For six hours a day, over six months, for the earliest days of your life, you were mine, my little Zaya, and I loved you. Maybe that sounds crazy, because after all, I was just your nineteen-year-old daycare worker, but I swear it is true. I know my skin is ghost pale and yours is coffee with a splash of cream, and I know I am tall with hair cropped short, looking nothing like your parents or other people who loved you, but what did you know about that? You were barely three months old, with lots of straight black hair, and you cried all day when your parents finally left for work.
I watched you cry through a window while I poured milk for the terrible twos in the next room. Your caretakers just wanted you to be quiet, so they left you to “cry it out.” No one had patience for you; they were underpaid, overworked, with not enough hours in the day. Still, I was inexplicably upset by the situation. I tried to figure out why I should be bothered by the fact that a baby I did not know was sad. Surely I should not get involved, others were trying to care for you. Yet, a thought kept pounding in my head: here I am, nothing more than another child who was brushed aside like a nuisance. My first months were spent lying alone, a product of parents afraid of spoiling me. In you, I saw myself, upset and confused, ignored and alone. You were a baby, you were not asking a lot, but what you asked was still too much.
“She wants to be held too often and she won’t be quiet!” Sandra told me the second day.
“Let me go in and try,” I said.
“You might as well. No one else had any luck,” she said distastefully. I was already a little annoyed by the way the others talked about you, as if you were intentionally making their day difficult.
When I walked in, you were still screaming, lying in the baby chair, and Gina looked frazzled.
“It’s time for her to have a bottle, but she won’t take it. She’s barely eaten anything all day.”
As I looked down at you, I felt like you were looking at me expectantly. I smiled at you, and that was the first time in my whole life I experienced the adoring surge of emotion that must be behind that gasp of “oh, aren’t you so cute!” that so many people involuntarily burst out with when they see a baby. “Hi, Zaya,” I said, and you just blinked at me with your tiny brown eyes and went on whimpering.
“Her bottle’s ready if you want to try to give it to her. But don’t be surprised if she won’t take it,” said Gina.
I picked you up and held you close, jiggled you in my arms, and took you and your bottle to the rocking chair. Slowly, we rocked back and forth and you stopped crying and looked at me, and I looked at you. I whispered to you as we rocked, but when I lifted your bottle and tried to get you to latch, you refused.
Gina waved her hand, exasperated. “She’s such a tough baby!”
We rocked, and I tried, and we rocked some more. You did not cry, but still you would not latch. I was not in a hurry, lost in the moment, dazed by the unusual amount of feelings in my head towards this little person I had just met. When you finally took the bottle, I was strangely humbled. I felt as if you were a wild deer coming to eat from my hand. Careful not to spook you, I made no sound as we rocked and you ate. Moments later, Gina saw and cheered quietly, but you paid no attention to her, you were busy looking at me.
This is how I became yours. You would not eat for anyone else, and although you stopped crying all the time, no one but me could get you to sleep. I was your person. When I walked in, you would make excited sounds; if I left, you would be sad.
“She has you wrapped around her finger,” Gina would scold.
Perhaps you did, but Gina did not know, indeed, could not know that what she saw was anything but ordinary. Here was an autistic nineteen-year-old finding a natural bond with another human being. Unprompted, unforeseen, unplanned and without effort, I was reaching for someone in need, one of the only times in my young life that had ever occurred. The amount of empathy that those of us with Asperger’s Syndrome usually demonstrate is often not at normal levels, yet, empathy drove me to you. I could see what others could not. You were not selfish, you were alone, afraid, unable to communicate. Maybe I, though blind to many facets of humanity, was simply not blind when confronted with three feelings I know so well myself.
“How did you get her to take it, anyway?” Gina asked later.
“I don’t know,” I said. I still don’t know. I hope that somehow all of the care that invaded my mind unexpectedly when I saw you made its way through my eyes to yours. You helped that insecure autistic nineteen-year-old find empathy inside herself when she was not sure if there was any to find. Maybe the baby who did not have words yet and the girl who struggled to make herself understood were each who the other needed at the time. I am glad I did not miss the miracle of what was happening the way I often miss the miniature mercies of seemingly mundane moments. I am no longer that person, and I do not know where you are, and I know you won’t remember me, but I will always remember you. After all, for six hours a day, over six months, for the earliest days of your life, you were mine, my little Zaya, and I was yours.