My world has changed. Three and half weeks ago I sat with my barely born daughter clutched to my chest and wept tears of joy, relief and awe at the gift that had somehow been delivered safely to our care. While my wife was in recovery I was led to a nursing room and directed to a chair under a heat lamp where I was told to wait until mother and child could be reunited.
And so I sat, dazed and amazed, with this little life force in my arms that was partly me and partly my wife and I supposed, partly something uniquely her. Two and half hours passed while I shushed and becalmed her. I cuddled her, snuggled her, and loved her. My tears flowed freely as months of fear and anxiety were released. My unspoken dread of losing her in utero was finally being expressed in a purge of quiet sobs, each cycle of tears reminding me of how high the stakes had felt. Each cycle allowing me the opportunity to say thank you, thank you, thank you. I am not a person of faith so I wasn’t thanking God but rather Life itself, or the universe, or my wife for carrying and nourishing her and keeping her safe on her journey to ‘the great outdoors’. One of the first things I saw that morning when I looked out the hospital window was the Australian flag, hoisted high and flapping in a strong breeze. So I thanked Australia too because it is the country which had given me both my wife and our daughter.
And between the thanks there was singing. My wife is training to be a music therapist and during the pregnancy she liked the idea of us each having a song that we would sing daily to the expanding belly so the baby could become accustomed to our voices. My wife’s song was an Aboriginal folk song that she had encountered on her music therapy travels, the melody of which had really appealed to her. I hummed and hawed for ages over my choice, considering several traditional Irish songs but ruling them out because of their tendency to have seventy-eight verses of miserable lyrics about either British occupation or lost love. In the end I plumped for Pure Imagination, a quirky and slightly elusive ballad from the 1971 movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as sung by the inscrutable and compelling Gene Wilder. Choosing it was almost accidental, an afterthought query, a ‘what about…?’ moment. I found the melody difficult to grasp and had effectively abandoned it when my wife tired of my prevarication and insisted I sit down and sing it to her midriff. I started haltingly but the song gradually emerged and the tune was fully intact. And it felt right.
We recorded me singing it and my wife would then play it on her phone throughout the pregnancy when I wasn’t around to sing it in the flesh. But in the nursing room for those two and half hours as our baby girl nuzzled into my chest I sang it again and again and was fascinated to see her appear to respond with a slight tilt of her head (no finger clicks or harmonies) before settling down again.
The song opens with the invitation ‘Come with me and you’ll be in a world of pure imagination. Take a look and you’ll see into your imagination.’ It occurred me to how much a child of the imagination I had been, endlessly retreating into fantasy worlds of the mind, role playing and acting out with and without toys, with and without inspiration from books, TV, comics and movies. I also recalled how drawn I was as a little boy to two very distinctive red-haired funnymen – Gene Wilder and Danny Kaye. Perhaps it was my nascent performer’s ego and vanity that made me think I, a grinning redhead full of play and song and endless pratfalls and gurning, was not merely a kindred spirit but a direct descendant, ready to be the keeper of the flame. The comedy flame, the performance flame, the Walter Mitty flame. The more I thought about it, the more I concluded that the song had chosen me, not the other way around. Imagination is the gateway to possibility and I had no problem singing that to my daughter – also from the song – ‘there is no life I know to compare with pure imagination. Living there, you’ll be free if you truly wish to be’
I sang quietly and tremulously, not wanting to share the song with anyone but her and singing not as performance but as pure communication, as if asking “can you hear me? I’m singing to you. Can you feel me breathing with you? Can you hear me offering you my love, my care, my protection? Can you hear me asking you to share this life with me, with us?” As I sat and sang and wept and smiled a surreal delirium of joy and prophecy flitted across my brain as I saw her life unfolding from baby to little girl to adolescent to young woman to mother but always as daughter and I found myself overflowing with hopes and dreams for her happiness and safe passage through whatever life might put in her path. What follows is what I thought.
“I hope first and foremost that our love for you helps you find a way to love yourself. To love yourself compassionately, not egotistically. To value and approve of yourself as a good person, deserving of life’s opportunities and capable of facing its challenges.
I hope you get the best of us and don’t judge us too harshly for our frailties and blind spots. I hope we earn your trust and respect and that we are people you will be happy to come to for help but are unafraid to disagree with. I hope you will feel safe with us to express yourself honestly and fearlessly.
I hope you are untrammelled in ambition and self-belief but that will you have the resolution to face failure with honesty and dignity and recover with renewed appetite for growth so that your victories and successes will be all the sweeter.
I hope your compassion and empathy for the world you live in and the people around you is tempered by laughter and gaiety and dancing. If you are like me you will be a serious clown. If you are like your mother you will light up every room you walk into.
I hope you are a strong, independent woman who smacks down the merest hint of sexism and feels no need to submit to any dance dictated by archaic codes of patriarchal exclusivity. I hope you pursue a life that is tethered to your intellectual and emotional convictions. I hope you are fulfilled, satisfied and respected.
I will always think you are beautiful but I hope when you look at yourself that your own assessment of your beauty is not limited to the narrow confines of toxic popular media and photo-shopped, airbrushed paradigms of femininity. See health. See strength. See power. See self-worth. See you.
I hope we give you every chance to be the best you you can be. I hope we prove that we deserve you. I hope we make you proud of where you came from.
I hope love comes easily to you. The giving and receiving of it.
Be happy. Be safe. Be brilliant. Be loved. Be loved. Beloved, beautiful, baby girl. We love you.”
There are no certainties. No absolutes. Everything is unknown. All we can offer is hope and the possibility of happiness. We can place her hand on the door handle of life and quote Pure Imagination –
‘if you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it. Anything you want to, do it. Want to change the world? There’s nothing to it.’