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  • Writer's pictureJan Carroll


Celebrating my grandson’s birthday a day late, he tentatively opens each gift: doctor kit, dinosaur book, a quartet of practical-work trucks. He investigates each of them, laughing, playing, trying them out. Finds it hilarious when he throws a balloon at me and I fall back into the couch as if hit by gale force winds, sound effects included. Then, one of his small two-year-old hands takes one of my hands, pulls me gently toward him. (Oh, my heart!) His mother says that means he wants me to chase him, so I do, and we end up cavorting in a bunch of balloons we find at the end of the hallway. His mother blew them up earlier that day as part of the festivities. How wonderful, at my age, to be drawn in, to be so tenderly invited, to play—by this young human!

What’s that about “a little child shall lead them” or about “becoming childlike to enter heaven”?

My sister’s first adopted daughter was sick when they brought her home from China, but they didn’t know it then. She died a few months later. Meanwhile, though, they celebrated her first birthday. Years later, my sister kept one balloon she’d blown up that day where it hung from the archway into the living room—it still had some air in it, as if a few of the baby’s breaths were—tenacious—there, within it.


Two days later, having coffee with a friend, she tells me of another friend whose two-month-old son has RSV and is in a children’s hospital on a ventilator. He’s young enough still to involuntarily do the Moro reflex—that flail of arms and legs, also called the “startle reflex,” whenever an unfamiliar, possibly threatening, sudden stimulus brushes them. They later outgrow it. I hope that’s not happening to him, but that he’s snuggled in a blanket and a warm cap—in swaddling clothes? He’s young enough still to do the Palmar grasp, also involuntary, wrapping his fingers around an adult’s held-out finger, the grownup looking for connection with this new little one. I hope this baby and his parents are able to touch in this way, even while he’s in the intensive care unit. Good health, healing, bonding, love, depend on such things.

I think of God’s finger reaching down to Adam’s on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, not quite touching but the desire to, wanting to impart life, that longing, that tension, palpable in Michelangelo’s painting.

After a daughter was born back in the States to the captain in my dad’s World War II unit, his wife sent the christening gown to him via armed services mail. He wrote each battle he was in on a separate pleat of it, kept it to give to the girl later that she might understand why he hadn’t been there, couldn’t hold her close or kiss the top of her head, to explain where he’d been, not knowing if he’d ever make it home, hoping the dress at least would.


Ahead of me in the checkout line later that week, a young mother moves her groceries from cart to conveyer belt. Her baby—I’d guess about four months—safe and secure in her carrier in the cart, makes eye contact with me, bursts into a grin, her whole body wriggling with the joy of it. The mother and I then exchange smiles too, both of us smiling back at the baby. We create a triangle of bright recognition before each of us goes on her way with day-to-day living.

What one smile—one whole-hearted, innocent joy-gesture—can spark in us! I especially appreciate it this time of year, right around now, when the days are their darkest.

In a phone call late one night, a woman I love tells me she just found out her pregnancy is not viable, that’s she’s been crying a lot, that she’s trying hard to look ahead, to tomorrow.

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