Tuesday, July 12, 2011
Signs and Wonders
The hole in his heart was the last trace in his body of the complete mess that was his breathing and circulation when he was born--he had PPHN, or Persistent Pulmonary Hypertension of the Newborn. When he was born, his heart and lungs didn't make the switch from fetal circulation to baby circulation; he remained a hybrid, an amphibian, not quite ready for life as a land mammal, ready to dip back into amniotic fluid and resume life as a fetus.
If it hadn't been completely terrifying, there might have been something fascinating about the coming into the world of our liminal boy, the way he walked between the worlds--of life and death, of fetus and baby. It also made me realize what an astonishing series of events take place inside a neonate's body, just as much as inside the mother's body, the switching over of heart and lungs, digestion...everything.
But then babies are always in between, in some astonishing process of becoming. They grow at a rate their first year that is scarcely human, more plant-like than mammalian, except that all mammal babies do it. Little bug's leg is about as long as his whole body was eleven months ago. The first year is a fast-forward blur of milestones, rolling over and grabbing stuff, focusing the eyes and attending to social interaction, then suddenly sitting, standing, walking, running.
The most startling to me is the leap into language. When I worked in daycare, we would watch the inevitable process by which they would start to communicate with words around 12-18 months. As the director said, it was as if your cat suddenly started to speak. Here are these little beings who go through being a jumble of incomprehensible smiles and cries to older babies who have begun to make sense of their own needs and desires and can communicate them pretty well to you. And then, suddenly, they talk; they are so much more than hungry or tired or in need of a diaper change. They are little people; unformed to say the least, in-process, but unmistakably human.
Bug has started calling me "Raura," or 'Mama Raura," or just some version of "Mom." The "Raura" startles me, because it's so nearly what everyone else calls me, a casual, friendly name. I got him up to go to the doctor this morning, woke him before he was ready, and he wailed, "Roooora!" to complain, a plaintive sound, so eerily like what any adult I know might have said in the same situation.
Aside from a few words--names for us and a word for nursing, "na-na" which he says with such deep pleasure he can't help but smile--he has some signs. Like a lot of parents of our social location, we've been teaching him a little bit of American Sign Language, because it turns out that the major obstacle to speech is what you have to do with your mouth and tongue, not what you have to do with your mind. It's still mostly the sign for "more"--more food, more tickling, more kitty, more game, more singing...always, give me more of life!--but he's added a few here and there: change my diaper, pick me up, fan. Like most babies, he loves ceiling fans; the first thing he does when we go somewhere new is scan the ceilings for fans.
They say that you need language before you can form memories, because language abstracts and symbolizes things, and you need that to store them in memory.
I also notice that these bare beginnings of language make Little Bug more self-conscious, more aware of himself as different from other people. It's a concept he's been wrestling with. I see it flash behind his eyes when I tell him to stop and he gets a wicked smile and takes off in a different direction. "See!" he seems to say. "I am my own person. I have different desires than you do!"
Recently, he saw Jennifer start to cry and he cried too. "It's okay, Bug," I said. "You're a different person than Mama Jennifer." Something about that clicked for him, and he suddenly stopped.
Language requires self-consciousness. Not only do I have different desires from you, but I understand that what I am thinking is opaque to you, and I will communicate it to you. You live in a different consciousness. Even little babies must have some understanding of our separateness, because they are so social, always trying to bridge the gap between us. But Bug at 11 months, more and more, is aware of himself.
He took this to a new level a couple of days ago. I said to Jennifer, with him sitting a few feet away, "You should get a picture of him signing 'fan'." She picked up her camera, and he posed, apparently having understood exactly what I had just said. He put his hand in the air in his sign for fan, and got a super-fake smile on his face. Jennifer snapped it, and when we saw it--the picture above--we laughed and laughed, unable to believe the evidence of our eyes, that he had the ability to pose, to act, to be false, to project an image of himself for others. He leaned in, grabbed the camera, looked at himself, and joined our laughter. He found a digital image of himself pretending to sign "fan" hilarious.
Liminal boy crossed another threshold, imagining seeing himself from outside himself. With each day, he's a little more of a person. And it happens so fast it makes my head spin.