(The Longer I Look)
I’ve often envisioned my mother’s spirit as having taken the form of a deer after her death. I picture her leaping through a field of abandoned bodies, her own among them. The field is saturated in late summer light, though she died in early May. The bodies don’t stink; they are clean and smooth and beautiful, like bodies that have been embalmed and prepared for viewing, though none of these bodies will have been viewed, for this field is reserved for bodies no one thought important enough to embalm, bodies not laid in caskets lowered in the ground to be buried and marked with stone. These bodies glow like the illustrations of saints in Christian pamphlets. They are happy as a field of California poppies, as numerous. How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!/The world forgetting, by the world forgot. Yet I am terrified of forgetting. The longer I look the less I remember. The field changes in front of me. Not bodies but ashes. Not summer but some grey, seasonless stupor. My mother’s body was cremated. There was no funeral. There was no one there to claim the remains. Is it too late? I have come to claim them, I say now to the deepening field. Everything paper-thin, weightless. The bodies no longer bodies but faceless smears turning in my direction, they drift like windblown sand, in claiming her I have claimed them all, they enter me like a feeling.
One definition of wound is: “an injury to living tissue caused by a cut, blow, or other impact.” My mother died of “blunt force trauma to the head,” i.e. she died of a wound too great to heal. The blow that ended my mother’s one life impacted the living tissue of my own. Despite having lived outside her body for fifteen years at the time of her death, I experienced the blow to her body as if it were my own body which had been struck. For the act which caused her death, my mother’s boyfriend served five years in prison, whereas I serve out a life sentence, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say: I have given my life over to sentences, one of which I beg will take me back to the start, to the site of rapture before rupture, by which perhaps I mean: unbirth me, mother. Return me unto thyself.
Heteronormative women with children love to point out the obvious fact that having a child is different from having a dog or a cat or another animal. I have never met a woman without a child who thinks that having a dog or a cat or another animal is exactly the same as having a child, only that it is a natural comparison to make; that, however, doesn’t stop heteronormative women with children from getting unduly upset over the comparison. Often the heart of their argument has to do with the fact that they carried their human child in their belly for nine months and gave birth to it. I gave birth is the crux of the argument, the fact that can’t be argued. The cisgender body; the ancient, archetypal Mother; the preference of blood ties over all other forms of bonding; the privileging of human life over other life forms are all supporting elements.
This over-simplified and unnecessary argument plants an ugly and destructive seed of doubt: does being adopted make me less of a daughter? Does it make my mother less of a mother? I do not actually believe that our relationship is invalidated by the lack of birth connecting us, but such a belief occupies the core of this argument I’ve heard made so many times, in person and in the media, from people I respect and people I don’t, a widespread and deeply harmful belief, and indeed we are not so far removed from a time in history when it was considered unthinkable, disgraceful, and dangerous to adopt a child, particularly one not related to you by blood. In Anne of Green Gables, a book that was and always will be dear to my adopted heart, Mrs. Rachel Lynde, a well-meaning and nosy neighbor, responds to the news that Marilla is thinking of adopting a child with the following advice: “Well, Marilla, I’ll just tell you plain that I think you’re doing a mighty foolish thing—a risky thing, that’s what. You don’t know what you’re getting. You’re bringing a strange child into your house and home and you don’t know a single thing about him nor what his disposition is like nor what sort of parents he had nor how he’s likely to turn out.” As if a child were an equation one can solve by knowing all the other factors. As if an infant to which one has given birth is any less of a stranger, any less of a mystery, as if emotional baggage is reserved for orphans alone. Anne of Green Gables is a work of fiction but this belief was rampant in Montgomery’s lifetime. My own adopted dad’s parents were fiercely opposed to my parents adopting me, and later my sister. Because I would not perpetuate their son’s genetic material, I would never be considered in their eyes family. I was unnecessary, a liability. I came from bad seed. Who knows what I might do. I have encountered this attitude in countless guises, some more thinly veiled than others, some not veiled at all.
This seed of doubt, much as I have resisted watering it, has had reason to sprout and grow, particularly as I have grown older and my family and I have grown apart. Friends who speak to their families regularly, who go home for the holidays, who fight over turkey about politics and then hug good-night, sometimes leave me questioning whether my choices are really choices or if I have simply proved myself to be blood of someone else’s blood. It’s true I did not always feel sufficiently loved. It’s true I spin my little narratives about why my dad would take my brother to soccer practice five days a week, but I had to quit track and field because it would have meant an extra day of driving back and forth. Or why my mother was so quick to catch my sister when she started cutting, but no one ever caught me, even when I was trying desperately to be caught. Or why my mom is so quick to talk over me when I speak, or walk away in the middle of my stories, or change the subject when I start to say something that is uncomfortable for her to hear, like the times I tried to come out to her, or tell her about the assaults, or explain to her that Trump’s presidency isn’t something she gets to just not care about. Perhaps if I had passed through her flesh in order to arrive in this world, it would be harder for her to look away when I am hurting, when I am in need of being seen.
Yet I know enough people who have been wounded by parents, biological and otherwise, and parents who have suffered the same, to know that any attempt to generalize and differentiate one from the other is false. Family is complicated. But we nurture and are nurtured by so many; we are not limited by our blood but by our beliefs about what blood means. And I will continue to make the comparison between having a child and having a dog or a cat or another animal, not because I believe they are exactly the same (I believe having a child is more complicated, more challenging, a longer-term commitment, requires more resources and more community, than having a dog or a cat or another animal and I simultaneously believe there is a purity in loving animals that can never be present in any human relationship, the purity of never seeing your animals grow up and turn into strangers, the purity of performing the same actions for another being every day for the entirety of their lives and those actions never being reciprocated, the purity of love not limited or complicated by language or hurt feelings or fear of failure or a sense of lineage, and I also believe there is no inherent hierarchy between these kinds of love) but because I believe the similarities outweigh the differences: the underlying desire to love and care for another being the driving impulse: something one may accomplish with or without choosing to participate in the act of childbirth or adoption, with or without blood relation or heteronormative familial structures. I respect the choice to give birth, but not any more than I respect the choice not to, and also I respect all the grey areas in between, those who wish to give birth but cannot, those who wish to give birth but not right now, not like this, those who do not wish to give birth and then do, those who give birth but do not mother, or who mother until tragedy robs them of their children, those whose choice doesn’t feel like a choice, those whose choice is not respected by law or by family, I respect you, your experience is valid, your life is as real as anyone else’s.
“Let it matter what we call a thing,” writes Solmaz Sharif in the titular poem of her book, Look. “Let me look at you in a light that takes years to get here.” I think about this when I look at the one piece of jewelry I most often wear, a ring a close friend fashioned for me. The metal holds an orthoceras fossil the length of my middle finger, the width of two fingers combined. I found it while we were in the gift shop at the Louvre. I asked her to make it into a ring for me, and she obliged: it now stands as a reminder of our friendship, so dear to me, and our trip to Europe, which was a first for both of us. But the other thing it brings to mind is time. The orthoceras existed some 400 million years ago. This particular nautiloid swam the ocean in a world that would be completely unrecognizable to anyone alive today. Its life, however spectacular or otherwise, blinked in and out of existence within a mere 20 or so years. Nothing of this creature’s time on this earth is known to me, yet here is the evidence, resting on my finger. It is a heavy ring. It is beautiful and everyone wants to know its story. I tell it to them. I tell them about my friend, I tell them about our trip abroad, how we split up and I wandered the Louvre in a deeper and deeper state of migraine, unwilling to succumb to the blurring of my vision, in love with the art students sketching and taking notes, in love with the idea of being lost in the Louvre, not knowing how I would find my way back without vision, but determined to not just turn around and sit it out. I tell them about the orthoceras and about how this fossil existed for an unimaginable expanse of time before me and will exist for an unimaginable expanse of time after I die. I think of the part I have to play in this object’s life, the object far outlasting the life which produced it. I wonder if my mother’s story is the object of her life, or of mine, or if there is something I’m not seeing yet. Let me look. Let me keep looking. Let me look at you in a light that takes years to get here.
Darla Mottram is a poet and writer based in Oregon. She is the creator and editor of Gaze, an online literary journal interested in the intersection between seeing and being seen. You can learn more about her and her work by following her on Instragram (@moribund_slut).