Relic - FamilyEducation

Relic

July 14,2008
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

I was sorting through some bins of old clothes recently, in an attempt to do some summer cleaning. I had already made a big run-through of the bins a few months ago, but there were still a good many clothes to sort through, and I wanted to pass some along to our neighbors across the street. I have mixed feelings about sorting through baby clothes and toys. When I was pregnant with T., a local friend dropped two bins of clothing off at our doorstep one day, and her daughter was barely two. "Here you go!" she told me cheerfully, with scarcely a backward glance at the little soft piles of pink sweaters and hats and striped leggings, while I, hormonal and hugely pregnant, sniffed back tears of nostalgia for her.

When all was said and done with my own particular round of sorting, though, I didn't end up with too much I could part with this time around. I found lots I couldn't part with, and spent too long surrounded by the crickets in our crawl space, holding various pieces of clothing to my face and breathing in the essence of my children's tiny baby bodies, the sense of them still preserved even after years in those rubbermaid bins. I found an old tiny sleeper of T.'s--a 3-6 month sleeper, soft and small and white, covered in tiny printed pink bunnies.

If you are a parent, you know that when sorting through old baby clothes, you are inevitably going to come across many things that you just know are impossible to part with. Sometimes--most of the time--it's because a moment in time, your child, and that simple piece of clothing are inextricably and forever connected in your mind, frozen together like the image on an old photograph. I can't fully explain why I've held onto certain outfits of L.'s, I just know that I can't bear to part with them. All I  have to do is look at them again and instantly he's a baby in my arms, or a round-limbed toddler, cheeks puffed out in earnest concentration.

But I know why I've held onto this particular Carter's sleeper--this I do know. Seeing the sleeper again reminded me of T. at six months, and of the day (four years ago this past July 12) we left for the hospital for her surgery--major craniofacial surgery to repair her metopic craniosynostosis, a birth defect she was born with. Just holding the sleeper was so evocative for me, summoning up from the recesses of my subconscious a collage of images about that morning: waking L. up to say good-bye and feeling just so helplessly lost at his sadness--the choking sadness he woke up with and the way a tear filled the corner of one eye when he said good-bye to his sister; the strange 4:00 a.m. darkness and the glint of our dog Willa's eyes in the headlights of the car as we backed out of the driveway; and, always, T.'s pink and white cotton sleeper--the one I buttoned her into the night before her surgery when she was so fresh from her bath. I kissed her funny forehead that night and thought about how, in just a few hours, life would be so different for many days, and weeks and that her head would never quite look the same again. Before her surgery, so many (well-meaning) people told us how much we would be amazed by the transformation of her head, yet Scott and I still felt we were mourning the loss of the old T.--someone we wouldn't see in quite the same way ever again.

I carried that particular sleeper with me all through the hospital, taking it with me into the sterile, impersonal bathroom at all hours of the day and night so I could bury my face into it, capture her smell, and pump my breastmilk so it would be ready for her when she was (which turned out not to be until four terribly long days post-op). That sleeper was such a security blanket for me--it's awful to be separated from your child in that environment, but honestly, that little Carter's sleeper bridged the gap for me in many ways.

I've packed it away again, together with both children's going-home outfits from the hospital and a few other clothes, assorted special toys, and some cloth books. The sleeper might lose its hold over me some day; hopefully I'll also stop obsessing about the size of her head, too, or about every irregular bump or knob I feel on her skull. I wonder if 10 or 20 or 30 years from now I might take her sleeper out, hold it to my face, and remember all of it again.