One Gray Hair
One morning I looked in the mirror and found a gray hair sticking straight out of the middle of my forehead. I tried to brush it away, thinking it was my husband’s or the cat’s. But it did not move. It had roots. It was mine.
I have naturally thick brows, but this was not a rogue eyebrow hair—it was coarse, wiry, and too far away. It was a bright shade of metallic silver, so it wasn’t a scalp hair (back then every strand on my head was black). This was a forehead hair, glistening and corkscrewing towards the reflection of my pale face.
I searched the drawer for tweezers. I knew what my body was telling me—that deep down my cells had changed. My soul had changed. How could they not, having given birth three weeks before?
Becoming a parent cancels out so many of the rules by which you lived your life. You desperately seek new ones while navigating unknowns. I was in a sleep-deprived delirium. I was thirsty and ravenous and devoured bacon and eggs, steak, and lactation-promoting fish soup brought by my Chinese relatives. Hormones ran wild through my body—I might be swept up in pure joy at the mere sight of my daughter, but moments later reaching for a diaper would induce searing pain at my C-section incision and reduce me to a sobbing, unhinged mess.
My baby was completely nocturnal. In the dark of night her incessant cries pierced my head, they made me crazy. But they are supposed to. We are feral creatures, biologically wired to protect our young. So I would go to her, feed her, rock her. If you had told me then that I wouldn’t sleep through the night for another year, I might have collapsed out of desperation.
My husband has a naturally a sunnier point of view than I do. His intact, whole soul often fortifies my incomplete one. But he too was low-functioning on little sleep. Most mornings at dawn when I handed the baby off to him, his glasses were askew and his hair pointed in all directions. We missed appointments and forgot to pay the mortgage. If we couldn’t keep track of the days, how could we fulfill our baby’s basic needs? Were we even capable of being decent parents?
And a darker dimension that came out when I became a parent. Daily life with a newborn was without question challenging. But for me parenthood introduced other, mortal dangers. What if something happened to her? What if my baby died?
My two-year old brother died. He was a beautiful boy who darted into the street in one unsupervised moment, and before my eyes he was killed. There are times when I will go months without thinking about that warm day in May when I was seven, but then the memory surfaces and it is always primal, dark, terrifying. It is alive in my core. Holding my daughter in the pitch black night while the world slept, it returned to me.
My little brother died. My daughter could also die.
I was in second grade when it happened. I was learning how to add two-digit numbers. I learned that the first word in a sentence begins with a capital letter. I learned that children can die. Birds were chirping on that sunny Wednesday afternoon when part of my soul got choked off and withered away.
Then there is the guilt. Was I in some way—even a tiny molecule’s worth—responsible for my brother’s death? I have had this discussion many times, with other people and inside my own head. I was a fifty-five pound child. I could not have run amongst moving cars, stopped traffic, and saved my brother’s life. In my head I know this, I have repeated it for decades: There is nothing I could have done. There is nothing I could have done.
Though I have heard those news stories about five-year olds, kids whose fathers were working on cars that slipped off their jacks and pinned them to garage floors. Those children summoned up the strength to lift the cars and save their fathers’ lives. I know it doesn’t do any good to compare what I did or didn’t do to those kids. But I’m just saying.
Nights, I lay on the sagging loveseat in our study and cradled my baby. I watched her little chest rise and fall with her breaths. I was certain that if she died from any cause, natural or man- made, it would be my fault. I carried her, gave birth to her, and brought her home. I was responsible for her life.
Thus immobilized in the early days after my daughter’s birth, I did not sleep. I wrapped my arms around her, inhaling her silky sweet smell. I would drift off but quickly jerk awake to make sure she was still there. I was beyond exhaustion but I didn’t care if I didn’t sleep. The earth could rotate on its axis day in and day out, and I would still be on that sofa holding her. I would stay awake as long as the world spun if that meant that she would be okay.
In that dim room, I would run my hand over the gentle curve of my baby’s downy head. I touched each perfect finger, traced the tiny lines of her palms. I remember noticing with amazement that my three-week old’s cheeks were rounding out, taking on a rosier tint. And I think it was then that I began feeling something new: a gentle rippling in the atmosphere, a tiny pushing forward. My life had been stagnant for a long, long time. But now my world was changing by the minute. Time was unfurling before me, opening like a spring bud.
Greta Wu is a writer, mother, and non-profit consultant currently living in Northern California. Her writing has appeared in the East Bay Monthly and placed in the St. Louis Writer’s Guild short fiction contest.