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Angel Baby
Comments () | Published June 1, 2009

There were echoes of my own life in my stepdaughter’s—including single parenthood and, before I met Joe, a talent for becoming enmeshed in unsatisfying love affairs. Still, I believed that Keesha, like me, had the ability to turn her life around—if she wanted to. I’d hoped to help guide her, for her sake as well as for the sake of Antoinette and now Vaun. But because I’d been burned so often by her jealousy of me, I had shut down.

She never knew how much we had in common—I was just the interloper who had stolen her father’s heart. So I learned to play my part with caution, showering Antoinette with grandmotherly attention while maintaining a pleasant but superficial relationship with Keesha.

As I sat beside Keesha in the hospital and watched another woman become a mother on TV, I hoped Vaun’s arrival would help me turn the page in the story of my relationship with Keesha. My grandson had enough challenges ahead of him without getting caught in the crossfire of old family dramas.

The Zen Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh writes: “When you love someone, the most precious gift you can give your loved one is your true presence. . . . With mindfulness, we can look deeply and recognize the strengths as well as the difficulties and suffering.” He adds that “with the energy of mindfulness and the capacity of looking deeply, we will find the insights to transform and heal.”

Keesha opened her eyes just as the orderly was delivering dinner. After she finished picking at the baked chicken and rice and Jell-O, I took a chance and told her I admired her.

“Why?” she asked, eyeing me with a mixture of suspicion and surprise.

“I understand what you’ve been through. Miscarriages are hell. Your body has healed, but your heart and mind are still tender. You don’t know this about me, but I lost a baby to a miscarriage before I had Michael.”

She shifted on the bed. I knew I was treading on sensitive territory by bringing up the babies she’d lost before the one she’d just given birth to was out of the woods.

“I know how scared you are about Vaun,” I continued. “When you lose a baby, most people don’t realize that you’ve lost a whole person, a complete human being that you loved. That’s how I felt about the baby boy who would’ve been Mike’s brother.”

Keesha pursed her lips, and I could see she was fighting tears.

“I really do admire you,” I repeated. “You’re strong and loving and brave. You decided to have another baby despite your losses, despite the pain and death. I just want you to know that I’ve been there. You never forget, but you do heal.”

I had written about my miscarriage, but until that day I hadn’t spoken with anyone about the impact of losing my first child. And writing, no matter how revelatory, is still an artifact, an intellectual creation that by its nature distances you from what you are describing. But telling Keesha in my own halting words about one of my most painful experiences was a moment of grace. I wasn’t trying to understand it; I was just remembering it, embracing it, offering it as a gift to us both. I reached for her hand, and she allowed me to hold it.

The next day, Vaun started breathing on his own and was released from his isolation chamber into his mother’s arms. During visiting hours, he was passed around the circle of family gathered at Keesha’s bed. When my mother-in-law, his great-grandmother, passed him to me, I held him close and whispered into his ear, “Thank you.”

Vaun is now a healthy, sharp, smart-as-a-whip three-year-old, and Antoinette has entered adolescence. Some days I feel as if I’m losing her to the rebelliousness and awkward search for identity that characterize being 13. But I still talk to her, and I know that behind her blank stare she’s listening. I also recognize that her impatience and sullenness are both a pose and a call for attention.

Recently, driving her home from a shopping excursion, I talked to her about how choosing a boy to date has to be determined by more than his looks and how the poor choices your friends make can endanger you. Her response was a long silence, then quiet, grudging agreement.

Last Friday was grandparents’ day at Vaun’s school. I made a hand puppet with him and read him a story. Then we crawled inside a big cardboard box and pretended we were driving through the country in a sports car. Because of Vaun’s curiosity, innocence, and spontaneity, each time I’m with him I enter the here and now, the eternity of the moment. The sound of his voice, the touch of his hand, and the glint in his eyes seem utterly original—and make me feel as if I’m getting a glimpse of what humans can be.

My grandson at three is a fresh start, the world made new—even when he asks me to read a story for the third time or hangs up the phone when I’m talking to him because he wants to get back to his toy truck.

Keesha’s mother moved to Washington a year ago to live with Keesha and help with the children. She is a woman of deeply felt religious faith who shares my belief in the power of determination, optimism, and diligence in shaping a life. We liked each other from our first meeting, and there has never been a moment of jealousy between us as we have found a natural rhythm to the ways in which we love Antoinette and Vaun. Keesha is her mother’s daughter, as many of her best traits show. Still, their relationship is as loving, impassioned, intense, challenging, and difficult as most mother/daughter bonds.

I now play a different role as Keesha’s stepmother; the presence of her own mother has freed me. I no longer try to be surrogate mom, counselor, and adviser. I can just be Keesha’s friend and sounding board, treading lightly, sometimes offering advice, which is what friends do.

On that now-distant day in her hospital room, Keesha and I became women together. I’ve discovered that you become a woman the way you become human—over and over again—and that both processes are rooted in surrendering to the reality of more pain than you may feel is fair, but pain woven into our earthly existence.

Something else I’ve come to realize: Just as my son’s birth was a kind of baptism, cracking me open in so many ways, giving me new speech and a new vision—a phenomenon sometimes referred to as the “double birth” of mother and child—the circumstances of Vaun’s birth cracked me open again. But this time it was a “triple birth”—of mother, son, and grandmother.

This article first appeared in the June 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.   

Marita Golden's Web site

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Posted at 05:00 PM/ET, 06/01/2009 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles