Waiting for Lily

By Brian Doyle

I am sitting in my childbirth class carefully not watching a film. My wife is watching. I hear her gasp in horror as a French baby splashes out of a Frenchwoman. The Frenchwoman, thanks to the magic of cinema, has had the same baby a thousand times since the film was made in 1971. I take a quick peek between my fingers at the sole moment in the thirty-three-minute film when I do not hear light screaming from the Frenchwoman. As I do so the baby pops out with a wet sound. The doctor pulls gently, with a practiced touch, and holds the baby up to the camera. It's a girl, and we stare at each other for a moment before I cover my eyes again and she blindly gropes for her first meal.

On the way home I think about girls. The French girl in the film is now over twenty, I realize, and has certainly had a little chat with her parents about her early appearance in a skin flick. Chances are that she has a lover, maybe a husband. Puberty arrived years ago. She may be finishing college. She may be working, pregnant, a mother, broken-hearted, stood up, left alone, beautiful, arrogant, gentle, in love, confused, brilliant, or dead. I think of her father, who stood dazedly by his wife, holding her hand, brushing away wet strands of hair from her forehead. He forgot to smile at the camera when his daughter was born, I noticed. The mother grinned, the doctor beamed, the nurses preened, the baby was proffered like a trophy, but the father stood there in a daze, mechanically brushing away strands of hair.

I helped my wife into bed that night, lowering her gently into place, constructing a tower of pillows around her. She fell asleep with unusual speed. In her belly our child was restless, and I watched the undulating skin, the tiny mobile mountains of my child's elbows and feet. I think it is a girl, because so many women tell us it is a boy. If it is a boy, we might name him Joseph, an honest name, a name carved from wood. If it is a girl we may name her Lily, for beauty.

I watch Lily's right foot move across my wife's stomach. It courses from east to west and stops. My wife, who has grown accustomed to her restless tenant, sleeps on. Lily rolls over, her foot rippling back from west to east. I think of her feet. Now they are the size of my thumbs. In ten years they will be shod by sneakers; in twenty years they will be in high heels. I will be fifty-five years old then.

There are many nights, just now before Lily arrives, when I help my wife into bed and then sit in the dark watching mother and daughter. I am having trouble sleeping, and sitting in the dark relaxes me. Sometimes I sit there for a couple of hours. The moon slants through the fir trees in my yard and spangles against the wall.

Lily, I want to say, Lily, I have so many things to tell you I don't know where to start. The world is so sad and so hauntingly beautiful. People are savage and holy, Lily, and nothing will hurt you as much as your lovers and heaven is here in the love of your friends and family. There are many gods and they all have one name, which is Nameless. Your mother and I met late in life and your birth made me cry. I stood there dazed, brushing the wet hair from your mother's face. I love your mother more than I can tell you. Wisdom is in the heart and the heart is cruel. We are only people, poor and fragile. Humor is mercy. Once there was a carpenter who was dragged to the edge of a dusty town and killed; he might actually have been a god. Once my mother found my brother dead. His soul remains in her heart. Touch as many things with your gentle fingers as you can and remember them all because they will pass and they are all holy.

I tell you this so you will know. I like to tell stories. Stories are small prayers. Many things are prayers: floating hawks, unfurled flags, river music, the flash of wrens in a thicket. In some sense, all things pray by being themselves; evil things are empty. One of your grandfathers built a house with his hands and died within the walls he loved so. Once I sat wrapped in the dark and waited for you. There was a moon caught in huge trees. Your mother slept, her face open and innocent, her hair cascading across her forehead. You were rolling in her belly. Your hands wrote runes on her skin. The moon wrote silver words on the wall. I waited for who you would be. We are only people, Lily, poor and fragile people, and we play with evil as with a toy. But within us are worlds without end. I waited my whole life to tell you what I cannot put in words. Once there was a moon and you danced in water and I sat in the dark and thought my heart would burst. Remember me; I held you close when you first entered the world. It was in the autumn, under a lovely silver moon.

Brian Doyle is editor of Portland Magazine, published by the University of Portland. And he is indeed the father of a girl named Lily.