17 June 2010

First Drawing

This essay was published in the Manifest Gallery International Drawing Annual Exhibit (INDA5),  Fall 2010. http://www.manifestgallery.org/nda/inda5/

It was the summer I turned five. We were driving to California from our home in Kansas in our chocolate, ‘52 Olds. Dad drove. Mom rode next to him upfront. My older sister and I spread out on the couch-like backseat; it was before seatbelts. The floor-well, behind the driver, was my private nook. I’d sit cross-legged, twirling the knobs on the red plastic Etch-A-Sketch. Or I’d lay with my neck supported by the hump that divided the floor, my legs propped up on the door, my toes tickled by the wind whipping through the open window. Looking up at the clouds, I saw faces and animals in their shapes.

     It was there on the floor that I drew a picture, the first that I have recollection of making. Over fifty years later, I remember the specifics and urgency that prompted me to take up paper and pencil. I had something to figure out. In my head, the images were indistinct. They called out for paper. What I had in my head wasn’t real or certain, until it was before me. I drew a picture of a man and a woman—my father and my mother—standing next to one another, naked, facing forward. I struggled to make their bodies right.  What did a woman have that a man didn’t? What did a man have that a woman didn’t?  Most of the time, I could recognize a man as a man and a woman as a woman. But some of the time, it was unclear. I struggled to put down what I knew about man-ness and woman-ness.

     For the man, my father, body hair was the defining feature. A mass of dark swirling hair in the shape of a fully leafed out tree filled his chest and trickled down his stomach. Tufts of dark hair squirted out from his armpits. His arms hung from broad shoulders straight to his sides, with shaggy mats on his forearms. Two oval, badge-like nipples punctuated his furry front. I didn’t know much about penises then. I’d never seen my father or any other man without swim trunks or boxer shorts. So, in that place below the belly before the legs started, I fudged and put in a lot more squiggly dark hair.

I had more to go on when it came to drawing the woman, my mother. I’d seen Mom and Grandma without clothes as they walked from the bathroom to the bedroom. I’d watched them dress. Their breasts were large swaying pillows. My mother’s were more bulbous, my grandmother’s more downward hanging. My mother’s nipples were small, pale pink bumps. My grandma’s were larger and darker, almost brown; they looked like a doll’s wide brimmed sunhat stuck at the ends of her down-to-the-waist appendages. I knew that women grew hair in a triangle-shape below their bellies. My mother’s was dark and thick. My grandmother’s had dwindled to a few, white, strands. In my drawing, I delighted in making my mother’s breasts bigger and rounder than they actually were, her nipples like tiny rosettes, her only hair besides her pubes a curly crown.

Underarm hair stumped me. Men had it and women didn’t--except for my father’s youngest sister, Aunt Esther. I saw it when she did cartwheels across our lawn when she stopped over on one of her road trips cross-country. She wasn’t a woman like my mother. Aunt Esther was more a man-woman, something other. She always traveled alone; she didn’t have a husband or a boyfriend; she had small breasts and narrow hips; she never wore dresses or skirts; she licked her fingers loudly at the table; and she was cantankerously opinionated about everything. She also had hair on her legs. I didn’t understand until later that she was a woman who didn’t shave and was a renegade from society’s expectations of womanhood in many other ways.

I felt so satisfied when I finished the drawing. I had pinned down something important by drawing it. I knew things that I didn’t know before. I had collected my random observations and the flickering semblances of them from inside my head, and made something concrete and real on the paper. This drawing marked the beginning of my study of what makes a man and what makes a woman. It was the beginning of my grappling with my own unfolding female body. It was the beginning of my knowing people by drawing them. It was the beginning of my knowing that by drawing I deepened my understanding of the world.

17 March 2009

Out of the Cookie Jar and into the Sand

This follows the previous essay, "Shipwrecked".  John and I took this journey in February 2009.

Our son Ivan is now sand.

Since his stillbirth twenty-four years ago, we have kept his ashes in the yellow taxi ceramic cookie jar in the spare bedroom. Recently, I read a story that inspired me. It is about a man who helps his elderly mother by finally planting a sapling over his stillborn brother’s ashes. I tell my husband John: We need closure, too. It is time for us to release Ivan’s remains.

But where? Perhaps from the bridge over the Cedar River, a few blocks from our house, where bald eagles soar. Or down river, where swallows skim the water, collecting bugs. Or maybe, in our backyard garden where tombstones mark long gone pets.

Only I knew our second son as living, inside me growing for nine months nearly a quarter century before. Only I knew him as living until he ceased to move within my mountainous belly on a rainy November day in Virginia so long ago. But he was our son, John’s and mine: a wanted child, a child to join his brother, a child to care for and love, no matter what, forever. John had held his son, but only when he was lifeless and blue. John had driven his body to the crematorium to have it turned into the ash we have kept with us all these years.

Much has happened since Ivan’s death: his older brother grown into a man and married; his younger sister, now a woman. So many, many, many days of doing and making and tending strung together into twenty-four years. Most of those years in Iowa, a thousand miles from where Ivan lived and died inside me. All the while, Ivan’s ashes in a plastic bag inside the yellow cookie jar. Rarely, I would lift the lid, reach inside, untwist the tie and feel the talc and tiny shards of his residue between my fingers.

John suggests we take Ivan’s ashes to the ocean, when we go soon on a late winter getaway to a sparsely populated barrier island off the Georgia coast. I agree. It is a place we call our Shangri-La, our Eden. Repeatedly, its elemental beauty has drawn us back. It is where we reconnect with wonderment.

Once on our special island, we ride fat-tired bikes the two-mile, gravel path to the beach. We pass the salt marsh and tidal creek, traveling through woods of palmetto, pine, and Spanish moss draped live oak to the pristine sand. So much to behold on the way: armadillos foraging noisily in the understory; herons, egrets, vultures, and wood storks standing in tall marsh grass or taking flight as we pass; alligators submerged in algae pools or sunning on matted banks; a rat snake stretched out along a bleached log.

We are the only humans on the seven-and-a-half mile expanse of undeveloped, white sand. It is low tide. We walk our bicycles to the smooth, hard-packed margin before the surf breaks and foams. Riding with the wind at our backs, we sail north to where the beach arcs out into the ocean—an elbow of sand with a spit extension that is only out of the water at the lowest of low tide. This is our destination. Biking here is the closest I come to flying. Only in my dreams am I similarly blessed. This spit is a congregating spot for pelicans, gulls, and migrating shore birds that follow the coast and trust this minimally peopled place. Farther and farther out we pedal, water on both sides—waves on the right, calmer but gaining tidal ponds on our left. At this bend, currents from the Altamaha River collide with the Atlantic Ocean. The weather worsens in an instant. Wind pelts us with dry sand. The tide is rising. We are the furthest out as we dare go. John is ahead of me. When I catch up, he is tense with urgency; “We’ve got to do it now! We have to get back.” I pull the plastic bag with the ashes from the daypack. There is no time for ceremony. We grab handfuls and throw them into the air. Some so light it swirls upwards and vanishes like vapor. Particles of bone, like grain separating from chaff, hang in the air for a moment then fall, joining the infinity of sand.

The plastic bag is empty. The spit has narrowed more. Retreating, we cannot discern whether water or sand is ahead of us, whether the tide has cut us off. Our bikes lurch and slide over deepening, washboard ridges of wet sand. We struggle, pedaling into the wind.

Above the danger of advancing water, we look back. Where we had been is gone, reclaimed by the sea.


This essay was published in "Mourning Sickness, Stories and Poems about Miscarriage, Stillbirth, and Infant Loss".  My drawing, Stillbirth on Black Paper, was used as the book's cover art.

It was Halloween. It had been raining for days, a hurricane-driven, whipping downpour. The James River had flooded the tobacco warehouses in downtown Richmond. A sodden sweetness of steeping tobacco wafted uptown to our house. I had spent the afternoon making Jules’ costume: a blue corduroy cape with red satin lining, a fake-fur beard with an elastic strap and an aluminum-foil-covered Masonite saber. He was three and this was his first trick-or-treating. With his candy bag bulging, pirate Jules splashed gleefully through puddles in the blustery darkness. I slogged, big-bellied, behind. As we rushed to get back inside, uneasiness snagged me: the baby hadn’t moved. The baby had been still. Utterly still. No kicks. No flutters. No hiccups. No elbows to my ribs. No knees to my bladder. Had it been for the whole day?
Later that night, I lay on the daybed in the study. Our nurse-midwife, Nancy leaned over me. A stethoscope connected her ears to my eight-month mountainous belly. Nothing. No sound of life.

For a week, I was pregnant with a dead baby. Jules and I stayed home indoors as it continued to rain. We played trains, made little boats glued together from scraps of wood, and read and reread the latest stack of library picture books. I grappled with the unthinkable: the baby would never move again. As Nancy had instructed, I drank increasing doses of blue and black cohosh tea to encourage my body to push the baby out.
At last, my uterus took up a lazy rhythm. At last, the sky was cloudless and calm. The silver maple in the front yard had turned completely gold, but had not yet dropped a
leaf. My parents came from out-of-town to care for Jules at a hotel. Mirabai, another midwife who was experienced in complicated home births, came from Yogaville—Swami Satchidananda’s ashram in the Blue Ridge Mountains—to assist. She arrived just as my water smacked the bathroom floor.
I lay on a low futon in my art studio, a room that was to become the new baby’s bedroom. I had painted it the color of tomato soup, the color of the womb. Sunlight sneaking through the closed Roman shades made the room glow like a fleshy hull. Nancy and Mirabai swathed my back and belly with flannel compresses soaked in a warm ginger brew. John held me and murmured encouragement. All of us breathed in unison. And then the baby slid out: silent and blue. He was broader and hairier than his brother. His eyes were dark and sunken beneath transparent eyelids that were fused shut. His mouth was flaccid--it knew no sucking. His fingers were curled and stiff, their tips wrinkled and boggy. He and I lay side-by-side, shipwrecked, the cord still connecting us by the un-birthed placenta.
Later, I wiped him dry and swaddled him, as if he were alive. We named him Ivan. I opened the shades and watched the leaves drift down from the  maple outside, and we shared a holy silence.
Stillbirth on Black Paper