When I was planning to marry a man I'd dated for two years, we discussed the issue of children: whether we wanted them, how we would raise them, and how we would name them. We both wanted a daughter, and we both liked the name Savannah. So we agreed to hyphenate our last names and name our daughter Savannah Isom-LaFlamme. Which I found amusing, because in French the translation for Isom-LaFlamme is "Isom-the-Flame". Somehow it seemed appropriate, if a little cruel for a child. Then I realized I didn't need to have a child, because I was dating one. We broke up, and my prospective child's name became Savannah Isom-[This Space Available].
A couple I know in Atlanta sport the last names Dorriety and Davis. They want to have a daughter as well, and they want to name her Anastasia Dorriety-Davis. I began to wonder. What if Savannah and Anastasia turned out to be lesbians when they grew up? And what if Savannah and Anastasia fell in love and became betrothed? Would they then be Anastasia and Savannah Isom-[This Space Available]-Dorriety-Davis?
In the course of the last few years since the break-up, as I've casually dated and developed my writing career, I've put thoughts of Savannah, or any children, further and further on hold. Thirty-five seemed like a good age to think about them. Then forty. I'd be a Murphy Brown dad. Men can do that, after all. Then I began to think maybe the whole idea wasn't worth it, that the desire was a phase in my early twenties that I had grown out of.
Then my sister had Reagen. My sister is a very independent-minded young woman of 24 years. She was dating a guy who turned out to be too much of a louse to marry, but she left the relationship with something extra. Condoms are only 99% effective, and my sister has always been an exception. Hence Reagen. While she supports a woman's right to abortion, my sister could not bring herself to choose to terminate her child. She endured months of discomfort, several nicknames from me (for some reason, she didn't much like "Orca", even if it was affectionately intended), and 12 hours of labor.
Reagen Channing Isom, as pretentious a name as Savannah Isom-[This Space Available] was born massively underweight and seriously ill. My mother called me in tears from the hospital, expecting him to die within the hour. But Reagen survived, though the first month of his life was touch and go.
When I first saw Reagen, he weighed five pounds, about the size of the smallest free weight at my gym. He was pale and gaunt, and he largely just lay there, his heart monitor sounding periodically whenever his heart stopped beating. He looked breakable and forlorn.
Despite my own misgivings, I continually reassured my sister that Reagen would be fine, that he only needed to gain some weight, and then everything would be all right. After the first month had passed, Reagen was still hanging on. It appeared that he would survive. Between hospitals and geneticists and neo-natologists, my sister flew to Texas and sued his daddy for his portion of child support. She's turned out to be at least as tough a bird as her big brother, and a courageous one at that.
At three months, I saw him again, and though he still has a heart monitor attached, it sounds less frequently now, and Reagen seems a changed baby. I learned how to hold him, how to feed him, and even how to burp and diaper him. I was surprised that hearing a long low burp from an eight pound critter on my shoulder was actually comical. I also learned that baby formula burps smell like old sneakers. I learned that diapering little boys is necessarily a fast event, because their little apparati are loose cannons, and they invariably shoot for your favorite shirt.
I also discovered that Reagen responded to verbal stimulation, so I told him my favorite fairy tales as he lay across my lap. I told him the story of Hansel and Gretel, and how the evil Newt Gingrich cut their single mother's welfare and Medicaid benefits, so their unwed parents, who couldn't afford the children anymore, took them out to the forest to lose them.
Hansel left a trail of bread crumbs, but the birds, whose grain supplies had been reduced because the Republicans had cut subsidies to farmers, ate all the bread crumbs, and soon Hansel and Gretel found themselves at the gingerbread house of the wicked witch, Nancy Reagan. Hansel pushed Nancy into the oven, where Patti was already. Hansel and Gretel dismantled the gingerbread house and sold it, piece by piece, taking advantage of the new reduced capital gains tax rate, and bought themselves a lovely Tudor in the suburbs, where they lived home alone happily ever after.
Then I told him the story about Bill Clinton and the Three Bears, and how Bill never could decide which porridge was just right. I left out the part about Bill trying to decide which bed was just right, figuring I didn't want to lose the story's "G" rating. But it was heart-warming to see the expressions of terror on Reagen's little face.
On the third day of my visit to Reagen, he did something he hadn't done before. As I held him on my shoulder, he began to do what for a healthier baby would have been cooing, but for Reagen it sounded more like singing: vague, tentative efforts at single tonalities as his head lay on my shoulder. A little while later, my mother, who hogs Reagen whenever she's around, put him to bed, and we prepared to leave my sister's house.
I went in to Reagen's bedroom to say goodnight one last time. I stroked his fuzzy little head, and he began to throw his arms around, his whole body convulsing, as his mouth opened wide but no sound came out. I called out to my mom and sis in alarm, then I realized what was happening. Reagen was laughing, for the first time in his three months of life. It was a whole body laugh, shaking his little frame from head to foot. He was feeling completely happy and content. We three watched him with amazement and amusement, as we wished my dad, who had left a few minutes earlier, were there to see as well.
As I stood watching Reagen, the strangest thing happened. At that moment, I realized that I would do anything, lie, cheat, steal, or kill to protect that child. I was startled by the thought, surprised at the primitive, basic nature of it. I would willingly place that his well-being before my own.
After a few moments more of chin stroking, Reagen began to develop hiccoughs from laughing, so we left him alone in his crib, as the hiccoughs slowly faded, and Reagen drifted off to sleep. Mom and I climbed into her land-tank car and left my sister's house. As we drove off under a clear Memphis sky, I replayed mental images of Reagen in the reflections on the windshield. I felt warm, elated, and content.
I suddenly understood what people saw in raising their children. This nephew of mine was only genetically related to me by a matter of degree, but I felt strong feelings about him already. He was ours. Along with the three a.m. feedings, the crying, the sicknesses, and the diapers.
Are they worth it?
I think they are, whenever Reagen laughs.