Memento Mori

Misty Moon
Human in Pieces
Published in
6 min readAug 9, 2023

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Baby Bug, a week old

Infants are so close to the rawness of what it means to be human. Human, I mean, in the animal sense; a newborn human is human without the ego to hide behind, without the identity-seeking nature of personality or the complexity of higher reasoning to shroud how close we are to being little more than a mound of animated bones, blood, and flesh encased in a fragile skin.
The moment a newborn emerges marks a definitive 'before and after' line in our percpetion of time. The ending of a pregnancy; the birth of a child. The ending of childhood; the beginning of parenthood. The ending of the possibility of a son; the beginning of loving a daughter. Where there was only the idea of life, now there is suddenly a living human, taking up space, breaking its silence. Nothing…. and then, with a wail and a final burst of searing pain, something.
I wonder where the displaced particles of air go when a new life emerges. Do they simply shift closer together? Or push out somewhere in the Universe?
There is something almost eerie, yet pure, about a newborn's lack of self-awareness. It has literally no sense of self; it sleeps and eats and cries solely on instinct. And then one day it catches sight of its hands, a spark of understanding is born - this is me - and that peculiar, eerie purity begins to fade away.
It is interesting; even lacking self-awareness, a newborn can still feel fear. Its first whimper at encountering the harsh, cold air even seconds out of the womb is the result of an instinctual fear of the unknown. We are born into the reality that the world can be a scary place. But fear, as we know, is the opposite of love (even as it serves its role in our sense of self-preservation) - if we are born able to fear, we are also born able to love.

Humans are among the most fragile newborns in the animal kingdom. They have giant heads in proportion to the rest of their body, muscles that can’t hold that head up, extremely delicate digestive systems, frail and spindley arms and legs that can do little more than wave about feebly, a creepy hole in the bones of its as-yet unfused skull, and skin that seems just a little too loose for its frame. Heat rashes, milk rashes, and diaper rashes develop with alarming ease. And while almost all mammals are capable of fending for themselves within a year of birth - often much, much sooner - humans are still learning to walk at one year of age.
Our skin becomes tougher as we age. The more sun beatdowns our skin takes, the more scrapes and bruises and chemicals it endures - the more armor our skin develops to protect itself. This is why our elbows and knees and especially the bottoms of our feet are tough while the insides of our forearms and thighs are softer. The bottoms of a newborn’s feet are just as soft and unguarded as the rest of its skin.
With self-awareness comes the realization that armor is needed. The two month-old infant discovering its hands for the first time will realize how much protection those hands need the first time they grasp something hot. The two-year old crying because a toy broke will one day understand that sometimes you can’t cry, even if you feel like it.
The rubbery, bulb-headed, bird-legged newborn has none of that kind of armor, either.

There seems to be two extremes of people when it comes to babies - those who really want to hold one and those who really don’t. I suspect this sharp divide has a lot to do with babies' fragility; there is a lot more variance and ambivalence among people about holding or interacting with toddlers. Very few people are ambivalent toward newborns.
The newborn’s fragility, its newness of life - and, by extension, proximity to non-life - remind us in a very deep way of our own fragility. It stirs the "lizard brain" in us, the part that operates by feeling and intuition, without words or logic or scientific reasoning. The part of the brain that we relied on to keep us alive when we were born.
The way we respond to the newborn’s frailness, I believe, is a reflection of the way we feel about our own fragility, of the helpless newborn still imprinted on our psyches, of how easy it is to snuff the life out of our bodies even decades later. Those who instinctively want to hold babies, to smell their milky scent and feel the velvety softness of their skin, feel that same protective instinct toward themselves, perhaps. Toward the newborn within themselves.
Those who adamantly do not want to hold babies, who often have trouble even looking at them, do not want to look at their own fragility.
We all wear armor, every day. Our entire persona is, in some sense, an armor - some are tougher than others to penetrate. Some carry more layers of armor than others, and they don’t always realize how much it weighs them down. And somewhere underneath all those layers of armor, there is a thin-skinned, weak, newborn human whose response to both fear and love is based solely on emotion, intuition, and instinct.

When my first child, Dusty, was born, the advice given to me about how to raise a baby included "Let him cry it out." So I did; not for hours on end, but for maybe 30 or 45 minutes. Because when you put a baby down for bed, the thinking went, it needs to understand that this is its bedtime. It will cry itself to sleep soon enough. So he wasn't allowed to sleep in our bed past one month of age; and almost every night until he was over a year old, he cried a whole lot.
When tiny month-old Dusty was put in his cradle at bedtime, he was tightly swaddled. But a swaddling blanket in an empty bed is not an adequate substitute for lying under the blanket, his defenseless body curled in mommy's arm, surrounded by the smell of milk and the rhythmic sounds of breathing and heartbeat. The womb-like environment is familiar and comforting. Lying alone in the silence, understanding in an instinctive way that he can do nothing to protect himself, terrified him.
At 12, Dusty has a nasty streak of unhealthy narcissism that reminds me far too much of his father. I would not call him a full-blown narcissist, but he can be apallingly unfeeling about other people sometimes - much more than you would expect from your average 12-year-old boy. My ex-husband did the same thing. I think of that streak of narcissism as a "family heriloom", the Amulet.
It was my mother-in-law who advocated the "Let him cry it out" method. Sometimes I wonder if the Amulet was not, in fact, passed down by the fathers in that family, but by the mothers.

A newborn infant may be too close to non-existence for some. I think some people may not fear Death in the way that you often think - they are not afraid of the process of dying, but they fear the fact of simply not being here anymore, the space that they used to occupy left empty in their absence. And maybe not so much the physical space, but the emotional space, in other people’s hearts and minds.
After Death, they may truly no longer exist if no one remembers them.
Yet every time we look at a newborn, we are seeing a creature just on this side of non-existence. We are seeing ourselves, in the deepest center of our psyches, the self that we carry all that armor around to protect. We are seeing the innocence that we no longer have, replaced by thick scars stretched across our hearts. Perhaps some are seeing the hope, the will to survive and thrive, that they no longer have either.
Maybe those who don’t want to hold a baby know that that newborn, like them, will one day discover that the mere fact of existence is sometimes agonizing. They can’t bring themselves to see it happen again.

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Misty Moon
Human in Pieces

Writer, survivor, fledgling activist. Misty is the narrator inside my head. Buy me a coffee at https://www.buymeacoffee.com/mistymoon