Birth and Death in the Bathtub

When I was pregnant with my second daughter, I used to take a lot of baths with my first. We would sit in our little tub facing one another. Maya, a few months shy of three, would grunt unselfconsciously as she pushed the top of the soap dispenser down and covered her palm in lavender-scented gel. She’d rub her little hands together and then all over my giant belly. Sometimes she’d talk to her baby sister inside, “Hi Interstella! We can’t wait to meet you.”

Stella, as she came to be known, did come. And time passed in a blur of sweetness and shit. On a recent night I saw Maya in the bath and decided to hop in. I realized it had been almost three years since I’d done that. There’s no room for three bodies in our little tub. Life feels fuller. I don’t spend as much time soaking in the suds or the moments as I wish I did. 

After a little potion concocting and mermaid swimming Maya said, “Momma, you know what I don’t like about watching movies like Coco and Up? When you watch them lose the people you love, you start thinking about what would happen if the people you love died. I don’t want you and Daddy to die until you really, really, really want to.”

I have these parenting moments, I’m not sure if this is how other people experience them, where it feels like I am suddenly outside of myself, the mundane nature of raising a human suspended and some other quality of time and space created. This observer self is watching and listening and saying, “This is it. This is it. This is sacred life happening. Don’t sleep on it.”

I said to her, “I get that. That’s kind of why people make art, love. It’s a way of feeling how much we love our people.” 

And then after a little pause, “And the other thing you learn from those movies is that if you were to lose someone, which I don’t think you will, but if you were to, you would be okay.” 

“Yeah,” she said and went back to making potions in old Talenti ice cream containers. 

And just like that, the moment was over. Except I can’t stop thinking about it. At just shy of six, it feels like she tapped into something really important about why we tell stories—to remember how dear we are to one another, to rehearse our own loss. I think of myself closing Paul Kalanithi’s gorgeous book, When Breath Becomes Air, and ugly crying as I looked over at my husband sleeping on an airplane. Moments earlier I had no doubt been tallying all the minutiae of parenting that I was holding in my brain and that he was not; the memoir catapulted me into a different paradigm. Screw the dentist appointments and the floss on top of the trashcan. He’s my guy—flesh and blood and never promised.

And now Maya knew that feeling. Or at least a 5-year-old version of it—bathtub philosophy. Something so nascent and pure that it still assumed some measure of control over death—like her dad and I would one day look at one another, ancient and gray, and say, “You think it’s time?” 

And the other would nod and say, “Yeah, let’s do this.” 

As a teenager I used to joke with my own parents that they should Thelma and Louise it in my dad’s first car, which he still owns, a mint green and bright yellow ’55 Chevy convertible. I still think that’s kind of a good idea, even as I want every aching moment with them these days, too. Maya basks in their attention. The pleasure she takes in their presence reminds me of how I feel when I get out of a cold pool and lay down on a hot sidewalk, feeling the sun disappear my goose bumps. Their gaze seems to melt away her discomfort in a world constantly asking her to put her shoes on faster or stop writing her letters backwards. 

Which I suppose calls the question: is it ever possible to really, really want to die when we have people we love here on earth? 

I hope that I will one day be at peace with leaving her and her sister, leaving my sweet man, leaving the hot sidewalk and the smell of coffee and all the great movies I never saw. (And of course I pray like hell I will have the privilege of leaving them rather than being left by them.) But I’m pretty sure that’s an elusive kind of peace. It’s a peace of wise people with great luck.