The Miracle Bowl

By

1.

Five months after my baby girl turned two, I quit breastfeeding cold turkey when I went away to North Carolina for a low-residency writers’ program. I was gone ten days, my breasts swollen, lumpy, aching—I wore pads in my bras to keep from leaking onto my shirts during lectures and poetry readings. I sobbed into my pillow the first several nights: “What the fuck am I doing? Why’d I leave my family for this?”

I almost hadn’t boarded the plane from Albuquerque—I felt too guilty leaving my babies, Jer and Lina, five and two. Most of us there had commitments we were neglecting to fulfill our dreams of becoming published writers. Around the bonfire half-listening to a forgettable story, writers around me smoking and drinking, I felt so young to be that trapped and free at once.

“Family is at the heart of my work—as the complex relationships many of us Latina women have with family are both liberating and subjugating, as buttressing as they are repressive.” I’ve written this in all my writer’s statements since I began applying for fellowships when I was twenty-three, the mother of a gorgeous son I’d adopted and the wife of a man I’d met and married in six months while still an undergrad, only a year after a failed suicide attempt. I became a mother living in a Los Angeles suburb with my husband, parents, and kid brother in a little house that my grandparents had bought for my Uncle Ralph, my mother’s older brother, as a wedding gift thirty years before. He’d sold it to my parents for an exorbitant amount at the height of the housing market surge before the crisis, and the baby’s bedroom had been my parent’s office, which we’d repainted blue with clouds, while our bedroom was the family room where a tall IKEA armoire acted as a wall, giving us some semblance of privacy from the shared hallway that separated my parent’s bedroom from my husband’s and mine.

“My histories are told to claim my own existence. As a poet, to stand up and say Here I am is an act of immense resistance, one that holds strength, an internal generative power that ultimately promises and celebrates survival. Latinx poetics is urgent because we are singing our hearts out, and it’s not entirely clear that anyone is listening. I want them to listen. I want us to listen to each other.”

The glint of a pocket knife shimmered in the firelight, a fellow writer whittling a chip of wood from one of the sugar maples surrounding us—and for a moment I couldn’t breathe.

“More than anything, I want us to listen to ourselves.”

 

2.

My dad had thrown things across classrooms and gotten fired—but my mom and I wrote letters and got him onto disability for depression. When I was five, I awoke to my father moaning in the hallway of Great Grandma Vera’s house where we were living. The moaning animal-like, his whole body juddering—white and shimmering under the hallway light. He was vomiting, though his head wasn’t in the toilet bowl, but rolling back, his eyes glazed as he seizured across the wooden floors.

At the time, I shared a room with my older brother Paul. Technically he was my half-brother, but I’d punch anyone who called him that like that bitch Vanessa at Sacred Heart Elementary. Neither Paul nor I understood what was happening. Dad was calling out, though I’m not sure for whom. Paul was singing to me to keep me from crying.

I stared at the crayon-stained walls where I hadn’t completely scrubbed away the marks I’d left, but I couldn’t unsee my father dying. He was dying, slick with sickness he’d invoked onto himself, which I wouldn’t understand until much later.

My mother called it an accident. He hadn’t meant to take his Prozac with his beer.

Paul had to stay with Grandma Vera while we went to visit Dad. Paul was my mom’s son.

When I wrote about my father’s suicide attempt in a poem and emailed it to my brother, he asked if I’d ever found out what happened that night. He’d never known the full story. All he remembered was that Mom took me to visit Dad in the hospital afterward. He’d asked if he could go, too, but she said no. She told him, though he doesn’t remember the exact words, that Dad didn’t want to see him. “That left a scar.”

 

3.

At the trampoline park for Jer Bear’s tenth birthday party, while Mom and I jumped timidly at first and then wilder, freer, I asked her about this. She said, “Dad did not want to see Paul because he was ashamed.” Her diabetic feet lightly springing, her much thinner frame no longer a threat to the springs, she told me that my father had sobbed about how awful he had treated Paul, and he felt so bad about it that he could not look at him. Mom said that was probably the first time she’d called him an asshole. Meantime, I was afraid the springs would break or the rebounding canvas would split under my weight, and I’d fall through to a pit of crocodiles beneath; my mom laughed at this—“There are no crocodiles­!”

She told me she’d texted Paul earlier in the week, and thanked me for the wise suggestion she reach out about his memory of that time. She hadn’t known he’d interpreted her words to mean Dad hadn’t wanted to see him. That must have been how he’d heard it, but she couldn’t for the life of her remember telling him, “Dad doesn’t want to see you.” Why would she say such a thing?

I told her I hate the memoir I’m writing. It’s ugly, makes me feel ugly. When I sent her my rough draft to check for accuracy because she is a better memory keeper than I am—and there were plenty of details I’d gotten wrong: spellings of names and medications; that Prozac came later, replaced the Norpramin, which has a low seizure threshold; I’d forgotten an “ñ;” which family members Paul stayed with summers he didn’t stay with us—she said she nearly couldn’t get through the rest of her day, she was so heavy with sadness.

She doesn’t believe in backyard trampolines. Even with nets. She believes someone will fall. There’s always an end in sight.

But the trampolines at the park were padded and flush with the raised platform they’d made of the ground. We’d signed a waiver and the semblance of a springy earth meant we were safe. And even though reweaving this story means sticking pins into a mother Voodoo doll, she tells me, “Keep writing. There is joy.”

She reminded me of the miracle.

 

4.

When I’d first found out that Dad’s beer/depression med cocktail wasn’t an accident, I’d read it, much as I often encounter my family’s secrets. Mom wrote about the incident in my Writing the Difficult class I was teaching online. She typed open wounds from her master bedroom, while I taught the class from my own bedroom across the hallway. The class motto was Ernest Hemingway’s advice to “write hard and clear about what hurts.”

I’m looking for a way to believe that the spiritual battle I’m locked in, somehow coheres with the science of depression, that I have freewill, that the synapses misfiring—firework snapshots, the Fourth of July when I heard gunshots and pictures of my children flashed, “Follow the light,” but first we must describe it or else we won’t recognize it when it comes—are within my control.

According to behavioral epigenetics, trauma in our past, or in our recent ancestors’ pasts, leave molecular scars adhering to our DNA like sticky pearls in the river where Dad washed down too many Norpramin with his beer. I’d grown up believing it was an accident, somehow, that he didn’t know. That night he seizured down the hall while I lay head to foot in bed with my big brother in Grandma Vera’s house with the Renoir painting of the flowered little girl and her red-hatted Mama, my coloring stains on the walls where my own Mama hadn’t yet made me scrub them out. I remember him calling, seizuring, out the doorway into night.

Childhood is like this, white and shaking, until I don’t remember where he went or why, but only that he needed help, and that, for him, help was not a risk. Didn’t mean “kids get taken away.”

I imagine now that he was calling for my mom, the way my children call for me when they’ve had nightmares. He lived. So I never questioned his motives beyond the fairy tale my mother told me, how I believed everything she said. “Daddy’s not feeling well. He’s ill. He’s in the hospital getting better.”

I remember my little brother David questioning me, the night a fellow high school cheerleader’s mother brought me home after midnight stumbling and babbling, my hair wet from the toilet water. I was incoherent, delusional as the grave.

“Did you mean to drink?” my ten-year-old brother had asked. “Did someone make you?”

Though I don’t remember this, my mother tells me that Dad went sheet-white, his cheeks ashen as his prematurely gray beard and hair. Mom, who’s been night blind since she was a teenager, had to grab the keys from him on the front porch, heave me into the minivan, yell at Dad, “Get in!” and drive me to the hospital herself. It was alcohol poisoning, the bowl of my stomach pumped clean.

It’s the age-old battle of choice—these voices in our heads—for light or darkness, which sounds as cliché as it gets but that’s because sometimes we stop listening and roll our eyes as rebellious teenagers when the message is true and we’re afraid.

What is it like living with an unstable guardian? I don’t want you to ask my children.

“Did you mean to end it, Dad?” I asked, finally bold enough to breach the borderland.

The way I’d always remembered that night was gone, the way our selves are ripped apart when they’re taken from us, the stories in which we’ve blanketed our children securely, the contingency of our history, memory as interpreted through the wash of color, a big brother’s deep baritone singing “Go to sleep” and a great grandmother’s yellow hands folding eggs into a cold ceramic bowl of pancake batter in the morning when one’s father is gone.

Trauma becomes a part of us, a molecular residue holding fast to our genetic scaffolding.

When Mom took my writing class—while I was teaching her to overcome her fear of putting all the stories she’d created in her mind, and mine, the daughter who believed her every word, who believed she was as close to God as Mary, mothers, connected in my heart as Saviors themselves, as healing balms—she wrote:

My brain replays the mind-numbing fear when the paramedics stormed into our home and took my beloved away, strapped to a gurney. He was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, on a locked unit for weeks, leaving me alone with my babies.

I’m trying to understand this story to help me become the kind of mother I need to be, now I’m the character in danger of being rushed off to the ER. Now, I fear mental lockdown.

The mother stayed. But I’m the mother.

I thought my dad was haunted when he seizured in the hall, calling. Now I know he was human. I’m calling for help, but whom have I to ask?

On Mercury during the day, the Sun rises, stops, about-turns, and eventually sets where it rose. At Chaco Canyon, my Grandmother’s people, the Ancient Ones, mapped the solar and lunar transits with their great white buildings. How can I describe to you a place I’ve never set foot?

I’m searching for stable ground, the red mud earth. I’m trying to tell you what it’s like—the sunrise, setting in place.

 

5.

Mom didn’t write about the miracle.

When I’d asked Dad about that night in the hallway, he’d said teaching junior high was demoralizing. They treated him like garbage. He hadn’t seen a way out. They were living with my Great Grandma. They were broke.

The voices in my head were crueler, maybe. It wasn’t as simple as he made it sound.

Now I see he only allowed himself to remember that sliver of truth. Mom filled in the other parts later—after Paul’s memory recolored all of ours. Is that what family is for? A kind of collective memory? For collective healing? Because the miracle saved me. Though it wasn’t my miracle.

 

6.

My daughter squats crablike in the kitchen in the bright summer clothes she wore all day yesterday and to bed. She is making a train of chairs tied together with winter scarves while my son, in a backwards Iron Man t-shirt and shorts (and probably backwards underwear as well, if he’s wearing any at all), unloads the dishwasher.

Five years ago I didn’t know I’d be here to witness this daily-ness. My son gags at the goop in the sink, the leftovers thrown haphazardly, scraped from dishes and left to harden overnight, and my daughter runs from the room screaming as I eat the second Paleo mug cake I’ve made today, meant as a single serving, gluten-free, low-carb dessert. The mug says “Keep calm and follow your dreams,” and I’m not above platitudes. I don’t care much that a broken clock may be right twice a day and that it may be beautiful in the way of things that have outlived their usefulness but persist anyway—hanging on the wall, a sturdy friend, as dysfunctional and friendly as a piece of art.

It wasn’t myself I worried about.

I was terrified I’d drag them with me—that they wouldn’t make it to this moment of not enough lukewarm water and too much soap, of mixing the clean with the dirty, and I’m not even worried about correcting them, except I lay down a few towels to keep them from slipping and cracking their skulls.

I’ve heard memoir described as a miracle of survival. Then I’m writing this in advance—for my daughter. My son will have his own troubles (Each day has enough trouble of its own) but it’s those damn wounds through the womb I’m hoping to heal now. In this moment of the detachable spigot splashing across the kitchen tile like a snake (“It’s sinkmania,” yells Jer Bear), I’m so grateful I’m no longer throwing away butcher knives for fear.

The paranoia had been washing over me in great tidal waves, like the tsunamis bound to unleash when the San Andreas Fault finally rips away the coastal stitches. I moved to New Mexico from California for this fear, though I tell everyone I followed my mother. I moved because the dreams would not relent, the dreams of hurricanes on the sandy coast I’ve loved since childhood, of camping in wet-smelling tents, roasting hotdogs, and taking cold showers that scratched the sand across my goose pimpled skin like a cat’s tongue. In Los Angeles, I panicked on freeway overpasses, on the way to Slimmons, for instance—the dead-stopped traffic around me wavering in my panic-induced dizziness—sure the end was nigh, and not in any ironic cardboard sign way, but deep in my gut. Or when my husband would shake his leg in bed, I’d grab the baby from her playpen beside me and scream “Grab Jer”—asleep on his crib-turned-toddler bed a few feet away from our mattress on the floor—and run for the sliding glass door onto our concrete slab of backyard, my heart palpitating. I couldn’t understand why my husband hadn’t followed me, why he’d stayed in bed, watching me quizzically, the baby still asleep in my arms. It would take a second before I realized nothing was shaking but me. The night was quiet, the cicadas buzzing under the street lamps, the neighbors’ television screen bluing through their curtains, the Los Angeles nightlight of yellowish smog keeping watch above us all—that starless sky to which I could never acclimate. The only roiling was my stomach, and I felt a need to nurse the baby though she wasn’t the one who needed comforting.

My brother Paul has gone to therapy for the earthquake fear he says our mother instilled in us. I was three, he was eight. We were singing at the breakfast table, and my mother told us to stop. Did she tell us something bad would happen? Or did we annex that part afterward? Maybe she thought it was poor manners. The quake was famous. Somewhere else it destroyed a city—stole families from each other. In our house I don’t suppose it was ever the actual effect, but the fear of what it could have been—the fear. Looking back, the damage was minor. The fishbowl fell and killed the fish. Glass shattered. It was messy. But that relentless screaming. She left me in a night diaper because I had accidents sometimes. Squishing in the plastic-sounding thing, I was filled with shame. I was so angry she’d left me in a diaper, swept us up, so much screaming, and drove us to her mother’s house. Paul was vomiting off Grandma’s front porch into the garden.

We never sang at the table again.

For years I put the two together. Mom used to tell us what her mother had said to her, meant as a scold at the table: “El que come y canta, con el loco se levanta.” Roughly translated: “He who eats and sings, will wake up crazy.” Our mothers said it to make us quiet down, eat our food quicker. Give her time to digest. Somehow we never paid attention to the crazy part and mistranslated as singing at the table would cause something bad to happen, lore established between my brother and me.

It was years before I dared sing at the table. It took my own children singing before I joined the chorus of the brave. Those who dared earthquakes.

El loco se levanta. Would go crazy.

Only the new paranoia that had been building since my daughter had turned two wasn’t calmed by the stillness of the brick outside the house, the insect song in the weeds, the baby sleeping in my arms.

Her body was changing. She was no longer a baby. She was filling into a little girl.

Those parts that had always been there—the nipples, the curve at her waist, the potbelly, the slit at her pubic mound—began to terrify me.

 

7.

Today, dropping Lina off at the Little Gym one of the gymnastics teachers said, “You’re going to have your hands full with that one. She’s drop-dead gorgeous. Jer had better defend her honor.” I’ve been told this many times. Today she is six, nearly seven.

Drop dead. Play dead. Please don’t die, child. Please don’t be gorgeous.

The monsoons have come. My children have soaked their shirts in dishwater and take them off. They run bare-chested into the backyard and dance in the rain. If I’ve done anything well in life, it’s this.

I dreamt last night my ex was in my girlhood bedroom with me where I once dreamt I’d buried a stillborn in the dirt of my closet. But this time he lay atop me backwards so we could 69 as I’d begun doing when I was a teenager. Only I was pinned down and his testicles were choking me, prunes pitted in my throat. Eventually he began masturbating atop me and I was covered in his cum like spit on my face, gum in my hair. My friend says she’s been told this is sexy but when she tried it with her partner she felt disgusting, and I told her this was my teenage reality. I wasn’t dreaming. I was remembering. Only in the dream he’d asked me if I had taken my birth control pill and I ran down the street in a towel toward the market like Lady Godiva who’d lost her horse, past his house, his mother watering her sun-scorched patch of grass, her husband’s pickup parked haphazard on the yellowing plot of the rest of the yard, and into the store, barefoot, a beige towel wrapped around my naked body, bargaining for condoms in the produce aisle. I held a pinkish green prickly pear—a cactus flower, what Frida Kahlo called Tunas (Still Life with Prickly Pear)—on a plate with blood smearing the white sheet, and bit into it, thorns and all.

 

8.

I threw away the butcher knife my husband brought into our marriage. It was square, could turn animals into other. I’m not a vegetarian and one theory suggests being closer to what we consume imbues it with greater significance, the way of ice cultures butchering the food and eating it raw, the children crowded around that open-casket of fur, kneeling on the sleet with their red hands, the organs still warm. When I saw this scene in a photo-documentary, I wondered about parasites and diseases, the way I won’t even touch raw poultry, not since the miscarriage which had nothing to do with chicken, but swine flu, and only in the way of memory, the way it bleeds.

I was standing in line at the fairgrounds for a flu vaccine, the pandemic fear. Two blue lines ghosted in a desert returned and I couldn’t hold in the joy. I wonder sometimes about the bowls we carry. My son says life is a bowl in the stomach, “You drink from one bowl”—that clear broth he holds to his mouth, sprigs of cilantro in his teeth—“and the other bowl filling inside you.” He fell asleep on my lap that night I bled that baby out again, like he knew he was losing and it would be years—

I mean, I’d get pregnant again in a month and the daughter would come, but it would be years before I could account for that knife in the kitchen drawer, the violence we carry. That bowl overfilling sometimes or emptying, I’m uncertain how the metaphor goes. I wrapped it in a kitchen towel and tossed it in the garbage, worried for sanitation workers, but less, finally, for my family.

 

9.

Nearly the entire first year of Lina’s life she wouldn’t allow a man to hold her. Not her father, or my dad, not my brothers. She would cry until they gave her back to me or my mom. I have a picture of my brother Paul holding her, making funny faces at her, so this must not be entirely true, but my family often talks about how much Lina hated men, how she preferred women.

Did I take this as a sign?

The miracle meant no matter what darkness sought to overcome me, God was with me. My amiga told me to plant my feet against the earth and feel my oneness with all things living and dead. All things that had come before would come again. My poetry sister who’d earned her Master’s degree in spiritual/theological psychology said that when we heal the present, we also heal the past. My mom was molested as a child. She told me the stories early as a warning I suppose, and maybe because she didn’t have anyone else to talk to except her children when we were growing up. Maybe she just needed to share. She also wanted me to know there was nothing I couldn’t tell her.

 

10.

In my memory it is monsoon season when I tell Mom the nightmares that plagued me for months, though I realize now the weather I remember couldn’t be true. When I returned to my MFA program in North Carolina that January and fellow writers asked how my fall semester had gone, I told them I’d felt like I’d cut myself open for my poems. I didn’t tell them the extent. So Mom and I must have been walking late-winter, with thick jackets and socks. The trees must have bared their branches, arms uplifted in prayer, upraised to a cold and indifferent sky. Later I learned the term “postpartum psychosis.” I didn’t know that term then. Walking with Mom, I might have asked about demons. She’d taught me demons cannot possess a person with Jesus in her heart, but they can demonize them, which means torment them—they can hover at the edges and prod, can nudge toward self-destruction. I didn’t need much nudging.

I told her I’d asked Dad if he’d meant to kill himself.

Often the kids walked with us, though sometimes they stayed with my husband or dad, or played in the backyard with friends. My mom always walked for exercise. Sometimes I joined her to clear my head or because I’d eaten too much and my stomach ached and walking kept the nausea at bay.

“There was a police officer at the kids’ school the other day. I used to fear school shootings, but when I saw his gun, so close to where I was parked in the lot, waiting for the kids to get out, I thought, what if I rush him, grab his gun, shoot myself.”

If she flinched, she didn’t show it. “It’s hormones, baby. When I was your age, I used to fear all kinds of irrational things I knew I would never actually do.” I’d told her how I’d thrown away a butcher knife my husband had bought from one of those As Seen on TV stores before we were married. I’d always hated it—that cleaver shape of a horror movie. I’d read an article about a woman who, in a fit of rage during an argument with her fiancé the night before their wedding, stabbed him in the kitchen. Anyone is capable of anything.

This I fear.

The miracle, she said, was this. Dad did try to kill himself. He swallowed a fistful of Norpramin with beer after beer. He’d bought a twelve pack and must have drank half.

But when he got to the hospital, they checked his blood.

He had zero percent alcohol in his bloodstream.

There had been no alcohol in the beer.

What explanation but God?

He had tried and failed, but the miracle was the reason for the failure.

 

11.

Failure is at the heart of my miracle, I suppose. Not the “Praise the Lord” kind, but praise the body’s ability to heal, praise the mind’s. Praise the family that tethers me. Praise the well-used kitchen utensils and scoured mixing bowls and butter knives, thick slabs of jelly on the bread.

Praise this cramped house. Praise the nightmares—they keep me waking, and waking means opening, and opening means not shutting down. Praise my daughter dripping sink water down her legs in my makeshift office at the kitchen table calling for help, pulling her arms like slick plums from the wet fabric of her sleeves while I’m trying to praise. Praise disruptions.

I’ve fought to bless the mental illness, the voices, the floater in my eye shaped as a noose, though, seeing it now, in the mirror of the window to the summer backyard, cicadas humming electricity in the monsoon-wet air, it looks more like a dragonfly, flaming through a hoop, or orbiting the rim of a bowl, readying to strike loose, and fly away.

***

Rumpus original art by Trisha Previte


Jennifer Givhan is a Mexican-American writer and activist from the Southwestern desert and the author of three full-length poetry collections: Landscape with Headless Mama (2015 Pleiades Editors’ Prize), Protection Spell (2016 Miller Williams Poetry Prize Series), and Girl with Death Mask (2017 Blue Light Books Prize). Her honors include a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, a PEN/Rosenthal Emerging Voices fellowship, the Frost Place [email protected] scholarship, a National Latino Writers’ Conference scholarship, the Lascaux Review Poetry Prize, Phoebe Journal’s Greg Grummer Poetry Prize, and the Pinch Poetry Prize. Her work has appeared in Best of the Net, Best New Poets, Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, Ploughshares, POETRY, TriQuarterly, Boston Review, AGNI, Crazyhorse, Witness, Southern Humanities Review, Missouri Review, and The Kenyon Review. More from this author →