Sometimes when I am out and about, an unbidden memory floats up and surprises me. The other day, I was racewalking when I had the distinct memory of the first time I heard you laugh. It was nighttime in the hospital, and you were a couple of weeks old. You know that you didn’t come home immediately after you were born; you were diagnosed with hyperinsulinism, a disorder the doctors at Boston Children’s Hospital didn’t know how to treat. The happy days after your birth seemed truly to darken with worry; unresolved low blood sugars can lead to brain seizures and even death. My days consisted of dealing with a seemingly endless trail of residents and specialists whose job was to stabilize you, so we could go home. But it wouldn’t happen in Boston. By the time you were a couple of weeks old, your plump little body was covered from head to toe in a crusty rash, the side effect of medication your father and I had to give to you simultaneously via two big needles, one in each thigh. I stood over your exposed legs, syringe in hand, bawling as the nurse walked us through the procedure. After we injected you, you wailed that singular ragged newborn cry, and—still bawling—I immediately picked you up to comfort you. I am glad that medicine didn’t work. I would have been unable to sustain the routine, given all that later happened. As it is, that moment laid a new trauma down, one that would leave me shattered each subsequent time you sneezed or got sick.
You had a tube up your nose, tape on your face, and tiny bladelike scars on your heels from the relentless D-sticks to check your blood sugar. Holding you involved a few minutes to untangle the tubes and wires; it was like trying to extricate a chick from its nest. I was still recovering from my C-section; no one had checked me to make sure everything was properly healing. I had these intermittent twinges from the scar that I ignored, except when I worried that the incision would open and I would have to hold myself together to prevent my insides falling out. Every part of life was bathed in worry. Emotional waterboarding is the term that comes to mind, trying not to drown in anguish, looking for reasons not to surrender. I’m not sure what surrender would have looked like, but I do know that I had ceased to have any concern about my own well-being or happiness. I just wanted you better.
One late night I was lying in bed; the only sounds, the beeping of the monitors, and the only visuals, the flickering glow of the machines. Your father was on a cot, buried in a tangle of sheets, and on the other side of the bed, you were sleeping in a glass isolette, swaddled in a hospital receiving blanket. I so wanted not to be there; your room at home was waiting, decorated with a new crib and dresser, and filled with toys and baby clothes. I could see it in my mind’s eye, the soft lavender walls, the pretty braided rug, the rocking chair I had chosen so I would have a place to sit while nursing you. The room on the 9th floor of Children’s Hospital was, by contrast, akin to a crowded tenement, piled with suitcases and trashcans overflowing with takeout containers and medical waste. Sometimes I would lie there feeling like I couldn’t breathe, like the horror of it all was a giant weight sitting squarely on my chest, so heavy I couldn’t even cry. Once in a while, I managed to squeeze out a single tear.
Then I heard you. At first I wasn’t sure it was you; I thought perhaps I had imagined it. Or that there was someone in the hall. Because it was a deep, low, sustained chuckle, as if the person laughing had been listening to a whispered tale and broke out laughing. I looked over but I could barely see you; you were unmoving and likely asleep. I must have been mistaken.
The next time you chuckled, your father was awake.
“Did you hear that?” he asked.
I had. We looked at each other in mutual puzzlement, the relentless conflict (even at that point) temporarily halted by the mystery of a chuckling newborn. You were a newborn. One pinched, pricked, unclothed, weighed, studied, and re-clothed, awakened by medical interventions rather than simply by the natural end of a good sleep. You had no peace. What, then, did you have to laugh about?
When babies begin to see, they can follow a parent’s face; they respond to tickling and cajoling with the merest flicker of a smile, as if their little face muscles have to catch on in order to mimic an adult expression. We hadn’t even gotten to that stage yet: you are still a bit glassy-eyed, mostly eating, sleeping, and pooping, the most normal routine of all babies in the first month. But in the pit of night, amidst disquieting anxiety, you had given us a gift, an unexpected and perhaps undeserved moment of pure joy.
I remember how the next day, we told the doctors and nurses, or more accurately asked them, about babies laughing. It was impossible to reproduce the laugh on demand, so no one else heard it except us. It was like a message meant for your parents alone. For me, it seemed to announce, I’m not just a bundle of protoplasm. I’m the bud of a personality. Aren’t you intrigued?
That was the first hint of the person you would become; that hearty chuckle came with your speaking voice when you later began to babble, then sing. I have a clip of you at about 20 months; you are sitting on the kitchen floor with our then-new kitten nesting inside a colander between your legs, and you are giggling with mischievous delight at his kittenish antics. When at least he leaps away from the rubber ball you keep squishing onto his head, you shriek with amusement that surprised me then, and still surprises me when I watch the tape. What was it that made you laugh so?
The one other time I remember hearing that wild laughter was that same winter; I bundled you up and took you outside so you could play nearby while I brushed snow off the car. You were a foot away when I swiped a large swathe of fluffy snow from the windshield, and it fell with a pillow-like plop. You shrieked as if it were the funniest thing you had ever heard, delivering the same succession of hearty giggles.
That day, I stopped to study you: Who was this almond-eyed little sprite, not yet able to string sentences, letting loose with unrestrained delight? How could such an unusual and delicious kid be my boy? I pushed another swathe of snow off the car and watched it plop, but you didn’t laugh. It couldn’t be forced. Something known only to you tickled your funny bone. You had an interior life, and inside that interior life was happiness.
That knowledge was a balm. Though the worry about your health had ended, I was suffering from what would eventually be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress. At the age of six weeks, you had undergone a massive and terrifying surgery to remove part of your pancreas; after a 24-hour supervised fast, you had proved that you could regulate your own blood sugar, and we came home. It had been 58 days from the time I went into labor until we returned to the room awaiting a newborn that was now a plump two-month old. Less than three weeks later, you father had stormed out in the midst of an argument about feeding you from a bottle rather than my breast, and soon after that, acquired a divorce lawyer. By the time you watched me clean off a snow-covered car, I was a single mother trying not to succumb to the current worry, which was making a life in the aftermath of a contentious divorce.
In short, I had gone from one trauma to another—which meant so had you.
And yet, there you were, laughing uproariously.
“Laughter meditation gives you a glimpse of freedom from the mind,” says a website on the healing power of laughter. The accompanying video looks ridiculous—adults in pastel yoga-wear lying in a circle, laughing at nothing. Laughing for the sake of laughing; I won’t do it. But I get it. As a baby and toddler, you were my little yogi, teaching me something of the happiness that can erupt in the seemingly saddest of times. Just as your dad and I had called a temporary halt to our conflict—staring wide-eyed and open-mouthed at the wonder of our baby—hearing you laugh enabled me to step outside myself and remember something bigger. Call it what you will—God, a higher power, the natural world—whatever it is, it dwarfs problems that often seem insurmountable.
Even now, when I am mourning the loss of my brief happiness with John, or missing you terribly, I will watch that short clip of you—chubby, sneaker-toed, and consumed with delight over your furry little pal, and it’s a kind of reset. I still miss you, but I can go about my day. I can be grateful that you are whole and cured, and tall and strong, even as you are too far away to see my smile or maybe even hear my own laughter.
It’s not as deep or unrestrained as yours. But even after all of it—your newborn ordeal, the divorce, the loss of my good and generous husband—I touch that same joy, and it gives me hope.