Birthday

“No,” the doctor says, when I ask Is everything all right?

His shiny bald head rises up between my wide-spread knees, a perfect red balloon hanging over the ball of my belly, his mouth in the shape of no.

It’s like a movie, I think, Demerol having its poetic effect.

I watch, numb below the waist and fuzzy above it, while a half dozen professionals, grim in their cheerful teal costumes, run around the bright room, moving machines, kneading my belly, stitching my softest skin, pushing buttons on the metal tree from which slithers a slim gray tube, its teeth biting into a swollen vein in my hand. The room smells fake-flowery, having been recently mopped.

“I don’t think everything will be all right,” the doctor says, his round blue eyes watering. I stare at the two deep furrows caterpillaring up from his brow.

My baby is already gone. I haven’t touched him.

Nine pounds, fifteen ounces, a big, red bruiser, my son Bates has choked on his own meconium long before I squeeze him from the dark warm place that has grown too small at least two weeks before, on his due date. For weeks he has taken the black goo into his fresh pink lungs, so that when I push him out, he cannot gulp, his lung sacks full of the gluey poison.

Hours later, I awkwardly hold his heavy, warm weight, attached to an oxygen-pumping machine, surrounded by a circle of strangers watching my face. Then we turn off the machine and Bates begins to die in my arms the day after he is born. His feet kick and then stop kicking and I hand him to the nurse. My husband cries. The snake in the tree still drips Demerol into my bandaged vein.

At home I stand in the square front bedroom, where the maple crib glows under a bright bay window, covered by a quilt I taught myself to make with tiny precise stitches in unruly patterns, like what my grannies made, but not.

The crib needs dismantling, the bedding and bunting to be boxed, but my arms hang at my sides, heavy, unusable.

At the funeral home behind the Market Street Safeway, a pretty salesgirl says we are in luck. Child-sized coffins are half off. We laugh and leave and arrange for Bates to be cremated and sprinkled from an airplane into the Pacific Ocean beyond the Golden Gate Bridge.

The doctor retires.

When we get the hospital bill, it reads zero.

Every morning I say I will pack things up but instead I sit on the floor of our flat, eating cornflakes and watching television.

On the morning of the seventh day, the anchorwoman says a baby girl has been left in a dumpster. I call the station to ask if I can have her. They thank me and take my name. There have been many such calls.

A postcard comes in the mail to confirm that the sprinkling has happened, that a pilot (or does he have an assistant?) has emptied Bates’ ashes out the airplane into the Pacific.

So we drive over the bridge and up a windy road to a bluff at the Marin Headlands. Still pregnancy-heavy, I breathe through my mouth as my husband helps me climb up over the World War II-era concrete pillboxes in the hillside, where frightened GIs watched and waited for submarines to enter the bay seventy-odd years before.

We stand on the edge of the bluff and read a Dylan Thomas poem about rage and cry. We are puffy and red-eyed the rest of the day, even at my sister-in-law’s baby shower that afternoon, where I complain about the Sacramento pollen count.

We come back when Bates would have been one. We bring a pale peach rose, the color of the tulips on the table at his memorial, and we fling it against the wind toward the water. It blows back to our feet and lands upside down in a coyote bush and we are embarrassed at the ineffectual gesture. We laugh. I eat a saltine cracker to ward off morning sickness and we head back to the city for brunch, where the poached eggs disturb me as we talk about how it won’t happen again.

We come with a four-month-old boy on my husband’s back, a boy who sticks wet fingers into my husband’s ears and wet-mouths his hair, making it hard for my husband to read a poem about rage. We wonder if a baby should eat so much hair.

We come with a new boy in my husband’s pack and I clench the soft fist of a three-year-old, worried he will tumble down to the rocks below. We let him throw the five roses himself. He laughs in a husky demented voice, using every muscle in his body to try to get the roses over the edge. I clutch the hood of his sweatshirt while he works, keeping him safe.

We come with two school-age boys and a beagle-shepherd mix, who wanders off-leash, chasing a bird, and are criticized for environmental irresponsibility by a park employee – Ranger Rude to us, ever after. I try not to say we should have left the dog at the house. We pick ticks off the dog and each other on the way home in our Caravan.

We come with our boys in OshKosh, in Sacramento Kings tee shirts, in waterpolo jackets and in college logo wear. I pretend to nag my husband about driving too fast on the steep, curving road so the boys can mock my wimpiness. I think one of them is hung over.

We come, just my husband and me and our youngest son, and cry, but not about Bates. We talk about our big boy, whose voice is so hollow in long-distance phone calls. We mention the gray circles under his eyes in the tiny Facebook pictures. Our youngest son reads the poem that year, his deep voice thick with phlegm.

We come again this year, the two of us alone again, reciting the old poem, which no longer describes anything like how we feel. We fling into the wind twenty-five yellow roses from our Sacramento garden, roses I have carelessly let wilt on the ride with no wet paper towels, and watch them fly back to our feet, as we expect.

We thank Bates for making us kinder than we were before, better to each other. We talk to him about his brothers, living so far away, so smart and sweet, and the trouble they caused us before, and how proud of them we are now. They are so professional, so independent, we report, sheepishly disappointed at their healthy distance. We make fun of their beards.

We tell him about our blood pressure, the heart scare, the tinnitus, like old people, obsessed with our pills.

My husband stands behind me as we say all this, his arms around my waist, his warm fingers spread wide on my belly. He kisses my right ear, and rubs a wet, whiskery cheek against my fine gray hair. I ask if he remembered his beta blocker this morning.

We tell Bates the doctor was wrong.

Everything is all right.

Shelley Blanton-Stroud taught college composition in the California State University system for twenty-five years and led public library book groups for ten years. She is a teacher-who-writes trying to become a writer-who-teaches.

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2 Responses to Birthday

  1. barebookshop says:

    This is an absolutely wonderful piece.

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