Not many names begin with the letter “X,” and this is probably the first thing that is different about my third grandchild, Xavier, the firstborn of our youngest daughter Jika. The name that his parents have given him is of Basque origin, and is not easy to pronounce. While most Filipinos would say “Zay-vyer,” the older generation would probably render it the Spanish way: “Hah-vyer.” His father, Brice, who is French, tells us that the correct pronunciation is “Gzahv-yeh,” with no nickname. Of course, nothing deters Filipinos from abbreviating all names. As I held him in my arms for the first time the other night, I nicknamed him “X.” The little boy looked at me from the corner of his dark grey eyes, and gave me a beatific smile. He seemed to like it.
I’m writing this from Singapore, where he was born a week ago. It’s been a while since we’ve had a baby boy in the family. The last time was the birth in 1970 of our own eldest child, Carlos Primo. CP, as we call him, was followed by three girls. Boys assert their maleness quite early. For one, they tend to pee in your face. They don’t just cry; they bellow when their agitated mouths cannot find their mother’s breast. They suck their milk as if it was their last meal. And because they cry a lot, they end up with so much gas in their tummy.
I distinctly remember what it was like with CP. Still as a stone during the day, he was transformed into a possessed creature after midnight, wailing hysterically until he ran out of breath. He refused to breastfeed, and he showed this by flailing his little fists. I blame the hospital where he was born for starting him off on infant formula from the moment of his birth. We changed brands several times in a vain effort to help him overcome his colic. I read and reread Dr. Spock’s book in a futile search for the proper way to handle a colicky infant. I do not recall that the good doctor had a magic solution, but the one thing I do remember, which I kept repeating to myself, was his cool declaration that no infant had ever been known to die from crying.
I dug out this precious lesson from memory the other night to assure the young couple that there is nothing wrong with their little boy who wakes up every two hours and cries until he turns crimson. No one dies from crying, I assure them. X just misses the soothing interior of his mother’s womb, as he adjusts to the noise and feel and smell of the external world into which he has been suddenly thrust. I doubt, of course, if knowing this in any way eases the tremendous pressure they feel. I think every new parent goes through this existential rite of passage, which I imagine hasn’t changed much from the time the first human was born.
My wife, Karina, knows this. Ever the solicitous mother, she flew to Singapore ahead of me to be by her daughter’s side on the very day she gave birth. She guided the new parents through the basics of childcare and breastfeeding, letting them experience the exquisite discomfort of getting up repeatedly in the middle of the night to attend to the urgent needs of a helpless child, but promptly relieving them when they were about to drop from exhaustion and despair.
It is a scene that is reenacted in every household as soon as a newborn comes home from the hospital. He behaves like a guest who finds almost everything in his new home not to his liking, and does not hesitate to show it. In near panic the other night, Jika, whose wound from the Caesarean incision still has to heal, turned to Google for information on how to pacify a colicky child. Brice tried to soothe the flailing and kicking child even as he heroically changed his diaper. I’m sure the situation the couple confronted at that moment appeared enormously more complex than all the corporate issues they have had to deal with in the course of their professional work. Wanting to be of help, my 11-year-old granddaughter Julia, who is with us on this trip, downloaded an app that plays sounds guaranteed to stop a child’s crying. It worked! X was startled by the humming of a hair-dryer and a vacuum cleaner, and promptly fell asleep.
But all the vexation vanishes like mist during the day when the baby settles down and reciprocates his parents’ patience with a presence that is completely attuned to the world. That is when you realize what a good-looking child he is. I was charmed by the little boy from the first minute of our encounter. He opened his eyes and looked at me intently. I’m sure he sees only shadows at this point. But his tiny well-formed face was, to me, instantly recognizable. I know those eyes; I am sure I have seen them before. Perhaps they resemble my late father’s. This is always how I feel at the birth of a grandchild—sentimental, grateful, and hopeful. I am aware that because his parents live abroad, I will probably not get to hug him as much as I do my two granddaughters. I can only hope that even as he is half-French, he will be no less attached to his mother’s country.
I recently came across an 1889 letter that our national hero, Jose Rizal, sent to his friend Fernando Canon and his Spanish wife congratulating them on the birth of their son. Rizal wrote: “I cannot refrain from expressing to you a certain melancholy upon thinking that this new being in whose veins Filipino blood runs and who will be educated with so much care will afterwards be a lost member for a country that is in need of men…. The only thing you can do is to educate well your child and inculcate in him noble and honorable sentiments so that one day, if good luck sends him to the Philippines, he may not be one more tyrant to the brothers of his father. All honorable men of the world are compatriots.”
I have given Xavier’s mother, Jika, a Filipino who loves her country, a copy of Rizal’s letter. His father, Brice, has promised me that my grandson will learn to speak Filipino.
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