“The Space Between Heartbeats” by Jessica Yen

Once, the baby woke prematurely from a nap, or perhaps she screamed and refused to go down for one, I remember not which, only that I needed a moment to myself and she would not grant me even that. Resentment vaporized any patience that still clung to my bones. By that point, the husband and I—and only the husband and I—had tag-teamed at least seven hundred naps between us, spread over the first one hundred days of COVID. While we tended this endless cycle, other people cultivated sourdough starter. Binged movies for days. Napped twice in an afternoon. Just once, I would not be beholden to the baby’s needs. She would submit.

I stormed into the darkened room. Each stomp mushroomed my fury like a sheet of sun. I flew to her bassinet, then reached in and yanked the baby out.

Perhaps she welcomed my appearance, thinking it portended a play session. Perhaps, swaddled as she was in an oversized muslin blanket, a package more fabric than human, she did not sense the iron in my fingers. Perhaps her gaze held a mixture of surprise and hope and maybe even love.

As soon as I lifted the baby to chest height, I tossed her in the air.

I did not look at her face as she flew. I saw only the harsh vertical of summer blaring in beyond closed blinds. It screamed of canceled playdates with friends. Absent family members. Milestones celebrated with nobody. A pandemic-fueled silence. No reminiscences about the giant smile she proffered right before she blew out her diaper. How her fingers once barely circled your finger. About the day her eyelashes came in, or how her neck grew stronger from one day to the next. No collective had born witness to this new life. Parenting within a community might have helped me make sense of my new reality, my new identity. Instead, these months only partially digested by my psyche, grief and devastation rotting away in a smoldering heap.

The baby rose straight up. Her black hair plumed. That feathery newborn hair, so fine we could fingercomb the wet strands up and out to stand, porcupine-like, for days between baths. A hairdo that would disappear after her first haircut, one of countless phases we would miss as soon as it passed, not understanding how fleeting it could be.

Up she rose. Four, maybe five inches. A gauzy burrito sailing beyond grasp.

In that space between heartbeats, between the baby leaving my hands and reaching the height of her arc, remorse overtook frustration. How could I have become the mother who tossed a baby? I was one infinitesimal step from shaking her.

Friends and family had frequently assured me I’d be a wonderful parent, not understanding the tepid smile I gave in response. They knew only my tremendous reservoir of patience, not how quickly it could drain. It had always been easier to wallow in remorse than to try to change.

Later, after the world stutters through reopening and my world, too, opens up somewhat, I will mention this unpredictable fuse to a fellow parent. He will say, But if you don’t learn to control it and she develops a temper, then you’ll know where she gets it.

I will think immediately of this moment, the baby still suspended, gravity not yet reversing her trajectory, when remorse is a distant second-best. My failure to intervene in the space between heartbeats before anger erupts. The chasm between the parent you are and the parent you hope to be. Bridged only by the beating of her heart as she flies, transmitting what I can only hope is the bah-BOOM, bah-BOOM of unconditional love: more chances, more chances.

Jessica Yen is a Chinese American author who explores the intersection of memory, family, culture, language, identity, and history. Her work has received support from the Oregon Literary Fellowship, Regional Arts and Culture Council, Caldera Arts, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center, and VONA. Her work has appeared in Fourth Genre, Oregon Humanities, and Best American Travel Writing, among others. She is currently working on a memoir. By day, she writes grants and edits academic manuscripts for non-profits, university departments and scholars, and clinics who seek to address health inequities. You can find her online at www.jessicayen.com.


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