Emily, my youngest, who lives in D.C., is coming for the weekend. I need to vacuum and plan menus, change the sheets in the loft, scrub the guest bathroom, and yet, I have a manuscript to edit, a workshop to teach, and a column to write. It’s so hard to demonstrate love and write about love at the same time.
On the stair landing, I pause, suddenly arrested by a framed essay in which I not only anticipated this dilemma but chose it. It is a decision I made many years ago and make again in small ways every day.
They tell me to breathe, to ride the contraction like an ocean swell, cresting it in rhythmic control. But I barely hear them, diving deep beneath the pain. There is less movement in the depths, less distance to the shore.
“She’s crowning,” they call out. “Push harder! Again!” I comply just to please them. This child intends to never be born.
“It’s a girl,” the doctor proclaims, and the pain suddenly stops. I hear a cry, but I am briefly detached. For nine months, we have enjoyed the mystery of this child’s identity. Not knowing whether it was a boy or a girl, the baby became both in our minds. The nursery was decorated a non-committal yellow, and with the choosing of names, “baby” became Adam/Emily. In the last months of pregnancy, I imagined myself holding and dressing newborn Adam one moment, infant Emily the next, and both seemed real.
Now, the wondering is over, and as delighted as we are to greet Emily, a faint loss accompanies the revelation. Because there is an Emily, there will never be an Adam. The memory of this fantasy child fades as Emily claims her place in reality.
Peace floods my body at last. It is deep, complete, thorough. A nurse covers me with a warm blanket, and I sleep.
Someone is shaking my arm. I awake in a dimly lit room on the maternity ward where I have been moved. A curtain partially shields from view another bed, where my roommate, whose child is only a few hours older than my own, is also rousing from a few precious hours of stolen sleep.
“It’s 1 a.m.,” the nurse tells us, “And the babies will be brought from the nursery for feeding in a few minutes. Wake up. You must be alert before you handle the infants.”
We struggle to sit upright for the first time since giving birth, sharing a few tentative words in the dimness. During our brief stay, this waking will become a nightly ritual. We will hear the squeaking wheels of the hospital bassinettes as they are rolled one by one down the hall, bringing each infant to its mother. Each night a nurse will herald the coming procession, calling softly into the darkened rooms, “The babies are coming! The babies are coming!” Years later, I will still remember the hushed breathlessness that filled the ward as we waited.
I brush my hair, hold a cold, wet cloth to my face for a moment, and prepare for the arrival of my tiny daughter. She is rolled in, lying on her side, tightly swaddled. Only her face is visible in the folds of a white blanket, her eyes bright with hunger.
I pick her up, and she stares directly at me. She looks intelligent, demanding. The nurse retreats, and I feed her, relieved when she surrenders her fierce concentration to the comfort of my arms and closes her eyes. I am temporarily released from her stoic scrutiny.
In a little while, the nurse returns, and the tiny bundle is put back in her bassinet for the return trip to the nursery. Although I cannot see her as the door closes behind them, I picture her staring in regal intensity at her attendant as she rides down the hall—a tiny Cleopatra on her barge, sweeping down the Nile.
We are home and she has smiled at me. She has also smiled at the blank, quilted side of her crib bumpers and some memory in her dreams. But it’s too late for me. I stay within the orbit of her cradle hoping to glimpse another smile, though they are as predictable as shooting stars.
She is not my first child. She is my last. Every touch, every moment with this child is more precious, more intense, because I will not pass this way again.
I had meant to begin work on a novel this spring—to have a real schedule, to live the life of which book jacket bios are made: “Ms. Oliver is a critically acclaimed novelist who lives in Annapolis, Maryland.” But you can’t write about life without participating in it.
Emily, her brother, and sister, all the people I love and those I’ve lost, are the richest colors, the teachers and tenderizers for the substance of my work, my life.
I will always long for uninterrupted afternoons of creative concentration. There will never be enough mornings spent at my desk in which to harvest these years. But even now, as I seek the heart of an essay I must set aside (Emily is coming! Emily is coming!), I remember a friend saying, “Consider the interruptions holy.”
And so I have. And so I do.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.