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Life with George
At age 75, i find myself with a baby in my arms, six months old. The baby is my grandson, and also my foster child, having been put in our care three days after his birth. There were problems. And we had once been foster parents. So we got the kid. The parents—my son and his girlfriend—are sorting out their lives, and we hope they will be able to take over one day soon.
When the child is five, I will be 80. A great challenge is simply lifting him from bed to chair when in the morning I give him his bottle. My wife, God be thanked, does night duty, and I, retired from the Boston College faculty since 2008, get George every morning while she sleeps in. Later his mother, who lives in a shelter, arrives and takes over for six hours; she leaves, the father arrives and takes over. But basically we have George.
I fear for this child with two aging grandparents, a mother who has Huntington’s disease, and a father who loves the child but will one day be alone with him. We didn’t put out George for adoption. One of my own children and two other grandchildren are adopted; adoption is a good thing. We have no defense. And in any event his mother would not hear of it, nor, finally, would my son.
So George is surrounded by four loving adults who keep showing up in shifts. It is an idyllic situation for George, and, if it is fragile, I can only pray for him.
Holding George in my arms is an experience that seems brand new. I held my four children in my arms but cannot remember. My theory is that parents are too involved, too invested, too concerned, too upset, too viscerally united with their infant children to be able to see them clearly. But a grandfather—so my theory goes—is detached. I combine detachment and adoration. I see what I’m adoring, this creature, this being who has popped into existence and into my arms for a while. Maximum attachment and maximum detachment.
The joy that George greets me with in the morning is—what shall I say?—unfathomable? Or gas? The poet Blake’s career was inspired by George’s look in the morning: “What shall I call thee? / ‘I happy am, / Joy is my name.’ / Sweet joy befall thee!”
Do I adore George? His mother is Jewish, poor, unmarried, without a home, so draw your own conclusions. I would have no problem standing with the Magi and worshipping the baby Jesus if he was like George. Totally incarnate, totally embodied. At the Presentation, Simeon, looking for the Messiah, took Mary’s child into his arms and said something like: This is it. If that baby looked like George, I can understand. I will try to explain what is adorable about George.
The eyes for one thing. They look, and look, and look. And they sometimes look at me. The eyes are dark pools. They are utterly personal, observing, benevolent, waiting, curious to know but already knowing. I suppose that my pet-loving friends might say the same about their dogs. I have no problem with this. The animal world, like the baby world, contains hidden depths. The wisdom in the dog and the wisdom in the baby are not to be despised. Still the pools in George’s eyes are human pools. And they are complicated by a diagnosis of mild ocular albinism, a deficiency of pigment, and by nystagmus, a condition manifest in uncontrolled eye movement. Thus George blinks in bright light and his eyes roll back and forth. This all means that George may be legally blind. Legal blindness does not mean utter blackness, but visual limitation. I can only hope for electronic reading devices as well as computer-driven cars in George’s future. We have already ordered glasses for George, Baby Einstein. George is quiet, they say, because of his eyes; he is listening hard.
Of course, there are many other parts of George, the Winston Churchill head, the long arms and legs, the endless kicking, the hands that grab your fingers with amazing firmness and then for no reason let go. I change George. He seems quite happy about that part of his body, and naturally, as though he couldn’t imagine why he should feel otherwise. It’s a basic democratic insight to realize we were all babies and are liable to become so again.
George’s look is such that he seems to know all this. Nothing seems to surprise him. If he’s not Jesus, he’s a sort of Buddha. George has begun to focus more and seems to see me. Indeed when I come somehow within his range of vision, he gives a smile of recognition and jerks and stabs and wants to be picked up. When he smiles, he kills me, as Holden Caulfield would say.
The saint speaks of mystical union with God that is apparently utterly fulfilling. I can’t speak about union with God, but when George joins to me with his eyes, the effect is unbearable. He beholds you. T. S. Eliot said that human kind cannot bear very much reality. What one can’t bear in the case of George is joy, joy in George’s looking at me, and me looking at George. Who is this creature that sits in my lap and dazzles?
George needs to be entertained almost constantly and frankly can be a damned nuisance. But if you can situate him in a zone of contentment, you have struck gold. My son and I wheel his carriage through the neighborhood or down to the town library. He loves the motion, and his eyes travel over our faces or wander the shadows of the trees or the dim shapes of clouds. At the library he stares and stares at a shelf of books as though seeing riches. He takes it all in. He looks upon all things and sees that they are good. He is the baby of Genesis, the apple of God’s eye, the babe who rides the storm in Blake and Shakespeare.
At the eye doctor’s office, he stood in my lap and kept his arms stretched out toward a bank of optical dials, his hands twitching, like the trees in Tolkien. “I have not seen such an avid child,” the doctor said. Earlier, the nurse, responding to George’s fake smile, had said: “He’s a flirt.” George promises to be a presence.
My wife wanted us to take George to a Taizé service, an ersatz Catholic mixture of music and silence. Silence! My early version of hell was being stuck with my children in church for all eternity. But George was pretty good. At one point, they took a large board painting of the Crucifixion and laid it down on blocks of wood, so worshippers could gather beside it. One of George’s achievements recently has been to stand on his wobbly legs and hold himself up by our coffee table, before tumbling back into the darkness of our waiting arms. So I took George and planted him in front of the icon, where he played with its edgings and smeared the feet of Jesus. The congregation quietly gasped.
His mother named him George after her beloved Jewish grandfather who raised her as I am raising George. I am writing a book on Shakespeare and Catholicism, and look forward to dedicating it: To George. A good strong Protestant name for an ecumenical era, King George, St. George, George Washington, Prince George. George can do all things, he just doesn’t feel like it yet. He is pre-everything. He bodes but abides, as Gerard Manley Hopkins might say.
Is George a spiritual being? I remember that St. Thomas Aquinas had some impressive things to say about angels. But this angel is so concrete, so utterly embodied, full body to the max, and yet somehow more impressive than any angel I can imagine. This thing, this person, this emanating superstar, drool and all. Spitting up, but trailing clouds of glory.
I am amazed by the play of expression across his face. Now I know where actors and actresses get their ability to move from mood to mood with the merest facial ripple. From George. It’s been there from the beginning, the incessant infinite dynamism of response to the world. George is no slouch.
When I picked up George from his aunt who gave us a weekend break, I could see vividly the blindness in his eyes, a vacancy that broke my heart. I reassured my son then, and believe, that this will be a mark of George’s genius, a handicap that will be the condition of his saving the world. It is heartbreaking, nevertheless. Now George’s expression reminds me of the Pietà, and that paradoxical condition of ineffable joy and utter woe that Michelangelo managed to put into the face of Mary. When my son expressed worry about what his son might achieve, I looked at George, his brow darkening, as though he feared he might disappoint his father, a woe unutterable.
Human life, George reminds me, is fragile; such is the condition of the miracle. In George is the whole spectrum of a child fully happy in his home in the arms of his parents and a child washed up on a beach in the Syrian holocaust. I don’t know how we can encompass both extremes. God expects too much. And yet in the face of it, there is George. Intrusively, insistently, wondrously there.
George. Such negligible immensity. A god we pick up like Queequeg’s idol and throw in a corner. It is funny how much there is in the world. There’s George and everything else. Just because there is George, shall there be no cakes and ale? I put George down at my peril, I pick him up at my peril. He is a source of life and we can take or leave it. Choose life, the Bible says.
We chose George, though it wasn’t much of a choice. He was just there, and what else can you do? All of my life’s old age aches and pains have risen up in the face of George: bad hip, bad knee, anemia, arthritis. We limp around the house. Carrying George is increasingly like carrying a bag of bowling balls. When Aunt Maureen took George for that weekend, my wife and I behaved like teenagers and went wild. We watched television. But mostly where George goes, we go. Where we go, George goes. When will George begin to diverge? When he walks? When he goes to school? When he . . . ? But this is lost in darkness. When George goes to college, I will be 93. I may have joined my friends under the ground. I don’t know where I will be or what, and don’t know what will happen to George. He is early destined for tragedy, because three of his caregivers, his mother, his grandmother, and his grandfather, will die sometime in his early years; and I only hope my son can be mother, grandmother, and grandfather to him. Farewell George. Hello George. Life is a beautiful thing.
OK, George, sprinkle eyes, I am done with you. Go your way.
My friends don’t know whether to pity or envy me. But they gather round George like planets around a sun. I had planned some late years of leisure and travel. All gone.
Instead, there is George.
Dennis Taylor joined the English department faculty in 1971 and retired in 2008 as a full professor. He is the co-editor, with David Beauregard, of Shakespeare and the Culture of Christianity in Early Modern England (2003) and the author of several books on the poetry and language of Thomas Hardy.
Read more by Dennis Taylor