This week, we will celebrate our baby’s first birthday. One year. One odd old fallen tree of a year. Instead of having gone by like normal months they toppled, slowly, and now lie in pieces by our feet.
The baby was helpful as we had markers of time having passed: the baby laughed, time has passed; the baby crawled, time has passed; the baby is eating an egg, time has passed. Because without him it would have been so very possible for me to have stared at this same framed photograph on my wall, this same scrolling little screen, and be tricked into believing it was still September, or Tuesday or midnight. Without the baby, growing first inside and then beside me as physical proof of time, I could not have seen this year as anything but metaphor – it was not a year, it was that fallen tree, this melting candle, an elastic band stretched very tight, it was Weetabix, decaying in its unspooned milk.
So we’ll celebrate, in our way.
Do I sound weary? I am a bit. I am a bit weary. I keep having to reinject my upper arm with the reminder that life is changing again, and hope is here, etc. Chivvy myself along by planning decadent orgies and similar, looking at photos of beaches, reading exhibition calendars of faraway galleries, oh the places I’ll go!
When I returned from maternity leave, I’ll admit, I was nervous about writing a column again. I was averaging one opinion a month, and it was rarely correct and often gloomy. I had done nothing; I had been nowhere; I had slept little. I reentered the virtual workplace six months after everybody else had had a headstart in acclimatising to what they were coolly calling “the new normal”. I was worried there would be nothing new to say. All the pain, I thought, had already been expressed, all the boredom. All the jokes had been told – the one about Zoom backgrounds, and how nobody wears bras any more, and all the endless grim asides about bread.
But it turned out, happily, that there was plenty more to say. Even when the world was on hold it was possible to kick over another stone and find 10 more revolting new truths scurrying from the light. Except, I’ve had enough of stones now.
And while I would wholeheartedly recommend having a healthy baby as a distraction from any future pandemics (write this down somewhere, tape it to the fridge) it brings with it something also bittersweet and bruising. Having a whole new child to measure how very, very long we have been enduring this gloaming micro-life is chastening. We tick off his developments in our head, at the same time tallying all he’s missed. All the relatives who’ve yet to hold him, all the places he’s never been, all my friends’ new babies he hasn’t accidentally wounded with his large, strong head.
The week of our baby’s birthday was also the first anniversary of my boyfriend’s beloved grandma dying. She just missed him. When Jewish people die, there’s a stone-setting ceremony a year later, and because of lockdown this was the first chance my boyfriend had to mourn; to go to Essex and see the grave and listen to a prayer. He returned with blue-ish skin and a quiet admission that walking through the cemetery he saw the plots first of a “Stiffman”, then of a “Klot” and became distracted by how many stones appeared to not only name the person but also describe the manner of death. Six of his family stood there in the wind and said goodbye to his grandma and then to each other, getting back into their own cars to follow their satnavs home.
And it’s not the same as his gran’s stone setting, our baby’s first birthday party, it’s not, but also, it is a bit. It is a bit, because a year ago we could neither have a funeral for her nor a celebration for him – when we returned home from the hospital nobody was allowed to come and bring us lasagnes for the freezer or very tiny hats, and nobody was allowed to sit together when she died, or hug, or fret about whether there were enough bagels back at the house. Both events had the loneliness baked in. And still, even a whole year, a whole boy later, normality still requires quote marks.
We will celebrate, in a way. Rather than the festival of friends and screaming kids and high chance of vomit we have come to know from his sister’s birthday parties, the baby’s birthday will be, if not mournful exactly, then at least sedate. A series of timed garden visits from select family members, an inevitable conversation about whether or not candles should be blown and if so in what direction.
Still – there will be three cakes, the promise of sun and a visit from a puppy. I pinch my arm. Not to test if I’m dreaming, because this is clearly neither nightmare nor waking life but something else, swampy and entropic, but to reinject hope. Pinch. Breathe. Cut the second cake. Life is changing again, and hope is here, etc.