Cuddling with Grandchildren
One of the great joys of life is holding a newborn while it sleeps, or talking to it while it is in your arms. I have done this many times with my three children and grandchildren. That joy is a wondrous pleasure. The benefits of holding a small bundle that is beginning the very long process of growth, development, understanding, and awareness are incalculable.
Last week, I was holding Owen who is Jack's 3-week old brother while he was crying and having a bad case of the hiccups. As I held him close to me, I felt his entire body bounce against my chest each time this infant had a hiccup. It was not a pleasant feeling for either of us. Amid the bouncing of this small one against my chest, he was mad, and he wanted all to know the level of displeasure he was experiencing. While he was a little less than 7-pounds, he had a voice of a young boy. After rubbing his back and talking gently to him for 15-minutes, he finally fell asleep exhausted by his ordeal.
There I was with this small infant cuddled into my arms. As I rocked him and rubbed his back, he slept. During the silent time of Owen's sleep, I had the time to think of all the other times that I had held him and my other grandchildren, Jack and Ayanna and my children, Scott, Kristin, and Michelle.
My mind went back and forth like Owen and I went back and forth in the rocker. As I looked down upon him, I thought about his hiccups and mingled with those concerns were random memories of other times with other infants both children and grandchildren. I thought about the peacefulness of all those sleeping children as my mind wandered over many memories.
I tried to remember all those many times of holding my children and grandchildren. However, what about what the infant remember? Surely, stored in the recesses of their minds are memories of our times together. They won't be able to retrieve those memories. In Scott's case, those memories go back more than 40-years or in Owen's case less than a week. There must be some sort of murky memory of those moments of trust and comfort still retained in their brains. Nonetheless, the retrieving of those moments is lost.
As I thought about the times that I held my children and grandchildren, I also wondered about when I was their age and my parents, grandparents, great-grandfather, aunts and uncles held me, comforted me, and talked to me. While I certainly don't remember any of those many times as an infant or even as a toddler being held, I don't even remember some of those people that held me. Both my grandfathers and great grandfather held me and played with me for several years, but I can't retrieve a single memory of their love for me before all three of them died.
Nonetheless, I certainly benefitted from that time of trust, love, and comfort. Indeed, my children and grandchildren will benefit in some way even though none of them will recall a single moment of our time together during those few years of their lives.
While rubbing Owen's back as he slept, I wondered about the reasons why we cuddle and talk to infants. Obviously, we love and care for them and want all the best for them both at that moment and for their entire lives. However, there must be more. I wonder whether I was attempting to reconstruct my childhood in holding my children and grandchildren. I wonder whether I was trying to relive what people said and did with me nearly seven decades ago-all of which is lost somewhere in the recesses of my brain. In addition, all those that held me with love and care are also gone not just their memory of their cuddling me. I don't possess the memories nor do I possess their physical presence in my life today. That is profoundly tragic.
We say to these infants that they are adorable, beautiful, cute, loveable, which they are. While that is true, and we do love them, why are we saying anything to a newborn that is just beginning to hear the sounds of the world for the very first time? They cannot understand our words. I have said things to my three children and my three grandchildren that I truly feel and expressed my joy that they have brought me. However, why am I going through this ritual when they can't remember that feeling of being held and surely couldn't understand a single word coming from my lips? This loving ritual of my reenactment of what my parents, grandparents, and others said to me as an infant can't be retrieved or remembered.
After Jack was born I wrote about the bonding process.
That was an emotionally overwhelming and unexplainable development. I'll never forget it, but I wonder if there is more to it. While I cuddled and talked to my children, it has really been with the grandchildren when I started to think about what was happening. My guess is that when I got older things seem to come back strangely to the beginning of the circle of life. I begin the process of putting the pieces together of my life for the last time.
There is an interesting anomaly that occurred for me when I reached an age that I really was aware that my days are numbered. At one level, even a five year old child knows that people and pets will die. I knew at that early age that death will befall all of us. Nevertheless, I really never knew it until I got much older. In the past handful of years, I danced with death a couple of times. Death didn't lead me in either dance, but I am aware that I won't luck out forever. I know that my life has 10 or 20 years left if I am lucky. At the very best, I have about 10-20% of my life still to live if I'm fortunate. That realization has come crushing down upon me; I know it...death is a sure thing. It will arrive far sooner than later for me at my age. Due to this awareness, I am forced to look seriously at all the days of my life that remain.
The Chinese have always had a deep reverence for the elderly. That reverence isn't often shared by us in the West. They look to older people for the wisdom that their senior citizens possess. The elderly have acquired much knowledge having traveled the long road of life many decades longer than many of the rest of them.
I have gotten to the point of realization about my experiences in life that there is an interesting contradiction about life. Strangely, without death hanging over me, I would not be forced to think about life. In the midst of my awareness that I will be gone in a limited amount of time, I see the big picture of life for the first time.
Interestingly, many religions about which I have read or taught my students say much the same thing. These religions want their followers to acquire a heart of wisdom. In Mahayana Buddhism, the Shakyamuni Buddha wrote in The Heart Sutra about acquiring a heart of wisdom. In the Old Testament, the psalmist wrote, "So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom."
While other old men of the past have said that I needed to wise-up about life, it has been impossible for me to do so as a young man. However, I have wised-up having recently faced death. There is a tension between experiencing the joy of holding infants in your arms and realizing that my days are severely numbered and very limited. Without the pain and reality of the brevity of my life, I would not truly understand the joy of holding a newborn.
Thanks, Owen. I needed that.
Visit the Dancing with Death page to read more about this topic.