Mama? my baby says, nudging his black noggin into my knuckles before glancing over his shoulder to see if his older sisters are witnessing this display of emotion. We’re sitting at the kitchen island; I’m on one stool, Leo’s on the other, three inches away.
He returns to mashing his face into my knuckles until I start opening my hand, finger by finger, scratching him just the way he likes: not in the back, thank you, only my head and sometimes my shoulders. I’ll lead.
Mama? my baby gets back to me.
“Yes, my tiny?”
Tell me about the day I was born.
My heart does a little flip-flop because he’s never asked this before. We’ve been telling him it’s his birthday, and he knows he’s been getting extra treats and playtime, but it’s clear that what “birthday” means is still elusive. Interestingly, this morning I met my new neighbor in the house behind me, and he told a long story about the battles he’s already had with the owner of the house next to him, where Leo was conceived. Apparently now Leo has millions of siblings and half-siblings, cousins…all right down the street.
I’m sure that just by being out there, exposed to the new neighbor who probably had Leo’s family’s house smell all over him, I brought that smell in with me. Leo is always my shadow, but today he’s been, can I say, affectionate. Almost vulnerable.
I extend my fingers so that his nose touches the small of my hand. When he’s very tired, he likes to rest this way. I sit on my stool with my work before me, my left hand holding Leo’s head like a furry black baseball. I tell him his birthday story in the key of my mother telling me mine:
“Well, I didn’t know you were coming, so you were a wonderful surprise. It was Easter Sunday around 10 a.m. and I was doing the things that families do when there’s a holiday, like writing your grandma a note, and getting ready to call your auntie. I had just made an Easter basket so I could take a picture of it and send it to my friends when suddenly, the phone rang. It was your dad, Nabe.”
I rock Leo’s head back and forth as his chin rests heavily on my palm. He’s always loved rocking.
“Your dad said that he’d heard a noise outside in his shed, and would I please come over and help him take a look. I went right over, and I was excited right away because I knew what might be in there. Your dad wanted everything to be exactly right for you, whoever you might be. We excavated your daddy’s shed then, rolls of wire and a grill…a tire, I remember that. There were lots of things. I was more in front and your dad was in back, holding the light.
“When we finally saw you, you were just a little tiny black body with a big head attached. You were covered with straw and dirt, and you were right in the middle of a moist patch on the cement. You were squirming all over and making weird little noises.”
Leo pushes forward with his head and clearly would like to extend the 10.4 pounds of himself into my lap—to make the three-inch leap between his stool and my stool—but he can’t. He’s not a lap kitty. What kind of noises? he asks, almost surrendering.
I remember holding him between my ear and my shoulder for about three straight months, burping him and showing him the world. It took me about that long, too, to figure out that the little machine-sounding noises he was making were actually purrs. I called them tiny-growls.
“You were making the same kinds of noises that you make now,” I say. “Just softer. I rolled you like a tiny doll from your straw bed into my left hand—where you are right now—and I carried you back to my house. Your daddy came along and we cleaned you off with a Q-tip, and…here’s the best part…an angel came over from the pet shelter and she showed us how to feed you from the tiniest bottle ever. She told us ‘never on his back, always on his tummy’.”
My baby’s head sleepily and heavily pushes across the three-inch divide between us and comes to rest briefly on my thigh. I help him the rest of the way, and soon he is splayed across my lap like you might expect a one-year old to be in church. He has lost all caution. He’s exhausted.
I remember him this way in the palm of my hand.