17 Seconds to Anywhere

I feel overwhelmed in this moment.

I am sitting across from my newly married 23 year-old son at what we have appropriately named “the game table.” My 13 year-old son sits next to him — they are discussing a computer game they are playing together. Another son, 16 years old, is just a room away, also playing the game. They are all connected by earphones, headphones and the like. To a person from my generation, they look like they are knee-deep in mission control.

My new daughter-in-law sits beside me, looking though a book about the characteristics and care of every breed of sheep known to man, the preparation of their wool and every topic there in between. Ironically, this was a passion of my own at exactly her age. My husband and I had owned a couple of sheep while we were in college, back in the early 1990s — back when we were boyfriend and girlfriend. I would sit in the field behind his parents’ house and pick the burrs off the faces of our incredibly friendly sheep — Regis and Kathy Lee. We were not even fans of the show — it was merely a sign of the times — and honestly, good sheep names.

My 9-year-old daughter sits atop her unusually high mattress in her shared bedroom with her brother — a temporary set-up in the house we have only been in for less than 5 months.

And yet one more son, my 21-old-son just left us this morning. He came home for a few days for a visit.

My husband lies sleeping in the next room with a broken leg. He will be in and out of sleep all night long as he patiently passes the time. He can do almost nothing for two months. Two whole months. His fall from a ladder one month ago has left him bedridden for more than 90 percent of the day, every day. Things though, are slowly improving.

But this is not why I feel overwhelmed.

I was reading a book about compost. Despite having a fair amount of experience with farming and gardening and producing a great deal of our food, I am determined to learn more. The world is devolving into chaos and more chaos every single day. It is hard to take in. Some days it just doesn’t even seem possible or real. But that is not why I am feeling overwhelmed in this moment.

I am in a new house. It is off-grid. We have few lights. Even though my kids (even the big “kids”) are playing computer games, there is a completely different feel to this place. It is secluded. You can only get here by boat — there is no driveway. When you walk outside at night, the stars stretch across an enormous umbrella of open sky. Sometimes we can hear the low hum of a tugboat pushing a barge at night, but you cannot see them. We are tucked around a corner of a peninsula. For all intents and purposes we are alone. Unless we choose not to be.

I love it.

But this is not why I am overwhelmed tonight.

Tonight I am overwhelmed because a song began to play on my playlist I had not heard for a very long time. I had not put it on my playlist — but it magically appeared and played based on my other selections. For once, something good happened because of an algorithm.

When I was a young mother, all of 26, I played a CD of piano music almost every single time I put my baby down for a nap. He was a beautiful, perfect little baby. He was also a difficult napper. He wanted to be with Mama all of the time — understandably. But I was a new, inexperienced Mom and a well-meaning friend had given me a terrible, terrible book called “Baby Wise.” This book promised to have your beautiful, little baby sleeping through the night in 8 weeks or less. Of course, I thought this sounded like a great idea.

As you may have gathered from the list of children I mentioned above, I have since had a lot of experience with babies. Five of them, actually. Two in my twenties. Two in my thirties. And one, the year I turned forty. All boys, except for my last. I am stunned that this year will be ten years since the last of my children were born. I turned fifty one week ago. I know it is cliché — but I just cannot believe that all that time has passed.

So after having more and more experience with baby after baby, I came to realize that babies are not circus animals to be trained. As much as I loved the idea of a full-night’s sleep, I wish more than anything I had realized at that young age that in a heartbeat I would be fifty and my babies would be grown. Just as a dainty, smiling old woman, a perfect stranger, in the supermarket had implored me at twenty-six: “Enjoy that baby — this is the best time of your life.”

I was annoyed.

Did she really remember what it was like to not have sleep? Did she gloss over the feeling of being awakened by screaming or crying only moments after you thought you had finally gotten the baby down for the night? Not only was the baby crying — you just wanted to cry. If it was during the day, you wanted to explode. You were desperate to have just 30 minutes or maybe even a whole hour to yourself while your little cherub napped. You had so many things you wanted to do. So many things you needed to do. Where should you start?? Need to? Or want to? Fifteen minutes in it didn’t matter. The baby was up and as much as that little smile or even screaming face made your heart melt, you desperately craved just a few more minutes to yourself.

And if was at night? Well, then — this was the true test of being an adult. There was no one else there to save you. No one to take over. You are the adult and as much as you want to cry as the baby cried and cried, you walked around the house patting their little bottom. You pat. You soothe. You try singing — even if you are not very good at it. You rock in a rocking chair and almost fall asleep yourself as you cradle your terrycloth clad, sweet-smelling little bundle. You discover what you are made of.

So tonight, this song came on unexpectedly. It was one of the 11 songs on the CD that I listened to every single time my first baby went to sleep. I loved those songs. They made our tiny house with a cat and a baby sleeping feel like a home. I am transported back through a song that was on an album ironically called “Seventeen Seconds to Anywhere.” (I didn’t remember that — I had to look it up, and kind of love that it had a sort of teleportation feel).

I am sitting here now in our low-lit, off-grid house in North Carolina, but for a moment I am standing in the checkout line at Laneco in Clinton, New Jersey. And there she is. The tiny, smiling old lady who tried to tell me as she looked at me and my perfect little baby in the shopping cart — “This is the best time of your life.” And now, through the mist of memory and time passing, I see that clearly it was, for sure, one of the best times.

My first baby. My entire world for two years and 4 months before my second son was born. He stares at me across the table now with a look of exasperation on his face. His younger brother (the 16-year-old) is being a jerk to the youngest brother (the one who is 13) who sits beside him. My firstborn lays into him. Tells him he is rude. Out-of-line. But much more creatively than I ever would. And it means more to hear it from your brother anyway than from your mom who always gets mad at this sort of thing.

So much time has passed. It really was the blink of an eye. I am picturing that tiny, little baby sleeping in his crib with his arms up around his face. The music playing as I tip-toe out of his freshly painted nursery. I remember the name of the paint. Sautéed mushroom. If I could go back, I would scoop him up look into his perfect little baby face. I wouldn’t care that there were dishes in the sink and I needed to pay bills and I wanted to work on his scrapbook (also a sign of the the times). I would hold him and rock him and drink in his baby scent. I wouldn’t care that he did not fall asleep like a perfectly trained circus animal. I would nurse him back to sleep. “Sleep when the baby sleeps” the old lady at Laneco had told me.

She was right. Again.

Don’t read this as sad. I am not sad. I am happy-sad, I suppose. I loved that time. Twenty-four years have passed since that memory, now floating around in the ether. I can almost reach out and touch it. I have had four other children and a lifetime of experiences and memories in those years. I love my life now as well — even as stress-filled and confusing as these times are. I don’t know if the price of gas will go over $4.25 a gallon tomorrow and we will be one step closer to World War III.

Either way, I think I might go to the supermarket in the morning. I have some well-meaning, unsolicited advice to give.

(Photo above of my newborn son, back in 1998 — not in his crib or in his freshly painted nursery. Here he slept after we had napped together. Heaven).

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