And it hit me that this is what being a parent is - to bear witness and care for another human being through their most intense period of growth and change - where their existing self is constantly slipping like mercury through your fingers, becoming a new baby, a new little person everyday as they grow and change. As much as I want to grasp onto who Ali is this very minute, I know that this current version of him is just a snapshot - that he is the process rather than the minute by minute product of himself.
When I had that thought, it made me cry because I'm only just starting to grasp how much we missed out on with Zainab. Does that mean I completely missed parenting her - because, by the time I held her in my arms, she was still - she was not going to grow or move any more? I felt lost for a moment as her mother. But not only did I love her through the constant transitions and growth of pregnancy - from a tiny cellular possibility to a kicking, hiccoughing, nearly six pound baby, but I also loved her and held her through that other big transition - from life to death. I was there surrounding her as her heart slowed and then stopped as we sat in the wreckage, but I was also there after she was born, holding her as the living warmth ebbed away from her body and her little soul stretched away to begin its travels.
I asked El Prima the other day whether she thought Zainab could hear my dad singing her a lullaby when he held her after she was born, and she said, "Yes - the soul hangs around for a while - at least a day - that's why we stay with someone who has died, with their body for the first day." That second transition - from someone you love whose heart has just stopped beating, to a cold body - has always frightened me a bit. thanks to all those cultural phobias of dead bodies and deterioration. There was a moment on the day we spent with her, when I had slept briefly and I woke and asked to hold her again, and the cold on her cheeks was noticeable. I knew we didn't have much time with her - that the little baby soul we loved so much was mingling back into the atmosphere and gradually relinquishing the atoms of her body back to the elements.
I look at all the beautiful cards and gifts that family and friends have sent congratulating us on Ali's birth, and it feels so unfair that Zainab got condolences instead. It will always be unfair. But I feel now that she exists in a state beyond fair and unfair. And that having held her as she crossed into death and to love her even all the way into death was all I could do as her mama.
* * *
I dreamt last night that I was out shopping with El Prima and the girls – we were in a toyshop, and Zainab was with us – she was a curly-headed toddler about fifteen months old. One moment she was looking at toys in our aisle, and the next I asked El Prima where she’d gone – and we couldn’t see her anywhere. We were searching all over the shop – calling out her name, and when it was clear she wasn’t there, we ran out to the street and were looking for her. I saw El Prima run across the road and I was so scared that I’d see her pick up Zainab from the road – I wanted to find her but please god, not on the road, not hurt or killed.
Then a tram came, and I realised it was our tram home. I felt compelled to get on – in my head all sorts of arguments were tested and rejected – maybe she would know it was our tram, maybe someone took her on it – I had no idea, but I just knew I had to get on that tram. Somehow we were now looking for both Ali and Zainab. I stepped up onto the tram and searched up and down, and there was Zainab, running into y arms. I hugged her to me and breathed her in, simultaneously looking around for Ali. “Who found her?” I asked “Was there a little boy with her?” I asked. Some sulky-looking teenagers waved at me to indicate it was them who had found her who had found her. They pointed, and there was Ali – himself, but a toddler only a few months younger than Zainab. I drew him to me and held both my babies – a solid little person in each arm. “Oh my babies”, I cried, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry I took my eyes off you!”
I woke to my own crying, and find my arms around someone warm – El Prima. I listen for Ali’s snuffling breath in the co-sleeper next to our bed, and when I hear him, I exhale, grateful for him, grateful for Zainab visiting my dreams (it's been a while my darling girl), and so so grateful for that feeling, however brief, of holding both my babies in my arms.