Yes, I could endure my fingers being chopped off.
Yes, I could be crushed slowly to death.
Mauled by dogs. Yes.
Drown myself. Yes.
Jump off a tall building. Yes.
Yes, I could imagine in detail how it would feel for a knife to sink into the skin of my forearm, circle it, and have the skin peeled back, back, back.
I would be vacuuming, as I always was back then, or scrubbing the stickiness off some surface, thinking about the specifics of the suffering, and if, at some point, I would break. It felt reassuring that I could check off every horrible thing that my mind could conjure. It gave me peace.
MY DAUGHTER, BONNIE
“I’m thirty-six, Mom. This might be my only chance. So why the hell not?” she said.
“That’s wonderful, honey,” I replied.
As I listened, I remembered when I found out I was pregnant and how Gerald and I sat in our bedroom, coming up with baby names, and the feeling of that moment came to me with such clarity that I fell into my own memories while she talked about how she and the father had already created a written plan outlining responsibilities, schedules, and had started a joint bank account that would be used for bills and baby necessities. Everything down the middle. I’d been only twenty when I married Gerald, and then I’d gotten pregnant right away. We never had a plan. We were just watercolors, seeping out.
Months later, I was standing in her kitchen, her sweet belly like a mound of ice-cream. She wore a long dress with vertical stripes of pink and white and yellow. The father was there. Jimmy. He had long brown hair and wore a leather vest and tight black jeans, and he was quiet but smiled and spoke when spoken to and seemed intent on making a good impression when he was clearly uncomfortable. This was Fourth of July. There were burgers. There was cake. Ice cream. There was already a crib that someone had given Bonnie, an entire room, really, of baby hand-me-downs.
Days later, I got a call from Bonnie early in the morning, saying something was wrong, and my heart, oh my heart, it fell into my stomach and spun. I told her we would meet her at the hospital.
Gerald drove recklessly, running lights, speeding down the interstate, blinkers on, as rain pegged our windshield. The hospital was an hour away from where we lived. I went through all the old promises I’d made with God when Bonnie was young and nothing scared me more than her death.
Would I peel off my skin to save her baby?
Would I pluck out my eyes?
Would I cut off my toes?
I confirmed that I would do anything to save my baby’s baby. Someone make a deal with me. Take me, take me, take me.
But by the time we made it to the floor where she was, the nurses told us to wait, and then a doctor came out and told us that Bonnie had had the baby and to wait, and almost two hours later, the same doctor came out and told us the baby had passed and that Bonnie wanted to be alone with the baby.
The father burst into the waiting room soon after that and it was I who told him and held him as I had held my own child when she was so hurt that I could only try to absorb the pain with my body as she wailed.
I don’t think Bonnie ever let him go back to see the baby. I don’t know why she didn’t. I never asked.
The baby’s ashes remain in a place that Bonnie has put them. I know they are in a white porcelain heart because I was the one who picked it out at the hospital. I didn’t even know hospitals had such things.
If it had been my baby who died, I think I would have died too. Or at least, that’s what I tell myself. It would be worse to go on, impossible. But time carries us from things we want to cling to. I tell myself that I would have died, but I guess I would have gone on living. Bonnie is proof of that.
AND DID YOU HEAR OF THE KILLER WHALE
There had been babies before it, none of them surviving birth, but this one had. This one had lived for just hours.
And what did it do in that time?
Did it swim?
Did it touch its body to its mother’s? Did it feel anything at all?
And when it started to float away, is that when the mother moved under it, lifting its body with her own, carrying it through the sea, showing it what she could of life. And when it could no longer see life, did she go faster and faster, giving it the gift of rushing water, rocking its body in the waves, her body holding on to it, her body not letting go.
EVERYTHING SCARED ME
Someone would kidnap her.
She would choke.
She would get sick.
I would wake up and find her dead in her crib.
Terrible thoughts. All the time. And I told no one. Especially not my mother, who came to live with us after Bonnie was born. She believed that ignoring the baby’s cries was how you trained them to sleep. I was a picker-upper. Ignoring my baby felt like violence. Under the weight of my mother’s judging looks, I would go to Bonnie, the word “spoiling” hitting me in the back like a dart every time.
She and my father lived less than thirty minutes away, close enough that she could have just commuted to our house to visit, but instead, she packed her bags and was there the moment we brought Bonnie home from the hospital. Gerald had to return to work immediately, so it became just me, my mother, and Bonnie in our small house. My favorite moments were in those early sleep-deprived hours, rocking her.
One morning, when it was still night outside, after I had nursed her, I was sitting in the darkness of her nursery, preparing to put her into her crib when the door slowly opened and my mother entered, not realizing I was there. Light from the hallway spilled in, casting over her in her mint green robe, her graying hairs rising in the light as she leaned over the crib. I stayed still.
She turned on the light.
I shielded Bonnie’s eyes.
My breast was resting against her cheek. I saw my mother seeing it and looking away.
“Was just checking on her,” she said, and turned off the light and shut the door quietly as she left. Bonnie stirred and settled back against me.
A moment later, the hallway turned dark, and the house returned to just bodies, tucked under the darkness, tucked between earth and sky, and out there, too, there was an ocean, with its own large bodies moving through its cold, black water.
And I tell you, that whale breaks my heart, and my old mother, alone in her quiet house, waking and turning in the night, also breaks my heart, and my daughter, who hides ashes in a place only she knows, breaks my heart.
And I think, what would I endure to save them?
But there is no one here to make me an offer. I would take it if I could.