Jalama Beach became my first love the moment my toes danced atop sand mottled with broken seashells and I gazed across the grey expanse to dream. I often visit this familiar shore when I explore my memories, shifting through the timeline of how a small brown-skinned girl in love with mud pies grew into a wife and mother. Navigating the vast and murky space between these two “me’s” requires that I tread through moments of joy and sadness to achieve a better understanding of myself.
I wade through the shallows, re-watching my past in flickering moments. I read these memories like cowrie shells, divining my future as a mother. As crashing waves pepper my skin, I search for the best parts of my childhood to replicate in motherhood. If I can understand where my hurts were born, maybe I won’t replant them onto the fertile ground of my daughter’s life.
At the end of my exploration, I find myself ashore, peeling away questions that cling to me like strips of seaweed. I bring these questions to my mother. Her answers are hyssop for my soul. They heal deep wounds and smooth scars from my childhood.
One afternoon, I dwell in a memory of me picking through bookshelves in our old townhome. Pain surfaces as I remember coming to this bookshelf during stretches of deep loneliness. I email my mother about an old encyclopedia set. Though it had been around since I could remember, I knew nothing about its previous history.
Do you still have my red encyclopedias? When did you buy them for me?
I may have one or two left. I bought them when you were just a few months old. Did you ever use them?
Her question surprises me. I cannot understand how my mother missed this, how she had not seen the significance of her gift to me. These encyclopedias housed stories I read when I tired of playing with dolls. They informed research papers and essays I wrote for nearly a decade. They opened a door to a universe that I longed to comprehend.
Words pour out quickly into an email, and I pray my mother understands how much I value these books. In her response is a hurt I did not know existed:
I thought I wasted my money. It was hard paying for that set. My check was so small, and your biological dad wasn’t able to help at times.
Her words wash over me and my heart overflows with compassion. I never acknowledged that my mother might be suffering from her own hardships. She could help me because she was my mother, but also because she was standing in the shallows with me. With this realization, I am able to love my mother in a way that she deserves. In this moment where I swam from the shore of my own security, I parted the waves and found a balm for both of us.
I am comforted by the knowledge that my mother has always been with me on this journey. She has taken my suffering and given me inexplicable peace. When she did not have a solution, she guided my search. In return, my successes have shown her that her efforts were not in vain. As I close my mother’s wounds, she heals mine and shows me what longsuffering really is: waiting with open arms to wrap your child in gracious love that may not be immediately reciprocated.
The day has come for me to tread through the crashing waves with my daughter. She is not quite two years old, but I am prepared to protect her from the disappointment and heartbreak that are bound to come. When I watch her push headlong into every adventure, I can only hope that she will continue to arm herself with fearlessness. For I know the waves are only going to get higher, the ocean rougher. I will never let go of her hand.
DW McKinney is a transplant from San Diego living in Austin. She writes in between proofreading legislation for the State of Texas and (mis)adventuring with her daughter. Sammiches & Psych Meds has featured her parenting satire. Her non-fiction is forthcoming in TAYO Literary Magazine. She promotes Otherness on her website, www.forlangston.com.
It’s the Christmas before Kate’s second birthday. We stand in the cold night air, fingers curled around the metal bars of a reindeer paddock. Inside, two antlered reindeer amble, occasionally stopping to snack on the hay bale provided for them.
Kate is enraptured. She’s still fuzzy on the whole Santa thing, but animals have always been a fervent love. “Aydeer!” she shouts.
After a few minutes of watching, one of the reindeer lies down. Kate looks confused.
“It just needs a rest,” I tell her.
The confusion lingers for a moment before clearing into understanding. “West,” Kate says. “Mama aydeer!”
The barely-distinguishable toddler words knife into my heart like warm butter. Rest. Mama reindeer.
She hasn’t even been on this earth long enough for two trips around the sun, and already she’s certain that “rest” is shorthand for “mama.”
I was born with cystic fibrosis, a serious, life-shortening genetic illness. Fifty years ago, CF was a childhood illness, because patients so rarely lived into the double digits. When I was diagnosed, my parents were told I wouldn’t live to turn twenty.
Next year I’ll celebrate my thirtieth birthday. I wake every day with gratitude for the gift of this life, the life that is so much more than what my young and terrified parents could have imagined for me twenty-nine years ago. I’ve had the chance to see my dreams made flesh: a husband who makes me laugh, a daughter full of spunk and fire, friends I cherish, a novel that will be published soon.
Still, despite all the medical advancements of the last two decades, life as a CF patient is a consuming thing. Each morning, I start my day with up to an hour of breathing treatments, firing up a nebulizer and strapping myself into a therapy vest that fills with air and vibrates, stimulating the underachieving cilia of my lungs to shear away the thick, sticky mucus that is the hallmark of the disease. I repeat these treatments at least once more later in the day; when I’m fighting a cold or a case of pneumonia, I do them four or five times.
At mealtimes, I sit next to a wicker basket filled with prescription bottles, sorting pills as I eat and downing them with water in between bites. Most days, I average somewhere in the vicinity of fifty pills.
And these visible, measurable treatments are only the surface. Every afternoon I set Kate up with crayons or cars or books and sneak into my bedroom to take a nap. I limit our walks around the block, our trips to museums, to the zoo, to the park, because each day for me is a careful accounting of energy, a miserly meting-out of just enough for this, just enough for that.
And I say, over and over again: “I’m sorry, honey. Mama needs to rest.” “In a little while, baby. Mama needs to rest.” “I can’t right now, Kate. Mama needs to rest.”
From the time she was four or five months old, Kate was attuned to my health, playing off my physical state like the vibrations of a tuning fork. When I got sick, she’d cry. When I was better, she was too.
As she got older, that sensitivity manifested in different ways. Sometimes now it comes out as impishness, a seeming inability to keep herself out of trouble, the kind of attention-seeking acting out that’s shadowed with frustration. Often, it’s clinginess and tears.
Other times, it’s anger, turbulent and raging. One Thanksgiving, after I’d had six straight weeks of viruses and hardly left the couch, Kate spent the length of every breathing treatment I did sitting on my lap, screaming at me and trying to pry the nebulizer out from between my clenched teeth.
But in the quiet moments, after the anger has passed, the questions come. “Are you sick always?” “Why does your body have CF?” “I know we can’t do that right now… but can we someday? When you’re all better?”
My friends tell me that Kate will grow up rich in empathy and compassion—that being privy to the hard moments, the hospital stays, the floor-to-ceiling cabinet filled with prescription bottles, will help her to mature into a woman who can care for those around her with a love born from understanding. Still, on difficult days, I worry that my disability is robbing Kate of her chance for a joyful childhood. I carry so many worries when it comes to mothering and cystic fibrosis, but chief among them is the worry that Kate will grow up resentful of the illness that steals her mother away from her, desperate to do anything to make it go away.
It’s early afternoon, the quiet, silvery time of day when the house itself seems to be drawing a breath before launching itself into the chaos of dinner and togetherness and bedtime. Sunlight slants through the dining room windows, rare in this exceptionally wet Portland spring. Kate and I sit on the floor in front of her easel, drawing with chalk.
I draw a bear in blue and pink. I give it eyes, a nose, whiskers, a smiling mouth. I dress it in a dapper vest. I’ve just sketched the outline when Kate giggles.
“What is that?” she asks. “A BEAR wearing a VEST? Can bears WEAR vests?” She often talks like this these days, her words inflected with the capital-letter drama only a four-year-old can muster, every question and every statement an exciting revelation.
“I thought it would look nice,” I say.
“Wow,” Kate says, and repeats, “I did not know that bears needed to wear vests.”
Suddenly, I realize what she’s saying. At four, in 2017, she hasn’t encountered very many vests worn for fashion. Instead, she’s thinking of the vest she sees every day—my inflatable airway clearance vest.
I smile. “Should I make this bear me?”
“YES!” Kate cries, excited. “Make it you! It will be named Cindy the Bear.”
I draw the heavy-duty buckles that hold the vest together as it inflates and shakes; the tubes that snake away from the jacket to the air compressor that powers it. In a flash of inspiration, I finish the drawing by putting a nebulizer in the bear’s hand, complete with a curl of white smoke representing the misty aerosolized medicine coming from the mouthpiece.
Kate beams at Cindy the Bear. And though later she erases some of the things we’ve been drawing, she doesn’t erase that.
This is the thing I come back to, on the days when Kate’s dolls cough dramatically and troop to the doctor and back, over and over, or in the afternoons when she asks me yet again why I can’t give her the little sister she longs for. Love.
There is so much that I cannot give my child, much that I may never be able to give her—energy, spontaneity, a life without pills and breathing treatments and frequent resting. Sometimes the specters of those things haunt me, holding hands with the ghosts of the future I cannot predict and circling me with chill and fearfulness. There is so much that I cannot give her. But I can give her love.
I can pull her into my bed in the mornings, when my body hurts too much to get up and wrap my arms around her and tell her the story of how much I longed for her in those long-ago childless days. I can read with her, zoom cars across the stripes of the rug with her.
On sunny days, I can bring the watercolors outside and spend long afternoons with her filling papers with color and light. In the shrouded small hours of the night, when darkness holds us in its grip and she screams herself awake, I can hold her close and whisper again and again, I am here and you are safe. I am here and you are safe. I am here and you are safe.
There are days, I know, that I will not be there to whisper the words: hours when I’m away at clinics, days when I’m hospitalized. Someday, perhaps, my disease—which still only carries a life expectancy of forty years—will catch up with me, and I will leave Kate’s life for good.
But for now, I am here. Perhaps that will be enough.
Cindy Baldwin is a novelist, essayist, and poet. Her poetry and prose have been featured in several print and online publications, including IDAHO Magazine, The Equals Record, and Caesura Poetry Journal. Her debut middle grade novel, WHERE THE WATERMELONS GROW, will be released from HarperCollins Children’s Books in summer 2018.
One morning I looked in the mirror and found a gray hair sticking straight out of the middle of my forehead. I tried to brush it away, thinking it was my husband’s or the cat’s. But it did not move. It had roots. It was mine.
I have naturally thick brows, but this was not a rogue eyebrow hair—it was coarse, wiry, and too far away. It was a bright shade of metallic silver, so it wasn’t a scalp hair (back then every strand on my head was black). This was a forehead hair, glistening and corkscrewing towards the reflection of my pale face.
I searched the drawer for tweezers. I knew what my body was telling me—that deep down my cells had changed. My soul had changed. How could they not, having given birth three weeks before?
Becoming a parent cancels out so many of the rules by which you lived your life. You desperately seek new ones while navigating unknowns. I was in a sleep-deprived delirium. I was thirsty and ravenous and devoured bacon and eggs, steak, and lactation-promoting fish soup brought by my Chinese relatives. Hormones ran wild through my body—I might be swept up in pure joy at the mere sight of my daughter, but moments later reaching for a diaper would induce searing pain at my C-section incision and reduce me to a sobbing, unhinged mess.
My baby was completely nocturnal. In the dark of night her incessant cries pierced my head, they made me crazy. But they are supposed to. We are feral creatures, biologically wired to protect our young. So I would go to her, feed her, rock her. If you had told me then that I wouldn’t sleep through the night for another year, I might have collapsed out of desperation.
My husband has a naturally a sunnier point of view than I do. His intact, whole soul often fortifies my incomplete one. But he too was low-functioning on little sleep. Most mornings at dawn when I handed the baby off to him, his glasses were askew and his hair pointed in all directions. We missed appointments and forgot to pay the mortgage. If we couldn’t keep track of the days, how could we fulfill our baby’s basic needs? Were we even capable of being decent parents?
And a darker dimension that came out when I became a parent. Daily life with a newborn was without question challenging. But for me parenthood introduced other, mortal dangers. What if something happened to her? What if my baby died?
My two-year old brother died. He was a beautiful boy who darted into the street in one unsupervised moment, and before my eyes he was killed. There are times when I will go months without thinking about that warm day in May when I was seven, but then the memory surfaces and it is always primal, dark, terrifying. It is alive in my core. Holding my daughter in the pitch black night while the world slept, it returned to me.
My little brother died. My daughter could also die.
I was in second grade when it happened. I was learning how to add two-digit numbers. I learned that the first word in a sentence begins with a capital letter. I learned that children can die. Birds were chirping on that sunny Wednesday afternoon when part of my soul got choked off and withered away.
Then there is the guilt. Was I in some way—even a tiny molecule’s worth—responsible for my brother’s death? I have had this discussion many times, with other people and inside my own head. I was a fifty-five pound child. I could not have run amongst moving cars, stopped traffic, and saved my brother’s life. In my head I know this, I have repeated it for decades: There is nothing I could have done. There is nothing I could have done.
Though I have heard those news stories about five-year olds, kids whose fathers were working on cars that slipped off their jacks and pinned them to garage floors. Those children summoned up the strength to lift the cars and save their fathers’ lives. I know it doesn’t do any good to compare what I did or didn’t do to those kids. But I’m just saying.
Nights, I lay on the sagging loveseat in our study and cradled my baby. I watched her little chest rise and fall with her breaths. I was certain that if she died from any cause, natural or man- made, it would be my fault. I carried her, gave birth to her, and brought her home. I was responsible for her life.
Thus immobilized in the early days after my daughter’s birth, I did not sleep. I wrapped my arms around her, inhaling her silky sweet smell. I would drift off but quickly jerk awake to make sure she was still there. I was beyond exhaustion but I didn’t care if I didn’t sleep. The earth could rotate on its axis day in and day out, and I would still be on that sofa holding her. I would stay awake as long as the world spun if that meant that she would be okay.
In that dim room, I would run my hand over the gentle curve of my baby’s downy head. I touched each perfect finger, traced the tiny lines of her palms. I remember noticing with amazement that my three-week old’s cheeks were rounding out, taking on a rosier tint. And I think it was then that I began feeling something new: a gentle rippling in the atmosphere, a tiny pushing forward. My life had been stagnant for a long, long time. But now my world was changing by the minute. Time was unfurling before me, opening like a spring bud.
Greta Wu is a writer, mother, and non-profit consultant currently living in Northern California. Her writing has appeared in the East Bay Monthly and placed in the St. Louis Writer’s Guild short fiction contest.
I am a ghost.
that everyone knows is there
because it’s easier
to let dishes float to the sink,
to allow an invisible hand to wipe snot
from your three-year old’s nose,
to marvel when the clothes are laundered
and the floor shines with your reflection.
Emily Hull was a stay at home mother for three years and recently re-entered the workforce as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Oral History for Oklahoma State University.