The day my baby...The day my baby was born, my mother lay dying in a hospital bed 1500 miles away. As I rolled onto all fours, howling in active labor, nurses turned my mother on her side to change her sweat-soaked gown. And as my breasts grew full and hard with milk, she lost hers, one by one. This is the story that wants to be told. I can’t stop it. Believe me, I’ve tried.
I have always been headstrong and independent. As a child, I set up shop in my parents’ converted basement with an old adding machine on a wobbly card table. I sold used books, costume jewelry, old 8-track tapes and 45s that I carefully packed in re-folded paper bags. I learned very young the value of things and how to part with them. I don’t remember what I did with the profits, if I made any. I probably went to the movies or the roller rink or the arcade. It didn’t really matter. With my own means, I could go anywhere.
By sixteen, I had earned enough for a car. I scoured the bulletin boards at the grocery store. I searched the ads in those free flyers piled at the door of the 7-11. Finally, I found her. 1968 Volkswagen Karmen Ghia, rebuilt engine, runs good, $1500 OBO. It wasn’t exactly a room of one’s own, but it was a start. I named her Lola and filled the trunk with treasures of my girlhood: beach blankets, hair spray, backup pairs of sunglasses and high heels, a library of mixed tapes to suit any mood. I filled the rest with dreams of moving North where brick sidewalks carried stylish, fast-talking people to and from exciting, artistic places. Racing home one night well after curfew, I turned up Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” and imagined myself speeding right past my exit.
A year later, when the thick envelope from Columbia arrived, my mother knew what it meant. Without asking whether I’d accepted their offer, she took me shopping for the requisite dorm room attire—extra long sheets, halogen reading lamp, and a shower caddy full of plastic containers for all of my secret toiletries. “You’ll need a winter coat and some sturdy boots,” she announced one morning over breakfast. “You don’t know what it’s like to live through a Northern winter.” She said it in a way that suggested I’d live to regret my choice, and her tone betrayed a mixture of genuine concern and mother-knows-best smugness. That first winter was the coldest New York had seen in years. But I never let on how I missed the balmy ocean breeze or the scent of limes outside my bedroom window. I just padded my tuition bill now and then to order long underwear from L.L Bean.
Now I live among the bricks and stones of my teenage fantasies. The walls of my trendy, urban condo are lined with books. My husband and I attend parties with creative and interesting people. We’ve had season tickets to the symphony, rented houses on Martha’s Vineyard, and celebrated birthdays in some of the city’s finest restaurants. My mother came to visit once, the year we got married. She was in remission at the time, but in the wedding photos she looks nervous, distracted. In one photograph, a group of women attempt to attach a boutonniere to her dress. My mother looks fearful, even angry as the pins approach her prosthetic breast. I wonder if she’s afraid they’ll uncover her dark, hidden truth. Of all the photos from that day, it’s the one of her I like the most and the least.
When I found out I was pregnant, I knew I’d have a natural, midwife-assisted birth without medical intervention. My mother tried to be supportive, in her way. She told me that I didn’t have to be a martyr, that it was okay to accept help from others. In her mind, she was giving me a way out. But to me, childbirth was just another long ride in a fast car to a place I’d never been before. And I couldn’t wait to get there.
The moment I realized I was in labor, I gathered up all the tools I had accumulated—wristwatch, journal, relaxation tapes, essential oils—and sat quietly on the couch for 12 hours, watching the light move across the room as the sun rose and set around me. I didn’t think to call my mother. Not to ask for any words of wisdom or advice. Not to let her know that good news would be coming soon. I just drove right on through, past the exit for home. My son was born at 6:21 am, under the sign of cancer.
I did call afterwards to tell my mother that she was a grandmother. She had just come out of surgery and her voice was still weak from anesthesia. It was not unlike the other times I’d called late at night to let her know I’d arrived home safely. And though the details of my son’s birth passed through a cloud of morphine, I think she was relieved to hear it.