I remember the moment when the thread between me and Boy first broke.
My belly was large and round with my second pregnancy, and I was sitting in seiza like a monk in our Japanese-style bathing area. Boy sat with his back to my belly, the top of my thighs forming a chair for his tiny body. My left hand pressed his chest, holding him firmly to me while I rinsed the soap from his pale skin with the showerhead.
Suddenly, he slipped forward off my legs and onto the floor mat. This had never happened before.
“Mama! Your ponpon!” he screamed. Ponpon is belly, and it was too big now. He cried inconsolably while I lifted him, rinsed away the remaining soap, turned off the water, wrapped him up snug in a towel, and passed him to his father’s open arms.
It seemed he did not come back to me until after Girl’s first birthday.
* * *
In the beginning, my first pregnancy had been fun, a curiosity: I’d call Koun — we were living in Alaska then — and tell him how I’d cried at a car commercial. I marveled at my appetites, my sudden, almost violent tiredness. I vowed to be a “fit mama” — keeping up a routine of (gentle) yoga and five-mile-a-day hikes along the Coastal Trail. I soon bought a wardrobe of cute pregnancy clothes, stuffing a rolled-up sweater into the space where my belly would inevitably fill out. We even bought a cheap maternity microphone set “for baby’s first sounds!”
Early in my second trimester — it was mid-October and I was barely showing yet — I started bleeding in the middle of the night. Profusely. Still, I did not believe anything was really wrong.
We drove dutifully to the hospital, and the doctor explained that I had two choices: Go into surgery immediately and then live out the remainder of my pregnancy flat on my back in a hospital bed, or go home and wait to miscarry. Either way, we were likely to lose him. The room spun. I vomited onto the floor, and then signed the necessary paperwork.
There was no real pain at first after I awoke from the surgery, my cervix stitched and tied fast. There was just a dull, deep ache. Later, there was more pain, and it was real. I was not allowed to lift my head, or any part of my body that would result in pressure at the core. A baby monitor was strapped to my belly, and a nurse monitored it every 30 minutes, waking me at intervals throughout the night.
I came to hate that monitor, and the constant drama that came with it. It seemed that every nurse wanted to show great care, and so they declared my child’s heartbeats as either “too fast” or “too slow.” “Roll over to wake him,” they would say or, “Something’s not right—he’s much too active.” In the first few days I appreciated this diligence, this concern, but later I did not.
Eating, drinking, eliminating — these brought both pain and frustration, as each action had to be accomplished while lying on my back.
By the third week I had oozing bedsores along my backbone and thighs, a reaction to the strong detergents used to wash the sheets. I developed gestational diabetes from lack of movement, my blood sugar skyrocketing with rice, bread, fruit. When I was finally allowed to angle up the head of my bed for a few minutes each day at mealtimes, each bite of food had become a source of renewed guilt and fear — Was I eating too much or not enough? Would my numbers be too high? What would this do to the baby?
Nearly every day was the same: meals, blood tests, heartbeat assessments, a daily greeting from the on-duty doctor. A nurse came to change the bedding in the morning, slowly rolling me from one side to the next to peel away the old and re-fit the new. In the evening, one nurse came to wipe down my body. She did this methodically, fast. I marveled at how quickly I stopped caring about my dignity.
My belly grew and time expanded outward, infinitely. I was always afraid.
During the days, my mother came and brushed my long, matted hair. Friends brought books, Zen teachings on audio, a knitting project, sudoku. And most evenings after work, Koun sat with me. He brought DVDs, some small comforts that I requested. He graded papers while we watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Battlestar Galactica. Many nights, he slept curled up on the floor, only a thin futon from the Korean goods shop downtown between him and that cold laminate.
Days and weeks passed. There were milestones. In November, President Obama was elected into office (the nurses were not happy — it was Alaska, after all). Thanksgiving came and went, and then my birthday (officially making me the “advanced maternal age” of 35), and then Christmas. A book contract was dropped — my first, my only — thanks to the collapse of the stock market, which I could not understand. The new year came and went.
Late into my hospital stay, the doctor removed my catheter and signed a release for once-a-week bathing privileges. Four nurses came to lift me onto a gurney coated in towels, and I was taken to what the women called “the car wash.” One of the nurses had been a hairdresser, and she washed my knotted hair with skilled hands. Another woman shaved my legs—a small luxury.
After two and a half months, my doctor signed a release allowing me to go home to continue my bedrest. My muscles had grown soft by then. I was dizzy when I sat up. And I could not stand.
Returning home was returning to our rooms adjacent to the Anchorage Zen Community’s zendo. Each morning, I lay in the bedroom, listening to the bells and chants that signaled the start and end of zazen, the morning ceremonies, and then the shuffle of winter coats and boots afterward as people filed out into darkness and cold. I smelled the incense coming in under the door, and I thought about how we — my son and I — were locked together in a state of constant practice, of constant zazen, often painful for both body and mind.
I came to know things about my child that I perhaps wouldn’t have if I’d been in motion throughout my pregnancy. Stillness forced me to listen. He woke me early in the morning—a kind of fluttering in my belly. In the afternoons, he was playful, a fist or toe sliding visibly across a taut drum, responding to the press of a hand against flesh. After meals, there was often a real workout going on in there — kicking and twisting and bouncing. I always knew when he was sleeping, too, my body silent as the ocean floor.
When my son was born by cesarean nearly two weeks past his due date, I couldn’t believe that he — we — had survived.
From the moment I first saw him and ever since, Boy has had a manner about him that brings out a feeling of recognition in me. I want to say that he is an old soul. I felt this when I first met Koun, too — just this pure quality of I know you.
With my second child, my daughter, it has been different. She is a bright, new soul. Her nature is less storm, more sunshine. When she was born, we were completely bound to each other, but not by life-and-death drama, just life. Meanwhile, since that moment in the bath, Boy clung to his father, rejecting my attempts to reconnect. I tried not to take it personally.
More recently, though, Girl (now nearly two) has gravitated to her Papa — he is her favorite in times of distress — and that thread has appeared again between me and Boy. I don’t know, maybe it was there all along. Sometimes at night, when I tuck him into bed, he whispers, “I love you, Mama. You are be-YOO-ti-ful.”