The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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Any day now, any hour, the phone will ring and I’ll get the news that I’m the grandfather of an infinitely wise and beautifully proportioned baby girl, fully equipped to wiggle her ten fingers and ten toes, to nurse at her mother’s breast, and, before she’s twenty, to discover how to turn daydreams into reality without the use of fossil fuels; and, before she’s thirty, to use moonlight to cure migraine headaches and broken hearts; and, before she’s forty, to run for president. Win or lose, honey, I’ll love you just the same.
I’m not someone who thinks a lot about the future. Maybe that’s because I’m grounded in the present; maybe it’s because I’m a man with very little vision. But yesterday, when I held my three-day-old granddaughter in my arms, time’s gauzy curtain parted for a moment: with good genes and a little luck, I realized, this little girl may still be alive in the year 2100. Until that moment, 2100 was an abstraction to me, a page from the distant future. As I cradled Katharine, the future seemed closer.
Katharine was born in twenty-first-century Los Angeles, with its millions of people and billions of cars, its beautiful people, its invisible people, its not-so-invisible smog. She picked a moment when the earth is growing warmer and the odds against humanity are growing longer. Between now and 2100 she’s likely to experience breakthroughs in medical science and nanotechnology and clean energy that are unimaginable today. But because of global climate change, she may also face an all-you-can’t-eat buffet of droughts and heat waves and viral pandemics and mass migrations and wars over arable land. In 2100 will the protest signs read “No Blood For Water”? Will the Far Right have invented a flag that flutters whether or not there’s a breeze?
When my daughter Mara first placed Katharine in my arms, I felt some trepidation. The last time I’d held a newborn was when Mara’s sister Sara was born. Saturday Night Fever was playing in movie theaters, gas cost sixty-three cents a gallon, and Jimmy Carter was president. But holding my granddaughter felt as natural as getting on a bicycle after many years and pedaling my way to heaven. Katharine was half asleep, here and not here, a tender shoot still drenched in mystery, an utterly unselfconscious, exquisitely vulnerable being who wasn’t afraid and wasn’t ashamed and wasn’t trying to impress anyone. Everyone who’s seen her says she’s beautiful, which is true. But to my mind most newborns look pretty much alike, with their puffy eyes and wrinkled skin and oddly shaped skulls, the inevitable consequence of being curled up for months in a tiny compartment, then pushed out the door when the swaying, lumbering train finally arrives at the station. So when we say a newborn is beautiful, maybe we’re really describing how beautiful we feel in that infant’s presence. When we’re face to face with the unfathomable miracle of a human incarnation, our hearts open. What’s more beautiful than that?
Katharine is four days old. I’m nearly twenty-four thousand days old. I hope she’ll pay attention when I try to give her a little advice about our bewildering species; about all the rules and all the exceptions to the rules; about the reckless, savage side of human nature and about the indestructible essence in each of us that aspires to something greater than fame or riches or worldly power. But I’m mindful that it’s Mara and her husband Chris’s turn now, not a second act for a bearded patriarch who knows as little about being a grandfather as he once did about being a father. Before Mara arrived, my ex-wife and I focused all our attention on the upcoming homebirth — only to realize, after Priscilla’s labor was over and the midwife left, that neither of us knew how to change a diaper.
How amazing to see the newborn I once carried in my arms holding her newborn in her arms. What’s it like for Mara to watch her father become a grandfather? When she sees me holding Katharine, does she, too, feel closer to the inexorable turning of the wheel?
Katharine carries one-quarter of my genetic heritage. Which quarter? Who cares? Maybe I’m missing something, but I’ve never been concerned with how many of my genes are passed from one generation to the next, as if my DNA were an Olympic torch to be kept aloft as it’s handed from runner to runner. Isn’t Katharine’s genetic heritage the same as that of the whole human race — not just my genes but our genes? Why cultivate an attachment to how much of me is wrapped around a little spiral helix? Why look for signs of “Sy” in “Katharine” as she grows up? Will that make her even more special in my eyes? More worthy of my love?
What if we extended as much kindness and generosity to everyone as we do to our own children and grandchildren? It’s shameful that I still make a distinction between the small number of people who matter the most to me and the nearly 7 billion other humans on the planet. Then again, it’s so much easier to love the infant in your arms than to embrace the moody co-worker, the eccentric neighbor, the politician who lets you down.
I’m back in North Carolina, where it’s cold and dark at 5:30 in the morning. Three thousand miles away, in balmy LA, it’s still the middle of the night. I wonder if Mara is up nursing Katharine. I wonder how many newborns all across America are keeping their mothers awake. So many hungry babies. So many young parents whose lives are irrevocably changed. My cat Franny is on my lap. She hasn’t met Katharine yet. What will she think when confronted with this human who weighs less than she does, who’s too young to run, too young to walk, who couldn’t catch a mouse if her life depended on it? Oh baby. It’s good that the Tall Ones look out for you.