Salvador Dali, “Birth of Man”
“To live in this world, you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.” -Mary Oliver
For this new story I’ve written, I wanted to describe an experience that I’ve never had. One that I write about by relying on pure intuition as a woman. I’ve told a few people what I’m writing about, and they’ve offered to let me know if I’m even close to being right. But this is not a birth story – it’s something more than that (I hope and think!) We’ll see how off the mark I am and if I am in fact laughed out of the room by knowing mothers.
At this point I’m just happy to being putting out new work, even if my pace has slowed.
Feels good, bro. Enjoy!
Anna thought she’d made a mistake. She should have named him Harry, like Harry Houdini, because he keeps pulling a disappearing act. She sleeps hard but not long, and in between she turns her heavy head to where he should be in his hospital bassinet and he is not there. Nurses wheel him in and out and it seems to her that quite a bit must be done to determine that this is a healthy male infant. His feet are blackened and stamped. He is weighed and measured. He was jaundiced and needed extra care under phototherapy light. He’s so new that he could disappear forever and she wouldn’t miss him. She’s dreamt before of giving birth, then of allowing the baby to roll off the changing table or drop from her arms like a burdensome bag of groceries.
Yesterday the temp agency had assigned her to a project at a company 20 miles away. She’d never heard of St. Joseph’s Hospital before she went into labor and was forced to deliver there. The room is not blindingly sterile, but there is also little comfort. Anything not white is made from maple that is a sick, unisex yellow under hospital light. The TV mounted on the wall is too small and the screen too fuzzy. A single brass-framed print on the wall in front of her bed features newborns wearing felt petals in tiny flower pots.
“Can you please remove that picture?” she asks.
The nurse looks at her strangely and says that it’s bolted to the wall and can’t be removed. When she leaves Anna staggers across the room and drapes a blanket over it.
The doctor and nurses thought she was brave and kind. Then the painkillers made her petulant. She remembered reading a book about a woman who ripped open someone’s hand with bare teeth during labor.
The first and only time she holds him she feels a hard kick that overrides all the other unfamiliar pains in her body. It’s a steel-toed boot to the pit of her stomach as she counts his fingers and toes and comes up one short.
It must be a mistake, she thinks. Her drug-addled mind lost count.
She counts again, and again comes up with ten fingers and nine toes. The boot kicks, then grinds its heel as she counts one last time, and finds a pinky toe hiding behind its brother, twisted back but healthy and plump. The nail is no bigger than an apple seed. His body looks primitive, all sprawled limbs and skin the color of volcanic plumes beneath the sea. The color of man’s beginning.
She has been fascinated by her evolution. Where most expectant mothers might spend hours searching for baby monitors and strollers, she spent the time reading about pregnancy in old medical journals, where every mood swing and backache was documented. She comes across early experiments in psychiatry where mothers are given electric shock to cure the Baby Blues. The mothering techniques of isolated Indonesian tribes interest her. She scrolls through newspaper clippings about babies drowned in bathtubs and shaken and smacked. She watches countless birth videos, but fast forwards though the miracle. Viewing the exhausted, numb women in the hours after, she swears she can see the bodies shift, organs reassemble, hormones rush like waves and seize their minds so that they sob and feel little for the life they created. She watches and writes notes. Prints the most interesting studies. Makes wagers with herself about whether she’ll become one of those sobbing women. The change is thrilling and she is her own guinea pig.
She never thought of her body as something that gives. It is hers and hers alone and she has had a hard time with the most basic of intimacies. But she gave this boy life – something he didn’t ask for, and didn’t know he wanted.
There are no flowers next to her bed. She wishes now that she had tried to make friends at the temp agency, so that at least she had a bouquet of daisies and a group-signed card. But she was too proud and found the situation beneath her. Instead she went from job to job, belly swelling with each new gig, most not asking about the pregnancy or asking the basic questions that she was sick of answering. When they asked for a name she created elaborate, multi-hyphenated monstrosities that made them stop talking.
The nurse glares and rocks and coos as she bottle feeds him.
“Sweetie, don’t you want to at least try once?”
“No, I’m fine. I’m really fine. But thank you.”
“I think you’ll regret it later.”
“I don’t think so.”
She spends the time eating vanilla ice cream and lime Jell-O and all the hospital food that people are supposed to hate. But she thinks it’s delicious compared to most meals eaten alone. While flipping through soap operas she used to watch with her mom she is surprised to find the same plots unwinding fifteen years later. The chair next to the bed is where her mom should be sitting, if she knew. It’s warm from noon sun and scratchy and uncomfortable and she’d just have to live with it. It would be nice if she knew, but Anna couldn’t think of one reason to tell her.
He was warm and understanding and had the bred pragmatism of an accountant. They met at one of her first assignments doing backlog filing at a company that made unidentifiable metal parts for machines no one ever saw. He took the pregnancy in stride, ready to embrace a new reality. She refused to believe that he was willing to give up his life for someone he barely knew.
He would have scoffed at her research and swapped the New England Journal of Medicine for What to Expect When You’re Expecting. He would have made her create a registry and buy loose, lacy things that made her look like Lucile Ball in her third trimester. She would have to eat the right food and buy the right things and be the right mother. It was better this way.
When Anna wakes up again the room feels different, like eyes are watching through the walls and waiting for her to stir. The sun in the window means it’s late afternoon, and insurance will only cover a few more hours. As if on cue they walk in, nervous and excited and worried. They look like twins more than husband and wife, and in their many meetings with her they occasionally wore matching track suits. They think she’ll look at that chubby face and shock of red hair and suddenly want to keep him. But she and the baby have a mutual understanding, and he knows it’s all business. They came to an agreement the day she told the one night stand that she had miscarried two days prior.
The bassinet is back. Looking in his eyes she will swear later that he nodded as if to say “It’s time.” The parents talk to her in soft voices and caress her arm and stroke her hair. The nurse who bottle feeds him continues to glare.
She admits to herself that she might enjoy dancing with him in her arms across the living room while listening to Elvis. She’s never been squeamish about changing a diaper or cleaning vomit out of clothing. He’s also very warm and soft, so that might bring her small joys. But she adds it up, subtracts and multiplies, tries to divide her life by two and never gets the right answer. So he’s going to go away to the family that never had a tough equation in the first place – just simple solutions. She is logical to a fault.
The tears are one-way, streaming down the adoptive mother’s eyes with such volume and force that they shoot across Anna’s hospital gown. While they talk she nods and does not speak, smiles when needed, looks concerned then relieved. Then as swiftly as he came into her world he is gone again, capped and bundled and off to a place where his every sound and movement will be treasured. Where his toes will be bitten and kissed. Where someone will relish the smell of his head and hair. Where she’ll be a soft-glow memory without a name.