Nikhil was born on the morning after the winter solstice, calm and open-eyed. He gave one clear, sharp cry at the moment of birth, perhaps only to get oxygen into his lungs, then fell silent right away. After giving him to Andrew and to me to hold, the midwives counseled a much-needed rest all round, and put him next to my bed in an enclosed, temperature-controlled, space-age bassinet called “the Baby Cadillac,” where he lay awake and at peace, looking up at the gently diffused light of day (for Mount Auburn Hospital was enlightened about childbirth, and made sure that the babies didn’t come into the world under glaring artificial lights).
Somehow I had got it into my head that I wanted to leave the hospital as soon as possible, so after our little nap all the things hospitals like to do with new mothers and babies had to be taken care of very quickly. A doctor had come in earlier and given him an Apgar test, I remember—hardly necessary since he was born bright red all over, but it was our only contact with a doctor, since our midwives had attended the actual birth. As we prepared for our long drive out to snowy Winchendon (for there had been a storm the night before), I was terrified to dress the baby for fear of damaging his tiny limbs, so my mother and Eve did it instead, putting on layer after layer, starting with a soft cotton undershirt that had belonged to Andrew a generation before and topping them all off with a hooded snowsuit. But first the hospital staff had to make sure that I was properly instructed in the basics of caring for a newborn at home. They must have given me both printed and verbal advice, but I was in a daze and don’t remember much of it, except that I was to look out for signs of jaundice and he wasn’t to get dehydrated. Then the nurse set about demonstrating what was considered an essential task: swaddling the baby.
Swaddling is an ancient practice based on the assumption that babies feel snug and secure when they are confined as they were in the womb. It involves winding strips of cloth round them or bundling them tightly in a blanket like a well-wrapped parcel. As the efficient nurse set out to impart this skill to me, she laid out a soft flannel receiving blanket diagonally on the bed and placed Nikhil upon it, ready for the demonstration. He lay there quite still as she began.
“First,” she said, “you fold one side in, just so”: and she proceeded to pin the baby’s arm expertly to his side. In the next instant, the as-yet-unnamed Nikhil flipped his arm back up and outward, with a strength and decisiveness astounding in one so recently out in the world. Surprised but undaunted, the good nurse pressed on, leaving his little arm free for the time being. “Next, you fold up the bottom over his legs, like so.” So far, so good, as “Baby Boy M_” (as the hospital had labeled him since we were waiting for my father to bring some baby names back from India), suffered his lower body to be wrapped without complaint. “Now comes the third move: folding in the other side to complete the triangle.” She pulled the right-hand edge of the blanket smartly and swiftly across the baby, and prepared to tuck it snugly into place. But she reckoned without this newborn’s reflexes. Without a murmur of protest or a moment’s hesitation, he flipped his second arm back out, before his well-meaning captor had time to secure it.
Efficient though she was, the nurse knew when to accept defeat gracefully. “Clearly,” she said, “this little one doesn’t want to be swaddled.” And, after completing the wrapping job with his arms free, she proceeded to instruct me in other essentials of baby care. Eve and Mum finished dressing Nikhil to face the outside world for the first time, but just before they released us from the hospital, they took him from me one last time and returned him in a large red corduroy stocking, with his little head just sticking out over the top: my best Christmas present ever.
Sure enough, however snugly he was bundled up, Nikhil would always have to have his arms free. I knew when he was completely relaxed, because he would sleep with them flung up over his head in utter abandon. Every morning first thing upon waking, this tiny person would stretch out completely from head to toe, arms reaching up above his head, legs straight and strong, feet together, toes pointing outward.
In the end, my father brought two books of names back from India and I stayed up all night poring over them until one seemed to fit perfectly. Nikhil means ‘complete(d),’ ‘whole’—sampurna in Sanskrit—and I envision in him the free and balanced movement of both arms reaching up overhead and flowing gracefully back down to the sides, completing full circles, ever-renewed.