As part of the FtB Mother’s Day Anthology, here is a science fiction flash story, “Tradition.” Also, it’s a day late, because of technical difficulties…. Anyhow, I hope you had a good May 9th, however you chose to spend the day.
by T.D. Walker
As soon as the baby arrives, she can breathe in that deep hollow way she couldn’t for the last few months. So there’s that breath.
And then the baby’s first breath, first cries. He’s cleaned, medicated, diapered, and wrapped in a soft blanket that the nurses remove when they lay him in her arms. Predictable, neat, orderly.
Her husband grins, red-faced, breathless. The same as last time. Almost. This time, his graying hair sticks to his forehead. Wrinkles trellis his eyes. Hers too. She passed her fortieth birthday years ago. They spent the last weeks of her pregnancy planning his fiftieth.
They: she, her husband, and their twelve-year-old daughter. Their daughter, that’s new, isn’t it? Now their daughter waits beneath the holodome her tablet casts around her. She watches videos while clutching her grandmother’s hand in one hand, clutching the teddy bear she loved to the point of needing repair in the other. The bear was a gift from her now-gone grandfather. The bear will be a gift for the new baby. So there’s that.
She snuggles the rooting baby. This moment. So many that will come: the first steps, first words, first day of school. Soon, she’ll have his newborn pictures done, and she’ll send out the announcements. And then the thank you notes for all the little traditional soft gifts he’ll receive–the blankets, wraps, and hats–though the house can keep the tiny space the baby occupies at a steady 74 degrees.
And later, they’ll see the baby’s traits in one family member or another. Her dark hair, her husband’s gray eyes. Her mother’s ears, her late father’s high forehead. Just as they had done for their daughter. Just as her parents had done for her.
But it wasn’t the same, not entirely. Not the pregnancy. Elderly multigravida, her chart said. Elderly. Strange word. The odd, happy looks from family and friends. The confused look from their daughter who didn’t believe her mother could get pregnant again. Or should.
She did the quick calculation after the positive pregnancy test–there was another custom–she’ll be 49 when the baby starts kindergarten, 62 when he graduates. Will there be enough time? Her husband will be 54, 67. Will that leave them enough time?
They were healthy. The doctors said that again and again: if they conceived so late, they were healthy. Could look forward to long lives. More traditions: those milestone birthdays and anniversaries. Retirement parties. Long days of leisure in their empty nest. Grandchildren. Their daughter, inspired by her brother’s imminent arrival, announced the name of her years-off future child, the same name for a boy or a girl. So not grandchildren, but a grandchild. Their daughter knows. Their daughter understands.
Their daughter, who’ll be 34 when her brother graduates from college. When he’ll be shipped off planet. First children are for Earth, later children for the stars. Something noble in that, all that exploration, isn’t there? There were no laws, just the tradition of it. The cryosleep, decades and decades of it, before they reach wherever it was they aim for. Her son will be 22, she’ll be 66, her husband 71. Not so old.
Not so old that the memory of him will diminish too soon. She knows parents who eagerly and at such young ages had second and third children, only so see their daughters and sons shipped off. No laws, just a binding to tradition. Those many long decades of wondering. Where will their children wake? When will their children wake? And the terrible thought they all return to, whether their children wake?
No, she won’t think about it. No, not now, not during these precious first moments. She watches her son sleepily pull away from her, sink back into her arms. That first sated nap. So much could have gone wrong, but it didn’t. Here is this perfect baby, perfect in spite of his parents’ advanced age.
She’ll have all the time she needs to give him; they’ll have time, together, as a family. Her age, it gives her perspective, doesn’t it? Makes her more grounded. She won’t repeat the mistakes she made with her daughter. She’s calmer now, more sure of herself. This is just how it goes with second children, isn’t it? She’ll be better at capturing and cherishing those traditional moments this time. Her age won’t stop her from that. Months ago, someone asked if she regretted waiting so long to have her second child. As if she won’t have time to give to her son. She has time. She finds herself saying that again and again. She has time. She and her husband both. What she couldn’t say then, what she doesn’t want to say now is that she has the time to give him here on Earth. But after he leaves, how long then? How long will she pause on the balcony of her flat, looking up, unable to see the stars but knowing him among their presence?
He’ll wake. He’ll wake wherever, whenever he arrives. They’ll all be long gone then, won’t they? She and her husband, their daughter, their grandchild. He’ll have to make his own traditions then, he and all the other young people he wakes with. They’ll manage some new welcome on opening their eyes again, breathing in the world they’ve come to, fragile, uncertain, but so wonderfully full of possibility.