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The Overnight Bag

Vanessa Martir

I left your father over seven years ago when you were just a year and a half. But I knew it was over when I was pregnant. Truth is I know now that relationship happened so I could have you. You who have saved me from myself so many times.

One day last fall, you woke up in a foul mood. You cried when I sang, “Wake up time.” You pouted while you went about your morning routine. Stomped around the house, sucked your teeth when I asked you what you wanted for breakfast. This is so not you. You’re usually so kind and patient and compassionate. I should have known something was off. Instead, I lost my patience and yelled. That’s when the tears came. Buckets of tears. I tried to hold you but you pushed me away. I bit my lip to keep from letting you see how much that stings. Your rejection cuts deeper into me than any machete made by any man.

We were about to walk out the door when I told you to grab your overnight bag. “I don’t wanna take it. I hate that bag.” This bag was a symbol for being different. You don’t have a father who lives at home. This is the bag you’ve taken with you every other Friday for the past seven years. To the baby sitter, day care, Head Start, to school for kindergarten, first and second grade, even summer camp. More tears by the bucket. “Why can’t we have a real family like everybody else?” My insides caved. You stayed home with me that day. A mommy-daughter day. We both needed it.

* * *

When your father first got married when you were four, I felt a change in you. You were quieter. One day you asked, “Why can’t you and Papi be together? Why can’t we be a family?” I’ve never lied to you, and I don’t speak badly about your dad in front of you.

“Well, you know when you have a friend and they stop being nice to you, do you still want to be their friend?”

“No, Mommy.” You shook your head. “We don’t like mean people.”

“No we don’t. Well, Mama, your dad wasn’t nice to me so I didn’t want to be his friend anymore.” I couldn’t tell you about how abusive he was. The terrible things he said when he was angry–“That’s why Millie died. Because she was a fucking lesbian.” How I had to wear a long sleeve to your first birthday though it was 90 degrees because I had bruises on my arms from where he’d grabbed me and shook me.

You stared at me, your eyes telling me you understood. Sometimes I think you really do.

A few months ago, you told me your dad was talking badly about me. You didn’t say what he said, but you did tell me, “I told him, Papi I don’t like it when you talk bad about my mom. That’s not nice and I don’t like it.” You say he’s never done it since.

* * *

Your dad and his wife had a baby two years ago. You call him my little brother with fierce pride and protection. You told me you wanted to see your dad more. “Is that okay, Mom?” You cupped my face in your hands. “I love you Mommy.” You were so worried that would hurt me.

I reached out to your dad. I told him you said you wanted to spend more time with him. I was willing to make it work for him. Maybe once a week on a day that fit his schedule. “I have too many responsibilities,” he said. I never told you that, Nena. I knew it would crush you. I did tell him that when you got old enough to ask where he was when you needed him, I was going to send you to him to answer that question. He didn’t say anything.

* * *

When you asked me a few months ago, “Why can’t we have a normal family?” I thought that I was failing you. And then I watch you. I watch you reading on the bus, dancing on a stage, making hysterical videos with your best friend, Po, laughing with your friends, holding the door open for people, telling me stories about your trip to the botanical gardens and how you saw a frog the size of your hand in the marsh. It’s then that you remind me that you are my daughter, a piece of me, and I think maybe, just maybe, I’m doing a decent job of raising you.

The bag isn’t an issue anymore. I bought you a book about single parent households and we read it together and talked about it. And I held you through it. Through your wanting to fit in. Through your ache for something “normal.”

You smoothed your hand on my cheek when I put you to bed one night and said, “Thank you for choosing me to be your daughter.” I laughed and said, “I think you chose me to be your mom, Nena.” You giggled. “Yes, I did. I made the right choice.”

Vanessa Martir is a NYC based writer and teaching artist. She is currently completing her first memoir, A Dim Capacity for Wings, and chronicles the journey in her blog: vanessamartir.wordpress.com. Vanessa is a mom, a five time VONA fellow, and a lover of all things art, community and personal narrative.

Both

Lisa Factora-Borches

It was a hot September night when my son turned nine months old, when the guilt completed its transformation from emotion to somatic. The stress of breastfeeding, the isolation of parenting in a nuclear family in a quiet Midwestern street, to the unexpected realization I did not want to be a full time stay at home parent; like a magnetic calling for its ingredients, my body harbored some kind of experimental fusion of a new entity. It has no name.

I stand in the doorway and watch him. My tot lay in his crib, noisily dreaming with his round rump in the air. My feet shuffle a few steps over a thick hallway rug and I pause at a different threshold. I watched my partner blow thin puffs of air between his slightly parted lips, a sign, I knew after almost a decade of loving him, that designed exhalation meant he was in deep sleep. Assured they are safe from my dark thoughts, I walk the house.

A dead whisper, clamoring for life, wafts into my ear “What kind of mother are you.” It wasn’t a question. It was a judgment that hammered the space between my fingers since Isaiah was born so they felt numb when I tried to type, write, scribble, or even jot.

Rewriting the ending of stories I read, saving cards, reading poetry aloud to a mirror in the bathroom, I knew I was a writer when I was seven years old. But motherhood I didn’t decide until the advent of my 30s. There was little warning that the two would clash so magnificently, in such a horror comic show of blunder and anxiety. The collision of biology and art was a daily bruiser. I preferred to work on my writing more than anything in the world. Sometimes even mothering. I kept that secret deep within, afraid of what others would think. Afraid what it revealed about me as a mother. Terrified what kind of monster that made me.

I walk the house, stealing brief glances at the two sleepers in their beds. Tired of walking into nothing but endless questions and dim corners, I finally lay down to close my eyes and join them.

Out of nowhere – or maybe It was there all the time and I just realized It – It began. It was physical.

The tingling begins on the left side of my body and my heart began rhythmic drumming as I was running for my life. The walls turned into flat vacuums, sucking the air out of the room, leaving nothing for me. I couldn’t breathe.

I’m dying. I’m dying.

He turns over in the bed and sees my hand reaching for him. I muster plainly, “Something is wrong.”

What kind of mother are you.

It wasn’t a question.

The fear of my son being outloved by words, metaphor, meaning, and craft. The broken bleeding nipples, the tilted uterus, the rash outbreaks from the hospital gowns, my refusal for pain medication, messy IV, itchy skin. My heart races with fuel to outrun the memory bank of my body.

The tingling spread and Nick’s face covered mine and he is talking. I can feel your heartbeat and I’m barely touching you. You need help. We need help.

I open my eyes and see strangers in my bedroom, working on my body, taking my blood pressure, asking me questions about my health.

I’m dying. I’m dying.

The paramedics assure me that my heart was fine. I ask if they are sure.

Have you ever had a panic attack? one paramedic asks.

I laugh.

No. I don’t have anxiety in my family.

You had a panic attack.

I laugh again. He didn’t.

It’s three in the morning, he points out.

And? I challenge, suddenly feeling naked to have these strangers in my bedroom.

You’re a new mom? He’s not aggressive, just imploring.
But it was like scratching your finger against a bulldozer.

He sees my eyes flash, dark marbles of wild emotion.

Hey, he says, this is your body taking care of you. Whatever this is, whatever’s going on in your head is too much for your body. Your adrenaline is pumped in waves in reaction to your thoughts. You think you’re dying because it feels like a stroke, but it’s your body responding.

I look down. My disheveled tank top, my scrunched pajama shorts. The embarrassment sweats down my chest.

What kind of mother are you.

He sees my shifting eyes and goes on. When your body doesn’t get enough oxygen from hyperventilating, you begin to pass out. It’s your body’s way of saying Woah, I need to take over here so I can stabilize and get what I need because I’m not getting it.

He nods, appreciating his own analogy.

My son is sleeping through it all. Sound asleep.

They begin packing their equipment and I am standing now, apologizing.

What the hell am I apologizing for?

Just take care of yourself, he says.

What kind of—

I am a mother. And writer.

Lisa Factora-Borchers is a writer and editor of the forthcoming anthology, Dear Sister: Letters from Survivors of Sexual Assault (January 2014, AK Press). Her work can be found on and offline, and it focuses on spirituality, liberation, and feminism. Lisa lives with her partner, Nick, and their son Isaiah. www.MyEcdysis.com

the After Birth

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After giving birth, I bled. I’d been so focused on opening and releasing that after my babies came, I just stayed wide open. Prepared to give until my life slipped away. I didn’t feel the shot of Pitocin to my thigh. The IV pricked cold into my wrist. It felt so good to put my head back on my futon, as if I could sleep forever. But my midwife put her head squarely in front of mine—“Keep your eyes open.” I battled her, reminding her that I’d not slept for two nights—but in the end she won and so did I, I stayed with them.

I’ve been thinking about birth a lot. Maybe it is because my sister, Zarine, just had a baby. Or maybe because my daughters are turning six. Babyhood is very much over.

Nothing could have prepared me for what I faced after the homebirth of my twin daughters. Ixchel was transferred to the hospital. Her breathing was unstable. I lost so much blood that I could not bend over without almost passing out. I’d never been so physically unable. Unable to prepare food. Unable to pick up a sock on the floor. Unable to wash my dishes. And I was full of needs—so hungry, wanting steak. Needing help even to shower. It was two days before I showered.

I had two infants. This is what no one tells you—that when you are a mom you still have to get through the hard times, but now you have to guide your children, even when you are knocked to the ground.

Kali was in my arms, eating from me, requiring more than I’d ever given. And Ixchel was separated from me. The news kept getting worse—her blood was too thick. They had her in an isolation unit with a tube in her throat. Morphine. Salination. Too many decisions. I was not there.

Her father and the midwives went to the hospital with her that first night.

And then she was alone.

My baby was in the hospital. I was too weak to go. I could not let myself feel the pain. I just knew she’d be OK. I’ve never known something with such ferocity. She was born a warrior. I don’t think I cried. Every part of me had to hold steady. There was no room for panic or fear.

My sister, Sarai, saved me. Without me asking her. We had planned for her to photograph the birth. But in the end she stayed. She called her boss and took two weeks off of work. She slept on the lumpy, blue folded futon in the living room. Birth, death, and sickness provide this pinpoint clarity. How in one moment you can make a decision to pack your life up and arrive to hold someone up.

My mother, aunt, sister, father, friends, son, and kids’ dad were all stepping in and up and helping. It took everyone and then some. But I remember Sarai most during this time. Every day Sarai went to the hospital. When there was a medical decision to make about my daughter, she called. When they pulled out formula to feed my baby, she went to the freezer and grabbed my breast milk. When they tried to give Ixchel morphine, she gave her Reiki and got Ixchel to be still and calm. She made me breakfast in the morning and changed Kali’s diaper at night.

She cooked up my placenta for me. Really. I don’t know whose idea it was, but I ate it with basil on toast. The rest she cured, pulverized, and freeze dried, so I could use it as medicine. I still do.

It was humbling. Needing so much.

Sarai was the glue that held me together. She protected my daughter when I could not. She held her hand. And she held mine. That first time I went to the hospital, I came in a wheelchair and she pushed me there.

When I held Ixchel in my arms, everything was wet: my cheeks, my shirt. I was covered in milk and tears.

My daughters are six now and don’t remember their Auntie Sarai. At first I was angry. Then I was scared and then like so many things it just hurt too much. So I accepted that she was lost to me. She called me a few months back. It’s hard to pick-up the pieces of a relationship after so many years. I didn’t say, “Thank you for keeping me sane when my girls were born.”

I did say that I understood why she left. I told her that I love her. At least that is what I remember saying.

A Note to My Son

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I never said thank you for that time you put your hand on my back and told me it was OK to leave. I’d left you sobbing on your bed. You were in fifth grade then. Arms lean muscles reaching to cover bone. Lanky in form, but small in frame and wailing when I said that I was leaving your dad. Even though I was raising you, I had no legal or biological claim to you. Leaving your dad was leaving you.

I came back a few days later to take care of you. Your moon face beaming at me. And we pretended like nothing had changed, your hand warm in mine as we walked home from school. Your shoelaces dragged, untied through the gutter as we crossed the street. Without being asked, you did your homework. If you were good enough, sweet enough maybe I would stay.

When your dad and I finally split up for good, you were 16 and no longer good or sweet. Your voice dropped and hung flat. “I don’t give a shit,” you said. “It doesn’t matter to me.” The gaping holes in your teeth replaced by braces. The round of your eyes bloodshot red and lidded with weed.

Now, you are gone from me. On the day you collected the posters from your wall, you couldn’t stop shaking your foot. Even your voice trembled. I could not see the scabs under your shirt, but I knew they were there, trying to stake a claim to the pain you tried to cut away. I recycled the empty bottles of tequila in your room. Most of the calls have stopped—the substance abuse program, your CPS worker, the counselor from the county shelter.

You call me when you need something. A place to stay. A tent. Money. And I can only sometimes bring myself to pick up the phone when you call. My stomach tightens and heat rushes to my cheeks. Joy, longing, and anger collide. I tell myself that I don’t hunger for you. I pick up the phone. We, for a moment, pretend not to be strangers. Mother and son. And that still exists even if not bound by blood or law. On your 18th birthday, you called me back to ask me to sign over your college account to you. “You’re not in college,” I said.

I want to be angry because it gives me something to feel that takes the pain away. But I remember how we were.

When you were in fifth grade, you put your hand on the square of my back, so you could feel my heart beat right into it. You knew that I came back for you. To take care of you. Because you asked me to. The plan was that I would leave before your dad came home. But he left work early.

I made for the door. He grabbed my elbow. The desperate hard grab, skating toward an edge. Thick pads of fingers, pulling me toward him. There would be no bruises from the force. “Don’t leave,” he said. My eyes filled with tears. My hair streaked in my face. And the animalistic fear came. Your dad was close to the edge. Hands on my shoulders. Voice out of control. I told him to get his hands off of me. His grip tightened. Every part of me wanted to leave, to break free. But there was you.

“Stop, dad,” you said. And you put your small thin frame between us. Your father stepped back, released me. That is when you put your hand on my back. I was sitting on the stairs. “It’s OK. You can go. Go.”

You gave me permission. Before I walked out that door, I held you. All 46-pounds of you, balled up as if you could become a fetus that would fit inside of me and go back into my womb and be born again as my child.

The Mamilogues is a forum about the journey of being a mom, because mothering is raw and gritty.