Ever since my son, Michael, was born 30 years ago, I’ve understood the spiritual power of babies. In those six hours of labor, I gave birth not only to my son but to a profoundly new and liberating sense of myself. Still, not until my grandson, Vaun, was born did I realize that babies are actually miniature angels assigned to remind us that love is the real reason we’re here.
Vaun—my stepdaughter’s son—was six weeks premature. Born with weak lungs, jaundice, and low blood sugar, he was placed in an incubator in Washington Hospital Center’s neonatal intensive-care unit after his birth. The tubes taped to his mouth and nose made him look like a tiny alien as they ensured life-giving breath. And though the incubator protected him, it also prevented him from being held by his mother, Keesha, who hovered over the Plexiglas box, worried and afraid.
For Keesha, there had to be a good outcome. Though she had one child already, Antoinette—a spunky, precocious ten-year-old—she’d suffered two miscarriages. Another loss would devastate her in ways I did not want to imagine. I knew how it hurt to lose a child—I’d had a miscarriage myself. I wanted to comfort Keesha, but our relationship was fragile, often strained, and had been ever since I’d married her father, Joe, 12 years before.
My reaction to her pregnancy hadn’t improved matters. For both Joe and me, the news sparked more concern than celebration. Not only were there challenges in Keehsa’s relationship with the baby’s father, but she was searching for a new job and a new apartment. Why have another child now? How would she manage? These were a few of the questions that bedeviled us. Still, we offered Keesha the moral and material support she needed. She was our daughter, and we were going to be grandparents again. What else could we do?
Grandparenthood was something Antoinette had made easy. As our first grandchild, she was doted on and spoiled within reason—and she returned the favor by being studious, caring, and outgoing. Without complaint, she’d run errands and help Keesha around the house. She was curious and vibrantly alive. By age nine, she was already on the Web searching for college scholarships in cheerleading and gymnastics.
As the writer in the family, I was the de-facto “cultural commissar.” I regularly took her to plays, museums, and art galleries. We talked about everything from the war in Iraq to problems she was having with a teacher at school. My granddaughter was opinionated, thoughtful, and open. I considered her as much my own grandchild as I would have if we’d been bound by blood. Besides, until a year earlier, when Keesha’s mother moved from California to Washington, I was the only local grandmother.
My son, Michael, has no children, so before Antoinette was born I’d rarely thought about being a grandmother. I knew only that I did not want to be called Grandma—Antoinette calls me Marita. Early on, however, I realized that to be her grandmother, I had to improve my relationship with Keesha. So I helped pay for Antoinette’s dance classes and uniforms, bought her books and birthday gifts, and sometimes surprised her with money “just because.”
Still, relations between Keesha and me remained charged. My stepdaughter and I had yet to have an authentic, honest conversation.
Vaun had been in the incubator three days when I arrived for a visit. Keesha was alone in the intensive-care unit, perched beside Vaun’s incubator, her eyes assessing his every movement—his arms and fists seeming to box the air, his legs thrusting jerkily.
I stood behind her and considered how much was at stake. Vaun’s lungs had to grow strong enough in that incubator for him to breathe naturally. His health, learning capacity, size, and strength all depended on those lungs. In that moment, the memory of the many nights Joe and I had worried, groused, and complained about the impact of this new child on Keesha’s life—and, to be honest, on our lives—dissolved.
Keesha began plying one of the nurses with questions, all variations on a single theme: Was Vaun getting better? The nurse smiled and gently said what we already knew: “He’s hanging in there.” My stepdaughter’s shoulders slumped, and she looked anxious. I was pretty sure she was remembering the pain of losing her other two babies.
There was nothing we could do, so we returned to Keesha’s room, where, exhausted from keeping vigil over Vaun, she climbed into bed, curled into a ball, and fell asleep. While she dozed, I sat in the chair next to her, flipped through the TV channels, and, in one of those oddly synchronistic moments, tuned in to a woman giving birth on the Discovery Channel. As I watched this stranger pant and scream, I tried to think of what I might say or do to ease my stepdaughter’s pain and help prepare her for the worst—just in case.
Despite our differences, I felt intensely bound to Keesha, not only as her stepmother but as a woman, by the biological sisterhood that binds one woman to another, one mother to another.
She was 18 when Joe and I married, and we got off to a tumultuous start despite my determination to be the world’s best stepmom. Shortly after graduating from high school, Keesha left California, where she’d been living with her mom, and came to Washington to live with us. Since then, I’d been exposed to many incarnations of the young woman now dozing in the bed beside me.
The first was Demon Keesha. At 18, she was jealous of my role in her father’s life. This Keesha defied her curfew and was rude and disrespectful. Next there was Young-Mother Keesha, to whom marriage and motherhood brought a full package of responsibilities, leading to heartbreak and eventually divorce. She was followed by Back-on-Track Keesha, who grew gracefully as a single mother. This Keesha was devoted to Antoinette and worked to create a bright future for them both. But despite her best intentions, Addicted-to-Love Keesha had remained on the scene—her hunger for romance creating angst in her relationships with men.