By Beth Soltzberg
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sad woman, with hand on shoulderI’m prying my sticky baby from her high chair, and out of the corner of my eye I glimpse a spark, a sparkle of violet in the china cabinet. The baby, Rachel, likes her wipe-up cloths, and now has a particularly juicy one gummed up in her fist. She’s swiped me with it. Why do I bother to put on clean clothes?

The box is in our china cabinet, top shelf so that my three-year old son cannot see it and ask, pushed into an ambivalent corner so that I can see it and not see it.

Rachel turns her face up to me and smiles her gremlin-grin, one and a half teeth gleaming in her lower jaw like partly submerged pearls.

Before Rachel was born, in between my two children, I was pregnant with another. I started bleeding at twelve weeks, and then the ultrasound showed a ball of human matter sitting flatly on the bottom of my uterus. It was too small and not the right shape. But we waited, jiggled my tummy. Maybe it was sleeping and would stir in a moment. No. I wailed, feeling the life ripped away from me, while the midwife held me.

The lid of the box is twilight blue stained glass. Silver filaments spider-web across it, interrupting the flat surface and causing it to reflect light at odd angles. The silver then twines around and holds firmly two polished agates, one dusky purple and the other moon-colored. The stones are heavy, protruding, but due to the fineness of the materials the overall effect is fairy-like, lyrical.

I had wanted something to remember her by. (I was sure she was a girl.)

Inside the box is a piece of cloth with the estimated date of her conception and what, based on the ultrasound data, was the approximate date of her death. The cloth rests on a bed of star-patterned flannel, my only way to tuck her in.

Seeing the box feels like holding my finger in a flame. There is pain, adrenaline, heightened awareness. She is sealed in memory at the stage when her presence accompanied me every moment, when I was home and food to her, when we shared the same blood. The connection is prior to love, to any reciprocity.

This baby, birth order zero, has a role in my family. She gives me perspective. It’s not that she reminds me to cherish every moment with my living children, as the old women at my grandmother’s apartment building perpetually admonish me. I adore my children, but our daily life contains many dull and frazzled moments that I merely endure.

Instead, she reminds me that there is no reason it should be easy. To bring forth a new life is a breathtaking privilege and a terrifying responsibility. How many alchemists and scientists have striven for this generative ability? How many religions have sought to understand, and exalt, the act of creation? Motherhood is dangerous potential; lightening crackling in a humid sky, the spark where two wires touch. A glimpse in the china cabinet and I am back in the moment when the Book of Life swings open. Will I be allowed to inscribe a child’s name? Let me be still for a moment, let me be humble in the face of this possibility.

Bionote: Beth Soltzberg lives with her husband and two children (Rafi, four years old, and Rachel, 1 year old) in Arlington, Massachusetts. She is a stay-at-home mom and writes about it to maintain her sanity.

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