My dad died when I was 11, and I’ve always been sad that he never got to know me as an adult. What would he think of me? I wonder this from time to time, and even though people close to me assure me that he’d be proud, I can’t help but ponder the question. What would we do together? Talk about? Argue about? I’ll never know.
Enter Teddy, my three month old, who’s named after my dad. What does it mean to know a baby? Certainly, Teddy and I don’t really talk. We don’t argue. “Doing things together” is mostly me doing with Teddy along for the ride. And yet, I know Teddy. As many mothers testify, I usually know what he needs just by the look on his face. If I’m taking a nap without him, I often wake up spontaneously just minutes before he gets hungry. I know this isn’t unique to me – the way a mother knows her baby is just so intimate and all-encompassing.
My dad was in the room when I was born, a first for him even though I have three older sisters. When they were born, in the late sixties and early seventies, men didn’t come into the delivery room. By 1982, that had changed. He took Lamaze with my mom and was the first person to hold me after I was born. My sisters still talk about how he came home, saying how beautiful I was. They were confused when days later, a tiny creature that they felt looked more like E.T. was brought home.
That experience – seeing me enter the world and take my first breaths – seemed to change my dad in some way, from what people tell me. We were connected. Attached. Throughout my childhood, my dad and I spent a lot of time together. I helped him fix things around the house, rode with him to the hardware store where we surreptitiously bought candy, and planted dozens of trees around our farm together. One of my best childhood memories is sitting in his lap at dusk while he rocked in a rocking chair, stroking my hair with his hand.
Having Teddy has changed the way I think about how my dad knew me. Of course, I wish he had been there for my college graduation, my wedding, or to see his namesake arrive. I still wish we had the adult relationship so many of my friends have developed with their parents. But I now know that he knew me in a way that’s so unique, so special – the way parents know their children. I saw that in my mother’s face when she came to visit me and Teddy – the baby she knew, the child she raised, holding her own little person.
My dad lost his mom when he was a little boy, just as I lost him. Ever since I’ve gotten pregnant, I’ve had the irrational fear that death will also separate Teddy and I, a thought that summons a combination of fear and sadness in the pit of my stomach that I can’t fully describe. That fear won’t be assuaged by rational assurances. But the moments I have with Teddy – feeling him breathe as he lays against my chest, smile when he recognizes my face or discover new things about the world – they give me comfort. If ever we are to be separated, I knew him in this moment. I loved him.
The only thing I want to do differently is leave some evidence behind for him. So, even if I die at the ripe old age of 105, he can look at the little notes, letters and pictures that I’ve left for him. I want him to know that I knew him – from his very first moments – and cherished every one.
As I sit and rock Teddy in his nursery, stroking his little fuzzy bald head, I know what my dad knew – that to be a parent is to know a person in a way they’ll never be known by anyone else. I may not have our adult relationship. But he knew things about me that I don’t even know myself.