I stood in the Goodwill parking lot on the Highland Strip, across the street from the college bars. Music billowed out with the cigarette smoke as kids my age pushed and pulled their way into and out of the darkness. I smoothed the pale blue dress across my torso, imagining the cells blooming inside of me. The dress was an extra extra large tent-like thing, taken from the left-behind-pile at the dry cleaner where I worked. I arched my back and stretched the fabric across the convex curve of my belly.
I don’t know why I was standing there. Perhaps I was stalking, waiting to be stumbled upon. Waiting for one of the boys to come and claim me, to take responsibility. I was standing there, and it seems to me that it was cool, late spring.
But my chronology about this whole time in my life is fucked up. When I look back, I don’t know what happened first, what thing led to or came from the other. I’d waited a long time to become a woman, to know men. And then off to the races. I’d run out of the starting gate like that mechanical rabbit would feed me if only I could catch it.
And then I was in the emergency room. In the waiting area of the grimy public hospital, the hospital for the indigent and shattered. My father’s friend, an older man, a Christian, having pity on me in my state, sat beside me. I don’t remember the labor beginning, or how it was that I came to be in this place with my father’s friend. He prayed for me, but I kept my eyes open, could not bow my head, could not say amen. So be it.
I could not lower myself fully onto the chair. I could not let my legs stick to the ripped black vinyl upholstery. I did not want to let the blood go, fearing what it would take with it.
The nurses nodded toward the chairs every time I went to ask how long? as if they’d seen a million girls pushing a million dead babies into the world, into this dark room. I was afraid to push them, afraid of being shuffled to the bottom of the pile of files. So, I waited my turn.
When my turn came, I’d already finished.
They spread the white paper across the brown vinyl table. I tried to stay on the paper, away from the blood that was on the floor, on the garbage can, on the step I took to crawl up. They spread my legs and nodded, reaching inside of me, confirming what I already knew. I was empty.
I lay there with tears dripping, as quietly as I could; afraid to ask for reprieve from my sins, afraid to ask for relief from my consequences.
The room was filled with people. People in addition to the nurses and doctors. A party bopped around like this was something easy, something not deserving of solemnity, reverence. All watching my sister push her second child into the world. At twenty-two, she had two. At twenty-nine, I had none.
This baby was born blue.
I sat at the foot of the gurney and wondered why no one else seemed to notice that the baby was dead. The nurses scurried around, each with a task that made them not see her. The party filmed and laughed, patted each other on the back as if they’d done something. As if, by their universal virility, they had done something here with my sister.
The blue baby had black, black hair and lots of it. Her face was screwed up in a scowl as if a scream were trying to escape from the black gulf of her throat. The room was cold. I looked at my fingertips. They were blue as well.
My sister’s red face popped up from her pillow as she pulled her knees toward her chest. She grunted and howled, her hair a wet halo against the starched white pillow. I could not move, but waited for her eyes to open and see the blue baby slithering into the world. She did not look.
They held a mirror between her legs and she looked. She reached down to touch the head which had paused in the entryway, the exit. Wow, wow, wow. She said it over and over, an ohm, a birthing chant.
The baby finally screamed, and took a deep breath. The baby punched at the air as she lay on her mother’s stomach.
I stood as the nurse carried the baby’s pinking and squalling body to the scale. I reached for her, and touched the tip of the swaddled form as they lay her in the crook of my sister’s arm – out of my arms’ reach.
They lopped off the ends of my fallopian tubes, over and over until there was no point in keeping the scraps anymore. The ovaries were pocked with cysts and covered in webs of scars. Blood ran for years without pause. Two more babies exited dead.
I gave up, resigned, and had them take it all away.
In the ward they wrapped my legs with pressure cuffs and gave me the morphine button. I pushed on a timer – every ten minutes. I willed myself to be relieved, to feel emancipated, to no avail. They said to walk, walk it off, like what you tell a kid on the playground who’s been punched in the stomach. I walked and wept and watched my lover try to reach me, to keep up with the sorrow, to sweep it away.
Consolation cards came with casseroles and insufficient comfort. I was in a place unreachable by platitudes and promises of better days. The good aunt, the cheerful sitter, the unperturbed marriage – such prognostications are the luxury of the full.
The priest said to my friends, Father, name your child. I wept onto my lap, holding the keen in my throat, keeping my silence. We bowed our heads as the parents passed, down the aisle, the font behind them. And then we stopped going at all, too many overflowing cradles, too much predestination.
Time does not heal the want.
When I first heard that she’d come into the world, she was already six weeks old. Already sliced and diced, already neglected. She was sick, they told us. She was broken, they said. They offered her to us as if they had the right to broker her. It was all hypothetical, all horror.
We stood in our kitchen, on opposite sides of the silver table, four hundred miles away from her, looking at each other. I with longing, he with reserve. I wanted a baby. He didn’t. Neither want nor lack of want mattered. She belonged to someone else.
I saw her first at nine months, crawling on the filthy floor, dragging her feeding tube behind her. Dragging it through the dog hair, against the flea filled carpet. I saw the green mucous crusting her unfiltered trach. I saw her mouth stretch wide in a silent howl. I saw her red hair, thin and patchy like a chemo patient’s, her skinny legs, her distended tummy. And I saw her mother’s dispassion, disconnection. It was everything I could do to not reach out, grab her, and run.
When we got in the car, I told him that this, this baby, was my baby.
Another year, another phone call, standing in the same place, the silver table reflecting our faces. He looks at me and mouths, it’s the baby. I see the switch in him, instant, firm. He is a father now. I know, that moment, like I knew from the very first moment. My baby is coming home.
We have five weeks between the phone call and the arrival. A short gestation. We walk around in a daze, pregnant with fear and sorrow and joy, not sure where to go first, what to do. We read about the causes, the missteps, the brokenness, the system. We learn new words, forget old dreams. Adjust to the coming.
People are happy for us. They throw thoughtful showers for us, and thoughtless phrases at us. Jewels in your crowns. She’s lucky to have you. Things happen for a reason. Meant to be. Meant to be? People tell me that; I sometimes think it. But that would mean her suffering was meant to be, engineered. That can’t be, isn’t, true. My suffering, the availability of my home and heart to her, not meant to be. I don’t buy it.
I think about the first mother, my husband’s sister, young and numb, like I was once. I gin up compassion like a white lie. I look so hard at the facts that have been laid out before me in the documents. Highlighted in yellow. Arrived at school with wet feet in forty-degree weather . . . child found lying in a pool of vomit, choking, alarms ringing, door closed . . . social worker called to spend the night in ICU because mother’s first day of school is tomorrow. How does one forgive?
I lie awake most nights, watching her breathe, waiting for her to stop. And when I sleep, I labor. Pain beats at my insides from my mind? from my own sense of loss? the scars of my un-birthed babies crying for their new sister? And when I wake again, my breasts tingle from the phantom suckling, ache for the baby to be nourished from my body. I examine my sheets for the blood, the placenta, the water. The sheets are immaculate.
I want to hear the word mama, but she is silent, eyes averted, tentative. It’s too soon, but I am impatient. We trip over the event horizon and into a black hole, a tiny spot of receding space. Sorrow and anger are sublimated by the need to move, move, move. We are making up for lost time. We are trying to restore what she never had in the first place. We try to replace what should have always been hers, but never was.
I check her feeding tube; fill the bag with putrid-smelling formula. I hold her tight to my breast as she vomits up every bit of life that I can imagine she holds inside of her. I wrestle against her swatting hands, touching her where she cannot bear to be touched. I hold her down, slide the trach out of its puckered hole. Her mouth stretches open, gasping for air, the instinct that has no satisfaction. Her eyes widen as I slide the fresh one in. I give her back her breath.