Her name is Julia, and she is our first grandchild. Born on the eve of the new century, she came a full week after my mother died, almost like an angel sent from another world to comfort us.
The first time I caught a glimpse of her, she looked like a mummy wrapped in nursery sheets. It was a weird image. In that instant, I recalled seeing my mother at the hospital, swaddled in mortuary linen like an infant. Not that I believe in reincarnation, but these images have since set my mind on a cosmic mode.
Little Julia’s dark penetrating eyes, vaguely seeing at her age, have a knowing look about them. They are not sad like my mother’s exhausted eyes, but they are hauntingly familiar. I know I have seen that gaze before. I search her eyes desperately for some message of what this is about, but all I get is an enigmatic smile. Could this be an old affectionate spirit in a newborn baby’s body?
The loss of a loved one does put you on a spin. The days begin tentatively, and end inconclusively. There is an absence you cannot get used to. There is a deep longing you cannot quench by simple remembrance. I go over the last pictures I took of Ima on her 78th birthday, barely two weeks before she died. I note that her eyes are no longer of this world. They are distant and glassy. But with her grandchildren, she surpasses all pain and always comes alive.
I know she would have doted on her great-granddaughter. So, the other day I went to the cemetery to tell her all about Julia. At barely three weeks old, I told her, she could hold her head like a toddler. She sucks vigorously and impatiently, and usually takes in more air than she can expel with a single burp. She is not difficult to pacify, though she turns crimson when she is about to cry. She would often fall asleep on her grandmother’s chest, no doubt hypnotized by her powerful heartbeat.
I would listen to the rhythm of her breathing when she is asleep, wondering if those heavy sighs are the beginnings of an adult snore. I would sniff from her hair the fragrant mix of sweat and human milk. I would gently rub those tiny hands, tightly clenched into defiant fists, and when they open, I examine her palm for any clue of what the gods may have written on them.
I take her away from her mother’s side every morning, so we can greet the sun together as it rises above our garden. I would wipe her clean and change her diaper by myself. Through this daily ritual, I am slowly brought to the realization that parents never go away; they live in us through the roles we enact in the unending chain of generations.
Friends and relatives have wisely warned us about the benign insanity that accompanies the transition to grandparenthood. That it is pure joy where parenthood is unending duty. That it is total love, where parenthood is authority. That a day can pass in the silent contemplation of a baby’s face. That age and seniority mean nothing before the supplications of a persistent grandchild.
Yes, I think we’ve flipped a little in the past three weeks. I’ve probably taken more pictures of little Julia than of any other living human I know. I have put aside my books so I could savor these precious Wordsworthian moments with her. My wife canceled her participation in a recent international conference because she felt the baby might need her. I have learned to wake up an hour earlier than usual so that I could spend the first hour of the morning with her. I coo like an idiot to entertain her, and sing incoherent versions of popular songs to put her to sleep.
But, interestingly, with little Julia in our arms, my wife and I have also become more conscious of the need to create a better nation for her and her generation. Now more mindful of our own mortality, we realize we don’t have very much time left to finish the things we set out to do for the nation of our dreams.
The removal of a corrupt president, and the process of national renewal it jumpstarts, acquires a particular urgency when we look at the country from the perspective of a little child’s life. There’s something about the trusting helplessness of an infant that makes us forget our personal priorities. We begin to panic about the society we are leaving behind, in which our grandchildren will have to make their own lives.
As we ponder our generation’s failures and the many problems we leave unresolved, we pray that Julia will not become resentful and cynical about the nation of her ancestors. That she will ever be filled with hope and dreams for a better future. That she will have lots of courage and enough self-respect to want to go on living in this country, championing its causes despite its seeming hopelessness.
She would learn that she was born during an auspicious time in the nation’s life, when, for the first time in its history, in response to a call for fundamental change, the Filipino people dared to remove a sitting president by impeachment. She would be told of the grave danger that this process had put the country in. But she would also know how bravely her elders faced this test of maturity as a democracy, and how at the end of it all they redeemed themselves in the eyes of the world.
Through all this, I wish for Julia to remain a free spirit, like her own mother and grandmother, unhampered by obsolete conventions, useful to her society, and animated by an experimental imagination.
Happy New Year to all!
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