Grieving the Days of Only
By Jennifer Berney
The Sunday after my second son was born, my first son, Harlan, asked if he could shoot his Nerf gun off the front porch. It was bright outside but cold and windy. Storm clouds gathered in all directions. He had put his new boots on over his dinosaur pajamas. The boots had been a Christmas gift less that a month before. They were navy blue with orange soles, a shade of orange so bright it stung my eyes. He insisted he didn’t need a coat.
All morning we’d been stuck in our new routine: I nursed the baby on the couch while Harlan bounced on the cushions. When I asked him to stop, he’d press his body into me and yell into his sleeping brother’s ear: I love you so much. I kept a hand on the baby’s head at all times, terrified that Harlan would land on him or bonk him with his own head—a head that suddenly seemed disproportionately large. So far, having a newborn meant that I clenched my jaw all day long.
And so I said yes, shoot your Nerf gun, silently praying that he could go at least ten minutes without calling for me. But almost instantly Harlan wanted to switch to water guns—never mind the weather. So I wrapped our new baby in a blanket and, with one hand, dug out the water guns from a box in the garage.
But, of course, his favorite one was missing. It was missing because it leaked and my partner had thrown it away, a fact that I didn’t want to reveal, and so I pretended to look for it, poking through boxes and boxes of junk.
“I want you to find it,” he informed me, standing at a distance, watching, and when I told him we’d just have to play with the two we had, he collapsed on the ground and wailed.
This was typical, not of Harlan in general, but of Harlan since the arrival of his baby brother. There was no rolling with the punches, no making do. Every dropped cracker, every wet sleeve was a tragedy. And now, as he threw himself around on the floor, I was stuck: with a baby in my arms, I couldn’t soothe or move or wrestle him. I could only hold my breath and silently will him to quit.
Throughout my pregnancy, as we prepared to welcome our second son into the world, I knew that our family in general, and our son in particular, was headed for a time of transition. That’s all I knew. That word, transition, had been tossed about for some time, but no one had offered specifics. Instead, seasoned parents warned me to brace myself. It will be hard, they said, so hard.
I had waited four months to tell Harlan I was pregnant. In my first trimester, morning sickness crushed me. At the height of it, I spent evenings face down on the couch, moaning, too nauseated even to move myself to bed. Harlan tapped on my back, whispered “Mommy,” until my partner coaxed him away. I didn’t explain what made me sick; I didn’t want him to blame my pain on his unborn sibling.
Later, once the sickness had all but passed, I withheld out of superstition; Harlan himself had arrived after years of trying and false starts, and so I had learned to never treat a pregnancy as a sure thing. To name a baby as a certainty was to endanger it.
When I finally did tell Harlan, I told him this way: my body is trying to make a baby. And once that settled in, once my belly was round, once the baby was actual, he was certain that my belly held a sister. He started calling that sister Banana.
I took this to mean that he preferred a sister to a brother. So, at twenty weeks, when the technician spotted a penis on the ultrasound, I was cautious again about breaking this news. It was the end of summer then, and when I picked him up at a friend’s house, he was sitting on their sunny front porch.
“You know Banana?” I whispered. He nodded.
“How would it be if Banana wasn’t a little girl?”
Harlan’s eyes went wide. He gasped. “Oh, I would love it if he was a brother!”
I guess that Harlan too, was cautious, guarded about imagining the thing he most wanted.
As my belly grew, he talked to it constantly. “Hi Baby!” he shouted, stripping away the layers of shirt and nylon that covered my bump. I had to train him not to do this in public. Friends thought it was sweet. But I found myself wiping the spit from too many kisses off of my stretched-out belly, and swallowing a desire to push him away, wondering what he’d do once Banana-boy was born. Would he still talk to him, still love him, still want to be around him?
What Harlan did after the baby was born was rail against me.
I couldn’t feed him. Harlan refused to eat breakfast, and each morning I waited for the inevitable blood sugar crash, the screaming tantrum on the floor. I began to advocate for food at any cost, offering him ice cream on a toaster waffle or extra honey on his toast. But he would complain that I cut the toast the wrong way, or that he didn’t want butter, or he would shriek because the ice cream melted too fast.
I couldn’t touch him. If Harlan walked by and I tapped him on the shoulder, he would fall to the floor and clutch the place I had touched as if I had prodded him with a hot spear. If I were sitting on the couch with my leg extended, he would walk by, trip, and begin screaming, red-faced: “I am so mad at you Mommy.”
Harder still were the moments of grief that arrived in the middle of the night. The first night we were home, I lay half awake with the light on and the baby on my chest. My partner slept on the couch to give us space. At 2:00 a.m. Harlan cried out for me, and I lay there, still, waiting to see if he’d go back to sleep. I’d done this countless times before the baby was born without any guilt, but now, this time, I held my breath and felt dread. He needed me and I wouldn’t come. I wouldn’t come because I had a new son now, a son whom I would hold tightly and nurse through the night.
The next night he cried again and this time didn’t stop. When my partner went in for him, I could hear his cries through two sets of closed doors. “Go Away!” he yelled at her, kicking beneath the covers. “I want Mommy Jenn!” He cried the way I remember crying as a child, the way I suppose I still cry when feeling particularly lost and desperate: choking on endless sobs.
I got up, leaving the baby alone in the middle of the bed. I held Harlan, my impossibly long four-year-old, and listened to the grief move through his body, his sobs slowing to a shaky but steady breath. I continued to lie there as he moved back into sleep, half of my mind still trained on the baby, picturing him tiny and lost in the sheets.
Harlan’s body, it seemed, had transformed overnight. His head was the size and weight of a bowling ball. When he cried, I could see inside his mouth and up his nose, his tonsils, his spit, his snot. Suddenly, there was something uncouth in his size, his need, and all his human functions.
The baby, on the other hand was dainty with his tiny head and perfect whorl of hair. He breastfed and slept. His breath smelled like milk and so did his poo. Before I had the baby, my worst fear had been that that I would love Harlan less, or see him from a greater distance. Now that that seemed to be coming true, I began to worry that I had made some horrible mistake, that our relationship was all but over and we’d spend the rest of our days alternating between sorrow and conflict. I knew for sure that things would never be the same. And sometimes I thought: who needs this baby anyway?
Our baby, you see, still did not have a name.
From the moment we found out that Banana was a boy, Harlan had stopped calling him Banana. I had wanted to name him Fox, and shared the name with Harlan, thinking he’d approve and that the name might become a special family secret. But Harlan didn’t like the name Fox. He didn’t like any name that I proposed, not Cooper or Vincent or Ivan or Hudson. Not Forrest or Cedar or Lake. This was fine, of course; my partner and I would choose whatever name we wanted. But then one day I suggested Andre, and Harlan, inexplicably, fell in love with that sound.
“I hear you picked out a name for the baby,” his daycare teacher said to me a few days later.
“We did?” I asked. Harlan had shared during circle time that we were going to name our baby Andre.
He called the baby Andre until the day he was born, at which point he called him only baby, a choice which seemed to quietly acknowledge that he didn’t have the final say. My partner and I didn’t hate the name, but we liked other names better. “Cedar’s a good name,” I tried to convince Harlan. “You know Cedar, like the tree.”
“Andre’s a good name,” he answered, almost in a whisper.
We agonized for days. We set deadlines for ourselves, and then missed them. We wanted to name him Cedar. We didn’t want to disappoint our Harlan. Friends tried to convince us that it was our right to name the baby, but I couldn’t get past the fear that our choice would impact their connection. Harlan had chosen a brother named Andre; Andre was the name of the brother he loved.
There was another voice in my head, a reasonable one who told me this would pass. Name the baby Cedar, the voice said. Be the grownup; be the parent. It’s silly to think that a name will shape their destiny as brothers.
I listened to that voice and acknowledged its wisdom. And then we went ahead and named our baby Andre.
Three days later, on that stormy day in January, I convinced Harlan to remove himself from the garage floor and come inside where it was warm. I thought I could make him hot chocolate, that I could read him a story and nurse the baby and have some sense, for a moment, that everything would be all right. Instead, as I set the kettle on the stove, I heard the click of the front door. The baby was asleep in his vibrating chair. I took a moment to put my shoes on, not eager to venture out into the cold rain.
No more than thirty seconds had passed, but when I stepped on the front porch, there was no trace of Harlan. I called him. He was not in the yard or in the driveway. He was not down the street or in a tree. I called him again. I raced to the end of the block to peer around the corner, then back to the house to check on the baby who still slept soundly in his chair. I called Harlan again. He was nowhere.
I thought I’d look for him in the garage, and that’s when I spotted them: the bright orange soles of his boots. He had wedged himself between two planters in the driveway. It was his absolute stillness that rendered him invisible; if it weren’t for the color orange, I wouldn’t have found him.
I picked him up like a baby, the heaviest baby who ever lived, and carried him inside, his limbs dangling toward the ground.
“Did you hear me calling you?” I asked him. “Did you hear the fear in my voice?”
“I was playing hide and seek,” he said.
I draped his body on the couch and locked the front door. I couldn’t be mad. I didn’t want to be. This was a challenge he’d somehow designed, like the runaway bunny. If I leave, will you find me? If I disappear, will you see me? When I’m out of your vision, do I still exist?
What could I do to convince him the answer was yes?
Andre is three months old today. Harlan sleeps through the night again. He still crowds the baby when he nurses, and gives him too many kisses. Earlier today I laid the baby down on the sheepskin rug in Harlan’s room and Harlan lay down next to him and showed him a parade of his stuffed animals. In the morning sometimes he asks to see his baby brother, or sometimes when I’m holding him, he asks to see his face. Many times in a day, he greets him: “Hi baby,” he says. “Hi Andre, hi Andre, hi Andre.”
And just yesterday he told me that he loves me, he loves me, he loves me so much. The words reached inside and touched a place that I realized had been cordoned off for just a little while. Those words had been frequent between us, and then for a while instead there was distance, a baby in the middle, whom both of us adored.
I’ve lost my days alone with Harlan—planless days where we’d leave the house to do one errand and we’d let the day run his course from there. I remember once spending over an hour at Panda Express watching him eat Lo Mein, because that was how long it took him. We talked the whole time about whether ghosts were real, and whether the Panda Express Panda and Kung Fu Panda were the same panda.
These days, our time together is interrupted by nursing, by diaper changes, by naps. Most nights, I nurse Andre to sleep while I read to Harlan and they wind up asleep together, Harlan’s mouth agape and Andre’s lips still in the motion of nursing. But there are rare nights that Andre falls asleep with my partner and I have Harlan to myself. On these nights, we snuggle with no one between us and I savor it, this taste of something I once had every day.
Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Hip Mama, The Raven Chronicles, and the anthology Hunger and Thirst. She is currently working on a memoir, Somehow, which details the years she spent trying to build a family out of donor sperm, mason jars, and needleless syringes. She lives in Olympia, Washington.