February 25, 2004
Today is the day you will be born.
We have known for a week that you are coming. We, your family, held in the clutch of love and grief intertwined.
Here in California, I wake to gusts of wind throwing rain across the windows — an early spring storm. The plum tree is a riot of white. In the wind, white petals swirl like snowflakes.
There in Georgia, it is also supposed to storm. My sister, your mother, wants something dramatic. But the sky only lets down a slow, cold drizzle.
There are things I, your aunt, have to tell you. I am not there to touch you, so this is my way.
Today is also the day you will die.
When you are born, the troubles that plague your tiny body will be hidden under fresh, red skin. But we already know; we have seen in pictures that go beyond the skin.
Then there are things we do not know. We don’t know if you will live past that most adventurous of passages — your birth. You might sustain yourself for minutes, time made infinite by memory. Or you might never feel life outside of that warm liquid land where your body has staked this claim — 21 weeks of growth and change. You might be delivered into our world with your spirit returned to the place from where it came. I imagine that place as a wild garden, with a brook that sings the familiar rhythms of my sister’s blood.
My parents, your grandparents, call from the hospital. Things are moving slowly. The contractions have not yet begun.
I wish it were spring in Georgia. My sister, your mother, says, it’s coming, creeping ever-so-slowly nearer. There are tiny brown buds on some of the trees.
I go out. I walk down the street, looking at trees in bloom. A neighbor’s magnolia holds its pink blossoms up with pride. I do not yet know if you are a boy or a girl. But I already know that neither pink nor blue will suit you. White — the color of beginnings, the color that is an absence of color. White is the color for you.
Your parents went to Georgia to make new discoveries. They are farmers there. They live in the dirt — soil under their fingernails, between their toes, in every sun-baked wrinkle.
I admit I thought they were a little crazy when they left. Why the South? I wanted to know. Why a farm? But then I went to visit, and I saw the seductive beauty of the place. It was summer — the air sultry, ripe, buzzing with insects, my skin itching from their bites. At night, fireflies drifted in the woods and the ground released the green, wet smell of the day’s growing.
When I found out my sister was pregnant, I imagined your birth in that heat. July fifth was when we expected you. My sister was talking about having you at home. I wanted to be there for your birth, but I was afraid. What if I couldn’t stand the blood, her pain? What if something went wrong? What if I — the older sister, the practical one — was of no use at all?
But now you are being born, and I am in California, and for today, it is clear I can be of no use. My sister, your mother, might disagree. She says it’s good knowing you’re there. I am someone for our parents to call, and they do, every two hours, tracking the arrival of their first grandchild. In their voices I hear strength and sadness stitched together. In my own, I’m not sure what to listen for.
My sister is in the hospital, and her contractions are induced by drugs. Her pain is soothed by drugs. Your birth is not what any of us imagined.
At the flower stall, I am overwhelmed. I think I will buy a bunch of white ranunculus. The full, papery flowers make me think of spring. But then I see the tuberose, and I like its sweet smell, and I see the hyacinth and I like the multiplicity of its delicate blossoms, and I see the orchid and I like that it blooms for a long time. My eyes fill with tears. I turn round and round, my gaze skipping over the color, seeing only white, white, white.
I worry about how my sister is now, in the middle of the long journey that is your birth and your death. I worry about how she will be when she leaves the hospital, no longer feeling the flicker of you in her belly. I think about two months from now, when she would have been swelling huge with your growing form. I think about four months from now, when you would have announced your arrival with strong-lunged cries in the heat of a summer day.
The salesgirl wraps the ranunculus in tissue and tells me to change the water every day to make the blooms last longer. I let my eyes stay full. I cannot pretend I am not heartbroken.
The dynamic fragility of your life invites us, your family, to question. Thinking of you leads us to the edge of the knowable, mystery at the heart of life. You cause each of us to face our faith, what trust we have in the forces that shape our world.
Your parents trust the patterns and rhythms of nature. You have brought them to that trust anew, new people themselves.
My sister, your mother, says I look around and everything works — you and I, the dogs, the trees, even the fire ants. It’s amazing that we’re all here, that we all work.
On my way home, I walk by Japanese maple trees sending out their first tentative leaves, tiny green miniatures of the real thing. Did I know, before you, that sadness and wonder could co-exist like this? If I did, I had forgotten.
My husband, your uncle, comes home from work. We sit together on the couch and watch the last light fade off the hills. When we talk, we call you the baby, and I remember that I imagined taking you to the ocean. I wanted to hold you above the waves, your legs dangling from your diaper, and dip your toes in the froth. I imagined your squeal of surprise, your fascinated eyes. Your feet kicking the water, splashing us both, while your hands reached out to catch the glittering drops before they could fall. In my arms, your skin slick with sunscreen, marbled by sand.
The sky turns deep blue and then black. I make a little altar on a turned-over crate — the ranunculus, two candles, a bunch of dried straw flowers my sister gathered last summer from the farm.
I light the larger candle. It is for you and my sister, now, while you are still one.
There are noises outside. I go to the window. Lightning flashes on the ridge. I sit on the floor, watching rain slash the air under the streetlight. Another flash splits open the sky, groan of thunder following close. I open the window and feel cold air rush in, the rain suddenly loud, the smell of wet asphalt and wet blossoms mingling.
It’s here, I say. Your storm.
Your mother will take you in her arms. Your father will hold you too. His hands are rough from farm work, soil engrained in the creases. You would have been a baby of the earth, playing in the dirt from the youngest age. This is the way the earth will find to welcome you.
The storm moves off. The night quiets down. I close the window and drink tea. It is tomorrow in Georgia.
This time, when your grandfather calls, he says it’s over. And by this I know he means that now you have been born and that now you have died. I hold the phone in my hand, the receiver slick with tears.
I listen to his voice catch and break.
Catch and break.
I rock in my chair, like your grandmother rocked you. She did not want to let you go.
I call friends. I tell them your name. I tell them your weight. I tell them how long you lived.
In the light from my window, I watch the plum tree move in the wind. I wish it could stay like this — blossom-laden, heavy with promise. But every day the fresh green leaves are taking over, displacing the blooms into soggy piles on the deck below.
There is no way to hold on.
I light the other candle. Two flames flicker against glass.
The most elemental of instincts realized — you gripped your tiny fingers around theirs.
It’s supposed to snow in Georgia overnight, and it does. But first your mother and your father go home; your grandparents go back to their hotel. Everyone sleeps, exhausted.
When your mother wakes, she sees a world dressed in white lace. She adds the snow to your name.
Half an hour.
Outside my window, blossoms glow like snow.
Spring is coming to Georgia. Hurry, I think. Bloom.
Stella Snow-Clare Mann suffered from a severe case of CDH, congenital diaphragmatic hernia, a birth defect diagnosed through ultrasound.