I am 36 weeks pregnant, which means my baby is about 18.7 inches long and the size of a hefty papaya. The article I'm reading on my phone while I sit on the toilet at work tells me that I must pay close attention to changes in vaginal discharge, and if it is too watery it might be life-threatening amniotic fluid, but on the other hand, thick mucus-like discharge could signal that labor is mere moments away. I squint at my underwear to determine the consistency of the goop there. I briefly consider snapping a picture and sending it to my husband James for a second opinion, but flush the toilet and leave the bathroom instead, waddling as I go.
Back at my desk, I draw an unidentifiable round fruit on a post-it note, label it “Papaya,” and stick it next to 33-week head of celery and 30-week bike helmet. If I had seen anyone else doing this prior to being a hormonally-driven ball of mush, I would've rolled my eyes so far back into my skull they might've gotten stuck. But pregnancy has a funny way of thawing parts of you—your memories especially. It chips away at the ice that once surrounded your past and casts your old pains in a new, rosy hue. As I fight the urge to spoil what strange item my baby will be the size of next week, I rub my belly and wonder if I judged my own mother too harshly. I am seven years older now than she was when she had me, and I think about that more often than I should.
Twice a week I leave my office to walk down the ever-colder, gray streets of Boston for a maternity yoga class. On their online calendar, the yoga studio labels the class "Blissful Stork: A mind and body alignment seminar," a name which still makes James laugh and ask me things like, "Did you find your inner bliss today?"
While I roll my swollen body around with the other ballooned soon-to-be mothers, I scrutinize our instructor Joanie: a woman six years younger than me who, despite an exceptionally elastic forward fold, seems utterly unprepared to ever have a child of her own. Perhaps that's judgmental and I'm sure deep down inside most of us have a competent, put-raisins-on-celery-to-look-like-ants maternal instinct that's just waiting to emerge the moment the stick has two lines, but Joanie is a white woman with the chakras tattooed down her spine and a cat named Harmony who she only feeds four days a week because she wants to "encourage her natural hunting instinct," so I'll let you decide.
At the start of each practice, Joanie has us “feel our feet root down through the ground and hold our palms up and open to receive the light” in Mountain Pose—Tadasana—which involves a whole lot of nothing and makes me unbearably restless. In Tadasana, you are supposed to rearrange your thoughts and breathing into some zen-trance to ready your body and mind for spiritual awakening, to “find a new center by staying still.” I usually just peek at Joanie, imagining her incense-scented life.
"How old are you, if you don't mind me asking?" I asked her after my second lesson. Moisture pooled on my lower back and I prayed the dampness between my legs was only sweat. Joanie was barely flushed.
"Twenty-four, and I know what you're thinking!" She leaned in with her finger raised, and for a second I thought she was going to cheerfully bop me on the nose. "How can a woman who has never had a child lead a maternity class? Well, don't worry, I have five sisters—all older, and all with children, can you believe that? I even delivered one of them. Do you want to stay for matcha tea?"
I wasn't sure what matcha tea was and I didn't want to admit it in case it was some superfood designed to create the perfect fetus and I should've been drinking it all along. So I said, "Thanks, but I've got to run. See you next week."
My mother had been twenty-three when she had me, even younger than crazy Joanie. And she raised me without a partner, without even knowing who my father was, according to the hushed accusations my grandmother flung at her when she thought I wasn't listening. Did that mean I could forgive her? Now that I was in the secretive club of motherhood, could I remember her differently? Kindly? I wasn’t sure.
One of my earliest memories, when I must have been no more than five years old, a red-cheeked and needy child, my mother stood in our Arizona backyard, arms spread to the sky, chanting into a storm. A storm in the desert was a near-sacred occasion in my childhood home, our version of Christmas Mass. And if a normal scattering of rain and thunder was Christmas Mass, this particular storm was the second coming of Jesus. Huge bellows of wind gusted her back and forth and back and forth, but her legs held strong amid torrents of rain. She turned then, her dark, tangled hair blowing up around her wildly beautiful face, and having seen me staring from the back porch, beckoned to me to join her. I couldn't hear her words over the booming and crackling of the sky, but her mouth was moving and she threw her arms about. I scampered towards her, wind and rain stinging my face and soaking my socks. Once we were together, she held my hand in hers and we swayed, her singing a mantra I didn't understand, and me shrieking along with her, joining my voice to the storm's.
Did that mean I could forgive her? Now that I was in the secretive club of motherhood, could I remember her differently? Kindly? I wasn’t sure.
I came down with pneumonia a day later. My grandmother, who I called Maureen, shouted at her for this, pointing from me to her to outside to her to me again. My mother was unperturbed. Maureen plucked the thermometer from my mouth and pressed her fingers to her temples. We drove to the hospital, just Maureen and I, as my mother did not like to go anywhere that required a car to take her there. I was poked and tested and given medicine and fed cherry Jell-O and had hands laid on my forehead and then eventually a few days later I was allowed to go home.
My mother seemed surprised by our return, and said, "Back, are we? How are you feeling, sweets?"
"I'm hungry," I said.
"I can't even look at you," Maureen said.
My mother smiled at me. "There's a wren's nest out back, want to see it?"
And it went on that way. Sometimes my mother would go too far and Maureen would wave her finger and stomp about, sometimes bringing me with her to stay at the local motel to "think about the state of things at home." I didn't mind these intrusions, because they never lasted too long, but I looked forward to all of the new discoveries my mother would have to show me when I came back. On evenings I spent away from her, I wondered what stories the stars were telling her that night. Had the barn owl returned? Was it warm enough yet for the wildflowers to begin blooming? Were the coyote tracks still imprinted in the cracked mud? Did she miss me as I missed her?
A few years after the pneumonia incident, I started attending the public school at Maureen's insistence, despite it being thirty minutes away. Each morning Maureen and I would get into our car and she would drive me so far away that eventually the bumpy, red-dirt roads would shift into paved streets, lined with homes that looked like dollhouses. I would sit at my desk in my classroom, drink cartoned milk in the cafeteria, and learn everything the teacher told me, and then I would go back home in the afternoons and unlearn it all with my mother.
I'd say things like, "Today Mrs. Hubert taught us about how in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue," and "Today we learned that there are nine planets in the solar system and I can name all of them," and "I can do long division."
And then she would say things like, "Glad to hear they're making up rhymes about genocide," and "They should be teaching you about the planet that's dying right beneath your feet," and "Long division is cool."
Then we would leave my homework scattered on the kitchen table, even if it was long division, and race each other to the dunes. Our slanted home was right on the cusp of the desert, a wood and slate creation that looked out on endless sky, a thousand red boulders, and ten thousand prickly shrubs. If you faced north, it seemed like our house was the only mark of civilization for miles and miles. Out there, my second education would begin. My mother taught me how to craft a psychrometer to measure the moisture in the air, and understand which readings meant a storm was on its way. She taught me how to scrub sand out of solar panels and to grow a vibrant garden on the fewest drops of water. We tracked animals and monitored dens. I gave a name to every jackrabbit, rattler, and kit fox; my mother told me not to get attached.
In my adult life on the east coast, I've come across many people who, having heard that I grew up in the desert, say things like, "I bet you really appreciate all the greenery around us now, huh?" If I'm in a good mood I will laugh and say, "Sure, sure," and if I am not in a good mood, I will say, "You know, I had actually seen a tree before I moved out here." What the people who populate my world now don't realize is just how full of life a desert can be, if you know how to look. My mother knew that better than anyone.
I am 37 weeks pregnant, which means my baby is about 19.1 inches long and the size of a head of romaine lettuce.
The closest thing I have to the desert now is a row of tiny cacti on my windowsill at work. They were welcome gifts for when I got this job, an entry-level position as an environmental planner which should have led to far more promotions than it has considering the amount of time I’d been here. I guess it’s fair to say I’m not the most dedicated, but after a few years of telling the city which shrubs to put where to mitigate 0.01% of carbon emissions, you kind of lose the zest for this type of work. Despite my coworkers’ good intentions with the gifted succulents, I had considered just sweeping my arm across the desk and dumping all the tiny, prickly reminders into the trash can. Fighting against my instinct for the melodramatic, I had chosen instead to ignore them, hoping that without my attention they would yellow and die, sinking back into their potted dirt. But cacti are resilient, as I knew better than most, and they continued to grow and bloom and watch me as the years went by. Now, after I shake the snow from my hair and hang up my bulky, faux-fur trimmed parka, I smile at the little pieces from home. I use a dropper to measure out exactly the amount of water each needs to thrive, and I rotate them throughout the day to ensure 360-degree sun exposure. As I said, pregnancy has made me soft.
James has begun to ask questions, questions that once would have made me snarl and snap, but now send me into a melancholy remembrance. His attacks are nothing short of strategic....
Capitalizing on my hormonal weakness, James has begun to ask questions, questions that once would have made me snarl and snap, but now send me into a melancholy remembrance. His attacks are nothing short of strategic—he'll ply me with my favorite take-out chana masala, assure me there's nothing he'd rather watch more than some horrid reality show for the hundredth time, and cradle my swollen feet onto his lap. And then he'll say: "Thinking about names… Any family inspiration?"
Or: "Any childhood holiday traditions you want to keep up?"
And more direct: "Is there anyone you want to… call? Anyone you'd want there when the baby comes?"
To which I reply, "I don't know, the Pope?"
To which he sighs.
The following recollection is one that my therapist identifies as a Defining Moment. My therapist is a slender, nervous woman in her early forties. Her name is Britta like the water filter, which I used to find funny but now it's as neutral to me as Melissa or Rachel. Whenever I start a sudden bout of crying or other unexpected emotion, Britta will ask, "Does this remind you of a Defining Moment?" which is another thing I used to find funny.
The Defining Moment in question occurred in seventh grade. All around me, the girls in my class were hosts to miraculous changes in their figures. Overnight, it seemed that the entire 13-year-old population of our small town had grown breasts, figured out how to buy pants that actually fit, and developed a secret new language built on tampons, bra clasps, and whether or not that was, in fact, the outline of a penis in Harry Feldman's gym shorts. The entire seventh grade, except for me. Puberty had left me behind—flat-chested in loose-fitting clothes with no inkling or interest into what in the world could possibly be in Feldman's shorts.
As you might imagine, this hormonal inadequacy left me socially bereft. But on that particular day, there was a glimmer of hope: Career Day. The announcement of Career Day ignited a pride in me so instantaneous that I strode up to the sign-up sheet, red pen in hand, and wrote my and my mother's name so large that they took up three spots total. After all, which one of these townie kids' idiot parents could compete with my brilliant mother? The rest of the school day, I imagined a line of hairdressers, mailmen, car salesmen, and tour guides all being bowled over by the sheer power of my mother's scientific brain. I may not have had the kind of cleavage that made even the eighth-grade boys trip over their own feet, but by God I would have the status that came with an educated parent.
I talked about this revelation nonstop to Maureen on our ride home. Maureen seemed worried, and kept saying things like "Well…" and "I'm not sure," and "I know, but." When we finally rumbled up to our home, I leapt from the car calling for my mother.
She emerged from the porch door with a smile for me, kicking off her boots with her notebook tucked under her arm. As I chattered, Maureen set to chopping vegetables for dinner, coloring my prattle with the sharp snaps of the knife on the cutting board. So invested was I in my own fantasies, I missed the usual cues of my mother's anger—her face clouding, her eyes flickering. A good five minutes later when I had exhausted all the benefits of her coming to speak to my class, there was silence. A tense silence, I realized.
Before my mother could speak, Maureen jumped in. "This could be good for you, you know. You've forgotten how accomplished you are; you could bring in the book you've published—the kids would love to see that beautiful nature guide. And the journals you've been featured in… You could talk about the grant!"
"The grant's been gone for years now," my mother's voice was cold.
“Well then, your new book, didn’t your publisher say—”
“I lost the contract.”
“You lost it? But I thought you said…” The vegetable chopping had stopped.
“It never existed, all right?” My mother ran her hands through her hair. “I made it up. I thought… it doesn’t matter. The book’s crap. The grant’s gone. I’m not going to fucking Career Day.”
She turned on her heel and slammed the porch door behind her. The sound of the knife against the cutting board resumed.
This was the first time I realized that my mother was not happy in our life together. Britta says this type of realization is very common, that nearly all children realize at some point that their parents' lives aren't all rainbows and matcha tea. We had talked through my childhood months prior to my pregnancy, and I thought I had said all that needed to be said on the matter. But now we revisit these moments, wading through the once black-and-white recollections that have since turned gray.
When Britta brings up Career Day in response to my newfound fondness for my childhood, I say, "Did you know a lot of parenting articles say that it's actually good to keep a degree of distance between you and your child, and that helicopter parenting leads to anxious children?"
"Do you think your mother visiting your school one time in the entire period you went there would have counted as helicopter parenting?" she asks, pen at the ready.
I'm feeling defensive so I say: "You know I hate when you answer my questions with other questions."
There were good memories too, I wanted Britta to understand. Sure, my mother never visited school, braided my hair into ribbons like the other girls, or made me peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with the crusts cut off, but was that really mothering? Are those pretty, surface-level details what actually makes a mother? I wanted Britta to hear the sound of my mother's laugh when we watched the wrens arguing and squabbling for the best spot on our fence. I wanted her to know how it felt to run my fingers along books my mother had published, beautifully illustrated nature guides, each minuscule brush stroke on every thistle a testament to her patience and devotion. I wanted Britta to feel how it felt to scream next to her in a desert storm. Most of all, I wanted to Britta to understand that no matter what my mother had done, there was a part of me that would forever long for her to come back.
I continue to think about this later when I'm on my yoga mat, trying to copy Joanie's movements to "open my hip flexors", but Joanie doesn't have a twenty-pound head of romaine lettuce strapped to her middle so the comparison is pretty unfair. As I try to force my knees to my mat, I peer at the other pregnant women around me. What are their Defining Moments? I wonder how their mothers loved them—did they wipe their tears and tell them sweet lies about the tooth fairy? Or did they love them by ensuring that their children could survive on their own; that if they were knocked to ground, they could get back up? And if those mothers were the ones knocking them down in the first place, was that love too?
After class, Joanie asks me, "How have you been doing? Seems like you had a lot on your mind today."
I wonder if that's a polite way of saying: you suck at yoga and your hip flexors will never be as open as mine. "I've been doing all right," I say. "Due date's right around the corner so…"
She smiles with her teeth. "A lot to be excited for!"
I am 38 weeks pregnant, which means my baby is about 19.6 inches long and the size of a winter melon. I don't know what a winter melon looks like so I search it, and then I imagine how large my vagina would have to stretch to give birth to a winter melon, and then that makes me queasy so I quit the internet for a while.
Since I'm liable to shoot a melon-sized person out of me at any given moment, it's time for my maternity leave office party. My coworkers flick on the lights and yell, "Surprise!" when I come into the pink-and-blue-streamer-covered break room, even though I had already been invited to the event on the company Google calendar. I act surprised anyway, and smile at the sprinkled cake in the intern Charlie's hands. Nearly the whole staff is here, and I don't delude myself to thinking it has anything to do with own shining personality; Charlie is well-loved in our office and I'm positive he was persistent in securing RSVPs.
We pop open sparkling apple juice and divvy up cake slices and scoop ice cream and I am bombarded by the advice of other mothers—and a few brave fathers—in the office. Most of it is useful: baby massage techniques for reducing gas, the absolute necessity of owning a vibrating cradle, the hot water bottle on the stomach trick to ease colic. Some of it is foreboding, like, "Hope you saved pictures of yourself before you got pregnant, because you'll never look that good ever again," and "Just wait until your husband pretends he can't hear the baby screaming in the night, that's when your marriage really gets good," and "The first shit after you give birth, my god I can't even tell you."
Some of it is downright peculiar, offered mostly from a perpetually frazzled woman named Theresa, such as: "Don't nurse when you're angry because the baby will digest those hormones and grow up spiteful—that's what happened to my nephew!" I nod amicably to all of it, but imagine myself shoving the cake in their faces instead in an increasingly violent manner as the minutes tick on. This is my pregnancy, I wanted to carve that into the wall where everyone could read it. This baby is mine and mine alone. Whoever said it takes a village to raise a child was obviously more well-inclined to society than I was.
This is my pregnancy, I wanted to carve that into the wall where everyone could read it. This baby is mine and mine alone.
The baby begins kicking me, sporadic thumps that make my hands fly to my stomach and my face tighten. I become all at once aware of Teresa's cloying smell, a patchouli-scented cloud that envelops me when she leans in to emphasize a point about postpartum chest-to-chest bonding. I lean my arm on the table to steady myself, only to realize I've put my sweater sleeve in a glob of sticky chocolate syrup. It's all far too much and my stomach knots and heaves. The baby kicks again, and then I am throwing up—retching into the trash can by the coffee machine, white chunks of undigested cake flecked with rainbow sprinkles, and aware that all conversation has stopped.
Despite deserving-of-a-raise Charlie, who rushes to my side to hold my hair, the reassuring jokes and pats on the back of the other mothers, and my own baby making its presence known inside of me, I feel completely and painfully alone.
My mother got worse following Career Day. Or maybe I grew more intuitive. I noticed that she wasn't sleeping, and I would often find her in the same chair early in the morning that I had last seen her in the night before. She talked less and less, choosing instead to grunt or nod or simply ignore Maureen's questions. She wasn't interested in my math homework. What began to really worry me was when she stopped taking notes. Her blue notebook, a spiral, lined, well-loved member of our family, was left behind on the kitchen table at an increasingly frequent rate.
On the drive to school one abandoned-notebook morning, I asked Maureen, "Do you think Mom is okay?"
In my memory, Maureen looked weathered. She wore a thick cotton scarf wrapped around her thin shoulders, despite the oppressive heat. Her hair was streaked with more gray every day, and there were deep circles under her kind eyes. In retrospect, I realize that I rarely considered her as a person in her own right; to me at that age, she was not much more than a constant presence, a warm figure who fed me and drove me and tried to brush my hair, complex consideration was not required. How sad this realization makes me now. How must it have felt for her to watch her only daughter abandon her dreams? How must it have felt for her to devote her life to the care and love of an indifferent granddaughter?
"Your mother is complicated," Maureen said to me. "Sometimes that big brain of hers loses its way… Did you know, when she was your age, your mother once tied up all of her belongings in a canvas bag, strapped it to her back, and ran away from home?"
"Where did she go?"
Maureen smiled. "She walked about a mile along the Gila River before park rangers picked her up. They said she was in the middle of building a surprisingly sound lean-to and settling in for the night."
"What did she say when you found her? Were you mad?"
"I was just happy to see her alive, the crazy girl. I asked her, why did you do this? We hadn't fought or argued. So I said, why do you want to run away from home? And your mother said, I don't want to run away from home, I just want to run towards something else." Maureen tapped the steering wheel, her gaze far away. "I guess she never really grew out of that."
I am 39 weeks pregnant which means my baby is about 20 inches long and the size of a honeydew melon. Next week I'll be 40 weeks pregnant, full-term, which means my baby will be the size of… a baby. A scary thought. Next week will also be the last week of Blissful Stork class, and I'm feeling more nostalgic than I expected about it. Three of the other women in the group have already abandoned our tiny tribe to the perils of real-life motherhood. As I press my toes into the purple foam mat and inhale the lavender smell, I think about how Britta was right about this class, but if she tries to make me admit that, I'll remind her of the time Joanie asked if I was considering consuming my placenta.
"Helloooooo goddesses," Joanie sings as she takes her place at the front of the studio on her 100% recycled, sustainable yoga mat. I let Joanie's voice wash over me, her greeting-card inspirations fade into a soothing hum, allowing me to unclench my jaw and shove my mother far from my mind, at least for the next hour. I settle into Tadasana easier than usual, welcoming the chance to stand still and try my best to think about zen-things. With the rest of the class, I take a deep breath and then—
"OH!" My eyes fly open.
Fluid floods between my legs. I cover my crotch as if to somehow plug it back up. It's too early for this to be what I think it is. I have another week, my baby is only a winter melon right now—a sharp, wrenching pain follows. I almost double over.
"Oh no! Oh no, oh no!" I stammer.
Joanie springs into action. "Okay ladies, we're going into labor! Everybody stay calm!"
She puts a toned arm around me and starts to herd me somewhere. A thousand thoughts are flying through my mind: Where are my shoes, the nursery paint isn't dry—can an infant die from paint fumes? Was my mother scared when she went into labor—was Maureen with her? Is Maureen happy in Arizona by herself? Is she still alive since the last time she sent me a birthday card? Oh my god I'm having a baby, it doesn't have a name, where's James?
"Can someone call my husband? Joanie, can you call James? Joanie?"
"Don't worry about a thing!" She hands me my coat, my bag, my shoes, and brings me outside. "Breathe with me. In, out, in, out. That's it, keep going."
She guides me into the passenger seat of her bright yellow Volkswagen Beetle—at any other time I would have had something snide to say about this choice of vehicle—and hurries around to join me. I look out the window and see the other women waving to me from the door of the studio, giving thumbs-up and grinning. I close my eyes and let Joanie take me to the hospital.
The morning of the day that would contain the Most Defining of all Defining Moments, I knew something was wrong as soon as I woke up. Is that true, that some ancient instinct urged me out of bed that morning? Or are statements and feelings like that only applied in retrospect, meant to reassure ourselves that there was no possible way we could continue dreaming of sugar plum fairies while our loved ones were having heart attacks or being shot or swallowing pills? That on some level, we always felt what they felt?
Existential pondering aside, I did look for my mother the second I woke up. Her bedroom: the blinds were drawn; the bed was empty, her comforter crinkled on the floor. The kitchen: no kettle boiling, no notes or observations being scribbled at the table. The porch: the anemometer clicked as it whirled, but there was no sign of her. I doubled back inside, a strange sensation twisting up my throat. The attic, the bathroom, the living room, the closet under the stairs, even my own closet, all empty. On my second pass, I noticed her boots were missing from their usual home by the back door. But where was the note? Why weren't my boots laid out for me to join her? Why didn't she wait for me?
I flinched away from her touch and was too worked up to feel bad about the flash of hurt on her face.
Panicked now, I raced up the steps to Maureen's bedroom. My knocks quickly turned into pounds. I called her name over and over, urgency rising with each second.
Finally, my grandmother opened the door on my fourteenth knock, and I knew she rushed because her pale feet were without her slippers. Somehow, that's one of the things I remember most about that day—my grandmother's cold, pale feet.
"Baby, it's not even half past seven. Jesus, are you supposed to be at school? Is it Monday?"
"It's—no, it's Sunday, I—"
"You look ill, did you throw up?" She pressed a cold hand to my forehead.
I flinched away from her touch and was too worked up to feel bad about the flash of hurt on her face. "Mom's missing. I looked in her room and downstairs and outside and her boots are gone."
My grandmother started moving. She stepped into her slippers, and pulled on her overcoat even though it was late April and plenty warm already.
"Was there a note?" She asked, rushing down the steps.
"Not on the fridge? Or pinned to the back door? Or—"
"I know where to look. No. No note. Nothing. Where is she?"
My grandmother retraced my steps, peaking around the same corners and flinging open the same doors as if I was too stupid to have known where to check.
I wanted to scream. I was the expert on my mother. I knew her inside and out. I knew her from the tips of her wild hair to her unpainted toes. How could Maureen not see that there was evil afoot here? That she had been kidnapped, dragged against her will out of our home? That there was no way she would have ever willingly left without leaving me a note? After another useless round of upstairs-downstairs-outside, my grandmother tapped her fingers against the kitchen counter, staring hard towards the desert.
"Should we call the police?" I asked.
"If my daughter left without leaving a note, it's because she didn't want to be followed.” She paused. “Let's have breakfast."
Seeing my stricken face, Maureen added: "She'll be back."
The morning passed with no sign of my mother. And then the afternoon. And then dinner. I kept my vigil on the porch, refusing to let up even for a moment. When I had to, I squatted and peed in the dirt like a coyote. Still, there was no sign of her. By early evening, my mind was buzzing with different scenarios of her distress: She was trapped under a huge rock; she had fallen into a ravine and her leg was broken; she was dehydrated and stumbling lost through the desert. In all of these imagined crises, she was calling for me.
When night fell and Maureen finally fell asleep in the chair by the door, I packed my backpack, stepped into my hiking boots, and set out into the desert.
I scream and Joanie screams with me.
She clutches my hand and power-walks alongside me as I'm wheeled to the delivery room. A surprisingly athletic nurse races us through white and blue corridors, and I try to suppress tears—whether they're tears of pain, of fear, of wanting James, or of a sharp, shocking feeling of kinship with my mother, I'm not sure. Maybe all of the above. Joanie assures me that James is on his way, that he's breaking a hundred traffic laws to be by my side, and "until then, I'm here with you; I'm not going anywhere."
We arrive at a beige, well-lit room and I am quickly lifted from chair to bed, groaning all the while. Labor is coming on "hard and fast," according to the nurse as she relays my condition to the medical personnel assigned to help yank a new life out of my body. Joanie nods vigorously at the instructions the nurse gives her and takes point by my left shoulder. I catch a whiff of lavender oil on her and wish I was back in Blissful Stork class.
I'm instructed to breathe and hold on because James is coming! and breathe some more. I feel bad about all the mean thoughts I've had towards Joanie and I'm thankful for her hand in mine. I squeeze it harder and let a few tears sneak out. A new rush of pain. I scream again and Joanie screams with me.
The police tracked me down a day and a half after I set out into the desert. I don't remember being found, but this is what the local newspaper reported:
Local girl Sloan Porter, aged 12, found alive on April 27, 2001 after being reported missing by her grandmother Maureen Porter on April 25. The girl was discovered extremely dehydrated but unharmed six miles from her house in the Sonoran Desert at 2:32pm. Her mother Madeline Porter, aged 35, a local author and Fulbright Scholar, was also reported missing on April 25. Madeline is still missing and the search continues. No foul play is suspected.
The clearest memory I have of that day is Maureen crying over my hospital bed, pressing my sunburnt hand to her face. I had never seen her so emotional, let alone crying, and she kept repeating, "Thank god, thank god, thank god…"
I cracked my chapped lips open and asked, "Where's mom?"
Maureen was shaking her head back and forth, her tears dripping off her chin. "They're still looking, baby. They're still looking."
Maybe it was that ancient instinctual feeling you have about the people you love, or maybe it was because I knew my mother so inside and out, from the tips of her hair to her unpainted toes, but I knew she wasn't coming back, even if she was still alive. She never would.
James comes panting into the delivery room just as the contractions quicken to mere minutes apart. His dark hair is sticking up in tufts, the way it does when he's been running his hands through it over and over, and he's wearing the green scarf his mother mailed him last Christmas. My heart fills with joyous love for a moment, but then my vaginal walls contract again and I want to rip his skin off with my teeth.
"You must be James!" Joanie exclaims, holding out her right hand to greet him while her left is crushed in my grip. "Our girl is doing so great, just a few more pushes and we're home free!"
I hold out my other hand to James and he leaps to take it.
"Please leave the timeline to me," the doctor mutters from between my legs.
Speaking over my head, James says to Joanie: "Listen, thanks so much for getting Sloan here and being here with her but I've got it, you don't have to stay; I'm sure you didn't plan on—"
"She's staying!" I insist, squeezing both hands. "Joanie's staying. I want her to stay.”
I don't want to see James's lifted eyebrows so I close my eyes and listen to the doctor's counting, and when he says so, I push.
Fire ripples through me as sweat beads across my forehead and drips down my face and neck. Joanie’s screams with mine offer minimal comfort and I pant and pant and pant. The doctor counts down again and again and I push and sweat and scream and pant over and over. Exhausted, I loll backward in between contractions. I feel Joanie squeeze her arm under me to cradle my head, and for a moment, she is my mother, holding me, encouraging me, loving me. But it lasts only an instant. Because the truth is that my mother never held me like that, and in that moment, I know I have to let her go. It hurts. Tears stream down my face, and I feel James's thumb rubbing circles into my shoulder.
When we reach the end of the countdown again, a pain so impossible engulfs me, parts of me stretching and tearing in a way I never could've imagined and I keen. Joanie joins her voice to mine, and after a moment, so does James. His deep bellow balances out Joanie's high-pitch and my raw, throaty moan, creating a primal harmony that manages to comfort me more than any counting exercise. A lifetime goes by in a few moments, and the three of us, screaming in unison with hands clasped, push my baby into the world.