I’m standing in front of the frozen vegetables in my local Vons, staring at the peas and corn and wondering what it is I need. My right foot is looped into the bottom rack of the shopping cart and I’m cold. This supermarket is kept at a temperature cool enough to preserve corpses. My sister Maya, my son BB, and I are on our weekly shopping excursion. BB calls this effort “the big shop,” and it’s become a routine we cannot stray from. Every Sunday at four we buy cereal and granola bars, bottled water and corn chips, apples and frozen pizza. We buy large quantities of the four foods that BB will consent to eat at any given time and sometimes, throwing caution to the wind, I try to sneak in a cucumber, rice cakes, a banana. Anything to diversify BB’s menu. I’ve managed to add celery and carrots in this way, although they’re still not the foods of choice. I’m in the middle of an internal debate over whether or not to greet one of the mothers I recognize from BB’s school when BB runs over to me from the Wolfgang Puck display and says, “Mom, I want to pretend I’m being born again.”
“I want to pretend I’m being born again. You can be the mom. Maya can be the baby. The baby me.”
I look at him carefully. His round brown eyes are fixed on mine and he’s waiting for an answer. I can tell, with the understanding I’ve been able to hone over the ten years of this boy’s life, that this is a serious question and an idea he’s gone over in detail, not another repetitious request as to how loud the garbage truck is or why butterflies have to exist.
“But why would Maya be the baby?” I ask him back. “You can be the baby. Again.”
“OK, so can we do it? Can we pretend I’m being born again?”
“Why do you want to do this?” I ask him slowly. Aside from the obvious implications that being “born again” suggests, I’m thinking about our recent visits to Dr. S., the child psychiatrist who told me and my father in the hush of his La Jolla office that, given the birth history I’d provided, it was his opinion that BB’s difficulties, differences, whatever we wanted to call them, were caused by birth trauma. I’ve been vigilant in keeping this information from BB, who was in another room at the time it was delivered. BB records all the conversations he hears internally to be played back later at his own discretion. When the conversations involve him, his attention is that much greater. One of my goals this last year has been to avoid having BB think there is anything wrong with him at all, because, in fact, it is my belief that there is not. But BB is answering me now, and his response has nothing to do with Dr. S. He is talking about another one of his three aunts, my 20-year-old sister Déja.
“Déja told me that when I was born I didn’t have enough breath to cry. So I want to be born again and see what it was like not to have enough breath to cry. Is that true?” he asks, switching gears slightly. “Did I not have enough breath to cry? Did I sound like this?” He makes a strangled, mewling sound in the base of his throat that sounds painful to my ears.
“Well, yes, it’s true, sort of,” I say, wondering, with slight irritation, why my youngest sister always feels the need to present BB with these concepts. I’m always left to clean them up for him in the end.
(A recent discussion went something like this: “Déja says those two people in the movie were French kissing. What’s French kissing, Mom? Why do people do it?”)
“Well, we can try this,” I say finally, “but maybe you want to do it differently this time. Maybe this time you can have enough breath to cry. Do you want to try it that way?”
BB is studying me again, measuring the depth of my interest in his proposal. He can see that the idea is taking root.
“Yes,” he says, “sure.”
Maya approaches us holding a box of Chinese Restaurant Tea. “I forgot this,” she says. “Can’t have stir-fry without it.”
“BB wants to restage his birth,” I tell her. BB looks over at her and nods.
“OK,” she says slowly, checking my expression to gauge the seriousness of what I’m saying before registering a reaction.
“We’re going to do it differently this time,” I tell her. Maya was present at BB’s birth and so she suspects what “differently” might mean. She nods again.
“OK, sure,” she says.
As we head for the produce department, I start wondering if, in fact, we can do it differently this time. I wonder how much of his own birth BB remembers or senses in the recesses of his extraordinary mind. I have the feeling that it could be quite a bit. I certainly remember it as vividly as if it happened last week. So much of BB’s birth is tied to where we are now. Since our visit to Dr. S., I’ve been reliving those moments frequently. And now that he’s proposed this psychological experiment, I am thrust into the wee hours of a summer night ten years past. We were in it together, after all, BB and I. Why wouldn’t he remember as well?
I was convinced I would be a champion in delivery, just as I was smugly sure I had orchestrated the perfect pregnancy. BB, however, had different ideas from the start. He was late, for one thing. My original due date was set at the beginning of July. From the middle of June, I was anxiously awaiting his arrival. This was the first indication, in hindsight, that my child would have a different timetable from my own. My father now cites my impatience as an important psychological factor in BB’s development (“You’ve always rushed him,” my father says, “even from the beginning”). At the time, though, nobody was thinking along these lines. I’d shut myself up for the last few weeks of my pregnancy. I was so large I could balance a teacup and saucer on my protruding belly. It was hot that summer, and I was living in a tiny studio apartment with no air conditioning. For the better part of three weeks, I lay on my sweaty bed faced into a fan, watching the interminable Iran-Contra hearings, which promised to be as endless as my pregnancy. Every evening I stared over at the little trunk I’d filled with tiny baby clothes and blankets. I folded and refolded them, arranged them according to color, tossed them around my bed, and put them back again. An ultrasound taken a week after my due date showed that the baby was a boy. I went home and tied small blue bows on the crib. And waited.