She takes the test on her birthday.
“You’ll want a baby right away, won’t you?” he’d joked three months earlier, before their August wedding.
She’d demurred, but she knew she was lying. By November, there it is: a growth, a cluster of splitting cells. It knits itself from the fibers of her flesh.
The Talmud says three parties form a life. God makes the soul and senses. The father gives the white parts: bones, nails, the whites of the eyes. The mother makes pigment: skin, hair, blood.
After seven weeks, blood that should be inside her body runs outside her body, enough that she guesses it’s over. But it isn’t. At the hospital, they show the tadpole on a screen, beam the beat of its tiny heart. They prescribe bed rest, and for months at home she stays terribly still. Every twitch and quiver frightens her. She’s scared each time she wipes, scared of red, scared she can’t keep it in.
* * *
The Talmud says the best time in a person’s life is spent in the womb. There, we learn the whole Torah. Before birth, an angel takes away the knowledge. It strikes the child on the mouth, and its fist leaves the cupid’s bow.
Not all wombs are safe, but the woman does what she can. She doesn’t smoke or drink or yell, and she tries to breathe out her fear. She knows these things matter—that the way we come to be shapes what comes next.
* * *
The tadpole gets comfortable, stays past its date. Even the July heat that shimmers the tarmac can’t make it leave. When labor does start, it lasts and lasts.
“Natural, I want it natural,” she tells Doctor, pacing and moaning through the night.
Wires spiral into her skin, bringing things outside her body inside.
* * *
The first woman’s story shaped all the others’. In sorrow you will bring forth children, God told Eve, after she gained her knowledge.
But Eve was not the first woman. Adam had a wife, Lilith, made not from rib but from earth. You lie beneath me! Adam said. And Lilith said, You lie beneath me! We are both equal, for both of us are from the earth. In their discord, Lilith flew into the air and fled.
Eve gave Adam sons: Cain and Abel and Seth, who fathered Enosh, who fathered Kenan, who fathered Mahalalel, who fathered Jared, who fathered Methuselah, who fathered Lameh, who fathered Noah, who, together with his sons, were all who survived God’s wrath.
She doesn’t believe these stories. Neither does he, but that doesn’t take out their teeth.
* * *
After twenty-four hours, she submits to the epidural she did not want.
After twenty-seven hours, the tadpole’s heartbeat slows.
“It must come now,” Doctor says.
But its head is wrongly angled: it’s not tucked, humble, but rather up, like it’s straining to see the world.
Eleven or twelve people crowd the room: doctors and nurses and students here to witness their first ventouse birth. Doctor suctions the crown, shifts it, pulls.
Vacuum extractions have risks. They cause babies birth trauma, just like deliveries that are too fast or too slow, or that have extreme medical interventions. Vacuum extractions can also cause birth injury, including intracranial hemorrhage, retinal bleeding, skull fractures, neonatal jaundice, and broken collarbones.
But the baby’s body is fine. It slips out, fast and slimy as a fish. On her chest, I’m hot as blood.
* * *
“You haven’t torn outside,” Doctor tells her. “That’s good.” The students nod. “Just a small interior tear to the vaginal canal,” he says. She feels nothing as he stitches, numb still from the spine needle.
After the long labor, her womb won’t close. She hands him the baby while the nurse massages her stomach. Hunched, the nurse knuckles the dough of her stretched flesh, all grit, like she’s kneading bread.
Finally, they wheel her from the cables and bleeps to the postnatal ward, where there are no doctors and nurses, just women with bloodshot smiles and sweat-slicked hair. The deepening darkness is close as a hug as they snap photos: 7:49 p.m.—First Nappy; 8:30 p.m.—First Feed. Her white hospital gown is sprayed with a thousand indigo flowers.
* * *
The handset cools her cheek as she talks to her mother, their relationship made new by this fresh sameness. Her mother has already booked tickets to meet her daughter’s daughter. A bloodline.
After thirty-six sleepless hours, she’s woozy. She hangs up, and dizziness prickles her jaw. Perhaps it’s relief, that the work is done.
But it’s not just that. She knows.
“Something’s wrong,” she tells him. “Get the nurse.”
Two nurses stroll in, kind eyes and sensible shoes. One lifts the sheet, and they both make a face.
“Get the medics!”
* * *
Terror jumps between bodies.
The murmurs—vulval hematoma . . . the artery—don’t flip her gut as much as the nurses’ shared look.
“I’m going to throw up,” she says, and a nurse grabs a kidney dish.
She’s empty, all bile, so when she retches, nothing climbs up her throat.
Instead, she feels a fast drench—like a bucket of water hurled hard at her thighs.
She knows what it is. The knowledge makes her retch once more, and there’s another gush, quick as slaughter.
If you don’t stop, you’ll die, she thinks, so she goes from herself.
* * *
A hematoma is a gathering of blood outside the vessels. When vessels are torn, blood leaks and pools into surrounding soft tissue. A puerperal genital hematoma hides inside vulval tissue, at least at first. Bad ones can grow so large they bulge outside the body, skin stretched balloon-thin around the heavy, gore-ripe sac.
My body tore her body. Likely, it was my shoulders, their quick pull slicing her pudendal artery. Doctor stitched only the surface, and missed the wound’s depth.
Trauma comes from ancient Greek, meaning wound.
* * *
Blood was the first of the ten plagues sent to deliver the Jews from Egypt.
Delivery comes from Latin: de meaning away, and liberare, meaning to free. Middle English first used delivery to refer to childbirth. By then, the word meant yield, hand over, which was somewhat opposed to its original sense.
* * *
Thirsty sheets turn crimson. With each heartbeat, she empties. The nurses yank the curtains closed around her red bed. Other mothers peer, whisper Sh sh sh to their armfuls. No need to worry. Their balloons—pink and blue and empty—spin in the waft as Doctor bolts down the ward.
She can’t open her eyes or mouth. They think she is unconscious, but she hears them.
“Blood pressure is dropping,” one nurse says.
The needles hurt as they split flesh and hunt veins. Depleted, the vessels have fallen, so the waiting bags of blood have no way in.
“I can’t get a reading, Doctor. No BP. Nothing at all.”
* * *
He holds the baby, the baby he wasn’t sure about. Is she going to die? he wants to ask, but doesn’t.
She births purple clots, ghastly and gelatinous, the size of boiled eggs.
Does he hate it in that moment, the thing he has in his hands, the thing that gouged his wife?
Does the baby know what it has done?
* * *
The Talmud says women die in childbirth for three transgressions: carelessness with the laws of menstruation, carelessness with the Sabbath candles, and carelessness with the dough of the Sabbath bread.
* * *
“Doctor, there is no pulse!”
I’m not dead, she thinks. I can hear you. I am here.
Thin blood pours, and more clotted eggs. The drift is blissful. There is no pain, just the fading sting where two doctors keep at her arms, puncturing over and over.
She is far away before she thinks, So this is how people die in childbirth.
“Please do something!” she hears the man cry.
“You’ve got to be quiet!” a nurse scolds.
Don’t be mean to him, she thinks.
In his arms, the baby is a whimpering brick.
The anesthetist has sharp strides and deft hands. In an instant, he finds a vein, threads a line, and fills her with blood that is life.
A nurse slaps her cheek and when her eyes open, the first sight is Doctor, pallid and furrowed, swiping both hands down his face.
“Thank you, thank you!” Doctor tells the anesthetist. “Thank you, so much.”
* * *
Visiting ends at ten p.m., but they let him stay while she’s in surgery. He feeds the baby, rocks it. When they roll her back, he kisses her head, which smells of anesthesia.
Around three a.m., they send him home, “so she can sleep,” they say. But she doesn’t sleep. She stares at the baby in the plastic crib, watches it hike its shoulders and scrunch its face like it’s still inside, still being squeezed by contractions, like its body doesn’t know that what happened before is not happening now.
* * *
On the seventh day, she rests from the work of her creation. After a week of thin-mattressed sleep, they tug out her wires.
The doctor who signs her discharge papers says, “I’m sure you’re fine. If you’re not, you’ll just start bleeding again, and then you’ll come back.”
Panic bones its hand around her throat. Last time, you had minutes to get blood into me, she wants to say, but doesn’t. She shuffles anemically into the light, where the world carries on.
Cars move too fast.
* * *
The Talmud says birth brings impurity. The mother of a son is unclean for seven days and impure for thirty-three; for the mother of a daughter, these lengths double.
She doesn’t feel impure, just afraid—of her blood, of her body. Fear comes each night, quick-breathed and trembling.
* * *
After leaving Adam, Lilith became the most notorious demon.
The woman that you gave me has fled, Adam cried to God.
God sent three angels to retrieve her. The angels found Lilith in the sea, the same sea where, after the ten plagues—after the blood, the deaths of the children—the Egyptians would drown. In the sea, Lilith was birthing demon after demon after demon, like so many eggs.
The angels said, If you do not come with us, one hundred of your babies will die every day.
Lilith refused to return, and, furious at her fate, began killing newborns for vengeance.
I have dominion over the child for eight days if he is a boy, or twelve days if a girl, she told the angels. But wherever I see your names in an amulet, I will have no dominion over that child.
Jews hung amulets with the three angels’ names. These parchment kimpetbrivls, with psalms and mystic diagrams, were widespread until the Holocaust killed customs and children both.
* * *
She can’t sleep for the fear.
“Postnatal depression,” a man doctor claims. She does not agree. “Take these,” he says, scratching his ballpoint on carbon paper.
The pills poison her milk.
Weeks later, a woman doctor says, “It’s not depression.” She already knows. “It’s PTSD.”
She stops the pills, but the milk is gone. That photo—8:30 p.m—First Feed—might be the only one.
* * *
She is an artist. She mosaics the fireplace and papier-mâchés a vase, both of them gleaming with winged birds. She oil-paints births onto canvases four feet high. In one, a baby is both inside and outside its mother. In another, it suckles, latched and animal.
She keeps the art upstairs, away from the Christian neighbors and Jewish relatives who don’t think their gods would approve.
* * *
The next child is a girl, too, like she hoped. Jasmin and Jessica, daughters of Jennifer, daughter of June.
We are made from her, my sister and I, bone and blood and rib.
* * *
I always knew this story, but just its most stark facts: a hard birth, bloody, but ultimately fine. By the time I hear it all—hear hematoma and anesthetist and poisoned milk—I’m older than she was as she lay dying.
* * *
My father remembers fragments only. “Trauma will do that to you,” I tell him as we talk on the phone. “Thank you,” he says, like I’ve given him something.
Along with the big things, he remembers small things, like a nurse with long fingernails. He recalls a photo taken the next day, recalls his grim face beside his own father’s smile.
In the photo, my father’s shirt is inmate-striped, but he looks more like a soldier: head down, gaze up, all numb shock. The whites of his eyes show. The baby is swaddled in a cream blanket, and he holds it—the grenade, me—to his chest.
He doesn’t know whether he remembers the moment or the photograph.
Do we tell stories about what we lived through, or do the stories tell us?
* * *
My mother remembers her terror when the nurses locked eyes. I think of times I’ve searched doctors’ faces for mortal profundity, of my own blood roiling as radiologists squint at ultrasounds.
But this is a shallow empathy. It is hard for me to picture her scared, harder than it should be.
Is that because it hurts to know how I sliced my way out of her body, and dragged her to death’s glinting edge?
Or perhaps I reduced her, through all those years when she held my child-terror, and defined mother as someone with no fear of her own, there only to take mine.
What fear did I take from her, when our bodies traumatized each other?
* * *
Three parties make this story: father, mother, baby. But I can’t tell who makes what, who gives or takes, and how much. I can’t tell who this story is about.
* * *
On the phone, I tell my mother how the Talmud explains death in childbirth.
“Well, I didn’t sin with the bread,” she jokes. “I never baked, so no problems there.”
Later, my parents text me photos—photos of photos—snapped from rarely cracked albums by the records and old travel guides. They show a pink thing you could hold in two hands—not a tadpole, but hardly human.
My shoulders hike involuntarily. Perhaps they have never stopped.
More photos arrive, and the thing grows, sprouts curls, morphs into something recognizable. “Nicer later photos that make us happy to see,” my father writes.
I picture them together in the house, the house that shifts slightly each time I visit. Some new mugs, a painting re-hung. It’s partial, this picture, what I know of home.