My son was born with saucer eyes, blue and unblinking. I had labored without much effort, really, up until the final hours, which were strenuous and thrilling and obliterating and fragmented and completely, finally, whole.
The moment I felt his impossible skull erupt from my body, my midwife commanded me to “reach down and touch his head.” I remember shouting, “No!” several times. I imagine this was done with violent shakes of my head, the way my son now thrashes when he is finished nursing or when I come at him with the bulb aspirator. My midwife grabbed my closed fist and plunked it down, where it starfished against something gelatinous and pulsing, emphatically alive. “Now push!” she said, “Reach down, and pull out your son!” He was born that way: my fingers hooked beneath his armpits, waving with one hand to his father, his cord — the longest my birth team had ever seen — throbbing like a python. With him on my stomach in the next moment, all I could see were those two dark saucers. Blunt-blue and unblinking.
My husband and I both have large eyes. This is understating it. I was once asked by a well-meaning old woman if I had had my thyroid checked recently. When I responded no and pressed her for a reason, she explained, “It’s your eyes, dear.” We knew our son would likely inherit this physical attribute, but neither of us were prepared for his eyes: huge and beautiful and thoughtful. The eyes have it. Everyone says so: “Look how alert!” “What a wise, knowing face!” “What are you looking at, little one; what do you see?” My husband’s father calls from his home in Solana Beach to ask us, “Are his eyes still popping out?” Indeed.
Look. See. Watch. Observe. Draw in. Glimpse. Witness. Absorb. Peer. Perceive. Recognize. Know. This is the language of catalog, of the entomologist and his careful, organized bug box; of the artist in her cluttered studio. It is the language of the writer, the counselor, the priest who absorbs the world and its attendant pain, love, fear, joy; striving to draw out meaning and understanding — connection. These are the professions of the high-minded, the curious, the intellectually inspired. Wasn’t I a little smug when I fell in love with a man whose other love was Philosophy? Didn’t I, even before my son was conceived, expect him to love language, to eat books the way I did as a child and still do?
Who first said the old, terrible cliché, “The eyes are the window to the soul”? I circle phrases like this in my students’ essays, reminding them to “refresh their language.” I balk at the too-easy description, the expected explanation.
But still, there he is: in my husband’s arms, in the Barnes & Noble in our town. It’s one of the earliest outings of his life — his two-week birthday — and already strangers are staring and commenting: “How blue! How big!” Already he is staring back at them with that other cliché, the “knowing look.” Does he silently admonish all of us for coming here to shop instead of supporting the small, independent book seller downtown? Is he disappointed in the purchase of a bodice-ripper-beach-read rather than a classic? Even my best friend tells me now that in those first months when she would come to visit us, she would hold him and think, “Stop judging me, baby!” Everyone knows you can’t read Joyce in the summertime.
And now, here he is again: sitting placidly in his Pack-n-Play, salsa music beating from the cat hair-covered speakers in our living room. It’s day three of our eight-month-old’s current nap strike. Those eyes are wide from exhaustion, rimmed in red, practically pasted open, dry and almost vacant, but still . . . there is something imploring about his look.
* * *
When I was newly pregnant, I had a fight with a dear friend in the baby clothes department. She had stopped to finger a soft, cotton onesie stitched with soccer balls. “How cute!” was all she said, neither offering to buy it nor entreating me to do so. I snapped in that moment, wondering aloud why we had to adorn our children (my son) in sports-themed clothing just because some archaic notion of gender decrees boys to be natural athletes. No. No footballs on my boy’s butt, thank you. We’ll wait to see IF he develops an affinity for such things before we brand him. Of course we will support his interests whatever they may be: astronomy, cello-playing, chemistry, chess.
This position of mine, espoused loudly and with emphatic smugness, makes people worry that we will deprive our son of the toy balls infants need for development. People close to us have promised him that they will take him to a ballgame if/when we refuse to. I tell interested parties: don’t worry; he has balls to play with and, don’t worry; we might even, if some dear friend were to buy us tickets and drive us up to Boston, take him to see the Red Sox play.
I understand why they worry. I have made a lot of noise about allowing my son to emerge from my body and into the world of his own tastes, interests, and refusals. And as a feminist woman who married a feminist man, I have felt fine, even justified and self-righteous, about using sport as the locus of my argument and my complaint. Not all boys are muscular, vigorous, hyper, pushy, aggressive, active — what my mother calls “all-boy.” My husband was never an athlete. Chess club member? Of course. Creator of chemistry experiments gone awry? Absolutely. Bookish, shy boy with rich internal life? Yes, and how marvelous!
And what about genetics? I was the girl they stuck way out next to the church parking lot in deep right field; the one who let the volleyball bounce off of her head during gym class. “Squillante,” they admonished, “don’t be afraid of the ball!”
But over the last few months, as strangers and family remark how “wise” our son looks, “how astute” he must be, and how he clearly must be “soaking it all up,” “taking it all in,” observing, remembering, witnessing, cataloging — and as I go along willingly and even proudly — I wonder why I am not also railing against the assumptions that go with this generalization.
The truth is that at eight months old, my son is not a passive observer. He is bountifully active: slapping me in the face while nursing, pulling my hair, sticking his fingers up my nose, climbing over and past me, so that he can gnaw on the seat cushion of my glider. He screeches, cries, and yowls. He whacks his open palm against the hard wood floors and against the skin of my chest as I hold him. He pulls himself up on every vertical surface in the house, lands on his bottom with a hard thump, pivots and is off again. He is on the go, a verb of a child — all action, all progress. His eyes are still huge, yes, and beautiful, but what of it? Does their size and seeming depth really incline him toward a scientific or contemplative or observational life? Not necessarily. But unlike my objections to people thinking of him, “Boy! Baseball player!” this assumption matches my own sensibilities just fine, so I don’t spend too much time poking at it.
* * *
When I was seven months pregnant and feeling energetic still, before the long, hot stretch leading up to my son’s August birthday, I shopped with my mother in the gardening department at Lowes. We wheeled flats of petunias, impatiens, and pansies between the aisles and made plans to fill the back garden with bright spikes of color in celebration of summer and new life. At the checkout, I ran into a woman I know, another writer, whose son was then 18 months old.
I asked, “How are you? How is S?”
“He likes to launch himself off of things,” she laughed. “He cries when we bring out the books.”
She blessed my blooming belly and we left each other, but her words stayed with me, spiky and stuck: This is my fear, I realized. That my son would be so different from me that some of the most elemental parts of my life — books, character, story — would be rejected in favor of something foreign and strange. That he might be an athlete, and I — the last-picked team member in elementary school, the adult couch potato — would hold him back with my own disinterests and fears. After these first intimate months in which our bodies have hardly been separate or distinct, I’m afraid that we will one day fail to recognize each other.
When I think about it on a day when I’ve had some rare sleep, when my head and heart are both clear, I realize that this is really fine. One of the reasons I love and am eternally fascinated by my husband is that he is so different from me. His interests and mine intersect in places, of course, but there are trajectories of thought and tangents of attention that are all his own. Much of the time I can learn only from watching him, but sometimes the watching is enough.
* * *
My son was born with saucer eyes, blue and unblinking, seeming to beseech from the day they opened onto my world.
With them, he sees our cats clearly enough now to lunge for them, laughing, as they pass within inches of his starfish fist. He sees the Cheerios on the floor next to the plant stand with enough acuity that he is across the room and shoving one in his mouth before I can catch him.
With those eyes, he spies me coming down our street on my way home from teaching each day. My husband holds him, facing out, just inside our screened front door. My son screeches happily, his strong legs pumping in excited punctuation.
Before I can make out the deep blue I now know better than any other color, before I can see his face erupt into smile, he sees me — watching me slump under the weight of student papers; absorbing my relief at being done with work and on my way back to family; recognizing my face, my gait, my smile, my wave. He knows that I am his mother, and that we will reach out to hold each other in just another few, small steps.