The “Love, Recorded” baby turns one! (But not without drama, of course.)
We have planned two parties for the weekend, to celebrate Grace’s first birthday, her 돌. 돌 is like an American’s 18th and 21st birthdays all at once, at least in that it is the birthday that matters most to her future, the birthday that means she will have a future. I have learned that there was a time in Korea when reaching one was a small miracle, a day the whole village celebrated. Part of the fun is that Grace will face a set of objects and choose, by symbols, who to become as an adult.
On Thursday, though, I come home to find a fever of 101. The baby plays happily, just on fire. It is amazing that two and a half degrees is the difference between illness and health. We squirt Advil into her cheeks, medicine leftover from the hand, foot, and mouth disease she has only just recovered from. But by midnight–when she is still, as is becoming a rule in this column–awake, she’s up to 102.4.
We debate whether to call the hospital. We know what they will tell us: take off her clothes and give her a bath, nothing else to be done. If she isn’t fussier than usual, if she isn’t refusing to eat, if there are no other symptoms, they can do nothing for us. We have learned.
Still, the next day, Cathreen takes the baby for a diagnosis. My parents have come up to help out, my mother wanting to make a good impression on her mother. We are also celebrating her retirement, the end of that second era, the one between learning and un-learning, I suppose, where the slate is full and all you want is to return it to emptiness. Our house is a baby’s house, but my mother is Mrs. Clean, eraser of messes. You turn around and in that 30-second break, the place is spotless. My father drives my wife over to Harvard so that I can go with them to the doctor. Grace’s fever is down under 100.
The doctor says all we can do is wait. If there are no other symptoms, there is nothing she can do for us. We like our doctor, but we wish she could predict, and prevent, instead of react. We wish we didn’t have to see our daughter suffer before we could stop the pain.
After work, I ask my father to drive me miles away to pick up the traditional decorations, including the objects Grace will choose from: traditional money, books, multi-colored scrolls, a stethoscope (the modern addition), a bow and arrow, etc. It rains on us. The husband there runs out in the rain with the third and fourth box while I carry the first two, wondering what I’m getting myself into.
On Saturday, my aunt calls at eight in the morning to say she will be late. Clearly, she doesn’t read this column. I try to hide the noise of the phone, try to recover sleep. When the baby and I wake again, it’s 11. Cathreen has been up all night, cleaning and making a slideshow of photos from birth to one, aiming at breaking hearts.
The baby’s fever is gone. We hope she is in a good mood, though she always behaves for other people. As soon as they are gone, she takes out the stress of that good behavior on us. It is a small party, my grandparents, my parents, and my aunt with my niece and nephew, 5 and 7. But it feels like a large party, full of kids. The house is too small for these children, the world too small for them. Grace watches not knowing what to do, half in awe and half with apprehension. I watch with the same. My aunt must be a saint.
The kids keep playing with the baby toys, and I can see my daughter getting confused. She is a baby who, when she talks to her grandmother in Korea, via Facetime, the first thing she does is to hold up anything new to the camera. She will crawl back to the bookshelf and get her newest books, her newest toys. She will hold out her dress like Lebron James popping his jersey, just to show that she is loved.
Now she is boiling with emotion. We have noticed that when she doesn’t understand her feelings, she acts out. My mother has brought some books for my niece, and Grace wants them. When she doesn’t get them, she pinches. We try to explain to my neice that the baby doesn’t know what she is doing. But later in the day, I see my niece sneak a pinch back. As soon as they are gone, I fall back on the couch and pass out. My father sighs with relief. My baby lies on the floor staring at the ceiling–we’ve never seen her do this before.
When my parents leave, Grace screams at us for half an hour straight.
During the party, Cathreen noticed a constellation of red dots on Grace’s leg. She asked my mother, my grandmother, but they both said it was fine. That evening, we are changing diapers and find a blister on her groin, several other raised bumps. Grace is refusing to eat solid food.
We call the hospital with the latest news. We have waited and we have found. The first nurse says it is probably a yeast infection, and to get some cream from CVS. After hanging up, we notice the rash. The constellations are everywhere, up and down her arms and legs. My baby is a night sky.
When we call back, the second nurse says this is hand, foot, and mouth again. But there is nothing in Grace’s mouth. It is not just her hands and feet. We make an appointment for the next day, an hour before the party, and call a friend begging a favor.
I send messages to my friends with babies. The nurse said at first that it would be fine to have other kids over, and then that she didn’t know. I tell them it’s 50-50. I tell them about the nurses, and one of my friends says, Oh, nurses.
At the doctor’s the next day, it is confirmed: hand, foot, and mouth. In the back of Grace’s mouth, the doctor finds a lesion. She says that this is probably a different strain than the one Grace had before. She says babies should not come over, and I text this warning on. We get back to the house at one. The party starts at one. Luckily, no one is on time.
At the family party, Grace chose the colored scrolls. Cathreen put the stethoscope and the money directly in front of her. I asked her not to put out the bow and arrow. We are a family that believes in symbols. Cathreen looked it up online: the scrolls mean a variety of talents, a Jill of all trades. We are worried that this will make her unfocused. We made her choose again. On the second go, she grabbed the money. Thataway, baby.
When our friends arrive, we are busy cooking, since we didn’t have time to prepare. We leave them to fend for themselves. We leave them with Grace. A few times, she stands at the baby gate, looking over at us, asking for familiarity. It is 90 degrees outside as I grill, and once I finish, I have to slip away in the middle of the party to shower and give the baby a wash. I try to be inconspicuous. Grace falls asleep. I walk her around in the baby carrier, finally eating, but as soon as I do, everyone has to go. We have to wake her up. We make our friends late, extending Zipcars and missing work, to see what she will choose today.
We gather around and Cathreen explains the objects as she positions them, like before, with the money and the stethoscope in front. Grace reaches across the money and takes the scrolls again. Our friends try to make this sound like the wisest choice. But again, we cry Mulligan. She picks up the stethoscope. We are all relieved.
As she holds the stethoscope in the air, I think some of my writer friends must be thinking, like me, about writer doctors. Cathreen has said she doesn’t want Grace to be a writer, but I think half-doctor we could compromise on. I think this as if we have anything to do with her future. As if it doesn’t take everything we have just to make sure she stays healthy and learns gets something out of these years she will later forget. The next big Korean birthday celebration is 60, another age many people didn’t get to in the past. A time to look back and be thankful. Until then, we look ahead.
—photo by Susan Salesses