The day that we brought my son George Chaim into the world through an emergency c-section because my placenta was deteriorating, he was thirty-seven weeks old, and it was the 18th of January on the Western calendar. But while my husband was driving us over icy roads to reach the hospital and while we waited five long and worrisome hours for the c-section because I’d eaten a bowl of oatmeal early that morning to get my baby kicking, I held onto the reality that it was not only January 18th but also the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat.
Tu B’shevat is the day that we remember that in the depths of winter, spring is coming; it’s the day that the Kabbalists call us to partake in glasses of wine moving from shades of winter white to full reds, reminding us that the seasons are always moving, turning. I remembered their vision of branches reaching down to us here on earth, stretching from the heavens. In those hours of uncertainty about my child’s arrival, I held onto those mystical branches and prayed. Our son entered the world and was rushed away, his lungs weren’t ready to breathe on their own yet; his blood sugar had also dropped too low, a complication that can happen with moms who have Type 1 diabetes like me, even though I’d worked for nine months to keep my blood sugars in the control range. When I asked the NICU doctor later why he thought George had hypoglycemia despite my control, he looked at me kindly but shrugged his shoulders. “Shit happens,” he said, not meanly, but matter-of-factly.
I nodded in agreement with his understanding of the universe. Shit and leaves and compost and mud and life and death turning over together in endless circles; this cyclical understanding speaks to the depths of what we honor on Tu B’Shevat. Similarly, my Buddhist husband often points to the symbol of the lotus, the beautiful flower that can only grow in mud, as a symbol of strength. In the first ten days of George’s life, we became new parents together in the NICU, taking turns holding our baby, feeding him from the bottle, and co-regulating to his heartbeat while he napped on our chests. Day by day, his lungs developed just fine, and his blood sugar stabilized, and we went home on a bright, cold winter day, overcome with love, gratitude and faith.
This year, we celebrated George’s twentieth birthday on January 18th, but I also experience Tu B’Shevat as an anniversary each year: a recognition of the day that has held me, like a tree itself, through parenting challenges related to my son’s developmental trajectory that I didn’t anticipate.
George was a bright, smiling baby who became a playful toddler. Like many parents of children with autism, we saw concerning signs later, between ages two and three years old: he wasn’t speaking, his interests became limited, he started having intense tantrums and reactions to sensory input, even the music that plays in the background at a grocery store. George was diagnosed with autism at age three and a half, and our parenting lives changed as we tried to absorb what that diagnosis would mean for him and for our family. Later in elementary school, he would also be diagnosed with an intellectual disability, giving us more information about what kind of educational setting he needed then and also a sense of what supports he would likely need for the rest of his life. My husband and I realized how little we knew about the world of intellectual disability and profound autism, and immersed ourselves in learning so that we could become the best advocates for our child.
Even more importantly, we realized that while a diagnosis was helpful information, the most important thing was and is to connect with our son on an intuitive level, to honor the depth and beauty of his soul.
When I pick up prescriptions for George now, fill out social security forms, and visit the doctor’s office, I state that his birthday is January 18th, 2003, and of course, that is what the records show.
But when I remember bringing George to the earth, I think of Tu B’Shevat as his birthday and how from the very beginning of becoming a parent, I’ve felt those divine branches reaching down to hold and guide me.
Over the last twenty years, my parenting journey has contained incredible joys, discovery, heartbreak, challenges, and the deepest connections between my son and me, and also between me and whatever that mystical connection is, that upside-down tree that sustains us while we’re here on the earth.
In twenty years of parenting George Chaim, I also have grown like a tree. The gift of my son came to me on the 15th day of Shevat, and each year, I celebrate that.