October 22, 2014
It’s my birthday. I’m fifty-three years old today. (You would be seventy-nine if you were still around.) We would have celebrated this: the way I beat the odds, and continue to do so. We would have celebrated because I was never supposed to be born. I was never supposed to survive. And I was never supposed to be who and what I am now: a functional and mostly happy human being.
Fifty-three years ago today, you are tucked into a bed at UCLA Hospital wondering what the hell is holding me up. Your water had broken the night before, and there had been a mad scramble in the apartment to get my older half-siblings to babysitters or grandparents, a hot pan of sizzling fried chicken shoved into the refrigerator (my dad’s favorite story about still being freaked out at the birth of his fifth child), and get you safely delivered to the hospital. It all worked out, as those things do, and then without warning, the womb and I simply stop our little dance and go back to sleep. The nurses tell you, “Just use this chance to get a good night’s sleep,” and maybe you do, or maybe you are too uncomfortable, or maybe, because UCLA is a teaching hospital and you are one of their prize guinea pigs, you spend the night tossing and turning in between a variety of tests and monitoring nurses.
A year before this, you’d gone to a Catholic hospital to ask about some spotting, and gotten two unexpected diagnoses: first, you were pregnant, and second, you had uterine cancer. Without telling you, doctors gave you an abortion; when you came out of the recovery room, they wanted to discuss treatment for the cancer. You protested; they asserted you could never have carried the baby to term, and now that you would probably never be able to conceive again anyway, their recommendation was that you have a hysterectomy.
You walked out. I’ll never know exactly what was going through your head at that moment, but I do know that it was an extremely stubborn head. So it’s no surprise to me that within a few months you were, again, pregnant and had agreed to be part of a study at UCLA Hospital in exchange for free prenatal care and delivery. It is a bit of a surprise that despite cancer, smoking, drinking, caring for two older children and working full-time, you still managed to carry me a full nine months, but then, we come from a long long line of tenacious survivors.
At any rate, it is now the morning of October 22nd, 1961, and you wake up to a world going to hell in a hand basket while you are trying to kick-start your fourth child’s birth. There is the “Berlin Crisis” between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, which starts today over something trivial and, by my first birthday, turns into the Cuban Missile Crisis. There is the Haiti “election” in which Duvalier is elected unanimously by having his name and only his name printed on the ballot. There is Chubby Checker, performing his hit “The Twist” on the Ed Sullivan Show and shooting his song back up to #1 for an unprecedented second time. Craziness everywhere. Did you know today is also the birthday of Franz Listz? Of Timothy Leary? Annette Funicello? Curly? And if you did, did you care? Being a Hollywood kid, you might know about Annette Funicello. Pretty sure Curly isn’t on your radar. You and I share the same sense of humor, and it does not include slapstick.
So you wait all day. My father is in and out of the hospital waiting room, using this opportunity to skip work and visit a few bars, engage in pre-celebration drinks. I imagine it’s a long day for you, full of examinations by interns and nurses, questions and interrupted naps. Eventually, everyone gives up hoping that labor will begin again on its own, and you are given the drugs to induce contractions.
Somewhere around 5 p.m., I make my appearance, entering a room full of students, nurses, physicians, lights, cameras, action.
“I could feel your body coming out,” you told me once, “I could feel your shoulders, your little ribs, as you passed through.” I’ve always remembered that. I like knowing you were conscious, aware, there for me despite all the technology and students.
I am average weight for babies of that day and age – about six and a half pounds – and I seem perfectly healthy, despite your health issues. And yes, I have dimples, but not much hair. “Another girl!” my father groans, when he sees me.
You're happy, though. You’d lost an eighteen-month old daughter a few years earlier, brown-eyed and dark-haired. A love child. Maybe you think I am Jenny come back to you.
So there I am, the baby who was never supposed to be born. Your last baby before the hysterectomy, squeaking into this world by the skin of my teeth. As for my father’s side of the family, nearly genocided out of existence, my birth was also kind of miraculous. Sixty-one years before my birth, California Indians were at the bottom of a population crash that was almost our ending. My grandfather and father were part of a resurgence that had no name, no direction, no manifesto. All they knew was that they wanted to live. They chased after life with desperate abandon. They would each leave some of that story for me to trace back.
I came into this world with five sisters already there, and a brother. Yet I was the only child you and my father ever had together. My birth order is a paradox: youngest of six half-siblings for ten years (until a younger half-brother came along), and yet, an only child. I’ve never really been sure where I belong in this family of halves and steps.
That Sunday in October 1961, neither you nor I could see what was ahead. I’m sure you were just glad that we’d both made it through labor and delivery. Maybe you're worried about affording diapers and food and rent. Maybe you are concerned about fitting into your pre-baby clothes (you’d hung onto that amazing figure through the previous three babies). Maybe you are angry at my father for getting drunk.
Surely, you don’t have a clue that in three more years your family will be separated, broken up, by violence and grief, prison and fear, your own bad decisions, your husband’s cruelty. No, we never see what’s coming, especially when what’s coming is the unthinkable.
I’m glad that you don’t know any of that, on October 22, 1961. I imagine you receiving visitors, flowers, filling out the birth certificate, bargaining with my father that naming me after the movie starlet Debra Paget was acceptable only if “we spell it right.” (I wish I could ask you now, where did you get my middle name, Ann? Didn’t you have a best friend downstairs in the apartments named Ann? Why did I never hear anything about her ever again?) I imagine you having a quiet moment after everyone finally leaves you alone; you bring me to your breast to nurse. It is a rare moment of just us. Thank you for that.
And thank you for stubbornly, crazily deciding you wanted me to be born. Thank you for carrying me in your body for nine months. I know now that mothering is the kind of job no one can prepare for, no one is ready for, and no one can do perfectly. I know that not everyone is capable of handling the intensity that comes with raising another human being, that some of us aren’t even done raising ourselves yet. I know that childhood is a ferocious crucible that even “perfect” mothers can’t protect their children from, and I know that there is no such thing as a perfect mother, and I know that mothering was a role you took an entire adult lifetime to grow into.
Just when you got it down, cancer came back and took you. I was forty years old. I’m writing to you now across thirteen years of absence, across three thousand miles, across the birth of my first grandchild. I want to tell you, I know. I understand.
I want to tell you that when I speak the word mother, I mean the doorway through which I entered this world, a doorway you chose to hold open long enough for me to scrape through. I want to tell you that when I say birth, there is a gratitude for which I have no language, no word, no metaphor.
I want to tell you that October 22nd will always be our day, the day you brought me into the light, the risk, the possibility, of all that is amazing.
It’s my birthday today. I’m fifty-three years old. I was never supposed to be born. Every day, every year, is our victory, Mom.