Chimera

Editor’s Note: Chimera,” by Kathleen McNamara, was chosen by Ada Calhoun as the nonfiction winner of Columbia Journal‘s 2019 Winter Contest. It was published in Columbia Journal #58 and appears here with permission from the author.

In Arizona’s high desert, the terrain begins its slow metamorphosis into the Rockies. My husband and I drive a downhill curve, heading north on a highway that connects Phoenix to Flagstaff. Two teenage girls stand on the road’s narrow shoulder—grinning, holding hands, long blonde ponytails whipping overhead in the wind. Interstate-17 is America’s fourth deadliest highway[1], and the girls are stuck between moving traffic and a two-hundred-foot drop into a rocky gulch. The speed limit is seventy-five, which means that cars in the fast lane often drive ninety. A boy stands with them, watching.

“What are you kids doing?” my husband says as he drives past them, horrified. In the rearview mirror, the smiling girls sprint behind our car into traffic, run across two lanes, then reach to touch the inner line of the highway, like swimmers racing to the other end of a pool. They return the way they came, as a herd of vehicles descends. I can see their gleeful expressions—they are laughing. The boy stands on the shoulder, raising his arms to cheer.

“Somebody should call the cops,” I say. I mean it, but as I hear the words escape my mouth, I don’t recognize myself. I was never blonde, but I could have been one of those girls—half my life ago—reckless to the point of self-injury; convinced death was a joke the universe only played on the old. When I see them now, however, I imagine their parents. I imagine my ten-month-old son as a newly licensed teenager with his friends, daring one another to compete on foot across this mountain precipice, goading the world to run them over.

A highway patrol vehicle drives up the mountain in the south-bound lane, passing us, heading in the direction of the kids.

“Maybe somebody already did,” says my husband, as we drop into the valley where we live.

*

Pregnancy is like a second adolescence. Your body expands. Your hormones rage. Hair sprouts in new places. Moles grow overnight. When it’s over, your life is transformed, and there’s no chance of prelapsarian return. After you give birth, your thick, shiny “pregnancy hair” sheds all over the house. Sometimes, it grows back a different texture or color.

Fetal cells settle in your body for a lifetime. If you bear sons, this means you now permanently carry Y-chromosomes in your blood. There’s evidence that these fetal cells can cause cancer, or that they can protect you against it. They call this phenomenon microchimerism[2], named for the chimera of Greek mythology, whom Hesiod described in Theogony as breathing “fire not to be resisted, a dreadful, great thing, swift of foot and powerful. She has three heads. One is that of a fierce lion, another of a goat, and the last of a mighty serpent snake.”[3]

Post-pregnancy, I find that my autoimmune response has changed. I never had allergies before, but when my son is three-months-old, we fly to Traverse City, Michigan, for a cousin’s wedding. I return four days later with skeeter syndrome—my hands, back, and legs covered in three-dozen hot-to-the-touch mosquito bites that explode to the size of half-dollars and require a round of Prednisone that leaves me feeling as though I’ve binged on amphetamines.

When my son is six months old, I begin to experience what will become a series of monthly eye infections. I wake up some mornings unable to see. My corneas grit with invisible sand. Light is unbearable. I empty bottle after bottle of antibiotic and steroid eyedrops. Symptoms subside for a week or two, then return. When we are in public, I need my husband to physically walk me from place to place, my arm tucked into his elbow. I cannot bear to look at a computer screen. I try every preventative measure suggested by the ophthalmologist and the optometrist and eventually, they decide that I’m now allergic to the silicone in contact lenses, which I have worn since I was a teenager. I can only wear glasses now. When these episodes end, and my vision returns, I must get used to this person in the mirror—this older version of myself—motherhood supplanting personhood. An infant demands your body, your breasts, your sleep. Even, it turns out, your eyesight.

My son is a year old as I write this, and he’s slept through the night twice. Both times I’ve woken in panic, sure this meant something was terribly wrong.

“It’s not just him you need to sleep-train at this point,” says my mother. “You need to sleep-train yourself.”

I shrug agreement. Words come slow when you haven’t slept through the night in a year, when you are the hybrid she-goat-lion-snake, the mother of the Sphinx, “breathing out the dreadful power of gleaming fire.”[4]

Of course, it’s heart-exploding to witness your child’s first solo steps across the living room, to hear his giggle when he realizes he’s walking unsupported. Or to see the look of adoration in his eyes when you tickle his belly or his chin and then he repeats the word to you—unmistakable and for the first time—“tick-le.”

I’m lucky that my job teaching at a university means I frequently get to work from home. When I was my son’s age, my mother worked as an anesthesiologist for City of Hope cancer center in southern California, where my father was an oncologist. She said that every day, when she left for work, I screamed—inconsolable. Somehow, I learned that she took care of sick people. At two years old, from behind the bars of my crib, I told her that all her patients had died. They didn’t need her anymore. I needed her. I needed her to stay home and play with me.

It never worked. I always had babysitters, most of them hired from child-care agencies. One watched me for three weeks before my parents realized she’d been drunk the whole time. Another said she was going to take a two-week trip, so the agency sent a substitute named Graciela, a woman who’d been a nurse in her hometown of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

“You’re so big,” said the two-week vacationer, when she finally returned from her trip. She dropped by unannounced to see what had become of us.  I was in middle school by then.  “Two weeks” had lasted ten years. Graciela remained employed by my parents until I reached my early twenties, and my youngest brother learned to drive.

On a day in early June, heat creeping toward a hundred, I watch my son splash in the plastic pool I’ve plopped on our patio. My phone rings. The Caller ID shows an unidentified number from Mexico. I know it must be Graciela before I answer.

“Mija,” she says, “I still have dreams about you and your mom.”

“What happens in the dreams?” I ask.

She changes the subject.

*

My husband and I have a joke about what it’s like to breastfeed as a working mother, and we call it “The Things She Carried.”

She carried two bags—one on her back, for her laptop and books, the other on her shoulder, for the bulbous pump motor, the plastic tubes and bottles and nipple-suction cups. Sometimes she walked over seven miles a day, from one classroom to another across campus, to her office, to another classroom, in Phoenix heat that exceeded a hundred-and-ten degrees. She carried Clorox wipes, to sanitize the bathroom stall where she spent exactly three minutes on each side to relieve the painful tingling before teaching her next class, as she listened to undergraduates fart and piss in the next stall over. She carried resentment for her employer. She carried a cooler, filled with little plastic baggies of pumped milk that leaked now and then, each one scrawled with the time and date. She carried fear of the effect of the second coffee, the third coffee, of the exhausted, amped-up jitter she saw in her wrists when she told her fifth class of students that it was time to begin the lecture.

“Breast is best,” they say. “Breast is free,”—but it’s not. It takes time and machinery. It takes new clothes and a willingness to expose your spouted nipples in public. Our culture has a built-in animus toward pregnant and breastfeeding women—and women in general—except where it can be made lucrative by big business. Compared to the rest of the developed world, our parental leave practices are pathetic. As a consequence, breastfeeding American women comprise 40% of the world’s breast-pumping market[5]. This correlation makes sense—given that pumping is necessary if you plan to return to work after having a child but wish to continue breastfeeding—and who but the wealthiest Americans can afford not to work?

“Dat,” says my son, pointing at my left boob when we are in the grocery store, or in a restaurant, or when I’ve put him in the bath and he tries to climb back out onto my chest. He means: “I want that. Give me that.” The right one has already dried up. I walk around lopsided. Swollen on the left side, withered on the right.

“I’m not a that—I’m a who,” I tell him. As I say it, however, I wonder whether it’s still true.

“Dat, dat,” he insists, pointing at his milk machine.

*

Your kid’s actions may “release sudden waves of memory,” writes pediatrician Harvey Karp in his book, The Happiest Toddler on the Block. “Sometimes, these can be wonderful.”  However, he warns: “fragments of painful past experiences dwell inside us all, waiting for a catalyst to bring them to the surface.”[6]

On a hot summer day, I bring my one-year-old to the splash park. It’s crowded with older, bigger kids who swarm around us, sprinting in and out of currents that sprout from the ground like miniature geysers. My son is walking, but wobbly. He grips my hand. When we were here a few days ago, he laughed, ecstatic, as he tried to run through the water. But it was less crowded then, and the crowd was closer to his age. Now, I can feel him shutting down. The kids are loud and running, in the throes of summer delight. They are so much bigger than he is, stronger, more agile. A five-year-old with long arms is punching a stream of water. “Come at me, fucker,” says the boy to the water, swinging. “I’ll get ya.” My son watches, trying to understand the boy’s enthusiasm. The boy’s mother is across the park, standing in the grass by the slide, talking to someone. She screams in anger: “Stop punching! There’s a baby!” Then she returns to her conversation. My son and I walk to another spout.

A boy, ten or eleven, jump-runs at a tunnel that’s spraying water. He knocks his head squarely on a steel bar, then rolls around on the plaster ground, in silence, his face cradled in his arms.

“What happened?” says his grandmother, hurrying toward him. “I didn’t see—what happened?” She coaxes him to sit with her in the grass. My son is ambivalent—he’s afraid, but then he wants to play. He loves the water, but then it sprays him in the face. He’s crying. He’s laughing. He’s hungry. He’s pooping. He’s tired. He’s overstimulated. According to researchers at Imperial College London’s Center for Neuropsychopharmacology, being a baby is a lot like being on LSD[7]. We decide to sit down on the grass, next to the concussed boy. My son watches the children play. After a while, he points at my boob.

“Dat.”

In this place, I remember how I felt as a child—alien. As though everyone else were in on a joke. Kids travel in packs that feel impossible to penetrate when you’re on the outside. As a child, and now as a writer, my preferred state is solitude. Parenting forces you into situations you might ordinarily avoid.

The next day, I bring my son to story time at our underserved rural library. It is attached to the only public school in town, which serves K-8 students with a four-day school week. Our “census-designated place” is anchored by a perennial creek and Montezuma Well National Monument—an underground spring that pumps 1.5 million gallons of arsenic-rich water into a limestone sinkhole every day. Archeologists estimate that humans have inhabited this stretch of earth for at least the last ten thousand years. But today, we pass a row of five computers where locals search for job openings and middle-schoolers play first-person shooter games.

The school librarian will run today’s preschool entertainment. The theme this summer is “A Universe of Stories.” All the books and games explore the wonder of outer space. We sing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” We are given print-outs of the lyrics to a song called “Planets,” which we are told can be found at “utube.com.” On a book shelf is a sign that says, “Take me to your reader.” We color paper rockets, and then cut them out and launch them with straws. My son is the youngest of the six kids here. When a girl reaches out to hold his hand, he turns around to look at me, grinning wildly, as if to say: “are you seeing this, Mom?”

The older children practice writing their names. A five-year-old boy holds up his paper to the librarian. He showed up late with his grandmother, who is busy adjusting another grandchild’s hearing aids. “I wrote my name,” he declares.
            “Very good,” says the librarian. “Go show your grandma.” The boy does.

“What is this?” says the grandmother, horror and incredulity in her voice. She crumples the paper in her hands. “That’s not his name. He wrote this once, and the teacher didn’t correct him, and now he thinks this is his name.” She turns to the boy. “This is not your name. What is this? Why would you write this?”

The boy, wide-eyed, shrugs.

“What is this?” repeats the grandma, as though afraid the child is possessed. “Those aren’t even letters.”

The librarian reassures her: “A lot of kids write backwards. It’s normal.”

*

Being a child is a world of sound, smell—jarring sensations of fear, then rapid vacillations to joy. One sound I don’t forget is my neighbor, Jonathan, playing basketball at our backyard hoop: narrating every move as though it were a ten-man game, stealing the ball from himself, blocking his own three-pointers. Jonathan lived next door with his mother and stepfather. His older brother was in the army, overseas. His best friend was no longer allowed to visit since he’d brought a loaded gun to Jonathan’s house. Jonathan was stuck with me—four years younger, a girl, uninterested in basketball.

Once, when I was seven or eight, I asked Jonathan whether he loved his father or his stepfather more. This seemed like a reasonable question, as I’d never met his father, but his stepfather was a contractor who built us a playhouse with a yellow slide in the bottletree in our backyard.

“That’s crazy,” said Jonathan, “that would be like if I asked you—who do you love more—your mom or Graciela?” I offered no answer. Jonathan shook his head. “My dad. Duh.”

This was not obvious to me. Graciela was inside the house right now, making quesadillas. Where was my mother?

 Of course, now, as an adult, it strikes me that I took for granted that my father was also at work. But there was—and still is—an expectation that the mother should be there, that the mother who’s not there is somehow selfish or inadequate, that my mother’s absence should be blamed for my teenage suicidal ideation, or the drug abuse of my early twenties, or for my brother’s diagnosis—ten years ago, now—of schizophrenia.

“I did what I had to do,” says my mother. I don’t blame her. Adult women should not be expected to spend all day with their children. Child care is exhausting, difficult, and—despite the fact that the continuation of our species depends on it—mostly invisible work. Graciela had four children of her own—and spent all day with us—collecting an envelope of cash every Friday. We are lucky that she grew to love us, too.

My mother is retired from anesthesiology now. She takes care of my son while my husband and I work. He lights up when he sees her—she reads to him, takes him bird-watching, or to the arboretum. Anthropologists call it “the grandmother hypothesis”—and theorize that the reason human women live long past their child-bearing years is because of the evolutionary advantage of having a grandmother to care for you—that this led the post-menopausal longevity gene to survive.[8] This is especially true for maternal grandmothers—who, of all four grandparents, are the only ones who can know with one-hundred-percent certainty that this grandchild is her blood.

“He’s the most addictive baby in the universe,” says my mother, laughing. I’ve never seen her so happy or relaxed. I’m grateful. I ask her how my son’s behavior compares to me or my brothers in infancy. “I don’t know,” she admits. “I didn’t spend anywhere near this amount of time with you three.” She acknowledges what we usually speak about in code—that she skipped part of motherhood, that my son is her redemption. But in using her, I realize, I am skipping part of it, too. That by taking the time to write these words, I am missing hours with my son. Babies change so fast, and when I get up from the computer, he’ll already be different—a new word or sound, a new discovery. Every time I walk away from him, he cries, reaching back for me. It’s heartbreaking. I am not myself. I am his mother.

*

            “If you ever want to sleep through the night again,” says the pediatrician, “you’ll have to sleep-train him. Let him scream for three nights. It will be terrible. You’ll probably cry too. Then on the fourth night, he won’t scream anymore.”

            I’ve heard this sentiment before—from other parents, from pediatrician friends—I’ve read it in books and blogs. It’s called the “cry it out” method.

            “It’s good for them,” says a friend, talking about how she sleep-trained her son. “It’s a gift to be able to self-soothe.” I’ve heard compelling arguments that sleep-training could help boost “independence” and “executive functioning.” On the other hand, some argue that even the idea of “sleep-training” is a capitalist construct intended for the convenience of the parents, who live in a system that views human beings as agents of profit-making and productivity, and the infant as a disruption to what really matters—which is the creation of capital. That, in terms of development, human beings are born eighteen months too early, and they require constant “responsive parenting” in order to develop secure attachments. That what you’re really teaching the child is that screaming is futile—no one can hear them, no one will respond. Life is difficult and you’re fundamentally alone in it. And that’s what makes the child quiet—a learned loss of hope that their crying matters.

            “You’d scream for hours and hours,” says my mother, “you learned to scream yourself to sleep when you were six weeks old.”

            “You can go in there,” says the pediatrician. “Talk to him. Soothe him. Sing to him. Just don’t pick him up. Don’t nurse him. Leave him in the crib.”

            But when in I go in there in the middle of the night, I find him standing up, red-faced and wet with snot. He immediately grabs my shirt and tries to climb up my chest. “Dat,” he says. “Dat.”

Perhaps, embedded deep in my brain, some memory of screaming unheard, or of insisting to my mother that all her patients are dead, remains. It occurs to me that everyone who made it to adulthood alive did so because someone cared enough—a mother, a father, a grandmother, a hired drunk, and if you’re lucky—a Graciela. That love is essential to human survival, not just in theory, but in practice—that it is impossible to live through infancy without a thousand sacrificial acts. Diapers explode with shit; my shirts are splattered with milk in various digestive states; my hair falls out; my skin erupts in hives; my C-section scar still itches like they sewed a piece of glass in there; I become temporarily blind. Nothing in my body seems to work the way it once did. I am not what I once was.

Love is an action verb. I pick up my son. Drop into the rocking chair. Lift my shirt. To latch, said the nurse in the hospital, compress the breast like a sandwich.

***


[1] Jeong, Yihyun. “I-17 Nation’s 4th Most Deadly Highway—and Most Dangerous Part Is in Phoenix.” The Arizona Republic, 28 Nov. 2017.

[2] Zimmer, Carl. “A Pregnancy Souvenir: Cells That Are Not Your Own.” The New York Times. 10 Sept. 2015.

[3] Lines 320-323

[4] Hesiod, Theogony, line 324

[5] Jung, Courtney. “Is Pumping as Good as Breast-Feeding?” The Los Angeles Times, 29 Nov. 2015.

[6] “Parenting Basics.” The Happiest Toddler on the Block: How to Eliminate Tantrums and Raise a Patient, Respectful, and Cooperative One- to Four-Year-Old, by Harvey Karp and Paula Spencer, Bantam Books, 2008, p. 28.

[7] Martin, Rachel. “Your Brain On LSD Looks A Lot Like A Baby’s.” NPR Morning Edition, NPR, 17 Apr. 2016.

[8] Stromberg, Joseph. “New Evidence That Grandmothers Were Crucial for Human Evolution.” Smithsonian.com. 23 Oct. 2012. Smithsonian Institution.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

About the author

Kathleen McNamara teaches writing at Arizona State University, where she serves as an associate editor at Hayden's Ferry Review. Her writing has appeared in Nimrod International Journal, The Pinch, The Carolina Quarterly, where she won the 2018 short fiction contest, and elsewhere. It is forthcoming in Redivider, where she was awarded the 2019 Beacon Street Nonfiction Prize. She lives near Sedona with her husband and their son.

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