Looking at life’s layers
by Caroline Langerman
At first, the baby only drinks and naps — your life goes on while he sleeps. You are still the protagonist, only now with a noisy sidekick and a stroller addiction. You still go to dinner and, sometimes, even the weddings of second-tier friends. You go to the new restaurant and laugh with your friends about diapering. Your life is still now; there’s buzz about that thing you did, and that thing is not the baby. The baby is gravy.
But a few years later — long enough for your chin to get soft but not so long that you’ve thrown away your smallest-sized jeans — your little boy says something on the way home from tennis clinic that you realize has a narrative. “That kid always whines,” or “Wednesdays are the worst.” You’re at a red light, and suddenly his life is remember-able to himself, has a story. Now, you’re sending regrets to every wedding, setting alarms for T-ball sign-ups. All you want to do is go camping so he can see the constellations. The baby has two baby sisters; he is not gravy.
When even is your life?
You can bet I believed my mother’s life was an antique in the formal living room, just like her old records and her old dolls and her old pictures of people with braids who looked back at me from the top of the stairs. It was my turn. You can imagine my frustration, when, after her day at work — and work was another old thing, something she’d gone back to after having children — she would put down her purse and have her five o’clock “let down,” bringing her hands over her eyes. Surely her life was not after this, after she made boring chicken and lukewarm baths and screamed about moldy hockey pads blocking the doorways? Surely it was not something she was working toward?
I knew she had a life, but in the way you might know about an addiction or a secret: something she was nursing, neglecting. Meanwhile, I was a cartoonist. I was a poet. I was tracking the movements of an orange-haired boy named Charlie who scowled at me while I waited for him to hang his jacket. My life could not wait five minutes. “When’s dinner?” I asked. Her hands didn’t move from her eyes.
Is it like an hourglass, relevance? The more of me, the less of her? The less of me, the more of him?
Last spring, I found myself reading a story to a group of kindergarteners. Their teacher had dashed into another room to take her break, and I stood at the front of the class while the little pandemic people put up their windshields, peeled off their masks and ate their sandwiches. I’d chosen a book about New York. My son, John, liked the extravagant sums of the city — there are over 72,000 elevators in Manhattan!
“John was born in New York,” I said, by way of introduction, kind of pathetically bragging about my own old life.
A boy in the front row raised his hand and asked, suspiciously, “How do you know?”
I laughed. How do I know? In Manhattan, there are thousands of patients and only a few doctors. In Manhattan, you are allowed one ice chip every five minutes after giving birth. There were a bunch of life-threatening difficulties, but it was the thirst that was going to kill me. They allowed my mom to come into the hallway where I was lying on a cot, and I remember she was asking me to call my grandmother. Was it my life, on the cot, or my mother’s life, holding out the phone? Did life’s lens belong to my half-hour-old baby, who was making news, or to his 95-year-old great-grandmother, who was receiving it?
I left the kindergarten classroom knowing that behind me, on the playground, there was an entire world coming into being, and ahead of me, that “burst of midlife energy” that my mom promised me would come in my 40s. Maybe life was not an hourglass in which one part drained while the other filled. Maybe it was more like what we found in my son’s mouth when kindergarten was over.
It was the end of a June beach day. Everyone was sunburned and lethargic, and when I summoned the energy to peel my hands from my eyes after my five o’clock let down, I found John splayed on the bed admitting he hadn’t brushed his teeth. I brought to his bed a grubby travel toothbrush with a swoop of Crest, and when he opened up, I was surprised to see, neatly behind his baby teeth, another row of fully emerged adult teeth. It looked like a tiny movie theater. “Did you know,” I asked slowly, for effect, to a kid who had waited all year for a tooth to fall out, “That you already have your grown-up teeth?”
Incredulous, he ran to the mirror, then clattered down the stairs to his grandparents, calling, “There’s a surprise in my mouth! There’s a surprise in my mouth!”
Even though 6-year-olds tend to grow new teeth, we were truly surprised, and pounded him on the back like he had gotten into Harvard. I reported the victory to a friend a couple of weeks later. “I’ve heard of that,” she said. “Shark teeth!”
Oh, I loved a great name, and she laughed with me.
Then, “Have you called the dentist?”
I had not called the dentist, I shamefully admitted. It was sometimes so hard to know which was a right-now problem and which was the kind of problem to collect slap-happy GIFs about. I texted the dentist a picture, and he prescribed six weeks of wiggling followed by an extraction.
“Well buddy,” I said to movie-theater-mouth man over his Cheerios the next day, “We have some wiggling to do.” He looked at me like I had taken Harvard away. But we could figure this out, right? We two, whose lives were both real, and both now.
Why is it so hard to let go of the things we know we’re going to lose, that we need to lose? Why do some kids lose their teeth as painlessly as fallen eyelashes and others have to have them yanked with plyers, or, like my daughter, knocked out by a sibling’s hard head? During the Six Week Wiggle, I noticed doubleness everywhere: I had brown hair and behind it, white hair; I had a daughter pushing me to let her go, and behind her a daughter longing to be held. My very existence, next to John’s, seemed like a layer waiting to be shed. I had a husband who had been a son, a father who had been a son, and a brother who had been a son, and it was as dizzying as those constellations we still hadn’t visited — keeping tabs on old little-boy hearts while I tried to raise one as well. Maybe mothers are like a first set of teeth — you don’t get to choose how much of your adult life emerges before they fall out.
At first, his next-row teeth will feel naked and ill-equipped, cutting the skin of apples and forming words. But soon, Shark Teeth will just be something weird he used to have. Comic relief. Pillow talk. It will line up behind whatever nowness grabs him by the shoulders next and holds his gaze.
If I may add a prayer? To be here to witness what grabs my children next, but to still be grabbed by the world myself. Not just to be the gravy to my kids’ lives but to feel my own nowness beating through me till the end. On long days, it feels like I’m nursing and neglecting my own life. If you think about it, it’s magic to be in a world where old people and new people can exist at the same time; some struggling to emerge, some starting to wiggle. To take it a step further: Can you believe they can talk to each other? It’s a daily assumption we forget to celebrate for what it is: a surprise in our mouths! A surprise in our mouths. Amen. SP
Caroline Langerman is a writer in Charlotte. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Glamour. She also teaches writing classes at Charlotte Center for Literary Arts.