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facts & arguments

DANIEL FISHEL/The Globe and Mail

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I love babies.

I love their smell, the softness of their skin, their wide, wondering eyes and the way their little hands grasp my finger.

Most of all, I love their clear, gentle, trusting energy. They are beautiful little bundles of love.

When I had more time than I do now, I was one of very few men among many women of a certain age working as a volunteer baby cuddler in the neonatal intensive-care unit at our local hospital. For two hours a week, after washing and gowning myself as if preparing to perform surgery, I would do my best to provide warmth, comfort and gentle touch to these tiniest of human beings as they struggled to gain a firm foothold on life.

I will never know what, if any, difference my efforts made to them, but I will always be grateful for the peace and joy that they gave me. When I have more time in the future, I hope to do it again.

Recently, a couple I know had a baby – a beautiful, healthy, happy little girl. Along with my wife, I had occasion recently to be at two social functions at which this couple, new baby in tow, were present. In both instances, the baby was a big hit among those gathered. People of all ages, children to grandparents, wanted to see the baby, touch the baby and, most of all, hold the baby.

As the baby was passed from one person to the next, someone asked me if I had held the baby yet, and told all those within earshot that I am something of an expert, given my baby-cuddling experience – not to mention the fact that I am father to two now-grown daughters.

I did not want to hold the baby, even though she is lovely in every way and I was, indeed, tempted.

I felt the pull of desire to be enveloped in serene baby energy. But there was something about it that just didn't feel right to me. Had someone thrust the baby into my arms, I am sure I would have accepted her with gratitude. I did not, however, move to the places where the baby was, and her random, circuitous route through the crowd did not bring her into my vicinity.

Driving home after the second of these functions, I suddenly remembered a time when, as a much younger man, I had a good friend who was a dentist. Through him, I had met several other dentists, all nice people, and I often found myself at parties at dentists' houses with several other dentists and their spouses and friends.

Occasionally, at these parties, a tank of nitrous oxide – laughing gas – would appear. The tank would be passed around from person to person, and upon receiving it one would cradle it in his or her arms in a manner very reminiscent of the way you would hold a baby. With one hand gripping the valve handle and lips pressed to the outlet, the person in possession of the tank would suck in the pure nitrous oxide and drift away into a blissful fog.

When inhaled, laughing gas produces a most euphoric feeling. Once a person had the tank within his or her control, they did not want to give it up. Were it not for the fact that we didn't bother with the equipment normally used to mix oxygen with the laughing gas, it may well have taken physical force to instigate the passing of the tank. As it was, all one had to do was wait for hypoxia to render the person breathing from the tank incapable of holding onto it any longer.

It is true that at the recent gatherings, neither physical force nor self-induced hypoxia was necessary to get one person to pass the baby on to the next. Nevertheless, there was something disturbingly familiar to me about the way people seemed to clamour for their opportunity to partake in the holding of the baby, and the subtle but palpable tension between those thusly engaged and those hoping for their turn.

It seemed to me that the baby was being asked by more people than she had likely ever seen at one time or in one place not only to share herself over and over again, but also to absorb whatever energies, odours and microbes may have been emanating from her handlers.

I know well the high that can come from holding a baby. In that moment driving home, I was reminded of the greedy, grasping desire to hang onto the nitrous tank to the point of unconsciousness.

Babies are not tanks of nitrous oxide, and I can't help but wonder how they feel as they are being passed from person to person, often stranger to stranger, as each in turn – every one as well meaning, I am sure, as I was when volunteering in the neonatal word – gets their fix.

Perhaps the experience of being passed around among nice people gathered in a convivial social setting is good for a baby. Maybe it builds character or leads to superior social skills later in life.

But I can't help think about those tanks of nitrous oxide and wonder what they might say if they could feel and speak.

D. Philip Cameron lives in Regina.