How I Became a Mom
By Tanya Ward Goodman
My belly is so huge, I can only fasten the top three buttons of my shirt. I fold the fabric up and run my hands over the warmth. Under my palm is the little lump that is an elbow or knee. Right now, the boy we have decided to call Theo is curled up inside me. When I close my eyes, I can see him. I can’t wait to meet him, can’t wait to hold him in my arms and inspect all his little parts. I want to put his toes in my mouth. I look forward to reading him stories and giving him his first spoonful of ice cream. I want to show him how to stand very still and look closely for lizards sleeping in the sunshine. I will make up songs for my boy and help him curl his fingers around a pencil.
The phone rings. It is my stepmother Carla, whose name over the years has shortened to La. Her voice is bright and brittle and I know that something is wrong.
“Your Dad’s had a stroke,” she says. “He’s not in great shape. I don’t want you to worry, but I want you to know.”
A little over four years ago, my dad was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s at age fifty-eight. Just as the doctors promised, the disease progressed quickly, running like a forestfire through Dad’s mind, leaving only emptiness it its wake. Dad doesn’t know that Theo is about to arrive. In a process the Alzheimer’s literature calls “shrimping,” his body has curved inward. He no longer speaks or feeds himself. Like my unborn son, he is floating in his own waters. Though we find this brine vast and uncharted, I have to believe that he is taking as much comfort and nourishment from these waters as my son is taking from the fluids of my womb.
Theo is not due for three weeks, but perhaps because he knows something I do not, perhaps because he and my father have traveled in shared waters of consciousness, he decides to arrive early. At ten o’clock in the morning, I stand up from my chair and I feel a small pop. My pants are wet and for a moment, I think, great, not only am I huge, but I’m incontinent, too… but then I realize the water keeps coming. Holy smokes, this is it. I’m oddly calm. I change clothes and call my doctor’s office. Then I call a friend to tell her I won’t be able to make our movie date. Then I call my husband.
“Honey,” I say. “My water broke. I’m fine. We have a doctor’s appointment in an hour.”
“I’m leaving right now,” he says. David doesn’t sound quite as calm as I feel.
I am having small contractions, but they are not painful. My belly feels taut like the string on a bow just before the arrow is let fly.
I call my mom. “I’m in labor,” I say. “The baby is coming.”
“But what should I do?” She says. “What should I do?”
“Get on a plane,” I say. “We’ll see you soon.”
I call La. “The baby is coming,” I say.
“Holy shit,” she says. “It’s good timing. Maybe he’ll get to meet his granddad. Hang in there.”
I call my sister-in-law Megan. “The baby is coming,” I say.
“And you’re talking on the phone?” she says. “Geez, Tanya. Keep breathing, just keep breathing.”
And I do. I keep breathing. We all do. A couple of hours later, with the help of David and our neighbor, I make the journey down the steps from our apartment to the car on the street. I have to stop every couple of breaths to bend and let the pain crash over me. Big changes are afoot. I am an earthquake. My boy is on his way and there is nothing I can do but give myself over to the rumbling.
At the hospital, I walk around and I make jokes and every few minutes, I stop all of that and I curl up into myself and let Theo try to work his way out. We are a team. This is a joint project. It is painful and difficult, but we are in it together and I love him already for his courage and his ferocity. As the contractions come faster and faster, I close my eyes between tremors and I see my son swimming toward me. I rest in these moments. I reach out to my boy and guide him through the water. When I open my eyes, I push with all my might.
My boy is swimming toward me. Like a little fish, his body is flying quick and silvery through one world into the next. The pain of this transition is almost unbearable.
“Feel his head,” my husband says and he guides my fingers down between my legs to something damp and wrinkled and fuzzy like a peach.
“You should see your face,” David says. “You look wonderful.”
And then Theo is in the world. He is wailing and I am gasping and all around me the lights are dancing with halos made by my tears. We have a son. We have a family.
When I was nine I realized that one day my father would die. I cried and cried and he held me and dug his big tickling fingers into my armpits and said, “Jesus, Tanya, I’m only 35. I’m not going anywhere.”
Now, I’m nearly 35 and my father is dying and I’m holding my newborn son in my arms and I understand how Dad could be so certain. The kind of love I feel right now for my boy is the kind of love that makes me feel like I could defy death. It’s the kind of love that I will still feel, like the sun on my back, even after my father is gone.
Adapted from Tanya’s memoir, “Leaving Tinkertown” which will be published by the University of New Mexico in Fall 2013.