This essay, recommended by Longreads contributor Maud Newton, is by the writer Elizabeth Bachner and appears in the current issue of Hip Mama magazine. The first issue of Hip Mama was published in December, 1993, by the founding editor, Ariel Gore, as a multicultural forum for radical mothers. Our thanks to Elizabeth Bachner and Hip Mama Magazine for allowing us to reprint this essay here.
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It’s hot already, blazing hot in late May, and I’m reading to my daughter, who is a fetus. She kicks powerfully. She is the size of a cauliflower head. She doesn’t have language yet. She was unplanned, or at least, she wasn’t planned by me. She has ears now, and taste buds, and this week, her eyes have probably opened. I’m reading her Paul Celan poems. If you hear Paul Celan poems before you have language, maybe you store them in your unconscious, and someday they come out somehow, in a twisting thought that seems to come from nowhere, ten years or twenty years or fifty years later, in a feeling that overwhelms you but you can never describe, even though you have language now, even if you can speak and read in many languages, even when you have decades of practice using your tongue. Maybe they come out in some way that was unplanned, or at least, that wasn’t planned by you.
My daughter’s father sings to her in a baritone. I wouldn’t sing in front of him, but sometimes when I’m alone with her I sing. I sing Louis Armstrong songs, phonetically because I have the words wrong. Love oh love oh loveless love, it’s messy. You set your heart on goalless goals, real messy. With dreamless dreams, and schemeless schemes, we wreck our love boats on the shore. Since my daughter formed ears, she’s heard everything I’ve said. When I was a few months pregnant, my mother, who looked healthy and beautiful, was diagnosed with aggressive esophageal cancer, the rarer kind that’s mostly found in smokers and drinkers and fat men, and she isn’t any of those things. It must be from pollution she’s run into on her travels, or from toxins floating around the universe, or from gods, it must be from the anti-malarial drugs that she took too much of in Equatorial Guinea, it must be from something or somewhere. She’s still alive, badly radiation-burned, eating through a tube, losing five pounds a week while my daughter is tripling and quadrupling and sextupling in size, while my daughter has grown eyelashes and fingerprints and a uterus.
Everyone has a mother, and everyone’s mother dies.I’m reading a Paul Celan poem, not to my daughter but to myself. It’s called “Shadowlight.” It starts with the line, “The heart held out, hidden in the dark and hard as the philosopher’s stone.” It ends, “He taught the laws of gravity, offered proof after proof, but his teachings fell on deaf ears. Then he raised himself aloft and taught the laws in this suspended state—whereupon the people paid heed, though no one was surprised not to see him sink back down again.”
When Paul Celan killed himself in 1970, when he drowned himself in the Seine, he left behind a son, Eric, who was fifteen. He left behind a lover he hadn’t seen in years, a gifted poet who never had any children, who burned to death alone (and on purpose?) in her apartment in 1973. He left behind a heartbroken wife, Gisele, the mother of his children. Paul Celan’s first son, François, died as a newborn, the way babies sometimes die. He wrote Francois a poem then, “Epitaph for François.” It’s the only poem he ever printed with a date, October 1953. “Both doors of the world/stand open:/opened by you/in the twinight./We hear them banging and banging/and bear it uncertainly/and bear this green into your Ever.” And when he talked about François, about losing a son who was only a few days old, he didn’t use brilliant, world-searing, twisted, unplanned, untranslatable language. He said what a father would say in that situation. He said, “It was hard, hard, hard.”My daughter doesn’t have a father, or, she has two fathers, since I don’t know which man her father is. One of her fathers says it’s like Schrödinger’s cat in there—right now, both men are fathers of hers at the same time. But when I’m cut open, or when I’m emptied, when she comes out of the box, only one man will be her father, and the other won’t be anything. The other father says, It’s like a Dutch auction. We’re crossing the highway by the river. It’s August now, I’m nine months pregnant, huge and round. When I walk on the sidewalk, my groins and my pubic bone hurt. I say, I don’t know what a Dutch auction is. I love both men painfully. Maybe if I’d been less sloppy, it would be less painful.
I haven’t had any big scandals in my life, before now. We had a prenatal DNA test that I don’t trust, and then I moved in with one of the fathers. I feel happy when my daughter kicks the spot where my right-waist used to be, and scared when she’s still, even though maybe she needs to sleep. I meditate in front of the younger father’s Tibetan thangka, with its pictures of angry gods or ferociously protective goddesses, and I realize that I’m a doorway into another world or maybe right back into this world again, a doorway for at least one person, for my mother or for my daughter or for my daughter’s fathers if not myself. Both doors of the world stand open: opened by you.
In August my mother finds out that she’s been cured of cancer. She doesn’t have any tumor in her esophagus anymore. She doesn’t have any wrong-cells left in her lymph nodes.I’m my daughter’s doorway into the world, or I’m supposed to be a doorway, but instead there are complications–scary pain and amniotic fluid stained with my daughter’s poop. We end up on an operating table in a slummy hospital, where she’s cut out of me instead of coming through me. The cat is alive, not dead. Her cries are powerful. They won’t let me hold her. I catch a glimpse of her–those ears–and I know right away who her father is. Her other father, the man who is not her father, sent me a manuscript when I was pregnant, with a scene where a man falls in love with a young woman who’s pregnant with a child that isn’t his. The mother and the baby die in childbirth–the man takes some poison and walks out into the highway tunnels of a not-quite-imaginary city. He walks into traffic and tries to die, but he didn’t take enough poison. I always had the sensation with him–with the man who is not my baby’s father–of running to an elevator and missing it, of having the elevator doors close on my fingers. On the operating table, after my daughter is taken away and her real father is forced out of the room, the surgical team x-rays my cut-open body to try to find a tool they’ve lost–some knife or clip, something they’re calling The Russian, like the killer in a bad spy novel–that’s either inside or outside of me. My arms are spread wide. I’m awake the whole time. I can feel the organs in my open abdomen, the interns’ gloved hands in me. I am starting to get very cold. I haven’t had any big scandals in my life before now, and I also haven’t had any medical problems. I am too cold to be scared.
My daughter is born on September 1, 2013. In my unwritten book, I try to show the differences between a flat person who doesn’t really exist, a created person on paper, and a real human being who is born and dies, but I can’t get any of that into language. I’m writing a book that isn’t written, with characters that don’t exist yet, except here they are, alive on the page, already living and breathing, even if it’s life and breath I’ve invented. And I have a daughter I couldn’t give birth to, but here she is, silky, with her blue eyes black in the shadows, her tiny hand on my skin, and I’m looking at her, and she’s looking back at me. I think my protagonist’s mother will die but maybe not. I think my protagonist might give birth to a baby, but not yet. I think my protagonist might die, but unlike my mother, and unlike my daughter, and unlike me, she never has to die, not if she doesn’t want to, not if I never want her to. My protagonist’s protagonist is named after Nabokov’s Ada, half of a “time-racked flat-lying couple” who might or might not have “ever intended to die.” They’re invented by some writer, and so, the laws of gravity or antigravity, the laws of chaos or order, the laws of cancer or stillbirth, can’t get to them. I think about that, crazily, on the operating table, lying flat.The man who is not my daughter’s father comes over. I’m home from the hospital. I look bad. I’m holding my beautiful daughter, who hiccups the way she did when she was still inside me. He says, “Some people would see your situation as a curse, while others would see it as a blessing. Clearly, you’re choosing to see it as a blessing,” and his tone isn’t really that friendly, and I don’t know which part he means, which part the people would see as a curse–my wrecked body, my dirty apartment, or having a daughter, or having daughter who wasn’t planned, or having a daughter who isn’t his.
My daughter’s father slow-dances with her. It’s late night or early morning. He’s in the doorway of the bedroom of our dark apartment. Her tiny face looks so happy, like a freshman girl picked out of the crowd by the handsomest senior boy, in some fantasy high school in some more innocent decade. They’re listening to “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” I’m shredded. I feel something like heartbreak, or like joy. I feel something I can’t write about.
In the months before I got pregnant, I was traveling in a distant country, and I met a man my age, and after we had known each other for an hour or two, he said, A year ago I had a wife and a six-month-old baby. They died in a car crash. And I think about that man all the time now, and his travels through India, and that baby that he lost. I think a lot about where lost babies go, babies that die or that were never born, and where lost mothers go after they die, and what happens to fathers who aren’t fathers anymore, and about my heart, hidden in the dark inside of my body like an unborn baby, hard as the philosopher’s stone.
In November, my daughter and I are reading Paul Celan poems again. (“Autumn bled all away, mother. Snow burned me through. / i sought out my heart so it might weep, i found–oh the summer’s breath. /it was like you.”). She is two months old. Most days we go out walking, just the two of us. On these walks, or at home in our apartment where it seems safe, we could lose each other in an instant. I hold her close to my chest. She knows to hold onto me. I won’t have to teach her the laws of gravity.
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Elizabeth Bachner is a writer and sociologist whose essays for Bookslut attracted a cult following. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in the Wreckage of Reason anthologies and other publications. Her work has been cited and praised in The New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review Daily, The Millions, and The Rumpus. She is traveling with her two-year-old daughter and working on a novel.