Lately, I have been losing things.
While I have always been the sort to misplace belongings (papers, glasses, keys, etc.), this natural tendency has this past year ramped up to an unprecedented degree. Shoes are seemingly vanishing. Coats, cups, glasses, documents, keys, baby bottles, one phone and another- not to mention entire boxes of kitchenware, magnets, and memorabilia. Along with these, though, I have been losing time. I blink and a week has passed on autopilot. Inhale and the month is gone. Swallow hard and suddenly it’s month eleven out of twelve- nearly a whole year disappeared. And then, I found time, or perhaps it found me, in the bottom six hours of November 8th.
I think it was that day, that beautiful, molten volcano of a day, when the test turned positive a mere three weeks before the start of the Spring semester, and I felt fire light inside me. I had never been sick with my son, and yet within a week of conception I was at a constant simmer of acid churning and vomit and bile clambering slimy and vindicated from my gut. I knew. I doubted, yet I was certain. I lost breakfasts and lunches and desperate saltine snacks. Exhaustion mounted itself to my flesh. Still, I moved; I found within me that base, cockroach thing nestled in my spine, and I did what I had to do. I went to work. I went to school. I danced with my then one-year-old, and I lifted him up to weightless, made him the gravity of my world even as I helped him to defy it. By the time Pesach had arrived, life was the liquid spin of coffee in a cup and the tugging of survival just above the cleft of ass, in that small space of the coccyx where we once possessed the nub of a tail. It was April 23rd when we held our Seder.
There is something soothing in the rhythms of the Seder, and something that wrenched me to myself and made the breath come easier in watching my son learn to dip parsley and celery in salt water, to devour charoset and grape juice, and to gleefully search out the Afikomen. So often when I find my heritage and watch it pass to my son like the genetic echoes that formed his smile and curling tendrils of hair, I find, too, the peace and the love and the warm bonfire of security. This exists, however, only rarely outside of our home.
As each Jewish holiday approached, my husband and I would have a conversation, brief but necessary, a ritual.
“I was thinking maybe we could put something on the door or in the yard, y’know.”
Some derivative thereof, but the sentiment was always the same. Something in decorating makes me feel more real, makes the stories of my people that I carry as a weight in my lungs a lighter burden, so that I can breathe easier. Yet, my people and I are often made invisible for a reason, only trotted out into sight as a way to leverage morality.
Now I had my own baby boy, a toddler running me raw all day with love and exhaustion. At birth he was inducted into his heritage with love and primal need twisting into knots around the ever-present fear. It would be easier for my boy to be Christian, but he is not. I want to shield him, yet also to embrace him in fullness of self. I am always and forever at war.
“I know,” my husband would say, and I’d hear the falter, the heart stutter, in the intonation. “But, I think now is not the time, babe. I just can’t see you or Judah get hurt. I don’t want us to be targets.”
I, too, knew. Nonetheless, under the shroud of paralytic fear, I would lose myself for a moment. Or, perhaps, I would merely feel the loss of a part of myself, a loss that blends camouflage with the pains of growth, of poverty, of search for identity, of the ebb-and-flow that is trauma and self-hate, before I would lose the loss like a key fallen out of sight.
The thing about mothering is that the biology of protection feels encoded. It is the inferno that consumes all in its path. Some things are made better for it; some things thrive beneath the brushing of heat. Others still are lost to embers and cinders and the burning out story of what once was.
My sister-in-law and I live in different states, but found bonds in the sisterhood of mothering despite our differences. This sense of comradery and understanding was bolstered in the intersection of our pregnancies. The first time she was pregnant, due with her son, I was expecting my own sweet boy just over four months later. This time, November 2015, a mere month before my own positive test avalanche-enveloped me, she told our family of her pregnancy, a babe due at the end of May. Again our pregnancies coincided, this time even more closely, with my due date falling just over three months after hers. In what felt like an alignment of the stars, we each were due with daughters.
I dwelled on our connection that Passover, with my niece’s arrival imminent and my daughter’s soon to follow. I found the warmth and settled into it. Exactly a month later, however, warmth bled into scorch, and with the loss of my niece’s heartbeat only days before her due date, we lost, too, the fight against the flames that sought to devour us. With her, we became something utterly human, and, yet, utterly ash.
Time was lost in a greater way then, smoldering into blurred, black, nothing.
I found it again, not in my labor, but only in the move of my daughter’s chest on mine, in the movement of small limbs. Yet, still the cockroach was burrowed in my spine, and I was lost and our niece was lost and the bow I first wanted to use was lost and blood and amniotic waters poured from me and looking at my two children, my son and daughter, I lost, or found the loss of, all sense of rightness. That hardy insect nestled into me, though, and I moved my wrong limbs, my wrong body, and I prayed my wrong prayers in my too-loud, too-soft voice, and I did what I had to do. I lost strength and found it, misplaced it in the fridge, rediscovered it tucked among the baby clothes and the nursery organizing, and fished it from the drain once or twice, slimy, battered, beating thing.
Being what I am, Jewish, pansexual, poor, a woman, I wear my wrongness as one wears the worn threads of adolescence stretched with familiarity to embrace one’s body through its growths and shrinks. Most of the time, it blends and I can lose it in a tapestry of self. Sometimes, it is snagged, and I must sew it or cut it off. I can find it like white lines crinkled into the soft flesh-folds of shoulder and wrist and thigh, often only seen because I know where to look.
When one burns themselves, there is a hiss, a thing that reaches deep and claws. The blister forms only after, in the bubble-pop of gone moments. It fades to a white-pink sear, and then slips into sole white. It is harder to ignore. When someone or something else introduces the burn, however, that is another beast entirely. Flame like nothing else snaps us back to ourselves.
The blur between my niece’s death, my daughter’s birth, my son’s second birthday, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, was the white scarring I didn’t have to notice. It was the wrongness sitting in me with the cockroach in my spine pulling limbs like puppet strings.
November 8th, 2016 came with tendrils of fear choking my chest. I was reassured that it was unfounded. Nerves were raw on my tongue, itching on the insides of my wrists. I voted. I started to feel good. My allies were optimistic. I could feel hope burrowed in me with the roach. I was afraid. I knew like my scars, like my wrongness, like my niece being dead and my daughter being alive, that hate begets hate, that things could go sideways and right could plummet in a flash. But it couldn’t happen, at the same time. Like bile up my throat when my daughter was still just the potential inside me, my gut seemed to tug and reject the idea bodily.
What was supposed to happen this year was this:
Our niece, Emma Rose, beautiful, dark-haired, big-little thing, would be born breathing and moving and with her whole life in front of her; no shooting at the bar in Orlando and no standing with needed; no grief casting my husband and I in marble, our family in choking cement; our daughter born, beautiful olive-skinned, strong and soft-tempered, skinny creature of love; cousins reuniting and cousins meeting, lives before us; a sweet new year; Trump trending ever lower in polls; the first woman president-elect. Progress and humanity and finding the piano-dip symphony of right.
What actually happened was that my niece, beautiful, dark-haired, big-little thing, was born dead. What actually happened is that the knife’s edge of grief was cutting my throat even in the relief of my daughter being born with her heartbeat. What actually happened was that so many people died, forty-nine of them, in what was supposed to be a safe space. What actually happened was that the barrel of a gun was made hot, and people, so many people, more even than forty-nine, were left cold. What actually happened was that I celebrated Rosh Hashanah with apples dipped in honey that left my tongue feeling coated in a sweetness that was false. What actually happened was that no mama-pull could protect me or my kids from the fact that this was our world. What happened was that I still tried to reassure myself, ignore the scars and the blistering of heels starting to understand blue flame beneath, and believe that the tug of bile-terror inside of me was the thing that was wrong.
This was what was true. This was reality.
On the evening of November 8th, what actually happened was that the votes started to roll in like the rustle of leaves waiting and the slip of matches. Almost immediately things started to go wrong. Every minute or two, I was wholly in myself, yet lost to the world around me as I looked at the tally and felt the wrong on my skin and the acid of fear continue its climb. It was after midnight in a shaky exhale – I’d put my son to bed two hours before with tears wanting to come and apologies dying on my tongue, now I held my infant daughter long after she fell asleep. The apologies were there burning me with the sadness and the hurt and the fear and the feeling of wanting nothing more but to puke, looking at my daughter’s face and moving chest and feeling bone-deep- this was not the world I wanted to give.
What actually happened was that we lost.
November 9th came, and it was the 78th anniversary of Kristallnacht, or the “Night of Broken Glass”, a night that seventy-eight years before had hearkened the coming of the Final Solution, bringing with it the death of at least ninety Jewish people, the destruction and vandalism of Jewish businesses, and the placement of roughly thirty-thousand more Jews into concentration camps. On its 78th anniversary, I woke to a man I and many others consider to be anti-Semitic, as well as racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, and generally hateful, having officially been declared the person who would be leading our country.
Wrongness coated me, then, skin-tight and suffocating.
I had been so afraid, but it was nothing to this consuming terror choking me with flame and the acrid smoke of my hope burning. The coccyx cockroach that kept me trudging forward was quiet but there, and my daughter was again asleep in my arms.
I opened social media to hate and fear breeding, to violence beginning, to the dismissal and mockery of our rightful alarm. I scrolled to threats of sexual violence and physical assault. And then the simmer of my flesh became an all-consuming, mindless wall of fire. The swastikas stood out from the walls they were painted on, bleeding black and triumph. I found time and fear and wrong right where I had left them. I found the burns and the scars on my arm. I found my worth in my president-elect and in the marks of victory left by those who supported him. I found the hatred like bruises on the neck, on the wrist and cheek, on the campus wall.
I was nearly choked to the point of passing out once, and that feeling, too, I found again. I found my shame, and the digested, acid-eaten remnants of popcorn that was meant to help me relax into a brighter future coming, into hope and love winning. I found that I was wrong and not worthy, that the people I loved were in danger, that those who would wish my babies harm on the basis of their ethnic and religious inheritance were feeling triumphant and empowered as they took our sense of these away. I had found through the terrible wonderful year trail-blazed behind me a totality of self. I had hoped that after the election I could find beneath the scar tissue tapestry the seedlings of green courage, of rainbow pride. Instead, what I found was betrayal and the knowledge that, for my children and husband’s lives, it was a risk I could no longer feel acceptable to take.
What I lost then, what was burned and squished inside me, was the cockroach. My tiny bit of hardiness, my faith of endurance, was for perhaps the first time gone into the ether. I trudged onward, because that is what humans and mamas are made to do, but in the days that have come, it is clear – my warm fire is being pinched out, disappeared beneath the rubble of hurt and grief and terror and the ashes of my sense of self.