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.
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.