Today marks the second anniversary of my discovery of the life of Rita Therese. To honor her and the millions of babies for whom we march, pray, think and sacrifice, I’m sharing a very personal story I wrote about how I learned to really be pro-life. I always thought I was, marching, politicizing, and probably judging too. Yet, it wasn’t until I didn’t want to be pregnant, not forever, but for the moment, that I really got it. It was in accepting the difficulty that I found myself and really started to enjoy all of this.
The story is extremely long and extremely dramatic so readers beware. Its also about labor, so boys beware. Its probably also still a rough draft and not at all funny and I’m embarrassed to even have thought or written most of these things, and with all of the running metaphors, I really should be faster. But, since I can’t be in DC to march for the babies, I’m going out on the most risky creative writing limb I’ve ever gone, and trying to be honest about what it feels like to have my own while continuing to pray that others can except the joy every baby, no matter how inconvenient, brings. To me being a mother is like running an endless marathon that makes me laugh and cry harder than I could have ever imagined, and I am eternally grateful to have been given this opportunity.
A Great Race
The runners sweat drips steadily and peacefully offering the dark hard road its gentle rolling moisture. Just outside my fifth floor window, the pattern of pounding hardens and slows at the wet hill; its incline stifling the swift, continuous stride of their rhythmic feet, the muggy air sticking to its steepness, the cadence of each step slowing towards its unrelenting landing, their socks soaking the rain are soggy. Each step is one closer towards the finish of this Great Race. They are a sea of muddled effort, a community of isolation in tandem and competitive contest in parallel motion. They stare at the road beneath them. Its monotony is inflexible. The cheers of the sidelines are unable to change its interminable blackness. Their clothes are light and revealing the form of their bodies, made of spandex and rayon, their color black with neon flashes. Their reasons for running are confused and frustrated by the incline of the hill, its gradient muddying their purpose, precipice rising with each cold step.
I lay on my side. My eyes brew with envy towards the foggy glass barrier. They continue to pass by, impacting me much more than their knees. I would like to capture the air beneath each foot just before it strikes, that single moment of human flight. I imagine flying by with speed and long legs, toned and tight, without veins, cramps, or extra pounds. My body light and free, my midline strong and balanced, as I soak the sideline cheering, determined and fast, smiling and well trained. My stomach is calm, and unlike the year before, I do not vomit over the highway’s side, in a disgusting display of too eager too early, unable to endure the swishing and churning of nervous acids threatening to expel. My joints, rejuvenated, do not pound. They glide and absorb the landing. They rebound with bouncing speed, each step faster than the last.
“Maybe next year,” I whisper hopefully as I shift my stare below to my feet, swollen and veiny, tired and cramped. The floor beneath them is parquet, small pieces of dull wood composing a puzzle frustrated with no beginning or end. It is just like the one in the living room at home, but hopefully, cleaner. The walls, covered in maroon colored, fruit patterned wallpaper circa 1986, the year of my birth, or some other year of unfortunate fashion, suffocate. I wonder what this room designer is like, the one who decided the color of dry blood for walls looked upon for courage and strength. The one who put that window there with the perfect view of cycled flight fast and free. I think maybe that I hate her.
A few thousand steps before this hill each racer stood behind the start line attempting to balance anxiety and self -assurance, apprehension and preparedness. For me, the moments before a race are always the same. The physical hunger is subsided by nerves unsettled by the fear of the shotgun, as I wonder if my feet will do what they ought when the sound is heard. My speech is hurried, quivering, and shaking, and it exposes my crazy. My shoes, recently purchased, are brightly colored cushions on which I rely to absorb the looseness of my joints. I step up as close as I can to the line. I’m almost bouncing; excitement intensifying all the way to my fingertips painted red and vibrant, sleek and loud, and I cannot seem to shake it out. I inhale, unable to catch the air all the way. The height of the breath remains out of reach, stifled by the pounding of my heart. The gun is a pop, the signal to go. My shoes do not absorb the first strike, or the tenth. It is a sloppy stride with too much distance between each step, heels landing flat, and hips bearing down. The height of each breath is still dangling above me, as I wonder if I will complete even one mile. Then, the first burst of moisture is felt on the small of my back, at the point of sciatic pressure and lumbar curve. It gently rolls, spreading to my neck and forehead, each bead a wet release of encouraging stamina. With its break, I find my stride. I begin to fly for millions of singular moments between each pounding rebound.
This pregnancy, too, began with a line. A faint shade of pink, a delicate color for a statement so strong. Its paleness marks the start of my 40-week gestational marathon. At its sight, buckling knees, sinking hips, shoulders surrendering into the concaves of my chest, flatten my immovable feet further. My breaths exhale to the pit of my stomach, yet they fail to move me at all. The lump in my throat sits large. No matter how tightly I close my eyes, or how much the burrow of my brow reveals my worries; the sight of its positivity remains the same. Hours earlier, the public display of gagging at the site of raw chicken had already indicated pregnancy. The midnight sweats catapulting my head from my pillow and into the toilet further signaling my suspicion. I raise my eyes, watery and beginning to swell. The sight before me was a pale reflection of fear and doubt, disbelief and question. My mind fills with waging battles between midnight bouts of vomiting into porcelain, with early morning toddler wrangling with swollen eyes and creaking joints. Images of three lap children on one airplane with strict aviation laws and other passengers, trips to the grocery store with two hands, three babies, a shopping cart, and produce displays within a toddler’s arms reach, pushing strollers the same size as small European vehicles, crawling under tables to pick up Cheerios, continue to thwart my motivation to move, to blink, to breath. All I want to do is run. To feel the pavement below each strike, to soak its impact fast and hard, to shed my fears through dripping sweat, my feet the vehicle of freedom and distance, my will its driver. Yet, as I strain to lift my heel from the floor, my muscles are tense and inflexible. I am stuck.
I had seen that line before, and I had been ready. There was no regret, no apprehension the two times before. The knowing awareness of her tiny beating heart, pulsing with each of mine, mount the blame already welling, further halting my feet and their steps. Unable to meditate on the life within me, or grapple with any of my practical impediments as the parental unit of three children two and under, a spiral of self-pity commences. The guilt is heavy and thick and so is the fear. I look at my arms, and regret their lack of tone. My waist still thin, having never worn that dress. My skin, beginning to age prematurely for its number of years already looks tired. My free time to be traded for naps of tired desperation. At 25, I feel old.
There is a peculiar resentment of my fertility even though I know how precious it is, how delicate, how fleeting. While I am aware of the tiny humanity clinging to my nourishment, relying on the walls of my body and making I do not yet appreciate her, know her, want her. The guilt for harboring such thoughts debilitates my breaths into unrelentingly confusing gasps and sobs. My two children fight and squawk in the kitchen over blueberries and juice boxes, as my husband knocks on the door at the sound of my sobbing. With nine grueling months ahead of me, my breaths continue flickering unsteadily, barely able to support my stance at all. I rest my hand on my womb and search for life, but I can’t yet feel it. The end is millions of miles from that bathroom mirror, and I am desperately seeking a path to escape, to run away as fast as I can, to avoid the reflection staring back at me.
I do not run. “God knows,” I repeat to myself, gently coaching moment after moment, day after day, even though I don’t believe it. But, growing a baby is a commitment of mind just as it is one of the body, and I refuse to give up. It is a marathon of life, a resurrection of sacrifice, and this is my turn to give what I’ve got.
Its precipice is my looking out this window as laboring my third child intensifies, still wishing I could run away.
The sheets on the bed that detains me are itchy, confining, and hot. I place my hand on its scratchy covering. I stretch each finger long and wide; their violent texture an inconsolable foundation for finger’s working so hard. I beg the pressure to escape my fingers red painted tips, too flashy a color for birthing a baby. As the height of the pressure declines and releases, I stand so as to shake the labor out from my feet, to release it with kicks and flailing limbs thrusting their way towards nowhere.
The gown is draping, revealing and hot. It does not move with my body. It stifles. It hangs. It sticks. It’s too big, too ugly, too borrowed, and not made for a woman so small or with so many opinions.
The bathroom a few feet away, might as well be ten kilometers from the squishy ball on which I sit, leaking and swaying. It is made for stretching and sit-ups. It is used to ease each mounting pressure with movement, to break the monotony of the bed’s stillness. As if rocking will make it end sooner or squish could absorb the pain.
I breathe in between. My husband is in my face breathing with me. His face is gentle. He is confident of the strength inside me, of my ability to pace, and make it to the end. He can see the womanhood I possess, and all of its feminine power. Yet, as it tightens again, I am weak, and unfeminine, with nothing left to push, and nothing left to give. I feel incapable of handling what is to come naturally for a woman, but probably not one with such small, childlike hips. I dream of running the fastest 10 kilometers of my life in the face of someone who believes in me. Then, the strength for one more contraction comes out through the gasp of my breath.
The haze will not release the sun. It is stuck, just like me at too few centimeters. I am not close, and if I hear the number 6 again, I think I’ll rip out the needle and throw it at the bearer of “only four more to go!” The cheer is meant to be one of encouragement, but with what seems like an eternity of painful distance between one and ten, my screams become grunts of anger.
“Concentrate, you are doing great. It’s just a few miles more” he tries to encourage using words I like, metaphors I understand. My gaze continues in envy, toward that window. “Stop looking at them,” he says catching my focus. He hopes the race ends soon because the envy is distracting, and he is tired, too. The runners now are stragglers, their landings hard and painful, their clothes soaked, their bodies heavy. The good ones have crossed the finish. They eat bananas, compare their times, regret their performance on the hill outside the window through which I blink and stare.
Each contraction, like a hill; the intensity in its rising, lactic acid burning, focus on the breath, my muscles are ripping apart. Each one is growing stronger, a mounting pressure emerging steadily every two minutes. It is as if at first it asks its permission. It hopes for acceptance as its intensity grows. It exists nonetheless, and continues to climb in disobedience.
The sounds of hearts beating muffled and quiet continue to determine the course and pace of my labor. Our beats, united in both stress and calm, as her fast pulse is in sync with mine. She is squeezed, yet endures, moving down. It is difficult, though, to think of her, or anyone else, in moments that feel like such insurmountable personal weakness. I bear the consequence of another with parched breath, dry and stale. The faces of those surrounding me are all in mine, as I demand they push both my spirit and already bruised back. Yet, no amount of muscle or sweat could absorb my body that feels much too small to bring forth the life of my own, let alone someone else’s.
The sound down the hall is of a woman’s final push. It is a desperate scream and a call to God. The newborn cry follows. It is perfect and pure. It could be heard as motivation, of a finish line close, just a few more breaths. Yet, my concentration to bear down and breathe is baffled and thwarted. My envy is fueled by a finish line crossed by someone other than me. I request help with the pain. My sister interrupts, “Just one more. Pretend it’s a mile.” I do one more. She’s a runner, too.
They pray around me, with beads of peace and rhythm, so long as I don’t find it annoying. The repetition reminds me to breath, to experience my body. I listen to its strength, one step at a time, one cycle into the next, one bead after the other.
“It’s time,” the doctor says, and my eyes well with tears. “Are you excited?” I ask, with the finish line in sight, and they are crying, too.
The lights are bright, and reveal too much of a lady. The stirrups offer cold support, but their presence seems more appropriate on a horse for someone strong enough to use them. The mirror should be thrown and cracked and broken. The silver table, ready to greet her, with a test and to find her weight, seems too cold, far away, and rather judgmental.
My stomach tightens. I close my eyes. My breaths astonish my body’s dependent weakness, its bending and bruising. They hold my limbs, hanging and disconnected. I push. I pray. I cry.
The moment is the same each time for each race, not the circumstance but the feeling. The cadence slows, my muscles cramp, my heart beats fast, and my breaths can no longer keep up with its rhythm as airways tighten and restrict. I am pushed to the point of puking, or my shoulder bleeds from a messy fall, my knees smash into pavement, and I cannot remember how I stood up or why. To quit is impossible, but continuing seems so, too. The temptation is to be still, but that’s when the pain sets, swelling to the point of bursting. That’s where the will is made, the pain ignored even though I’m screaming, the movements persist not automatically, but to the tempo and tune of “almost there, cycle again, breath once more, exhale now, land and absorb, bring flight to it now, strike again, another step closer, inhale, repeat.” Then it’s over. The ending is immediate and abrupt. The path of the course, the rhythm of my treads, their circles and landings in duplicated recurrence are erased by the pavement behind me. The tempo of my body is made still, as my mind begins to race with adrenaline, sigh in elation, bounce in jubilation. Life is clear, and I am capable. My memory is oblivious to its trauma, my mouth grins a gloating smile, soreness is hung by happiness, and a sweaty release goes unnoticed. I did it. I finished, and the road behind me no longer matters.
The Ring of Fire is the name for this moment in labor. New life at the threshold of birth pushes to escape. Its breath is not yet present, but its power is full and robust, demanding to be noticed as it paralyzes and humiliates, authorizes and inspires. Then, it is a slide and a slither, a sobering instant streamlining unfathomable pain with a blink and a cry. The physical relief is not at first noticed. Rather, it is a surge of joy just as powerful as the pain, overwhelming just the same, grateful gasps resounding and repeating.
The room and its window no longer matter. The walls, the floor, the lights, and their faces are a background blur.
Her name is Rita.
I am her mother.
Her cries cleanse us both. What was once fear is purified by her gentleness, what was once saturated by guilt is transformed by her innocence. This baby I never thought I wanted, lying naked in my arms. Her innocence is exposed, my desire for her insatiable.
The first look between a husband and wife after giving birth surely must exist in eternity. The recollection of yelling, cursing, and nearly strangling him moments earlier is erased and forgotten. His smile is one of proud fulfillment, tears revealing his thanksgiving at the sight of his second baby girl. Memories of the gentle acceptance spoken by his first knock on the door in the moment of my discovery of pregnancy echo. His strong arms are protective, surrounding my frail figure, a tender reminder to breath slow; their embrace coaching my anxiety to absorb into the kind beat of his heart.
Awe is what I feel as she is given to me. My shaking arms hold her, as she is placed directly on my chest. Her tiny breaths are in sync with mine. These first moments of life hold humanity’s most important truths. It is where innocence stems, newness is revealed, and purpose is born, all in the form of a baby. She is a miracle made flesh. A person, there all along, when I looked in that mirror and had all those questions, faced all those doubts, but I didn’t believe it. She was there all along, in me, all along. And with her in sight, the race so hard, so long, so painful, is forgotten and left behind.
A gaze is created through the reflection of myself in her, so small and new. It is an eternal stare, one of incarnate union that no one but I, her mother, can claim or recognize. There is finally a visual depiction of the language silently communicated by our bodies since the moment of her conception, a significance and purpose that I did not understand until her 7 pound body, made from and kept by the flesh of my own, lays there blinking and cooing at her brand new world. The victory is her presence, her body my reward.
364 days later I ran the Great Race again in a personal record. Five fast miles in, with the barrier to my left, and my window up five floors to my right, there is a hesitation in my stride. I begin to slow out of a curious desire to stop and stay awhile, to let that spot impact my knees just a little longer than my pace and its energy want. As I look up at my window from the other side, it was gratitude in place of envy, freedom in the place of guilt, desire in the place of regret. The road race’s finish line is a ways ahead of this spot that marked my effort, my desire to flee, my decision to accept, the courage to sacrifice in the Great Race of motherhood. I pause for a moment, praying and cheering for those women in their beds, with their itchy gowns and ugly walls, in their panting and breathing, their swelling and their cramping. “You can do it,” I cheer and I hope they can feel my motivation because each and every one of them is doing great, and so am I. With a wave and a smile I ran to the finish having already experienced the victory long before my clock time indicates.
“Did you win, Mom?” my oldest, age 3, blurts out in enthusiasm as I return home to our home, quite comfortable in its mess. He stands sturdily with his favorite racecar in his right hand. His hairs stick like wires, long eyelashes blinking quickly and inquisitively. He is barefoot and strong, clumsy and curious. My husband stands tall cooking breakfast with a smile, offering water, supporting me still. My daughter, age two, bounces happily towards me, her blond curls, voluminous and buoyant, spunkily rebounding with each of her steps. There is chocolate on her face and she only wears a diaper. She swiftly wraps her arms around my leg, her happiness exuberant as she repeats her sounding joy, “Yay, Mommy!” Baby Rita, just one day from her first birthday, sits content and glad, still in her pajamas, her tiny palms clapping while cooing and laughing. She would jump to me if she could, her smile containing the most cheerful peace, her chub the perfect amount for a happy baby.
“Absolutely,” I reply.
Linking with Kendra because, to me, my baby’s life is a miracle 🙂