Edited by Andrea Spofford | Barry Kitterman | Amy Wright
An 82-year-old Colombian woman discovered she had a 40-year-old baby inside. Calcified, stone fist to stone mouth. It’s not the first time. The first sign is an ache.
In the x-ray the baby is ghostly as we all are in that light, death foretold. Skull visible. The woman’s pelvis—house also a grave—dark holes where her limbs go. A sea on which her bones, translucent stingray wings, glide. The baby so many kinds of white and nothingness: one shoulderbone snow-capped, invisible eyes, a floating milky circle could be an ear. Once it was the color of mourning. The dark around the baby, and his mother’s bones more night than body. A constellation we can name.
In the very cold dark Nevada nights, my bus from Reno would reach the top of the Sierras. A 10,000 foot pass through unfamiliar mountains I rode through, down to the lake I lived beside for a year. When we’d reach the pass, tired, steel icy beneath gloves, I’d see the constellation that has always matched the freckles on my thigh. Anywhere the night is clear—the beach in New Smyrna, Wellfleet, hills of Virginia, and here. My body a reflection of that stretch of sky. A mirror. I’d feel the stars inside like stone themselves. Their invisible almost glitter.
* * * *
when i was the river
When I was the stream, when I was the / forest, when I was still the field,
A girl stood in the river today, one boot on. The other in her hands, emptying water. Her sock red. Though we’re the only people on the Barn Island trail, she focuses on the boot as on a prayer, water pour, as if baptizing the air. Appraises me from a distance, walking the sand road with round rocks underneath. Ocean to my right, marsh and yellow meadow to the left, forest beyond I’m heading toward. In between, May blue river and girl. She lifts her ead like a deer.
Moon almost full. The stars aren’t going to last forever after all. Fire keeps them going, expanding until a star uses up its supply of everything. Just iron at the core. Which contracts instead of expanding, pulls the whole star inward until it explodes. Iron in my blood made the moment a star died. Everything in me made from dead stars. At some point, every single star will die, a woman says. The universe will go dark until the end of time. Whatever that means, she says. The screen goes black to show how everything will look. She says, but it’s Eden now. Now we live in this world lit by the sun. We are dead stars looking at living stars. This is Eden.
To find the river, drive a winding road past a white shingled house with a suit of armor flashing in a tall, dark window at the top of the house. The armor looks inhabited. Hardwoods to the left of the house—a little forest—dotted with miniature houses painted blue, red, green. Birdhouses? Does someone place seeds in all the houses? Some so high, a person would need a ladder. Some, you’d have to climb the tree.
Before the river, take the opposite path to Little Narragansett Bay. A skull lies just off the path, in the grass. White, small sharp teeth, long head, large almond eyes, part of the animal still being eaten, a mashed darkness below where the neck would be, flies. A deer? Coyote? A signsays hunting is allowed. A little beach in the marsh, your feet sink. One swan in the cove. In Orlando, there were swan boats in the lake. The swan is not a boat. As I approach, her orange bill opens, a low croakiness. Walk past to show I am mild. A goose once chased me beside another lake in Orlando, protecting his mate. I wonder if this swan might rush me. No escape. Can’t go forward—the marsh turns to watery reeds, then just water. No path. Only way out is back, past the swan and skull.
I don’t yet know that mute swans are the attacking kind. Or that here by Rhode Island, where I’m walking, is where the mute swans live. Cygnus olor. From Europe and Asia, imported in the late nineteenth century as status symbols for the rich on New York estates. But swans escaped. Became wild. Mute swans not all together silent—hissing, grunting, and snoring. Fierce when protecting their young. Eggs laid late-March to mid-April. Hatching in 32 to 35 days. May 13th when I arrive, cygnets hatching any moment from eggs in the grass.
Mute swans usually don’t kill, but try to smash the human with the burrs on its six-foot wings. Break bones. In East Hampton Village, a proposed New York plan would have the mute swans “eradicated in the wild by 2025.” A swan-hunting season is being considered. White feathers flying. Swans exploding like stars. The swan lets me pass.
Before this, it’s Mother’s Day, and I hide out. Think of Jeannette who worked with me in the health food store, not so long after Tommy had died. Jeannette who was unafraid of my sadness and gave me a Happy Mother’s Day card because she knew that day was happy, Tommy’s birth. Later that day, I read Marie Howe’s words: In the game, someone has to touch you to free you / then you’re human again.
* * * *
Marcus White Living Room, Central Connecticut State College, New Britain
After months of snow alone in a dead poet’s house, I visit a school to give a reading. Seating a mix of leather brown couches and rows of folding chairs. Voice far down inside, my frenzied hair uncalmable. But each person reaches out a hand. My papers wet and salty from living by sea, already yellowing.
I want to make them laugh, tell about an opera singer come back from the dead to go to the dollar movie with the man she loved. No one laughed. I had to tell them about the day you were born.
Sinking and rising of my body after. One boy asked if writing helped me to speak. I said Yes. I meant, the parts I can’t corral in person. This intercoastal between the ribs of the body, and those no longer breathing. His smiles easily wide as if his mouth were still being made.
A student’s mother raised her hand, said it’s hard to know how to tell her story of the orphanage. Her grandmother would visit, take her out for ice cream, bring her back. When it was over, I made my way down the aisle. As I never did marrying or after the funeral of my son. Following the coffin a thousand miles away from other parents who couldn’t explain me. No goodbye. Plastic black coat on my arm.
Another boy I hadn’t seen before. Face an oval locket. Dark hair. Dignity in how he stands eye to eye with me. We’re alone—everyone else heading in the direction of food. He says, I’m adopted.
In the close space of the aisle I ask, Have you met your birthmother? I don’t think I’ve ever said that word before. It feels fake, like I’m on a talk show.
He said, Yes. Before I shipped out to Iraq.
That’s amazing, I say, the house of my brain lakelike. I mean, You are so alive.
Yes, he says. He’s written his first poem, but they didn’t take it, he says.
Write another, I said. He’s turning away. Down the yellow aisle toward the others, coffee, orange cubes of cheese in pyramids. He turns back.
Half faces me. He says, I’d be glad if you were my mother. Or, he said, I’d want you to be my mother.
The most beautiful sentence, and I can’t remember the exact words. My body propelled back. As if a great gift had been placed in my arms. As if I were carrying an invisible child. I would like to at least get his eyes right, a darkness that saw me whole. And also, his hand which he waved toward the podium: This. What you’re doing. He’s silent a moment, nods. It’s good. Hearing what it’s like to be his mother, to belong to him.
* * * *
on your thirty-third birthday
On your thirty-third birthday, I lit a candle for you in the yellow room. Orange cathedral, flame melt spires. Fire high and steady near the twelve glass windows of my door on the harbor. Years ago I had a butterfly candle someone gave me and I’d light it for you. Blue wings burn away each time.
The town clock chimed midnight. In the early evening, at a church in Mystic, a woman losing her hearing made me laugh. Threw her dark hair back with her hands at her temples. Skin flushed from chin to just below her eyes, as if she’d been running hard in snow. She keeps touching one finger to her ear trying to hear better, everything now not sounding like itself. But she’s never heard my voice before, doesn’t know what I sound like other than this aviness.
The candle flame shimmers on either side with an energy like rain. The older men in this church work days, but several reach their hands out to me, hold mine. I see a birdstone. Smooth as a casing that might crack, reveal the bird inside.
* * * *
Why all this music?
—Gregory Orr, “To Be Alive”
For the first time, I walked to the place my son died. Cab? the bellman asked near the lobby’s glass door. He’d come toward me in uniform as I approached. Guardian of the door. Chandelier light so warm it’s orange, almost a fire in the air. Early March in Boston, still cold. I wanted my feet on the ground, to find my way. Instead of being transported, taken.
I’ll walk. Open space around us like a plaza. People line up for coffee. Woosh of the revolving door, little breaths of chilly air on both our faces.
My son died in this city in 1982. May 27. 5:30 PM. I’d been washing my hair, ironing a dress to wear in Cocoa Beach, Florida, where I would listen to a band whose name I don’t remember. No one told me my son had just died in Boston, Massachusetts. No one told me he was in the hospital. I just walked out the door. The immediate cause of his death was in two parts: Acute Myelomonocytic Leukemia. Then, Respiratory Arrest. Which lasted for one minute. Until he died. Lungs still white birds. Could I put my hand on his chest, cover them?
Take a left out the door, left on Huntington, right on Boylston, the bellman said. Slowly named the many horizontal streets I’ll cross, counted as if walking himself. Start at Dartmouth, arrive Washington. Out the door, I turned, wind inside my plastic coat. City so close to where I was born and lived as a child, but it’s always a mystery. Leaned in toward the voices, accents of strangers as if they’re family. As if I’d been returned, but no one recognized me.
It’s stopped snowing. Clear gray air. Streets once water and tidal marsh until filled with gravel. Weirs in the underbody. Travel bag heavy on my shoulder. Too-big snow boots shuffle. A garden. Headstones in snow. Music before I arrived at the trees and the snow, the dead, stones sunk low. Arlington Church beside me, earth brown, high spired to help people look up. Slate stones a vertical walkway. Dark doorways, blue-gray windows—sky inside. Sunday. It’s in Chinatown, the bellman said.
When I heard music, people on the sidewalk came toward me. Lights changed, cars turned. No way to hide my eyes in the bare air. Only the song knew where I’m going. I shall possess within the veil / A life of joy and peace. The hour I first believed.
Leafless trees. Garden sign says I may sit on the grass, but there’s no grass. Everything white. Snow ground, white sky. Black limbs. Something hung from the center trees, like a veil of pollen. Yellow. Then brown. A kind of ghost, transparent swoon over trees. When the word was made in Middle English, it was a sail. It was a bridal veil. A screen. The song carried there. Veils swayed like hair. Maybe the remnants of something living. Two men on the sidewalk, one seethed. Tried to persuade the other: You have to. Spine bent like a carapace, he danced back and forth jabbing around the other man. Veils inside our bodies, vellum, soft palate that helps us swallow, make consonants. Inside, a chambered blue velvet coat, shine of deer antlers.
I walked Dartmouth, Clarendon, Berkeley, Arlington, Charles, Tremont. Reach Washington in Chinatown. Clusters of men near the corner of Washington and Boylston. Right or left? Most people went right. Couldn’t read store signs. People walked fast with plastic bags shushing.
The old Combat Zone. Alive when he died here—round saffron streetlamps; syllabic merge of XXX; elm tree carved in the third floor tannic above Movies Nude Photos; bands of windows, some boarded; Pilgrim Theater open all night. Old red light images in a meat brown past—the muted clothing a dollar gray-green shimmer. Air metallic, everything coins. One street’s dark lilac buildings face bare trees. Someone in an argyle sweater got out of a wet aqua Pontiac with a white roof. Everyone a lantern. The mica flecks of sailors, goldbeater’s skin. Five hundred million years ago, a garden of trilobites. Now the nineteenth century’s in tall old buildings on either side—rough brownstone, sandstone, brick—embedded in the air. Like walking between pillars.
One tall man from the corner seemed to follow me with purpose. I turned again to lose him, to nowhere I know. Another man stood in an alcove with white Styrofoam in one hand. Chewed. Heat rose from the square container held below his chin. Do you know where the hospital is?
He lowered the Styrofoam to chest-level, said, No, I’m sorry. I’m not the one to ask. Accent English.
Okay, I say. He stepped out of his hollow toward me. I turned back toward Washington. The Englishman still walked toward me.
Maybe that way, he said, pointed left. I saw a red cross.
One minute of respiratory arrest. Lungs not contracting. He lost consciousness. A kind of cloak but also pilgrimage, wandering. What I was told: he died in my uncle’s arms. So then, they let him go here.
At first it didn’t even look like a cross. Center building painted red with windows lining five floors. White cross at the very top right. Flanked by buildings the color of deer or desert, with much smaller windows. The right building had a sign, “Tufts Medical Center.” Below was a dark blue sign with white lettering, “Floating Hospital For Children.” An American flag rose behind. To the right, cobalt awning over a doorway, “Floating Hospital” in white again. The medical ward arcs in a half-circle, hull of a ship.
When Nana was in another hospital in Massachusetts, and I was a child, I sat on the grass outside her window. She looked out to see me, waved. I could wave if I knew where he’d been. Some windows half open, some closed. A few blinds shut. Snow cleared, piled to the left of the doorway.
Thought of what to say if a staff person inside asked, Can I help you? If I told the truth—My son died here years ago, and I wasn’t here—they might call security. Might think I was dangerous. I pulled the black handle, but it didn’t open. Pulled again. Locked. Inside the glass door, orange traffic cones blocked entry. Had they just mopped the floor, and it’s still wet? No one inside. How could a hospital be closed? Where were the sick children?
Inside, a whale or dolphin high on the wall, a red fin painted “57.” Blue and yellow fish swam beneath it. Two sea creatures with dark swirling bodies. One curved his head to face me with his white eyes. A dark bird flew like a knife over them. Below, an EXIT sign, red lit. Cluster of white lights like an unhinged chandelier. In the center, the outside was reflected—tan building opposite, white sky brighter than reality. Later, I thought I’d seen a sign that said, “Pediatric.” Thought I saw “Oncology.” But the light of outside obscured words, the arrows pointed to wings. Wing a replacement for feather.
Inside the Floating Hospital, almost lost in the reflected whiteness, was a red stairway. I couldn’t see where it led. Did Tommy see the blue fish, the whale? It was early summer. When he died, how did he leave? One of these windows? Did he pass where I stand now? A kind of wind against someone’s face.
Behind me, three people walked up the stairs to the right, into a deserted concrete plaza half-hidden in shadow. I followed the trio to look for another door. One man shambled behind, but their conversation was a tight warp. Even though they didn’t notice me, it was company. The only door a blood bank. Inside, a woman unrolled her sleeve. A sign thanked me for my blood. Behind the desk, a woman in an orange Dreamsicle outfit walked toward me. I could sign up, give blood. But once my blood was so slow coming out, it got stuck. Needle in my arm. I got fainter and fainter. My head leaned on the technician’s chest. Then I was flat on a white table. Drank orange juice while the technician said, Your blood won’t flow if you don’t drink something. Don’t want to faint here, needle stuck in my arm. I’m looking for the entrance to The Floating Hospital, I said. The door I found was locked.
It’s downstairs, the woman behind the desk said.
No, that door’s locked. Is there another? She asked a man, shoulders bent at a task. His hair thinning, scalp visible between black curls. Damp with oil or sweat. He raised his head, eyes heavy. Looked left toward where I’d been. No, no. I said. There’s no other entrance?
No, the Dreamsicle woman said. I walked into the plaza again, turned the corner of the building. Just a sign high on the wall, “Boston Blood Donation Center.” Plaza behind me deserted. Took the blood street instead. At a crossing, a tall building to my right, Tufts Dental School. Silvery white like a tooth. I could walk there, ask how to enter the Floating Hospital. But the airport shuttle would arrive at my hotel in an hour, and I was still far away.
Made my way to the garden street again, walked past the Arlington Church. A woman with her eyes lined in black, paper cup in her hands, asked, Can you help me? She asked, Are those your real eyes? Beyond Arlington, I heard music again. It came from the Old South Church. Poster behind glass: “Lent” with three rectangular gold boxes. Jesus in the desert for 40 days. Thin gold lines ran from top to bottom, like paint or tears. The church originally on Washington Street in 1669. Where I’d come from. Where Tommy died.
The Old South Church door is an alcove. Three waves of coming in, then the inset dark brown door, tall windowpanes. A museum? But when I walked inside a woman waited. Like the ushers in my childhood churches. There must have been an usher in the church I entered in Florida after Tommy died. When I was to pretend not to be his mother. Though no one told me this.
The flowers on the altar are in memory of Mike Groom’s nephew. Those words disguised me as my son’s cousin. Altar covered with flowers. I’d rarely been to the church in Florida. When I was old enough to stop going, I mostly stopped. Avoided the frequent fights to hurry up and get in the car. Or to wear a slip under my dress—polyester layer instantly sticky in Orlando’s steam bath air. Churchgoers my parents’ friends. My dad sang in the choir. I stood to sing, invisible, unable to make any sound. If I connected to the soft palate, the vellum, the veil inside, I would never stop crying. I would have to be carried out of the church. So, I moved my mouth, pretended to sing. My mother and I shared a hymnal. Her voice high and airy, a girl’s. There must have been ushers in that Florida church, but I can’t see them.
The usher in Copley Square was a woman with a stack of programs. She smiled, so I walked toward her. The singing came from the right. Pews and then a choir in robes at the front of the church. Many people inside. Glass stained with the burn of breath. Bright with the body’s ornaments, scarlet-purple-blue clasps, corded jumprope. All the white bones.
The woman held out a program. I took it. Walked to the far left of the pews, found an open place in the second to last pew. Hard to stop crying because they kept singing. Took off my black parka, fake fur hood behind my neck like an animal at rest. A man stood to speak at the podium about a lost child. A Baptism either before I arrive or after. The child’s name is Margaret Ann.
One: How will she know that she is a child of God, made in God’s image?
Many: We will give her our love. She belongs to us as well.
I could have stayed there with the kindness, the warm light. All the people around me rose with hymnals in their hands. Black book to my right on the pew, gold lettering. So much room there for me. I could reach for the songs, stand up, sing. But my time’s almost up, plane leaving. I rose, left the pews. A man in the entryway looked disappointed. The woman usher looked disappointed. To the right, a staircase to the women’s room. Nice to walk up the white stairs, past empty offices. To be inside as if I lived there, were home again. Opened the bathroom door, and a little boy stood in the entry. I held the door for him, and he rushed out. His mother behind, yelled his name. I forgot about stairs down the hallway, forgot what a small child needs. I’m sorry.
It’s okay, the mother said, straightening a thin shawl, veil around her shoulders. How will I know what to do? All this singing for him too.
* * * *
I’d seen the horse in October. In the dark. Panic of not knowing if I had the twelve photographs of Tommy with me. I’d packed my things into a storage unit in Florida over a year before and kept moving. East to west. One photo of Tommy always with me, in the greengold frame. But where is the horse? Where is my son and his horse?
Years earlier, when his adoptive father, my uncle, gave me twelve pictures, I felt observed. Didn’t want to show the photos to anyone else. Afraid the viewer wouldn’t see him, would only see a beautiful boy, would say that: Oh, what a beautiful boy. And I did hear that eventually, and felt their not knowing. How alone we are.
I don’t have the horse here. That photo in Florida. But your blue eyes. I see you on the big Snoopy wearing a railroad cap. I see you. That night you were on the horse, and your eyes were very very blue. Starting to get sick. Confusion in your eyes. I knew you needed me. Even though you had died, even though the date was late 1981 Christmas coming and tree now forever in the basement, I’d have to find a way to cross that distance for you. Blue of your sleeper in my hand when you were four days old, your foot, almost your whole leg fit in my other hand. Your sleeper blue when you’re eight months, nine months, on Snoopy. Christmas decorations behind you. Huge stocking with your name. Happy in so many of these photographs. But I can see I have to come to you.
How do I do it? Become the person who can cross that distance? Maybe I don’t have to become someone. I just have to walk toward you. We’re in the same room. I can see you. You can see me. Just cross the darkness.
* * * *
When doctors took a teaspoon of blood from a pregnant woman, they found hundreds of cells from her baby, though mother and child were thought to keep their cells to themselves, placenta a wall. Not only did the baby cells reach the mother, they weren’t attacked—you would expect them to be cleared within hours, if not days. Instead, they stayed for decades, essentially forever, floating inside the mother. Even if the baby dies.
This is something they are absolutely sure of. Even a 60-year-old mother or 70? Yes, the researchers said. Even 80, perhaps 90-year-old women. At first doctors thought the cells might cause autoimmune disorders in some mothers. Then they found sheets of cells in damaged mothers, whole areas where the baby cells had gathered in unison to protect the mother from harm: hepatitis, ovarian cancer, cervical, endometrial. A liver made whole. Over and over and over and over. Protecting her for the rest of her life.
All this time, I thought he was gone.
* * * *
who by fire (mother’s rescue)
And who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate,
Who in these realms of love, who by something blunt,
T had a sweet bird flying in her hand, on the lined paper. I have another poem, she said. Sits beside me on the carpet in a circle of mothers. Family night in this double decker tan house. Eight women and their children live here. A substance abuse treatment center, mostly narcotics, mostly heroin. I’m a guest.
Driving Route 1, I don’t see the ocean. Police station, CVS, Wendy’s, Burger King. McDonald’s is my landmark. Groton borders Long Island Sound, is between two rivers: Thames and Mystic. The names, early seventeenth-century founding. At seventeen, I saw the Thames in London, beside the Tower. Ran my hands over the stones to touch the fingerprints of the condemned.
Morning of my visit to Mother’s Rescue, I wake exhausted. By afternoon, I just want to lie down. Sleep in the yellow room with windows open. Cool air holding rain, sleep through the afternoon, night. Mary McCarthy spent her honeymoon in this apartment, bedroom. Light coming in these windows. It was her fourth husband, after Edmund Wilson, as James Merrill and David Jackson didn’t buy this building until 1956. So it was James West, a diplomat, she married in 1961. The year I was born. Mary was 49. How will I talk in public in this sleepy haze? Feeling drugged, I drink coffee cold from breakfast.
In Groton, Melanie, the case manager, leans on the porch rail waiting for me. Thick iridescent turquoise lines her eyes as if crayoned. I met her a few weeks earlier at my library reading, her hair light purple. Now white and blond and reddish brown. Her brightness calming.
At the library, Melanie had told me about this shared house and rehab for mothers. The mothers stay six to nine months. Their children with them the whole time. Going to group together, meals.
Eight bedrooms upstairs, three bathrooms, kitchen downstairs. Living room. Typed poems written by the mothers are tacked to the Group Room walls. Big silver stars around them. Blue and red and yellow streamers hang from the ceiling as if I we’re at a school dance. At the library, Melanie had said, It would be great if you could come read at the house, if you come back here. I didn’t mention that I still had a few more weeks in town. Wary of making promises I won’t follow through on. Email me, I said.
She’d been in a staff meeting, and someone mentioned the next Family Night. A night when family members of mothers are invited to the house and alumni. May 15th. Themed events, this one would be Poetry Night. Who could we invite as a visitor?
Melanie said, I know someone.
The women cooked all day. Tables in the Group Room full of dishes, pastas and salads, cut fruit and a giant cookie cake. Women and kids all around us. I don’t know what the format is, what’s expected of me. You’re not going to eat anything? T asks. She’s sitting at the end of one long table with her plate, Melanie eating from the plate in her hand. I realize how rude I’m being, pick up a paper plate, scoop two stuffed mushrooms on it. I’m too nervous to eat. Melanie hands me a fork. I eat a mushroom.
Melanie had introduced me to T who she’d mentioned earlier in an email. She’s new, she writes poems. She looks at me the way I look at other poets: breath relaxing, light-eyed, shy. Another woman in a white T-shirt is in the corner between tables. Melanie tells me that she’s an alumni, that she’s visiting. The woman asks, When is the visitor going to speak? I want to go to the movies.
She’s right here, Melanie says. We’re just letting everyone get food first. Melanie says, I’ll let you two talk, and walks away. The woman is careful, guarded. Does not seem especially interested in talking to me. Pale, dark hair falls like rain in uneven sheets to her shoulders. Eyes far away as pebbles on the ground, but a little curious. The woman tells me she’s worked for the same company fourteen years, that her boss let her do the payroll while she was in treatment here. She worked at the table of casseroles and rice and noodles. Where do you live? she asked. Plastic cup of apple juice in my hand. I said, Stonington, in the poet James Merrill’s house, to write for four months. When he died, he gave his house to the town, and they made it into a place for writers.
I did a collage for a book of poetry at the prison, she said. She’s coming toward me, a thread between us. I was at the prison, she said. Or if not a thread, through-light. Each of us a window on opposite sides of a room so light passes through. I wish I felt less stiff. Mothers are sitting in chairs in the living room, on couches, moving, standing, talking around me.
The kids are young. Infants and two-year-olds, three. A couple of kids may be four or five years old. One girl tries to put her finger in the white icing on the giant cookie. Don’t, her mother says.
It’s hard to resist. Wonder why no one is eating the cookie, which says in icing, “Happy Mother’s Day.” The message nervewracking—aren’t we safely past Mother’s Day? Maybe the dessert is for later. But the kids are really well-behaved. No one crying, no one yelling.
The woman in the white shirt asks me, Why are you here? I tell her that I got pregnant before I recovered and gave my son away. And he died. I wrote about trying to find him. The woman cries, but all the water stays pooled in her eyes. Little red veins appear. I gave my son away too, she said. She names the city where he lives. My eyes like hers. We stand looking at each other. I nod my chin toward her. Try to pull it together. Just nod. Swallow.
People find seats. Someone’s boyfriend or husband is there. Where should I sit? I ask. Melanie points to an empty chair at the far end of the living room. Chairs spill out into hallway where Melanie stands. There’s not enough room.
Everyone is so excited you’re here, Melanie said, soft-faced, soft-bodied. A woman cradles a baby on the floor. T sits on the carpet beside my folding chair. She holds a kind of wooden abacus/alphabet for a little boy. He touches a letter, laughs. He and another boy, and a girl in a rainbow tutu have recently learned to walk, stepping hard and bouncing forward. I want to reach out my arms. We go around, introduce ourselves. A girl comes in late. Takes the chair beside me, holds my books on her lap like a child. Her hair curls and shines as if wet. Eyes night sky bright.
A little girl twirls in small mirrors, a lark song. I hadn’t really thought this out, that I’d be speaking and reading poems to adults and children. I want to say how much I admire them. Envy them for keeping their children. Not in a terrible way. But hungry, admiring. I want to say that they’re brave. Good mothers. The first time I drank I was afraid of it, what it could do, I said.
I tell them about Tommy. I gave him away. I kept drinking. I was in the process of disappearing. When I say that he died, a woman gasps nearby or maybe it is all around. The feeling is the room of mothers has gasped. Surrounded by mothers with their babies and toddlers, some of them without some of their children. They know the weight of what happened to me. That gasp isn’t the gasp of people looking at me as if I am on TV, a woman on fire. The gasp I’m used to. The circle like arms. Later when I realize that I feel not crazy with the mothers and children. My grief is not crazy.
And then I don’t know if I can speak, how to speak after this. I am unfrozen. The only color I can see not black and white are the silver stars, streamers, Melanie’s eyes. And the girl’s tutu, flitting pink of new tulips and yellow net through the room. I almost can’t bear to look at it, this openness to the world. The world opening.
Melanie said that she’d looked around the room as I spoke. Saw how the women’s faces changed when I told them about my drinking. My son. Saw that I wasn’t there to judge them, talk from some helping profession. That I hadn’t been able to do what they were doing.
I’m going to read a few poems, I said. The mothers nod. When Melanie had invited me, I’d asked if others would read poems too. But I didn’t know that this was also a Mother’s Day celebration, that the mothers would read poems about their children. The little boy who touched the wooden letter ran toward T. The little girl in her tutu ran into the middle of the room. The children a chorus.
A dark-haired boy came to sit on the floor in front of me, smiling. Face to face. This poem is Sister Goldenhair, I said.
Did you have a sister with golden hair? the boy asked.
No, I had a friend. It was a song we sang. A boy with light brown curly hair comes toward T and me. The center of the room a dance floor the kids can’t resist. Every few lines, I look up to smile at a child making his way toward me. One mother reads a poem with her daughter on her lap. Over and over the poem says, I love my daughter, I love you, I love you, and her daughter, shy and thrilled, levitates in happiness. The woman holding her infant in her lap reads a love poem to her daughter. Her hair spun high above her face, a cameo, enameled. I want to see her baby so badly, I can’t even look in her arms. Just quick glances to take in the length, thin blankets wrapping a body the size of shoebox. That kind of swaddling kept my baby safe, from scratching himself with his fingernails.
Another woman reads a love poem from her phone. T reads her typed poem that she’s taken off the wall. When she talks about her poem, she glances at me though her eyes are down, but I know I’m being spoken to. I have another one, if you want to hear, she said, and we all nod. She reads the handwritten one with the bird flying inside it, in her strong voice. Her father is in there, someone lost, wanting to live.
We clap for each other. The shiny-haired girl says, Here are your books. The little boy is before T again.
That was beautiful. Do you write a lot? I ask.
Yes, T says. I have notebooks too. She tells me she has two children she gave away. That when she sees schoolyards, she wonders if they might be there. If I hadn’t given Tommy to relatives, I would do the same thing, scan schoolyards. All yards. She has two children with her. Is the little boy hers? It’s hard to tell as all the mothers greet all the children so warmly. Why didn’t I ask? And no one can take this one, she said. Not DCF, she looks down. I hadn’t noticed before, how round her belly is. Due soon. I wonder if she or he can hear us talking, if we sound like water.
Can I go to my room and get my art to show you? T asks.
Yes, I say. It gives me a chance to catch my breath. She comes back with three drawings, sits beside me. It wrecks me, her Can I? Her drawings full of bodies and words next to each other. Letters hidden between the people, but she takes me through them. Makes sure I see.
Do you see? I do. In the third drawing, people don’t have faces, but the arrangement is similar, all the bodies connected to each other. Her need to be seen, to be recognized, so familiar, my own face bare to writers I admire. Writers who I can hear, who I wish could hear me.
One of the other staff members comes by and hands me a bag. I say thank you with such surprise, she looks surprised. As if rethinking the appropriateness of it. A Mother’s Day gift. All the mothers receive the same sparkly flowered bag with sheer white ribbon handles. Inside the polka-dot tissue paper is a plaque. On the left of the black frame, MOM is spelled out in raised silver letters. The remaining two-thirds of the plaque is a photograph of a woman leaping in sand, beach grass around her. Ocean in the distance a line under white sky. The woman’s feet are in the air, one knee bent, foot kicked behind her. She holds an umbrella high though the clouds are white cumulous. Arm and umbrella hover over the words: “I choose to be unstoppable. I am bigger than my concerns and worries.” Mom.
I’ve never been called Mom before. Turn back to T sitting beside me, lean over her pages. She’s letting me be the one who can see, a mother.