“Did you hear about the woman who died in El Paso?” my husband asks, phone in hand. “A mother. Died shielding her two-month-old son.” He says this as we sit on the couch after dinner, after we’ve put our own son – six months – to bed. Though the baby is no more than twenty feet away, we have his image pulled up on the monitor, where I can see he’s sleeping a deep, gaped-mouth sleep.
“Oh my god.” My husband keeps reading. “She was there buying school supplies for her older daughter.” He looks up at me, and I see our son’s face in his. It’s the way his jaw hangs loose and open in disbelief. “Just turned six.” He leans back, and I know he wants me to say something. He’s made room for me, for my wisdom. But all I can think is, “It’s funny, you know?”
Of course, it’s not funny. Not the ha ha kind of funny. It’s funny like when things go exactly as you would have expected. Because we live in America, where you can expect to put your life at risk going to a movie or an elementary school or on an errand to Walmart to buy your six-year-old some princess pencils – or maybe they were dinosaurs? Where a shopping trip can become a self-sacrifice, one hand left clutching that packet of pencils, the other cradling your infant son’s head, cushioning it against the cold tile floor, deafening the sound of the bullets. But mostly, it’s funny – no, absurd – because she was a mother, and it’s what a mother’s body knows, its instinct to surrender. Quicker than a gun, this instinct. Its trigger more sensitive, its devastation more nuanced.
I remember the devastation of my son’s birth, an easy birth I am told, my body surrendering just how it should. But still, it ended in our separation. His torso was tilted just right or just wrong, and I could feel every limb as it escaped me. I counted them on the way out – one, two, three, four – and it felt cruel to let him go like that, to push him from me, so helpless, so exposed.
There came the nights and mornings and mid-afternoons where I surrendered myself to his crying, and when I did, my hips knew just how to sway, my knees how to bend, my arms how to rock. There were the surrenders that surprised me – my vanity; hair falling out in clumps so large, they startled my husband when I left them on the side of the tub – and the surrenders that surprised everyone but me.
“Her husband died, too,” mine says, still next to me on the couch. “Protecting his wife.” His slackened jaw goes taught with resolve. He, too, would do the same.
And this, of course, is the wildest part of all – that a man thinks he can protect a mother’s body from itself, from the things it knows it must do; that a man in that situation thinks the danger is new, that the danger is a bullet, when in fact, the danger has been there for months. When in fact, the danger is the baby, the love I feel for him. When the doctor placed him on my chest, I whispered, “Yes, you are mine.” I realize now how wrong I was. It is I who am his.
Liz Breen is a writer living in Boston whose work has been featured in Kenyon Review, Columbia Journal, Cleaver Magazine, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and you can find her online at lizbreen.com