I had a long phone call with my mom last night. In the middle of saying something, I sneezed. Instinctively, she cooed at me — and then told me she was remembering the shape of my small mouth when I was a baby and sneezed. “Tiu!” she’d intone in short bursts, like the end of a sneeze. “Tiu, tiu, tiu!” And my arms and legs would go flying around, a big gummy smile spread across my face.
Even at thirty-three, the sound of my mother cooing at me makes me want to climb up into her lap and make her play with my hair forever.
There’s a picture of me as a toddler standing in a sprinkler. I’m probably only 18 months old. Let me be clear: I’m not standing flirtatiously at the edge of the sprinkler’s boundary wearing one of those OMG Mom look at me I got my fingertips wet!!!! faces. I am full-on, diaper soaked, overalls weighing 80 pounds, face-first IN THE SPRINKLER. Like, Mom, you’re dead to me. This sprinkler is my new mommy, and I am about to nurse the shit out of it.
I woke up thinking about that picture. It made me a little sad. It seemed that as a child, I stood face-first toward a lot of things. It made me sad not necessarily because I feel I’ve lost that delight (though maybe I have sometimes), but because remembering myself as a child — before the awkwardness of my long body set in during adolescence, or self-consciousness hovered over me as I began to notice how different my inner life was from my friends — I must have had no sense of the future. No anticipatory awareness of After — after my clothes are wet, after that picture is developed (of me naked on my wooden rocking horse wearing a red straw cowboy hat). After is a wasteland that swallows so much joy — and time. It’s a paralyzing anticipation of how we may not be safe or loved somewhere out there, beyond now, but surely — very, very soon.
It’s 4:30am. I’m awake because my body is holding an exhausting amount of excitement over some projects I’m working on. In the dark of the morning, remembering the picture of me in the sprinkler — and the heaviness that came and sat on my heart along with it — I’m eager to find some answer. To wrap this feeling up with a bow, or a lesson. A Just Do This list for when I am standing in the cold current of a grief I cannot totally name.
But there’s no list. There is only now, before the After.