With Intersection, her monthly column, celebrated poet Chelsea Dingman enters a place of questions left hanging—of lyric understanding, of addiction, and womanhood, and politics, and death.
Amid the Battery of Days
Blessed are they who remember
that what they now have they once longed for —Jean Valentine
It’s zero degrees Celsius. Early December. I feed my newborn daughter from my body, then a bottle. I’m not supposed to admit that I’m not breastfeeding. The nurses in the hospital shamed me into trying to feed her for the first three days of her life even though I had no milk. I listened to her cries as if they came from a room in another life.
What is a woman allowed to admit to? Starving? Shunning her pride? Praise that never proves true?
If I am praised for feeding my daughter of myself, am I a better mother?
[what I’m not saying, not to anyone, not for anything, not yet]:
My milk didn’t come in on my left side. On my right side, I have a mass the size of a golf ball. I can roll it around in my fingers. It feels like fire. It feels like a falsehood. It feels like I might die. It feels like the hard disappointment of bone & matter & love &
My father died at thirty-six. When I turned thirty-six, I knew what the adage living on borrowed time looks like. I might’ve been self-destructive. I might’ve stopped eating quite as healthy and sleeping right. I might’ve thought the idea of a long life was as impossible as borrowing time.
[what my body whispers]:
This is in my biology. My grandmother could not nurse her five children. My grandmother, who had a stroke after her fifth child was born. My grandmother, who was told that the birth control pill contributed to her poor health (hence, the fifth child). My grandmother who died not knowing who my mother was due to symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. My grandmother who baked us cookies and took care of us after my father died.
[what weighs on my mind]:
A childhood friend of mine died of breast cancer that metastasized to her brain a couple of years ago. She was young. She died within months of her mother. She left behind a baby son. She had contacted me when her son’s father had died suddenly, before her. She wanted to know what her son would need from her. She never told me she was sick. Instead, she sent me a message, when I was living in Florida, in the months before she died, saying you’ve always been a good friend, no matter the distance.
Is a good friend one who remembers? What does the body remember? What solace can this world offer her son who remembers nothing?
[the voice in my head says]:
No one is too young to die.
[in case another woman needs to hear this now]:
I apologize. Constantly. I know better. I apologize anyway.
[in case this someone else feels this failure]:
My mother accompanies me to visit a pediatrician who tells me that babies do “beautifully on formula.” She tells me not to worry, but to focus on myself now. I schedule a mammogram and a breast ultrasound. I wait to see what time will decide. I wait and wait and wait and—.
There are moments in this life that I didn’t want to be alive. When I was young, when my father died, when I was a grunge-listening, steel-toed boot-wearing teenager. Those days have long past. I want to be alive. I want to be alive. I want to see my children through their lives. I want my children to have a mother. I am alive, now, for the moment, but
[I am terrified of this life]—
I cry in the shower. I cry in the laundry room. I cry when my daughter turns her face away from me after she’s been given a bottle too many times. My milk continues to deplete in my right breast. I cry. I google breast infection. Breast cancer. Breastfeeding. I want to cut my breasts off. To be safe from my own biology. To be safe.
My son asks me to play Monopoly but I’m trying to feed my daughter. I know he misses me. My inattention is the perfect sky, just out of reach. Like the dead. The almost-dead. Like anything struggling to survive.
I’ve survived December after December since my father died. It is 34 years this December since I’ve seen him. I grew up without him. I grew up without knowing him. I grew up despite him: here or gone. That is how time works.
I read a news article while writing my new book in which a woman’s son starves to death because the health care community insisted that she breastfeed. My daughter lost weight for the first three weeks of her life because I was terrified. Because I felt like I didn’t know my own body, my own mind.
What can any mother do in the face of biology, but forgive herself?
So who mothers the mothers
who tend the hallways of mothers,
the spill of mothers, the smell of mothers,
who mend the eyes of mothers,
the lies of mothers scared
to turn on lights in basements
filled with mothers called by mothers in the dark,
the kin of mothers, the gin of mothers,
mothers out on bail,
who mothers the hail-mary mothers
asleep in their stockings
while the crows sing heigh ho carrion crow,
fol de riddle, lol de riddle,
carry on, carry on—
—Catherine Barnett “Chorus”