All Done with This

Paula_Modersohn-Becker_028

Interesting what sends the past bubbling up and burning. We’re at a soaking pool one evening, my husband and I, steeping like leaves of jasmine. A woman enters with a baby, less than two months under his little elastic waistband. My eyes gravitate toward the infant the way my eyes gravitate to all the wrinkly heads and unsteady necks of infants, the shattering beauty of their animalness and vulnerability. But I cannot stop staring at this baby. He looks exactly like my own baby at that age. Almond-shaped dark eyes and a thin pelt of brown hair. Olive skin. Heavily creased forehead and red lips.

My daughter is now a hilarious, warm-hearted twenty-something, tall and Romanesque as a statue, who—thank the Graces—turned out well. Yet given the chance, I would change almost everything about her infancy. Seeing the baby at the pool, I feel the crush of hunger to go back and fix things I can’t.

I was twenty-one when my daughter was born. At the time, I was three years into an abusive marriage I would not leave until she turned two. I’d been sickly in the years before her birth (my teen years, really), an overuser of antibiotics, and I suspect this precipitated her copious allergies and tendency toward illness—her woefully inadequate intestinal flora. In our daughter’s second year, her father built a fiberglass car body in the small garage attached to our house, and I suspect the cloud of toxic fumes sparked her learning disability. At the time, I thought myself powerless to stop it. But I wasn’t. These are the glaring failures. The failures that shine under her skin, their shelf life longer than her own.

As I exit the locker room after swimming, I see the mother standing outside with her baby. She fumbles with the waist buckle of her baby backpack and looks straight at me. “Can I get your help with this?” she asks.

I look in her eyes as I latch the buckle. “Your baby looks exactly like my daughter did,” I tell her. And just as the words cross my lips, I am buried in emotion.

“Really?” the mother asks. “How old is she?”

“Twenty-one.” I fight an onrush of tears.

“Wow, and where does she live?”

“Nearby, a couple hours from me.” I turn my head so she doesn’t see my eyes grow red and wet. I put my hand on the baby’s back.

“So you’re all done with this?” she asks, meaning childrearing, and I nod. “Well, I’m a little jealous,” she adds lightheartedly as I step away. This mother is my age, forty-something, and has decades until her nest empties.

“I’m jealous too,” I tell her, turning and smiling through the tears.

{First published in Oregon Humanities, Summer 2014}

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