My son was born red-headed, wide-eyed, and crying. I was prepared for his crying. I’d read all the books, and I knew that it was normal, even healthy, for him to cry a part of each day. But then he was born, and I learned that his crying was not just an audible sensation in my ear, it was something I heard with my whole body.
Every nerve in my whole being reacted, my mind went blank, my breasts leaked milk. I knew that I must stop the crying. I would put him to the breast again even though my nipples were sore and bleeding. Even though the pain was so intense when he latched on that it sent an aftershock tremor that shot all the way down my leg to the big toe of my right foot. I would do almost anything to stop the crying.
But he would cry again.
One time it was my husband, Michael, who’d had enough. He picked up our tiny baby and said, “I’m giving him a shower.” I’d always thought we would bathe our child in his little white tub, but this sounded like a good idea. In his daddy’s strong hands, our son calmed down as the warm sprinkling water washed over him. Then, like a little bird, he opened his mouth to let the water drip onto his tongue. At that moment, I realized that my baby was made to survive at this particular place in the universe — that he is a child of this earth. And that he came expecting rain.
Growing up, I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ house. It was a family fall-out shelter for me. In that house, my grandmother always finished washing the last dish in time for the evening news. The climax of this broadcast was the weather forecast. My granddad’s garden was really only a hobby for the enjoyment of fresh vegetables, but he behaved as if our lives depended upon it. When the weather came on, everyone focused on the TV. No one even answered the phone. The heat and humidity of a Georgia summer oppressed in the same way day in and day out. But we watched the weatherman with intensity.
Of course, on some days, just when it seemed the air itself would combust, a little cloud would move in the sky. The lush summer growth below would shimmer in response. Then the humidity, on cue, would gather itself into a dark ceiling of clouds that blocked out the relentless sun. The trees and grasses were finally quenched with cooling rain. But the earth itself still betrayed its thirst for fire. Even in the midst of a rain shower, our planet still demanded varicose veins of light and heat from the clouds.
My grandparents did not like these summer storms. Storms caused the electricity to go out so that we could not watch the forecast on the evening news.
When I was about six years old, my brother, my two sisters, and I were running around the dining room table at home. Our dining room table was round. It was the nucleus of our house, and we screamed and ran around and around it like so many electrons. My mother eyed us. “A storm must be coming,” she said. We laughed and continued our play even more frenzied, wild to be part of the angry atmosphere that shot red streaks and shook the sky. Finally she’d had enough.
“Stop,” she said, “Stop it now. You’re making me a nervous wreck.” This was her refrain throughout our childhood: “You’re getting on my nerves. You’re making me a nervous wreck.” My mother wished she could send us outside, and she looked out the window. Dark clouds were gathering on the horizon. A storm really was coming.
Another weekend, Daddy was home. The weather bureau had just issued a tornado warning. We knew something about tornadoes. Deep ravines tunneled through the twenty acres of woods behind our house. Daddy told us that these ditches were made when a tornado touched down years ago. We children sometimes dug odd pots and pans out of the walls of these ravines. We imagined little white houses like the one in The Wizard of Oz soaring up into the grasp of the dark, angry sky, and then being thrown down to splinter back onto the earth.
Unlike Dorothy, we didn’t have a storm cellar, so we piled cushions and sleeping bags into our hallway and shut all the doors. My mother looked nervous, her hands were busy with her knitting. But even she sensed enough adventure in it all to manage a little smile. After all, she did marry my dad. My father was alive, electric, thriving. He snapped on the radio, listening intently. He told us to turn off our flashlights to save the batteries for when we really need them. This was his element.
But Daddy listened to the radio for a different reason than my grandparents watched the tv forecast. He was not listening for the news that the storm was over; he was listening because he wanted to hear every detail of the storm. He didn’t want our home to be destroyed, but he wanted the wind to rage, the air to burn, the clouds to shout. He needed the storm to come. To keep coming.
Daddy had popped a huge batch of popcorn and poured it into a brown grocery sack. As the storm intensified, we children played and munched on the popcorn. I watched Daddy. Like him, something in me was rejoicing in the storm. I loved the excitement, the new energy of adrenaline within me. I loved how the storm made time suddenly unhinge from all the frames of daily life. But more than that, I loved how we’d shut the doors, shut ourselves into that small space. We were close, as close as our family had ever been, will ever be. A tornado was spinning across Georgia, sucking up roofs, and cows, and lawn chairs and digging ravines into the earth. But I felt strangely warm and safe and secure. I didn’t want that storm to end.
Years later, on a clear, bright summer morning, I found myself in a courtroom for the first time in my life. I was twelve years old. I was scared and cold. My father’s lawyer was Roy Barnes who later became governor of Georgia. He was there, we were all there, to prove that Mommy was an unfit mother.
She was unfit because when I was seven years old she went to the doctor about her Raynaud’s disease. He told her that she needed to loosen up, to talk about things. That she was holding too much in. She needed to drink a glass of wine now and then for her circulation.
My mother started to drink. She kept drinking. It was 1975 and all of her friends were getting jobs with divorces to match. Mommy decided that she wanted something more out of life. She went out and got a job as a secretary. Then she went out to parties at night. Always going, going. When she was at the house, she woke up late and vomited. Her eyes were puffy and her beautiful face was bloated. But she was not there much anymore. Neither was my father. They were always going out with friends. We didn’t go to church anymore. “We’re just doing our own thing,” my parents said. I hated that phrase.
The house my mother kept spotless for fifteen years of her life filled with the smell of vodka and vomit and fear. Filled with the sound of screaming voices late into the night. The sound of pots and pans crashing down. The sound of children crying in the dark.
Mommy was going, going.
Then she was gone.
One night my mother did come home and found me in my bedroom. She told me that she and Daddy were getting a divorce. She said it like it was some solemn news that would come as a surprise to me. Our family had been so broken for so long that this seemed almost comical to me. I just looked at her. “Aren’t you going to cry?” she asked. “It’s okay to cry.” I just stared at her. Didn’t she know that I’d been crying all those years alone in the dark? That I couldn’t cry anymore? That I couldn’t feel anything?
But on that sunny Saturday, I was at court to testify, if need be, against my mother. I was the one who’d been there that night when my parents were screaming on the back deck. I stood and stared at them through the screen door. My mother was drunk. She tripped and fell. She started yelling that my dad pushed her. She ran in and called the police. The police came. I was the witness.
Even as a child, I knew she was just saying all that because she wanted a good settlement. One of her boyfriends had probably told her that she deserved a portion of the land. I knew this because I’d heard her say that she was tired of being a mother. That she wanted something else. A different life. I knew that I was no longer what she wanted.
That day I looked at my mother sitting across the courtroom with her boyfriend. I did not make eye contact.
It turned out that I didn’t have to take the stand. The court had enough evidence to pronounce the verdict on its own: Mommy was an unfit mother. Sole custody was given to my father. And he was there for us, ready to take care of us. He had mobilized for his children. He had become my hero. But what we didn’t fully realize that day was that he was spiraling downward, downward into a dark, lonely place inside himself. That alcohol still had a hold on him. And as this storm ended, another one was starting on my horizon.
It took almost 15 years for me to realize that I hated my mother so completely on that day because, at first, I’d loved her so much. And that she was the one who left me, because, at first, she was the one who’d been there so completely.
I heard the story several times throughout my life of the day my mother went into labor with me. The false labor had started back in January. “I had you 30 times over,” she said. Her water broke around the fourth of March. “Finally this is it,” she thought. “My fourth baby is coming today.” But I didn’t come. The doctor examined her. He was puzzled. He told her that the only thing he could figure was that my mother had two water sacs. That another water sac was still in tact, and I was in it. She went home several pounds lighter, but I was not ready to be born.
On a breezy Saturday at the end of March, the contractions started again. “Honey, I think this may be the real thing,” she told my father. But she’d been saying this for over a month now, and he’d already planned a hunting trip with his buddies. “Oh, don’t worry,” he said. “You stay here and make some sandwiches and we’ll be back for lunch to check on you.” My mother spent the morning taking care of a six-year-old, a five-year-old, and a three-year-old. She made the sandwiches. Still, she felt the contractions growing stronger, surer, closer. She stood in the kitchen of her perfect house — thousands of miles from the place of her birth in the Netherlands, hundreds of miles from her closest relative, a quarter mile from her closest neighbor. The contractions intensified. She began to wonder if she could drive herself and three small children to the hospital.
Finally, my dad and his buddies came back from the woods. My parents rushed to the hospital. My father wanted to stay with my mom during the delivery, but the hospital wouldn’t let him. They took my mom to a room filled with about thirty other women in various stages of labor. Some were walking around. Some were moaning and writhing in pain. “I think the baby’s coming,” my mother told the nurse. “Oh, you’ve still got time,” the nurse assured her. “Let’s just try to use the potty.” My mother tried to stand. She knew I was coming. I slipped from her womb and into her hands. The nurse scrambled to help, calling for a doctor.
Twenty-eight years later, I was pregnant with my first child. I’d been married for five years. I’d already earned a master’s degree and had my first article published. These things were important to me. Any time previously in my marriage when I’d missed my period, I’d break out in a cold sweat. I wasn’t ready to be a mother. I needed to accomplish some things first. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake my mother did. I had it all figured out.
Then my biological clock started to kick in. Around that time, I found all my old dolls in the attic. Although I played with them often as a child, they still looked brand new. One was still wearing the little net over her hair, just like she did when I took her out of the box. I’d left it on her. It was important for me to keep my dolls in perfect condition. I never marked on them or cut their hair like my sister did. As I looked at the dolls, I remembered this part of me that always wanted to nurture. And I realized that I wanted to experience having a child with my husband. I felt ready. I began reading all the parenting books. “I can do this,” I told myself.
The contractions started at two am on a Saturday in October. They continued throughout the day. My water broke the next night and the contractions stretched into another day. I checked into the hospital. The doctor examined me. I was still only dilated to two centimeters. Some women dilate further than that without having the first sign of labor. The contractions began to grow painful. “Talk to me,” I told my husband. “Don’t stop talking.”
I tried squatting and getting on all fours and walking. All the things I’d read about in the books. But the pain still increased, and it was all I could do to make it through each contraction. The nurse drew a little dot in the center of a piece of paper with increasingly larger concentric circles enclosing the dot. She told me to follow each circle with my eyes until I reached the dot. During each contraction, I followed the round shape of my pain to the central focus, slightly off center. But there was still no dilation. My baby wouldn’t fit through my body. I was exhausted, and I started to vomit. “Honey,” the nurse said. “I think it’s time for you to take some pain medicine.”
I took the medicine, then an epidural. I felt better. But I was still vomiting, and my contractions never became regular. There was no rhythm to them. They were sporadic and chaotic. My body didn’t know how to have this baby.
I spiked a temperature. We didn’t want the fever to spread to the baby. I was prepped for emergency cesarean section.
My baby was born red-headed, wide-eyed, and crying. I saw him for about two minutes before he was whisked away from me to stabilize. My husband went with him. All the family saw the baby as he was wheeled through in his little clear plastic bassinet, and they went home, exhausted. I remained in the recovery room, my arms and legs still shaking uncontrollably from the epidural. I’d just given birth, and I found it strange to be so completely alone.
Suddenly, lying there, I realized that I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t get my breath. A mild panic came over me. I told the nurse, “I feel like I can’t get my breath.” She said, “Oh you’re fine, just relax.” I broke out in a cold sweat: Why isn’t she listening to me? My lungs can’t get enough oxygen. I felt like I couldn’t move, but I needed desperately to sit up. I prayed with each breath that I was not dying. “I need to sit up,” I finally told the nurse. “No honey,” she said. “You just had major surgery, you need to lie back.”
My baby who’d shared my body for nine months was somewhere, in another room, taking his first taste of air, and I was in another room trembling, alone, trying to breathe. I stayed in a constant state of terror for almost four hours. I finally told the nurse again, “Please help me. I need oxygen. I can’t breathe.” She finally clued in. She went to get help. But just then they brought my son back to me. He was past the point of hunger, frantic and crying. I put him to the breast. But he couldn’t latch on. But I was finally sitting up. My baby was in my arms, and, for the first time in hours, my lungs finally expanded. I could breathe again.
Later, after we took the baby home, my oldest sister called me. We talked about breastfeeding and the lack of sleep. Then she told me, “Well, I guess you realize that if it were a hundred years ago, you’d have died in childbirth.” I hung up the phone and thought about what she said. I wondered, “Was I meant to be alive? Was nature trying to phase me out because my son wouldn’t fit through me, because I wasn’t fit to be a mother?”
I’ve read that what we consciously remember indicates something significant in our lives. A moment when everything makes sense. But I think it is sometimes the moments that don’t make sense that catch on the barbs of our consciousness so that we can access them again later, turning them over and over like rocks in our brains until they grow smooth and round and fit into place. Or perhaps there are other reasons we remember. I can recall a moment as a small child that I felt gelling into memory even as I was living it.
I was about five years old and I was in the VW bug with Mommy. It was raining and she’d made me wear the rain slicker that I hated, but I didn’t really mind because I had her and the faint scent of her lipstick all to myself — my brother and sisters were at school. It was just the two of us snug in the tiny car, and the radio was playing and Mommy was singing in her lovely voice, Sing, sing a song. The dash dials were glowing in the dim day. Sing out loud, Sing out strong. The rain was pelting down on the windshield and the wipers were frantically swaying back and forth, back and forth as we were traveling through the rainstorm. Don’t worry if it’s not good enough for anyone else to hear, Just sing. . . .
Perhaps there was a beauty in the voice and the rain and the wipers and the grayness and the glowing that I wanted to keep. But, for whatever reason, I somehow knew as I was experiencing it that the moment was seating itself into conscious memory. A moment when nothing was happening and everything was happening. Perhaps my subconscious knew that I would need a moment like this to keep in a pocket of my mind. This little memory that I could pull out and turn over in my mind like a well worn stone, and say, yes, there was a time when I was happy with her.
My best friend Lydia told me recently that she doesn’t like the rain, it depresses her. But I feel differently. A rainy day mutes something of the glaring reality of life for me. Somehow the rain washes all the layers of the modern expectations of motherhood away, and all that is required of me is to keep my children safe and dry. I know how to do this. My son and I make up the song, Rain, rain, come and stay, the trees and flowers want to play.
I love the rain. It is the sunny Thursday afternoon at three o’clock that I can’t stand. The sunlight exposes me. I am sitting playing the shape game for the fifth time in a row, and my thoughts start to wriggle below the surface, struggling for life. Thwarted words start to scratch at my soul. I’m raising my children by choice. I’m determined to give them a good start on life. But, suddenly, I just want to have a moment to myself. I wonder how I’ll make it through the stretching hours of Barney and feeding and cleaning up and bathing until my children are in bed asleep. I wonder how I’ll hold on until those few moments when I don’t have to be Mommy anymore.
My husband and I are now living in South Carolina. Michael is working on a Ph. D. at the University of South Carolina. My little daughter is a few months old, and my son is about to turn four. The forecasters have just issued a severe weather warning. A hurricane is sending its spiraling arm of destruction all the way inland to Columbia. Michael calls; he is coming home early. Suddenly, time unhinges from its usual frames. An excitement rises like a bubble inside me. My family will soon be together.
I look out the window and watch the wind picking up, the tall trees in my back yard swirling like huge wooden spoons in the angry air. The sky grows unnaturally dark, casting an eerie glow onto the green leaves and grass. The first big drops of rain begin to splatter on the glossy leaves of the magnolia.
Michael comes home and greets our son. The baby is taking a nap. Michael says hello to me, but I’m still staring out the window. Suddenly, a yearning takes over. “I’m going for a walk,” I say. “Are you crazy?” he asks. “You’re going out in that?” But he knows I will go, and I do.
I add a light jacket and wide-brimmed hat to my summer garb and walk out into the rain. For a while the hat shields my glasses, but they soon become covered with raindrops — useless. I drop them into my pocket.
As I start down the sidewalk, I am a mother. A mother like my mother, not like my mother. I feel the cold pelting rain, and I hear the rumble of distant thunder, and it is important for me to know that my children are safe and warm inside the house. If they were not safe and warm, then I could not be walking. I would still yearn to, need to, but I would put their needs first. But I walk on because I know Michael is with them, and they are safe and warm.
For months now, I have been nursing my baby for hours every day, feeding my baby from my body for hours every night. I have been filling my free moments with games and stories with my son so that he will feel loved, so that he won’t resent his baby sister. And, now, before I can go back to my children, I just need to walk, to feel the motion of my muscles through the elements of this day.
As I walk on, I am the daughter of my father. The rain splatters down, trickling under my jacket, soaking into my shoes, but I don’t mind; in fact, I’m glad. I hear the thunder growing louder, and I’m thriving, electric. I let the constant rain and the shouting thunder tune out all the words streaming, endlessly streaming, inside my brain. I walk until my body and my thoughts fall into rhythm with the rain. Some would say that I’m seeking death, but I know that I’ve come out to be alive, fully alive.
The rain begins to stream down my cheeks like cool, cleansing tears. It invigorates me. The water penetrates my hat and plasters my hair to my forehead. A car crawls by on the road beside me, its headlights glowing in the gathering gray. It slows even more when the driver sees me. The driver must be thinking, “What is that girl doing out in this? Is she lost?” But I don’t turn toward the car, I just keep walking. The car drives on.
I’m not lost although I’m not walking anywhere except into the center of this storm. I must keep walking. Flesh and bone and sinew moving, moving through the thrashing wind and lashing rain. And I know that I’ll keep walking until my tongue grows parched, until I open my mouth like a little bird to quench the raw thirst within me. I know that I’ll keep walking until I arrive at that moment when I’m simply a child of this earth.