I was twenty-one when my soon-to-be husband and I bought our first home in a semi-industrial area of Northeast Minneapolis, John's stomping grounds. He had grown up in Northeast and liked things to stay the same, though I didn’t know that then. At twenty-five, John was out of college and teaching social studies in a nearby middle school. I had recently walked away from a half-finished English degree in order to feel older, almost old enough to get married. So I had taken a job selling ads in the smoke-filled classified office of our city’s acclaimed newsweekly. In short order, I'd been promoted to management, which—given my youth and shyness—was agonizing, especially because I hated ad sales, despite a quirky knack for it. What I’d hoped for in taking the job was something more roundabout: that by working at a respected publication I'd be closer to becoming the writer I’d always wanted to be. That hope proved naïve, but the advertising job paid more than John’s teaching salary, and here we now were, home buyers.
Our modest two-story clapboard farmhouse with its wooden porch swing and leaded glass windows sat on the edge of an awkward, lopped-off cul-de-sac that butted up to Broadway Street, a busy urban thoroughfare. On the far side of Broadway hummed the General Mills factory. Outside our house, the air smelled of Cheerios. Inside, cabbage. The sellers were older and had raised their children there over the previous decades; I’ve forgotten their names now. He, perhaps, was Frank. She, I cannot say. But together they grew roses, glossy, hybrid tea roses drooping with blossoms, all lined up against a chain-link fence that inexplicably cordoned off one small patch of lawn within the bigger backyard. Inside the fence was a concrete slab atop which sat two lawn chairs, presumably for Frank and his wife to sit and admire their rose progeny. “Prune them in the fall and they'll go great guns all summer, every summer,” Frank’s wife told us at the closing. “There's nothing to it.”
John and I unpacked our boxes in August and married on September 29, the day of St. Michael, also known as Michaelmas. I had never heard of Michaelmas back then; I only came to know of it years later. The day, it so happens, commemorates an epic battle. Michael was an archangel, who, according to the Book of Revelations, slew the dragon of evil: "...[T]here was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven."
THAT NOVEMBER, I caught a sinus cold and took an antihistamine to dry it up. I was also practicing, or trying to, a natural birth control method that relied on me being aware of my "fertile mucous." My idea, this was, not John's, despite that I was a pro-choice feminist and he, a Catholic. Ostensibly, I didn't want to be on the pill; I didn't like how it made me feel. But in hindsight, I see how radical this was, my attempt to connect with my sexuality and tune into my physical body—that numb appendage, that phantom limb. It was like I was sloughing off a callous to reveal a shimmer of the self I would later become, with my Vita-Mix and herbs, my yoga and meditation, my placenta-tree-plantings and Solstice celebrations. That person got her toehold with the fertility method—which, perhaps thanks to the effects of the antihistamine, did not work as planned.
We named our surprise Sophia, for the sheer beauty of the word and because it means wisdom.
Of course, I didn't yet know she was Sophia (“Yes, yes, I’m sure I don't want to know the sex!”). I knew only that I was carrying within me a growing human body even less familiar to me than my own. I would stand in our cabbagy little kitchen and stare out the back door at the chain-link fence and then through it, like a pane of old glass, to the wavy memories of Duluth, that tough, cold city carved into the cliffs above Lake Superior, where I was born when my mother was twenty. My older sister was already two then. A couple of years later, Mom divorced. I remember only my sister's version: nighttime by the front door, the painted banister, our dad's brown shoes, his hard-sided suitcase, and a pat on the head before he left. Then our little apartment above the Eighth Street Market, where I licked the aluminum screen door on a snowy day, hunched over and stuck there by the tongue, metal and blood sharp in my mouth. Then Mom’s new husband, and this: broken furniture, secret tickling, fists, hair, tires, crazy, that word, crazy. Then never again, again, another divorce and a loud crack, something deep, an axle maybe, or a bone, or a lung, your own lung, your iron lung.
Now I was pregnant. That odd little fence in our backyard was even uglier in winter, with no blossoms to obscure it. As I yearned prematurely for spring, I worried. Of course I had stopped smoking cigarettes—my God!—and, fortunately, another promotion at the newsweekly had gotten me out of the smoker's office and into my own, where the air was cleaner. I never was much of a drinker. I had foresworn coffee and the diet soda I loved so much. But it wasn't enough. I had learned from What to Expect When You’re Expecting and all the other tomes that nearly anything could hurt my baby. It wasn't just about the iffy things I might consume, the experts warned, but just as much about the better things I might have chosen but deprived my baby of instead. Threats lurked everywhere: unwashed produce, car exhaust, forgotten vitamins, headaches (with or without medication). Cat litter. Plastic particles, tight seatbelts, even doctors, for being too conservative or liberal or careless. Dirty water, whether for drinking or bathing. Loud noises, ignorant relatives, a tumble into the gaping maw of depression. Fumes, even from magic markers. Possibly from cabbage. Probably Cheerios.
WE FOUND a cat that year, too. Christopher, the boy who lived down the street, brought her to our door on a dark night in late fall and begged us to adopt her. “She’s living under your porch,” he said. “Look how scared she is. Look how little!” The kitten was black with white markings on her face and paws. Her coat was matted and sparse, her persistent gas, shocking. We took her in and accidentally named her Baby Girl due to the way I cradled her in my arms day and night. I was practicing.
I toted Baby Girl through the winter and into the spring. I was excited for the roses. Having never had roses or, for that matter, any kind of flower garden, I was no more sure what to expect with regard horticulture than fetuses. When would the bushes wake back up? April brought my twenty-second birthday. May came in chilly, which, I thought, might be the reason the rose canes looked so alarming: no leaf, no bud. Was it something to do with pruning, something we had or hadn't done? By June, the sun was warm and the summer grass was thick and green. The roses, however, were utterly bleak, just dry brown sticks. Clearly, they would never bloom again. What I felt was guilt. Poor Frank! Poor Frank's wife!
In July, I watched sadly as John, shirtless and sweating, dug out the rose remains. Pruning, I later learned, is a specific and essential art that we'd have been wise to explore earlier. There is definitely something to it, something vaguely defined that we apparently missed:
“Pruning rose bushes is excellent for the health of the plant and therapeutic for the gardener, too. Pruning rose bushes opens them up to better air circulation, encourages new growth and blooms, and improves their shape. If you've never pruned rose bushes before, don't worry; there's very little you can do to harm the plant this way.”
When John was finished with his anti-pruning, there lay a great pile of rose carcasses on the grass amid clumps of soil. A row of evenly spaced black holes gaped beneath the chain link, which no longer showcased the heart of the yard, but instead, encircled nothing. So, naturally, John went after the fence next, and then the concrete. Demolition is like that; it sucks you in. It swallows.
SUMMER PRESSED onward and I pressed outward, blinded by a fear that enveloped everything but held nothing. I told no one. Mom’s unnamed struggle (how might a name have changed things?) persisted as my younger sister journeyed through the same foster care system from which I myself had rather recently emerged. My older sister was recovering from a devastating break-up—it was my turn to be strong. I had very few friends, maybe only one, having bounced around too much during high school to form attachments.
I wanted to tell John, but the words froze to my tongue, like metal in winter. Maybe I was pretending to be who I wanted to be, which did not include asphyxiation by terror. Maybe my fear felt crazier than I wanted to admit. Maybe my fear scared me shitless. In my secrecy, all I could do was pray: Please, don’t let the roses be an omen. Let the baby be okay. I'll do anything. Please, please, please.
I prayed and prayed, despite not being religious, despite not having set foot in a church since our wedding in John’s boyhood parish, St. Clement's, performed by Father Earl, a flamboyant priest who'd been there since John's altar boy days. I had no altar days. I never knew when to genuflect, cross myself, kneel, or stand; I knew neither the steps nor the melody for this exotic ritual. I'd been baptized Catholic but, after Mom's divorce and excommunication, was raised a half-hearted Lutheran before drifting away. So much about the life I married into was like that: my ignorance and inexperience a translucent veneer over one more thing that John, only a few years older but from an entirely different world, had known all his life.
If I were to try to explain now why I was so fear stricken during that first pregnancy, despite wanting very much to be a mother, I would say it had to do with worthiness, and the fact that I didn’t believe in mine. It wasn’t just my youth that nagged at me. It was shame—for who I was and where I came from. Already, I felt there had been some oversight in my having married a man so different from my past boyfriends: a man with parents, a job, no criminal hobbies! My position at the newspaper also felt undeserved. I was the youngest staffer by far, and a college dropout. But the marriage and the job, I told myself, could be attributed to my ability, learned early, to pass for who I wished to be, instead of who I was. Motherhood was different; it was bigger, the biggest. Surely, God would have to intervene: “You? A baby? Not on my watch.” But I couldn’t have articulated any of this then; there was so much I could not know, so many answers to live into, so many questions to unfurl. I had never dived all the way down, as the poet Adrienne Rich so gorgeously describes in “Diving into the Wreck”:
I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank of something more permanent
than fish or weed
the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
I THOUGHT I had resolved my childhood, but I was twenty-two. I had not yet—could not possibly have yet—grasped hold of the wreck and not the story of the wreck, the thing itself and not the myth. Crazy was the only story I knew by heart—she was crazy, he was crazy, they were crazy, it was crazy, and you are crazy, yes, you are, sooner or later, you are crazy, too. What I didn't understand then is that crazy was just the story, it was never the thing itself. Amputated from wreck, crazy was just a floater, a parasite that could slip into my open mouth and devour me from the inside out. To see the whole wreck, I needed more light, more oxygen; it was down so deep. I wish I had known how my daughter's gray, wondering eyes would shine like the beam of a lamp along that “something more permanent,” how her sweaty head would set my heart right on its crooked axis and point me toward “the thing I came for,” the thing I had always been coming for.
Most of the mistakes people make, the hurtful and regrettable choices that wound and scar, spring from fear and loneliness. It was these forces—not lack of love—that picked away at my marriage with John over the ten years it took to unravel and then explode. The fear, I couldn’t help but recognize. Loneliness, however, evaded my perception. Can we detect a build-up of carbon monoxide if we’ve never left the house, never opened a window? I had spent my whole life isolated; I couldn't have recognized loneliness had it sucked out my lungs and swallowed me. Of course, John and I didn’t talk about fear and loneliness. Like everyone, we talked about stress and anxiety, instead. Not that stress and anxiety aren’t real. But stressed and anxious states arise from something, and often that something traces back to fear or loneliness. Is there any sadder cliché than the very young mother of unfortunate origins who yearns for a baby in order not to be alone, in order to love and be loved? Is there any stereotype for which our culture holds more condemnation?
And yet, here is what I know: my fierce love for Sophie, and later, for her siblings, taught me how to rip my tongue from the frosty door and ever so slowly un-hunch, how to integrate my past and present selves toward something resembling whole. How to appreciate and even prefer the precise, delicate blossoms produced by hardy shrub roses, those ancient plants that survive harsh climates and thrive through neglect, summer into fall, year after year. Ultimately, all this prepared me to accept, when the time came, the dizzying risk of being loved wildly for my actual self by my second husband these last fifteen years. I could never have understood at twenty-two that sometimes, exposing ourselves to receive that kind of love can be vastly more terrifying than giving it.
SOPHIE ARRIVED in August, a perfect slippery thing, tiny and featherless, yet bigger than me, bigger than all of us. Limitless. I couldn't understand how the walls didn't buckle and fall, how the floor and ceiling didn't blow out from the impossibility of containing her. She was expanding everywhere, like ocean, like sky. Yet, she was tucked somehow into the crook of my arm, her cheek against my chest. Her skin on mine was all sand and waves, it was morning sun, a safe place I knew by heart. John cried and said, “She has your chin.” I’ll never forget his sweet boyish face in the afternoon light of the hospital room, or our white farmhouse, sweet Baby Girl, those bountiful roses, that pile of dead sticks drying under the hot summer sun, like kindling. But most of all, I will never forget how it felt to hold Sophie, still salty and oceanic, my firstborn daughter, who breathed under water, and who would teach me, finally, to how dive.