With the recent arrival of our third daughter, Erin Rae, I am reminded once again of those many wonders that attend a newborn. For months, we focused on a "due date," a faintly ominous term suggesting less-than-joyful obligations such as bills and term papers. But in an instant, what's "due" is paid in full, and the operative term becomes "arrival" as we celebrate this welcome guest.
In her, we recognize her mother's eyes and mouth, her father's torso and his straight, dark hair. Less recognizable, less - dare I say it? - human are these noises she emits.
In her poem "Morning Song," Sylvia Plath refers to the "handful of notes" her newborn child produces. What notes? What song? It's true that Erin flexes her face like a diva doing warm-ups. Her lips form perfect, impossibly round "o's." Rare lusty squalls set her epiglottis quivering.
So where are her arias? Her coos and consonants? My lovely daughter seems completely human but in this. She grunts, she pants, she mews and chirps. Like an alien, she beeps. She squeaks and belches in a burble I suppose she learned from her original neighbors.
IT isn't that I find these sounds distasteful. What father would? Erin's arsenal of noises sets me thinking. A veteran parent, I no longer lurch Pavlovian at every infant sound. Less anxious, I have leisure to consider.
What does science have to say about locution evolution? Maybe babies, language-wise, begin as cats and fishes. Maybe there's some secret unborn-baby school that tutors newborns in these weird and entertaining cadences. Maybe some deep aural river links all species in a common chain.
One night years back, I woke to hear a baby crying through my open window. My apartment building sat beside a church. When I heard that eerie wail, I conjured up an image of a foundling in a basket. Rushing out into the night, I probed the church's shrubbery. What relief to find a squalling cat!
These nights, cat squalls lead me straight to Erin's cradle. I pick her up and hold her close. Adjusting to this strange new audience, my own voice undergoes a metamorphosis, humming wordless melodies, crooning in a pitch and timbre that my colleagues at the office wouldn't recognize as mine.
Words can wait. For this first year, newly alert to Erin's ur-inflections, burp and murmur's nuance, I feel the heady pleasures of the bilingual, the sublingual. I get to deconstruct the once-familiar father tongue into an infant argot, stretching to new syllables.
For these few months, my daughter and I get to discourse joyfully in grunt and chirp, meeting one another in this private patois, this affectionate duet.