Winner of the Los Angeles Review Creative Nonfiction Award
When I gave birth to each of my three daughters, I did so without any anesthetic, a plucky achievement that still surprises me. I know that natural births have become a kind of status symbol in the new economy of motherhood in certain circles, like breastfeeding and co-sleeping, which I also did, though I didn’t call it that. I just called it “falling asleep in bed with the baby.” But that was twenty years ago as I was finishing up college, and no one I knew was having babies yet, so none of this had any cachet that I could trade in. And anyway, it’s not the memory of my endurance of the pain of my daughters’ births—something animal clawing me open, cleaving me in two—that moves me. It’s that I somehow knew even then that their entry into this world would be a violent rupture, and I wanted to feel it as the cataclysm that it was. Though I had no religious rite of passage to perform over them, I wanted nevertheless to mark my first act as their mother with a sign of my devotion, a kind of blessing upon them as they entered this veil of tears: Here’s what I’ll suffer for you.
When my daughters were young, I came upon the writings of the religious historian, Mircea Eliade, who distinguished two levels of existence for “traditional man” who was, by definition, “religious man”—the sacred realm and the profane world. The profane world is that which our bodies inhabit. In the case of my body, that was a world back then of concrete and crepe myrtles and sidewalk chalk, of baby dolls and goldfish crackers and books at bedtime, and a station wagon parked in the driveway. Eliade says that into profane space such as this, at particular places, the sacred erupts, and through the rupture, human beings can communicate with the divine.
The ancient Greeks spoke to their unfathomable gods at the temple of the oracle of Delphi through one such break in the veil marked by an omphalos—a hollow, beehive-shaped stone, its surface intricately carved. Omphalos means “navel.” In the Middle Ages, they called Jerusalem the omphalos, the navel, of the world, and medieval cartographers placed the Holy City at the center of their maps where, they said, God walked the earth as man. We are, in these sacred centers, connected umbilically to the transcendent.
My ruptured, laboring body was the omphalos out of which my daughters had been born—which could make me, if I pushed the metaphor to its logical conclusion, a minor deity, a lesser god. But really, it was my daughters who I worshipped and, in their fickle moods of inexplicable displeasure, attempted to appease. And our home became, I see most clearly now that they are leaving and the site of rupture is closing up, a holy place, alive with meaning—“the only real and really existing space” in Eliade’s phrasing.
What Eliade means is that a sacred space points beyond the material world toward a realm of enduring purpose and significance. What I mean is standing at the kitchen counter trying to cook dinner with a baby on my hip and a toddler at my feet, changing diapers, wiping smeared faces clean, holding little girls just after they’ve woken from their naps and wandered into the living room, flush-cheeked, looking for me. What I mean is collecting minnows from a tire rut near the street filled with rain water and putting them in a glass bowl with rocks, and splashing in the blue plastic wading pool under the fig tree in the back yard, and pulling out the dress-ups on an empty Saturday afternoon in summer, and picking up the Barbie’s and putting them and their clothes and mismatched shoes into the plastic bin at night. What I mean is the tedium of laundry and dishes, the tension between my work at the dining room table late at night and the cry of a daughter, but what I also mean is artwork on the fridge—a line-drawing in crayon of all of us, smiling and in descending height: Daddy, Mommy, Ellie, Mary Martha, Sabine, Matilda the cat.
Our house, with all of us in it, had meaning and purpose. It felt both rooted to the earth and to the tangible and concrete, and at the same time tethered to something beyond, the real. It was a place of plenitude and fullness, inhabited by some kind of holy spirit, incarnate in the babbling voices and round bellies of my daughters, bellies I kissed and wanted to consume back in to me. My sister-in-law was telling me the other day about the intense emotional connection she felt to her newborn daughter that was, at the same time, physical, especially when she smelled her, and how she’d read an article about mothers’ brains having a similar reaction to their babies’ scent as they would sniffing cocaine. So maybe the spirit inhabiting our house wasn’t linked to the divine. Maybe it was merely chemical. Or maybe it was just the love between us, a love that went out and came in like breath. At any rate, our daughters felt like saviors. I saw how empty my arms had been before I held them. “You are the one / Solid the spaces lean on, envious,” says Sylvia Plath in “Nick and the Candlestick,” a poem addressed to her son. “You are the baby in the barn.”
In the ancient stories, the gods who do not die cannot know love. No one is dear, meaning precious, meaning costly, because no one can be lost. That’s why their endless marriages seem so empty. Zeus is forever disguising himself—as a shower of golden rain, as a swan, as a white bull—and running off with some poor mortal girl, while Hera, ever jealous, is always turning the girl into a beast. The only access the gods ever have to human suffering is when their mortal children die. Gazing down on the dusty plains of Troy as the doom of his son, the warrior Sarpedon, draws near, Zeus considers opposing Fate and saving him. But Hera protests that if Zeus plucks out his own child, the other deathless ones will want to save their sons too, and then where would they be? Mostly, though, human beings aren’t worth the bother. They are, says Apollo to Poseidon, “like leaves, no sooner flourishing, full of the sun’s fire, feeding on earth’s gifts, then they waste away and die.”
Love can only exist in the presence of death. That’s what Odysseus knows as he sits weeping on the shore of Calypso’s island, aching to return to his mortal wife, Penelope, and to rocky Ithaka with its goats and grapevines and heavy dews, and to his son, a suckling child when he left years before for the war at Troy, now a boy trying desperately to become a man. The perfection of the immortal Calypso bores him. So does immortality itself, a gift the goddess offers Odysseus, but which he rejects for the wife and son and high-roofed hall of home that will one day pass away.
But death comes in many forms. It’s not only the abstract and hopefully distant end that will occur when our bodies die. Watching babies become little children who become teenagers who put on their headphones and close their doors and grow quiet reading their own books and then leave taught me that something beloved departs from us every day. All those years, I had tried to pay attention. I took pictures. I wrote down what my daughters said, as if their utterances were those of the sibyls, ears to the omphalos at Delphi, umbilicus to the gods, which I could mine for meaning and direction. But our house now feels drained of the numinous, like hardened coral pulled by the roots from the vast sea that once animated it, if coral had roots and the sea was transcendent.
Sometimes in this lost space of grief that has opened me up, I wonder: those years when my children filled our house with their holy spirits, were they only a brief reprieve from the loneliness that always lurks beneath? Did my daughters’ presence rupture the darkness momentarily—the darkness that’s encroaching again now? Is that darkness “the only real and real-ly existing space”?
But other times, I think that this grief must surely be a liminal space—liminal, which comes from the Latin for “threshold.” I’m standing in a doorway between here and there, like the doorway my daughters passed through to this world as I blessed them with my pain. I want to figure out how to make this pain of their departure a blessing too. Through the threshold, I can just make out the distant hills. Beyond them, who knows? I’m trying to figure out in which direction to start walking.