At Random 1996: Baby provides garden of wonder

Editor’s note: This “At Random” column by Danny Heitman about his infant daughter originally appeared on June 14, 1996. We’re republishing it as a compananion piece to Danny’s new column about that same daughter who just graduated from high school.

This summer, my wife and I have simplified our garden to focus on the richer complication of raising an infant. Gone are the careful rows of herbs and vegetables that, only a year ago, commanded so much of our daily attention. In their place at the center of our days is a 9-pound baby girl, who can be just as fussy as a tomato vine or oregano seedling, though considerably more vocal.

In parenthood as in horticulture, the how-to manuals on our bookshelves tried admirably to be comprehensive, yet left us with no small share of surprises. Babies are anarchists at heart, having little respect for the neat rules and definitions embraced by medical science.

I was reminded of this on a pitch-black morning not long ago, when my wife rose from bed with sharp contractions. The contractions were too strong to fit precisely in the category of false labor, yet too slow to indicate that our baby’s arrival was imminent.

Perplexed but well-intentioned, I went to the stove and began boiling water. My interest was not medical hygiene but a bowl of egg salad.

If events were to find us at a nearby hospital, my wife and I reasoned that I should at least pack a sandwich for the ride.

I shuttled between bedroom and kitchen, timing a pot of eggs and my wife’s contractions, until at last I became confused about whether my lunch or the baby needed five more minutes on the clock.

I abandoned the stove in the heat of the emergency, but dawn eventually arrived with neither a daughter nor a decent sandwich to show for our trouble. My wife’s pain subsided, and labor did not begin in earnest until the following night.

During a full and foggy day in a hospital room, I sat at my wife’s bedside and listened to her fetal monitor pulse its news to the walls. The amplified heartbeat, like some astral signal of a distant star, was strong and beautiful and strangely elusive.

At our weariest moments, it seemed as if no amount of effort would bring us to the source of that curious music swelling our eardrums. Our daughter, a ham by heredity, agreed to emerge only after the lights and curtains of the delivery room had been arranged to theatrical perfection.

She has been on center stage ever since, dispatching grandmothers to the closet for diapers, cooing editorial judgments on the fit of a bib, sending her parents into sweet epiphanies with every wiggle of her toes.

To grow a baby is to grow many things, including teeth and charm,bones and patience, eyes and curiosity and, above, all, a basic sense of innocence.

Many people would say that innocence is one of the few qualities a baby already possesses when it arrives. The prevailing wisdom is that children are intuitively trusting, losing their naivete only after an imperfect world hardens them into adults.

But the overlooked truth is that infants are instinctive skeptics. They trust only what they can hold, and even that with a heightened sense of vigilance.

The trust you see in a happy toddler has been built. It developed morning by morning, night by night, hour by hour, through patient parents who gave a baby what it needed until the child began to accept goodness as a fact.

Persuasion of this sort is never easy nor swift. But there is this consolation: In swaddling a baby close to your heart — assuring it again and again and again that the world isn’t so bad — you begin to believe more deeply in that faith yourself. And you start to realize that nurturing a child, like the best prayer, works only when repeated every day.

My wife and I have only begun to develop the discipline of the new life we have chosen as mother and father. And our daughter has only begun to fathom the depth of love behind our deeds.

That long and anxious night last month when our daughter began her journey into the world has proven to be the first of many.

We routinely awake in darkness to answer her cries for help. Sometimes, I go to the crib and change a diaper. Sometimes, I go to the crib with a welcome pacifier. And sometimes, I go to the crib and collect my daughter so her mother can feed her.

But there are other times, when the clock tells me I should be asleep, that I go to my daughter not with a blanket or diaper or the promise of food, but simply to touch her in the velvety silence, and tell myself all over again that the miracle I see is real.

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