I’m dating this post as January 2018, since that is when it is about in the narrative of the blog… but I wrote it about a year later.
Lying in the blue rocker-recliner in our Boston apartment, I can see through the window to the parking lot of the neighborhood church. Mottled snow dots the ground, not quite new from the storm a few nights ago. On the window sill to my left is a Polaroid of my mother in 1982, age twenty-nine. She is wearing a yellow night gown, with one breast spilling into my infant mouth. She leans back against the bed, her face peaceful but weary. I look up at her with enormous eyes.
It’s barely 2018, and I am thirty-five years old, with my first baby suckling. I am still at the toe-curling stage of breast-feeding, the stage no one but your older girlfriends tell you about. The baby latches, the pain is sharp and piercing. Count to ten, breathe, and it will be gone by the time you are done counting. I support him with one arm, which rests on a friend’s borrowed nursing pillow. The pillow’s main purpose is to cushion my C-section scar, which hurts when I sit up, cough, or move too quickly.
He falls asleep, and I slip a pinky into his tiny red mouth to unlatch. I jiggle him gently, helping him to wake up ever so slightly to learn to fall back asleep without a nipple in his mouth. I hand him to my mother.
I recline the rocker further, and hold a small glass vial of lavender oil to my nose. My anxiety is like an octopus trapped in a dark closet – all arms and desperation, clingy with suction cups on slippery walls. My chest feels hollow, like there is nothing in there but air and maybe a nest of wasps. Inside my belly, where the scar is, I feel a black void.
The night I was in labor, my mother’s eldest brother Rob fell unconscious from an infection. He had a rare blood disorder that eventually turned into cancer. Knowing this years ago, all three of his siblings had been tested to see how well they matched his bone marrow. My mother was an exact match, ten out of ten, what you dream of and pray for when you have a disease like my uncle’s. My mother did everything in her physical and psychic power to produce fabulous stem cells for her brother and my uncle’s body had accepted her stem cells. But he got an infection after the transplant. The night I went into labor was his last night of consciousness. Five days after my baby was born, in the week between my baby’s birth and bris, my uncle died.
Smelling my lavender, that day after my uncle died, I thought about the liturgical reading of the Torah scroll in a Jewish congregation, how each person called up for an honor stays up there one more turn, overlapping with the next congregant before sitting down. It is a dance with tricky choreography, all these people coming and going from sacred space, looking to each other for cues and direction.
It’s not a dissimilar thing in families, the business of being born and dying, often in close succession. On my father’s side, my little cousin was born three weeks after my grandmother died. On my mother’s side my uncle died, and then my son was welcomed to the community and given a name.
My uncle Robert Rosen was a kind, generous man who was loved deeply by many, including three children and a wife, and four grandkids. He was only 74, almost twenty years younger than his father had been when he died, and had started a foundation to study the exact rare blood disease that killed him in order to help others. It had looked so hopeful there for a while, with my mother’s fortified cells. And my mother, who adored her brother, had – literally - poured herself into his healing, prayed and visualized for months, asked dozens of friends and family to join her in visualizing her cells growing strong, and her brother’s body accepting them. Then the transplant worked, she had done the miraculous, and still she lost her brother.
As a brand new mother, shepherding new life into the world, the tragic situation did not, shall we say, help the matter of my high anxiety.
There was no question of my going to Chicago for my uncle’s funeral. But of course my mother went, and my father, and my sisters – all of whom live close to me, and all of whom were on the short list of frontline support I’d been expecting in this first week postpartum. I didn’t want to feel angry and sad that they left me, but I did.
Then, the day after we came home from the hospital, the day before Rob died, my husband came into the living room and said he was coming down with the flu. The octopus in the dark closet clamored loudly, all suction and fear. I asked him to go stay at my parents’ house, to protect the baby and me. My best girlfriend came over and stewed a giant pot of rice and molasses in my kitchen, an Ayurvedic postpartum food that turned out to be all I could stomach for a week. The next day she flew to visit her family in California.
My mother-in-law, who had come to town from Israel, moved in for the week. She served me bowls of rice and molasses, refilled my pink hospital water jug, burped and held the baby, washed the dishes. Defying all folk tales, I adored her and felt she had saved my life.
But before that all happened, there I was lying in the rocker-recliner while the baby slept in my mother’s arms. I listened to the gentle ambient music my husband plays while he gives a massage. I breathed and smelled lavender like a person holding an oxygen mask. My mother held my baby. After forty-five minutes, I felt the octopus let go and sink to a peaceful rest on the floor of the dark closet. There was a soft landing pad in my solar plexus, a tiny spot of solid ground, just big enough for one foot, like when you come to a stream in the forest and find one shaky rock to step on as you cross.