I want my children to know that I often had milk on my hands, in my breasts, and under my fingernails. All of it was sticky, and some of it synthetic, a vanilla-scented boxed concoction that nourished Michaela through her feeding tube and which sustained her when her suck, swallow, breathe coordination would not.
I want them to know that when the milk splattered, the syringes backed up, and geysers hit the ceiling, I gave myself wholly over to all three of my children. That while others bemoan the cumulative effect of crouching on one’s knees to reach a child’s eye level or to pick up yet another toy, I absorbed the blows of each mess and each tantrum, and even secretly relished these elemental forms of communication.
I want them to know that when I tinkered in the basement office and heard them crying at the top of the stairs, I let the computer screen go dark.
That I allowed myself one writers’ conference each year, leaving a refrigerator full of cooked food for their father to serve, knowing my three-day absence would exasperate him anyway.
That at the conference, I ambushed the accomplished among us at the coffee station with a single question: how do you do it? I am seeking a thread I can follow, and I am desperate. I want to pinpoint when these parent-writers wake, do the laundry, kiss a wounded knee, and tuck into bed, and where the writing sews in.
That they recoiled. “Just write. Find a group. Get an MFA.” Then they shook their hair into their eyes, pressed their backs against the table before fleeing from me, and leaving the air around me discernibly cooler.
That I missed you, my children.
I want them to know that, ironically, my teacher, a poet who spent years as a single father, entreated me to “treat your writing like another child.”
That this became a matter of permission. That I should be mothering my child. Having time to write evoked her absence, when I’d much rather continue to deny it.
I want them to know that in college, I studied with Robert Stone and Chaim Potok, and fantasized that my first collection of short stories would appear by the time I was 30. That I supported myself as a journalist, having had the “aha” moment in college: “I can get paid to write!”
I want them to know that when I was 30, my first-born, Michaela, arrived, dark-haired and soft-shouldered, full-term but deprived of oxygen during labor and delivery. That she sustained a permanent brain injury that would forever affect her motor center. That she never walked or talked or ate in the ways we think of those verbs.
That she made her needs known most forcefully when I was feeding her and she didn’t want another bite. That she knocked my spoon-holding hand out of the way with her forearm, with a determination that needed no sound.
That this was when I learned to listen.
I want them to know that I had assumed a new identity, that of special needs mother, and that I was extraordinary. That my writerly research skills were repurposed for medicine. That together with their father, we sought therapies and procedures and treatments that would help Michaela fulfill her potential. That after a first-year fraught with seizures more devastating than the initial diagnosis of cerebral palsy, our capsized ship of tattered dreams righted itself. That Michaela slowly blossomed, and we delighted in her beauty, her ability to forgive those who manipulated her muscles when they stiffened, and her loving disposition.
That our deep involvement in the community of the disabled and those who care for them made us better people; we regarded the ordinarily-abled around us as mundane. That personally, Michaela gave my life a razor-sharp focus that had previously been absent. That the writer’s sedentary life took on an unappealing triviality.
That I began to question, Who needs writing when there is so much living to do?
I want them to know we always knew we would have more children. And that on the 12th day of our third baby’s life, five-year-old Michaela died. In her sleep, at a routine sleepover at my parents’ house. City grids tilted onto their sides. Nothing felt tied down anymore. Dominion over gardens—a mirage.
I want them to know that I returned to the chair. To document for my younger daughters the life of their oldest sister, so that they would have some experience of her bright eyes and long lashes and flirtatious manner that amassed legions of admirers.
That despite the return to writing, the letters dotting along the page, I resisted the badge, for I would have traded writing pains of labor for the real deal. But that I had no choice, about the writing.
In my writing, Michaela lives, as closely as she can. I spell out her name to perpetuate her existence. As my teacher implores, “The dead are.”
What I want you to know is that grief never ends, nor is it as bad as it seems.
I want you to know that children are funny. Use them. As I used my middle daughter, Ayelet, who told me she overheard the babysitter use the word “stupid,” which is on our list of no-no's. “I told her we don’t use bad words in our house,” Ayelet said. And then, with a comic’s perfect timing, added, “At least we try not to.” Of course, she has forgotten that as a toddler she jumped on our bed, gleefully shouting, “Goddammit!” Better she learn it from me, I say.
What I want you to know is that our youngest baby, Maayan, is a poster child for the La Leche League: she nursed until three. That we could have been on the recent cover of Time Magazine in lieu of the nursing four-year old boy on the step-stool.
That Maayan and I had some really good conversations interspersed with her chugging. She impressed me with her elocution. “Maly got her hair cut down,” she once said, reporting on a friend’s visit to the “booty salon.”
That in truth, the warmth of her suckling mouth at my breast, its gentle tug, the softness of her skin, was my only comfort at a time when I thought I would keel over like an animal with no cause to live.
That she gave my arms reason to hang at my sides.
Gabriella Burman is the communications director at www.bigtentjobs.com. She is also an award-winning journalist. She resides in Huntington Woods, Mich., with her family. Her nonfiction appears or is forthcoming in Skive Magazine, Outside In, the Bear River Review, and Joy, Interrupted: An Anthology of Motherhood and Loss, with thanks to Jessica Handler.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: When you are writing a lyrical essay, you hear its music in your head. In the beats, and pauses, in sentences and between them. There is no guarantee that others will catch on to its cadence and rhythm. But what amazed me with this piece is that my assured editor not only heard the music, but greatly improved upon it. She turned a three-chord folk song into a musical score.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: Knowing that I have young children, the fiction writer Valerie Laken once told me, “You can get a lot done in 20 minutes.” She’s right. This is a rule I try to follow!
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, Surfacing by Margaret Atwood, The Undertaking by Thomas Lynch, and The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund De Waal.
Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?
A: I work in a decorated office lined with my husband’s business books on the lower level of our house. Sometimes I prefer the light from the computer to any other source. The children, naturally, play right outside the door, and often come in, uninvited, to “work,” making copies and using highlighters to draw on the carpet. I am most productive when the children are at school.