Gabriel is dreaming.
His right foot is twitching. He scrunches his nose, frowns, and then his whole body relaxes. A few minutes pass. He stretches, sighs, and makes a chewing motion with his mouth. These days I cannot stop watching my newborn son.
I study his face. I look to his chest and follow its steady rise and fall. At night, I pray to the universe that he will keep breathing after I close my eyes. It is an extension of the same prayer I recited while pregnant and before each ultrasound when I’d zero in on his heartbeat: just keep beating.
I know a man who lost his baby at 38 weeks. We had already thrown him and his wife a baby shower at work. We all tucked paper bills into a card that circulated around our office and wrote generic congratulatory messages. I imagine the contents of the card helped pay for the funeral. The man didn’t come back to work for a long time. And when he did I don’t think I said the right thing. Something like, I’m glad you’re back. I don’t remember if I told him ‘I’m so sorry.’ Because I was.
I’ve lost touch with him over the years, but I thought about him a lot when I was pregnant. Sometimes I would poke my belly to see if I could get the baby to move. To crash into my uterus. To say, don’t worry, I’m still here.
During ultrasounds, it was only after I saw the tiny primordial pump squeeze that I would release the breath I didn’t realize I had been holding. During the 20-week ultrasound the doctor began by measuring the baby’s head. I watched her draw a line across the cranium and click. I watched as my baby seemed to suck his thumb and touch his head as though comforting himself. You’re so smart, I thought.
At some point – around 25 weeks – I stopped trying to make the baby move. Because every night the baby moved me. He would stretch out and kick wildly under my ribs. Sometimes he got the hiccups. I wondered if he ever tired of hearing my heartbeat.
We took long walks together in the woods. Sometimes I would describe the trees and flowers I knew even though the baby couldn’t see them or fathom colors yet. However, most of the time I would just walk and wonder about this little person growing and listening and stretching and swallowing inside me. It was strange knowing that he heard every conversation I had with people. Sometimes I wondered if he knew what I was thinking since he was lashed to my side with blood and veins. I breathe, he breathes.
Towards the end of my pregnancy I thought about the moment we would be separated for the first time and forever. I guess afterward we will spend the rest of our lives wondering and who are you?
And now he’s here. Stretching and breathing on a blanket his grandmother knitted him. This tiny stranger in my house who recognizes my voice if not my words. I’m mum. I’m your mum, I tell him when he looks at my face when nursing. Sometimes just saying that phrase makes me cry.
At two weeks old, he doesn’t regard me any differently than the wall behind me. He’s still learning how to see. Right now he understands contrast. Dark from light. Hungry from full. He is ticklish under his chin.
Gabriel was born on a Sunday morning when it was too late to be considered night and too early to be called morning. My husband cut the umbilical cord. I remember thinking: He is free from me. At last. My son.
For the hundredth time in two weeks I count his toes. I examine his fingers. The first flush of fat is forming across his knuckles. I check his breath. Gabriel is sleeping.