It was late summer when our daughter was born, and the magnolias on Magnolia Drive had long since bloomed and dropped their petals. We were first-time parents in our 30s, staggering around the house at all hours, sleep deprivation leaving us zombified, trying to calm a colicky baby back to sleep.
I’d return from work to my wife, who looked like she’d been trapped in a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. She’d hand over our little delightful infant as if she were a bomb.
I’d strap Adele to my chest in what they optimistically market as a babyTrekker, the only way she’d nap, and take her for walks around our neighborhood in University Circle. When seasons turned cold, I’d zip her into my coat until all you could see was her cherub-cheeked face. When the bitter winter set in, sometimes her squawks turned to silence as soon as we’d leave the house.
Other times, she cried all the way through the neighborhood, until we got to the Cleveland Museum of Art, where we’d end up so that I could pretend I had a mission: Expose my child to the glories of art. I’d spy our favorite museum guard, a lovely Egyptian woman, who saw the little one grow week by week, who once shared an Arab proverb: “A baby changes one hundred times in the first year.”
We’d waltz from room to room until, if I were lucky, her body would lose its rigid alertness and melt into dream. Who knows what visions she saw as she slept — rustic 19th century landscapes? Shiny rows of armor? Endless vacuous Warholian Marilyn Monroes? Whatever she saw, she failed to report, unless the coos and burbles were her form of art criticism.
After one particularly grueling day, after a sleepless night of teething — one of those nights when the baby decides the moment you fall asleep is the cue to begin crying — I strapped her to my chest and headed through the tundra, straight to the museum. She was in some unnamable pain, and her pain had become my pain. I hauled myself through drifts of snow, angry at every slippery intersection. It was so cold Adele’s cheeks were bluish, my fingers numb, my back aching from hauling her, a great burden who allowed me no rest.
I found myself in the Middle Ages, in front of a damaged but beautiful statue of St. Martin of Tours. Adele finally slumped against my chest in the gallery of saints and fell asleep. In her 21st-century kangaroo pouch, just months in this life, I thought, she already knew how our bodies carry both heaven and hell. And when our pain is gone, it’s as if it never existed.
I’d read somewhere about the story of St. Martin, how a naked beggar in Amiens lying by the side of the road asked for his cloak and how Martin sliced it into two. How strange it must have been for the beggar to see this man raise his sword not in anger, but out of love for him, an unknown and pathetic creature.
Carved out of walnut, the size of a child, centuries old, the statue of Martin rose before me, astride his horse frozen mid-walk. It looked like he’d seen better days. His face was strangely impassive, his heavy-lidded eyes cast downward to something we couldn’t see, his mouth pursed, as if dreaming while awake. Twisting toward us, Martin had let go of the reins to do his holy deed.
But somewhere, he’d also lost his left arm. The cloak. His right hand, the sword he held. Even the beggar was gone. And then, I saw. He was my mirror. Like a sleepless parent, he was incomplete, partly amputated from himself. But in the dream of that moment, it didn’t matter. He had given himself over to his giving.
Somehow, we survived that winter. In spring, months later, I was off to the grocery stores, Adele nesting at my chest. The magnolias were so gorged with birds that the upper branches sagged, and sprang up when the birds took flight. We crossed past the Cleveland Institute of Art, where I saw what looked like a man lying on the bench in the distance. He had one arm dangling to the sidewalk, his trench coat and tattered hat obscuring his face. As we neared, I saw his hand was full of yellow birdseed. No, it was birdseed. His feet were crack corn and sunflower, suet and millet packed in rotting sneakers. Even his face peeking beneath the ridiculous hat was made of seeds.
He must have been someone’s work of art. The birds would carry him, seed by seed, into the trees, where they would feed him to their chicks. At some point, he’d disappear. It seemed right, somehow, as a metaphor for parenthood, where all our petty selves are taken up, bit by bit, into the project of raising new life.