The car jerks, rocking us back and forth. We’re on the way to your naming. I’ve dressed you and your sister in matching pink dresses, ironed and starched so they flare slightly from the hips. Your white tights are dirty, and I wonder in the short distance from our front porch to the car seat how they got sooty. I wet my finger to remove the smoke-colored smudges. You babble softly to yourself, no actual words but a song filled with La-La-Las that you’ve created. Your dimpled hands comb the soft hairs of a Chewbacca doll as your sister strokes the frayed edges of her blanket in the car seat next to you. Your father talks about the service, but I am too fixated on my own thoughts to translate his persistent prattle. I’m swallowed by the maternal fears that play on a loop. And now, as we caravan through traffic towards the temple, my mind is assaulted by these thoughts again.
I’m remembering your first seizure. The one that lasted nearly 45 minutes. I wasn’t there. Your aunt called from the ambulance, her voice wobbly from the tears. It was an unmistakable quiver that reeked of danger and fear. The guilt of not being there gnawed at the inside of my cheeks like a pesky ulcer. I drove myself to the hospital, weaving from one lane to the next in a car that wasn’t my own. On the way to the hospital, I counted the days you’d been alive (310), the number of words you could say (12), the number of years I’d lived without you (32), the years I could survive if I outlived you (0). When I arrived at the hospital, there weren’t answers. There were tests where they stuck probes to your head with glue as I sang “Dream a Little Dream of Me” beneath my breath to keep you calm. There were MRIs where I held your body against mine as they put you under general anesthesia. There were doctors who scoffed at my concern and kind nurses who gifted you a doll that giggled. Now, there are lingering fears and sleepless nights and annual checks for lesions on your brain.
As I’m calculating how late the traffic will make us, I’m also concentrating on the delay in your speech which they say was caused from the seizures. Before the lesions, you said Mama and ball. Ella and Daddy. Pop and that and love and mine. You said more, your tongue cradling the word and rocking it gently back and forth. Now the doctors say it isn’t brain damage. It’s a glitch. A setback. A hardship. But they don’t watch you bang your fists uselessly against the table because we can’t understand you. They don’t see your face crumble when your inarticulate babble is just that. Inarticulate. Babble. Before, your communication was effortless. You would stroke the side of my cheek and proclaim, “Mama!” We knew what you liked, what you wanted. Now those wants and needs are buried beneath animalistic grunts and temper tantrums.
I’m worrying about the amount of time I talk about you and how it will impact your sister. Unlike me, she saw you convulse. Nana pacified her with a snack and a puzzle while your aunt cried for EMTs to hurry. I was told as you seized, your sister called your name. She asked to hold you. To kiss you. To see you. But she was ignored. Now I wonder if that dismissal has bled into our everyday life. I worry she feels overshadowed and undervalued. When you were born, she came to the hospital wearing a Big Sister t-shirt and a smile. We propped you in her lap. She bent at the waist, rubbed her nose against yours. She whispered your name. Addie, Addie, Addie. Now she knows how to use the little syringe with the plastic cap to administer your medicine. She understands the importance of a 9-11 call. She’s given you Eskimo kisses in hospital wards equipped with elaborate playrooms. While she was loving you, worrying about you, she’s grown up.
I’m wading through all the things people said to me in the aftermath. The friend who spouted clichés. Everything’s okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end. My father’s constant questions for the doctors. Will it happen again? How could it have been prevented? Who’s to blame? The phone call where your Grammy’s nasal voice claimed you weren’t precocious like your sister. All the conversations made me feel numb. They were like the doctor’s promise that things would get better. They were moot. Untrustworthy without the reassurance of evidence. How many times have I offered shallow comfort in the face of someone’s pain? Or worse, no comfort whatsoever? I think of the friend whose mother killed herself alone in her bedroom as the EMTs tried to break in the door. A woman I worked with whose child was born with biliary atresia. Affairs. Miscarriages. Divorces. Loss. Was there ever something you could say that would soothe? Something that would bring solace? Something that would usher in sleep?
I’m thinking of your Hebrew name and hoping I chose correctly. Adira Eliana. I picked it the night before, my fingers running over lists of names searching for the perfect meaning. The statement that would encapsulate everything you are to us. The survivor. The gift. The blessing. Adira means strength, a quality you’ve exhibited on more than one occasion already. The doctors likened your apraxia to worms that nestled into your posterior parietal cortex. They sifted through the gray matter of your mind. Tiny worms that would bring you to your knees for days. That would induce exhaustion and fevers and panic. But there was always a moment after each seizure when you returned to yourself. You would smile and play. You would watch Winnie the Pooh and curl in my lap as I read to you. You would close my laptop and force me to look at you. To notice you. You’d survived. You were there, stronger and more capable than ever.
Eliana means an answer from God. The answer three other babies couldn’t fulfill as they died inside me. Before you, I was angry. I had a healthy child, and I couldn’t have another. With each loss, I became more and more distraught. I distanced myself from family. Friends. God. Each pregnancy took me further from even myself. Then, I got pregnant with you and everything changed. You were the answer to every question I’d ever asked.
I’m drowning in the loneliness I’ve felt since losing your brother. The second miscarriage. The only baby whose gender we knew at the time of the loss. His name had been Jack Esper after my mentor from college. When the cantor asked me who you were named for, I told her the A was for my sister who once saved your life. My sister who is maternal and kind and smart and brave. The E for Esper. My ears rang as I discussed my mentor. Really…you were named for my son. Your brother. I feel guilty. Had he survived, I wouldn’t have you. The two of you detached pieces of the same puzzle. Who would he have been had he lived?
The temple is crowded. Hordes of people huddle around a buffet that boasts everything from hummus and pickled vegetables to brownie bites. People congratulate us, make idle chit-chat, ask questions. They want to know why it’s taken us so long. Why haven’t we brought you to the temple before? Why haven’t you received your Hebrew name during the traditional time frame? Your father is subtle with his replies. We’ve been busy. Time got away from us. I stand behind him, one step. Two. Unwilling to say something that resembles the truth. We haven’t named you because life interfered with faith. Because between miscarriages and seizures and your lost words, our marriage was splintered.
The cantor calls us into the synagogue. The men wear blue silk yarmulkes. The women cross their ankles as they slide into their seats. There’s a short prayer in Hebrew. You sit on my lap, the toes of your black patent leather shoes lightly knocking against my shins. Your fingers twisting my hair into fine knots. You bury the side of your face into the area between my collar bone and my chin. You smell like cotton candy on a sunny day and I wonder momentarily if this scent will persist for a lifetime. Before realizing it, I pray for both that smell and the ability to recognize you by smell alone.
The cantor calls us to the front and your sister is dazzled by the attention. She twirls her way to the bema. The rest of us following in a blind haze behind her. I’m still in the memories of everything that you are. Everything that’s changed us since you were born and before. The cantor calls for us to come closer. Huddle together. You see your aunt and your Grammy and your Nana in the congregation and you wave to each of them. Your father smiles at us. We hold hands. You rest your head on the bridge between our shoulders.
Would you like to speak before we pray? The cantor asks. I stand before the microphone. The ailing and aged congregation. I have prayed in the last year but only to ask for more. More health. More help. More grace.
“Addie is special,” I say. My voice sounds strange as it bounces off the walls of the room. The Torah behind us is ornate and imposing. “She’s named for my sister who is strong and smart. She’s named for my mentor who was kind and giving and brave. She was named for our son who loved the morning and was never given a chance to know us.”
My husband is so surprised he cries. Tears leaving fat streaks down his cheeks. He doesn’t step to the microphone. He doesn’t have any simple answers because life isn’t simple. Life is a pond in the winter filled with shallow patches of ice, places where you could easily slip beneath the surface and be swallowed by the cold and beautiful tentacles below. Places where someone can pull you from the depths by your armpits as you sputter and pray for death.
The cantor rests one small hand on my shoulder, the other on your father’s. Your sister prances beneath us, and I steady her, pulling her against my thighs. You have settled in my arms. The cantor wears a bright smile, and I notice the tiniest gap between her front teeth. The flaw makes her more likeable. Your father looks straight ahead. I haven’t been raised Jewish though, so I bend before God. The cantor places both her hands on the crown of your head, her pinkies locked across your cowlick.
Adira Eliana, May you always know love, she says.
May you encapsulate the traits your parents hold dear.
May you be persistent like your aunt, she says.
A giver like Katie’s mentor.
May you hold the spirit of your brother close to your heart.
Now and always.
The cantor hands us a certificate, and we step back into our lives. As we take our seats in the front row, you wave the paper back and forth, nearly giving me a paper cut. I bow my head again, pressing my nose against yours. They’re the same squashed shape. I resist the urge to close my eyes, and I push all my fears from the brim of my brain. I look at you, memorizing the crease that lines your cheek. It’s an indentation from resting against me. I whisper the prayer that all mothers everywhere have said at least once
May your life eclipse my own. May you never know the pain I have known.
Katie Sherman is a freelance journalist who covers fine food and parenting—two things rarely related—in Charlotte, NC. Katie just earned an MFA degree from Converse College. She has an affinity for Southern Gothic literature, cider beer, Chicago, and morning snuggles with her husband, Ben, and two daughters, Ella (5) and Addie (2).