
The nurse left.
I rubbed my daughter’s chest with two fingers and she looked at me with her enormous dark eyes, and I looked at her, and I said aloud, “you don’t want to do this right now, do you? Neither do I.” And so I opened that tiniest kimono fully, and lay her on my chest, our skin warming each other’s. And I turned off the light, and I pulled up the covers over both of us, until we were a cocoon that felt more familiar — our two bodies wrapped in one covering, as they had been less than a day ago. And we slept. Almost instantly.
We slept for the rest of the night.
Around 5am, we both woke up. I don’t remember how, though I do remember that it was just a stirring awake without any noise. She was hungry.
And as she ate, the two of us quiet in the dim room, a bird began to sing in the courtyard outside our window. It was like nothing I’ve ever heard. Not the two notes of the chickadee or the twittering of sparrows or the more insistent calls of the cardinal or blue jay. It was a whole song — long, and complicated — full of an extraordinary range of notes. A serenade. A proper beginning. Now, with the bird, and the tiny mouth that knew instinctively what to do, and the eyes that were trying to focus on my face. Now, it was time to eat. And to listen.
I knew she was listening. She had to be. Because it was the only thing to hear at that moment, and also because I had seen the depths in her eyes the night before: she was a listener. Warm under our blankets, her brand-new skin on mine, she nursed, and I smiled, and we both listened to many minutes of a bird sending joy into the world.
I carry the deep visceral memory of those minutes with me. I can see and hear and feel and even smell them still. But I think of them particularly today because when I went to brush my teeth this morning — the light still dim, me feeling, inexplicably, more awake than usual — I could not do anything but stand in the center of the bathroom and listen. There, in the tree outside my window, there was another of those birds! It piped its song, something I have not heard any other time in my life before or since that morning with my newborn, and the music felt like a promise. Not “things will turn out fine,” not a platitude about peace as pandemic rages. But a promise at once more inchoate and more realistic and more reassuring. Something like, “this is the start of a thing, and we don’t know where it will end, but we are all, all the creatures, in it together.”
If I knew anything about birding, I would find a recording of that song, and embed it here. But as I do not, all I can do is record it as an impression: long minutes I stood there and listened this morning, and I had to close my eyes to listen better, to feel that first morning with my daughter come flooding back and to recall that sense of something so much bigger, beyond our two selves, that we were entering together. It felt to me the way I have felt as I’ve read of all the incredible ways that people around the world are pulling together right now, doing for each other, placing what they have to offer at the feet of those who need it, for the common good of helping our world get through this terrible time. There will continue to be tragedy in coming weeks, and I am not pretending it will not get worse in many places before it gets better.
But this morning, I am holding on to the reminder that we have each other and to the hope that those notes offer.