Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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After I had carried her those nine months,
those two hundred and eighty-four days, each
with its sheaf of hours, each hour fanned out
into minutes, into seconds, as though time had been
sliced thin as onionskin —
After I’d hauled this cache of cells as it swept
through a kind of rough evolution, devising
arms buds and sex buds
and the buds for twenty milk teeth —
And then birthed her, my cervix cranked open,
a rusty hinge. And the pain —
what a tree might feel when lightning splits it
and the two halves fall away —
Then I realized — I’m not proud
to admit this is what it took — that everyone
was lugged in the sack of a woman’s body,
a woman stretched past reason
or slit with a steel scalpel.
Even if she left that baby right there
without counting the pearly toes, thumbing
the miniature knuckles, even if she didn’t
look into the face, neutral as Buddha,
before thirst even. If she was drugged
or relieved and the baby whisked away, still
she gave this child every intricate bone of both feet,
the hollow vertebrae, tiny liver,
lungs that fill with air for the first time
and begin, without a lesson,
bringing this world in and releasing it.
Did Mary feel this when the angel came to her
holding his useless lily? Not in the surfeit
of gilt frames where she’s poised,
serene, but those few where the artist knew,
had seen women already crushed, bowed.
I was standing in the long hospital corridor
when the knowledge entered me.
I didn’t want it. It was grief —
extending back through time
and reaching into the future, all these babies,
all these mothers with their hearts
beating outside their bodies. And now
I was one of them, lashed to the human line.
Ellen Bass’s poem “The Human Line” [February 2007] captured the transformative power of giving birth. What really took my breath away, however, was her generous acknowledgment that some babies are born through surgery. With six words — “or slit with a steel scalpel” — Bass included my childbirth experience in her poem.
My first son was born in a frightening emergency cesarean section after doctors found that he was experiencing fetal distress. Though I was determined to have a natural childbirth with my second, he too was born by cesarean section after an arduous labor that lasted more than twenty-four hours. Bass’s poem brought fierce, unexpected tears to my eyes. I realized for the first time how much shame I still carry for not having had a “real” childbirth. With six simple words she lashed me to the human line.