Tuesday, October 14, 2008

first cut


Autumn is here. At dusk, Sagittarius hoists his jeweled bow just above the horizon. School is in full swing, the nights are lengthening, and it is time for Maude to get her first round of shots.

I know that vaccinations are important. I feel anger towards people who decide to forgo them, fearing autism or some other side effect, putting everyone at risk once more for diseases that were supposed to be gone for good. Still, I understand not wanting to subject a baby to needles, and chemicals. It seems barbaric to pierce soft baby skin, and draw bright red baby blood, when a child can't even understand what is happening.

The morning of her shots Maude doesn't want to wake up at all. I run a bath for her, then take it myself, and finally, when she persists in sleeping, we gently rouse and undress her, and slip her into the warm water while she is still groggy. She doesn't cry, or even wake up grumpy, but she only opens her eyes, and submits patiently to our ministrations. As I towel her dry I think about the nurses cleaning her when she was born, and remember standing impatiently, eager to hold her. Her eyes are larger now, and something flickers down inside of them when they look at me, and when I talk to her and tease her, she breaks into sweet, toothless smiles.

Our doctor's office is 20 minutes north, in a tree-lined neighborhood that feels far away from our tired streets. We usually listen to Classic Vinyl or 80s music on satellite radio, with Margo, Darling calling out the songs as "Baby's first Doors," or "Baby's first Billy Idol." The sun streams through the sunroof, and Maude quiets down the faster we drive. When we get to the office we place bets with the nurse on Maude's weight, and she gets it closer than we do. Twelve pounds--how can it be so little, when she is so heavy in the carseat? A little barbell weighs more. My arm weighs more.

Maude is measured, too. Already she is in a competitive world. Her weight is in the 67th percentile; her length somewhere in the 80s. This is good--not too fat, not too thin, and tallish. Her head is the real thrill, though: in the 97th percentile, it is (we hope) a harbinger of SAT scores to come.

The pediatrician comes in and talks to Maude as she lays naked on the table, and Maude looks earnestly at her at makes a variety of conversational sounds. This goes on for a while, and we are a little amazed that 1) she is being so good, and 2) that she and the doctor have so much to say to each other. I feel a little jealous. I'm not sure she talks that much to either of us.

Then the doctor leaves, turning her back on the plump innocent stretched out like Iphigenia on the altar, if Iphigenia wore a diaper. The nurse comes back, and asks me if I want to hold her when they give her the shots. Margo, Darling is already fighting back tears, so I say yes, but I feel terrible about the trusting little body sitting on my lap, the little hands clenched in mine. She faces forward, and the thought comes that I am a human chair, a human electric chair, a lethal injection gurney. Silly--it's just a vaccination, I remind myself. But then the first long needle goes deep into her baby thigh, and she screams a scream so deep that at first there is no sound, like a whisper, but an awful whisper. Then it comes, a terrible cry. I see blood on her thigh when the needle comes out--bright red, fresh, oxygenated blood. There are alcohol wipes, another needle in the thigh, more soul-deep screaming, and it is over. The most chilling part for me is that the hands never vary their grip. Babies can't clench their hands in pain. My hands, though, are squeezing like mad.

Then there are sparkly band-aids, and comforting sounds. I think about the genital cuttings of different peoples, and I am glad this is only an inoculation, not a sexual marking. There will be other castration rituals to live through, other times of handing over a child to civilizing powers. She will need another round of shots in a couple months, and then another. Then she'll be done, and hopefully won't remember visits to the doctor's office as traumatic. I don't think she remembers pain yet, or cultivates aversion. Babies are slow learners in that way--proof (I'm convinced) that repression is a good thing.

Today the tears dry quickly, and the pain seems long forgotten before we even get home. We undress her, guiltily averting our eyes from the band-aids on her legs, and slip her into the softest pajamas we can find, spotted ones with a tail and a kangaroo pouch with a little baby animal in the front pocket. I tell the friend who gave these pajamas to Maude about the vaccinations, and the negotiation of betrayal one feels turning over a child to medical processes, however minor, and she exclaims, "Good thing you didn't have to have a bris!" So we aren't the only ones making the castration connection, I think. The pajamas comfort us, their softness and little baby pocket a sentimental reminder of our own goodness as caretakers. We are good parents. We only hurt her a little now so she won't be hurt a lot later.

Or at least that's what we tell ourselves. We are extra gentle, shaken with the sudden violent reminder of our violent world, the first reminder. When she is sleeping in her crib in the darkness, I sing her a sleeping song, but in my mind I see the vermilion blood spray across her pale fat thigh, and I marvel at its redness, and I think I will never forget the satisfaction of it, of knowing she had done a difficult thing, and we had done a difficult thing for her, and the horror of it. In the darkness I can taste the tiniest taste of an old, ancient and animal horror we memorialize in these everyday health measures, in the restrained sadism of even our safest and most human of rituals.

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