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Memory and the Maternal Hand

When I was pregnant, over fifteen years ago, I had it all — a husband, a job that I was able to quit when it was time to give birth, financial stability — and the worst outcomes I imagined were weight gain and stretch marks.

Instead, I threw up for nine months. A uterine inversion, a potentially life-threatening complication after childbirth, almost took my life. Pumped full of fluids, I left the hospital five days later, unable to fit in any clothes I owned. Two weeks later I was ‘back to normal.’ I wore my pre-pregnancy clothes and had the cutest baby any mother could imagine, with large brown eyes, a head of black, shiny hair, and a smile that melted my heart. The worst outcomes I imagined now were teething fits and the first fever.

Her teeth emerged without a sign of discomfort but she didn’t sleep longer than two hours and countless night feedings were the norm. Everybody cooed over this beautiful creature while I went about my days feeling like a zombie. I remember the unsolicited comments and the advice: ‘I had one on my hip, one hanging onto my leg, and I still put dinner on the table every night,’ or ‘just give her a bath and swaddle her, she’ll sleep through the night.’

To the outside world I looked fine but I had unsettling thoughts, visions of falling down steps while holding her plagued me. And I told no one.

Wherever she wasn’t with me, I would suddenly jerk and panic, convinced I had left her in some department store or market to fend for herself. My need to keep her safe at all times was in stark contrast to what I didn’t feel: the overwhelming joy of being a mother.

I remained in a fog for an entire year and I still told no one. I would love nothing more than to be able to say that someone caught on, offered medication and counseling, but none of that happened. I muddled through, put on a brave face — after all I was raised that way, that’s what you do — and eventually the fog dispersed and I came around. I came around — it sounds so rational and inevitable, but believe me when I tell you it was the longest and most difficult year of my life. Slowly, brick by brick, some sort of alchemical maternal hand built a house that I started to inhabit with every fiber of my being and I realized, That’s what motherhood is supposed to feel like.

I also developed a keen sense for mothers I encountered at playgrounds and doctor’s offices, recognizing an emptiness in their eyes that went beyond physical exhaustion after a few sleepless nights.

By then I worked as a freelance translator — doing mainly commercial and technical translations, hoping to become a literary translator — but that union never panned out. My love for reading had started in elementary school and hadn’t wavered since, and I decided to tell my own stories. I took a few writing classes, joined a writing group, and wrote every day. Within two years I published short stories in various magazines.

In the back of my mind lingered a story that longed to be told, and even though I plotted and structured it in my head, I never put any words on paper. When I finally took a novel writing class, I was asked to post twenty-five pages on the very first day. That night, I sat down and imagined a woman, ravaged by postpartum depression and confronted by a psychiatrist to unravel the ball of yarn that was the disappearance of her infant daughter. The title changed over the years, but the story remained the same; a tale of motherhood, of shortcomings, and isolation. And salvation. Always salvation.

During one of those nights at the keyboard, I came across the poem Nostros by Louise Gluck, and the last two lines hit home: We look at the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory. The lines seared themselves into my brain and for the next years I relived my own childhood while watching my daughter grow up in front of my very eyes.

I hoped that our rocky start hadn’t left any trace within her — after all, nothing this painful, nothing this irrational and random as those first few months could possibly just vanish into thin air — there must be some sort of memory she’ll hold onto, some sort of remnant of the love she was due but never initially received.

As I wrote the first draft of Remember Mia, I relived those months over and over, taking memories, those twisty little tidbits, unreliable yet powerful, to a different level in my story; amnesia. In Remember Mia, Estelle suffers from postpartum depression and is unable to explain her daughter Mia’s disappearance. Police doubt her story and she becomes the number one suspect. Her vague memories hold the key to what happened that night — but what she doesn’t know is whether she was responsible.

I have since talked to countless women who willingly shared their experiences with me. Remember Mia is a tribute to all of them, and to our children. Their braveness and courage humbles me to this day.

Estelle in Remember Mia, wants one thing above all; “my last wish, was a thing of beauty, composed beyond time. It took shape, primal and powerful; Mia, I wish that we’ll meet again in another place and time and when we do, may my body be molded perfectly so you can curl against me.”

Did I mention salvation? It found me, eventually. On Mother’s Day, a couple of years ago, my teenage daughter gave me a decorative glass jar with a lid.

“It’s a memory jar. I wrote down everything I remember since I was a baby.”

My heart skipped a beat and there was an image of a clumsy hand picking seeds out of dirt. On colorful pieces of paper she had written all the moments she remembered from her childhood. I read them all with a pounding heart.

“Do you like it?” she asked, her eyes wide with anticipation.

“Best gift ever,” I said as I wrapped my arms around her.

And I whispered to myself: It’s good. It’s all good.

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