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Losing Composure by A.D. Carr


A.D. Carr’s “Losing Composure” is a poioumenona metafiction (or nonfiction) about the process of creation (often the creation of the very story we are reading)—where she reflects simultaneously on creating a child and creating stories about that process. Carr’s anxieties about the decision to have a child at a frightening point in world history, the concrete particulars of her problems with fertility, her pregnancy, his birth, and her writing intersect in the metaphor of “composure” and its opposite. “In some ways, then, to write a life is to let it go. Where does that leave me, my fingertips tap-tap-tapping myself simultaneously into and out of composure?” As her musings transform themselves into a direct address to her newborn son, the question remains: “Is it possible to compose while resisting composure? To have made you and yet to not make you. To hold you and to let you go.” (See Carr’s author note on the loosening of structure as her essay unfolds, and on the essayists she most admires—those who make space for uncertainty and leave us feeling “undone.”)  —CRAFT


 

Poioumenon for my son

“Can I ask you a personal question?” I asked. “About kids?” It was early 2017. I was in the passenger seat and my friend, G., was driving. She’d been my lit professor back when I was an undergraduate fifteen years ago, and now we were colleagues.

“Sure. Can I tell you not to wait until tenure?” Tenure was still three years away.

“Yeah,” I laughed. “Well,” I felt my pulse accelerate. “I’m not but…I mean we’re trying but it’s not going great.” The words tumbled out of my mouth.  She was the first person I told.

“Okay,” she said, leaving space for whatever would come next. I couldn’t think of how to ask what I wanted to ask. Earlier that day, the president gave his inaugural address. Watching the wall-to-wall coverage of the transition over cable news for weeks on end, I told my husband that if I couldn’t get pregnant without fertility treatments, maybe that would be fine—maybe we shouldn’t try too hard.

“How do you…?” My voice trailed away for a moment. “How do you even think about parenting? When the world is like this, I mean. When the world is so fucked up?”

“Oh,” she said heavily. And we sat in the noise of the interstate for some time as the city lights zipped past. I thought about when she became a parent, and what she had parented through, a span of time paralleling my entire adult life: a war premised on false pretenses; Bush’s reelection; US torture of detainees; metastasizing military encroachment across the globe; famine, drought, rising seas, and storms of biblical proportions; refugee crises and resource scarcity; police brutality; and on and on.

“I can say this.” She took an exit ramp. The car slowed. The blinker click-click-clicked. We turned right. “Having a child—parenting a child—is the greatest antidote to self-absorption and despair.”

 

This Is Fine

There was my husband, eyes following the throngs of tourists around us, palming a liter stein of Hofbräu Dunkel. It was our first day in Munich, August 2016, the summer before everything went to shit. We were at the tail end of a three-week trip, taking advantage of an overseas wedding invitation to see some new places. Everywhere we went, people wanted to know what was going to happen in America. We offered confident assurances. There was no way he could win.

“Look at me,” I beckoned. He looked cute. “I want to take a picture of you.”

He turned and leaned forward on his arms, staring into the tiny lens on the back of my phone. His beard and hair were unkempt from the train, his lips slightly parted and straight. The stein crowded the foreground. I snapped the pic and showed him.

He frowned, self-consciously ran his fingers through his hair. He didn’t like it. I didn’t care.

“Now we will remember this,” I said. This. A sunny day in a crowded biergarten where we decided, over beer and a giant pretzel, that we were ready.


Most doctors, studies, and internet forums will tell you that the majority of healthy couples conceive within six months of planned, timed intercourse. Of the remainder, barring complications like endometriosis, PCOS, low sperm count or motility, or other factors, the majority of remaining couples go on to conceive within the first twelve months. We had no reason to suspect deviation from the norm. Though we were not at the most fertile time in our lives, as a couple of fit, nonsmoking thirtysomethings we were well within the parameters where age would not be a complicating factor. Most importantly, when we started, I was still two years away from the next “fertility plateau,” when the average rate of pregnancy drops from 62% (for women thirty to thirty-four) to 54% (for women thirty-five to thirty-nine).

Because I am a woman in the US, I knew the statistics. I knew we should not have any expectations or concerns in those first six months, but when I got my period in October after our first month of trying, I drove directly to the pharmacy for a basal body thermometer. I wasn’t anxious, exactly—or so I told myself—but a basal body thermometer would give us more information about my cycle, and why shouldn’t we want as much information as we could get? Totally casual, no worries.

As directed by anonymous users in “trying-to-conceive” forums, I took my temperature every morning, within the first moments of waking, when my body temperature was at its lowest (“basal”). And every morning, after a minute or two of lying very still, I recorded the displayed number in a fertility tracking app, charting daily deviations to a hundredth of a degree on a graph. A small sustained rise by even half a degree—97.07 on Tuesday, 97.61 on Thursday, 97.9 on Friday, 98.01 on Saturday—would signify ovulation. To maximize chances of conception, you need to have intercourse in the few days before ovulation is expected, or before the rise in basal body temperature (BBT). For women with regular cycles, tracking BBT over several months can reveal a pattern from which one may deduce (and henceforth predict) the precise day of her cycle when ovulation occurs. The few days prior to that are known as “the fertile window.”

By my thirty-fourth birthday at the end of the following March—two months after that car ride when I began wondering whether any of this was even worth it—I had been taking my temperature for six months. And my periods came like clockwork, lighter and shorter than ever before. For comic relief I started picturing myself as Holly Hunter’s Edwina “Ed” McDunnough in the Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona, whose uterus is described by husband H.I. McDunnough (Nicholas Cage) as “a dry rocky place where seed could find no purchase.” Reciting this line to my physician, complete with Cage’s slack-jawed drawl, I was met with a blank stare.

After a beat, she suggested I exchange the daily ritual for the much less frequent ovulation test strips. In a regular cycle, ovulation occurs near the fourteenth day of the cycle. Like a pregnancy test, which detects in urine the presence of human Chorionic Gonadotropin—the hormone made by the cells in a placenta (also known as “the pregnancy hormone”)—an ovulation test strip measures luteinizing hormone (LH), which is responsible for signaling the release of an egg from the ovary. When LH reaches a detectable threshold on the ovulation strip, it is safe to assume ovulation will occur in the next twelve-to-thirty-six hours: the fertile window. So, unlike the daily measurement of BBT, a woman only needs to use the ovulation test strips for a few days starting around the tenth or twelfth day of her cycle. Because they only come into play for a few days each month, they are presumed to be less stressful for a woman trying to conceive. Stress hormones make sperms and eggs skittish about getting together.

“I suspect you’re stressing yourself out,” my physician surmised, diagnostically. “Try not to think about it. Just have fun!”

I wasn’t sure what that meant. Try not to think about it.

“I’m turning thirty-four today,” I said, changing our focus, hoping she would hear an urgency in that neutral biological fact. And do what exactly? Wave a wand?

We compromised. I agreed to quit measuring BBT in favor of the test strips and she agreed to order preliminary bloodwork. It had been six months, after all, the threshold for when my insurance provider should cover the cost of labs so long as they were ordered with the diagnostic code signaling “unexplained infertility.” Which was the first time I heard those words.


That spring and summer are a bit of a blur in my memory. The first round of bloodwork showed a “normal but not ideal” thyroid panel. I started twenty-five micrograms of Synthroid daily, later increased to fifty. Was that around the same time that Congress spent so many weeks attempting to roll back the Affordable Care Act? I channeled my by-then-omnipresent and rising anxiety into a guest column about political discourse and my shitbag congressperson for a local politics site.

At a routine checkup in May, my physician referred me to radiology for a mammogram. I hardly slept or ate in the forty-eight hours between referral and appointment. Once there, having my breast squashed like a pancake and silently catastrophizing, the woman helping me—a mammographer?—attempted to calm my fears by suggesting maybe it wasn’t a lump at all, but the dense breast tissue associated with the early stages of pregnancy. “Wouldn’t that be funny?!” she asked cheerfully as I contemplated an early death and mentally indexed my family medical history (not ideal!). Wouldn’t that be funny? My maternal grandmother died at age thirty-five of cancer that had metastasized to all of her vital organs. Yes, I suppose it would be “funny,” ma’am, if this turned out to be pregnancy instead of cancer. Where did it start? That’s what the person on the other end of the line asked me when, days later, still awaiting news from radiology, I recited my family health history to determine if I should be screened for genetic markers of certain cancers. By then I had the office numbers of my ghoulish senators saved in my contacts and always at the top of my “recents” list. “Removal of coverage for essential health benefits would be catastrophic for me,” I said again and again and again, trying my best not to lose my shit on the interns answering the phones. Nobody can remember where it started, it ate her body so quickly.

It wasn’t cancer. It wasn’t pregnancy. It was nothing, fine.

We continued our search for abnormalities through the summer. Each round of tests had me hoping for a bad number, something that could be fixed. Labs for my husband in June, more blood draws for me in July, Nazis in Charlottesville in August (what the fuck kind of world is this?), letrozole and a saline infusion sonohysterogram in September, once we had been trying for twelve months. On paper everything was fine, fine, fine. Entombed in the ultrasound room, I stared at a large-screen monitor as tiny saline bubbles traced the perimeter of my hollow uterus and fallopian tubes, looking for cysts, blockages. I’ve always found an odd comfort in seeing my radiated insides. Please please please, I pleaded silently. Find something.


In my first efforts to collect these details, to make them cohere, I barely remembered any of it. I called my doctor’s office and asked a nurse to review my charts over the phone. “I remember I was on a thyroid hormone,” I said. “Can you tell me the name and dose? And what came after that? And what was the name of the procedure with the bubbles?”

It is the feeling of the time that I can recall more vividly: a totalizing fragility; a weariness; an imbalance; a lost sense of the borders of my body in the world. Searching for edges, something to grip, something to contain my angst and despair, trying to comprehend increasingly incomprehensible conditions, I turned to the first and only thing I learned could make me feel whole.

I threw myself into work. I set a routine and I wrote. Obsessively. Essays, public commentary, conference presentations, a journal article. Tens of thousands of words. But if I was trying to create a distraction—to create some feeling of stability by writing it into existence: tidy sentences stacked up to make declarative paragraphs and conclusive essays—I failed.

Between the drafts and blood draws, maybe it’s obvious, I was falling apart, shedding fragments and half-finished ideas into yet another G-Doc: not a journal, exactly, which suggests something coherent, elegant, romantic; more of a cloud-based swear jar, a digital repository where every couple of weeks I permitted myself to explore, profanely, the dimensions of my in/fertility, its attending and profound loneliness, my festering and guilt-ridden resentments of newly pregnant friends, and, hovering above it all, my shame at the discovery that my own lack of procreative success was producing feelings about fertility (the lack) at all. Was my pain indulgent? Was my desire ethical?

Drafting my description of this time in my life, I’m reminded of the ways our words reveal how we see a thing. Procreation perhaps most readily calls up associations with the Catholic church, associations about the purpose of pleasure and the duties of wives preached to me throughout my schooling. Would reproductive help to shed the ecclesiastical skin, getting to the heart of the matter? No, no, production is much worse. With procreative, in spite of its papal tethers, I am holding in view the labor of creation, the prioritization of creativity, an ongoing and recursive pursuit that is as much about making meaning in chaos as it is about realizing a vision of ordered beauty. In this construction it is not Godly but godly, yes, a kind of miracle made by mortal bodies.

Before, I didn’t think I even wanted to become pregnant, not in that wanting way. I wanted to be pregnant, desperately at times, but to become so without wanting it. The wanting felt, I don’t know, gendered and vapid. Instead I wanted pregnancy to happen to me. But six months became nine months became twelve months became fifteen months without even so much as a late period, and I was out on the edge of the widening gyre with nothing but unresolved and incoherent paragraphs, wanting—and trying and failing to wrangle that want into something that would bind the ragged cleaving at my center.

 

Decomposition

How does one become a body in the world? Not in the sense of flesh and bone, but rather what does it mean to create a positive presence for the self, to assert a coherent story of triumph in spite of the countervailing pressure to recede into one’s failures or half-measures?

All I ever remember wanting to be was a writer. Under the covers, age seven, ten, fourteen, sixteen: turning to the next blank page in a hardbound journal or ruled notebook, I tested the limits and possibilities of language, making and remaking myself with words. Stories, poems, ponderings, and later in dorm rooms and apartments, term papers and essays, the knuckles of my fingers glowing in the blue light of a computer screen, creating the borders of my body-in-the-world. I Am Who I Am.

After college, I chased that feeling all the way to graduate school, spending the better part of my twenties studying the discipline and theory of writing, how writing and words and their arrangement on the page or in space determines what is possible: how we might think and feel about what is in front of us. Words as objects of order and units of meaning. I scribbled a line from essayist Robert Heilman on a Post-it and stuck it above my desk. “We have composed, and in a sense, we are composed.”

We are composed. The more time I spend with this tidy concept, the more I become interested in its rather untidy opposite, what becomes present in negation. When we are found to be acting out of sorts—erratic, uncontrolled—we are said to have lost our composure. I wonder what is lost, in losing composure. If it is greater or lesser than what might be gained in the refusal of composure, a refusal to compose from the start. We have not composed; we are not composed.

I have been teaching memoir to undergraduates and so I’ve been reading and thinking and talking a lot about how lives become stories, what it means to tell one’s story, to make art of suffering, not-knowing, despair. I know what it feels like to follow the momentum of a sentence only to discover something you didn’t know you knew. To be pulled toward pain. To realize that the story has become something else. The danger of confession. Privately, I think about what it is I am asking of my students when I ask for their memoirs, and if it is fair of me to ask at all.

In “Memory and Imagination,” Patricia Hampl approaches the question in rather grave terms: “Refuse to write your life and you have no life.” For Hampl, the stakes could not be higher. Just before this line, she invites readers to imagine a world where accounts of Auschwitz and My Lai were “forgotten—” erased, unpreserved, or unrecorded entirely. At once a warning and a charge for the political function of memory. “What is remembered is what becomes reality.”

I wonder about the obligation this creates, how it shapes what is made and remembered, and what gets left on the cutting room floor. How many versions of an evocative sentence were eaten by the backwards-moving cursor before that one was allowed to stay composed. And why.

If I do not write this life, it ceases to be a life. These are the terms. But it is not exactly my life, anymore, once it is written. We who write know of the sorcery of transfiguration, rendering abstractions into so many words, lines, paragraphs, a personal grammar, a way of organizing and arranging the world: not a facsimile, but an interpretation. This is what it means to compose, to put things together. It is not finding meaning, it is making meaning, a sum greater. But there is a loss here, too, and a letting go, and this is the crux of it. In that finnicky contemplation, following the cursor forward and back in pursuit of le mot juste, getting it right is about making it stable, inert. A story that is composed resonates beyond the self. No longer mine alone.

In some ways, then, to write a life is to let it go. Where does that leave me, my fingertips tap-tap-tapping myself simultaneously into and out of composure? And what about you, my sweet son, who I am so desperate to hold onto? What happens when I write the story of how you have come into this world?

 

Caesura

“We can’t tell anyone,” I said. “Not until we know for sure.”

“I know,” he said. “When is that?”

Six weeks? Eight weeks? Twelve weeks? Longer? I wanted to wait and wait. I kept finding reasons. “I wish we could never tell,” I said one day.

“Right,” he said, assuming I wasn’t serious. I wasn’t. And I was. Because once it became true, we would be conscripted into a narrative, obligated to a preexisting logic and relational expectations, susceptible to momentum and competing desires, and then I could not keep you safe.

We compromised at thirteen weeks, which means I gave in. All the early scans and labs concurred on a healthily developing pregnancy, and there was nothing else to know, really, nothing else to wait for.

Why didn’t you tell us sooner?

 

In the Before

Carrying you was easy. The first time I felt you move, maybe eighteen weeks along, your dad and I were in a bar watching basketball. A flutter, a lightness, a strangeness beneath the compression waist panel of my running tights.

“Oh!” I said, holding my palm to my midsection.

“What?”

“I think I felt him move.”

We didn’t know whether you would be a he. I didn’t want to. Everyone else wanted to know. Or wanted to guess. Or had a theory. Or wanted to know what we wanted, or preferred, or guessed. Or wanted to know about my dreams. Was I dreaming about you? Sometimes, yes, by the end, but never about he or she, just you, Baby. That’s what we called you when you kicked and rolled, when my belly stretched and transformed against your somersaults.

“What are you doing, Baby? Hi!”


The day after we told our families, February 14, a young man, only nineteen, walked into his Florida high school with a semiautomatic rifle and murdered seventeen of his peers. I was in my office when it happened, on a Midwestern campus where weapons of all kind are expressly banned. My husband was in his office too, at a high school thirty miles from me, in a building where guests may freely enter. I remember knowing I needed to cancel whatever lesson plans I had for the day, needed to give my students space to talk, to support each other, to be safely scared.

One student, a young man—nineteen? twenty?—wanted to debate whether teachers should be permitted or required to carry weapons. Before that day and after it, he was in the process of writing a personal essay for my class about a gun that saved his life. I asked the students whether they would feel safer to see a gun on my hip. Their reactions were mixed. I pressed, asking how freely they would be able to think if their teacher were armed. How likely would they be to challenge me in discussion? Or to trust me? And what about each other? I pointed out my size in comparison to most of the men in the class. What would stop someone of larger stature from overpowering me and taking the weapon? Using it?

Resting my hand on my still-flat belly, I thought about their parents, whether they had talked to their children today. I thought about my child, then the size of a peach, and wondered how we would explain this kind of thing, and how soon. What were we doing?


Everyone wanted to tell me how it would be, how I would feel, and how things would change, but only in bad ways. Women talked about Sisterhood and Warrior Womanhood and Inept Husbands. Men, the ones who were fathers, joked about their lives being over, their destructive kids, their controlling wives. One of them, at a birthday party for my husband when I was around twenty-eight weeks, told me my choice of a cotton dress with thick horizontal stripes was “a bold choice for pregnancy.” Everyone, the men and the women, wanted to tell me about a pregnancy—their own or their wife’s or their sister’s, like they already knew everything there was to know, like I needed to be filled in, updated, educated, warned, like I didn’t know what was happening, here, in my body.

I wanted privacy, a luxury surrendered to the visible transformation of my body in the public square. When faced with the spectacle of a protruding belly, a stranger is compelled to comment on it. The body politic.

Shut the fuck up I said in my head. Do not narrate my experience. Do not project your fears onto me. Do not even look at me. I am not here for you and I do not need to be told how to feel or what to think about my body and the body it carries.

But then, even a condition as public as pregnancy is only as public as the curving edges of its form. What was inside was mine and yours alone. When you rolled and stretched, the world around us disappeared, leaving me bobbing on the ebb and flow of your lunar gravity, a whole tidal system at my center. Your hiccups punctuated my pulse.


The spring stretched into summer. The days got hotter; the news was a hellscape. Everyone asked if I was tired of being pregnant, if I was ready for you to be born. I wasn’t tired, and I wasn’t ready. There was a humanitarian crisis at the southern border. Federal agents were pulling babies from the arms of their mothers and fathers, putting them in cages. Hundreds. Thousands. Hormonal brain fog tested my ability to focus on anything for more than a few moments, and so I could only take in the news in small bits. Every story I read about those children knocked the wind out of me, sent me reeling. I made increasingly frantic calls to my garbage senator’s voicemail. Do something, I pleaded into the tape on the other end of the line. What are we doing? What are we doing? My voice echoed back into my ears.

Did you sense my agitation? Did your heartrate rise with mine? You practiced flip turns, lulling me to slumber and stirring me to rise, and I wanted to hold you there forever, inside, snugged up beneath my ribcage where you could not be hurt or taken from me.

By the end of July, we as a nation stopped talking about the state-inflicted trauma at the border because the president’s nominee for the Supreme Court had been credibly accused of rape and my brain let go of its moorings entirely. With every protrusion of your sweet little rump against my side, I was taken further away from this earthly plane. Maybe I did not want you to be born because I did not want to come back here, back to solid ground.


At dinner with my friends, T. and G., a couple of weeks before your due date, we were talking about labor. Mothers of grown or nearly grown children, they were the only people I wanted to talk about it with because they didn’t talk to me like I was a pregnant person. T. told me when she was in labor, she stayed calm by thinking about all the women in her lineage to whom she was connected in that experience. G. told me she processed the pain by accepting it as good. “In every other instance of pain, it is a signal of something wrong in the body, but this pain is your body doing what is right,” she said.

I told them I was nervous—a little bit about the physicality of the whole thing, but mostly about so many unknowns, about not having a frame of reference for making meaning.

“Have you been writing?” they asked.

“No,” I said. I had barely written a word in thirty-six weeks. “I am trying not to write this, trying not to narrate.”

Mostly true, a narrative trap. The remaining truth is that I couldn’t write. I was out of my head, out of composure. Living only in my body, itself trained only on the creation of another body.


By August my undiagnosed antepartum anxiety had manifested as a feral possessiveness that swelled as my body stretched the seams of my clothes. In my compulsion to think through every knowable detail of the Great Unknown, I preemptively forbade hospital visitors. I told my husband I didn’t want to announce a birth until we knew you were healthy and stable. Everything was going to change and I was trying to stave off the encroachment of our new horizon as long as possible. Of course it was ridiculous and unkind, but I was no longer operating from an evolved center of reason.

 

Subcutaneous Subconscious

I had four dreams about you, before you arrived.

The first one, I can’t remember.

The second one, at thirty-two weeks in real life and in the dream, I was in labor. You arrived healthy, wiggly, smiling. Everyone said you were a good baby, but born too early, and I had to put you back.

The third one, at thirty-four weeks and four days, I was laboring again, but I had to go to work. I delegated delivery to my husband, your father. I put in a whole work day. At the end of the day, you had been born and your father had done skin-to-skin bonding and everyone had held you but me.

The fourth one, at thirty-five weeks, there was a window on my tummy that let us see inside, like a fish tank. You were covered in hair, thick and black.

 

Volta

Have you been writing? Have you been writing? Between meetings and over lunch, as I scroll through photos to show everyone your fat cheeks, your wobbling posture, your first tooth.

No, no. I don’t know how, or even if I can. I have an idea, but language seems so flimsy, so cruelly inadequate in these early months, held up against the light in your eyes. (And anyway, some of those detained children have died in custody, and many others have been lost or “misplaced,” probably trafficked, and a year from now more than two hundred thousand people will die alone from a horrible virus and a video of a cop crushing a Black man’s neck with his knee will pull all of us into the streets to carry out the most sustained demonstration for justice in half a century, and then and then and then—Jesus!—a grand jury will find no justice for Breonna Taylor, murdered by cops in her own goddamned bed.) Instead, I tap pithy tweets about parenthood, a few fragments of thought in my Notes app: how calming and mercifully consuming it is to slice blueberries and feed them to you, one half at a time; to watch your eyes follow your own hand with such determination as you pinch a berry, sticky and sweet, between your thumb and forefinger, slowly and deliberately find your mouth. The way your eyes flash at each burst of soft flesh between your gums. I do not want to write. I only want to be here with you. That is enough, everything. You are enough, everything.

And yet. I slice another blueberry, thumb open my phone, tap out this scene. I cannot bear to lose it.


We have composed, and in a sense, we are composed. Refuse to write your life and you have no life. I turn these words over and over in my head. A refrain. A mantra. A warning.

How to negotiate between writing to hold on and not-writing to let go? Between writing to preserve memories and not-writing to refuse the narrative impulse? Is it possible to compose while resisting composure? To have made you and yet to not make you. To hold you and to let you go. To be between. Between coherence and incoherence. Between the blank screen and the first taps of the keys, fingers poised, tense, pulsing with anticipation. Between before and after. At that infinitesimal blink of a moment when, according to some quantum cosmologists, the universe stopped contracting and started expanding.

Where is the line between artful rendering and invention? What have I recalled true and what has been shaped by the scripts I have not managed to avoid? I have made you. And these edges, your round head and soft hands, these are the edges of truth. I cannot be sure about the rest.

 

The Story of Who You Are

In the dark, I hear you whimper in the next room. It has been snowing for days: your first winter. The house is shrouded in a heavy stillness no sound can escape. Cocooned as we are, my hearing is supersonic: there is the dog’s sigh at the foot of the bed; there is the gentle scratch of his toenails against the linens; there is the faint whistle of my husband’s breath through his congested nasal passages. I am waiting to hear you whip your head to the left with the smallest whine, which is how you nudge yourself back to sleep. Instead, I hear you struggling against your swaddle. I know a frustrated cry is next.

We are supposed to let you cry for seven minutes, but instead I slip out from under the duvet, pad around the bed and across the hall, scoop you into my arms, and settle into the glider. Barely five months old, your tiny lips pucker as if to latch. One, two, three, and then your jaw is slack. Your whole body relaxes. I rest my free hand on your chest, over your heart. With your eyes still closed, you grip my ring finger, pull my hand closer so it is cradling your face, half of your head. It is a familiar feeling from before you entered this world when, after turning afternoon somersaults, you would settle into my right side and I would rest my hand there, around your soft head, hoping to feel the slightest twitch. Do you remember? You hold my hand there now as you drift deeper into slumber. I have carried you and I am carrying you still.

Tonight, last night, tomorrow night, every night in the dark I thumb open my contraction timer app and stare at the saved records, charted according to duration and self-reported intensity, reminding myself that it happened, remembering those ten hours, wishing I could remember the pain more clearly, the rolling and crashing, feeling I had reached the edge of life the threshold of the perceptible. This is the beginning of time. These are the first words I have written, words for you and only you, words I will write every night so that it never stops being true: I have carried you and I am carrying you still.

What have we done? What kind of a life will you have? I am trying to hold on, to keep you here, to fight this long letting-go. My thumbs tap-tap-tapping in the Notes app. I was alone with you, only you, even as your dad braced my shoulders and the nurses monitored your heart rate and the doctor calmly coached me through the riptide. I was in silence and stillness with you, even as I wailed and cursed and curled over myself and felt the contractions twisting in my diaphragm and my hamstrings. You whimper again and I lift you to my chest, just like how they placed you in my arms as you took your first gulp of air before finding your voice, clear and strong. A Copernican shift in the universe.

My son.

I try and try to remember, to return, to remind myself of the cacophony of your arrival as your small breath caresses my collarbone again. Inhale and exhale and inhale and exhale. I can’t remember before. I have always and only ever known you, your rhythms, your cries, the curve of your spine as you burrow your forehead into my breastbone and tuck your knees into my ribs, as if you, too, are trying to leave this place, trying to return home.

 


A.D. CARR is a multi-genre writer from the Midwest. Her essays have appeared in Quail Bell MagazineThe Rumpus, and in the inaugural issue of Apple in the Dark. She is associate professor of rhetoric at a small liberal arts college in Iowa.

 

Author’s Note

In the hours, days, and weeks after my son was born, I found all I wanted to do was talk about my labor and his birth. I’m not sure how many of my conversation partners actually wanted to hear the story I couldn’t stop telling.

After a while, with fewer and fewer opportunities, I realized I was telling that story for myself. I could feel my memory fading, and telling the story was a way of fighting that. In spite of my desire to hold that moment in the present, I wouldn’t (couldn’t?) write it down. Something about that felt dangerous—like if I wrote it down, I wouldn’t have to tell it anymore, and if I wasn’t telling it, maybe it didn’t happen to me.

Tentatively, during one of hundreds of middle-of-the-night wakeups, I tapped out some of the sentences appearing in the essay’s final section, trying to write the reality I wanted to continue to inhabit. I have carried you and I am carrying you still…. I sat on those sentences for months, not sure what to do with them. I kept starting and trashing different versions of whatever it was I was trying to assay.

Writing is a series of choices; every affirmative choice is a way of leaving all other options behind, forgotten. Meanwhile, (gestures broadly at everything) all of this is going on, and I kept coming up against the same mental block—not just the fear of fixing in place a version of reality, revised and honed, but that—I don’t know if this makes sense—that being able to write might convey the idea that everything is okay when, clearly, everything is not okay.

In the editor’s intro to the 2017 volume of Best American Essays, Leslie Jamison recalls some advice from a mentor: “the problem with an essay can become its subject.” The problem with the essay I was trying and failing to write—something about the pain of parenting, the dizzying experience of feeling both ebullient joy and private, profound grief at every milestone—was that I did not believe that writing it would offer the resolution I sought. I did not know what I was seeking, could not see the path through, did not know if resolution was even possible. How do you think about parenting—or about any creative act—when the world is like this? When the world is so fucked up? I was struck then, as I had been during my entire pregnancy, by the irony it all—an inability to create art while my body was engaged in this most profound work of creativity.

Pregnancy, parenting, living at what feels like the end of the world—these are not clean, containable experiences, but—for me anyway—feel more and more like a kind of unraveling, a resistance to or failure of composure. With the prose, I tried to capture that feeling, holding to a kind of upright, controlled style in the early sections to suit the subject of focus and reveal something about expectations, only to gradually loosen the sentences and structure as the work progresses, opening space for more uncertainty and fog. In the final section—truly the first words I wrote after perhaps a fourteen-month hiatus from writing—I am, I think, grappling with the grief of it all while at the same time resisting the easy descent into despair, striving for an escalation in the prose so as to fix the gaze. Do not look away, I think I am saying to myself.

The essays I admire most are those that complicate how we think about their subjects, rather than those with a soft landing: Eula Biss’s “The Pain Scale,” the late Brian Doyle’s “Joyous Voladoras,” Zadie Smith’s “Joy,” Matthew Salesses’s “To Grieve Is to Carry Another Time.” A writer doesn’t get to choose how their readers receive their work, but I wanted to write something that would leave me feeling similarly undone.

 


A.D. CARR is a multi-genre writer from the Midwest. Her essays have appeared in Quail Bell MagazineThe Rumpus, and in the inaugural issue of Apple in the Dark. She is associate professor of rhetoric at a small liberal arts college in Iowa.