Poems & Essays

17 Jun

New Year Son

Babyhood No Response

The year started off
with rain, or was that just
the old one
dying?
He said
he’d spend the night in town,
but I left
the lights on for him, anyway.

Eccentric, I guess
that lights in the dark
might lend my hope
to one who isn’t mine.

I started off
with rain
tears of a newborn
fallen to earth to grow again
through pain to light
and tunneled back I wonder now
how his life will turn.

I don’t really
think this way on other days.
Like overlapping hash marks on the chalkboard
marking, marking, marking
it all begins again
near or far he’s always here
the last best light
in my heart

Mimi Whittaker lives in Northern California on the shore of a lake. Raised in upstate New York, she often finds her writing travels back to the Hudson River and the Adirondack Mountains as often as it does the beautiful coast of California. Her work appears in California Quarterly, Digging Our Poetic Roots (anthology), Fish Magazine (Ireland), Peregrine Journal and various publications. She placed second in the Robert Frost Poetry competition in 2011. She has authored 3 books of poetry and short prose and one novel and is currently working on a new collection of poetry and short fiction.
Her work is most informed by the people who have shaped her life. She may stop writing someday, but probably not until some other fat lady sings!

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17 Jun

Mother’s Guilt

Babyhood 3 Responses

In early September
I delivered a nine pound baby
and the afterbirth was mother’s guilt

As soon as the nurse placed the shrieking infant on my chest
mother’s guilt ran across the placenta
untangled from the umbilical cord
and smeared its blood-tinged self across my body

When I left the hospital, mother’s guilt came with me
smuggled in the diaper bag
crouching beneath the car seat
burrowing near my swollen breast

Like a tricky shapeshifter
mother’s guilt manifested as empty milk cartons
dirty kitchens, burnt pancakes, undecorated Christmas trees

Thriving on mundane events
day-care drop offs, quite Sundays, summer mornings
mother’s guilt seized opportunity to destroy calm, wreck content, slaughter bliss

Always present, mother’s guilt followed, like a midday shadow, and sometimes
attacked like a starving bear, hungrily consuming
and I, defenseless, sobbed in the preschool parking lot
trembled in the grocery store

Mother’s guilt is popular, parading with an entourage of friends
Blame, Regret, Fatigue, Comparison, Resentment
inviting her disciples to get comfortable
extending their visit indefinitely

Sometimes at night, I drive across town to my Mom’s house
I comb flakes of mother’s guilt out of her hair
wipe guilt stains from her shirt,
pluck loose threads of guilt from her sweater
I brush guilt crumbs from her chin
and let her know, she did just fine.

Then, I drive home
hoping that one day
my daughter will do the same for me.

 

 

 

McKenzie Wood is an assistant professor of criminal justice at a college in western Idaho. She enjoys all things outdoors, being a connoisseur of herbal tea, and arguing with her brothers in-law. She lives in Boise with her husband and two children.

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17 Jun

Memo to My Children

Taking Flight One Response

They are different now, they are daylight
after the evening moon falls out of my hand
and rolls beyond the stars. I am not able

to keep them, to kiss their cheek and unravel
a dandelion in their palm where a wish
used to live windborne and unbranched.

But I say to them, I am still your mother,
I am the bone that breaks when you tumble
from a hollowed tree, I am the sorrow

of all prayers that hover unheard, I am
the reflection in a raindrop that lands
on your windowsill tomorrow, tomorrow and tomorrow

It will always be this way, though you may
never understand the home that was lost
when you grew up and found your place

in the world, the home that sits up and counts
the little teeth in a miniature mug saved
under the bathroom sink, where the tooth

fairy kept everything, even your pillowcase
with scribbled marker—your names
in five-year-old scrawl across the soft pale fabric.

O children, tell me how to forget the scent
of tangerine in your hair, your face pressed
against my breast after a bad dream—

your chair where I rocked you to sleep
to your favorite lullaby played on the old music
box still here on my bedside table—know, you will

always be mine as you walk through every
morning, I am there tethered to your shadow,
the rumble in your heart though you run free.

Carol Lynn Stevenson Grellas lives in the Sierra Foothills. She studied at Santa Clara University where she was an English major. She is an nine-time Pushcart Prize nominee, a seven-time Best of the Net nominee and the author of the following collections of poetry,: “Epistemology of an Odd Girl”, March Street Press, “Hasty Notes in No Particular Order”, “Letters Under the Banyan Tree” and “The Wanderer’s Dominion”, Aldrich Press, “Breakfast in Winter”, Flutter Press, along with several chapbooks, “Litany of Finger Prayers”, Pudding House Press, “Object of Desire”, Finishing Line Press, “A Thousand Tiny Sorrows”, March Street Press, “The Butterfly Room”, Big Table Books, “The Nightly Suicides”, Kattywompus Press, “Things I Can’t Remember to Forget”, Prolific Press, and the winning chapbook in The Red Ochre Chapbook Contest, “Before I Go to Sleep”, along with her latest collections slated for publication this year with Main Street Rag, “An Ode to Hope in the Midst of Pandemonium” and “ In the Making of Goodbyes”, Clare Songbird Press. Her work has appeared in a wide variety of online, print magazines and anthologies, including: The Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine, Poets and Artists, War, Literature and the Arts. She is the Assistant Editor for The Orchards Poetry Journal and a member of the Sacramento group of poets called Writers on Air. According to family lore she is a direct descendant of Robert Louis Stevenson. www.clgrellaspoetry.com

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17 Jun

Book of Lasts

Babyhood No Response

In my girls’ baby books, I dutifully filled in all of the exact dates I could remember for their “firsts”— first time rolling over, first step, first word, first time using full sentences. Over the years, in my head, I fill out a corresponding book of “lasts.” Last diaper changed. Last pacifier used. Last tooth lost.

I can remember, for instance, the last time I picked up my oldest daughter. She was 8, dressed head to toe in pink for her class Valentine’s Day party. She’d had a constant cough for weeks, but hadn’t run a temperature and had never asked to stay home from school.

After school that day, though, she was reading in her bed when she suddenly started sobbing. Her cries pierced through the silence like a siren, warning of a thunderstorm that materialized out of nowhere.

“I can’t breathe!” she cried, clutching her chest.

She couldn’t breathe? My own chest tightened. Eight years earlier on a frigid winter evening just like this one, her father and I had rushed our inconsolable infant, her face splotched dusty rose and cream like a patchwork quilt, to the emergency room. She couldn’t breathe then either because her airway had never fully developed. Three months later we would leave the hospital, after ventilator stints and every test available, with a diagnosis of tracheomalacia, a floppy airway. Much later we would receive a new diagnosis for a rare genetic disorder. The torrent of doctor’s appointments and therapy sessions headed our way were a tsunami far offshore, still well out of sight.

Eventually, though, her airway grew stronger, and she hadn’t struggled to breathe in years. As I took her temperature (102), I ran through potential options in my head. Give her Tylenol? Call the pediatrician? Dig her old nebulizer out of the basement and hope the years-old Albuterol breathing treatments still worked? Google “what can cause coughing for three weeks straight”? She pleaded for me to take her to the doctor. Deep inside, barely audible from under my pounding heart, I could hear a tiny voice screaming you know what to do. Leave. Now.

I pulled on our coats, grabbing our hats and gloves, and called my husband. “Meet us at the Children’s ER,” I said. “Stella says she can’t breathe.”

We raced across town through rush-hour traffic. I kept one eye on my daughter, slumped and breathing raggedly, in the rearview mirror. She struggled to keep her eyes open, and I cursed myself silently. I should’ve called the pediatrician last week.

The first time I turned her car seat around from rear-facing to forward, I remember feeling such relief in sneaking quick rearview mirror glances back at her rosy cheeks and lips. Once during our hospital stay, standing around her crib-on-wheels with a group of nursing students, a doctor had told them, “you can tell when a child is getting enough oxygen because the lips will be pink.” Tonight, her skin was pale and ashy but her lips were still pink, so we kept driving.

Walking in from the ER parking lot, she begged me to carry her. I explained why I couldn’t. The baby growing inside me, approximately the size of a lemon, was considered high flight risk and my doctor had strictly forbidden lifting anything heavy. My heart ached at not being able to pick up my frightened, feverish little girl. This new pregnancy felt fragile, though, (it had taken us quite a long time to conceive, and we’d already had multiple scares, bright red against white) so I had committed to following doctor’s rules to the letter. We trudged in, my arm threaded under her shoulder, walking at a glacier’s pace through the stabbing February wind.

Inside the doors at the emergency room, the line to check in at triage stretched as long as during a peak-time DMV visit. Just ahead of us, a young mom rocked a croupy baby in a carrier. Behind stood a dad with a mournful tween in an arm sling.

Stella was too young, and too sick, to plop into a seat in the main waiting room by herself. We had walked in. We were going to have to wait in this line. And we were both going to have to stand on our own two feet.

The line snaked along a wall of windows, but heat blasted out of exchanges along the floor and my arms were soon piled with coats, scarfs and hats. Stella tried standing in front of me, leaning back into my chest. She tried tucking her body underneath my arm, her head wedged into my armpit. All the while, tears streamed silently down her cheeks.

When she was in the hospital as an infant, there were often times I couldn’t pick her up. Even if she was hurting or scared, there were just too many monitors and IVs and tubes. Now here I was, years later, reliving the same nightmare. Right back in that same hospital, right back in that same agony of not being able to pick up my baby girl.

There was one bench in the triage lane, situated closer to the check-in counter than the door. In this particular line, no matter the severity of the ailment, everyone waited until they reached the bench to sit on it.

At some point during our wait (was it 20 minutes? Or was it just five? Time had crawled to a standstill), Stella let out a howl, crumpling to her knees. My heart shattered. Desperate, I did the only thing I could think to do. The one thing I’d said I couldn’t do. I picked her up.

Her long legs dangled just inches off the ground, and she struggled to find the best way to wrap her arms around my waist. But her head found the spot on my shoulder it had long ago carved out, and she nuzzled her nose into my neck. Her racing heart found mine and slowed to match my steady drumbeat. I carried her until we reached the bench, even though my arms began to ache and I worried I might faint from the heat. We sat for a few minutes. And then the line sputtered forward and I picked her up again.

Of course I’ll always remember the first time I picked her up and held her, her peach fuzz chest so warm pressed against my own. Her tiny muscles finally unclenched and relaxed after the ordeal of being born. Against hers, my own heart turned molten. From the start, I calmed her and she calmed me. And now in the ER, just like that first time, she calmed almost immediately against my chest.

Three days later we would leave the hospital with a diagnosis of pneumonia and plenty of antibiotics and fluids. We would ask the attending physician, what are the warning signs for pneumonia in children? How should we have known? Often, there are none, he’d say. Children are so naturally resilient they can often just power through these things without giving any indication something’s wrong.

Our kids are stronger than we know.

I didn’t pick up Stella again through the rest of my pregnancy, or for those first few months after her sister was born. I can’t remember the exact date, or the occasion, when I tried to pick her up next. But that time, I couldn’t. She was too heavy to move more than an inch off the floor.

Picking her up had been my fail-safe soothing tactic for her whole childhood. Nightmares, skinned knees, spilled juice—there was no situation that couldn’t be remedied by a pick-me-up from mom. Back when Stella was a toddler, she would run down the hall, arms flung into the air, demanding I pick her up. I’d hold her little chest to mine, our hearts beating in a duet.

When our babies grow so big that we can no longer pick them up, it usually corresponds to a time in their lives when they start dealing with problems too heavy for us to pick up and whisk away. Baby’s first bully. Baby’s first broken heart.

In the hospital when I couldn’t pick her up, a few things that calmed Stella were patting her back, running my finger down the length of her nose, stroking her hair, wiping away her tears. They’re the same things that calm her now. As parents, all we can do is lighten the load and help our kids learn to do the heavy lifting on their own. Because there will come a time, soon, when she’s going to choose to curl up in her own sadness rather than run to me, arms raised in surrender.

 

 

 

Shelley Mann Hite lives in Columbus, Ohio, with her husband and two daughters. Her work has been published in the Huffington Post, Eater, and Columbus Monthly, and is forthcoming in Belt Publishing’s “The Columbus Anthology.” You can find her on Instagram and Twitter at @shelleymann.

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