[audio:https://newfound.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/sacramento.mp3|titles=”Sacramento, 2006″ by Carissa Halston]
You’ve only ever had three real jobs: baby, student, nurse. Your Mom called you Baby from the day you were born to the day she died.
Babies cannot—and should not attempt to—make other babies.
Students who know anything about having babies are not actually students. They’re adults, moonlighting as students, studying out of boredom or desperation, reaching, overreaching toward a misbegotten notion that one day, their lives will be their own again. It’s cute, that notion.
Nurses always want babies—an occupational hazard of working in maternity—but really, you should get a hobby before attempting parenthood. You could start small, perhaps with gardening. If you can keep your plants alive for more than a month, then you can focus on growth. If you can get them to thrive, then you can test their mettle. If you can successfully transfer a potted plant to the foggy Californian plots of your long dead parents, and if you can get those plants to live for more than a year, then perhaps you are an exceptional human being who should be granted permission to breed.
The thing is, you are not exceptional. You kill plants. You invariably drown or neglect them. Either way, they die. The same would happen to you, if not for hunger pangs. Some days, you forget to eat. Other days, you eat too much. You are not a plant. You need more than water and light. In fact, you need more than food. You need stimulation.
You take up yoga.
It’s relaxing, people say, because you’re the type of person who other people tell to relax. You’re the type of person who gets instructions on how one properly goes about obtaining relaxation. You should take up yoga. It would help. Right now, you’re beyond help. You’re skipping yoga. You’re skipping it because it’s Saturday and, because you have more free time on Saturdays than any other day of the week, you’re fretting about skipping yoga. Free time does this to a person like you. You fret until you feel it’s safe to stop. When the time comes, you will go to yoga and you will relax.
Maybe the time will come tomorrow.
Then again, maybe not. It’s supposed to be humid tomorrow and the studio will be crammed with the Sunday overachievers, the ones that overcompensate for only coming once a week and, as a consequence, ruin the sessions for everyone else, but no one more than you. You’re the one who needs it most. Your hamstrings are perennially tight, your lower back made of cinched vertebrae and pinched nerves that stand on end when trodden on by inconsiderate Sunday tourists.
Maybe you’ll skip yoga tomorrow, too.
You could visit your parents. It’s been months. You should bring flowers. The plants can wait. Mom always preferred flowers to plants anyway. Things she made you promise: always bring flowers, always sit between them when you visit, always say something—she wasn’t a mind reader.
Cradled between two headstones—one old, the other older—you talk:
“I skipped yoga today.”
She had to be buried next to your father. She wanted nothing less. If she could’ve lived down there with him, she would have. Maybe not lived, exactly. If she could’ve died down there, she would have. If she could’ve chosen to. You stretch your legs across your parents and lie back in the grass, the three of you reclining like a family on the beach.
“Mom, remember that time you said, You never get the distractions you want, so you should make the ones you need? I always thought that was good advice. The thing is, though, that my made up distractions aren’t working so much anymore. So I figure it’s time to make new ones, right? But bigger distractions. More permanent ones. Maybe I should get married or something. Have a kid. But that feels fucked up, doesn’t it? Parenthood as distraction?” She doesn’t answer. Despite the number of times you ask for her opinion and the equal number of times she hasn’t replied, you still somehow expect her to say something. “Maybe I’m just overthinking the whole
thing. Maybe I need to just go do it. Or maybe I need to switch back to ER work, where at least I’d be too tired to think. Then again, I could be doing recovery work in Afghanistan and I’d probably still find time to think myself stupid. It sounds sort of nice, though, doesn’t it? Stitching up soldiers—that’d be the life.”
Weaving paths between the dead to collect the dying, you would probably ask yourself: Do the soldiers look like siblings or couples? Are they in love or in arms? You might see some familial resemblance in what’s left of their faces, in the asymmetrical holes that expose molars and gum lines, redefining the phrase cheek to cheek. The way they’re lying there, feet askew, you’d think they’d died of dancing. You’d find a female soldier, prone against her mate, his face turned away from hers like both were looking for their lost limbs.
“He went from bowlegged to no-legged and she was completely disarmed.”
Because she lacked any hand to hold, you’d bind them at their sides. Your straight, subtle stitch leaves them looking natural, like they were born that way, this brother-sister, couple-soldier, mother-father being, half that looked enough like him that you would call it father and half that you’ll call mother since her face was blistered blank, thick and white as a callous.
“But they aren’t quite—”
—the way you remember or imagine them in death. You always pictured him in uniform, photo-real and perfect. His laugh, always silent in portraits, you recreated in your own and you can hear it now on a battlefield where no one’s ever walked but you. That laugh, inconsistent with her grief, was all you ever had of him. She at least had memories, with sounds as real as wood, sounds that died with her or maybe even before that, displaced by cells that pushed out every other part of who she’d been, her body bloated with an excess that she never let show on the outside, but let it rage in the blood that regularly flushed her cheeks.
You remember how red they were when she refused treatment. When the doctors had asked, she’d been red and ready.
No, she’d said.
She was spending her inheritance, exercising her birthright to die in her own way. Because she didn’t ask what would happen, you didn’t either. You weren’t entirely sure exactly how she died until you got to college.
You assumed a nutrition class would be safe. Unlike Oncology—a course you wouldn’t take until you knew you were ready—Nutrition sounded harmless. Then it turned around to ravage you with one concise thought after fifteen weeks of work: every fucking thing you eat will one day give you cancer. And not the quiet kind like what your mother had or the quick kind like your grandmother, but the kind that comes with knowledge, like you needed any more, like you hadn’t seen it twice. You went in there and stiff-upper-lipped it through the intro—Carcinogens, Development—then you went glassy-eyed during The Four Stages—Mom’s had been Stage Three, going rapidly on Four—but, ultimately, the photos undid you. You wound up wiping your eyes over textbook examples of metastasis and shining ovarian dysplasia that showed the worst scenario, every photo capturing malignancy because no one ever chronicles the benign. At the end of the lecture, there were statistics on the likelihood of inheriting cancer, how it routinely appears in the maternal line, but you were no less frightened at that news than you’d been of the images. They weren’t telling you anything you didn’t already know.
“Death is the only thing that runs in every family.”
When you think about your own death, though, you rarely think of cancer. More often, you think of violence. You fantasize about it. Not a gunshot wound or strangling or anything that involves emotion—
“You know the kind I mean, the sort of emotion that runs high and ends poorly, the sort that happens in movies and, I assume, divorce.”
—but more the type of violence that says, I died trying. You want your life to struggle at the end. You want stretch marks parenthesizing your mouth from when your life forced its way out, face first. You want a hanging. You want the slow, sweet descent of your spine as it cracks the way it never could when your feet held the weight of your head, so filled with convoluted brain. You want a swift shove off a steep cliff. You want to land having soared so hard that your eyes went wet from the air whipping past, the wind that sliced your arms back prohibiting any desire you might have had to throw out your hands, to catch yourself, or break your fall. There are other frantic but unhurried ways to die. Pills. Drowning. Both make for abnormally slow movements toward the end. But they’re still somehow better than disease. Better to meet death halfway than to wait for him to break down your door. That had been your mother’s method. As soon as he knocked, she walked off on death’s arm. She could’ve at least tried.
But if she hadn’t had cancer, it would’ve been something else. Some other disease or accident or war—a war, if only you could be so lucky. The only war you’ve got is completely self-inflicted: you against the world, continually on the offense, you trying to save someone. You’ve already gone through entire series of someones. You bear them like burdens and they’re always so grateful that they offer you the one thing you meant to save. Here’s my life, they say. Keep it safe. But you don’t want another life.
“What fucking good is it if it’s eventually going to end?”
You’ve learned to spot them early, the ones you’ll try to save. You read them clear as headstones. Beloved mother. Dutiful husband. You always know exactly how to fix them, but you need to peer inside to make sure that you’re right. They willingly open themselves to you, but at a pace far slower than you’d like. They need to be saved, nurtured, examined. So you slip beneath their skin. And they let you. You tug at their ends, stretch them wide enough to step inside, first one foot, then another and you’re thigh-deep, deeper, up to the waist, halfway—there’s still time to turn back, still time to save yourself. No, save them. You slip in each arm, cradling yourself, and tuck your head in last. Their insides warm your outsides and you slink into their respective wombs, this series of someones. They always look the same on the inside, but so do you, your face singed in rust, your heart beating against theirs. Everyone always thinks it’s the heart, but they’re wrong, you decide. The heart doesn’t need to be saved. It’s deeper than that. You swim farther in, through them, bypassing the lungs and the brain, the breast and the limbs, past them in their entireties until you’re out, until you’re you and they’re them, each of you individual bundles of organs and neuroses and desires, separate and desperate again. And the funniest part is that none of you were saved—if anything, you’re worse than when you started—and you never ended up making a go at making another person. A pity. You would’ve done a bang-up job as parents, you and him.
“Or him. Or him. Or him.”
You think your maternal instincts would’ve won out by now, would’ve won out ten years ago. Aren’t you all supposed to be baby crazy, Baby: Crazed? In two short days, you’ll be forty-one and all you can think about is how much you still feel like an infant. Forty-one, the last year you’ll ever share with your mother. She outlived your father, the great injustice of her life, and you will outlive them both, unless you count yourself as her extension, which is what you almost always do when you think no one’s paying attention. You’re the addition to her life, the postponement of her death and, if you could just bring yourself to have another one of you, she’d live that much longer.
“But what if I’m wrong? What if she ends up completely unlike me or you? Which parts am I supposed to give her?”
You can’t imagine the process. Or worse yet, you can. You give her your freedom. You cohabit, maybe even marry. You fuck until it’s not fun anymore. You fuck until it’s work. You fuck until fucking becomes “trying” and the “trying” becomes trying, as trying as chats about body temperature and where your ass should be in relation to your legs’ position and the doctors’ interrogations about cycles and hormones and risk. You give her your body. You become her vessel. And afterward, you give her the rest of your life. You become wholly a parent.
That’s what your mother gave up for you. And her mother for her. You imagine it must have been easier then. Having babies was all women did. It must’ve been easier still for her mother and her mother’s mother and all the way back to the beginning, wherever that was exactly, to the time when birth was something sacred, when there had been ceremonies for it—birth rites where women would go to a spot in a field or a forest and lie down and labor. Before women had ever been anything other than mothers, when they’d sweat and fast and give everything they had until there was nothing left. Nothing but a baby. A mother and child, a daughter replaced, no longer herself, but redefined as a mother. And the mother would stay another day in the dirt, nurse the child, and bleed out every part of her former self before returning home as a stranger, her figurative death only ever equaled by her literal one. Burial rites were similar enough: the choice of a personal spot, a plot of ground where everything familiar stops.
Things aren’t so different now. You could stop the familiar. You could stop everything. You could choose a spot, not unlike right here, dig a shallow grave, and push yourself out, push out the part of you that would take your place. And the newer you—the you that would replace the you between these stones—would lie down and let you go. You would let yourself go, whatever your self is, exactly. A baby. A nurse. A daughter. You’ve been a daughter all your life and, like all daughters, a daughter by default. A mother is also a daughter, but deducible as a mother only through the existence of her children. Children imply mothers. Their mothers are understood.
The new you would know that, as soon as you’d let her be. You just need to work up to it. You just need to think of it as something other than work. Think of it as homage. You would be honored. Think of it as idolatry. You would be idolized. Think of it as implication. You would be implied.
“And possibly, finally understood.”
Carissa Halston is the author of a novella, “The Mere Weight of Words,” forthcoming from Aqueous Books, and a novel, “A Girl Named Charlie Lester.” She currently lives in Boston where she edits apt and hosts Literary Firsts.