Illustration by Nick Lu
Sprawled on all fours, I moo like a cow.
Not a fake, storybook type of moo, but an inhuman, guttural noise that vibrates in anguish, the bellow of a heifer being seared by a cruel, iron-wielding farmer. It rises from inside of me without my will or permission.
The sound competes with the beeping of the monitor next to me. And with the low voices of the two nurses, murmuring about how close together my contractions are.
“I’m sorry about the strange moaning,” I manage to say in one of the brief hurricane-eyes between the ripples of pain. I wasted one of those precious, ominous windows on the worst, weirdest sentence.
I barely hear the bored response, something about “totally normal.”
When the pain gets worse, I leave my body and hover over the hospital bed. You’re okay you’re okay you’re okay, I tell the moo-cow.
People really need to stop saying “normal” when what they mean is “common.”
Common, like the months of vomiting, anemia, fatigue, back pain, unexplained crying, and standing at an open window while struggling to catch enough breath. The day I locked my office door and napped under my desk. The day I decided I must be dying. Rationally I understood this was false, but it felt like the truth, and so a deeper part of me accepted it.
When they decided I would be induced a few weeks early, because my typically low blood pressure had skyrocketed, I became fear, frozen in my car in a grocery store parking lot. I called my mother, holding the phone inches from my face, but couldn’t speak, a word churning and churning within me. TEAR. Your skin and muscle will most likely TEAR when the baby comes out.
Maybe that won’t happen to me, I reassured myself.
Just a few days later, I cradle my sleeping baby on the couch at home, and time stops. I stare at her for hours, breathing her in to the sound of her breath, tears of joy rushing down my face. I cannot stop smiling, like a teenage girl who has just been kissed by the boy she likes. I did not know I would feel this. I did not know I could feel this.
I pull out my journal to write, but just scribble her name over and over in cursive surrounded by little hearts.
My husband and I struggle to negotiate the terms of an interspecies marriage. He is still a human. I am a wildling, covered in my own milk and blood. My hair, which I blew out with a round brush every day for years, is now tangled and shedding. It hangs, wavy and frizzy, over my bare shoulders. Some days I cannot get the tangles out, so I just stick it in a clip or rubber band, whatever I can find.
One day I catch a clip from a nature documentary about a polar bear guarding her cub from the elements, predators, starvation. “You are the only one who gets me,” I say out loud.
In the sweet evening light of August, I dance with my baby up and down the sidewalk, pointing out the trees and talking to her about each one. We greet the sparrows in song. When I sing, she joins in, cooing a sweet melody that pierces my soul. I do not care if the neighbors think I am insane. This is the most beauty a person can experience outside of heaven.
In this weird, cyclical word where time does not exist, I do not sleep. Even in those brief moments when she can sleep without my holding her, I feverishly pass in and out of shallow, gray rest, making sure to check her breathing, certain that the next time will be the time I find her cold and lifeless. In between awake and asleep is where I live. Nightmares and reality bleed together.
If she dies, I realize, I also will have to die in order to take care of her in heaven. I become obsessed with this thought. There is no life without her now. There is no death without her now. I am exhausted. Too exhausted to sort out the nonsense from the truth.
Emotion begins to well in me like a flash flood, and it overflows from my quickly shrinking, withering body. It has nowhere to go; it turns into constant tears. Tears I cannot explain. They arrive whenever they want. When it happens around other people, I turn red, which makes it worse. I am lost in thick, cold fog on a hot mountain.
I still think about her birth every day.
One morning in October, I cannot get the tears to stop. I hide with my daughter on the basement stairs, holding the door shut with my free hand. I sing the “Itsy Bitsy Spider” through a forced smile while the overflow runs down my cheeks. I’m not sure who we are hiding from. No one else is home.
I will save you, I will save you, I will save you, I chant to her.
If she could speak, she might ask, Save me from what?
I don’t know. This is the answer that makes me so disoriented. Maybe from myself?
Maybe that’s why the imaginings begin. The imaginings are what I call them, though it is the wrong word. Somewhere between daydreams, nightmares, visions, hallucinations — I have no word. Intrusions. Maybe that’s the word. Some thoughts are actions, and some just happen to you.
A herd of skunks in triangle formation surrounding us as I nurse her in an armchair.
A man in a dark mask coming to chop off our heads with a machete.
A lamp spinning and exploding into a thousand black spiders.
Maybe we will go into a warm, dark cave, my daughter and I. I will keep her safe there. We will emerge only when it’s safe again.
But time passes outside the cave. Slowly the imaginings stop. The tears stop.
As I blow out the candles on my birthday, something in me lights up. I am still alive.
Slowly, the sleeplessness is replaced by a set of superpowers.
Like the ability to enjoy everything. A conversation with a high-pitched woman in the pharmacy line where she offers me unsolicited advice about sleep training that I am not going to take. An hour and a half spent relaxing in a dentist’s chair during a root canal. Scrubbing dried food off of the previous night’s dinner plates. It has somehow become a fairytale for me, because I vibrate at a strange new frequency. I can either stay dead or come back to life, and I have chosen to come back to life.
I worry about her death every day — choking, drowning, car accidents, fires, falling. Other than this, I am utterly fearless. And for the first time in my life, I genuinely don’t care what people think of me.
I still think about her birth every day.
In May, we sit in the grass and she picks a dandelion, a huge, four-tooth grin on her face. She walk-stumbles to me and holds it to my nose to sniff. Nearby, ugly green flies buzz around a dead sparrow. The wind blows, I spot a mama doe grazing with her fawn, rain starts to fall, and I start laughing because I remember a time when I saw myself as separate from all of this.
Sometimes my old life comes back to me in strange, hazy images. Studying in a library surrounded by books, reading and writing pages about the ultimate mysteries of the universe. Surrounded by friends in a bar, sipping drinks, in denial of the darkness and time of night. What was that whole life, that steady, controlled life where I felt I understood things? An illusion, one I fought so hard to maintain.
My survival in that life depended on my denying every natural instinct I ever had. My survival in this new life relies on trusting and following my instincts at every turn.
On my daughter’s first birthday I gaze into the mirror. I have aged in the past year. I now have wrinkles around my eyes and dark bags underneath that weren’t there before. I don’t care.
It feels like an eternity has passed, but I still think about her birth every day. I replay the scene over and over.
In the background is artificial lighting, the smell of cleaning solution, two doctors sewing me up with lots of stitches and talking concernedly about how bad the tearing is. In the foreground, I am holding my daughter and staring straight into the face of God.
So much love. So much blood.
It is all at once disgusting and beautiful, horrifying and serene, suffocating and breathtaking.
It is primal. It is transcendent.
Life begins exactly as it is.
Rebecca Krzmarzick’s essay won second place in this magazine’s 2019 Young Alumni Essay Contest. Krzmarzick lives in Cleveland with her husband and daughter and writes at LightUpMoms.com.