Most Memorable: July 2014
There is an earthquake in Japan, and I hold my hands on my belly that seizes with the rumble of patting feet. The news warns of tsunami waves as close as California or Hawaii and as far as Japan. My only tie is the glow of the television, the push of ocean up over the islands, the far shots looking like mud a child might make with a hose in a sandbox.
In the sky, the moon is more than a waxing crescent, yet not a full moon that harks the wives’ tale. Seven months after conception, my belly is a large bulb. My son’s arms poke, his legs spurt against the stretch of my skin. We’ve named him Sammy. My toddler, Johnny, isn’t sure what to make of Sammy yet. The moon will peak, full and ripe, weeks before Sammy will burst forth—all howls and soft edges. These two growing boys make my grandfather’s grasp at life feel like gulp and a sting.
My father drives four hours to see my grandfather, lying looped with tubes draining and pumping fluids in a hospital in Pittsburgh. He is in critical condition. Lymphoma, pneumonia, and a collapsing lung plague my grandfather. His body complicates with other infections and his life tips in fragility from one minute to the next.
Tonight, working through his discovery of language Johnny says, “You dead?”
My husband and I marvel at this phrase.
I cry, and say, “No. That’s naughty. Don’t say that.”
“Naughty,” I repeat, though it isn’t.
The roads to Pittsburgh braid themselves around hills. They are labeled as “belts,” wrapping through townships, not villages. My father knows this trek well, though I imagine him alien in this space of loss, navigating the dizzying spheres of land the same way he makes the angular turns through his home, the hard, flat city of Rochester. We put Johnny to bed, which is harder to do the more willing he is. He leaves us at his door and jumps into the covers. In the womb, Johnny grew much like Sammy is growing now. He set the pace. These are strong boys. Kicks from the womb flesh out against layers of cotton, announcing, “I’m here.”
In Japan, an infant is found tucked beneath the rubble, somehow safe, crying for her parents. One happy ending. A small miracle in enough tragedy that few will notice that she will live.
I slide my hand over my once visible belly button. It is a half-dollar sized patch that is both taupe and iridescent.
I read the chronicle of my grandfather’s comments in my email. “I want to live to be 102,” my grandfather says. They are the most telling portions of any family email. He fights as though any of us know what exactly he’s fighting. He survives surgeries when his body might wish otherwise. All of us reunite via the glow of computer screens, logging in to email, waiting for the cords to communicate some meaning to us. And for now, we find it in stubborn spurts.
When I had Johnny, he forced his umbilical cord out before he emerged. He lessened his breath and cut off his blood supply, while trying to live, but my belly was too full of fluid to call the cord back. With the help of doctors, he fought himself healthy. My grandfather bled this determination through genes, a spark trailing through grey-blue eyes. Johnny came home, a feisty bundle with a moon of a face, a soft belly, toes sphered like peas, his feet smooth like fresh bars of soap.
Now, an excess of amniotic fluid cushions Sammy, too. The technical term is polyhydramnios, round in vowels but sharp in threat. I worry the fight of labor will be stolen from me again, that Sammy will be rescued by scalpel and glove from my belly, as open as a treasure box. That the far away moon will wax or wane without matter of its fullness.
In class, my students write a scene inspired by tabloid headlines. Most students write about death by goldfish, the mystery of the floating coffin, and vegan vampires. No one chooses the headline that grips me in sadness: “World’s Tiniest Earthquake Destroys Just One House!” Its loneliness sends me over, and I can’t write about it. Instead, I stare off, imagining the darkness that surrounded the Japanese infant the sad lapses behind my grandfather’s lids, and the pulsing echoes in my boys’ amniotic fluid. After I check the clock, I see my students have finished writing. Their faces stare at me, their eyes too wondrous, and they, as I, must worry my belly will pop if I suppose too hard, if I carry too many papers.
My grandfather fights beneath what is called an “extreme supermoon,” the fullest the moon will be for two decades. My grandfather’s path is woven with medical hills—and still, with my uncle (a doctor) by his side, and attention of specialists and surgeons, only his cells know what he battles. The family is tethered to the pattern of worry and happiness at every change in news, taking the bad too hard and the good too well.
The moon is at its closest to Earth—the two spheres so close it makes the newspaper. The paper claims that only amateurs blame the “extreme supermoon” for the earthquake and tsunamis. To accomplished scientists, the moon simply hangs brighter and closer tonight. I wonder if it could wander somewhere between the two, the dangerous path between tempting disaster and accomplishing beauty.
Sammy keeps me up, nearly prodding his toes up into my chest, a spreading of limbs, a need to breathe real air. I struggle to find a comfortable position for sleep.
My grandfather dies at 2:20 am.
Over breakfast, Johnny says, “Mommy, it’s your birthday! Here is a present! A monster truck!” He holds an invisible truck in his hands, and his face is lit with surprise. I try hard to imagine. It is not my birthday.
I review the nearly 100 emails that tell my grandfather’s long journey through illness for some sense of sense—a clue that this would end in the hospital, not with my grandfather in his home. The emails come so frequently, so varying, that one day, he is lucid enough to recollect the year he was born: 1928, the year he was married: 1951, and, though incoherently, the year he graduated from Notre Dame University: 129. 3. The next day, he does not eat, does not have the strength to lift a spoon of mashed potatoes to his mouth.
I stall in my study before canceling classes for today, but cannot drive hours to the funeral in the last month of pregnancy. My father treks without my mother. She is not there to constantly ask him how he is.
Johnny has warmed to the idea of a new brother. The more we talk about Sammy, the more Johnny’s face glows with brotherhood, what will become a pinch and a hug. When he sees Sammy’s car seat, he says that he will hold his hand in the back of the car. We share a fish fry, and Johnny watches aftermath of the “big waves” on twenty-four hour news, with no idea what to be afraid of, what is play and what is real.
At night, I sleep with my great grandmother’s rosary in my hand, linked amethyst and silver so heavy I imagine the weight in its prayer. My back aches with each cramp. My belly contracts and expands. I labor.
It is a long haul, and nearly a month early. My aunts and uncles, some cousins, all gather in Pennsylvania for my grandfather’s service. My father leaves immediately following the service, speeding, unsure that he can be at the hospital before Sammy is born.
He arrives at the hospital, wearing the suit he wore to my grandfather’s service. My mother hugs him hard. I expect his eyes to close, but can see the red veins.
In shock, unsure I am ready for this, too worried about the guilt of splitting myself between these boys, I am oddly calm. Sammy works forth. He is more in labor than I am.
Sammy’s heart rate drops with every contraction. I cannot tell this from intuition, rather the anxious beeping of the machine by my side. I do not know this at the time: his cord has wound its way around his neck. He is in my own body, and I cannot help him. I request a cesarean section and tell the anesthetist, under the glow of the surgical lights, that I can still feel everything, not to cut me yet.
I wake, quaking, and feel the stitches in my abdomen.
“Where’s Sammy?” I ask. Before the nurse answers, I know he is breathing somewhere
in this hospital, a tiny exchange of air for life.
Thanks, Sarah! xo
Such lovely interweaving and interlacing of moon, life, death, pulls of nature and generations. Unforgettable voice infuses work and my day long after I’ve read. Shocked to find after reading that you teach at Brockport where I got my MA in the 1990s. Look forward to following your work. – Renee Rivers unpackedwriter.com
Hi, Renee! Thank you for your kind words. I’m happy to find another Brockport grad. I graduated from SUNY Brockport with my MA, too. But in 2006. Are you still in the area?
My favorite sentence: “Johnny came home, a feisty bundle with a moon of a face, a soft belly, toes sphered like peas, his feet smooth like fresh bars of soap.” What imagery!
Thanks for reading, John! I appreciate it 🙂
I think I was holding my breath through reading this whole thing. I’ve read it before but it was just as amazing the second time around. Love this story that tugs at my heart from all angles. Beautiful story niece Sarah! So proud of you!
thank you, aunt jill! when i revisit this piece, it feels as if it has just happened. xoxo