(I wrote this six years ago. So much and so little has changed).
As I write this it is Mother's Day. Most of these thoughts are not connected, but then again some of them are.
Summer has come early to the southwestern United States.
flowers open, releasing scent. The word "scent" is a buffer. We say
it instead of "pheremones" because pheremones implies touching,
desire, sex. Twitches of the medulla that,
civilized folks we are, we sublimate into poeticism. Words matter.
By afternoon the bees are lethargic, sliding themselves over stamens
that have grown leathery in the heat. I risk a sting to smell
an open cluster of flowers occupied by a stumbling worker. This is a
different kind of longing; the reward is worth it.
At dusk the
temperature drops to eighty Farenheit. This is good weather for a bike
ride. I roll my mountain bike from the garage to the street for the
first time in months and start pedaling. The air is full of
pheremones. The smell is biotic, not quite alive, not quite dead,
sicksweet like overripe fruit or fresh meat.
the nut-shaped sector of the brain responsible for emotional memory, is
an evolutionary gift hundreds of millions of years old. Its
particularly strong connection with the sense of smell was noticed by
romantics ignorant of brain chemistry centuries before it was studied
A man-made "nature trail" surrounds my
neighborhood. It is narrow and made of gravel, bordered on the inside
by a green construction fence and on the outside by a pond. Smudges of
algae bond with the rock, taking in carbon dioxide, growing with the
warmth. In many places the water's surface dances with oxygen bubbles headed
At the water's edge I find a plastic bucket filled with about an
inch of water. A dead fish the size of a bone in my pinky floats at
the top, some kind of neighborhood science project. A smaller fish of
the same species wiggles in circles beneath it.
Science be damned. I empty the bucket into the pond. The dead fish
spins in the current, turning belly-up; the live one darts among the
feathers of algae. I anthropomorphize; it swam joyfully. In this case
the word "science" is a buffer. In any other context it is cruelty. I
feel like a hypocrite, rescuing a fish. As it disappears beneath the
rocks all I can think is, words matter.
In March, my girlfriend and I entered the full waiting room at
Western Medical Center in Orange County, California. A sitting
security guard eyed the slip my girlfriend carried.
"Are you pregnant?" he asked, too loudly. I stared at him.
"How many months?"
He handed her a form.
"I guess you get what you pay for," I said after we sat down. Ha ha. Easy target, US healthcare.
When they called her back she was still blushing.
The ultrasound tech worked while two interns watched. The interns watched because, to use the tech's words, this kind of variation
would be interesting to see in a professional context. We all tried to
be nonchalant even though the ultrasound was being done
internally, with a probe.
Variation. Not abnormality. Words matter.
"That's the heartbeat," he said, zooming in on a pulsing circle of light. We hoped that our silence was
enough, but he continued.
"The heartbeat develops surprisingly early, no?"
The circle grew and fell in rhythm.
Sometime later the physician returned.
"This is going to be a very dangerous pregnancy for you," he said.
"I'm going to emphasize to you that you need to return regularly for care."
"Are you excited?"
"We ... actually were planning on terminating."
Exactly one second passed.
"Oh!" The physician laughed, a little. "No worries, then!"
"You really have to be ready for that sort of thing," the doctor said. "Truly."
As if it is a matter of convenience.
We even said "terminate." You get terminated from a job. We had to
let you go. We're cutting costs. It's so much more. I
wanted to say, do you want her to die. Do you want her uterus to split
and bleed. But there, words fail. We settle on terminate. We
settle on saying you have to be ready. A matter of convenience.
Eighteen years from now will we be able to pass a high school in June
without thinking, this would be the graduation year. Will there be another Mother's day when she doesn't
remember. The years will pass before us in cycles, growing and
shrinking like the heartbeat on the monitor.
My maternal great-aunt visited me and my sister at the beginning of
the year. I know where I get the writing bug: she spent two decades as
a professor of literature in Cuba and has written several novels and
countless volumes of poetry. None of it has been published, due in
equal parts to Cuba's policies on public communication and to her
not caring whether she gets published.
Her absence from Cuba has caused her to forsake her Atheism,
slightly, allowing a belief in reincarnation. Breaking that pressure
differential after eighty years, knowing science, it makes sense that
reincarnation would be the first idea to appeal. The recurrence of
atoms. The persistence of life.
She held my niece aloft, both of them smiling. My aunt's teeth are
remarkably white and strong. Cubans from the old country are tough.
There is an uncle who walked under his own power into the hospital the
day before he died of cancer. A lifetime of walking, sunlight,
subsisting on little. Even still, this aunt has lost almost all of her
"She has something of my sister."
"That's what we said at the hospital."
"Something. I can't put my finger on it. She doesn't look like my sister. But I feel like I've known her forever."
Our aunt held the baby to herself.
The answer is always maybe.
This happens a lot. My niece unsettles those who knew my
grandmother. Maybe genetics at work. Maybe our amygdalas. Maybe the
persistence of life. I obsess over the recycling of atoms in various
substances because it gives the universe continuity in terms I can
understand. It's like believing in reincarnation without the courage
to admit I believe in something I utterly cannot back up. It's belief
in unprovable things that create the foundation for most hope. I'm
starting to understand this.
So I'm waiting. Waiting for someone to come along. I won't know
them. Maybe one of my kids in the future. Someone who I feel I've
known for years, or decades, who existed for me briefly, more an idea
than an entity. It's all ideas. Atoms, persistence of life, words,
all of it. This person will come to me as an idea of a former life,
another part of a cycle, this time larger, the apex of the throbbing on
"After a Life" is also the title of a short story by Yiyun Li. She has my gratitude and apologies.