Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Earliest Paradoxes of The Gingerbread Man

When does life begin? At the ever-increasingly-cliched gleam? At the first breath taken, or at the first breath taken away? At the first step forward, or at the first step backward? At the moment of conception, or at the moment of consciousness?

Only yesterday I discovered a new answer to my question. I sat in a doctor's office next to my supine wife and we both were staring at a TV screen picturing a blob next to some other blobs. The nurse pointed to the middle blob and said things like yolk sac, seven and a half weeks, and healthy. I'll admit I wasn't paying attention to anything she was saying. She could have shouted out words like Chrysanthemum, Bavarian Warmbloods, and pancakes, and my expression would have never changed.  I was in the middle of a discovery that I had never made before that moment. The blob in the middle of the other blobs was shaped like a gingerbread man. Just under the middle blob was a heart that was beating almost as fast as mine. Though these are interesting observations, the greatest discovery was what came next. 
The nurse (could have been the same one, could have been a different person altogether) turned a switch and I felt the entire world go silent. The only entity allowed to make a sound when the switch was on was The Gingerbread Man on the screen. The only sound echoing through our world was the sound of his heart- Wompwompwompwompwompwompwompwomp. I think I opened my mouth to say "Oh, wow," but I couldn't, because the nurse's switch was still turned into the ON position. It was at that moment I made my discovery: Life begins when you give life to someone else. I was twenty-five years old. My wife, twenty-four. We had been alive for half a century between us, but we were never alive like we were when The Gingerbread Man was talking. Life had only just begun for us, as it also had for The Blob. 

I don't remember the drive home (which is comforting, because I was driving). I remember the quickest day in modern history passing very swiftly and bedtime approach. I tried to pretend I was tired. I tried to pretend the day was normal or average, and that tomorrow was a new day of opportunity. Kellee was asleep easily. Unlike me, it had been a long day for her. Only the cat, nudging to get under the covers with her, kept her awake at all. Me? I had something else keeping me awake. There was a very nervous person pacing in my frontal lobe with all kinds of questions, none of which I had an answer for. 

How can something so small make you feel as if you are the strongest man in the world?
How can someone with a heart the size of a letter on this page make yours grow three sizes in a day?
How can someone shaped like a holiday cookie make you crumble at the sight of him?
How can you possibly be "wrapped around a finger" which, as yet, doesn't exist?

Months before the sleepless nights of feedings, cryings, rockings, and changings, I was having my own sleepless night for other reasons. 

Later, that pacing person in my brain started in with more questions. What will he look like? What will his name be? What color hair will he have? Might he be talking within a week's time of his arrival (not likely)? Will he look like his mother (hopefully)? Will he have my nose (oh, dear)?

Why were these questions being asked at such a late hour, or even at all? Had I any answers for them they would not have helped. 

As soon as those questions faded answerlessly through our window and into the snowy air, the man in my frontal lobe was washed over again with new life and a new set of questions. What will she look like? What will her name be? What color hair will she have? Might she be talking within a week's time of her arrival (still unlikely)? Will she look like her mother (again, hopefully)? Will she have my nose?

How do you sleep when that worrisome person is chewing off his proverbial finger nails? I calmed him and me down at the same time by realizing that the whole day was about dealing with paradoxes. The answer to any and all worry must consist of one, too. And so, before bidding adieu for the night to the man in my forehead, I made peace with this one thought: In less than a year, I will have complete control over an independent life. Yet, at the same time, I know that I will have lost all control over a dependent life. I don't know why that made me fall asleep, or even feel less anxious. Perhaps comfort lies in the fact that we know we don't know what will happen, but that up to this point, we have been cared for by a host of others. 

Last night I slept well, yet not at all. I would like to say that I dreamt of things like blobs on a screen, Bavarian Warmblood horses, and The Gingerbread Man, but I didn't. Maybe I will some other night when the worry is not so great. Maybe knowing that you don't know is the greatest paradox not only in parenthood, but also in life. On second thought, I know that it is. Or maybe it isn't. What do I know? After all, 

Birches by Robert Frost

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy's been swinging them.
But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay.
Ice-storms do that. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves

As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun's warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust--
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.

But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
(Now am I free to be poetical?)
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows--
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father's trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It's when I'm weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig's having lashed across it open.
I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be A Swinger of Birches.