A family recipe, a childhood memory, a Depression-era handout
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I read a Mary Oliver poem to my wife’s stomach, and she gets agitated. She doesn’t understand why I have to say the word death to the baby, even in the context of a poem. It hasn’t occurred to me that the baby doesn’t know about death; she’s the one who’s pulled herself out of the maw of nothingness and into existence over the last few months. If any of us know about death, it’s her.
Five weeks into the pregnancy we have to put the cat down. Her lungs are full of fluid. The vet gives us as much time as we need, but sometimes the body does not allow for ceremony. Before we can say goodbye, the cat’s catheter blows, and she spends her last moments pacing the room, gasping. For weeks afterward I keep seeing her open mouth, the strange pink curl of her tongue. At night I think I feel the feather weight of her paws at the foot of the bed. We hear creaks we’d always attributed to her, but it’s just the house settling. We realize that the distance between here and not here is razor thin.
The whole first trimester we are haunted by dead and dying animals: Two dead squirrels by the side of the house, one half eaten. A baby possum belly up against the back fence. At an outdoor concert we watch a boy’s pet snake vomit up a whole rat. The boy picks up the rat with a napkin and deposits it in the trash can next to us. I see a raccoon in the neighbor’s yard one morning, lying on its side as if its legs have stopped working, pawing at the air with its small black hands. Worst of all are the birds. We find their bodies in the yard, in the driveway. Never have we seen so many dead birds. At work one day I step into someone’s office to ask a question and something slams against the window like a fist. I lean my forehead against the glass and see the tiny bulb of a body on the ground, legs twisted, wings folded wrong. When I get home, I tell my wife, and her eyes widen. A bird flew into the living-room window this morning, she says. We spend a long time trying to reconstruct our days, tracing time back to the moment the birds hit, as if it means something that two birds might have hit the windows we happened to be standing next to at the same time.
On the night when the sperm burrowed into the egg in a lab a hundred miles away, my wife and I took the dogs for a walk. It was late September, which often whips us back into the heat of midsummer. Even in the dark the air felt infused with sweat. There were no sidewalks, so we walked down the middle of the street. It wasn’t raining, but above us an electrical storm bloomed. We watched the lightning jump from cloud to cloud, illuminating the sky with veins of light. I couldn’t help but wonder whether the cells that would become the baby knew that there was no womb around them. Blood memory is no measurable thing. Who can say how it forms, whether encoded within her biology is the knowledge that she began separate from us.
Early on my wife sometimes corrects me when I say baby. Embryo, she says. Then, Fetus. But other times she says baby, too, and we let our minds curl around the idea of a whole person. The disbelief comes in streaks. Even when we hear the hoofbeat gallop of her heart, we can’t quite accept that it is within our power to conjure up a new life.
To get ready for all the baby gear, we clean out the house, pulling everything from the closets and then questioning how each item came to be in our possession. I find a collection of cassette tapes with my wife’s name on them. My car still has a tape deck, so I listen to them on my commute to work. It’s my wife at seven years old reading books. Between pages she makes up commercials for things sitting next to her. Sometimes she chats like she’s talking to a pet. I hear her lean in close to the microphone, as if she’s considering what it would be like to put it in her mouth. What happens to these old versions of ourselves? Are they gone, or do we hold them inside of us like a set of nesting dolls? At the end of the tape, my wife as a seven-year-old puts her lips against the microphone and thanks me for being such a great audience. The tape clicks and then restarts, and here is my wife once again introducing herself to me. Maybe this is all we can do in this life: send these arrows of ourselves shooting into the sky and hope we get to see them come down.
The baby doesn’t kick for a whole day. My wife mentions this casually because we both know fear spreads like fire. Even though I feel a rush of worry, I match her calm. It’s like being in the clutches of some great bird as it lifts us toward the treetops. The life we’ve created begins to flatten and recede from view. An hour later, as we ready ourselves for bed, my wife jolts. She kicked, she says, and she presses her palm against her stomach. We are released from the bird’s claws. Together we drop back to earth. Somehow that little flicker of movement has saved us from a lifetime of grief.
At night we do yoga. I watch my wife spread her arms out long. As women we’ve been told all our lives that our bodies are liabilities. Though I’ve been suspicious of this untruth for many years, this is the first time I understand the gravity of it. My wife gathers herself and plants her feet. Inside her a life blooms; inside her the whole history of humankind roots itself into the soft flesh of her organs. Even though I, too, have a body capable of carrying a child, I feel a rush of awe so stark it borders on terror. Watching my wife, I have finally found the key to the map. I understand why men have spent millennia constructing systems to strip the power from this body: Look how she pulls her spine up to the sky. Look how effortlessly she strings herself between the ordinary and the divine.
I feel the baby kick, like someone playing the other side of a drum. The movements are sharp and sure of themselves. The baby is reminding us that her life is not just some story we’re telling each other. She’s in there, curled in the darkness that is not yet darkness, because how can there be darkness before there is light? She tumbles against the edges of her world, rubbing against my wife’s ribs, her bladder. Do you know it’s a body that contains you? I think as I press my palms against the globe of my wife’s stomach. For weeks I am fixated on what the baby knows. Then we see her finding her own feet on an ultrasound, and I think that maybe the unknowing is what keeps her reaching out into the warm murk again and again, only to discover, every time, parts of herself.
The pandemic arrives in the third trimester. Like death itself, it starts far away, some abstraction that exists only in a foreign landscape. Then suddenly it is here, invisible and everywhere. It’s easy at first to feel guilt, as if it would be a failure to bring a child into this mess of sickness and fear. But isn’t that the world, like some great ship crashing through the waves, each time bucking people into the water? Sometimes it feels cruel to pull a new person into this carousel of grief, but then I feel the kick and swim of her limbs, the somersault of her whole body, and I remember that nothing can exist without the specter of loss. Not even her.
The world has been torn open, and we know that in two more months ours will tear open again. We are wedged in between realities, stuck in no-man’s-land. We can look back at what we’ve lost, and we can look forward at what’s coming, but when we try to focus our gaze on the present, we get an unsettling sensation, like we are about to come out of a dream. We spend long, languid days watching home-improvement shows, as if that’s all we can stand: strangers with sledgehammers tearing down what they have in the hopes of building something better.
We expect the days to speed up as we get closer to the due date, but the opposite happens. My wife’s body gives itself over to the baby. Her feet swell. Her hips shift in their sockets. Her lungs are so compressed, she can’t take a full breath. At night she migrates between our bed and the couch, barely able to clock an hour of sleep at a time. Her misery and my inability to carry any of it make the days slow down. The longer the pregnancy drags on, the more it feels like a permanent state. It seems possible we will exist like this forever, waiting.
The sense of endlessness lasts until we are driving to the hospital. My wife is at the wheel. In times of stress she likes to keep her hands busy, and she’s not in labor. The doctors have decided to induce her at thirty-nine weeks. We are prepared, and we are not prepared. Every effort to ready ourselves for what is about to happen has felt like tossing pebbles into the sea.
The delivery room is wide but cramped. Shutters have been hung on the wall to try to disguise the fact that there are no windows. A large soaking tub sits just past the end of the bed, but the nurse on duty tells us not to use it. Too many nooks and crannies to clean, she says. They hook monitors to my wife’s stomach, and we spend hours watching the lines on the screen bump up and down.
Waiting for the contractions to start, we play gin rummy and flip through the channels on the TV. When my wife needs to use the bathroom, I gather the tubes and wires connected to her body and follow her to the toilet. I hold the bundle as if it were part of her. We learn to reattach the fetal monitor, sliding it across her belly until it picks up the baby’s heartbeat. The signal is spotty; over and over the line plummets sharply, and I wait breathless while my wife readjusts the band around her stomach. It’s easy to forget that the baby’s heart has been beating for months without us watching; that it’s not our eyes that keep the line where it’s supposed to be.
No one at the hospital wants to admit there will be pain. Pressure, they say. A little pinch. They say this when the IV gets snagged in my wife’s vein and has to be redone; when the catheter for the epidural is threaded and then rethreaded along her spine; when the doctor reaches up inside her to check how far the baby has dropped. Sometimes she shouts out in pain, and sometimes she shudders silently. I hate the way the doctors and nurses act as if their good intentions should undo my wife’s suffering. What would it cost them to give her permission to hurt?
Shift changes come and go. New nurses write their names on the whiteboard. New doctors flip through the chart. We watch the lines on the screen. My wife sleeps — or, at least, she curls up and closes her eyes for long stretches. We are on hospital time now. Everything outside of this room shrinks down to nothing.
Thirty-one hours pass before it’s time to push. The air in the room shifts, and the nurses and doctors begin to act like they can smell a storm rolling in. My wife readies herself to become a tunnel between worlds. Her whole body changes. I notice it most in her jaw. Almost nine years together, and I’ve never seen it clench like this. It occurs to me that maybe some parts of her will always be unknowable to me.
I’m surprised by the blood, the violence. Even before the baby is out, there is so much of both. A little patch of hair appears, and though I know I’m looking at the baby’s head, I still can’t picture a whole person emerging. I can’t imagine one body giving way to another. I’ve spent the pregnancy startled by the fact that we all begin as a cluster of cells in someone else’s belly. Now I understand just what that means. There is only one way into this world — you have to tear through someone else to get here.
For a long time there is only that small bit of hair. The nurse gives my wife a twisted sheet to pull on for leverage. My wife’s skin turns deep red. She asks me for air. I fan her with the folder of hospital paperwork we received at intake. Again and again she pushes with a fury I did not know she was capable of. Then, all at once, there is a baby. Though I’ve spent months preparing for this very thing, it feels impossible, like we’ve conjured her out of nothing. The doctor lifts her gleaming body. I’m shocked by her abundance. She is somehow more than whole.
The doctor slides the baby onto my wife’s stomach. The baby doesn’t cry exactly; it’s more like the startled hacking of some creature crawling onto land for the first time. She sounds like a cat, my wife says, her voice ironed flat with exhaustion. We lean our heads against each other. The joy is so thick, it becomes something else, like cream churned to butter.
The umbilical cord is slick and pulsing. When the doctor hands me the scissors, I can’t help but feel I am destroying a living thing. Even though they let us have a few more minutes huddled together, the nurses and doctors press in around us. Their jobs aren’t finished yet. I can feel the weight of their impatience, that uncomfortable tug of a task left undone. They need to weigh the baby. The nurse says this as if it were some well-established tradition, like tossing the bouquet or cutting the cake. The nurse lifts the baby off my wife and carries her to the corner of the room. It’s the first time a distance has opened up between their bodies, and it paralyzes me. My wife waves for me to go be with the baby, like I knew she would, but I haven’t thought about what it means for the baby to have her own gravitational pull.
They weigh the baby, wipe her clean. In the background I can see my wife squirming as the doctor stitches her up. When they offer to bring the baby back to her for some skin-to-skin time, she shakes her head. Her hands grip fistfuls of bedsheet. She doesn’t trust herself to hold the baby when she’s in this much pain. You do it, she tells me.
I can’t help but feel it’s a gift I’ve stolen — this time with the baby. She’s more awake than I expect. Her hands swim toward her mouth. The purity of her attention is overwhelming. No one has ever looked at me like this — with so much focus and no expectation.
My wife has her feet in the metal stirrups. I watch her carefully, sure that at any moment she’ll change her mind and motion for me to bring the baby over. Instead her head begins to tip back and forth like she can’t hold it steady. The doctor’s hands speed up. The busy room gets suddenly busier. Someone starts shouting out numbers: Fifty-three. Forty-four. My wife writhes. I feel bad, she says, and I can hear she means much more than bad. A nurse runs out of the room to get some kind of kit. It’s as if a rope is sliding through their hands.
There’s a steely urgency to the way the medical team moves. Occasionally one of them looks at me as if this is not a scene I’m supposed to see, as if under other circumstances someone would shepherd me into the hallway. But the waiting rooms are closed due to the pandemic, and the layout of the delivery room means I would have to walk through the blood to get out. My wife begins to call out the sort of things someone might say before slipping away completely. I’m cold, she says. I can’t see anything. I can’t hear. The nurses break smelling salts under her nose, and it’s like she’s dropped back into her body from a great height.
The baby hasn’t taken her eyes off me. The strange, soft weight of her anchors me to the room, while my wife seems to be lifting off the bed, leaving us here. More smelling salts, another jolt of being tugged back from the edge. A nurse asks if I’m all right. She glances at the baby as if to remind me that I’m holding her. Is she going to be OK? I ask. She has a good team working on her, the nurse says — the words of someone who doesn’t want to make any promises. Are we this unlucky, I wonder, that the three of us should be on earth together for such a short time, these few chaotic minutes? The baby grabs her bottom lip. Grief looms in front of me, thick, tar-like. I have no way to warn my daughter, no way to apologize for what she’s about to lose.
A nurse jams a new IV line into my wife’s arm. I am doing the type of calculation I do when something goes wrong — backtracking to find the wrong turn, the pivot where the story might have gone another way. But this is not some car accident. There’s no fantasy about leaving a few minutes earlier and avoiding the whole scene. There is a person here who doesn’t exist if the events split off in a different direction. Someone spreads a blanket over my wife’s legs. Her skin is almost gray. Her head is tipped back. I can see the sweat on her forehead.
The numbers keep dropping: Forty. Thirty-eight. We have talked about the possibility of my wife dying. Maternal mortality. The words fit together too easily, as if motherhood is meant to share a border with death. We have sat across from each other and posed the tragic what-ifs. How easy it is to believe that talking about something is the same as preparing for it. I understand now the chasm between the two. The baby’s hand drops from her mouth. The doctor lets a blood-soaked sponge fall to the floor. She moves like she’s forgotten that she’s touching a body, like she’s working on a machine. The numbers keep sinking: Thirty-six. Thirty-five.
The hospital room expands, becomes long and tunnel-like. It’s as if the moment is turning into memory while I’m still in it. I can feel the weight of these minutes about to yank me into another life. I don’t pray, but two words lodge themselves into my brain: Not this. I repeat them over and over: Not this. Not this. Not this. Finally the numbers bottom out and start to arc in the other direction. A nurse squeezes the IV bag. The doctor’s shoulders slacken slightly. My wife is released from the clutches of whatever beast came to steal her from this world. The relief floods me like a burst of adrenaline. Someone pulls the blanket up around my wife’s shoulders, but she pushes it away.
The crowd in the room thins. Shift change has come again, and only the doctor and two nurses stay behind. Everyone else slips quietly into the hallway. Before they go, they widen their eyes at each other in disbelief, as if they were sure this was going to end another way.
Maybe the dead animals were a warning: a tap on the shoulder to remind us of the fragile tethers that hold us to this world. I think of the millisecond before a bird hits a window, how for a moment there are two birds blooming out of the same beak, their expressions identical. Maybe there is a flash of recognition as they each think, Do you know it’s a body that contains you?
Soon we’ll move up one floor to the Mother/Baby Unit. I’ll have to wrangle our exploded suitcase, gather our shoes and pillows, try to remember the phone chargers. We’ll do everything we can to forget this room, forget the hot stink of death as it brushed up against us. But before that, the doctor counts the bloody sponges and folds the stirrups back so that the bed can be a bed again. I bring the baby over to my wife’s chest. The small, curled body opens like a bud unfurling. We cannot put words to what’s happened, not yet. Instead we breathe in the sweet animal scent of our daughter’s newness. I realize that I’ve never smelled a body before; I’ve only smelled what the world does to a body. She’s here, my wife says. We repeat those words back and forth to each other while the baby presses her ear against my wife’s skin as if listening to the distant thrum of the world she’s left behind.
Laura Price Steele