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Jewish World Review June 7, 2002 / 27 Sivan 5762

Bill Tammeus

Bill Tammeus
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Life rebukes death's power | No doubt it's somewhat narcissistic to say so, but one of my favorite photographs of me was taken when I was about a year old. Maybe 18 months.

I'm seated on a wooden bench. I'm wearing shorts. Their built-in suspenders stretch over a T-shirt. At the hem of my shorts, my diaper is visible. I'm laughing hard. (Why? Who knows?) You can see my few teeth. My eyes are bright and excited.

What I am in this mid-1940s picture is pure possibility. Oh, my genetic code has been fixed, of course. Inevitably, I will grow tall like my father and like his father before him. I will inherit my mother's poor eyesight. But as to what I will do with my future, that is open.

In this time between Mother's Day and Father's Day, I've been thinking, for many reasons, about babies. I've been struck by how they arrive with their futures so unclear and yet so hopeful, how they are thrust into the rude air astonished, how they know nothing of what went before them.

Their open future is, I think, part of why we smile at almost every baby we see, why we are so drawn to them. Indeed, we are wont to be overly sentimental about them in the mode of American novelist Larry Barretto, who, in The Indiscreet Years, called babies "bits of stardust blown from the hand of G-d."

Still, I've been thinking about how the very existence of infants says something momentous and irreversible about their parents, who once were infants, too, once toddlers, once adolescents. Those parents now have made choices about their own futures, and so they have foreclosed other possibilities once accessible to them.

And I have been thinking about the relatives of babies, the siblings and parents and grandparents, and how nothing will ever be the same for any of them with the arrival of this profound miracle.

Mostly I've been thinking about how a baby is a pure squealing shout about the very value of life itself, how babies show up as proof that the power of life is always ready to challenge and rebuke the power of death.

One of the several reasons all this has been so relentlessly on my mind is a recent joyful birth in my family.

Late last summer, just two days before he left on a business trip, one of my nephews learned his wife was pregnant with their second child. They were elated. He was told this news on a Sunday.

The next Tuesday my nephew boarded American Airlines Flight No. 11 in Boston for a business trip to Los Angeles. As all the world knows by now, Flight 11 was the first plane to be hijacked that day and slammed into the World Trade Center.

My nephew's appalling death meant that the tiny boy in his wife's womb would never meet his father. The grief over the loss of my nephew and the implications for the unborn baby were simply overwhelming. But life's insistence on continuing - even when confronted by disaster - has brought my nephew's baby into the world now, a healthy 9-pound child who has his loving mother and his 2-year-old brother to care for him.

This handsome baby is one of several children born to mothers who lost their husbands in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Each child is a gift. Each had nothing to do with the circumstances surrounding his or her birth. Each is a hopeful shout into the abyss. That shout says life intends to dispute death's inevitability on every front.

Each day children are born in a vast variety of circumstances. Some land in luxury, some in disheartening poverty. Some are longed for, some at least a little unwelcome.

Whatever the situation, each baby represents a fresh and nervy beginning, a biological bundle of possibilities, a new journey whose destination cannot be known.

Some babies - especially those born to royalty and aristocracy - have definite expectations placed upon them. It's an unfair burden. All of us will do our best not to do that to little Parker.

Yet, inevitably, we all understand that his welcome birth in some sense represents a reproach of the evil men who murdered his daddy. Merely by being born, he has condemned their madness.

I sing his advent.

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JWR contributor Bill Tammeus' latest book is "A Gift of Meaning." To order it, please click on title. To comment on his column, please click here.

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Reprinted by permission, The Kansas City Star, Copyright 2002. All rights reserved