Numb the dark and you numb the light.
My sweet Sadie, as your mom and I planned and prepared for your birth, we dreamed about those first few moments with you. I imagined your soft breath upon my face. Your tiny fist curled around my pointer finger. Your little warm body on my chest, skin-to-skin. I envisioned that the first words you would hear outside the womb would be your name followed by “I love you.”
Immediately after you came into the world, a nurse whooped, “You the cheesiest girl I ever seen!”
You, our dear toddler, are indeed cheesy sometimes, sporting your silly grin and your dimples that go on for days. Your mom says that you get your goofiness from me. But, of course, that’s not what this nurse meant. She delighted in your “cheesiness” because you were born with a particularly thick layer of cheese-like vernixcaseosa coating your delicate skin. This sticky, white substance kept you warm and dry in your little sea of amniotic fluid and prevented attacks from certain bacteria. Your “cheese” was your first armor.
Now, as I imagine your growing to become a woman like your mother and the mothers who came before her, I can’t help but wish sometimes that you still had another layer of protection. I’ll give you things, like sunscreen, to protect you from harsh physical exposure. But I wish you might also be shielded from another kind—from the double-standards and double-binds, from “damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t.” What can I offer to shield you from sexism celebrated in the workplace and inequality sacralized by the church?
As you grow, your mom and I will strive to keep you safe. But to be born is to be exposed. To become vulnerable is scary, and yet it also affords the opportunity to make discoveries about yourself. Remember that one meaning of “exposure” relates to photography, to the light allowed on a camera lens. While we cannot always protect you from the world, your mom and I can give you ways to view yourself, to bring the picture into focus. The right exposure brings clarity to both shadows and light. Allow me to take a few pictures in words …
You, Sadie, are named after your mom’s great-grandmother. She was strong and able, mowing her grass until the week she died. She was also strong-willed. Your great-great-grandmother did not suffer fools gladly. And she was strongly committed to her faith. She died sitting in her easy chair on a Sunday morning, waiting for a friend to take her to church.
Decades later, right after you were born, several nurses started wiping off your cheesy layer of protection, and your booming cries resounded in the room. The same nurse spoke again.
“Will you listen to her? She’s strong.”
Maybe somewhere your great-great-grandmother smiled, approvingly. Who knows?
My favorite story about your namesake is that she gave a certain great-granddaughter aluminum tins to make mud pies in her backyard—a little indulgence that left a lasting impression on your mom. Who knows what strength and grace your great-great-grandmother has passed down to you?
You, Sadie Anna, are also named after my mom. Your Nana knows that this world, fully exposed, is full of beauty and pain, injustice and mercy. An avid student of Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly, your Nana believes that to be exposed is to become vulnerable, and to become vulnerable is a faithful act of courage.
From the time you were born, your Nana has told you, “It is holy to know what you want.” She has traveled the world. She will tell you that she is a pilgrim, a woman who seeks the holy in different places and the faces of other people. Who knows what courage she will inspire in you?
My sweet Sadie, you do indeed get your cheesiness from me. The color of your eyes comes from your mom. Like her, your eyes are bright blue. We keep a picture of your mom as a little girl in your nursery. Mom is probably three years old, blue eyes smiling from the photography as she rides her red tricycle. And she reaches out with her left hand as if she knows exactly what she wants. Will you listen to her? She’s strong. Strong enough to become vulnerable.
As you seek to bring the picture of your life into focus, I want you to know and be inspired by a strong and courageous story from the day you were born. As your mom groaned through a particularly fierce contraction, her doula pulled a stool behind her to massage her shoulders, and the birth photographer slipped behind the doula to rub her neck, and the midwife stood behind the photographer to massage her shoulders. That contraction seemed endless. Yet those women kept their strong hands upon one another until, finally, that fearsome contraction passed. There were more to come, but in that pregnant pause, all four broke into cheesy smiles. Your mom actually giggled, “Don’t we make a picture?”
Sixteen months later, you beep-bop around the house, toddling along to some joyful melody only you can hear. If you catch someone watching, you’ll pause and say with a grin, “Cheese!” In this way, “cheese” is still your protection, not as an armor, but in the way your smile lets in the light. And I can only add, Amen.
Andrew Taylor-Troutman graduated from Union Presbyterian Seminary with a MDiv in 2009. He serves as pastor of Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill, NC. He and his wife, Ginny, also an ordained minister, parent three children. Andrew also holds graduate degrees from the University of Virginia and Lenoir-Rhyne University. His fourth book will be published in the fall, 2019, and is titled Go Gently Between the Words.