Childbirth can be dangerous. I feel like people forget that sometimes, you know? Someone says “I’m pregnant,” you tend to think one of two things: best case, “Congratulations! You’re going to have a baby!” Worst case, “Man, that sucks. How are you gonna take care of it? What are you gonna do?”
It’s like we’ve forgotten childbirth is a battlefield.
We remember the pain. Right? They keep playing it for comedy in movies and TV. But it’s all right, right? Get through the pain, there’s a brand new life on the other side of it.
Unless there’s not.
Most miscarriages happen in the first trimester. That’s why there’s starting to be this convention, I guess, that you don’t even announce until you’re two or three months in. Just in case, you know. That’s why my mom waited three weeks to tell Robert even after she was sure, and another two to tell me and my brother. Not that I didn’t know already. I am who I am, right?
But even finding out when I did, knowing even before she did, I was terrified. I was looking after baby Karen when I found out. I saw the act, then I saw the blood. Then I saw my brother, small, fragile, eyes closed, as the nurses washed him off.
I didn’t see my mother.
I knew what holes looked like, how to trace their contours, but I still didn’t know what they meant. Not seeing my mother—Well, maybe she’s ot that important, I tried reassuring myself. And maybe I could have convinced myself of that in any other context. But here now, washing my niece, reminding myself why I was the one in a position to ever need to wash her…
I looked into her eyes. She smiled. She knew nothing of my plight. She didn’t even know she was a motherless child.
I wasn’t in the room when Ellen Portnoy died in childbirth. She was seventeen. I saw it from the waiting room in pretty much real time and I was livid. Why show me this? Why show me now? I saw the light go out of her eyes and by the time Jasper came out of the room and brought the news, I was already in tears.
These things are not supposed to happen. Not anymore.
But they do.
So here I am, looking at this baby I’m supposed to be cleaning, not knowing if my mother is going to make it to my high school graduation. At least I’ll have a brother—but what will we do with him? One more mouth to feed, and with what?
I watch my mother grow. I watch her feed the danger inside her. I catch glimpses of what he’ll look like over the next few years. One time, I think I even see him at fifteen or something, playing fetch with my dad.
I see myself, too, by the way. Sometimes real far out—forty or fifty. I think I might’ve caught a glimpse of my retirement party. I don’t know. And I ask myself “Have I ever actually seen my mother? That far out? Anywhere near it?
“What’s got you down?” Declan asks me in the waiting room. On the whole, we’ve never had a lot of conversations and they’re awkward when we do.
I tell him my misgivings, not the visions themselves, but how “Nobody ever talks about the dangers.”
If this were a love story or a soapy costume show, this would be the part where he put his hand on me. My hand, my shoulder, my back, maybe even my face. Sometimes I get shots and I don’t know if they’re fantasies or what, of this friend of my brother’s and the things that I want him to do to me and it takes me a minute to remember “Oh, right, that’s Raven, that’s not me at all,” ‘cause it’s so easy to get us mixed up, and then I’m not confused anymore.
But he doesn’t put his hand on me, anywhere. Not now. His affection doesn’t require such physicalization.
Finally, about nine hours into my mother’s third labor, it comes to me. Not a single image or scene, but an avalanching montage of my mother and her new son. It crashes into me, a wave of sickening schmaltz lifting the doom off my shoulders and tossing it casually into the wind behind me. Like the Fatal Guide who sends me this shot only just made up his mind or realized he was running out of time to fuck with me on this.
My stepdad came out with a smile. “You want to be there, Kassie? When the baby comes out? Come on! You don’t have to look.”
I couldn’t help but remember the “being there” feeling of what happened to Ellen Portnoy. But I knew now there wasn’t anything to fear. Not here. Not now.