My mama is what some might consider the stereotype of an older Southern woman. She is sweet looking, soft-spoken, and tough as nails. Her mama might be even tougher. Now, my mama and my grandma don’t talk much about the hard times, maybe because so much of it was hard times. They laugh easily and fry the chicken and carry their pain like part of their skeleton, ever present and invisible. On a rare occasion something breaks the surface and they will give brief, casual mention to an event that would have ended life for any normal person, an experience no one could reasonably recover from- for them, it’s just one part of the story that made them strong. I learned early on that women in our family wrap grace and femininity around a core- a rock solid strength and will. My mama is unbreakable, or at least she mends well.
As an adult, I can see that she went to great effort to give me a childhood far removed from the Texas hurricane that was her upbringing. Memories of my early years unfold like a montage of sunny days, filled with books and discovery. My deepest wound was temporary, childish rejection on a playground. I wrapped up an idyllic youth by meeting the man of my dreams at 15 and marrying him at 17. My mama loved him, and I guess my daddy thought he’d at least be close enough to keep an eye on.
When I was 20, we discovered I was pregnant. It was a surprise, but not an unwelcome one. Surprises weren’t unfamiliar to us, old enough to be married but not necessarily mature enough to remember to pay a bill on time or take a pill every day. So we took the news like we took most news those days, with laughter and celebration. I spent my days poring over pregnancy books and my evenings eating my weight in strawberry ice cream. When we found out my little basketball of a stomach held a boy, we bought one tiny pair of blue shoes. And then, suddenly, it was over. Three days before my sixth month, my water broke, amniotic fluid and terror mingling on my bathroom floor while I screamed.
The ER doctor was blunt, busy, cruel. Oh,” he said, “you’re having this baby tonight,” and left us in a cold hospital room with our dead innocence and more questions than anyone would ever answer. He was wrong, but not by much. My son was born in a different hospital three days later. They told us he wouldn’t live 72 hours.
I caught one glimpse of him as a team of physicians rushed him away. He was beyond small and a terrible shade of blue, gasping for air. He let out one guttural whimper and my heart tried to grab onto that infinitesimal maybe-hope. My mama didn’t speak, not that I can remember. She just stood there, near enough, reminding me with her presence that we can withstand unimaginable storms.
Decades later, or maybe it was hours, someone gave me permission to get in a wheelchair and go to my baby. My legs were still numb and my upper body was shaking from fear and exhaustion, but I was desperate to see my child, to convince myself that everyone was wrong and we would be okay.
The scene in the NICU was bleak, dimly lit with intermittent alarms screaming from each bedside, beds with miniature, wire-wrapped humans in nests of baby blankets, like some kind of science-fiction horror story about human experimentation. I could not catch my breath; I could not capture a thought. Hours earlier, I had been an expectant mother, like all of the other expectant mothers, with their ripe bellies and glowing complexions. Now I was ripped apart, my womb and my arms empty, staring into a nightmare.
The wheels clicked as we approached one of the stations. It was an open table with a tiny red figure, shaped roughly like a human, although not easily recognizable as such. He was no larger than a Barbie doll. They warned me not to touch him, because even the lightest touch could tear his delicate, still-forming skin. This is not my child, I said, inside my head. This is not a child. Frantic to escape, I looked around for a nurse and made her take me back into the hallway, where my parents awaited their turn to meet the baby I was still waiting for.
My husband and my parents sat helplessly by as I sobbed, my body and my heart shattered. “What do I do? What do I do? He’s not even human!” My mama stood then, all the weight of her pain in her tired blue eyes. “That,” she said firmly, leaning over me, “is your child. You will go back in there and you will speak to your child.” In my memory, she struck me physically. I have since learned that she used nothing more than the force of her words, but they hit me like a blow that will lodge forever in my mind.
She was fierce and I was shattered, clutching a diaper bag filled with formula samples and papers that detailed all the ways my child might die. I was waiting for something, waiting for myself to come back from wherever I had gone to tell me what to do.
I knew I could leave. I could tell the nurse to take me back to my room, where I could scream and cry. I could wait for that child’s inevitable death, and I could grieve and then maybe I’d forget and somehow, get my old life back, maybe. There is no law, I thought, that would make me sit beside that bed until he dies. And who would blame me if I fell apart? Maybe I’m not like them, I thought rebelliously, like my grandmother who raised her siblings, or put on her apron and cooked for her husband’s funeral; short days after his violent and unexpected death. Maybe I’m not like my mama, who fought her way through countless tragedies and college and single motherhood in an era that had no place for that kind of woman. Maybe I’m different, I am breakable and this is too much, I thought.
There was nowhere to go. I was faced with deciding who I was, now that the bottom had dropped out of my world and somebody was going to have to clean up the mess. That is my child, I told myself, testing the thought. That is my child, and I can do this. I leaned against my fear and found I was stronger than expected. This will not kill me, I thought.
They wheeled me back in where that strange, reddened figure lay, illuminated by miniature spotlights. I drew strength from the women who built me and faced my son, my one-pound son with unfinished skin and eyes still sealed from the womb, and long, thin fingers like mine. My first attempt to speak sounded like a croak, my throat raw and throbbing. I tried again, “Hello,” I offered weakly, and with a word, met my child and joined the ranks of the brave, strong women before me. “Hello.”