Origin Story by Abby Mims

Editor Acacia Blackwell, Editor's Choice, October 25th, 2018

"In the end coming into this world and leaving it is all bodies and blood, constricting, releasing, changing"

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A personal essay by Abby Mims.

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1.

It is five days before Christmas, 1972. I am curled inside my mother’s womb, almost fully cooked. She is standing at the edge of a frozen lake in Whitefish, Montana, with my aunt, her sister. My father and uncle scrape across its surface in a canoe like a couple of Vikings. They dig into its hard shell with wooden oars, shards of ice flying as they attempt to catch my aunt’s dog, appropriately named Crazy. This is the dog that bolts from moving cars and after them and, once, hitched a ride across the country and back. Now, in the dead of night, he has escaped from my parents’ little red cabin near the lake. The horizon is black and endless, and my mother has lost sight of my father, my uncle and the tiny canoe. She takes a step forward and does what someone might do in bright sunlight—shades her eyes with one hand, attempting to see further. As her foot connects with the ice, it breaks, and her boots fill with frigid water. From behind, my aunt yells, wraps her arms around my mother and pulls her back from the lake’s depths. Then the contractions start.

 

2.

When my son Jamie was born, there was nothing but silence. I knew from watching my mother die that preparing for the moment of his birth was hypothetical and largely pointless, aside from this: give me the epidural. You can read and research and plan all you want, but in the end coming into this world and leaving it is all bodies and blood, constricting, releasing, changing—primal reflexes that miraculously allow our souls to come and go. We are not in charge.

Then I looked at my husband Matt and said, “Why isn’t he crying?”

In the next moment, the room was filled with sound: the wheels of NICU crash carts, a swarm of doctors and nurses, my high, strained voice. labor nurse, the funny one, the one I know my dead mother sent to take care of me, was suddenly there whispering: “The cord was wrapped around his neck twice and your temperature spike, so we were worried about infection. But sweetie, he’s beautiful, he’s fine. Don’t worry.” She winked and then the little man was on my chest, eyes open, cooing.

 

3.

My mother died a year before my son was born, which complicated things immensely. Or more to the point, it complicated things entirely. Another complication: the fact that I lived with my mother and stepfather for two of the last four years of her life and helped take care of her. I believed this had prepared me for a baby, and in some way it had, as she was partially paralyzed almost immediately after they found the brain tumor pressing down on her motor strip. In the course of the tumor’s growth, she lost everything, including nearly all of her language. Interpreting her wants and needs became something of an intuitive art for me, one I prided myself on mastering. However, this intuition was based on a lifetime of knowing and understanding her, whereas the baby and I were complete strangers.

Having him was the only act I could imagine as a salve for my grief, but it simply didn’t work that way. When I didn’t know what to do, the only person I wanted to call was dead in a way I hadn’t anticipated. On some level, given how close we had been, even dead I believed I would still be able to access her, but she was really, truly gone. I also believed that because she died without anything left unsaid between us, I had enough of her wisdom to get me through the rest of my life. But now, I had an endless supply of questions, ones I hadn’t thought to ask her because I didn’t know they existed.

 

4.

They told me I would forget everything about those insane early days of motherhood. Bullshit, I thought. Much of those months were a vivid pendulum of incompetence and terror for me, so much so that I started calling it “Baby Nam” as I imagined it similar to the fog of war: the barrage of life and death demands, the vigilant vigilance, the endless stress, the chaos and unpredictability, not to mention  the convoluted, constantly shifting supply needs and regimens to be followed. When do I need to pump? When do I need to nurse? When does a baby sleep and for how long? Where in the fuck are the clean towels and sanitized bottles? Why don’t we have any diapers in the drawer? Why is there so much fucking laundry?

Each morning, I woke up simply wanting to survive. This was in part because when Jamie was five weeks old, I went back to work from home and met with students in the evenings. We were living thousands of miles away from any family, and I was working as contractor with essentially no employment rights, let alone designated maternity leave. I was also working for a crazy person, a woman who had been so overwhelmed by the births of her own children that she’d sent both to China at six-months-old for a year to be raised by her parents. She was supportive of me having the baby and then she wasn’t, but I had to keep my head down and my mouth shut because we couldn’t make it without my income. We were also trying to do it without any childcare, the lunacy of which wasn’t fully understood for many, many months.

I was equally adrift community wise, in part because three years before Jamie was born, I moved from Portland to Northern California to be with Matt. My mother was still dying when I got there, so between flying back to see her once a month, finding work, her death itself and then getting pregnant, by the time I had my son, I hadn’t made close friends. What I had were the mothers I made eye contact with at the YMCA or the park, those I sensed might be willing to share their own pain and suffering. When I asked them, when, please God, does it get better, they would shrug and squint their eyes as if trying to see into the past.

“Three months? Maybe six months?” they said. “I can’t remember, but it does get better.”

I didn’t believe them.

I was left dazed and confused by it all, lost in the jungle, my only guidance a shitty, broken compass and a two-way radio I screamed into fruitlessly, because its pair—my mother—was DOA.

 

5.

While navigating this minefield of baby, I found myself returning to that winter of my birth. After my mother fell through the ice, the contractions kept coming. She’d found the only doctor in the area willing to let her have me naturally, using Lamaze, but even so, there wasn’t time for an epidural. I came out in two pushes, so fast the doctor nearly dropped me. It was legend, it was lore, it was fact.

“There were days, I swear, you never stopped crying,” she told me. “I loved you entirely, but I didn’t know if I was going to make it through. I was trapped in that cabin alone, everything frozen around me, no park to walk to, no stores nearby, no escape.”

She was 26, and so was my father. By then, they had already been together for a decade. By then, he was already drinking too much and talking about moving to St. Louis to sell cars, where they would finally find happiness, the same way they had planned to in Colorado and California and Iowa and Montana.

“Then my parents came to visit,” she went on, “and the only thing my mother cared about was the dust that had accumulated under the bed. She said more than once that she didn’t understand how your father could stay with someone who didn’t keep a clean house. Can you imagine?”

I had a different kind of partner and different kind of mother; I was in my 40s, not my 20s; I was living in the middle of Silicon Valley, not rural Montana. Despite these differences, I have no doubt about how much my mother and I shared: the loneliness of creating life and then having to sustain it without the village, the roadmap, or really anything but your instincts and your fragile, fragile mind.

 

6.

I went to a therapist during this time, held my one, two and three-month-old boy to my chest as we talked. Her office was cluttered and messy, her waiting room packed with piles of dated magazines stacked on the floor or thrown haphazardly onto a bookshelf. Each time I was there, the frayed edges of her once cream-colored rug came further into focus, and the layer of dust on everything grew thicker. Once, I left a baby bottle behind, and at my next session, she gave it back to me unwashed and moldy. The mold had started travelling up the sides of the bottle towards the nipple, as if it were reaching for freedom.

I had started seeing her when I was pregnant because I was on Zoloft, the lowest dose I felt was safe both for my mental state and for the baby. She didn’t seem very concerned about my child or me until I saw her at 30 weeks, when she presented me with a crookedly printed out study of babies born to mothers on SSRIs. Apparently, a small percentage take their first breaths along with withdrawal symptoms, others emerge with flippers for limbs. I wasn’t sure what she expected me to do with this information, as the damage had hypothetically already been done. I panicked briefly, but then chose to believe that the negative effects of a depressed mother on a child were worse that potentially being born looking more fish than human.

I’m not sure why I kept going to her after that, other than she was somewhere to spout my grief and confusion, especially since each session ran nearly on script. She would ask me how I was doing, and I would say, “Things are ok,” but the tears would have already started.

“But really,” she would say gently, “how are you?”

Then I would start crying for real while attempting to explain how terrible my boss was, the pressures of working from home without childcare or how untethered I remained by the loss of my mother. I said the things to her I couldn’t to anyone else, from my unruly desire to be taken care entirely during this time to my irrational desperation to replace the maternal love that had been taken away from me. I told her about my fantasy of taking the baby home to Oregon, where my step-father and my mother’s friends, a fierce flock of auntie hens, would help raise him. Then there was my occasional, yet terrifyingly specific, hatred for my husband, which was manifested in part because I could not make him understand what was happening to me on a visceral, cellular level, and because he wouldn’t raid the savings he’d spent 20 years building so I could quit my job.

During one particularly long crying jag, she told me her daughter had had colic. She could barely put her down for three months, she said, and holding her meant being in constant motion.

“But she was worth it,” she chirped. “I would do it again.”

 

7.

Despite the all-consuming nature of those initial postpartum months, I could feel the particulars of the experience slipping away from me almost in real time, which I now understand was my mind’s protection against itself. Only a month out, even the details of his birth were becoming fuzzy. Still, these are the things that will never leave me: the exhaustion of pushing for three hours after being in labor for 14, the primal fear that inhabited me when I thought my child had been born dead, the heat of my tears when I held him for the first time, the moment the doctor said he’d have to make a small incision because the boy was stuck sunny side up, and there was no way I wouldn’t tear.

I also remember those first, hot days of summer after he was born, when I bought not one, but two pairs of sweat shorts at Target without trying them on. “So comfortable!” As I was getting ready to take him out for a walk one day, a rare 45 minutes squeezed in-between his feedings and my work, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I was wearing the gray Target shorts and a Kelly-green tank top, also from Target. The shorts hit me at that no-man’s land of mid-upper thigh, a region designed to be flaunted by only the most genetically blessed of teenage girls, and the tank top didn’t quite cover all the aspects of my giant 36DDD nursing bra. My hair was unwashed, I had no idea when I’d showered last, and I hadn’t brushed my teeth in at least 24 hours. Worse, I was sporting sensible running shoes.

There was the unmooring caused by the baby, the chaos of my grief in the middle of it and the chemical reaction between the two, which made the person I had previously been faint and difficult to locate. That day, I realized she had entirely disappeared. I looked at her, at me, and thought, “Who in the fuck is that?”

 

8.

This is what I remember, what I know, but then I think: where is Matt, where is my husband?

Later, he will read this essay and say, “The way you tell the story it sounds like you went through this all alone. I was there too, you realize.”

I know he was there; I can see him. Here he is in the hospital, watching Jamie being born. He saw him come out cone-headed and purple (he is funny, my husband, later describing Jamie’s misshapen head as looking like a tiny, crooked blood-red top hat, a la Abraham Lincoln) and watched as the deft hand of the doctor cut the umbilical cord in a millisecond so that our son could breathe. Another moment, caught on camera: a beautiful black and white shot of Matt and holding Jamie in his palms, minutes into his life. His head is bowed over our son as if in prayer. So yes, he was there, showering our boy and me with such love and attention and joy, but it wasn’t on him to keep the boy alive. It wasn’t on him to produce the milk to feed him every two hours, whether that was in the darkest parts of night or the bleakest fluttering of dawn. Even when he did try and help, after I’d pumped and poured myself into enough bottles to get through at least 72 hours, I’d get up and go to the baby. I didn’t know how not to go to the baby. I couldn’t sleep through the crying, something my husband mastered early on.

 

9.

I have been searching everywhere for my mother since she died. I look for signs of her in cloud patterns and hummingbird sightings, I dig through photos albums looking for pictures not already seared in my memory, I revisit our most memorable conversations in the hopes of gleaning some not-yet-realized wisdom from her. When I was pregnant, this search also involved frequently leafing through my own baby book, which I hadn’t looked at in years. I appreciated the completely typical-of-my-mother-way some pages were entirely filled out, others partially or not at all. The more in-depth record of my life peters out close to my third birthday, around the time she got pregnant with my sister. Birthday cards, a terrible rendition of a pumpkin and a newspaper article with my photo in it from an amusement park were tucked into the book loose and jumbled. I read all her notes about me, and in the details of my birth, I remembered seeing one word in her handwriting: epidural.

After Jamie was born, this detail bothered me, as it changed my narrative, my origin story, one that had been repeated so many times there was no other way to tell it—the fugitive dog, my father the Viking, her water breaking just as the ice did, how fast I came into the world. I went back to the baby book and tried to find what I thought I’d seen, but it wasn’t anywhere. In its place was this: episiotomy. This is a different thing entirely, of course, and yet something else we shared in giving birth.

 

10.

There is one reliable place I can go to find my mother: the 30 or 40 volumes of her journals that trace back to a few years before I was born. When she was dying, I asked her if I could have them.

“They are everywhere,” she said. She told me to scour the house to find them all.

I can’t bring myself to read them, not cover to cover anyway, because they are the only pieces of her that will ever be new to me. For now, they live in my bedroom on a low shelf, along with several dozen of her books on yoga, Eastern spirituality and Hindu mystics. As my son begins to crawl, then walk, he will be drawn to them. I will choose to believe this has to do with reincarnation and the progression of souls through time.

Not infrequently, I will open one of the journals at random to see what is there. I did this a few days ago, as I flipped through a calligraphy sketchbook of hers dated 1978. She was learning the craft then, and it is full notes and practice, line after line filled with different fonts and pen strokes. There are tracings of the alphabet that fill pages, quotes from her favorite authors, snippets of thoughts about life, marriage and me. I find both of us in the form of a prose poem:

Seeing in Abigail so much that is (was) in me: the determination to learn/put your head in over and over/watch me (tell me I’m good)/How to make her know she is beautiful/ merely because; she is Abigail/& That’s beautiful.

I read her precise, gorgeous letters and the words, they sing to me. They are alive.

 

11.

On the most inhumane days of early motherhood, when the little man wouldn’t nap and I’d gotten no work done and the night stretched out in front of me, long and heartless, I would think of my mother alone in the red cabin, surrounded by snowdrifts and freezing winds. I could see her long ebony hair falling in two perfect braids over her shoulders as she rocked and shushed her howling baby. Carrying this image with me, I would put on those terrible Target shorts, put my baby in the stroller and do what she couldn’t with me in those first months: go outside and walk as long as I could before my son got hungry or restless. As I moved forward out there, I would focus on the perfect bow of his lips, the impossible length of his eyelashes, the way he balled his fists and tucked them at his ears as if still in the womb. As I walked and walked towards this new person I was becoming, this mother, what I wanted most was to reach back in time to tell my own that soon it would be spring, and the one thing I knew—maybe the only thing—was that she would survive.

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Header image courtesy of Jessica Dunegan. To view her artist feature, go here.

Abby Mims’ writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The New York Times (Modern Love), Ploughshares, Salon, The Rumpus and The Normal School, among other publications and anthologies. She is working on a memoir and contemplating the idea of a novel. More of her work can be found at www.abbymims.net.

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Acacia Blackwell

Acacia is a writer from Portland, OR, which suits her because sunshine gives her anxiety. She is currently completing an MFA, despite being recently told by Tom Spanbauer that to become a better writer, she needs to "unlearn all that grad school stuff." She listened, and it seems to be working. Acacia is working on a collection of personal essays that she really doesn't want to admit might be a memoir, and a memoir that she really doesn't want to admit might be a novel.