I was actually thinking about this yesterday, even before the controversy over the Washington Redskins name and mascot made the Nightly News with Brian Williams. I know I’ve already told you about my recitation addiction, so yesterday I was walking around with Dylan in my arms performing the “Balcony Scene” from Romeo & Juliet: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name, would smell as sweet; So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called retain that dear perfection which he owes without that title.” And it got me thinking about the importance of names and what they have to do with one’s sense of self.
I recalled Maya Angelou’s vehemence that her name was not Mary, from an essay she wrote about the racism of a southern white woman wanting to shorten her name, Margaret (which had already been changed from Marguerite, due to mispronunciation) to Mary, based on a friend’s suggestion for convenience. I thought of the chapter, “My Name,” from The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, and how the main character, Esperanza, explained: “In English my name means hope. In Spanish it means too many letters.” And I cringed at the memory of my own struggle with my name over the years, and how I’ve tried to twist it to represent the version of myself I wanted to be at any given time.
I believe one’s name shapes one’s identity, for better or for worse, and it, therefore, makes the task of naming a child a bit daunting. Before Dylan was born, we planned on naming him after a combination of our grandparents’ names. Because our grandparents all passed long before Josh and I met, we thought it would be a significant way to honor those pivotal forces in our life who still have a way of affecting us after so many years away. If our baby was a girl, she would be either Ramona Mary, or Loretta Cecelia; if he was a boy, he would be Edmund James or Robert Melvin. Personally, I was leaning towards Ramona or Edmund, but we agreed we would make the decision when he/she was born, depending on what the baby looked like to us in the moment.
But then Dylan arrived four weeks early, and we were unprepared in so many ways. The nursery was a mess, Josh and I were both registered to take a two-week graduate course the following week at the U of MN on social justice writing, and we were supposed to attend a friend’s retirement party and the Guthrie Gala that weekend. What’s worse is that if I could have written a what-not-to-do birth plan, this would have been it: after months of prenatal yoga and weeks of hypnobirthing classes, in preparation for a natural water birth, my water broke four weeks early without my realizing it (long story; let’s just say it wasn’t like the movies); then, I had zero signs of labor for two full days before finally calling the midwives because something didn’t feel right. In triage, they told me I was leaking amniotic fluid and would need to be induced right away. I labored for 24 hours before Dylan’s heart rate started to drop and my temperature started to rise, resulting in a cesarean section. It got uglier during the actual delivery and I have written and re-written what happened probably twenty times already, but I can’t quite grasp the fear involved. In the end, I awoke in a quiet recovery room, and Dylan was in the neonatal intensive care unit – not exactly “the moment” I dreamt of when I would hold my baby in my arms and declare his given name. When I finally did get a good look at my baby, through the enclosed, see-through plastic incubator, where he was hooked up to wires and monitors and had a C-PAP delivering air to his lungs, he just didn’t look like an Edmund or a Robert to us. So he remained unnamed for a few hours, while we tried to get some sleep.
Dylan was a name we came back to, as the sun rose on our first day of parenthood and brought with it the realization that our son was a fighter. We talked about the name Dylan early on, because of the three positive influences it reminded us of: the poet, Dylan Thomas, whose bardic voice echoed throughout the Italian villa we stayed at on our honeymoon (our hosts were the most eclectic individuals we’d ever encountered and the memory of the trip serves as one of our best shared experiences to date); the musician, Bob Dylan, whose Minnesota roots and social justice lyrics reflect causes close to our hearts; and a former, beloved student, whom Josh coached and I taught, while he fought a brief and courageous battle with cancer, before ultimately succumbing to the beast in 2010. For us, the name Dylan brings to mind images of strong, passionate, brilliant individuals, and seemed a fitting name to give our son, amid the storm of his surprise arrival.
It was only later that I looked up the meaning of Dylan and learned that it is Old Welsh for “son of the sea,” which brings to mind images of swashbuckling pirates. I don’t know if this will have any impact on him as he grows up. I wonder if it matters that he lives in the land of 10,000 lakes, miles and miles from any coastline. And, while I fully expect him to carve out his own interpretation of himself as he grows into a man, if he ever wonders what’s in a name…? I secretly hope he will find strength in the memory of his namesakes.