I am deep into the trenches right now. The baby is eight months old, the big girl four-and-a-half. It’s winter. I don’t leave the house much. I don’t get much sleep. There is no time for reflection, considered thought, planning my writing life. But I am writing. 250 words a day. Whatever comes out. It doesn’t mean anything, doesn’t add up to anything. Not yet anyway. But here’s some from last week.
The hot breath of a teething baby. That smell, what is it? Raw, iron-ish, but not bloody. Metallic, vital. It makes me want to put my face right up next to hers, kiss her repeatedly while breathing in that life force. Four new teeth at once! I tell her she is doing a really good job.
The two girls share a room now. At night when the baby wakes I rush in, scoop her out of the cot and plonk her onto the bottom bunk, plug a boob into her mouth to shush her before she wakes her big sister. Then I listen to Esther breathing on the top bunk. She’s a bit congested – it’s almost, but not quite, snoring. Slow, loud, ponderous breathing, like waves lapping up and down on the stones. She has a sleeping smell too. It’s not metallic, not unpleasant. More animal maybe, like the soft pink part of a cat’s paw might smell.
It’s a privilege to be back in Esther’s room while she sleeps. For so long when she was a baby I lived in fear, fear that she would wake. I closed her bedroom door hard up. Now I leave both bedroom doors open, a continuum from one lot of sleeping bodies to another, a nod at the communal. I look at the baby’s face as she pulls off the boob and rolls onto her back. Soon I’ll scoop her up and put her back in her cot, go back to my own bed where – luxury – for the first time in months I can spread out my limbs or read with the light on if I want to. But first, this baby’s sleeping face. Chin slightly jutted as if in defiance. Little snub nose. Little sighs. She doesn’t have a care in the world. Up on the top bunk, her big sister, a bit worldlier, a bit more anxious, rolls over, sighs, keeps breathing.
I creep back to bed, thinking, they will always remember the sound of each other breathing in their sleep.
The next two nights are not so peaceful. The baby wakes, then wakes her sister. I feed her, and she gets gas in her tummy, wakes up fully. Dave tries rocking her to sleep, and succeeds, but as soon as we try to shift her back into the cot she’s awake again. The crying and door-opening wakes Esther, who is too hot because I’ve turned the heater up in her room, trying to make sure the baby isn’t too cold. Dave snuggles up with her and I snuggle up with the baby and somehow we all make it through until morning. That’s what it’s like with small children: make it through the day, waiting for the night, then make it through the night, waiting for the day. Repeat.
I’m afraid of feeding the baby. All she gets are purees out of a pouch. I never thought I’d be a pouch feeder. You can see that she’s ready to eat – her mouth makes chewing motions, mimicking ours, she reaches for our food as if to say, where’s mine. Sometimes, emboldened, I pass her a peeled slice of pear, or a stick of cooked carrot, then when she enthusiastically bites a piece off I panic, sweep her mouth with my finger, grab it back. I know this is not good. But I’m terrified – palms sweaty, heart pounding.
The hair-thin line between life and death is never more visible to me than in these moments. I see her gag, choke, turn blue in front of my eyes as I try vainly to hook whatever it is out of her throat, probably pushing it further in in the process. I turn her on her back and pound her little body but it’s no use. I call an ambulance but that’s no use either. There are no gradations between best and worst-case scenario. I can’t handle it. I take the food back, revert to the pouch that says it’s safe for babies her age. She never eats anything anyway.
I try to tell Dave how scared I am, and he says, can’t you just cook the pear a little bit or something? I tell him my fear. You’ve gone way out there, he says. I know, I say. Doesn’t make it any easier.