Like most, I understood my birth to be
the occasion of my mother’s pain,
the anniversary an opportunity for her
to bake cake, light candles, melt
wax. Five decades later, she tells me
the story casually, detached, as if there were nothing
unusual about it, the way you might
light a cigarette, drink a few martinis, some cock-
tails. I know the preamble by heart: she was
a nurse, my father a doctor. They collided
on the ward and he left her—
on her knees, a waitress
picking up a tray. And if she’d had time
to read the scattered clamps, the sutures
and the specula–like tea leaves,
she might have walked away—
the way she taught me to perfection—tactless,
voice in tact. But she was listening
to the voices in her head—Bizet’s,
and her mother’s, that plain plaid brogue
that shook like her Scotch hand, a divining
rod bent on excising delusions of grandeur
with surgical precision. Before my father’s
sperm ever adjusted his rigging, hoisted his jib,
and set sail, debonair as David Niven,
drink in hand, toward my mother’s alluring
ovum, she worked nights, emptied
bedpans, gave enemas, dressed wounds.
But in the day, she could break glass
with her voice, a mezzo-soprano, complete
with a scholarship to the conservatory.
In her favorite photo, she wears red
lipstick, a dead-ringer for a dead
opera star–Maria Callas in a racy red
bathing suit, beside the red convertible
she called “Gypsy.”
When we were small,
she was like a bright flash of red
feathers, a bird that fluttered
about the kitchen banging pots and pans,
singing–the “Toreador’s Song,” while she boiled
water, let us shake in the packet of
powdered cheese. It was “Habanera”
over the dishes—occasionally she broke one
when the maestro worked late and she’d had a few.
But before all that, for years she worked
on the ward. She knew what she could expect
when it came time to deliver. She knew,
after all, all there was to know
about preeclampsia, toxemia, episiotomies,
things that lapsed and fell, about doctors,
their gloved hands in up to their elbows,
about incisions, the different ways
a pregnant body could be rendered unto Caesar.
Me, I was already overweight—an unusual
specimen– a sluggish watermelon taking
my own sweet time. Together, we were
mismatched—my head and her pelvis—
in some medically novel way.
Details elude her, documented perhaps
in one of my father’s textbooks,
black bar across her eyes a courtesy,
designed to preserve her
anonymity. Decades later, we talk
on the phone. I see her sitting there, glass
in hand, beside that carved, that gilt
frame that holds his painted portrait,
drop cloths on the furniture, dogs at her
feet, holding their decades-long Irish wake. As always,
she wants me to tell her story,
but she never likes it when I do.
It’s my story too–like her
I was born to the theater.
There they are now, wheeling her in:
the main attraction, dressed and shaved
for the occasion. Questions of consent are
muddied— if she gave it, if he did, or if it was
necessary. Mostly, anyway, it was medical
students—mostly not exactly his colleagues,
those men in their starched white
coats she handed scalpels and clamps,
then, later, canapés and dry martinis.
I imagine them there in the balcony,
high above us. I see them–hands gripping
their stethoscopes, pressing their faces up
against the glass, straining for a better view.
She screams, looks for my father
frantically—dead now for decades,
he is unavailable for comment or
correction. Bleeding, she pushes me out
into the world to be slapped and banded.
Afterwards, the doctors are cordial, she says.
At the party, they raise their high balls,
their boilermakers, their Bloody Marys, and
they toast her. They tell her I am fat
enough to walk home from the hospital.
Sometimes, I dream about it. Sometimes
in my dreams, the scene ends with blood
spraying, glass breaking, men falling,
with my mother looking radiant.
Last night, I dreamt the operating
room was an aquarium, and all night I thought
I smelled chlorine. In my dream, my mother is
in labor again–she cries out, but makes no sound.
She gasps for air, swallows water, and I swim
out of her, a blood red wake behind me.
And when I turn to look back at her,
I don’t know if I’m a dolphin or a shark.
When I open my mouth to speak to her,
my voice is loud and shrill, then it softens
into a series of high-pitched whistles and clicks,
a language neither one of us understands.
Then all at once, over-head, I see my father
looking down at us. Suddenly sympathetic,
he is Jacques Cousteau. He looks
concerned. He dons his scuba gear,
his oxygen tank and his mask
methodically. He is
into the tank,
as my mother