to be

When my daughter was born, I almost died. That may not be true, but it felt that way. It felt that way more than once, in gradations of immediacy, throughout the first year of her life outside of my body. Entering the second year, it still sometimes feels that way. It may also be technically true.

I ate a children’s sundae and drank an Arnold Palmer at Beer Baron. I was nearing my due date, which was August 16, and the day before had made an acupuncture appointment for the 16th to try to get labor started if it hadn’t already begun organically, because I was terrified my baby would be born 10 days late and I’d be stuck with a goddamn virgo daughter to go along with my goddamn virgo mother and they’d take turns nitpicking and anxiety-soaking me until I killed myself. I went to the bathroom and folded some toilet paper and put it in my panties to soak up a substance that was leaking from my vagina, which turned out to be amniotic fluid. When I got back to my husband’s apartment I called the advice nurse who told me we should come into the hospital for induction because it sounded like my membranes had ruptured.

Things I did not understand at that time:

Leaking amniotic fluid because your membranes rupture is not the same thing as your “water breaking”, though technically, they both involve amniotic fluid coming out of your vagina.

ruptured membranes leave the amniotic sac wide fucking open to bacteria and can lead to serious infections, complications in labor, fetal and/or maternal death.

There are far worse things than having a virgo child. Or a virgo mother, or even both a virgo child and a virgo mother.

I was induced. I labored for several hours unmedicated, using breathing and nodes that delivered electric currents to my lower back. what my body was doing of it’s own volition was awfully, unimaginably, shockingly painful. I did this up to almost 7 centimeters. At around the time I began shaking and spiked a fever, I requested an epidural. The painkillers began to flow into my lower back and pelvis just as the Chorio- the infection I didn’t know enough to have been afraid of- set in. At one point, while my body was laboring on it’s own and I was blissfully numb from the ribcage down- I spiked a fever of 103. I had an oxygen mask on my face and I was shaking uncontrollably. My husband was in the room with me, and he was crying because the way I looked, shaking violently with the mask on, was so terrifying. Also, the baby’s heart rate was up and down. I had no idea he was crying. I had no idea I was in a very serious and precarious state, medically speaking. I was just extremely irritated that I couldn’t will the shaking to stop. I had a vague notion in my very foggy head that I should drink water- lots of water- and I kept asking my husband to bring me big cups of ice water, which he did, and I drank them all, not greedily or thirstily, but with an iron will bent on making the shaking stop, and a certainty that if I drank enough ice water, it would. I drank a lot of ice water, and had a lot of antibiotics and tylenol and fluids run into my veins through an I.V, and the shaking did stop. Suddenly, the nurse was telling my husband to hold up my leg. Suddenly, my doctor, and all the nurses and the midwives were there, and some very bright lights were on overhead, and they were telling me to push, and I was pushing again and again, as hard as I could, and I couldn’t feel pain because of the epidural, but I could feel pressure, the pressure of her head descending through my separating pelvic bones, and they said she was sunny side up, and they said she was stuck, and they applied a vacuum suction to her head (it took a couple tries), and they snipped me and they sucked her out, and they sewed me up.

I could make this about my daughter, but everything since has been about her, so I’m going to make this about me.

Things I didn’t know before giving birth:

Giving birth, whether vaginal or surgical, is like being hit by a bus, but unlike when you are hit by an actual bus, you’re not allowed to sleep, rest, recuperate, eat, bathe, care for yourself, etcetera, because the bus that hit you is an extremely helpless and precious and scared and overwhelmed and hungry and tired and very hungry and very overwhelmed and vulnerable small creature who immediately after running over you needs you- ALL OF YOU non-stop, for several months. There is no recuperating. Or maybe there is, but not until a very long time after the moment of collision, by which point, let’s be honest, you’re probably permanently damaged in some way or other. I did not get more than 2 hours of sleep together in the 72 hours after my daughter was born because she was cluster feeding. Which means nursing all the time and screaming and crying in a blood-curdling horrible way when not breast-fed every 20 minutes or so, around the clock. When your brain is flooded with post-partum hormone slushie, it is impossible to not respond immediately to these noises. I was taking tons of maximum strength ibuprofen for the pain in my vagina, pelvis, and specifically the stitches from the episiotomy which were new, raw, and very painful, especially when I peed. If I missed a pill, I spiked a fever. I was too sleep deprived and hormone-addled to realize this was a warning sign and quickly popped some pills to make the fever go away so I could get back to quieting the howling clusterfeeder. A few days later I realized something was very wrong and called the advice nurse who told me I had been masking a fever and most likely had a post-partum infection that had picked up where the Chorio in labor had left off. I went to the E.R. I did have a serious infection. By this time I couldn’t eat without projectile vomiting. Food was disgusting to me. I couldn’t even look at it, and I was producing tons of breast milk which I was pumping into bottles like a one-woman dairy farm because I was beginning to suspect I may have to check myself into the hospital, where I would possibly die, and I wanted my husband to be able to bottle-feed our daughter this milk I was still able to produce because I was still alive. The combination of not eating and making tons of breastmilk caused me to lose close to 40 pounds in a week and a half. I was flagged for sepsis, which turned out to be a collection or lab error, but for a couple hours had me thinking I was going to die of multiple organ failure in a hospital in Oakland, leaving a 2 week old daughter who wouldn’t even remember me.

Reader, I did not die. I am here today, a year and two weeks later. I forced myself to eat 5 ritz crackers and an oral antibiotic twice a day for ten days and after about 4 days I was able to drink some bone broth and by the tenth day I had a bowl of chicken noodle soup, and I did not die. But I came so close to death that it breathed on me, and that breath was cold and quiet- so very quiet- and I don’t think I can ever fully forget it, though I may be able to put it mostly out of mind until the day- the inevitable day- when I feel it again.

To die is to disappear, and dying is the experience of being completely, utterly alone with the quandary of your own existence: your appearance, from nothing, your being, your disappearance, back to nothing. A three act play. being and nothingness and nausea. The whole shebang. I now understand why some philosopher whose name I can’t at the moment recall said that the practice of philosophy is the practice of learning how to die. I think perhaps he meant it is good to think about things, and to consider them well and at your leisure, before you’re on the slab staring at a ticking clock saying “oh shit oh shit oh shit” and suffering physically in a way that is not conducive to arriving at good and helpful, possibly insightful or even brilliant ideas. Yeats said something about man in old age being like a dog dragging the body around like a bunch of tin cans tied to its tail. meaning physical ailment and deterioration sure is a distraction, isn’t it. So practice philosophy. Try to figure something out before you have a pressing reason to. You’ll think better when you’re not crushed by pain, fatigue and fear.

I felt for several months that I had disappeared. I kept saying I am a ghost, I am a shadow, I only exist in the sense that I am keeping this infant alive, she doesn’t know, she doesn’t know I’m dead. Only after the winter (really, after we started sleep training her, and I started getting some sleep for the first time in 5 months, and began doing some reading again), did I begin, like Persephone, to emerge from the underworld, to look around and raise my head a bit like a sun-struck prairie dog when the frost is finally off the grasses. Maybe, I thought, maybe I’m still alive.

 

Things I think about since I looked Death in the face that I didn’t really think about before, except through the lens of literature (Proust and Flaubert specifically):

Aging, friends, memory, the narrative arc of a life, the signifigance or insignifigance of character, what people remember about other people, what they forget. Maya Angelou famously said “people will forget what you said, they’ll forget what you did, but they’ll always remember how you made them feel”. Is that true though? Lately I have been reconnecting with lost friends, old acquaintances who I knew and spent time with as a child, as a teenager, back in Boston. I live in California now. I haven’t lived in Boston for 14 years. Yes, this is related to the fact that I almost died when my daughter was born. I think on some level having gazed into the abyss made me feel a deep need to have my existence verified, to feel around me and find some people who know my name, who remember that I was a 14 year old roaming brick sidewalks and capsizing a mercury in the Charles river deliberately in order to swim in it and shoplifting hello kitty stuff from FAO Schwartz and shooting pool in the bowling hall under Fenway Park, banging on a typewriter in piss-stained doorways and walking through Southie projects at 1 am because I’d missed the last Ashmont train back to Dot. If I was, then maybe I still am. How do I know for sure that I was? Witnesses. I suddenly (and strangely, having been drifting and solitary for years, if not forever, having left my hometown behind in a manner both deliberate and torn) felt a need to call witnesses who could tell me not how I made them feel, but rather what I said, what I did, or at the very least that I was, that I was with them, in Boston, many years ago, and I was as real in my young body and my same name as the bricks beneath our feet had been, as the muggy summer air we breathed. I need now more than ever for somebody to say “I remember that face. It’s so good to see your face again.”

 

new poems 11/29/17

  A dream
Storm-stopped
en route to Nantucket
I could board a ferry but
I can see from the jetty-
waves as high as a prison wall
The thunderous churning
sends up phosphorus white spray
and whispers fictions.
I decide to inquire at this small public house
in what once was a whaling village
where the bus deposited me
and I’m pleased to learn there is a room they rent by the night
in the tavern tradition
to pilgrims, wanderers, the lost, the storm-stopped.
I have plenty of money and feeling serene
and grown-up, I climb
a narrow buffed pine staircase
to a warm dry cubbyhole under the slanted eaves
one small window facing the ravenous, ore-black Atlantic
one wool blanket on a narrow bed.
*
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fish-eye
It’s what they call a fish-eye picture
lens curved to create an illusion of expanse
something, yes, of the detached surveillance,
the idiotic lingering of a fish
drumming its fins against lapping water
in dim, silty shallows.
There you are: tan coat, unlocking the door of your silver Prius.
It’s obvious (from the irritated look on your face
and your intense focus on the clicker) that it’s never occurred to you
you’re being watched.
*
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Shame
A diseased forest
sweeping arms of spent trees
their obscurity born of nature and inertia, not intent-
they permitted no pathway,
no companionship.
Any message chipped in their moldy skins
any mound of stones
was grown over, sucked down into the muck before it could meet
the eyes of an Other who might understand, advance, take heart, encouraged.
The sour smell of abandonment hung close to the ground
a stifling breathable fog.
The sun in those days was just a myth
or an ancient, pre-verbal memory
if someone somehow had been able to tell me
it still
was there
in flamboyant indifference
traipsing above the impenetrable canopy
I would have thrown back
my soft skull
and laughed.

weathering

Planning for winter storms
in the first week of September.
it will rain, and the wind will come in, furious
from the open ocean
rattling my home
before it runs into the hills
to hide its face.
Burgers watches as I pull old nails
hammer in new nails, shift the hanging
clay pot of sweet basil (flowering, going to seed)
to face North, not West,
move the Thai basil (tiny purple leaves, brittle twiggy stem)
to the stairs beside the lemon tree, dill, and fruitless strawberry
then she closes her yellowgreen eyes to doze
in the dirt beneath the one small, slowly ripening tomato
that emerged from the shady cave of the porch this summer.
Weird summer, summer of fires in forest
and suburb, tear gas hanging over the cities
summer of (Home Depot tiki) torches aloft,
vehicular homicide, and the open stating of allegiances to Devils
naiively assumed, in many blinkered quarters, to be extinct.
Now comes the Fall of hurricanes and floods
of rot and rubble.
in the wake of isolated and celebrated examples
of survival
of countless refusals to connect the dots, to repudiate
ill-begotten theories of coincidence, synchronicity
accident or innocence
it will be claimed that benevolence is a noun, and not a verb.
So I’m shifting everything around.
the Rosemary fell from a ledge, and I righted it.
The jade holds our instruments upright-
guitar, banjo, ukelele-
but can’t keep them in tune.
In the months ahead,
Whiteness willing
we’ll still be here, but under blankets
refusing the full shelter of the indoors
singing loud and drunkenly.
our imperfect harmonies
will contest the wind.
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*painting by Liam Golden www.liamgolden.com

Cheat Lake ’93

The plastic basins sit in the sink. I would say “kitchen sink” but there is only one sink, spring-fed, in the cabin my father and uncle built with their friends on the first backwater of the Cheat Lake in West Virginia almost 50 years ago. The basins are now used to soak crusted egg off the white plastic plates with their pea green and yellow floral design. The plates, like the colored glass lamp hanging over the table and the embroidery of mushrooms on the wall, are relics of 70’s beer and cigarette bacchanals, before us kids, when the place was still called “Mecca South”.

The basins, however, date from the early 90’s, and before they were used to soak breakfast dishes they were used to collect my father’s excess bodily fluids, mostly bloody phlegm, as I recall, brought up by long bouts of a painful, hacking cough.

They came from Ruby Memorial Hospital, and are still, 24 years later, the easily identifiable (at least to anyone who has spent a lot of time in hospitals) hospital pink that they were in 1993. My memory of my father’s facial features has faded more- much more- than the color of these plastic basins.

The pink is very tasteful, actually, which surprises me when I go back to the family place once every year or two and re-discover them. One of my aunts built a house on the property and lives there year-round now, and the past few years my cousins have been bringing their small children for impromptu family reunions. I always find the basins still here and notice again that the pink is not a bubble-gum pepto-bismol pink but rather a dusky, purplish-pink, somewhere between blush and bruise.

That summer, the summer of ’93, my father was hospitalized for a month (or a little more? or a little less?) with a septic knee infection (I think this is what it was? All I really knew at the time was that the knee was the size of a grapefruit, and it was very serious). My older brother was in Mexico visiting Aunt Julie and Tio José, and my mother, panicked and doing a less expert job of hiding it than she generally did, mostly stayed at the hospital. That left me largely at the cabin with a dumb Brittany Spaniel named Calvin and a field mouse-obsessed orange tabby tomcat named Popcorn, listening to the same mixtape cassette (Duran Duran, U2, SWV), or top 40 country music on the radio, eating toasted and buttered english muffins when I got hungry.  I also learned how to meditate by following the instructions in a worn paperback called “Yoga Meditation”  which I had purchased at the used bookstore in Morgantown. The cover had a photo of a lady in a white leotard with long blonde hair sitting in lotus position with a tall candlestick burning in front of her.

I would walk the narrow path hacked into a ridge of the steep hillside, following the shoreline of the backwater below, until I got to what I had designated as my meditation spot; a boulder protruding out over the long drop to the lake, with a small, quiet stream running beside it. I would sit cross-legged, close my eyes most (but not all) of the way, count and concentrate on my in-breaths and out-breaths, and try to notice my thoughts as they came up and dismiss them, like blowing a soap bubble out towards the lake, watching it drift and pop. My favorite type of meditation was 360 degree listening meditation. I focused on individual sounds, and then gradually learned to notice them together, to be aware of the spontaneous symphonic qualities of sound. The stream running close by on my left, stillness as it fell over the ledge and the splash on the rocks below as it continued on it’s way down to the lake. Wind in the thick,  bright green foliage all around me. A cricket somewhere behind me. a distant jet-ski’s roar and stop. An outboard motor idling as someone pulled into a shady fishing cove on the opposite bank. loud laughter from the Graziani’s dock, echoing over the backwater. The hum of a plane overhead. By the time I was back at the cabin, changed into my bathing suit, and wading, then diving into the cool, sun-dazzled green water of Cheat Lake, my mind was often nearly empty. It may not be an accurate recollection, but I do not recall feeling lonely or scared.

At some point, after maybe two weeks or so, Grandma came down from Pittsburgh to stay at the cabin with me. She brought white bread, chipped ham, mayo and iceburg lettuce. She brought milk and Frosted Flakes. She brought a semblance of normalcy, and a flurry of activity. To every day, it’s project. We hiked up to the bright, sunny pastures at the top of the property to pick blackberries. Grandma with a kerchief tied over her silver hair. We tried our hand at fishing from the dock. We collected firewood. We built a “handicapped ramp” up to the front porch of the cabin out of clay that I dug out of the lake by the bucketful and large flat stones that I dug up all up and down the shoreline, and hauled up the path in a little red Flyer wagon. Grandma explained that the ramp was because my father was going to get out of the hospital and come back here, but would have no flexibility in the knee, and would certainly be using a walker or a cane, if not a wheelchair. I see now that my grandmother conceived of this project as a way of occupying my time and distracting me, as a way of giving me some structure (little did she know I had done fine without it), and to give me Optimism writ large, as a concrete thing I could feel and hold, even build myself, one stone, one handful of wet clay at a time.

Optimism was sort of a moot point for me, though. It really did not seem conceivable to me that my father would die. When I was near him I was enormously, inarticulately concerned with his suffering. I felt his suffering physically, in my own knobby, twiggy wisp of an almost-pubescent body. But at that time his death, his inevitable death, for a full-blown AIDS patient in 1993 had virtually no hope of survival, simply was not real to me. His death belonged to the realm of impossible- I should say impermissible– things, and so did not concern and pre-occupy me as it has off and on in all the years since it did occur.

When Grandma drove down to West Virginia from Pittsburgh and hiked in to the cabin with groceries, straining to haul her petite body over fallen trees that blocked the path, she may have brought, tucked in with the groceries, a fashion magazine. I can’t remember, but it strikes me as likely, because both my mother and my grandmother bought me fashion magazines as a form of reward or comfort. My mother always gave me the hulking behemoth September issue of Harper’s Bazaar. Grandma may have brought me the July, or the new August Vogue.

Decades later, it is with the eyes of an aesthete, a now confirmed devotée of Fashion (studied at Parsons, apprenticed to a bespoke tailor, etcetera), as well as for many years a practicing visual artist (Junior year of college painting in a Paris Atelier, etcetera) that I see the darkish pink of these hospital spittoons in the sink. I think, “I would like a linen dress in that color. A cashmere tunic with big pockets and a scoop neck. Silk lounge pants. Suede high-top sneakers.”

I am well aware of what they are and how they came to be here. He did insist on leaving the hospital, despite the doctor’s warnings that it would kill him. As my mother never tires of reminding me, I get my stubborn, bullheaded streak, as well as my temper, from him. My father came back to the cabin on an old pontoon boat, ferried in by loyal, deeply good, gutter-talking, chain-smoking, large, loud-laughing mountain neighbors who had known him since he was a child and loved him. He used the ramp that Grandma and I had built. He was not well and I distinctly remember him, after having insisted on going out sailing and getting caught in a storm (that stubborn streak again- Death be not proud!), lying on the sofa under an electric blanket and a couple other blankets, shivering, irritable. I lay down beside him, put my arm and leg over him, and lay my head on his bony, caved-in chest, determined to give him whatever warmth I had.

We returned to Boston when the scent of Fall was on the air, just in time for the start of school. He survived for almost two more years after that summer; an incredible feat considering that he had no functioning immune system of his own at that point, only a sister who was a blood match, and who was willing to have white blood cells sucked out of her body and pumped into his body to buy him a little more time.

Sometimes I think any normal family would get rid of those pink plastic basins. But then I realize that “normal” doesn’t mean anything. There is no “normal family”, just as there is no “normal person”, no “normal life”.