BIRTH - MAY 2, 1989
“Is he all there? Arms, legs, fingers?”
First words, after an eight-pound, 23-inch ball of flesh ruptured out of me. For eight months, since that drunken Labor Day weekend before I knew I was pregnant, I was terrified. Nightmares, of birthing frogs, puppies, rabbits, catfish and even an aardvark haunted me. All came out deformed, dead, or both.
Now Doctor M. holds a squirming, gory and furious creature. It’s alien, more surreal than dreams. But he is a screaming human, and his parts are all there.
Across the room, nurses do whatever they do to him before a vague memory of his weight on my chest. Wet gums clamp down to milk, we’re two animals in one primal instinct.
Relief floods me. Twenty-five hours of no sleep, food or water. Rationed ice chips. Pain boring deep to unknown caves, buries me. Near the end, no turning back, I crave the release of death.
They sew me up, and a needle of sweet Demerol ices down my veins. I drop into a dreamless nothing. It’s over.
They say you forget all about the pain. And they are wrong. A quarter century later, I can still conjure it up. The horror.
May 3, 1989
A vise around my arm squeezes tighter, then rips away, wakes me.
A faraway voice says “70 over 50. And too much blood lost. Let’s sit up, get some strength back.”
“Want…sleep.” But she won’t let me fall back to the pillow.
A metal tray rolls under my closed eyes. The greasy smell that jarred me awake in high school, with Mother’s failed pleas to “please, just eat something.”
Maybe this one will go away. Just do what she wants. I spear a piece of pale egg on a plastic fork.
By the third bite, blood rages through me, like a Vampire after a gorge and I’m born again. After a fresh shot of Demerol I’ve become immortal.
Outside, clouds part and light floods in. Across the room, a watery crystal ball of flowers splash scarlet, purple and orange over the wall. By my bed, all phosphorescent white and butter-blonde, my angel-nurse smiles.
A real baby lands in my arms. Not the hard, vapid dolls I hated as a child. This one’s solid and soft as a breath. He finds my breast, and how does that work? But this time, the milky sea flows both ways and warms us both – no beginning, no end.
“He’s too thin,” Dr. M. says.
“He’s all big ears and feet, like an old Leprechaun,” my Dad says.
Lost in his deep navy eyes, I don’t laugh.
Awake, alone, rain slides down the window and overnight trucks whoosh the wet interstate below. Black, empty space pins me to the bed. My throat closes, vomits out tears and sobs that rattle my ribs.
Torn open, I’ve lost myself. Phantom pains of missing parts I have to find. I push/pull out of bed, blood gushes onto the diaper-sized pad I wear.
The hall is so deserted I hear my slip-proof socks shuffle the floor. Each step is torture – my guts press down so hard they may splatter out.
A force leads me around corners to a place I’ve never seen. Beyond the glass window, a factory of crates with the just-born, all uniformed in white blankets trimmed blue and pink.
Less than a heartbeat and I see only him. The rest disappear. I press my hands and head to the glass. He grips my finger. I smell his head. Hands balled under his chin, eyes closed, he sleeps. And though he can’t walk, talk or see me, he feels me there.
A nurse walks in, breaks the spell of our moment.
I don’t remember getting back to bed, but there was no pain, no fear of the dark, or separation. I close my eyes – see him again, before sleep cradles us, together.
MAY 1, 2012
Under the weak light over the hospital bed, Mother squirms in pain, desperate for relief that she will never find.
“I’m floating up through ceiling,” she says. “But there are so many holes to get through.”
“No.” I climb on the bed, straddle her 85-pound bones, my face over hers.
“Mom? Mom. Look at me. Me – not the ceiling.” Her eyes roll to mine.
“You don’t want to, but you have to let me go. I’m dying,” she says.
I smooth her white hair, thin and tangled as cobwebs.
“Mom. Listen. Please hold on. Tomorrow, they’ll fix your spine and stop the pain. Just hang on tonight. I won’t let you go, suffering like this. Please.”
She says nothing, and looks beyond me, to the ceiling.
May 2, 2012
We wait for the “procedure” in a holding pen. Agony through the night, immune to morphine, yet here, she unwinds. Curtains scraped tight around us, the machine, like a metronome, beeps through this deep space. Together, we are alone.
Her prized scarlet red nails top the bruised bones of her cold hand that I wrap in mine. I’ve never seen my mother cry, but her eyes redden. A tear, only one, slides down her cheek.
“We’re going home now, aren’t we?” she says.
Growing up, we never hugged or said I love you, but it was understood.
Now, a force lifts me to the bed, and I lie next to her, arms tight around her.
“I love you. Mommy. You’re the best mommy anybody ever had.” I am a terrified child brimming with tears. The most powerful figure in my life is failing, leaving me. I don’t know what to do.
A tunnel sucks me back to the present, but the voice in my head is hers, advising me through decades of my woes, from trivial to traumatic.
“Pull yourself together, Georgia. You’re stronger than this. Fight it.”
I wipe my eyes with the sheet and sit up.
“Look in my eyes now, Mother. The sky will always be there.”
“Does she see me? Lost in hazel, identical to mine, I see my soul – 30 years from now, or 1000 years ago.
I’m no Christian, but she knelt by her bed every night, before the fall forced her to sit in a chair.
“May I say the 23rd Psalm?”
Her eyes say yes, or I believe they do.
“The Lord is my shepherd,” I begin, searing words that I hope will ease her into eternity. “And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Amen.”
She speaks her last sentence.
“We are going home now. And we’re going to be so happy.”
“Yes, we are,” I say. “We’re going home.”
One beat later, a nurse scrapes the curtain, breaks the spell.
“Want to give her a kiss?” this nurse says, at the doors to death, where I can’t go in. It sounds patronizing, fake, after sharing those tears, prayers. But I kiss her forehead anyway, which I would never do. “I love you,” I say, for the last time.
Two hours later, I hear “complications, ventilator, intubation, I.C.U.” Guilt crushes me. I signed off on this.
“It was necessary,” the doctor says. “Nobody could stand that pain. I’d do it again.”
I stumble in the I.C.U. Shocked, they shoo me out to the hall. I sit under a red E-X-I-T sign. “Mother is dying,” I say out loud.
My father, grown children and I sit around a conference table. We agree to stop life support, as she wanted. My father’s lids are red, but I’m the only one crying.
“Wait. Is there any way she could hear or know me, after?” I ask the doctor. She’s angelic, with her corn silk hair, pulled into a bun. She looks at me – her navy blue eyes are red too. I remember that.
In a voice soft as a cloud, she says “no,” and I trust her.
“Then I’ll go home now. I know the last love she saw was in my eyes.”
I fall into bed. Moving, even breathing hurts, before I pass into something like sleep.
At 6 p.m., I wake and know she’s dead, before they tell me. I don’t cry – that will come later. But I ache for the missing part of me that I now can only see through a glass, darkly.
She died the same day, 24 years later, that her only grandson was born. Maybe it means something. Maybe it doesn’t. Nobody knows.
I only know that birth, life and death are a circle, with exquisite pain, terrible beauty and the mystery that passes all understanding.
MAY 2, 2014
Hydrangeas. Nothing else will do. On the second anniversary of Mother’s death, I sit on her grave admiring the blue silk bursts I arranged and relive a memory they evoke.
My first wedding, or I should say, blockbuster production, at the ridiculous age of 23.
“I have to have blue and purple flowers,” I demand. “Nothing else will do. How about Wisteria?”
“It wilts, we never used it,” Beverly, my wedding planner says.
“Hydrangeas! I love them.”
“Same thing. Not available.”
“But,” I turn to Mom. “Nothing else will do, with the bridesmaids in blue. And it’s your favorite color, and mine.”
“Think about it,” Beverly says. I agonize over this, the greatest dilemma since WWII. But I stand my ground.
The next day, before my wedding, Mom and I are up early. We arm her Monte Carlo with garden sheers and tin washtubs, like they use in Alabama, to gut fish and such.
On a suburban safari, we cruise every Forest Park street, scouring yards for the prized blooming blues.
When we spy a crop, we park at the curb in front of the house, whether or not we know the residents. I wrap on the door.
“Hello. I’m getting married tomorrow and I really love Hydrangeas. Would you be willing to donate a few of your lovely flowers to the cause?”
All happily agreed. Except for one curmudgeon in Duckhead overalls, who spit tobacco out of the side of his mouth.
“I don’t believe I wanna get shed of ‘em.” He said, closing the door on me.
Probably from Alabama.
Even minus his puny stalks, Mom and I, sunburned and sweaty, deliver six washtubs of Hydrangeas to a stunned Beverly. My rhapsody in blue wedding is a hit.
And nothing wilted, except my deodorant.
At the grave, I see both of us riding around like robbers casing the joint.
Grief never ends, but it evolves. As time passes, I can relive good times like this. And smile at our devotion, to the mission and to each other.