As a writer and, for that matter as a human being, I try to avoid using clichés. I would sooner stab myself in the eye with a corn holder than write that life was just a dream, or that it takes a village to raise a child. I have never, to my knowledge, written the words “black as night,” “good as gold” or “faster than a speeding bullet.” They have served their respective purposes, these ideas, and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with them; I just like to make my own connections and observations because I enjoy playing with ideas and words.
Sometimes, though, a clichéd idea presents itself so powerfully and insistently that it is nearly impossible either to ignore it or to re-cast it in some updated shape. I almost didn’t write this post because I was so worried that it was based entirely on the idea of babies as a symbol of hope, new life and light in the midst of darkness. I could practically imagine the turgid and purple prose that would envelop me as soon as I sat at the computer, as if were possessed by the collective spirits of every romance writer who had ever walked the earth. I had to do it, though; sometimes clichés stick around precisely because they crystallize something that is true and essential to our existence.
My mother remains in an induced coma, intubated, unchanged. Her single, donated kidney is refusing all attempts to prod it into usefulness. Yesterday I sat again by her bed, even though I knew she couldn’t see or hear me, trying not to be upset by the vaguely industrial tube sticking out of her mouth, or the fact that she looked very much as if she had already died. An officious nurse had told my father days ago that we should not speak to her or touch her too much because it might disturb the healing rhythms of her sleep; my-brother-the-doctor had dismissed that as “horse shit.” I talked to her, I stroked her arm and pushed her hair back from her face, feeling oddly peaceful and totally immersed in the small world of that room with its whirring, clicking, beeping machines. I knew that I was really, fully “there” with her, and that there would be nothing to regret.
I made my father some chicken salad later, and went to my parents’ house to eat lunch with him and spend some time sorting through their bills and figuring out what needed to be paid immediately. Bill paying was my mother’s job, and I didn’t want him to end up without light, air conditioning or a working credit card. He wanted to talk about a funeral, so we did. We agreed that she would want a Jewish service, and I said that I thought my old friend Vicki, a professional soprano would be willing to sing. My mother loves vocal music most, and I thought maybe Vicki could sing Schubert lieder, or one of the old, schmaltzy Viennese songs like “Vilya” from “The Merry Widow.” He wanted to talk about cremation and I raised my hand to stop him. I could speak calmly about funerals, but for some reason the fact that my parents want to be cremated is horrifying to me. It’s irrational, but I felt that I could indulge one irrational tic after the tubes, the coma and the funeral chat. I told him that they could do as they pleased, but that if their pleasure was cremation, it would have to be handled by someone else. He agreed; we finished our salad.
Later, my brother called on his way home from the hospital. It’s the same hospital, but he was there because he works there. I relayed the day’s medical non-events and interpersonal events; he told me that it was good that we were making plans, but that he really didn’t think death was an imminent threat. On the issue of cremation he said that he would be the point person, and that it was a good thing I wasn’t a Hindu. That is one of the many, many reasons that I love my brother.
It was a lot for me, yesterday. I had been fully present with my mother, with my father, superficially placid, and honestly satisfied that I was doing the best that I could for everyone who needed me. I was exhausted, though, full of images that bloomed and spread like the most invasive garden aggressor. My husband saw it, and did the best thing anyone could possibly have done for me: he went and got his daughter’s baby to come and spend the evening with me.
She arrived around dinnertime in her car seat, asleep, rumpled and like a shot of pure comfort. She woke up and I held her close, made faces at her when she fussed, fed her, changed her, and tuned entirely into her smooth, pink, wide-eyed essence. I was as fully present with her as I had been with my parents, and it balanced me. I could actually do things for Chloe, like responding to her primitive sounds with my words, keeping her bottom clean and dry, and giving her the warmth and gentle cadence of my breath while she slept on my chest. I hated to see her leave, her grave, grey-blue eyes watching me as she was buckled into the car, her tiny lips forming an “O.” The visions of tubes and funerals were not gone, but the tiny, hardy tips of new thoughts had managed to grow in their midst. The sense memory of silky baby hair, the feeling of a miniscule hand clutching my finger in sleep, the satisfied sigh when bottle finally meets mouth.
It is a pure, unmitigated cliché to say that a small, demanding baby person serves as a reminder that there is nothing more natural than death, new life, and the inexorable flow of time. Sometimes, though, clichés are just plain true.