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It’s completely possible to exist for others before we even exist for ourselves.
In a way, this is obvious. For instance, my mother and grandmother have memories of me as an infant, memories of which I am a major part but yet I can’t remember at all.
My grandma, several times, has recalled the first time she held me, and how I looked right into her eyes “as though (I) were thinking.” In contrast, one of my mom’s favorite stories involves a time I threw up in her mouth.
If it weren’t for other people’s memories, I would have no idea that I was alive, existing, staring and vomiting before age 3 or so, when I clearly remember using the potty. I suppose my basic knowledge of biology and counting would lead me to believe I was not born a toddler, endlessly wanting to ride my Big Wheels, and that I had, in fact, been born at age 0, cleverly moving onto age 1 and age 2 before consciousness finally settled in at age 3. But I have no first-hand, experiential evidence.
Clearly, I existed before “I” was there.
Now that my husband and I are expecting our first child – due July 2, less than three months to go! – I’ve gained an even broader perspective on existence. My daughter most definitely exists, despite living in a space about the size of a volleyball and being attached to me by a cord.
She exists every time she rolls over, hiccups or pokes my belly with her feet and fingers.
She exists when my back hurts, when I take my heartburn medicine, when I get short of breath walking up stairs, when I get into funny positions trying to get out of bed or put on my shoes, and when I eat three lunches in one day. She exists when I burp.
She exists when I fold and refold the little pink outfits we’ve picked out for her and when I see the car seat in the rearview mirror of our new car, a vehicle we purchased specifically for her because our current truck has no backseat and therefore nowhere safe for her to ride.
She exists when my husband and I talk about names. We like Annabel, Rosabel, Amelia, Nina. We can’t really decide because although she exists, we haven’t actually met her. We’ve never seen her face.
As luxurious as it will be to hold her in something besides my swollen uterus, there’s something extraordinarily essential about seeing another human’s face. She will exist more, somehow, once we see the shape of her cheeks, the way her lips move, her first expressions – her physical collection of cues as to who she is.
We already love her and will do anything for her. But we also acknowledge that right now she’s not so much a person as a cross between a second stomach and a pen-pal. Only once she’s born will she be herself. But, of course, even then only to us, her grandparents, our friends and everyone else but her.
At least that’s how imagine it was for me. I picture my infant self completely focused on meeting my most glaring needs: food, comfort, warmth.
But I was also learning all the time. Before long, my entire brain was saturated with new information – new landscapes, new sounds and tastes, new movements, new pleasures, new sufferings and new methods for getting my mother’s attention.
And eventually, I learned how to think.
Thinking is different from observing and accepting. It requires taking what is outside of one’s self and bringing it in – not like bringing a spoonful of applesauce into one’s mouth, where it starts the complicated process of becoming energy, but rather taking information about the applesauce (maybe that it can be used to make Cheerios stick together), keeping it and using it again.
Because kept information has already been processed once, and is no longer new, it can inspire a person to look for a new way to view it – in other words, to think – even 30 years later.
I am almost certainly wrong. Babies might very well have rich inner lives from the moment of birth, maybe too rich to remember, too dazzling.
Maybe they exist to themselves immediately, and it’s other people who fail to exist for them, except maybe as dreamy images, odd, moving shapes that occasionally fulfill their desires.
Or maybe existence only truly begins when a person realizes he or she exists in a world where other people’s infinitely and uniquely detailed realities are completely different from his or her own, yet equally poignant.
In any case, I can’t wait to meet my baby, who exists and yet doesn’t, whoever she is.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part two of a “Six Monkeys” installment that ran April 1.
E-mail Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org.