I've read that there's a tribe in east Africa in which the birth date of a child is not considered to be the day he is born, or the day he is conceived. The child's birth date, the tale goes, is the first day he is a thought in his mother's mind. When a mother knows she wants to have a child, she goes and sits under a tree to listen for the child's song. Once she knows the song, she goes back to the man she wants to have the child with and teaches the song to him. When they make love they sing the song to the child as a way to invite him. When he is born, the midwives and women of the village sing it to welcome him. It is his song until it is sung for the last time on his deathbed.
I suspect this story is apocryphal. It's all over the internet, yet not one of the sites where this story is repeated names the tribe in question. The myth proliferates, I believe, because it should be true. There should be a tribe in Africa that in its elemental, non-Western way transcends all of our debates about when life begins with the recognition that a child begins as an idea, a hope, long before he exists corporeally.
Of course some children begin with a broken condom or an act of violence. It's only in the world of fables that a child comes to a woman in the form of a song on the breeze, which she shares with the father at the time of her choosing. If she is lucky, that hope becomes a zygote and then an embryo and then a fetus and then a baby. If she is lucky. But then maybe she is lucky to hear the song at all.
"You have to decide," I told my husband on my fortieth birthday. "We can try to have another child, or you can get a vasectomy and we can get a cat. But you have to choose one."
My husband and I are both black and white thinkers generally, and to our detriment, so the fact that in laying out the options I offered him only two choices was completely in character. In this case, though, it was hard to see many shades of gray. There are no half-babies, no part-time babies, no 'let's just see how it goes' babies.
It was also typical of one of these end-stage arguments that it wasn't a dialogue. We had been through it all many, many times before. My patience frayed and then snapped and I was transformed into a flinty wife in a Judd Apatow movie.
At the time of my announcement I was setting the dining room table for a ladies' brunch, which was an extremely un-Portland thing to do.
When my mother was forty in Louisville, KY, she had a closetful of Pendleton suits and a breakfront full of crystal and sterling silver. I had a few pairs of skinny jeans, a cardigan sweater and an unfinished oak bookcase that you could use as a buffet in a pinch. Maybe that was why, when I thought about what I wanted to do for my fortieth birthday, I knew I didn't want a coed party at a bar where my Chuck Taylors would stick to the floor. Neither did I want an intimate dinner with my husband at some restaurant we would have to pretend we could afford. Maybe I was channeling some other version of myself, some Mrs. Dalloway type, but whatever the reason, I wanted a ladies' brunch.
And a baby.
Getting pregnant at forty, unlike a ladies' brunch, would be an extremely Portland thing to do.
“I want to talk about this,” said Jonathan, “but maybe five minutes before a party is not the best time.”
My flower arrangement was extravagantly beautiful and the croissants were delicious. The Mayan truffles from Moonstruck Chocolates were well-received. I wore a sleeveless blue silk blouse embroidered with a pink and purple geometric floral. As I had feared there was some awkwardness involved in having this kind of party in a town known for donning hoodies as formal wear. One of my friends asked uncertainly if it was OK to tell a dirty joke.
If Balthazar's real birthday is the day he was first a thought in my mind, then it's probably some time in 2008. But that day, April 2, 2011, is the day I willed him into being. Everyone else listened to an ipod mix full of Gillian Welch and Ryan Adams, but I was hearing other music.
I later related the vasectomy vs. cat story to a group of people at my friend Scott's 40th birthday party. I was seven months pregnant by that time, and I spent most of the party sitting in a chair by the window in the dining room, shamelessly scarfing down the South African Indian food that had been catered by Scott's favorite food truck. I stood up and stopped eating just long enough to share what I felt to be the crucial moment of my baby's genesis with Scott, his wife Talie and a woman I had just met, a labor and delivery nurse at the hospital where I was planning to deliver who also had kids at my son's school.
Scott's brother overheard the word 'vasectomy' and turned on his heel to join our group and find out what I was talking about. I was pretty pleased with myself; I don't usually command attention at parties, and Scott's brother was about to publish a very successful non-fiction book.
Jonathan mentioned that someone he knew had recently endured a botched vasectomy, and the three men winced. He might have joked that, as bad as having another baby might turn out to be, it was better than a botched vasectomy.
Scott’s youngest child was two; he laughed the knowing laugh of the harried and sleep-deprived.
"Don't make it sound like I didn't want Balthazar," Jonathan says to me. "Of course I wanted him."
We joked; of course we did! We had that luxury and we indulged it. And there were anxieties underneath the wisecracking: how would we earn enough money to support him? How would our marriage survive those months without sleep, those years without time to ourselves?
Maybe he will be an easy baby, I said. I had heard that such creatures existed. A baby with a folkie vibe, a CSN or Donovan baby. In contrast to Jasper, an early fan of ska.
In September we got the cat. Jasper said he wanted a white cat named Fluffy and so we went to the Humane Society of Southwest Washington and found a one year-old male who was white and healthy-looking and who seemed to have a decent personality. He turned out to be a bit of a mess: for the first six months my feet were scratched bloody through my socks, he liked to climb up the fireplace, and even now he sometimes tries to bite our faces. But Jasper needed him, even more than I did. Sometimes he says Fluffy is his brother. Sometimes he says Fluffy is his child. Strange to think it could have turned out this way all along, without all that we’ve lost and all that we’ve gained.