January 22, 2016
Why I Could Not Imagine Losing Baby Rachel
When were the seeds of loss born? What circumstances led to such devastation upon losing a baby I had never even seen. Looking back, the trail seems to stretch across all the places I have ever been. Perhaps in was as recent as 2002, when I understood that my body would not, could not be pregnant again. Perhaps, it was earlier, much earlier. Perhaps the events were already inside me when, on June 25th 1966, I opened my eyes the first time and saw my mother looking down at me, eyes full of tears and hope. Or, perhaps it was earlier still. How can we know these things? By the time we see the plant rising from the earth, the seed has already vanished. And so, I can’t really know when or where it all began. Therefore, I will start with the first thing I knew, my mother.
Mother. I love the shape of that word in my mouth. Lips at first flattened and pursed as though about to deliver a well-deserved scolding. Then the lips open to say something, or to take something in, sometimes I am not sure which. Can a mother listen with her mouth? Ultimately, the lips reshape themselves becoming round and puckered, like a kiss. Yes, Mother is a word that is at once a scolding and a kiss. I can taste that word. It’s bitter sweet. It is all that it should be. I can smell it, too. Mother. That word smells like her.
I don’t remember my mother hugging and kissing me with that self-indulgent intensity of one who fawns over her “little darlings.” She is not dramatic. She is never one to gush with expressions of emotion. Her words are practical, organized, sensible, and therefore easy and cheerful. My mother’s words kiss me every day. They have kissed me in letters that fly across the ocean. They have sped through electronic cables to kiss me on my computer screen. And they kiss me late at night when she prays, kisses for me that jet all the way up to God and back down again. Her words kiss me and all my children. In 2009 I sat in a hospital room, listening to the sporadic beeping of a monitor. My infant daughter, Amina, had a respiratory virus that filled me with that ever looming fear of loss. The phone rang and my mother’s words kissed me over the phone: “We are coming to visit our granddaughter. We will be there in 10 minutes.” Long after my mother is gone, long after she has left the hospital room, long after she has walked out that last illuminated doorway, my mother’s words will continue to kiss me and all my children. I am persuaded that my mother’s kisses will last forever.
In late summer 1972, I was barely six. I loved to swim with my mother in the pool of our Portland apartment complex. While I hug the side, my petite mother floats and dances in the water near me. She does not need to hold on to anything. To her, the water is air. And, to me, my mother is a fairy dancer, a swimmer with wings as light and transparent as daydreams. Here she is suspended and free. Her impossibly large belly weighs nothing. She has no pain in her back or hips. The water dissolves the aches of cooking, of bending and scrubbing, and of wiping our hands and faces. In the pool, the weight of the growing infants vanishes, too. Twins! Can you imagine? My mother always knew she would have a big family. But twins? “I will have six children” she always told herself, “that is a big family.” But on her sixth pregnancy, TWINS! She should have known then, that six was just the beginning. Was that the beginning of all this? No, the beginning was much earlier than that.
Perhaps it was in 1963, when my mother was a newlywed and working at the Bank of Montreal in Lethbridge, Canada. A friend and coworker reached into her purse to produce a needle hanging on a thread. She suspended the needle over my mother’s wrist. How many children will you have, Sharon?” She insists on performing this experiment on all her friends. “Back and forth,” she explains, “indicates you will have a boy; around in a circle and it’s a girl.” My mother indulges her friend’s whim and watches the needle move. They count each successive movement of the pin. Around, around, around, –three girls so far– back and forth, around, back and forth, back and forth, –that makes seven– around, back and forth… The needle does not stop until my mother’s friend frowns and snatches it back. “It’s not working anymore.” she declares and pockets the needle and thread. My mother would eventually give birth to eleven children, five girls and six boys.
In Portland when I was six and it was dark and time for bed, I would look for my mother to say goodnight and tuck me in. But often, Daddy was on duty. “Mom is in the pool” he says. I look out over the railing into the courtyard with the pool. It seems like a very long way down. Three or four stories, I think. Or was it actually less? When I look down, I see my mother in water that is illuminated green or blue. I am not sure about the color anymore. But in my memory, she is swimming in a giant rectangular gem stone. She is the only one there. Her arms draw circles in the luminous water, like someone conducting a symphony. And I hear music. But I don’t know where the music is coming from. Perhaps it is coming from my mother.
I waited all summer long for those twins to be born. We all waited. My father liked to show us how each baby was positioned. He pointed and drew lines with his finger on my mother’s stomach. “One baby is head down” he explains, “and the other one is breach.” I don’t know what breach means, but my mind is on something else anyway. “What will we name them, Daddy?” I have asked a thousand times already. “Michael and Mark, or Rachel and Rebecca.” I hope they will be girls. I say,“Rachel and Rebecca.” I say those names over and over again. “Rachel and Rebecca, Rebecca and Rachel.” But mostly I like the name Rachel.
When the twins were finally born, Michael came first. And while Michael was making his grand entrance, Mark must have taken a lesson from the biblical Jacob and kept one hand gripped to his brother’s foot. In this way, Mark just swam along behind following his brother’s feet until his body had made a single lap around my mother’s uterine swimming pool and ended up head down just like his brother had been. Then out came Mark too. And one twin was as pink and impatient as the other. My mother nursed them at the same time, one on each breast, with pillows propping up her arms. And that is the way my brothers are now too, each swimming after the other, each as ravenous as the other, both eager to drink it in, to drink it all in, all of life, all at once.
I loved my twin brothers, and I love them still today. But I never stopped waiting for the two sisters I had anticipated all summer long while watching my mother’s arms draw twin circles in the pool. Rachel and Rebecca. “If we ever have twin girls,” my father explained “that is what we will name them: Rachel and Rebecca.” Or, maybe, I thought, I will have twin girls someday. Maybe I will have girls and name them Rachel and Rebecca. Yes. That is what I will do. But mostly, I liked the name Rachel. Why didn’t my parents name me Rachel? That would have been a good name for me. But no, that is not my name. Instead it is a name that would haunt my future.
The first time I ever spoke to Carly, the birth mom who would eventually upend my world with grief, it was over the phone. Carly called me from a California prison where she was doing time for drug possession. She had chosen our profile from among many. She was our very first match and wanted us to adopt her baby girl. I asked her, if she could name this baby, what would that name be. “It’s Rachel,” she said, “I have been calling her Rachel.” And that was it. That was the moment I was convinced that this was MY baby. That was the moment when I let my guard down, the moment, all my fears about adoption vanished. I did not care about the risks. I did not care that Rachel might have been exposed to drugs. Because it seemed to me, that this baby girl had always been there in my heart. It seemed inevitable that she would be there forever. I guess, in spite of everything, at least this last part proved to be true.
Dear Reader: If you have thoughts on this topic (comments on this post, stories about my mother or my brothers, questions you want to ask or just ideas about topics for my next blog posts), please use the comment space at the bottom of this page. Really, I am not kidding when I say, I sit by my computer waiting to hear what you have to say.