Prego Prose

A Peasant Surprise

Blogging earns me zip. I could have ads on here, but they’d only take up space where beautiful words – or profanity, whatever – could be.

Even the HuffPost pays me sweet fuck all. My only rewards are your love and affection.

But sometimes there are little golden surprises, like a 10-dollar bill discovered in last year’s winter coat.

Last night, I received a Newfoundland and Labrador Arts & Letters Award – for a story I wrote about warships of the Imperial Japanese Navy.

I’m kidding. It was about motherhood. But it’s not my usual humour. Even though I won for Short Fiction, “Growing Things” is the painful truth. (Psssst: Ms. Bobbi French, my Canadian Weblog nomination in the “humour” category might be about to go down la toilette. C’est la vie.)

But ever true to my brand, you will be pleased to know my 1,725 word count contains “breast,” “mucus plug,” and yes – “vagina.”

Despite the whole vagina thing, I know my dad would be proud. Yes, the story is about him too. It always is, isn’t it? He would also be tickled pink to know it earned me almost 58 cents per word. Cha-ching.

Let me know what you think. Because your love and affection are still my greatest incentives to keep this fruitless gig on the go.

 

growing things

The usual double-stomp of rubber boots on the front bridge. The whine of the screen door. Then in he burst, bucket in hand, eyes wide with childhood.

He was beseeching us to guess before he was halfway in the house, his first word lost in the flowerbed.

“…how many I got t’day!”

I could hear them knocking around in the salt beef bucket, like billiard balls rumbling in the belly of a pool table. Potatoes. Maybe seven or eight. Tiny and pitiful and good enough for him.

Five!”

Five reasons to not wait for anyone’s guess.

The scholar emerged from muddy plaid and took his place on the couch, entombed by paperbacks and the first draft of a novel. He took a pen from his pocket, opened his notebook to the back cover, and made five short strokes: four straight-up and one diagonal slashing victoriously through. I could hear it from across the living room.

Ten years ago, I would have rolled my eyes. When other dads were skilled fishermen and farmers, mine was master of the metaphor and MacBeth. I was ashamed. Now, I just pretended to be. To treat him the same. To keep things normal.

His thumb was not green but grey with the smudgery of sonnets and sermons. But potatoes were another form of poetry, willed from dead space with living, breathing enthusiasm. His hands were meant to turn pages, not soil, nor fat cod drying on Fogo flakes. At sixteen, he boarded the ferry – to grow his vocabulary, a family, and a scattered stunted spud on a less isolated patch of land.

We were both growing things now. Me, a baby. Him, a tumor. Both feeding off our bodies, getting bigger and stronger and ready to ruin everything. I hurled deals into the great beyond – Take this, let me keep that. But I kept getting rounder, which I took as a big fat forget-about-it.

A grapefruit had been growing in dad’s bowel for ten, maybe twenty years. Like a story unfolding while the protagonist’s back is turned; he realizes his role midway through the final chapter.

The unluckiest kind of cancer: the one with no symptoms until it has its own postal code. The day they cut it out was the day I saw its replacement – wiggling around on the screen like an upside-down beetle. Three inches of terrible timing.

The size of a new, pink eraser, found on the floor of the high school hallway, now at home in my sweaty palm. When I was a little girl, dad would take me with him to fetch a book he had forgotten, or make copies of an English quiz on the giant Xerox machine. I’d snoop around the musty staff room and its glorious towers of paper. Steel typewriters were sentinels on every desk, glaring at me with snaggy, metal teeth, warning me to keep my hands to myself. Before we headed home, dad would find a scribbler and stick it in my pocket. Jackpot. I hoarded them in the bottom drawer of my dresser, rarely making a mark. Blank pages were pressed silk, too easily ruined by an imperfect thought or dangling participle.

Here in my hand now – a photo of my own child. A surge of reality turns it to sandpaper, scratching my fingerprints off until I’m nobody special.

One soul would enter stage left, the other exit stage right. Would they cross paths, brush shoulders, share the space long enough to sprout something forgettable. Or would they pass like dandelion snow on the wind, miss one another by a breath that may as well be a lifetime because, either way, they’re strangers. For nine months I waddled around and wondered, trying to believe in miracles, occasionally pondering what would happen to the order of things to come if I threw myself down the stairs.

I remember when these stairs were carpeted orange shag. I’d stomp up to my room, propelling all my teenage angst downward through my body into each stupid step.

“Don’t be so opprobrious!”

I drove him to his vocabulary’s edge. Once, after I had slammed my bedroom door with tectonic-plate-shifting rage, he came up to my room, took the drawers out of my dresser one by one, and dumped the contents onto the floor, then left without a word. I wrote an apology with fancy glitter pens.

I’m sorry. With a sad face in gold metallic ink.

I was a sad face on a prize pumpkin perched on the edge of his bed when the doctor said the second surgery was a flop. The only hope for a cure, flushed away with my mucus plug. The young surgeon said he still had hope, but I could smell a rotting plum down the hall and the stench of bullshit in his every word. The dead-end news was a rusty trowel in my gut all the way to China. Dad just stared out the window, smiling at the crocuses poking through the patchy March snow.

I lay in a tub of scalding water, silent and numb, a massive earthworm making waves beneath the taut skin of my belly, reminding me I was still alive.

Dad lived in a fortress of paper, bookmarks jutting out to trip those who would disrupt him. I’d approach gingerly, extending a story to be graded. He’d put down his book or journal or pile of essays on Julius Caesar and turn to accept my loose leaf, feigning interest in my fat, curly typography. He’d speed-read my meager work, his lips and eyebrows fox-trotting around his face, mesmerized by my genius.

“Well done, daughter!”

He made his mark in just the right spot; never the same thing twice. I’d have another tale for him within the hour. And a sandwich made with every possible ingredient in the fridge, including his own tomatoes he grew out back in the greenhouse that used to be the dog pen.

*****

Dad’s stitches were closing around his decaying liver, and my eight-pound mass was ready for harvest. But nine days past my due date, I was still holding him in, making time stand still, delaying this and whatever else was about to rock my world. We’d all live off this hope, this little black and white ultrasound picture in my purse. It’d be Christmas Eve forever, the anticipation of good things bringing more joy than their arrival and the sinking knowledge that it’ll all soon be over.

By day ten, I was overthrown by the sheer animal urge to bear down. And then there he was: the living, breathing proof that time had passed, things had grown, change was upon us. He was sucking vigorously on the air, searching blindly for my breast. He had just broken my vagina; now he wanted another piece of me. Fast-forward a few months and he’d be laughing hysterically as they lower my father into the ground.

He found his home in the hollow of poppy’s chest where I spent many a morning reading storybooks to the bass drum of his heart. Both their faces: perfect calm. Like they knew something nobody else did. The moment swept me away, then dragged me back to earth with a crushing smack of irony: here is the man I will bury, holding the boy who will bury me. Less than an inch of flesh and flannel lay between brand new and irreparably broken. There was a fucked-up beauty in it; I see it now. The meaning of life, colliding in a little blue blanket.

The summer sun let us forget if not heal. Inside, organs were quietly packing it in, ready to call it a life. Outside, we pretended we would all live forever. We danced around the cancer, almost thankful for the bastard because at least we had fair warning. A neighbour had dropped dead with a massive heart attack, lying on the floor in a pool of things left unsaid.

Dad finished his book and grew strawberries, small and pale but sweet. And I grew to love my child, our distraction from the truth, our one perfect thing. Dirty diapers, ceaseless crying, sleepless nights: it was pure joy because it wasn’t grief.

By October, the leaves were falling faster and the sands in the hourglass followed suit, swishing by like the beach was finally calling them home. But dad was slowing down, the pain in his side making it difficult for him to walk. He took his meals on the couch with a dishtowel on his chest for a bib, the checkered cloth enabling a feeble game of peek-a-boo, the boy pulling himself up from the floor to pull away the rag.

“Boo.”

Each time, poppy was still there, to both of our surprise.

I retrieved a notebook from my bottom drawer, unperturbed after all these years. I flipped the pages past my nose. Typewriter ribbons and mildew. The sweet aroma of a simpler time.

The slanted garden sank into a morphine slumber, crab grass filling in the spaces like it was never there. I collected his poems in a banana box; the colour of the paper whispered the age of each piece – from parched sunflower gold to new lily white.

I christen the little notebook. How do you spell eulogy? That looks right, but not next to the word dad.

*****

A green, die-cast train comes to a halt at the base of the casket, a boy crawling after it, grunting with glee. Four feet above him his grandfather’s hands are folded upon one another. They look odd without a book, or a pen, or a bucket of something plucked from the earth. His face is sunken and clay-like and not his own, but he is surrounded by his favourite things so I know it’s him: books, flowers, trees at each corner of his coffin in rich forest green, and people – their faces proud and kind and resilient.

I pick up my boy who chortles at the sight, blissfully oblivious to the colossal shift that has just occurred beneath my feet. There he is and here he is, the bookends of my existence. The front pocket of my boy’s overalls, where a frog should be, is the perfect size for a notebook.

I imagine the casket brimming with tiny potatoes, their gnarly eyes following me around the floral wallpapered room.

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The lucky ones.

My sperm donor and I spent my 31st birthday in a prenatal class at the Health Sciences Centre. (The class was twice as long as my labour, ironically.) We were practicing breathing techniques, and one of the exercises required Andrew and I to turn and face one another. I had to breeeeeathe – hee hee hoooooo – and he had to lean toward me and rub my shoulders and such. Without thinking, he said something that permanently etched itself into my memory – the part of my memory where I store reasons to dropkick people in the face, and call them “sperm donor” instead of “loving husband”. His exact words “This is going to kill my back.”

I think even Max cringed in utero. Oh. My. God. Did he really just say that? My back had been aching for eight months. Peaceful sleep was a distant dream (and you have to sleep to dream so I was royally screwed). And the epic pain I was about to endure any day now was going to make his backache seem like a hangnail. I was petrified about what was about to happen to me, and he was casually complaining about his back. Grrrrrrrrr.

But despite this slip of the tongue, and my earlier posts that might suggest otherwise, I am not bitter – not toward him, (and yes, he is a loving husband, by the way), not toward anyone who is exempt from this ungodly pain. I just like to whine about it; it makes me feel better somehow. It’s kinda like swearing. I don’t really need to curse. Frankly, I’m never really that pissed off. But I just like to throw in a good, solid “DAMN” now and then, to send a little surge of lightning through the ol’ bloodstream. I joke about the nightmarish labour, comparing it to that big, goofy Kool-Aid jug bursting through the brick wall. I tell tales of case room horror, occasionally employing the use of hyperbole to heighten the entertainment value. It did hurt. A LOT. But truth is, I’m over it. Well, almost. And I don’t really blame anyone for the pain (anymore). Apple-eatin’ Eve is my homegirl. The nurse in the case room who told me to hold off on the drugs; she was doing the best an overconfident meathead can do. And men – how can I resent them? I mean, they’re not exactly getting off scot-free. In fact, because they’re largely omitted from this unique life experience, I actually feel kinda bad for them.

Think about it. In every other avenue of life, men and women are equals. (In the Western world, anyways.) We have equal opportunities – at work, at school, at play. We may not be able to pee standing up, but we broads can be the best, the boss, the bomb. Men and women alike, there are no limits to what we can do. The world is our oyster and we both get to shuck it.

But this thing – carrying a child and giving birth – men simply cannot do. It’s just not possible! They will never know what it feels like to bake a person inside of them like a Butterball turkey. (Nine months… now that’s what you call slow-roasted.) They’ll never know the exhilaration of having that child, just moments after entering the world, latch onto their breast with sheer animal instinct; born to suck. Men have nipples, but why? They’re as useless as tits on a bull. In fact, they are tits on a bull. Men can only sit back and observe the miracle of keeping this spectacular creature alive with nothing more than the nectar of our own bodies. It sounds too impossible to be true. But God, or evolution, or Aphrodite, or Yoda, or someone, made it very possible. For women and women alone. We may be the subspecies to endure the pain, but we are the lucky ones to have the privilege of this first-hand miraculous life experience.

So we must have compassion for men, not resentment. And we must do what we can to include them in this experience. In fact, we must enable them to in our pain. We must let them rub our feet, our backs, our legs. We must permit them to run warm baths for us, paint our toenails, shave our legs, and run out at 2am to buy ketchup chips, muffins (“I said BLUEBERRY, damn it!”), and mangoes. During labour, we must squeeze their hand so tight, it’s at risk of losing a finger. We must have them fetch the hungry baby from the crib, then put the happy baby back. We must encourage them to spend time with the lil’ munchkin, while we go shopping for 200-dollar leather boots. It’s the least we can do to include them in this heaven-sent journey from which they have been so unfairly excluded. In the name of equality, it’s simply the right thing to do.

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From apple to appetite.

I’m not a religious person, but I’m open to the possibility that anything is possible. I guess you could say I practice WhoFuckinKnowsism. I choose to believe in the Creation story just so I have someone to blame for the heinous experience they call giving birth.

Let’s do a little Biblical recap. 6,000 years ago, Eve ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, even though God specifically told her not to. If it had been a big hunk of Belgian chocolate dangling from that tree, perhaps I could see the error of her ways. But an apple? That’s just weak. Her punishment? God took away the Wii and, to top it off, added this: “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing… Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16) Thanks a lot there, Female Numero Uno. And thanks a lot to you too, Almighty One. It wasn’t enough to send her to her room or her treehouse or whatever?

So mamas and gal pals, we must suffer. It’s the legacy we’ve inherited, whether from Eve or from Evolution. (Eve-olution?) For starters, we must menstruate. (The average woman spends about $10,000 on pads and tampons. Bloody hell.) We must carry our offspring for nine months – that’s a good chunk of our lives! – during which time we must endure nausea, swollen ankles, and any number of physical and emotional complications. Then the fun part – we must squeeze a human being into the world through a poorly designed pelvis. This is simply inhumane. Terrorists would list this as “torture technique #7”, meaning six other methods of lesser torture would be utilized first. Inmates at Guantanamo Bay would not be subject to such cruel and unusual punishment. No, this torture is reserved for the true dregs of society – women.

Then comes the breastfeeding. A task that’s draining enough, let alone the nipple pain, the plugged milk ducts, the mastitis and thrush and countless other toe-curling boo-boos of the boobies. “Feed through it,” the lactation nurses tell us. Okay sure, no problem. Got a mukluk I can chew on? A piece of metal? An apple???

I won’t even get into the incontinence, the scar tissue, the hemorrhoids, and the lifelong struggle with body image. And lest we forget the menopause to come and its slew of sucky symptoms that serve to remind us we’re drying up like a desert camel’s scrotum. Yay.

Long story short, womanhood comes with a lot of ouch. AND DON’T EVEN GET ME STARTED on the common perception that men get sexier with age while women just get old. How did men get off so easily (so to speak)? All they have to do in this life is shovel snow, lift heavy boxes, put the windshield wash in the car, and mow the lawn. Is this fair? Hell no. Especially when Adam ate the freakin’ fruit too! How was he punished for his defiance? The Bible says God made him toil for his food from a ground full of thorns and thistles. Whoopdy-freakin-doo. Adam probably just turned around and made his loyal minion do all the work anyway. He definitely made her harvest his twig and berries.

Eve, and us, got a bum rap. (And our bums are not the half of it.) Adam got but a slap on the wrist. He should have gotten a smack on the wiener; a bag tag at the very least. Where’s the justice?

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Expect the unexpected.

You’ve probably read at least one of the “What to Expect” books. What to Expect When You’re Expecting, What to Expect the First Year, What to Expect During Labour, etc. Do these books prepare us for the joys and challenges of motherhood? Or do they just give us a false sense of preparedness for a journey one can’t possibly be prepared for?

Take my wonderful (sarcasm) birthing experience, for starters. Did I have a birth plan? Not really. I knew I was going to have to play this sucker by ear. I just had one request – drugs, and lots of ‘em. Seriously. I was THIS close to making a t-shirt that read “Stick that epi in my dural,” for my arrival at the hospital. Just so they were 100% clear on where I stood.

Things couldn’t have gone more tits up. I got induced, and when the Sauce of Satan (oxytocin) kicked in, things went from 0 to 60 faster than you can say episiotomy. Just a couple hours into it and I’m begging for narcotics. In comes the anesthesiologist – my handsome knight in shining scrubs. Thank you, baby Jesus. But my world is suddenly shattered with the sound of Nurse Ratched’s voice. “Sorry, hun, you’re fully dilated. No drugs for you.” Like a horror scene in slow motion, I watched the anesthesiologist wheel away his wares. That ugly, stingy bastard.

Long story short, I gave birth without so much as an aspirin. I felt everything. EV-REE-THING. As the doctor stitched me up, I kept kicking him out of sheer reflex. Yeah, my birth plan was really working out. Give birth like it’s 1865 – check! Roundhouse kick the doctor in the throat – check! So far, so good.

thought I was prepared to bring baby Max home. To my husband’s horror, I had all the gear. All of it. Max hated the swing, the sling, and his 800-dollar crib. I’m selling the works of it, and the next kid is going in the sock drawer, Benjamin Button style.

I was prepared for the sleepness nights, but I had no idea how difficult it was going to be to sleep train a ginger. In the dark of night, I could see his orange wig glowing like the fires of Hades as he howled for hours on end. As soon as he started sleeping through the night, or so I thought, he’d cut a tooth or discover a third lung and resume his vociferous battle with slumber once again. At first, when people asked me if he was sleeping through the night, I’d say yes and knock on wood. Now I (yawn) just pretend (yawn) I don’t hear them.

Nobody prepared me for the Great Boob Catastrophe either. Sure, I knew breastfeeding was going to be draining. But I thought the extra boobage would last, like an eternal token of gratitude from Mother Nature for suckling her latest creation. She is an Indian giver, clearly. Why didn’t anyone tell me my boobs would wind up looking like golf balls in tube socks? WHY??? I went from a D cup while breastfeeding, to an A. I haven’t worn an A cup since grade 8. Not cool. I need at least a B to achieve equilibrium with my ass.

So, does reading everything under the sun tell us what to expect? Sure. It gives us some insight into this scary, unknown world called motherhood. But alas, we must remember – nothing in life works out exactly the way we plan. We are in control – to a point. We have to just go with it. Roll with the punches. Tuck our boobs into our socks and embrace the unexpected.

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