"Maybe that's the only way mothers can hold on to things - in echoes, through generations. It's not enough. But it will have to do."- Katherine Center in Things to Remember not to Forget from the book Because I Love Her - 34 Women Writers Reflect on the Mother-Daughter Bond, edited by Andrea N. Richesin
“How awful it was, thought Tessa, remembering Fats the toddler, the way tiny ghosts of your living children haunted your heart; they could never know, and would hate it if they did, how their growing was a constant bereavement.”
― J.K. Rowling, The Casual Vacancy
Jahan is one month shy of being two years old.
Despite the excellent sleep habits I instilled in her since birth, and as if to prove my mother right ("She is a baby, Noorulain, not a robot"), she wakes up at a different time every night and grunts a few times with her eyes closed and her arms outstretched so I can bring her to our bed where she happily cuddles next to me, kicks my blanket off, and immediately goes to sleep.
At almost two, Jahan has a full head of soft ringlets. In the bath, the hair sticks to her forehead and fans over her back, straightened by the water. She pushes it out of her eyes and slaps the water in the tub delightfully with both hands. Sometimes, she runs her fingers across her mouth, pinky to index finder, all the while mumbling "Ma ma ma ma ma."
When her hair is drying and she is dressed in her pajamas, lotion slathered all over her body, her legs shiny after the massage I have given her, a tight ringlet sits daintily on her forehead. It's my favorite thing to look at before we say good-night, this tiny curl perched on top of her head, swaying this way and that as she moves, running around the room, laughing, and trying to escape the inevitable bedtime.
I am eager for Jahanara to talk to me. In my dreams, I see her smiling face and hear a voice-over "Mummy, let's go get our nails done," or "Will you buy me ice-cream, Mummy?" She says "Mama" these days, and utters a jumble of sounds that I struggle to translate to a language. When I hand her a bowl of crushed ice, I say, "Say, thank you, Mummy." Today she responded with something that sounded like "Tha." I think she is trying to say thank you, I told my sister. "Of course she is," she said and laughed, obviously humoring me.
It won't be long before she talks now. And when she does, I will probably look back at these days and reflect on the defiant desperation in Jahan's eyes when she is trying to tell me something and I am not understanding it, the crying that ensues only when I have taken something away from her, the way she slaps her thighs in anger instead of verbalizing her discontent in a litany of "No, no, no, no." Maybe I will even wish for the simplicity of responding to her needs without ever hearing a request, because we have developed our own way of communication. Trial and error. Whine and smile. When I hand her the sippy-cup and she whines in annoyance, I realize I have absent-mindedly opened it for her and she likes to do that herself. So I take it back, close it, and give it to her again. "Say, thank you, Mummy." A grin.
When Jahan and I have reading-time over the weekend, I lie down on the sofa with a paperback, and she spreads her board books all around us, inspecting each one, mumbling to herself as she turns the pages. Every few minutes, she comes to the sofa and climbs into my lap. She rests her head on my shoulder and brings her face close to me for a kiss. She does this several times and clings to me. Then she is off again, playing with her books, or running all over the house.
She has mastered all handheld devices in this house and wants to graduate to laptops, which she is not (yet) allowed to touch. She navigates her way expertly to her beloved games and apps on the Kindle Fire, the iPad, and iPhone. Once, she got her hands on her aunt's Blackberry and was perplexed when she touched the screen and nothing happened. Then she discovered the buttons. The tactile feedback kept her occupied for several minutes.
I am listing all the things she is doing at this age, things that amuse me, things I wish to remember, things we have pictures and videos of, but somehow I feel like all these reminders will not be enough because there is a sense of time slipping away. I go back and forth. Sometimes I want Jahan to be 5 tomorrow, so we can go shopping, get our nails done, pick a Disney movie to watch together, read books, visit libraries, write silly poems. And sometimes, I want to stop right here and watch her just as she is now. I want to preserve these days with her in a jar like jams and pickles. I want to always remember that in this moment, when I put my baby's palm against mine, her hand stretches from my wrist to the soft hillocks underneath my fingers. She was such a tiny thing, you know. I used to wrap her up in a pink blanket and swing her easily in my arms. She used to look like a small folded blanket in her big crib. Now, she is a little person, opening cabinets and trying to smuggle contraband (lotion) to her toy box before someone catches her. When she is caught, she has the decency to look embarrassed, and closes the cabinet immediately, puts the safety lock back in place (clearly these things don't work), grins, and claps, appreciating herself.
She's a big girl now, but she is still so, so small. She is cautious by nature. She closes doors carefully, positioning her hands and feet out of the way. She doesn't try to go downstairs when she finds the safety door open by chance. When she thinks no one is watching, she climbs chairs and tables gingerly, checking her balance, holding on to things for support so she doesn't fall. If she does hurt herself, she whines softly and pats where it hurts, then she runs to me, sometimes crying, sometimes not, expecting to be soothed. "You're OK," I say. "Mummy's right here." And she understands, I think. We are at home and I can say this with certainty here. It's just a scratch or a bump. But outside of this small house, the world is so big. And very soon, my baby girl will be out there in the world, while I am also out there in the world. First, it will be Montessori (in about a month), then school, then college, then...life, and I may not always be there to comfort her.
Some nights, when sleep is maliciously lurking somewhere out of reach, I have these low-grade panic attacks. What about skinned knees in the playground, I think. Or kids pushing each other on the see-saw. Or...there is so much fear that surfaces suddenly from some rarely-trodden part of my heart that I have to take a few deep breaths and move closer to Jahan's crib. I just watch her breathing peacefully, sprawled over her blanket, her curls framing her little round face, one foot hanging off the edge having made it out of the narrow slats. The world is so big, I think, and you are so small. It's OK, it's OK, it's OK, I tell myself. Next to my baby's face, I whisper, "It's OK. Mummy's right here."
Photos by Rebecca McCue