Fiction · 06/03/2009

The Motherhood Poems

On the birth of my first grandchild

The baby was born early. Eight weeks early to be exact. They now count gestation in weeks not months. I stood in the hall and heard his first cry. Like a kitten, small and mewing. He was small. Four pounds, three ounces.

For six weeks the baby will be in neonatal ICU, which they say like this: Nick-U, as if it is a small university. There are monitors and feeding tubes and other tiny babies in their incubators. People look sad when they see the pictures of the baby but he is our baby and we are not sad. Smaller babies are born everyday.

Has the baby gone home? Has the baby gone home? Has the baby gone home?

The baby has a name, a long name. A first name, a middle name, a last name, but no nickname. To pick one would be presumptuous – on the part of me, the grandmother.
The baby has a small neck but a strong one. He stretches it so he can look at the window. His eyes are sometimes open. His hands are big for such a small baby.

The baby has his father’s dimples. We can see them now that he has gained weight. We can see them when he smiles. For those of you who do not know, his father can hold two quarters in each dimple, for a total of a whole dollar on his face.

I guess we should say the baby has his own dimples. He has his own thin fingers and long feet, his own double chin and tiny penis. And, yes, we know: when the baby smiles, it’s just gas.

Has the baby gone home yet? Has he been strapped into the car seat in the back seat of the small car and hurtled down the L.A. freeways between SUVs and eighteen-wheelers? Have you carried him up the cement stairs? Did you cradle him in your arms? Did you hold on to the railing? You do know, don’t you, that the rails of escalators in department stores are contaminated with germs, with yeast, with vaginal yeast, as in from the vaginas of strangers.

You will need to remember to wash your hands now. Please. You cannot wear flip-flops when carrying the tiny baby, not up and down cement stairs. Tell me you did not talk on the phone while driving.

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On giving birth

The mother of the baby, my daughter-in-law, lay on the bed in the hospital for four days, trying not to have the baby. Magnesium dripped into her blood to stop the contractions, she had to lie on the bed in such a way that she didn’t disturb the fetal monitor and its faithful record, the thump thump thump of the baby’s heart.

On those limbo days, my son was so tall and his hair seemed especially black and shiny. He was utterly calm when he was with his wife but when we left the hospital and he and I were alone, he zoomed into hyperactivity – talking to me and on the cell phone at the same time, walking fast, worrying. He said, “love ya, bro” at the end of conversations with his friends. In California, everyone says “I love you” to everyone all the time. Is it a symptom of anxiety, an awareness of the tentative nature of life, or a habit? When you live in L.A., one of my students said, you know each day could be the one you die.

Outside the hospital window, Wilshire Boulevard stretched sixteen blocks to the Pacific Ocean where the homeless men camped out on the grassy bluff above the beach and the Mexican peddlers sold them lone pieces of fruit and little bags of peanuts. Inside the room, my son and daughter-in-law were Ohming and breathing. Sometimes her voice was strong, sometimes ragged with pain. To weep, to flee the scene, those were my strongest impulses, but I had promised my son I would stand in the hall. My job: to be the Center of the Earth.

Why was I so frightened for my daughter-in-law? Is Death always among the attending? Hospitals are surreal capsules out of time and place. Britney Spears was down the hall having a caesarian. Men with thick necks stalked Labor and Delivery. Our baby was in distress. Paparazzi camped out front. The doctor, a tall British woman with long black hair, was firm. One more push would do it. One. More. Push. The baby cried, such a small cry, but he was a tough cookie, our baby. He could breathe.

When my son went to Nick-U with the baby, I was to stand next to his wife. They had to surgically remove the placenta, which had secured itself with scar tissue to the wall of her uterus. I threw myself over her and started weeping. I stroked her forehead furiously. You can have painkillers now, I told her, Demerol. Ask for Demerol. Please. This is no time to be brave.

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On breastfeeding

When you are the grandmother, the baby is not your responsibility. Oh, you might get to sit on the couch and hold it occasionally, but it’s not your fault if the baby is not getting enough to eat and it certainly is not your fault if the lactation expert said to feed it with a syringe. No more supplemental bottles, she said. We want to avoid nipple confusion.

Your son calls you. Don’t worry, he says, his voice full of worry, the baby’s fontanel isn’t depressed. No signs of dehydration yet. Your daughter-in-law, you can hear the weeping in her voice even though she isn’t weeping. A syringe? you ask politely. Instead of the supplemental bottle? (You must excise from your voice any trace of alarm. You must be calm, reassuring. You are the grandmother, the paternal grandmother, a whole different set of eggshells.) You go to Travelocity. You click “Anytime.” You scroll for flights. (Syringe feeding? Who ever heard of syringe feeding?) Tomorrow, you tell her, I’ll be there tomorrow.

Oh, but you know how hard it is. The tiny baby has to open his mouth so wide. Almost like a snake, he must unhinge his jaw – for the breast, even the smallest breast, is larger than his head. He must take the whole nipple into his mouth and when the milk rushes down, warm and sweet, it must flood his mouth and his throat. He gulps. His eyes are round and, as yet, unfocused. Is it an adoring gaze or panic? Is he afraid he will drown?

His tiny nostrils are pressed against the flesh and you remember, with his father, pressing your finger, just there, so he could breathe. All this: his fuzzy head, the pulsing soft spot, his round eyes and wild gulping, his grunting against your bare neck as you hold him, waiting for the blesséd burp, his limp body when he falls into sleep, all this you remember. Baby against your heart.

And all this: the doubt, the loneliness, the fear no one can assuage, not even your mother for you are the mother now and even though you might want to hide in the closet, 24/7, crying, you cannot. Someone needs you, a someone you don’t even know. Look into his eyes, he is a mystery. Face it. That’s why his name doesn’t fit him, and why no name would. Who is he? And he gazes at you with unfocused eyes. He does not know you, except by the smell of your skin, the sound of your voice. He cannot see you and, because you are his mother, he may never be able to see you, not clearly. Your beginnings are too close, skin against skin, this is a love affair, admit it. You will never recover.

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On the nature of babies

Does the baby want to be swaddled? Maybe he wants to lie face down on your forearm. Maybe he wants you to walk him up and down the hallway, your bare feet on the worn carpeting. Maybe he wants you to sway back and forth as you hold the pacifier in his mouth and watch television. Maybe he wants you to turn the television off. Maybe he wants you to sing little songs about his short life. This is what you did with his aunt, your daughter, who had colic and ear infections. (Oh, the drawing up of the knees, the jutting out of the bottom lip in pain, these are all so familiar.) Maybe he wants you to sing songs like those you sang to your babies: House of the Rising Sun, Down in the Valley, Mercedes Benz. Prison songs, drinking songs, down-on-your-luck songs, songs – it occurs to you now – that might be inappropriate for a baby.

Although, you must admit, this baby lives in a neighborhood where crime is common. His father, your son, was caught in the crossfire between the Armenian and Russian mafias. A bullet left a hole in his car. The clerks at 7/11 praised Allah for his deliverance. Which, while we’re on the subject: when will the owner of your son’s apartment complex ever realize he is a slum-lord? When will he replace the carpeting? Fix the leaky gas stove? Repair the crumbling plaster under the window? Before the baby starts to crawl, please, and can ingest lead paint.

Oh, these babies, they are like tiny birds. Voracious. They need milk, time, patience, jump seats, car seats, strollers, cribs, co-sleepers, changing tables, diapers, fire-escape ladders, gender appropriate onesies, nightgowns, jumpsuits, coats, hats and booties. They need bathtubs and baby wipes and baby wipe warmers. Plus receiving blankets, don’t forget receiving blankets, you can never have enough receiving blankets. You fold the corner down, just so, to swaddle the baby. You put him to sleep on his back? Not his tummy!? The world has changed, your son tells you. (As if, at fifty-one, you are senile.)

There is a book about mothers and babies you are supposed to follow but you haven’t read it. The words swim on the page like the baby swam in the womb. When your daughter was little, you pushed her underwater to the swimming teacher and instead of going to him, she turned, her eyes open in water, and swam back to you. She was swimming without breath, back to you. She would drown to get back to you. There was the way the book said it was supposed to be and the way it was. This is what your daughter taught you: each baby sets the world spinning on a new axis.

Your husband dreams he is holding the baby. The baby is so strong, he jerks back, pushes with his legs, and your husband drops him. Well, he almost drops him. It’s a dream and so the moment of dropping is the moment of not-dropping. In dreams, life can correct itself automatically. So he doesn’t drop him and when the baby is cradled in his arms again, the baby says, I still love you. Meaning, we guess, “even though you almost dropped me.” This is a dream about listening. The baby is trying to tell us something. But what? We don’t know. Maybe he wants more to eat, your husband says. Maybe he wants us to visit.

If it were my dream, which it is not, the baby would be telling me: I am strong. It is okay for you to love me, Nana. Don’t be afraid. No one will take me away from you. This is the fear and the baby knows it. He knows that his absence would be unbearable. He knows he has already taken root. He knows this. When I hold him and I stop singing, he cries. Soon, he will sing back to me. Oooo-oo, oooo-oo, he will sing, his voice against my neck breathy and demanding.

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Beth Alvarado’s story collection, Not a Matter of Love, was published by New Rivers Press in 2006. Recent work appears (or will appear) in Ploughshares, Cimarron Review, Thin Air, Third Coast, and the anthology, Dedicated to the People of Darfur: Writings on Fear, Risk, and Hope. She is the fiction editor of Cutthroat.