When it came to things to say, adventures to share or the verbalization of mountains, she couldn’t relate the time my father tried to stab a tiny puppy to death because it peed on the kitchen floor, or the bruises he regularly left on his children. She talked about their courtship sometimes, but for the most part, she could not compete with her siblings who lived in fancier houses, went off on better vacations, and had lives that were more successful. She wore their hand-me-downs.
I was her big story. The one she could dust off, shine up and present to out-dazzle anyone. Well, not me exactly, rather my birth — and not even my birth, but what transpired ten days afterward.
She almost died. They thought she would die. She hemorrhaged a week and a half after I was born.
Although they lived far out in the country, and it would cost dearly for an ambulance to come, nevertheless they called one. Mrs. Stayton, a neighbor, stopped in when she witnessed my mother lying on the stretcher — one of the only two times, she was in my mother’s home. My grandmother babysat. I cannot imagine my grandmother deliberately not being with her child when that child was dying. I can assure you from first hand experience, however, that my mother sent me home to take care of my elderly father the evening she knew that she was dying; and I went, against everything I felt or wanted to feel, I acquiesced. I realized that she needed the practical, more than I needed the abstract. The knowledge that my mother died alone still haunts me, even though I don’t regret leaving her there, not most of the time, anyway.
Fifty-nine years ago, I was the reason she was dying.
The hospital doctors stopped the bleeding with a dilation and curettage procedure that left her unable to menstruate again and probably sterile. The doctor warned my father sternly that if she did have another pregnancy she would not survive it.
I carried the guilt of almost killing my mother for many years, acutely ashamed anytime she launched into it. I think I even yelled at her once, “Stop saying I tried to kill you!” I was half way to adulthood before I started to understand that I was not personally to blame. I was an adult before comprehending that she had miscarriaged two pregnancies before me and that the doctors were already concerned at that point.
It is impossible to imagine how different my life would have been had she not been saved. She was my best friend and my worst enemy, intellectually opposite to me, but with a more forgiving heart.
As an aside, this Mother’s Day, my father told me that while my Aunt Ieleen and my Aunt Vera argued about which of them would take care of me, my Aunt Neva quietly and calmed lifted me out of the crib and walked out the door. I had three other mothers — not just the ordinary one mom — but four.
At first it felt like a hole —
one that sheared
straight through the muscle fiber.
Early in the day when Dad was at work
and everyone else had left for school,
my mother and I would walk
to my grandmother’s house.
Sometimes I’d hold her hand.
Sometimes I would run on ahead.
And always there would be the beautiful sound
of those birds. Doves, my mother would say,
morning doves. How glorious, I thought.
God created these softly colored birds
specifically to celebrate the day.
Years later, — when there was no longer
a grandmother to visit, a mother to walk with,
a father to go off to work, those
who could always be counted on — that I could hear
what she actually meant.
Recently, I reached back into my chest,
pushed aside the spongy lungs and the venous
tangle of cords, to search
for that hole torn into my heart.
There’s a scar there now, crisscrossed and pearl-like,
inked with every name I know for love.
When my fingers stroked its feathers gently,
my heart started to coo.