A baby’s first touch—so foreign and yet so familiar—taught  Life Lessons Essay Contest second runner-up, Molly Fessler, the meaning of love.

By Molly Fessler
Jay Blakesberg/Getty Images

“How did you meet me?”

It is 5 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon. The summer sun is hazy, string beans are losing their veins to the sink in preparation for a patio dinner. The question, posed from a little voice at my navel, its owner having wedged his head between my T-shirt and the countertop, requires attention.

“Hey, Sammy.” I turn off the faucet, wipe my hands on a towel, and ruffle his hair. I briefly consider stalling, waiting for Mom to reappear in the room or for Dad to come home. There is probably some guidebook or an advice column I should read before broaching this topic. I imagine the politically correct gorges and linguistic minefields to avoid. Visualize Sam and me perched atop a paper sailboat, attempting to navigate the Sea of Very Wrong and Bad Answers to This Question.

And yet, he asked me. I think I have to answer him.

“Want to help me with dinner?” I set Sam up on a stool next to me and show him how to pull the thread from the bean, hoping to hold his attention long enough to formulate a response. If being the eldest of eight kids has taught me anything, it’s that sometimes the big sister has to forge through moderately uncharted territory—flu shots, middle school, curfew—often without the help of a map.

How did you meet me?

Well, I turned 13 in July 2005. Over an angel-food cake sprinkled with raspberries, I wished for a few things.

1. Removal of braces.
2. A chest.
3. A boyfriend.
(I assumed that, with the aid of one and two, three would readily follow.)

The subsequent months brought the fulfillment of none of these desires. I remained in heavy orthodontia, with a flat chest, still single, and as bitter as an eighth grader could be. I sought that same degree of glitter, of special, as so many preteen girls do, and it seemed as if in cosmic retribution for my shallowness, my parents decided to fulfill a wish I speculate no 13-year-old has ever whispered into her tear-stained pillow.

They were going to have another baby.

Correction: They were going to have two babies.

Further annotation: They were going to adopt these babies. (Pause for effect.) From Guatemala.

I suppose my objections could be categorized in a word: numerous. The noise, the smell, the cost, the age of my parents—I had a plethora of self-indulgent complaints that fell on deaf ears. In the next year, one flurried with social workers, background checks, and paperwork, I kept up my litany of protests. Sometimes silently, sometimes in the medium of sigh or eye roll, all the while keeping hidden the truest source of my anguish.

As anyone could have easily discerned from the embarrassingly candid diary entries I made that year, I wasn’t truly concerned that my parents would be too old to attend kindergarten roundup without the aid of walkers. I didn’t even really mind having two new siblings. Sure, I hemmed and hawed, but the reality was that I knew how to be with kids and enjoyed them. The new nursery was far from my own room, so I wouldn’t be woken by shrieks in the night. I could burp an infant, change a diaper, and test the bathwater with the back of my wrist.

So what was the problem?

In my flower-patterned spiral notebook (after a long commentary on the undesirability of AAA cup bras), I wrote, “What if I can’t love them, because they’re different?”

Shortly after my 14th birthday, my parents, my siblings, and I set out for Guatemala City to meet Sam and Maria. On a Saturday morning, room-service debris still scattered across the room, my parents went to the hotel lobby to receive the babies from the agency. We kids watched cartoons in Spanish. We didn’t speak.

Half an hour later, there was a knock on the door. My sister, Isabelle, then five, hurtled toward it, stepping back in disappointment when my father’s figure appeared, hunched with the uncomfortable clutch of diapers and bottles. And then my mother’s frame filled the doorway, a baby in each swing of her arm, two swaths of pink and yellow against the white of her cardigan. Isabelle gasped, and the rest of our family moved forward, oddly hushed, curious.

I alone stood back, a camera hanging limp from my hands, drifting backward into anxiety. It’s different, they’re different, we’re different, I can’t. Moments passed and my dad took the baby girl, leaving Mom to approach me, yellow bundle held out.

I shook my head. “It’s fine. I can wait,” I said.

She ignored this, stepped closer, necessitating the lift of my arms, completing the scoop and letting the baby come to rest, nuzzled close to my body. As I lifted back the yellow fold of flannel, I glimpsed a small brown face, with cheeks round and eyelashes long, falling over to meet the lids. My fingertips grazed the back of his hand, and Sam’s fist opened, pulling my thumb into his grasp.

A disclaimer: I am not a mother, nor an aunt. At 19 years of age, I cannot even declare myself to be anyone’s seriously significant other.

Who I am is this: I’m a sister. I’m the eldest sister. I am one who has been given the privilege, the honor, immense with responsibility, spun with consequence, of loving seven beings more than myself. Two of them were not born of my mother, they don’t share an ounce of my genetic code, and their hair is a much better color than mine, but I look at them and can’t see where they end and I begin.

New parents and old will speak of that moment, that heartbeat when son met mom, when a daughter made a dad. Two bodies that snuggled together and transcended themselves. They, however, expected that click, that zip of fabric, that snap of puzzle. When that baby boy was pressed into my arms, I expected disconnection. Alienation.

Instead, I knew. In the life that occurred before that moment, I’d been less. I’d been something other than myself. But now, everything had changed. Who I was, what I had, and all the intrinsic awkwardness of not understanding or fitting into myself disappeared. Perhaps I had a funny shape. Maybe my ears were too big for my face. It was true, that on more than one occasion, the rubber bands intended to correct my overbite had snapped and sprayed my dining companions with chunks of fruit cocktail. But that didn’t matter anymore. Because this, this baby right here? This was the truest part of myself.

“What do you think?” Mom brought her hand to touch the end of Sam’s nose.

“I think…” I rocked gently, lifting my right foot, then the left, sliding my hand to cover his, the Guatemala City sky brightening through the window, tossing light over Sam, this baby, our baby. “I love him.”

“Mollyyyy…” Sam says. And the time for stalling has ended, abruptly.

I take a deep breath. One shot. Let’s hope I’m not responsible for psychologically scarring my sibling.

“You know,” I say, snapping a bean and looking down at him, “technically I met you in Guatemala a couple of weeks after you were born. But really, buddy, I’ve always kind of known you.”

He frowns, brown eyes serious, brow furrowed in a concentration deeper than that of the most astute philosopher, and I wonder if I’ve blundered. If I’ve just answered in a way that would be sure to draw fire from the adoption blogs, pamphlets, and family-friendly language guides. I thump the vegetable I’m holding against the ceramic of the salad bowl. What have I done?

Ohhhh…” Sam says, a glow of comprehension warming his eyes. “Because I’m your brother? Right? So that’s because how come you knew me?”

Maybe it wasn’t technically the “thing to say” or the “by-the-book” response. I smile at him, and say, “Yep. That’s exactly it.” Somehow I found the right answer after all. And there, as the sun slips further into the horizon, we stand at the counter together, snapping in quiet. Big sister, little brother.

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