Last night I sat in bed with my husband, Jeremy, and dumped out a bag of 72 empty balloons. Between wide inhales and forceful exhales, we filled up the red, green, blue, and orange orbs to capacity, then tied each one off like a knot in an umbilical cord. It’s a ritual we enact for each of our three sons’ birthdays. For three days of each year, dozens of bouncing colorful balloons spill all over the floors of our old home waiting to greet the birthday boy in the morning. Jeremy had loaded armfuls into an oversized trash bag to carry downstairs when he got quiet, looked over at me and said, “Sixteen years, Ash. Can you even believe it?” I told him I couldn’t, I was so full of love I thought I might explode. I walked down the hall to our oldest son’s room and found him getting ready for bed. “Sixteen tomorrow, dude,” I told him, “It’s going so fast.” He nodded with a quiet smile then answered back in his deep highschool boy voice, “Yeah, it really is. It feels kind of strange.” I wrapped my arms around him and gave him a long squeeze, inhaling him, said I love you, and sent him to bed. Then I spent the next hour on our bedroom floor filling empty boxes with birthday gifts.
Sixteen years ago I rocked my body back and forth, white-knuckling Jeremy’s hand as I growled my way through the pain of a thirty-hour labor. The rumors are true: It is hard, sometimes excruciating work, to bring a human into the world through a hole the size of a grape. Lucky for me, Jeremy didn’t scare easy. He stayed close and present as I moaned and made guttural, animal-like sounds while surrendering to the pain. He even kept calm and went without dinner after I screamed from across the room, “If you want to stay married, you better get that meatball sub the hell outta here right now!” I remember thinking, If I can just climb these walls or out of my body, I will survive this. At one point between a few particularly potent contractions I looked at Jeremy and said, “I’m dying.” He got eye to eye with me, put his hands on my face and said, “Ash, you are not dying. You are bringing our son into the world. We get to meet Micah today.” Oh yeah, I thought, I forgot what all this pain was for. Joy is coming.
Even when I complained in the later months of pregnancy—as the little critter took up more room inside my ribs and made things like food digestion and sleep impossible—I also loved it. I got used to my silent passenger, the one who shared my food and heard all my jokes and listened to me humming in the shower. I’d talk to him, tell him stories, and read him books. I would play Chopin or Nick Drake and hold the spongy headphones up to my belly so he could hear it, too. The closer I got to the due date, the more I started to worry that I would miss him. I’d miss knowing that he had the hiccups just because there was a small percussion section beating in my belly. I’d miss knowing my latest meal had nourished him and boosted his blood sugar to strengthen the synchronized swimming moves in his dark floaty pool. I’d miss the feeling of knowing that I was not alone or empty.
As an only child I am well-versed in the feelings of loneliness and emptiness. For all the glamour and notions of spoiledness surrounding the “only child” thing, I longed to not be alone. I used to cry real tears, begging my parents to have another child. I wanted to love someone of my own, to feel that emptiness inside of me filled. I asked for a sister and was given Jesus. Dad, a missionary-turned-pastor, told me God loved empty things because they were vessels primed and ready to be filled by the Spirit of God’s love. Mom and Dad said Jesus could live in my heart if I asked him to. I loved the romance of it, the never-alone-ness of the image, and I still think it’s what has kept me tethered to some form of faith all these years, even as the frame and form of it has shifted and changed.
Somehow, the full years of my childhood emptied out. I grew up, got married, and eventually held a positive pregnancy test in my hand. Immediately I knew this was a different kind of companionship. I was not just inhabited by an invisible Spirit presence. This was a whole new ballgame. I was physically embodied by and filled with another human life. I watched and tracked as my baby grew from one size of produce to another, first an apple seed, then a grape, next a tangerine, then an eggplant, and finally a watermelon. I was never alone and everything I did was for the good of two. I was a surrogate of experience and verve. I stretched for two, laughed for two, slept for two, layered in the winter for two, danced and sang in the kitchen for two, dreamed for two, and took deep prayerful breaths for two. I was in love with—and indivisible from—a face I had never seen, a frame I had never wrapped my hands around, a voice I had never heard. I was not empty anymore.
The moment my son cleared out of the space he had rented inside of me for nine months, the doctor plopped him onto my chest. He wriggled like a wet, slippery trout, sliding onto the warm skin between my collar bones as I wrapped my arms around him and yelled out loud in the room, “Micah, I love you.” My body had just survived the most graphic, Game of Thrones levels of agony. I had swayed, moaned, sweat, bled, and pushed through that pain to point of emptying myself out. The place where Micah had lived was hollowed out and yet, as I held this brand new human in my arms, I was inexplicably full in every way. My cries of misery and death were replaced by Micah’s cries of life, announcing his presence and his will here. The tangible reality of him wiped away any anguish I had felt before that moment. My brain released the cocktail of chemicals my doula had told me about, that all women experience during birth to help labor progress and after childbirth, to induce bonding and a rich feeling of love. I was so full of that love I thought I might burst. Then my stomach deflated and wobbled, the taut walls of Micah’s old apartment turning to Jell-o, as I smelled his skin and kissed him for the first time. I was empty and full all at once. It was the greatest magic trick.
I placed Micah belly-to-belly with me that first day and countless days after that, feeling the tingly chorus of emptying in my milk ducts as he latched onto my breast—oh the millions of little motherly acts of pouring oneself out to see our beloveds thrive. The three a.m. feedings turned into countless diaper changes and first steps and skinned knees and elbows and sack lunches and lego sets all over the floor. Then it was bicycle rides and sleepovers and favorite movies, Broadway shows, highschool marching band under Friday night lights, and girlfriends, followed by grabbing the dash and praying The Serenity Prayer while riding shotgun as Micah learned to drive a stick shift.
Life these days is full. I am wall-to-wall booked with dirty laundry, reconciling mismatched socks, attending school performances, assigning chores, and drafting threatening texts saying, “If you don’t clean your room when you get home from school, I’m going to have to take your phone away for a week.” Life is full of last-minute requests like, “Can I get a ride to my friend’s house?” and “Musical rehearsal is going long, so can you bring me dinner?” and “Can I stay out late?” and “Can I borrow twenty dollars?” without acknowledging that the word “borrow” typically means one will repay the debt. I am an administrative assistant, calendar keeper, public relations manager, and an unpaid uber driver. I’m also the luckiest human on the planet when any of those countless trips are accompanied by stories told wide-eyed, or quieter questions about life and God and high school and politics and acne and sex and the future. In those moments I am also priest and professor and shaman in the class titled, “Here’s how to do life (and you’re going to be okay).” All the while, time is filling up to the brim and emptying out. Now you see it. Now you don’t.
This morning, sixteen years and countless moments after Micah’s birth, I walked around the house kicking balloons to find a place to step, remembering all of the little nothings and everythings that have made up his life. I felt a hint of that empty-bellied ache, knowing that the highschool letter jacket we got him will someday hang in a closet as he moves out. His favorite bands won’t always be playing on his headphones. He won’t always be riding in the car with me to tell me about his day. The racket he makes practicing the drumline cadence won’t always echo in these walls. He will no longer start our Saturday mornings or end Tuesday nights by sitting at the foot of our bed telling Jeremy and I stories. There will be a day when he no longer practices his dance moves for the highschool musical in the kitchen while I cook dinner. His laugh, one of my favorite sights and sounds on the planet, will not be a regular part of my everyday landscape. He will leave our home and go out to meet the world. Even in the fullness of this daily life, I am preparing for the empty, for the way it feels when Micah clears out of a space we have shared and made beautiful together. Now you see him. Now you don’t.
These days I give eight-second hugs. The minimum requirement is one per day, but I’ll sneak in more with each of the boys if I’m lucky. I’m not sure where I got the number from but I remember reading somewhere that it took eight seconds to trigger a neurological response to the stimulus of being held. A chemical reaction is set off in the brain, inducing feelings of calm, safety, and deep love. I looked it up the other day out of curiosity to see exactly what is going on during those eight seconds and found the answer. The hug triggers a release of that magical self-generated medicine that helps us forget the cruelest pain while it ushers us deeper and deeper into love. It’s Oxytocin, an ingredient in the cocktail of chemicals released just after labor.
These minutes-turned-years all go too fast, filling up to capacity and then dumping out. I haven’t found a hack for the mean passage of time. All I can do is blow up balloons and fill boxes and give long hugs and say “I love you” as many times as I feel it. I inhale the fullness, feel the emptying out, and trust that my dad was right in a sense. I wait and hope that big expansive love will come and fill the empty space. I watch and have faith that something new will be born in the pain and, by some magic cocktail, I will continue to progress, remembering the joy of it all in the end.