To Any Reader
Robert Louis Stevenson
As from the house your mother sees
You playing round the garden trees,
So you may see, if you will look
Through the windows of this book,
Another child, far, far away,
And in another garden, play.
But do not think you can at all,
By knocking on the window, call
That child to hear you. He intent
Is all on his play-business bent.
He does not hear; he will not look,
Nor yet be lured out of this book.
For, long ago, the truth to say,
He has grown up and gone away,
And it is but a child of air
That lingers in the garden there.
I am parenting solo this week while A. is away in Greece. I last did this on a couple of occasions in the fall, when Miss N. was still a charming lump of a baby who could only just scoot across the floor. She was also still waking a lot at night – twice or thrice, reliably – and although I didn’t know it at the time, I was severely anemic. It was a herculean effort just to bundle her up and walk to the supermarket.
On one such solo flight, in the throes of the agonized-shrieking stage of teething, we ran out of children’s tylenol and I had to go to the pharmacy to get more. In Germany, pharmacies are not self-serve; you have to ask the pharmacist for what you want, even if it’s an off-the-shelf product like Vaseline or ibuprofen, and then she tells you how to take or use whatever you’ve purchased. I find it a little invasive, and also representative of how Germany seems to work in general. Telling people the Completely Arbitrary Right Way To Do Things seems to be a national pastime.
But I digress. We set out for the pharmacy in the early afternoon. It was an overcast November day, not yet really cold. I was exhausted, and had spent most of the morning prone on the sofa and floor, talking to the baby. My plan was to dash out, get the tylenol (or paracetamol, here), and dash back to put N. down for her nap. When we got there, I found that they were closed between one and three. There was still quite some time to go. I pushed a sleepy N. back and forth along the riverside for an hour, nursed her in the chilly park, and finally found myself in front of the pharmacist. Who, in response to my weary German request for “pair-a-see-tam-ol” furrowed her brow before exclaiming, in English, “Ah, I see what you mean. Pah-rah-TZAY-tem-ol!” with rather more condescension than I felt was necessary.
This time around, our week is going better. Partly this is luck. Miss N. has been a small, angry, feral creature for the past two weeks, during which she endured the twin developmental disruptions of learning to walk (and fall; oh, the blood) and dropping her afternoon nap. Not, as the baby books would have it, the morning one, which instead slowly and agonizingly evolved into a reliable post-lunch siesta. We are both breathing a little easier. Partly, though, I like to think that it is my rising to the occasion that is making for smoother days. Over the course of the last month or so, I’ve often found myself boiling over when faced with the most quotidian, predictable things: N. systematically dropping fistfuls of her supper over the edge of the highchair; noisy frat parties in our backyard; the landlady below us turning on her television at exactly the moment when we climb into bed and switch off the light. There is little I can do about any of it, which is dispiriting at first, and progressively enraging. It is wholly a matter of my expectations failing to line up with reality, or vice-versa. When I know A. is coming home at the end of the day, I expect that things will somehow be easier. There are, after all, two of us, and only one pre-verbal toddler, one small apartment. It is certainly more convenient to have four hands available to bathe and wipe up and fetch and carry. And yet the quantity and quality of work remain constant, and I am discouraged anew.
I’ve been coming to realize, lately, how the passage of time is warped by the experience of having a small child. Friends of ours from our previous apartment building had a baby on Christmas Day, when N. was ten months old, and I remember thinking, “Thank God we don’t have such a small baby any more,” but really N. was and is still quite small in the grand scheme of things. And it boggles me to think how quickly and thoroughly I have forgotten the specific hardships of this particular baby when she was brand new, the nursing difficulties, never sleeping, and so forth. Apart from a few impressions, they’re just gone, expunged from my brain by the heady cocktail of rampaging hormones and sleep deprivation. And I am grateful for it.
And so this week I am trying to practise a selective amnesia. It is comforting to think that I will forget, except in a very abstract way, most of what has been shortening my fuse lately. I hold on to that certainty and try to cling with equal tenderness to all the good stuff. I try to keep this computer closed. I spread out my duvet on the living room rug and read every book N. drags over to me. I name all of my facial features when she points to them, even the fortieth time. We listen to the birds and watch the rain. Perhaps it’s not amnesia, but composition. The arrangement of what I would like to remember, the garden in Stevenson’s eerie memento of a book.