By Jill Kolongowski
For my daughter, eight weeks old: You will not remember this (dear god I hope you will not remember this), but this morning I hurt you; you were in your swing, and woke up ready to eat, so I picked you up with one arm as I got the couch ready to feed you (I could feed you with nothing but my body, of course, but sometimes I want to make a little nest, especially in this pandemic—the pillow, coffee on one side, water, my book—I’m trying to be on Twitter less while I’m feeding you, and read more instead; I’m so tired that my brain feels dulled of all its edges, sweetly so, every corner filled up with you, but it feels better to read, like maybe the book’s story, not some bullshit the president said or the newest death toll, will flow from me to you; but this is just a digression from this story I do not want to tell) and I was carrying you with one hand (one hand seemed like enough, didn’t it?—so many pictures of mothers carrying babies one-handed) while I arranged my nest with the other (and here is where I explain—you have been so strong since the beginning—holding your head up very early, arching your back up into a curve after you eat, kicking me in the stomach, kicking your legs out straight while you eat, strength all the way out to your splayed toes) so I wasn’t holding your neck (I knew your neck was still weak, even as it appeared so strong, I knew to hold your neck, to always have a hand ready, and so remember the thought flittering by—I’m not holding her head very well—so casually through my head, so easy to say it will be fine for just a second) then you threw your head back or I changed the angle so your head wasn’t curled toward my chest and your neck snapped backward; you did it, I did it, we both did it—how those differences both deeply matter, and do not matter at all; either way your neck snaps back and your eyes, your gorgeous perfect dewdrop blue eyes, went so wide, your hands flailed, and you cried—not the cry of hunger, which is angry, insistent, or of exhaustion, which is sporadic, quiet, or an upset stomach, which is somewhere in the middle—but a new word in this language of sounds I’m trying to learn, a cry that sounded like pain, like fear, like how could you; please help me; I held you to my chest and said I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry, just like the first night we brought you home and you woke me up screaming, so hungry, and I felt terrible, wondered how long you’d been awake, waiting for me, and while I scrambled to get in the chair, get my shirt open, get the nipple shield on, no nest yet this first time, but still eternally slow and clumsy, I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry spilled out of my mouth that night and now again, except this time I think I may have really hurt you, no hug tight enough, no number of sorrys can undo it; you cried into my shoulder while I put my fingers on your neck, feeling absurdly for a break or a lump, some heat of brokenness; I was terrified to watch you move your neck, terrified to see some new, jerky, hurt movement, and terrified to see your neck not moving too; I started feeding you, the only thing I could offer right then, before I started crying, and though you seemed okay while you ate I ran to tell your dad, to wonder if I should call the hospital; meanwhile, you closed your eyes and kept eating; your father pointed out the reassuring open-close of your tiny fingers, your splayed toes, counted the knobs on your spine with his hand; I cried and cried while my own mother tried to console me but ended up upset herself while I called myself a fucking idiot—but I do not want to talk to myself that way, and I don’t want you to talk to yourself that way, my daughter, so perhaps this is addressed to the wrong person—
To my daughter, 8 weeks old, and to myself, 33 years old: I’m sorry, I’m sorry; there is no resolution to this story yet; you finished eating and twisted your head into my chest the way you always do when you’re sleepy, your perfect little neck looks just as strong as ever; but still I look for the droop of an eye—are your eyes more closed than normal?—are you sleeping too hard?—are you only favoring one side of your neck, or am I imagining it?—(I don’t know this next part yet, but it’s coming) and a few weeks later this memory will be a well-loved knife—sharp, still, but dulling—and you are perfect as ever; the doctor says she is impressed by your neck strength, thinks your head is the perfect shape, so onward, my baby, for us both—I’m so sorry; I’m still learning how to be gentle.
Jill Kolongowski and her daughter are both doing fine; Jill is working on a book about disaster and her daughter is supervising.
Painting by Zach Schwartz.