My first grandchild is due any day now. Waiting to be a grandparent is different to the expectancy of parenthood: a keener anticipation of joy and wonder, a fuller understanding of the fleeting nature of childhood.
My granddaughter, a tiny speck only nine months ago, has spent her new life inside the comfort and safety of her mother’s womb, growing every day, first new organs and limbs, then eyelashes and fingernails and tastebuds. We have watched her progress from the outside, through scans, measurements, blood tests. Life is miraculous when viewed through a microscope. The chance of success is so slim, the possibility of failure so great.
It all began with a sperm and an egg, their collision resulting in the creation of a single-cell organism, a zygote. Too small to be seen by the naked eye, yet already encased by a protective covering, zona pellucida, containing 46 unique chromosomes – the entire genetic blueprint of a new individual. The first cell division occurred only 24 hours after fertilisation: two became four; four became eight. A hormone prevented the mother’s immune system from rejecting the embryo, a crucial step in the “attachment phase” six days later. About half of all embryos fail to implant successfully in the uterine wall. They die, often without the mother realising she is pregnant. A 50 per cent chance of life: the first major hurdle.
In the first week, the embryo shapeshifted into a complex organism of more than 100 cells, including stem cells, which grew into the more than 200 different cell types in her small body. At four weeks, she was the size of a poppy seed. At five-plus weeks, her heart was beating. By eight weeks she looked less like a tadpole and more like a baby. All this before we even knew of her existence.
My daughter and her partner are equal parts excited and anxious – about the birth, about everything that comes afterwards. I am anxious for them, for all that being a parent entails. I hold my own secret hopes and dreams for this child, my own fears, not only for her as an individual, but for the world into which she is born. I hope that she is born without incident or injury, that she has the strength and resilience to cope with adversity. I hope she lives a life of kindness, empathy and loyalty. I hope she finds friendship with those she loves, and knows love for her friends, and develops compassion for those she finds difficult. I hope that she has a curiosity and respect for other cultures, that she engages others with dignity and courage, and that she treads lightly on her journey through the world.
I think of the technological advances that will occur in her lifetime, the forward strides in health and science and medicine. She will probably live to see the turn of the next century. She may see a woman on Mars, or a cloned man. She will communicate in extraordinary ways. Perhaps she will interact with people who are not human. Perhaps she will see a cure for cancer, a solution for world hunger, a brokering of international peace. Perhaps she will live in a time that is so different from my life now that I cannot even conceive of it.
All of this to come, and yet it is a miracle she has even got this far. Her mother almost didn’t survive. After a 66-hour labour in a Japanese midwife clinic with no medical facilities and no pain relief, my daughter emerged tiny and blue while I haemorrhaged.
My husband thought he might lose her. Or me. Or both of us. But now she carries her own child, a baby with coffee-coloured skin, the child of a proud black Zimbabwean man. A child who will grow up knowing that the colour of your skin is far less important than the rhythm of the heart that beats in your chest.
My last surviving grandparent died in December last year, aged 110. Her legacy is more than a hundred descendants spread around the globe. I wonder about the life this new child will live, the children and grandchildren she may produce, the legacy of creativity or kindness she may leave. Wrapped up in our own existence, we sometimes forget that our mortality is limited, that our lives are minuscule drops in the ocean of history. Here and then gone in the blink of an eye. Every single atom used and reused through the passage of time, once a piece of space dust then a dinosaur’s tooth, a frangipani flower then a water droplet, a precious element then a child’s tear. Each body remade every seven years. Over and over, the same matter of a human cell configured into a trillion constellations.
My grandmother gone, my granddaughter soon to be born. The circle of life.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 26, 2018 as "Attachment phase". Subscribe here.