Waiting

by Ann Angel

My daughter Emily sits in her father’s recliner, growing more round each day, more full each hour, more rotund each moment until she appears like a piece of overripe fruit. She’s ready to split. She sits in that recliner with eyes closed, rubbing her heavy stretch-marked belly day after day after day. Waiting.

Emily, who should be in school, but is now too big to fit into the desks, too slow to keep up in the halls, and too tired to care, sits in that recliner and sings along with the stereo as it croons love songs and lullabies.

I watch my daughter and know she is nesting. Emily, my firstborn, too young to be a mother herself, moves so slowly now, burdened with the weight of this baby. I watch from the kitchen and see my daughter with skin that glows, her hair pulled back in a French braid. A woman too soon.

She rubs vitamin E and olive oil in circles over the surface that her growing baby has scarred. Her belly has stretched so large that her hands can no longer find the far reaches of skin. She asks me to help her rub the oil in. It is the only small thing I can do to soothe my daughter and her baby.

I squeeze open a capsule of vitamin E and warm the olive oil in my hands before letting it drizzle above my daughter’s mammoth womb, and the tender voice from the stereo appeases me.

I use gentle fingers to make small circles over Emily’s stomach, rubbing olive oil into red lines that extend like feathers on her white skin. The scars, a momento of the daughter my daughter will hardly know.

As I rub, I search for the cushioned shapes that delineate the different parts of this baby, who should have been born weeks ago. I find the solid circumference of her head. I can make out a foot that kicks into skin and muscle. The baby—Emily has already named her Grace—is too large and long to swim now. But she stubbornly refuses to be born. This is her tiny sedition. I can’t help thinking she wants to stay, as long as possible, inside this cocoon of mother.

As my hands slip and slide along Emily’s skin, soothing the stretch marks, I pray they comfort my daughter’s sore heart and sad soul. Baby Grace stirs and shifts as she always does during this ritual of olive oil and E. The head and foot recede beneath my hands and Grace’s rump makes itself felt beneath the surface of Emily’s skin. I cup my hand around the tiny butt, recalling how much Emily and her siblings loved it when I rubbed and patted them as infants. I tell Emily how I used to rock her to sleep, my hand always circling. Circling her head, her back, her butt. “This baby will be just like you,” I tell Emily. I warm more olive oil and drizzle it over the mound of baby. Then I joke, “She’s also going to be the queen of olive oil.”

It’s a stupid joke, really. No better than when Emily comments, now that the baby has taken on so much weight, that walking has become an Olympic feat. But Emily and I, in these final days, make bad jokes in order to ease fear and grief. This is the closest we three generations of women will be in our kinship. Emily’s baby, conceived in a loving but too fragile relationship, is another couple’s miracle.

I look at the calendar and see that Valentine’s Day is only a few days away. This baby should have been born two weeks ago. I tell Emily that her baby must be born soon. And so we walk the mall. We amble past shop windows filled with red ribbons and lacy hearts in preparation for the day of love. We plod past coffee kiosks and candy stores. We walk until Emily can’t anymore.

Sometimes we stop because Emily is just too tired. Sometimes Braxton Hicks cramps falsely warn us that now may be the time. But the contractions disappear as soon as we get back home, and Emily settles her great bulk into the recliner. Baby Grace refuses to be born.

Another day goes by. My friend Anita reminds me that it took spicy food to make her kids want to be born, and so I encourage Grace’s presence with spicy sausage pizza one day, enchiladas the next. I only give Emily heartburn.

A friend advises that Emily walk again. That will make the baby come. But our Wisconsin weather is unpredictable, frigidly cold one day, drifting snow the next. Emily won’t step foot outside because she can’t see her feet beneath this mound of baby. She can’t stand the mall again; Valentine’s in store windows are a sad reminder of love lost and the prices paid.

Besides, Emily says she is too tired, too worn out by the weight of this pregnancy to take another step. So we spend these last few days, Emily in the recliner, rubbing olive oil and vitamin E into stretched and tired skin, singing to baby Grace. Lullaby and good night, you’re your mother’s delight. Shining angels beside, my darling abide.

It is the day before Valentine’s Day. The roads are slippery and dangerous with snow, and Emily and I are the only ones at home when her water finally breaks. I call the doctor. I call her father to pick our sons up from their sports practices, and I call the neighbor to send daughter Jeannie home. Emily has asked her little sister to be her birth coach along with me.

I help Emily clean up and settle her into the car next to her sister. We slip and slide all the way to the hospital. It is nine o’clock at night on the 13th of February. We ride in silence. I turn the heat on full blast and pray we make it in one piece. I pray my daughter will be safe. And I pray the baby comes fast. I don’t want this baby born on Valentine’s Day.

But she is.

Grace, after all her reluctance to come into this world, comes fast, but not fast enough. She is born after only four hours of labor, just a few minutes after midnight on this snowy winter night.

She rests on Emily’s already diminishing abdomen, a healthy and beautiful baby girl. When she cries, I rub her rump gently to soothe her. She calms instantly and dozes on Emily. The nurse is amazed that this baby seems to know the feel of my hand against her skin. Emily cradles her little baby girl while her sister Jeannie looks on. When Emily croons lullabies, we swear that Grace recognizes the melody of her voice. We women sit in that night-lit room and watch snow fall out the window, listening to Emily sing. Sleepyhead, close your eyes. Mother’s right here beside you.

We count Grace’s perfect fingers and toes and marvel at the way her mouth forms a tiny heart shape. Soon enough, Grace will become someone else’s baby girl. For now, she is my daughter’s baby; she is Jeannie’s first niece, my lovely Valentine granddaughter.

This isn’t really my story to tell, it’s Emily’s. But I tell it anyway because I was so fortunate to have a small part in my daughter’s moments with her daughter. It isn’t a cautionary tale so much as a story of love and loss. A story of savoring the details of a baby’s birth, and of missing the minutiae of that baby growing up.

For three weeks, Emily has the chance to love her baby fiercely, to cradle her in her arms, to sustain her with food and song. Our family takes turns passing baby Grace from arm into arm, loving her completely. We marvel at each little movement, the sweet sounds that whisper and coo through those infant lips. Jeannie is sure the baby smiles just for her. My husband and I share the chance to pat Grace’s back and inhale the milky scent of new baby. Emily’s brothers hear the baby whimper and sit with Emily as she feeds and changes and bathes her little girl. Even though it brings such an ache to our hearts to know it is only for a little while, we each love her as much as we possibly can.

Emily swaddles Grace in blankets of blue and pink. She sleeps with Grace in her arms. This birthmother makes the very best of their limited time together. Emily rocks her baby, rubs her baby, loves her baby fully. She is the very best mother she can be for that short time.

In their last moment together, when Emily cradles Grace in her arms and then slowly passes her baby over to her new mother, she does so with a smile. We all, Emily, Jeannie, that new mother and I, stand together and cherish the shared love of this baby, our miracle.

After the baby leaves, we will each become separate stones in our grief. Emily most of all. But for now she smiles as she says her parenting is done. Now it is this new mother’s turn. Emily doesn’t want to hurt Grace with tears. She doesn’t want to make this new mother sad for her. We each stand stoically, witness to this couple’s joy, our daughter’s loss.

Emily’s tears are shed only after Grace’s new mother and father have gone. I stand in the hallway, feeling the weight of empty arms. I can hear the muffled sounds of crying behind closed doors from every corner of our home. And there is nothing I can do to offer comfort. Not now. We are each too raw with our grief.

The days following Grace’s leaving are quiet and sad. But slowly, just as we gathered to share in this baby’s love, we now reach out and gather together to offer Emily comfort.

It takes time. One of the hardest things we can teach our children is how to live despite grief. But, as a family, we do. Slowly, our sadness and Emily’s sorrow are diminished, replaced with love from the distance of this adoption.

This is the story of a birthmother who placed her baby for adoption because she is too young. It is the story of shared kinship, that we’ve learned doesn’t really end through adoption. Like the surface of water broken by a stone, it ripples out into the world to touch mothers and daughters, fathers, brothers, and sisters. This is the story of a unique kinship that forms a family.

It is the story of a baby who was loved and is loved. She brings joy each day to the family who raises her. She brings joy to her family of origin. We know she is happy. We know she is safe. She is loved.

This is also the story of a girl-woman who gave birth and knows sorrow. She will grow up and love again. These days she has dreams. She makes plans for the day when she is ready to have a family of her own.

This is a short story about a baby’s birth, but sad as it may seem, it doesn’t really end that way. It doesn’t really end at all.

Emily’s is a story that began with love; it is about waiting for a birth. It is laden with broken hearts and sad moments. But it is also a story that continues to form joy out of love. Imagine Grace turning into a little girl who knows she was cherished from the first. Imagine my own daughter smiling, knowing she made the right choice, when she receives annual pictures of Grace with her parents, playing, living, loving. Imagine Emily’s tranquility as she places those photos onto the creamy pages of photo albums, her voice a melody of lullabies.

This is the story of an end. But it is also a story of beginning again.

COMMENTS

“WAITING” is one of 29 essays pubished in Labor Pains and Birth Stories: Essays about Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Becoming a Parent.

Ann Angel is the contributing editor of Such A Pretty Face, Short Stories about Beauty. Her biography Under the Influence, the Life and Times of Janis Joplin will be released by Abrams/Amulet in 2009. She and her daughter Amanda are currently editing an anthology of stories about the adoption triad for Catalyst Book Press.

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