For life.

Byzantine Art

I almost killed my mother when I was born. This fact has followed me always, always, and I thought of it as I curled at my mother’s feet shortly after Christmas. She lay huddled in a chair under a blanket, head throbbing because of a ruptured blood vessel in her eye. It leaves her vision half-blurry, and the strain exhausts and pains her.  The rupture itself emerged from a long-hidden weakness in her vessels from when I was born. It’ll heal, but it takes a while. I reached up and touched her arm, hurting for her.

“Because of me,” I said in a low voice.

“No, Anne,” my mother answered, eyes closed. “You didn’t do it.”

“An instrumental cause, then,” I said. “Or material.” I had looked up Aristotelian causes earlier that week, reminding myself of them, trying to trace the delicate lines of the guilt I felt. I do not feel as if I did anything with my own hands. That almost makes it worse, because it’s harder to understand.

My mother’s retinas detached when I was born. Her blood pressure rocketed because she was sick; because she was suffering from preeclampsia, which threatens mother and child. Her kidneys had shut down. Her limbs had swollen with fluid and she was blind. Her liver threatened to shut down too.

I was born via C-section at 28 weeks. That’s three months early. I weighed two pounds and eight ounces, and I quickly lost those ounces. I stayed in the hospital long after my mother recovered.

It is hard for me to imagine how terrifying it was, and my parents don’t talk about that part. It’s hard for me to remember what knowing all this meant for me when I was young. My aunts and uncles on my mother’s side always said, “I thought you were gonna die.” My mom would always look at me and say, “I knew you’d live.” Her confidence always soothed a strange ache in my heart.

Something in the stories always hurt.

I cannot imagine how much love it took for my mother to insist I be baptized. A deacon did it the second I was born. In case I died. A Jesuit once suggested to me that my parents were being peasants subject to mythological thinking to have me baptized. It is the only time I almost punched a Jesuit. It matters to me that the first touch I felt was the water of baptism as doctors and nurses carried me away. It matters to me that it mattered to them.

And I cannot imagine what it took for my mother to make my dad, a young man, promise that I would come first. If she had to die so I could live, she had no doubt what she wanted to do. My mother is many things, and always brave.

We almost died. The both of us. I almost took her away from my dad, and my siblings away from all of us. Just by being born.

I still suffer because I was born that early. My mother still suffers for me. I can’t wrap it in a tidy box of meaning, a grand fable of maternal sacrifice and cruciformity. Like a music box under torn wrapping paper. It’s complicated, with lost edges and broken notes. It doesn’t fit neatly, doesn’t entirely soothe.

And I wish being born didn’t hurt me for the rest of my life, but it does. Or hurt my mother for the rest of hers, but it does that too.

My birthday arrives sometime soon, and thirty-two years later I can hardly grasp what it means to look in my mother’s wounded eyes and know it’s because of me. I don’t know how to mourn the loss of a regular birth story. I’ve never had one, and I can’t picture what I’m missing aside from this: not being a threat to my mother. I wonder what that is like. To have been born that way. Unremarkable.

My mother sees me entirely as a gift, but it’s hard not to see the fullness of the truth, which is more shadowed. Her love made her blind, and it makes her blind still.

Good things are very hard, even mixed with violence that no one intended. It’s no one’s fault, and that’s almost harder. I don’t want to have died, and I don’t want my mother to have suffered. But these opposing wishes would not have prevented each other. Sometimes we pretend as if medical science can absolve us of the mystery of motherhood. Of being a child.

They wanted my mother to abort me, and I’m glad she didn’t. But I know what they were trying to protect her from, and it was me. We don’t have words for this. For whatever this is.

I don’t know how to say it. What it means to have been born and to have almost killed my mother.


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