- Life’s Not a Paragraph: A Literary Love Story
I am married to a poet. Once, bemoaning the fact that so many of my husband Mark’s poems feature his old girlfriend, fixed as she is in the sharp beauty and cold fury of her mid-twenties, poem after poem, captivating even to me in her perfect unattainability, never aging, I said, Why don’t you ever write any poems about me? and Mark shrugged: Try breaking up with me. Then you’d get some poems.
In a break-up story or the-one-who-got-away tale of woe, it’s all there—tension and betrayal, disappointment and decline, fighting and fucking, all that exquisite heartbreak. But what if the heart stays intact? What then? Do we take the story back to the beginning? Way back to the unlikely conception and birth of our heroine?
Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, in a land far, far away, a baby girl was born into the dragon-breath heat of a south Florida summer, arriving too late for the summer of love, but crowning just as Janis Joplin was busting out with “Piece of My Heart” on a rain-soaked stage in Woodstock, New York. The day was August 16, 1969. As birth stories go, I’ll take it. [End Page 87]
My poor mother missed the whole thing—my birth, not Janis, although her, too—because those were the days of twilight sleep and my mother’s memories were not given the opportunity to lay down tracks. My father’s no help in filling in the missing details because when the contractions fell into a pattern, he dropped my mother off at the hospital and headed out with my four-year-old brother, Ian, to hang over the safety rail and watch Cookie, the largest crocodile in captivity, snap up live chickens at feeding time. Think of the crashing jaws, flying feathers, and gore! Imagine how this scene may have mirrored whatever unremembered things were going on at the baby hospital. Eek.
Thus I was born, but in the beginning before the beginning, there was the tumor. According to my mother, her abdomen had spawned a tumor the size of a grapefruit—a grapefruit!—and so she was on the table being prepped for surgery when it was determined that the tumor had shrunk to nothingness. The tumor was gone, and lo, it had been replaced by a thickening womb. A child, not a grapefruit. Whether there was sonography equipment involved or an actual scalpel is anyone’s guess after all these years. As a child, when I would hear this story, I’d feel a shudder of relief: but for the grace of God, right? I could have been mistaken for a tumor and surgically removed—and because of the tumor-as-grapefruit metaphor (never a softball or a newborn’s head), I’d imagine the abortion being performed with the curved, serrated blade of a grapefruit knife. Shiver.
This is the human condition: pre-conception, conception, gestation, birth, and after-birth (which is to say, life) present so many opportunities for chance and error in even the most controlled environment. And what environment ruled by the vicissitudes of love and sex, or even just one egg and one sperm among the millions, is controlled? For any of us emerging from the fluid darkness of the womb to suck in a phlegmy breath of actual air and release that first lusty cry—what are the chances?
I could so easily be someone else entirely, as could Mark, and all the rest up and down the family line to the miraculous children we named and call ours. If one second changes, one solitary moment, one single instant, we imagine ourselves out of existence. [End Page 88]
Thinking about the improbability of our own beginning is almost as bad as thinking about the certainty of the end. I don’t know how we all live with it.
Mark and I are writing in a loft at my mom’s house in Washington and I’m feeling the need to indulge in a brief meta departure...