If you want to love something… treat it nicely.
I was offered this puzzle piece the first time twenty years ago. I was a teenager with teenage problems, and there was this girl I didn’t like. I’d need a time machine to tell you the reason I didn’t like her because today I’m unable to summon even a vague recollection but I know she was one of the others. We were not friends, couldn’t be, no matter what. Trying to remember the details makes me wonder how anyone took me seriously back then.
Anyway, all that hate and discontent was firmly in place for months until she was drunk and upset at a party one night, and I was the only one sober enough to care. I sat with her, listening to her tearful story of love and betrayal, and sometime in the wee hours of the morning, I got her home safely. Our friendship lasted throughout our high school days but the greater lesson of this puzzle piece moment was completely lost on me.
It came again when my son was just a few weeks old. The bulk of his newborn medical crisis had passed and his father had returned to work, leaving us alone to face the days together. They were hard days, nothing like I’d dreamed about in the months leading up to childbirth. For reasons that took months to fully understand, he was a miserable baby. He cried a lot and spit up in volumes that made it hard to gain weight, which was essentially the only responsibility the two of us had been assigned.
He was tiny and frail, and with my 20/20 hindsight I can see that I was absolutely terrified of him. On the day in question, I was changing his clothes for the fourth time, not because I was obsessed with baby fashion but because he kept pooping and puking and rendering his clothes unwearable. Every movement in and out of diapers and sleeves seemed painful for him, which made it painful for me. It was cold and he was so little, I could hardly believe I was in charge of keeping him alive. Anyway, I got him all clean and as swiftly as possible snapped into something warm and dry, and before I could even get a clean bib wrapped around his tiny neck… he puked again.
It was all over him and me and I seriously almost lost it. Seriously. I was consumed by hopelessness, fear, frustration, and certainly a million other things that came together resembling rage. I. Almost. Lost. It. Time and space vanished, as did my good friends Logic and Reason. I felt as though maternal instinct and anything remotely resembling compassion had drained from my body. For a moment, even decency was a stranger.
I was slipping in and out of my body, seeing in a brand new way this miserable baby and his hysterical mother. I could see that he needed me desperately and that I was closed and afraid. I heard, “Tell her to be nice to him.”
I told myself to be nice to him and in my head I screamed back at myself that I didn’t know how to anymore. I said it again and again, “Be nice to him,” and finally my mouth whispered aloud, “Be nice to him … Be nice to him … Be nice to him.” Nice? Be nice to him? What would be nice? At first, I couldn’t think of anything I could do that would be nice for him but I pulled him to my chest, wrapped a blanket around us and all of the vomit, and took a single step and then another and then another.
Nice? What would be nice? What can I do that would be nice to him? A few more whispers and a few more steps, and I found myself standing at the door to the bathroom. He likes to take baths. A bath would be nice for him… and even for me. I filled the tub, stripped us both of our nasty clothes and settled in to the bath until I could think of something else that would be nice.
Nothing came to me, so I warmed the water as needed and just held and nursed and said nice things to that baby until his father came home from work. He searched for a moment before discovering us in the bathtub. He said, “Rough day?” He had no idea how rough but I was once again, somehow, madly in love with that baby.