Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The animal years

Twenty-seven years ago my son was born, and I turned into an animal. Gradually I've returned to my human state, but I still remember the animal years, when my primal nature ruled.

He arrived two weeks early. I was in a theater lobby about to see March of the Falsettos, created by an old college friend, Bill Finn, when my water broke (10 years later, when I was pregnant with C, Bill's next extravaganza, Falsettoland, was making its debut, but I was afraid it would bring on premature labor, so I missed out on both plays). I didn't have enough money for a taxi, so I begged the guy at the ticket window to cash in my ticket. He stalled but eventually relented. The friend I was with asked me whether she should go with me or stay and see the show. I said, No, don't waste your ticket, go see the show. Incredibly, she did. Now if it were me, and there was a choice between seeing a baby being born and seeing a play ...

Since my water had broken, I knew I would be giving birth within the next 24 hours. Once the membrane is ruptured, bacteria can enter the womb, so if labor doesn't progress, the doctors take over. At the Maternity Center, my midwife, Gene Cranch, laughed when she saw that I had brought baby undershirts to embroider. "You won't be doing much of that," she said, the first clue that labor might not be a walk in the park. In my prenatal classes, the trope had been that it was "hard work—that's why they call it labor." In fact, labor was more like death throes. It felt as if my body were being blown apart in slow motion, with these weird trancelike moments between explosions. After 12 hours of excruciating contractions, I finally got the urge to push. I had been told it would feel a little like having a bowel movement. In fact, it felt exactly like having a bowel movement, and I tried to hold back, not wanting to "poughkeepsie" in public. Just as Gene started to cut an episiotomy, I was hit by an irresistible urge, and little J—feeling just like a huge turd!—blasted halfway across the birthing table. He was about the size of a large Cornish game hen, and his hair was crimped in tiny finger waves. At first I was stunned and maybe a little disappointed that he seemed to have my curls instead of Other's glossy black hair. Once the afterbirth came out (it was filled with multicolored tubes that looked like electrical wiring), my entire escutcheon had to be stitched back together. Other was asked if he'd like to cut the cord. He turned a little green but did the deed. And a few hours later, we were sent home to our seventh-floor walkup on Thompson Street with this tiny baby we didn't have a clue how to care for.

It didn't take long to learn. I couldn't bear to let anyone hold my beautiful golden boy (turned out the gilt was jaundice and he had to be hospitalized and placed under "bili" lights for a few days to help his immature liver metabolize bilirubin), and when my milk came in, the hunger to hold him intensified. When I nursed him, it felt as if the fluids in my body were rivers rushing to the sea. It was totally bizarre—in a good way—that he could find sustenance by sucking on my body.

Some people get postpartum depression. I got postpartum mania. I couldn't sleep. I stayed up at night cutting up my old T shirts to make baby wash cloths. I taught myself how to use an Afghan hook to crochet him a little rainbow jacket. I wept admiring the calligraphic whorl of his navel, the little rosebud of his penis. In short, I fell in love. And for 10 years, until the arrival of his little sister, we were passionately in love (somewhat to the alienation of Other).

It saddens me a little to look back. I know that at the age of 27, he has long forgotten those early ecstatic years. He doesn't remember the hours we spent lying together on the daybed reading Dianne Wynne Jones or the treks we took all over lower Manhattan looking for fans (he had an autistic obsession with gyres) or the car trips to amusement parks or the art projects or the card games or the ... He seems to remember mostly being sidelined by his (spoiled) little sister. It's as though the love affair never happened. I still love him, but it's no longer reciprocal. I know that's normal. He's not supposed to love me that way anymore. He's supposed to find adult love elsewhere. And he has—a couple of times. And I'm glad. I want him to be happy. But I also feel just a tiny bit jilted. (Was that how he felt when his sister was born?) He's a good, dutiful son. But I'll never be able to recapture the wonderful wildness of the early years. He's just not that into me. He's moved on.

1 comment:

Robin Amos Kahn said...

What a beautifully written post. It reminds me of the early days with my daughter and brings back so many wonderful memories. (Except the pain. I loved your description.)

Keep writing!