“I sure hope you don’t get the tiddies my mother got,” Daddy said, shaking his head. His furrowed brow told me he was being sincere. He muttered something under his breath; all I could make out was, “Lord.” Apart from grace at supper, this was the closest I’d ever seen Daddy in prayer.
I was twelve, already busty, and didn’t realize how close to my adult height I already was.
No, I thought. I was slight, bookish; I loved to run track. Breasts—especially the large variety— didn’t suit me. The breasts continued to grow anyway. It became harder to hide the swell of flesh beneath baggy t-shirts and harder to deflect male attention.
My parents had the sort of issues that became an open secret wherever we moved. This alone was a dog whistle for predators. It was the dark decade of an uncle’s wrongful incarceration no one could say was wrong because of the look of us. I was a darling young one where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison.1 The latitude of my home bore coordinates to a place too ugly to exist in a good world. I wanted to be a good girl badly. So I learned to hide.
I spoke in a hush. I spent a lot of time trying to make myself small, finding ways to take up less space. This will keep me safe I thought.
I needed regular yearly physicals to participate in my school’s athletic program. A doctor’s signature stating my shot record was up to date and I was in good physical health. My father was recently retired from the Navy but our family still had access to a handful of clinics.
My father was a black man of Wampanoag descent who wove his bike through the galvanized clothing racks of the Franklin Hill Projects. In high school my father sat frightened on a bus while an angry white mob pelted bananas and screamed obscenities at the black schoolchildren. The anger of the banana-wielding folks who draped orange, white, and green flags over the side of their balconies was why my father could never root for the Celtics. That mean-mugging little leprechaun fucker made him uncomfortable. The trauma of that experience taught Daddy to extol white tolerance and apologize for his body, for its intrusion into white spaces. He did just that.
My father met my mother in his Navy life in Korea. My mother was born in post-war Korea and she ran with hordes of children after American GI trucks screaming “choco” for chocolate bars. My mother believed in white saviors more than in Jesus. She had aspirations of becoming a pharmacist but, after her father drunkenly gambled away the family fortune, the expectation was that she drop out of high school to support her brothers. She did just that.
The sum of my parents’ racial, class, and gender experiences taught us it was best to submit to white authority, male authority, and the combination thereof. So when the white male doctor noted that I had never had a breast exam and instructed my mother to leave the room, she did just that.
It wasn’t until years later while undergoing training to become a certified Domestic Violence Advocate for my tribe that I heard my story, or rather an echo of what happened. It was the alternate version where the mother refuses to leave her child in the room, leaves the doctor’s office fuming, and follows up with the higher-ups at the hospital.
How. Dare. He.
I remember a white coat, white walls, and white florescent light beaming down into the room as I lay on my back. In my periphery the doctor handling me is expressionless until the end when grooves of deep disgust emerge on his face. He waves his hand dismissively, tells me to cover myself. I do just that.
Bodily transgressions leave bruises, marks, some physical tear. This leaves none of those. My body is a terra nullius, belonging to no one, not even me. I bury the trespass without much thought.
Sometime after that I start telling people I hate going to the doctor.
This is a birth story; I could have started in several places.
I could have started with the time I was getting staples removed from my first cesarean section. I was already on the table, already exposed, when another doctor knocked and poked his head in the door.
“Do you mind if we bring some residents in to observe?” My startled “huh?” must have sounded like a “yeah.” This was my only pregnancy covered by Medicaid. I wondered if that meant I had less of a right to say no than a woman with private insurance. I was still as the doctor plucked the staples out of my incision one by one. When he was done he announced warmly, “Not a peep. These girls are so sturdy.” The residents nodded, jotted down notes, and left the room single-file.
I could have started this story after the birth of my second child, when the doctor on call refused to write me a prescription for pain meds. The doctor was brusque in his no, unflinching. A white nurse with lemon hair pulled me aside and let me know that this was highly unusual for this doctor and that she would be willing to talk to him. I said no and spent my first nights at home with our newest baby sobbing in pain on the stairwell.
I could have started this story after the birth of my third child when a short-haired brunette woman, Kris with a K, appeared in the recovery room where I held my newborn to my bare bosom. Kris was handsy, the kind of person that had already made contact by the time she asked for consent. A far cry from the nurses that warned me about the chill of an alcohol pad. Kris was on a mission to save my newborn from the statistical chance of being formula-fed. Everything from my mouth, my eyes, my turned shoulder said I did not want to be milked. The children, was her reasoning. Will somebody please think about the children.
I could tell you about the woman who did my blood draw for my gestational diabetes screen. “What are you?” she asked.
“Native,” I said.
“Black,” I said.
I stopped claiming my mother’s people when my haraboji died. I was in my mid-twenties when the news came. I never saw which parts of my face were his. I’d grown tired of telling strangers it wasn’t me. I’d grown tired of telling people all the ways I was unwanted in this world.
“Well, the diabetes makes sense.”
The technician gave me a once-over and continued, “But you are what you are.”
The finish on the last word, the hard “r,” spoke volumes about the kind of language she uses after hours.
I have the kind of face that people feel comfortable unmasking themselves to. The technician recounts a story of a dark-skinned woman she angered when the woman refused to check “Native American” on a form.
“You are what you are,” she says again.
I was too tired to argue. I was too tired to explain my body again.
During my first birth, no one informed me I had a right to refuse. The TV in my birthing room was off. “The Steelers are playing the Broncos. Do you mind?” the doctor said.
When the game was over I was told I’d labored too long with too little progress. It’d been eighteen hours since my water first broke. I didn’t push my baby into a terrible towel; I had a c-section.
The surgical precision of the operating room was cold and clean like a scalpel. I could not see past the thin blue tent but I could see every cut in the light. The reds, the pink, the magenta of my guts. The telescoping arm of the bulb had been positioned so I couldn’t miss a thing.
My second birth I was told I could not attempt a vaginal birth after my cesarean on the island. I was an indigenous woman trying to have her baby on her homelands. White doctors told me no because of insurance. Liability. I had a c-section by the ocean, rebranded as a c(sea)-birth. I stayed content knowing this child knew the ocean as her first lullaby.
My third birth, no longer hindered by money and geography, I became choosy about my care. I demanded a trial of labor. I found a doctor who listened. I labored a day and had a c-section. My baby picked up an infection from my membranes being ruptured too long. I felt selfish for my choice.
I pumped milk and carried it up to the neonatal intensive care unit for a week. I was desperate to free my baby from the tangle of cords that monitored his vitals and fed him fluids. I watched him huff under heat lamps as he kept his tiny hand wrapped tightly around my finger. I am here.
When the doctor on call sat me down for discharge there were several glaring discrepancies on his record. Under “Mother” the description read: Single. Hispanic. Female. 29.
I was thirty-two at the time. Married. I had labored through Cinco de Mayo. My papers should’ve read Native American. Regarding my political status, this was correct. My tribal community didn’t fragment me, why should I?
Beyond vagina none of those descriptors was me. I expressed my concern.
Time moves slower in the NICU. Like every NICU parent, I was ready to get back to some other normal. A new record was printed. I accepted it.
The fourth pregnancy began with the perfect narrative. We’d just bought our first home. Both my husband and I were making strides in our respective fields. We were settled. This was my last baby. I adjusted the volume on my TV and ate Tic Tacs by twos. I chose the birth years for my last three pregnancies that way as well. 2014. 2016. 2018.
I was stunned when my membranes ruptured the day after Christmas when my nose was pressed deep in a book I’d unwrapped just twenty-four hours ago. I was horizontal on my bed, I swung my legs over the side and a gush of fluid slid down my thighs. Damn.
This was 2017, not 2018.
“When is the baby be here?,” my sprightly little love inquired.
I’d said this daily for nearly a hundred days. I wondered if this exchanged between me and my three-year-old had become an incantation and I had unknowingly summoned this new being into this world too soon.
“Babe.” I said. “My doctor’s out of town.”
My husband furrowed his brow. My doctor was more than familiar, I trusted him. I held my blink into my pursed lips as if I could make time still. At this junction of my life I’d come to enjoy the flurry of the holidays, as exhausting as they could be. I had circled the 26th of December as the day to begin my baby prep.
As I felt the fluid continue to leave my body I came to terms with the fact that there would be no day of rest. It was impossible to fly my mother-in-law in. We called the sitter.
“It’ll be okay,” my husband said as I slid my toothbrush into my travel bag in 2017.
The holiday lights and décor are still strung everywhere through the hospital.
As I am prepping to go into the OR the anesthesiologist’s reviews my record with me.
“So, you are thirty-one?”
“So, this is your third pregnancy?”
“And you had a successful vaginal birth after the last cesarean?”
I hear some papers rustling.
“Someone messed up,” she says to the aide next to her. “Scrap the record.”
The thoughts creep in. Who do they think I am? I feel jolted. I try not to slide into the downward spiral of what-ifs: What if my sitter had been unavailable? What if I’d been unconscious? What if I’d been alone? What if I’d been without voice? I stop myself and practice gratitude at the anesthesiologist’s attention to detail. I thank Creator. I focus on the tightening of my abdomen and the new baby.
I like the birth team. They are precise, attentive, and in good cheer. The room doesn’t feel as cold as usual. The baby is beautiful. Nearly eight pounds. Preterm by a week. I tell my husband to go stand by the baby while two Desi women doctors in blue scrubs stitch me up.
“How many babies do you have?”
“Four. This is my fourth.”
“Two boys. Two girls.”
“Two boy and two girls. Perfect. Congratulations.”
“Thank you,” I say.
The conversation between the two women is light and familiar. If not for the periodic pause to pass some surgical tool, they could easily be two women sitting on a park bench.
Instead of punching my wound closed with staples the two women lovingly mend my exposed cavity with dissolvable thread. They close my wound as if the skin I am in is precious.
Birth is both beautiful and messy. This is my fourth. My body is still numb from surgery when I move into the maternity ward with the baby. The attending nurse is spry and chipper. She Velcros sleeves onto my calves and promises to return with a pump. I pass out in exhaustion. My husband helps me hazily feed the baby at some unknown hour in the dead of night. When I come to, it is daylight and I have a new nurse. Feeling is starting to return to the lower half of my body. My legs are itchy. I buzz the new nurse. I point at my legs.
“No one brought the pump.”
She removes the blanket, sighs, takes a look at my chart, then her wristwatch.
“You’re out of the window of risk now.”
She tears the sleeves off one by one and throws them in the windowsill where they sit for the rest of my stay. I wonder if they are single-use. I wonder how they are itemized. I wonder if I will be billed for a service I did not actually receive.
My correct chart would have shown a family history of heart disease and risk for blood clots. I don’t know the family history of the Hispanic woman who gave birth in some other corridor of the maternity ward.
I’d worn a curly ponytail on Cinco de Mayo. I’d taken one last hot shower and decided not to bother with pressing my hair. I imagine the Hispanic woman as brown-skinned woman with slick black hair like the kneeling maiden on the single-serving samples of Land O’ Lakes butter in the hospital cafeteria.
The baby’s sugars are low so she goes up to the NICU.
My other kids are too little to be without my husband so he goes home. It’s a strange week where everyone is away for the holidays. There is snow and bad weather. Tickets into town are expensive.
I know the NICU. I know how to get through things.
I thank Creator that we are only dealing with sugars and not an infection. I recall a billboard on NW 23rd Street with an Indian woman looking up towards the heavens. It reads, “Diabetes is not our destiny.”
It is all Indian land, but Oklahoma is a place where Indians are still a memorable part of the landscape.
My black grandmother was too hungry to make milk. “That was when I lost my teeth.”
My grandmother could not recall a single detail of her births. Not even the time of day. “Honey, all I know is they came.”
My grandmother had all her children in hospitals, a departure from the old way. This was the civilized thing to do.
I remember my grandmother when I see Christmas trees. There are Christmas trees sprinkled throughout this hospital, in the hallways, waiting rooms, tiny trees atop of counters.
One year my grandmother wanted a real tree for her boys but couldn’t hail a cab to the Projects. Committed to making good on her promise, she hoists the tree onto her back and drags it for blocks through the snow.
“I didn’t know if she was coming back,” my father recalls as he describes the image of his mother, just four feet ten inches tall, dragging a largish pine tree through the snowy night. They both laugh.
I remember this every Christmas. I remember this during the hard moments of mothering, that to mother the way I do is still a gift even in my time. When I see Christmas trees I remember my grandmother’s spirit and remember I am strong enough, too.
I remember this as I take the elevator up two floors to the NICU to bring my newborn her milk.
My IV is finally removed. I am wearing my pedestrian clothes for the first time though I am still an inpatient. When I reach for the elevator button a white man behind me lunges in my direction and shouts, “Wake up.”
I feel the tug of my wound as I gasp and his raucous laughter fills the elevator cab. When the door dings, I walk out onto the seventh floor without a word and don’t turn back.
The night nurse from Arkansas who only streams praise music tells me she won’t be able to pronounce my daughter’s name.
“I believe in you.” I say with all the cheer I can muster. “I know you can do it.”
She agrees she is capable. I walk her through the pronunciation. The way she holds my baby is genuine. I say nothing when she lets me know I’m one of the good ones; I need her to stay genuine in holding my baby.
It is the day nurse who tells me I won’t be discharged with my daughter. It’s the Friday before another holiday weekend. I immediately go downstairs and page my assigned nurse.
“I need a doctor’s prescription for a breast pump.” My doctor is out of town but she agrees to track down another. I go back up to the NICU to be with my daughter. After lunch I return and check in with the nurse.
“Oh you should be able to get a pump through WIC.”
“I am ineligible for WIC.”
“Are you sure?”
I have spent the bulk of this hospital stay alone. I am ringless, brown. I suppose to some people I look like WIC.
The nurse comes back with several numbers. I talk to another lactation consultant. I call my doctor’s office, which is already closed. I call the NICU for a loaner pump. The clock is ticking. Finally I page the attending nurse again.
“We might be able to get you a hand pump and there are stationary pumps in the NICU.”
“It’s important to me that I use the time I have in the NICU bonding with my baby and my time at home resting, not fussing with a hand pump. Please try again.”
The nurse scowls and, with a look of exasperation, agrees. I don’t doubt they are short-staffed.
Around 3:30 p.m. the nurse produces a script. New Year’s Eve falls on a Sunday. My husband runs over to an approved vendor to pick up a pump before they close for the weekend. I am relieved the pump issue is resolved and go back upstairs to the NICU.
The night nurse from Arkansas is back. She gives me a one over and says, “You cannot take care of this baby if you don’t take care of yourself.”
It’s good advice. I am still an inpatient. I go back to my room.
When I pull back the shower curtain I see several tiny dots moving about the tile. My nurse doesn’t answer so I page the nurses station.
“Are you sure?”
“I’ll call housekeeping.”
After an hour I call my nurse, she says she’ll send someone.
I close my eyes to rest briefly. I go back to the NICU to do my scheduled hands-on time with the baby.
The shower stall is the same upon returning. I page again. I call again. I call again. I wait.
At midnight I am sitting on the closed toilet seat watching the bugs move up and down the tile like chutes and ladders.
I wonder who is the pest here? Something about the way the white light hits the tile and the way the white curtain is draped by the stall reminds me that I was a little girl when I started telling people how much I hate going to the doctor.
Rumpus original art by Maryam Afaq Ansari.
1. Bob Dylan, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”↩