Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Monday, March 06, 2017

Grandpa's Story*

I feel almost saintly. In one painless act of mercy, I have forgiven millions.

Obnoxious gloating, annoying exultation–I’ve forgiven it all. Quick-draw wallet-flashing, sophomoric bumper stickers, gauche t-shirts and tasteless baseball caps, I have forgotten every last crime against good taste, all such sins of the past and those yet to be committed. All forgiven. I forgive the prideful crowing of every insufferable grandparent I’ve ever met, and promise to endure any and all mulish braying about grandkids.  Now, I'm a grandpa.

“You wait, pal,” they told me, a finger pointed in the air like some Old Testament prophet. "You wait 'till your first."

Well, they were right. Not reveling is substantially impossible. You asked me to tell you what I felt. You said, “After you hold your granddaughter, write me and tell me about it.”

So I am. Pardon the length–I have a granddaughter.

My wife, starry-eyed with sheer awe, came back from her very first visit. “You know,” she told me, eyes glazed, “I can stare at that baby for an hour and not see enough.”

I’m sure I smiled, but she didn’t notice because she wasn’t able to focus on anything.

Now I know exactly what she meant, why grandparents caterwaul and can't stop singing.

When I held that child in my hands in the living room of my daughter’s home, the world honestly didn’t stop turning. I didn’t succumb to tears or fall back on the couch. Holding that child didn’t stop my heart or my watch. She was beautiful, but I wasn’t, like Dorothy, suddenly whirlwind-ed into Oz.

For a moment those as-yet-undefined splashes of darkness seemed cross-eyed. Then her forehead creased, and she appeared to be working hard at identifying this cloudy image in front of her. Whether it was her grandpa or just some gent was a distinction I knew meant nothing to her.

She was doing calisthenics, finding never-used muscles by reaching and stretching in a way her grandfather does the morning after shoveling snow. Her lips moved, puckered, un-puckered, drew themselves into a totally unconscious smile, then fell into a frown in a series of shifting moods totally her own. Jocelyn was in my arms, but she wasn’t really mine, nor was I hers.

And that reminded me of holding my own kids when they were newborns. I remembered telling myself then how incredible this biology of birth really was, how feminine too, how totally un-masculine. What passes between mother and child in those opening weeks of a baby’s life is something to which no male can ever claim access. That’s what I felt in those first moments I held Jocelyn. This baby belonged to her mother–and her mother’s mother.

“You know,” one of my wife’s grandmotherly friends told her after Jocelyn’s birth, “our daughters think their babies are their own.” Then she winked. “But we know better.”

In those first moments I held her in my hands, I was feeling joy, yes–but with the same gender distance I’d felt when I’d held her mother a quarter century ago. Just three weeks before, Jocelyn had been a miraculously complex chunk of tissue in my daughter’s womb. No male has a clue about all of that.

You asked what it was I felt that first time I held her, Judith, so now I’m telling you that the episode didn’t last all that long and it didn’t change my life. I gave her up quite soon, in fact. That reaching and stretching must have seemed to her something of an ordeal because she began to get "fussy"--a lovely phrase only grandparents use we use. She spits and squirms and twists her face into all kinds of horrifying poses, grunts and cries and whimpers and whines–gets ornery in a way babies do, and we say, “she’s getting fussy.” That's it.

There are things I can’t do to satisfy that fussiness, things her grandmother can’t do either–and I wondered what a grandma must feel at that moment, what desire must rise in a her at the moment the child gets hungry.

So I gave Jocelyn up to her mother, who graciously stretched a receiving blanket over her chest and nursed her. 

 And answer me this: when in life are those two–wants and needs–so completely one as they are for a baby?

I don’t know about you, but just a few years ago in those darker wakeful moments some of us suffer, I started asking myself whether or not I’ve done it all right. You know what I mean? I’ve started to review life as often as I dream about what might be; I guess it’s a sign of age, looking back more often than looking forward. And when I do that, I sometimes wonder whether I shouldn’t have done the whole thing better. I think of moments when I wasn’t all that hot as a father, pursuing my own dreams rather than loving my kids. Life–like football, I guess–seems easier to play on Monday mornings after the fray.

But seeing my daughter love that child, seeing Joc nurse from what is my own flesh and blood, wiped away some of the guilt that rises in me in those edgy moments of self-evaluation. I don’t know if I can explain that either, just like so much of what I’m trying to say can’t really be said. Maybe that’s why we all reach for pictures.

Watching my daughter smile as her daughter nurse offered me something of that blessedness evoked by the first word of the book of Psalms, a blessedness I could feel all the way to my fingertips, a peace that’s hard to come by.

And then, I took her again and held her for a long, long time–maybe an hour, during which time she did nothing more than other three-week-old babies ever do. That’s when I began to understand fully what her grandmother meant when she told me how remarkable it was that she could do nothing but stare at that baby for an hour, every second of it blessed. Holding that child took me, too, out of time.

That joy wasn’t an exalting high that blew me away or hit me like a bolt out of the blue. There was nothing sharp and fierce about it. It was slow and rapturous and immeasurably beautiful.

It was spiritual, in the best sense of the word. Mystics claim we grow closest to God when we become oblivious to self. “I am not my own . . . .” our catechism says. Every spiritual tradition documents ecstatic moments as being filled, but only after being emptied.

You said, “Tell me what you felt when you held that child.” I felt simultaneously emptied and filled, and I think that’s the joy that makes every grandparent reach for the purse or wallet. “Check out this cutie.”

It wasn’t just my first grandchild I had in my hands, it was God-breathed life. I know of no other way of describing it. Words are not sufficient. Life itself is what was made flesh in my hands. That miracle is what emptied me.

You know who I thought of?--Simeon, someone the Bible describes as “righteous and devout,” a man on whom had descended nothing less than the Holy Spirit. You remember the story. He was told by God that he would not die before he had seen the Lord Jesus Christ.

Now stick with me, even though I may be coming close to the limit of preposterous grandfatherly exaggeration because my beautiful granddaughter is not messianic and I'm not old enough to see the end of my days. But something of Simeon’s story I understand now. I know something of what Simeon meant when he raised his face to God and prayed: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace.”

I’m not ready to throw in the towel; but in a very real sense, I felt Simeon’s peace because something is completed now in a way that it’s never been before, something of what may be the most fundamental task of our existence on this earth. There’s a circle in my life that’s not so much closed as complete. In a way I wouldn't have guessed I could have felt, I’m ready to go. I’ve held my grandchild. And yet, this life itself is made powerfully more precious, not less, by that realization.

I’ve gone on and on too long because I've tried to do the impossible and in the process become just another braying grandfather. 

But you wanted to know. You asked what I felt when I held my first grandchild, Judith. You wanted to know.

Oh, yes, I’m attaching a picture.

Forgive me. I know you will.

*Originally written exactly 16 years ago, when she was a baby.

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