Dans le Metro, morning rush, a baby girl wrapped in pink, reclining in her stroller, her mother holding the stroller and a colorful bag full of baubles, rattles, blankets, milk. I would not be surprised to learn that somewhere in there was a book on childrearing with key passages flagged or marked with a highlighter. The girl has a pained look on her face. My sense is that she has gas pains. I recall how I used to press my fist into my son’s gut to force the gas out.
I catch the girl’s eye and we begin a conversation. She is on the verge of saying her first word, and it seems it will begin with “m.” She is moving her lips up and down, making soft “mum, mum, mum” sounds. In response I move my lips up and down, soundlessly, and we go back and forth like that, calmly, steadily looking one another in the eye, me peering around the back of a commuter who seems more interested in the display of the train’s route which is posted above the doors.
At some point the little girl opens one of her little hands, straightening her fingers. I imitate. We are not joyous or silly — we are in a crowded subway train, and she still has her gas pains, and it is not clear that her mother would like her daughter to be talking with strangers in the Metro.
The mother seems to be determined not to turn her head to look at me, not to see that I am playing with her daughter, not to see that her daughter is perfectly capable of carrying on a conversation (as, in my view, babies are from Day 1), not to realize, as if too late—or is it something that she has not wanted to know?—that she might talk with her child? Ignored, too, or refused, are the ritual compliments I would offer — « Quels beaux yeux bleus », « Elle va bientôt parler » (What beautiful blue eyes; She’s going to be talking soon). For my part, I cannot figure out how, should the mother ever glance my way, I am going to be able to suggest that her daughter might be suffering from gas pains.
The mother’s primary concern seems to be that her daughter not be too loud or start making a fuss there in the Metro. Whenever the girl’s face appears particularly pained or if she raises her voice or she starts shifting uneasily under her blankets, the mother searches for a way to calm her down, make her happy. As if happiness were like bread or strollers, a thing to be made.
The mother pulls out of her bag a clean pacifier in a clean plastic container. She tries to entice her daughter to take the pacifier into her mouth, and then pushes it against the girl’s lips. If only she would start sucking on the pacifier, calm would be assured. But the girl doesn’t want the pacifier, she wants to talk. She seems to be exploring the art of talking, of making sounds, and I wonder if she might also have the idea somewhere in her for intérieure (in her heart of hearts) that she would like it to be known that she has gas pains.
I am reminded of the joke about the man in the hospital, tubes running in and out of his body, who is visited by a priest, and as the priest is talking with him about the hereafter or whatever, the man’s condition is getting worse and worse, his face begins to turn blue. He motions for paper and pen and furiously scribbles something before he dies. The priest proudly hands the paper to the man’s relatives who have been respectfully waiting outside the room. Here are the dying man’s last words! “You’re standing on my oxygen tube.”
In any case, the girl does not want the pacifier, nor to be distracted by a rattle or a stuffed animal. She does take the nipple of a milk bottle pressed against her lips, and she drinks a few ounces, which are not likely to reduce her gas pains.
Just before the train arrives at my stop, the mother pulls a rabbit out of her bag and starts pressing the rabbit’s soft, fuzzy face against her daughter’s face. This does the trick; the girl’s grimace breaks into a smile and her eyes are lit with delight, and the mother, too, is pleased. There was a problem, a solution has been found.
At various points during the trip, bits of social commentary and ethical observations popped into my head. Here is modern life — newborn we want to interact with others, converse with them, and ideally touching and being touched rather than just showing our hands, our fingers. But instead our parents and others put objects (“toys,” they are often called) between us and them. We come into a world of pleasures and pains, and of colors, patterns and movement, light and dark, a world of sensations. But this may seem like our world, alone. For our parents, pediatricians, babysitters and teachers, it is above all a world of problems and solutions. If we do indeed have sensations and find a way to express them, this will help others identify problems, search for solutions. As if for someone who is not quite “me” and who is beginning to feel an unimaginable loneliness. And meanwhile the train arrives at my stop, and I wonder if she will remember in any way that I waved good-bye.
Photograph is from a website for Queen’s Park Dental in British Columbia. The headline of the blog post containing the photograph is “When and how to get rid of your Baby’s Pacifier,” but, nicely, as I was making my way from the Google Images page to this blog post, I arrived at an intermediate page which carried this truncated headline: “When and how to get rid of your baby’. . .“.