Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.
― Louise Erdrich, The Painted Drum
Today, I sit by the apple tree. Actually, it is an apricot tree, blooming at the onset of spring. Fruit will fall from this tree, in abundance, just not yet. When my son was an infant, I would put a blanket on the ground beneath the shade of this tree. I had hung a string of quilted birds from one of its branches low enough for his infant fingers to push. I would lie on my back, too, trying to see the world as he did, up through the branches of the tree to the blue sky. On those days with him, there was little else but the sky. I didn’t think. I didn’t suffer. That time of nurturing was a respite, the stillness of quilted birds swaying, of no spoken words, just little fists grabbing towards the sky. I yearn for the simplicity of those moments. My son is eight years old now.
I experienced a similar stillness during his afternoon naps. I would sit in the kitchen while the rice was cooking and stare out the window, to the west, over the hill and into the blue sky. It was so quiet I could hear the rice simmering. Its steam made a gentle fog on the window pane. There was nothing to do but wait for him to wake, to feed him, perhaps take him for a walk in his personal chariot. I didn’t worry. When he couldn’t sleep, I would put him in his seat on top of the spinning dryer. When the dryer stopped, we went outside to sit beside the apricot tree and were lulled by the breeze.
Our walks together were magical. I pushed him in his three-wheeled chariot all around town. When he slept, I listened to music. One day I listened to Blackbird by the Beatles. I listened over and over again. I listened while I pushed that chariot up the steep hill towards the sky. “Take these broken wings and learn to fly….” We were truly in our own peaceful world. I didn’t fear. Our walks were magical simply because I could walk, because I could feel the sun, because when my boy awoke, I could hold him to my breast.
At home, I wore an ivory robe. I wore it for months after my son was born. I wore it because I could scarcely leave our blue-sea bed, where I wrote in my leather-bound journal as he napped or delighted himself under the symphonic mobile. In all the peace of those hours, perhaps to the sounds of Beethoven or Bach, I told the truth: Birth is bloody. Birth is a struggle that continues and continues. The midwives say there is an inevitable end, that the baby will come. It doesn’t always, not on its own.
Birth, as it turns out, nearly killed me. I fought for every moment of my son’s entry into this world, for every centimeter of cervical progression. I danced, I bathed, I walked, I screamed, I was silent. I felt so desperate, so frustrated. He was delivered by caesarean section after forty hours of labor. Three weeks later, on a winter night, I hemorrhaged. I lost, then was transfused with, a total of thirty pints of blood and plasma — enough for three human bodies. Mine was cut open, then closed, cut open, then closed. Three times. I lost my womb. I surrendered to this blood-letting, resisting only the medicine that would taint my breast milk until I was told, “You must take it, you must or you will die.” I wonder if my son missed me those days I was unable to feed him. I believe he is why I am still here.
At the time, the cause of the bleeding was a mystery; physicians were baffled and tearful at the near-loss of me. Eight years later, we have learned the name of the offending illness: lupus (wolf in Latin). Lupus is a great imitator. It is an enigmatic, incurable auto-immune disease which can take a life, or just make living a lot harder. Lupus fools the body into attacking itself, as if it were an enemy to the one who occupies it. We made a deal, the wolf and me: no bleeding in the night; no spontaneous departure. Linger in my body, yes, but do not deprive me of my time to say goodbye.
My son’s father painted a picture of me once. It was life-sized, on loose canvas held together at either end by wooden boards. The colors surrounding the outline of my body were of the sea on a stormy evening. The red Celtic cross embroidered on the skin of the belly made it unmistakably me — a cross atop the scars of birth. It hung in our home for months. I will tell the truth again: His father was cruel. He took the painting of me to the dump, along with various defunct electronics and dead batteries. My son and I were there with him, on the concrete in the sun. As my son’s father was poised to dispose of the painting, I asked him if I could have it. He asked me if I had money to buy it. I didn’t. I watched as his hand opened, dropping the painting into the metallic abyss below.
When one has been faithful to a cruel and punishing god, it becomes dangerously easy to become cruel to oneself, to think that one deserves it. It is better to risk letting go of these false gods. Even apricot trees lie fallow for a time.
Isak Dineson wrote, “The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.” So, when he was five years old, I took my son to Mexico, to the sea. The beach was made of seashells; the water was placid. There were fisherman and white birds. We ate fried cheese, watched the sunset, took barefoot walks, listened to night-rains, and drank peach Jumex on our concrete roof top. We visited a cenote — an ancient sinkhole filled with blue-black water and teeming with life. Its abysmal depth terrified me. I did not like the feeling of fear. Yet I recognize that even cures are not without pain. At the sea, my son played contentedly on an abandoned ship, gently rocking.
Today, by the apricot tree, we built a sailing ship kite. It is white nylon and bamboo, with a double-mast. The winds today are not gentle, they are fierce. Wearing pink polka-dot pajamas and wielding our sailing ship kite, I entered the street beside our home. I was afraid to run. I stood still in the middle of the road holding the kite up to the west, watching the wind move through its sails, dreaming of flying. It is the wolf that makes me afraid. I am afraid not of what will happen while I am running freely, but how I will suffer for it later.
We keep sand in the house, in jars and in trays, and immerse our hands in it. The memory of the sea’s tranquility calms when the winds of life are fierce. Well-meaning friends say that if I will just focus on the light, on what is right with the world, all will be well, as if wishing for goodness makes everything good. I wonder if they have ever suffered. Pain only rests when it is acknowledged. From the blanket under the apricot tree, from the kitchen waiting for the rice, from the sea of a comfortable bed, I hold the pain and rock it like a child. It becomes the soil from which the tree will grow.
My body has been broken, also my heart. It is helpful to know that this is the way of it. This is how the apricot tree blooms: by breaking open the seed. This is how she remembers her own inherent self-worth; this is how she remembers to take the risk of blooming again. This doesn’t mean that life becomes easier; it means that life is lived with greater courage.
And there are years when the apricot tree does not produce fruit, just as there are years when it produces so much that we cannot keep up with its harvest. Those years the ants and the birds have many good meals. Nothing is wasted.
Even this wolf that lives in my body has something to teach. It is teaching me now. Shhh….it says to be quiet. It says to remember what gentleness feels like. It says to remember the warmth of the sea lapping at toes and ankles. It says to remember the hollow sound of wooden wind chimes on a breezy afternoon. It says, as I lie down head-to-head with my child: hold your hands up to the sky, notice how the branches of the apricot tree are cloaked in vibrant green, listen to the bird-song, let yourselves be rocked by the wind. Life is happening.
Story originally published in snapdragon: a journal of art and healing, spring 2020, issue 6.1: vibrant | vision. https://www.snapdragonjournal.com/