Half a Heart Box

2.18.19

Since Virginia’s birth, Caleb and I have said she is too good to be true. We’ve said we would have ten more babies if they were all like her. This is because, for nearly two weeks, we’ve received only peacefulness from this child, quiet awareness, sleep. We’ve compared her to Levi as a newborn and have decided she is much more “chill.” Levi was a ticking time bomb. Virginia is an hourglass. When the last grain of sand drops, nothing but stillness ensues.

Until last night. Last night our easy, restful babe squirmed and screamed and cried from midnight until dawn. We don’t know why. We have some ideas: Indigestion, constipation, female emotions, perhaps, running wild. I’m nursing her and I feel like her discomfort was my fault. I ate a lot of chocolate yesterday. Very rich dark chocolate my mom gave me for Valentine’s Day. It was divine. But I’ve been told you shouldn’t eat chocolate when breastfeeding. I’m not sure why–the caffeine? But last night while I held Virginia, rocking her ceaselessly and shushing in her ear, all I could think was I ate five chocolate truffles and now my baby is in pain.

My petty indulgence hurt this sweet child.

I could be wrong. But I don’t think I am. Mothers have a way of knowing these things. Is it silly to feel guilt over this? Guilt washing me like rain?

It is a new day; Virginia is asleep in the Moses basket beside me. I’m in the living room, craving chocolate, but denying myself this thrill. To be a mother, a true mother, means to sacrifice yourself for the wellbeing of your child. I’m no master at this, but I want to be. And I wonder: what would my life look like if I were?

My training continues at a slow pace. This week’s lesson demands I eat less chocolate and be more conscientious of how my actions might affect someone else. There’s at least half a heart box of truffles left. I guess I’ll have to share with Caleb.

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Who is Virginia Scott?

2.17.19

While I carried her inside of me, she was quiet and still. She would move, yes, and twirl around, but limitedly. She moved within me softly; she flowed like ripples in a lake. She was unlike her brother who was an explosion of movement when I was pregnant with him, all day and all night the finale of a fireworks show. He is two years old now and is still this way: active, bright, loud. Virginia is two weeks old, and she shines too, but in a different way. Her brother is fire. But she is water. More specifically, she is an alpine lake. Smooth and clear, she reflects the majesty of above.

She has big, almond-shaped eyes, rosebud lips, and a widow’s peak. She has a button nose and blonde downy hair. Her fingers and toes are long, but the rest of her is quite petite. She rarely cries, only when she is cold. At night she coos to be cuddled. She sleeps best nestled against me. She sleeps soundly, for hours at a time. Several times I’ve wondered if I should wake her to nurse. But I always just let her sleep. It’s like when she was inside of me: quiet and still, she would awaken in her own time. Then she would start to flow, flow like ripples in a lake.

Last night, as I held her closely in our living room and as she looked up at me with her big deep eyes, I told Caleb that our daughter is a quiet soul. Forty-one weeks with her living inside of me, and two weeks of watching her on the outside has led me to believe this. See, her brother has the heart of a lion. He is beautiful and bold. But Virginia has the heart of a lamb. She came cloaked in peace and light.

Both my children shine, but in different ways. Fireworks light up the night. Like stars they dazzle and stir within us awe. The alpine lake dazzles too and gives us a pure and much-needed drink. It reflects where we’ve been and where we’re going, the valleys and the peaks. It reflects the sun rising over the rising peaks.

Virginia’s Birth Story

She was born on the night of February 6, 2019. She weighed seven pounds five ounces and was twenty-one inches long. She had long fingers and long toes. Her feet were blue, as if they’d been colored with pen ink. She cried loudly when she was born, she shook the world with her cries, with her entrance into the world. Then she slept peacefully through the night. “Welcome to the bright side of the womb,” I whispered into her little pink ear. “My sweet Virginia Scott.”

I went into labor on Wednesday at two a.m. Like her brother Levi, Virginia was a week overdue, and I was ready. The contractions started out mild. Restless with excitement, I got out of bed and did the laundry. I cleaned the kitchen. I made French toast. Caleb got up with me, and we tried to be quiet as we ate our maple syrup-drenched breakfast so as not to wake the boy.

The sun came up to reveal a pale gray day. My mom came over and got Levi so that I could focus on having my girl. All was calm in our house without the toddler running around. Our cat Leona paced the hallway with me. “Let’s go for a walk outside,” Caleb eventually said. It had just started to lightly rain. I said, “Okay.”

Our neighborhood is very hilly, and the walk made my contractions grow stronger and closer together. It was mild out, mild enough for the roadside daffodils to have bloomed. I picked a handful of the fragrant yellow flowers and then put them in a vase back at home. Then I told Caleb it was time I go to work.

He closed the blinds in the bathroom and I slipped into the bath. I relaxed completely in the hot water. The room was dark. I was naked, raw. I closed my eyes and hummed during the contractions. I counted in my head as the wave of pain swept through me. Then when the contraction ceased, I prayed for Jesus to strengthen me, for Him to carry me through this birth.

“There’s been a change of plans,” Caleb said in an eerily calm voice after making the call to Michelle, my midwife, to come over. I sat silently in the tub. Caleb said, “Michelle can’t make it.”

I was still in the tub when the midwife Debi arrived. Debi is Michelle’s backup midwife who came because Michelle just so happened to be at another birth. I’d never met Debi before, but the second I saw her and heard her caring voice, I knew I was in good hands. She wore teal hospital scrubs, big round glasses, and she had short gray hair. With over forty years of experience as a midwife, she said she’d stopped counting how many babies she’d delivered after hitting number two thousand.

This made for my first time to meet someone while being totally nude. “This is me in all my glory,” I said, my big round belly rising up from the water. Debi, unfazed, pulled out her fetal heart rate monitor.

She checked the baby’s heart rate through two of my contractions. “Good girl,” she said to me as I breathed deeply through the pain. “He looks perfect.” And before I could tell her this baby was a she, Debi said, “I call all my babies a he.” Then she checked my cervix and found me to be five centimeters dilated and fully effaced. “You don’t have much left to do,” she said and left me to labor alone, coming into the bathroom every hour for the next three hours to observe the baby’s heart rate.

My contractions were quickly amplifying. I moved from the tub to the toilet. I felt hot and nauseous. An extreme amount of pressure was building deep within me. The sun was going down. “I can do this,” I said to Caleb. I said this because I was starting to doubt myself. I was starting to feel like I couldn’t do this anymore, which made me think of one of Levi’s favorite books, The Little Engine That Could. She is a very little engine who does not know whether she can pull the broken-down train up the mountain. But instead of saying no, she can’t, she says, “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.” And she pulls the train up and over the mountain.

“You can do this!” said Caleb, holding my head firmly against his stomach to help me cope with the pain. “Just ride the wave. Each contraction is getting you closer to holding our baby girl.”

I thought I was going to throw up. I started to shake. “I need my water to break,” I said, still sitting on the toilet. Debi heard me and came into the bathroom. “I can break your water for you,” she said. “This will likely make things much more intense, but then the sun will come up.”

“Let’s do it,” I said, longing to be finished with labor. I thought back to when I’d had Levi. At this point in my labor with him I still had a few more hours of extreme contractions and then pushing before he was out. I felt discouraged and prayed to God for mercy. Debi had gone to Caleb’s and my bedroom and was preparing the bed for me to get in so she could break my water. But then something happened. With my next contraction I started to push, and my groans grew and I yelled, “I think I’m pushing the baby out!”

“Sounds like she’s pushing the baby out,” Debi echoed. “Get her in bed.”

I did not want to move. It was as if Somebody had pressed fast-forward on my labor and all of a sudden I was pushing. Caleb lifted me to my feet and practically carried me to the bed. I laid down on my side and with the next contraction I pushed, yelling deeply, fiercely like a warrior in battle. My eyes were closed. Caleb shielded me with his body. He was trembling and his voice shook as he spoke, “Is the baby close?” And Debi said, “Look.”

Then she grabbed my hand and placed it on top of the baby’s head. It was warm and soft and wet. “The head is out,” Debi said. My whole body burned. “What should I do?” I asked, and Debi answered, “Just listen to your body.” Then another contraction struck and I pushed and yelled with my mortal all, and then—pop!—I felt an enormous release of pressure, and Debi placed Virginia by my side.

The baby cried, and I cried and smiled. “She’s here,” Caleb said. “Our little girl is here.” She was slippery and blue. Soon she turned pink, and I was in awe. After three pushes she had been born. According to Debi, my water had broken while I was in the tub and none of us had realized it. But I think God had answered my prayer for mercy.

Minutes after Virginia’s birth, I cut her umbilical cord. Caleb does not do well with blood and guts, so that is why I did it. It took a few snips with the scissors before I finally severed the cord. Virginia lay naked against my naked chest, finding her way to nurse. The cord had been cut, and she was no longer attached to my physical body. But now marked our beginning of a far more lasting bond.

Take You a Swig

Several streams run through Cades Cove of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the one we stopped at to let Levi dip in his feet was shallow and clear and textured with brown rocks and moss-covered roots. The old trees nearby stood bent over and had flaky bark and were still bald. The stream smelled like the air before a spring rain and sounded lively and light like the folk band at our campsite: the retired old men who perform at the concession stand where you can buy bundled firewood, bug spray, and marshmallows. For pure enjoyment and nothing more, these men who wear “Proud Veteran” hats and pins play the banjo, mandolin, and string bass made out of a five-gallon bucket and broomstick. They do this at dusk, when the air is cool and the moon that looks like a fingernail is just starting to cut through the sky. The youngest of the old men works the cash register but is more attentive to his music than his customers, which is fine because while he may not love his job, you can see in his saggy face that holds the green glowing eyes and hear in the delicate way he strums his banjo that he loves his music deeply, and that love spreads to his watching and listening customers who soon forget they came to the stand for anything but to hear.

The stream bordered a big, pale, hard-grass field, and across this field, up the brown-green mountainside, a black bear and her cubs were pawing through the earth for berries, roots, and bugs. A line of cars with heads and cameras sticking out the windows was stopped on Cades Cove Loop because of the bears. I was glad to be out of the traffic for a little while, even if the bears looked like ants through the binoculars. You don’t come to the woods to get stuck in traffic. And bears should be given their space.

A pileated woodpecker went to work on the overhead sycamore, the red flag of feathers on his head waving wildly as his jackhammer beak, fast and rhythmic and loud, beat into the bark. Sunlight draped over the mountains, field, and stream. Earlier at camp, while Levi was still asleep in the tent and Caleb and I sat sipping coffee by the fire in the fresh morning cold, yellow threads of sun were weaving through the branches and leaves, embroidering the ground with bright dashes and dots.

“Camping is magical,” I said, my hands wrapped around my warm titanium mug, “because it slows down time.”

Caleb stirred the fire with a long stick. “It makes you feel you’re where you belong.”

In the stream two minnows rushed by chasing each other, having what looked like fun. I pulled off Levi’s sandals and double cuffed his jeans. Caleb took Levi’s hand and led him into the stream. I crouched to touch the water. Bubbly and cold, kissed by sun. Levi shrieked and splashed and tried to squirm free from Caleb’s hold to sit down in the water. The two geese that had been sunning on the smooth-stone bank honked furiously at us then waddled away. A man and woman came down the overgrown path from the road and stopped near us. The woman had a big smile and bigger hair. The man wore a white t-shirt tucked into crisp jean shorts.

“What a cutie. Wouldya look at him, Jim,” said the woman, pointing to Levi as he kicked and yelled. She stomped into the water with her boots on. “Think it’s safe to drink, Jim?”

“It’s running, and I don’t see no houses around,” the man called from the bank. “Go ‘head, hun. Take you a swig.”

The woman dipped her hands in the water then brought them to her lips.

“I wouldn’t tell you to drink it if it was stagnant,” said the man. “But this here water’s running good.”

“Tastes good too,” said the woman. “Better than Aquafina. You try it, Jim.”

And he did. In this light and lively place, the man took him a swig.

The Two Currents

4.20.18

Levi has four molars coming in and as a result has had a stormy disposition that has harshly disturbed our days’ flow. I think he’s cried more this week than during all of his newborn days combined. I don’t blame him. When he wails in pain I catch glimpses of his gums, bloody and bruised, slashed open by sharp protruding tips stronger than bone. The teeth look like white volcanoes in the sloshing sea of saliva Levi’s body keeps producing as his mouth brutally erupts. His incessant drool has soaked his every shirt; for days he’s looked as if he’s just run a marathon. But his crying, his guttural grating crying (like a sander on rough rock) from the bright bursts of pain sporadically shooting off inside him grates my insides even now as he naps.

“At least they’re all coming in at once,” said my cousin Sara, a young mother of two and veteran of the War of Cutting Teeth. This was last night at Hummingbird Pastaria, a quaint Italian restaurant on Signal Mountain where Sara and I and the four other women having dinner with us worked years ago as servers and cooks. That was when the Hummingbird was called Nino’s and was owned by an old Sicilian man with a thin gray mustache and twinkle in his deep brown eyes. He’d come to America as a young man because times on his island had been hard. Every night the servers would have to dodge Nino who until closing time sauntered from table to table, always dressed in gray sweatpants and white sneakers, to talk to his patrons and ask in his heavy Italian accent how they liked tonight’s special and if they’d tried the Chianti with it.

“No Chianti? Then we must open a bottle! Eggplant parmigiano without the red wine! Can you imagine?”

Then he’d grab the wine and wine glasses from the kitchen, as well as an extra glass for himself, and sit with his customers and drink and tell stories of life long ago in Sicily under the crisp Mediterranean sky. The bits of conversation I’d catch while refilling drinks or clearing the table were of Nino speaking of his native country he’d left to pursue a better life with only love and admiration and longing.

“Before you know it,” Sara said as we sipped red wine and ate pasta out on the patio, the evening pink and calm and cool, “Levi will start losing his teeth, and it will make you think of the days when he was very small that you’re living now. And it will make you miss them.”

I knew she was right. I knew she was right because, sitting now with my former colleagues, I missed my days as a server. I missed the rigors of a full day of university classes followed by five p.m. work shifts, missed swopping stories with the servers about how silly and snobby some people could be about the preparation and delivery of their food, missed sneaking the half-drunk bottles of wine left behind by some customers to the servers’ station where we’d secretly pour the wine into styrofoam cups we’d then hide behind the gallons of olive oil to later sip from as we performed our nightly closing duties of putting chairs on the rickety tables and mopping the red tile floor. Those days as a server were tedious and tough. But they were also happy and purposeful and good. Did I know this about them then as I was knowing it now?

Before meeting my Nino’s friends for our yearly reunion at the restaurant that is no longer Nino’s, I drove down Suck Creek Road and pulled off at the gravel parking lot next to the river. A boat ramp slopes from the lot down into the water, and even though it was a perfect spring day, there was no one backing in sun-faded Jon boats to go fishing. A great blue heron stood beside the concrete ramp on the yellow bank. He slightly turned his head to get a look at me, the noisy intruder, before spreading his great blue wings and flying squawkily over the river and away. I rolled down my window and turned off my car. The sweet April breeze scampered in. I watched the river, how the sun made it flash like tinfoil. The river moved smoothly and confidently and atop its current a million tiny waves bobbed roughly with the flow.

The current has a current, I thought, breathing deeply and slowly, attempting to savor every moment of this short but needed break from the teething storm inside my home. Mature trees, so green they glowed, swished beside the river beneath the great blue sky. The air smelled like wet earth, which is a very cool and soothing smell. I stuck my hand out the window and tapped my car door to the rhythm of the moving river. And the river moved on and on and on with both a smooth and jagged flow. And it was glorious, although I knew it’d be hard to swim across if I tried. But still, even now, all I see is how glorious it was.

You are our Sunshine

4.10.18

Dear Levi,

Today you turned one, and it was a beautiful celebration with family. It was Tuesday, sunny and warm. Your Aunt Locksley came over after your afternoon nap to help set up for your party. We hung a Happy Birthday banner in the dining room and made homemade cornbread and chili—your favorite meal other than bananas.

We played in the front yard while waiting for your Daddy and grandparents to arrive. I watched you fondly, reflecting on how much you’ve grown and developed and learned over the course of a year. You can walk and run and climb up and down stairs now and make all sorts of sounds and gestures. Your interests include digging through the trash, dipping your hands in the toilet bowl, holding the cord while I vacuum, flipping the light switches on and off, shoe strings, any type of ball you can kick or throw, screwing the cap on my water bottle, and hitting the cat, which, sadly for her, is your way of petting.

You’ve also taken an interest in being outside, where you could collect sticks and open and close the mailbox for hours. Watching you now, you picked a puffy dandelion and licked it like ice cream. The seeds stuck to your tongue and you instantly spat them out.

“You have to blow on it like birthday candles,” I said, stooping next to you in the grass and picking a dandelion to show you. You tried to catch the little soft white seeds floating in the air. When the seeds had all flown away, you leaned your head against my stomach and wrapped your little soft white arms around me.

Levi, you’re beautiful in many ways, and this year I’ve learned that a beautiful baby attracts a lot of strangers in public. This is because, I believe, babies remind people of life’s goodness, and they just have to have a look. I remember one old man in particular from a few months back. He was tall and thin, and as I was trying on hiking boots at an outfitters store while holding you in one arm as you were trying to squirm free, he bent down to my eyelevel (mostly to see you better) and told me I’d look back one day and see these as the best days of my life. “Long nights,” he said. “But the best days.”

And, Levi, this is true. Looking back on this past year, it’s easy to see it’s been the best one of my life so far. Granted, at times it’s been very hard—raising an infant is no joke. It takes all of your energy and then some. And then some more after that. But, Levi, all in all raising you has been a beautiful gift from God. You’ve brought so much light and happiness into this world. You’ve brought your Daddy and me closer, and you’ve brought me profound joy in laying down my life for someone else. In the end, sweet boy, the hard things in life are the most worthy of all when carried out with love.

After chili and cornbread, you opened presents—stackable cups, books, and fake car keys (since you love your Daddy’s and mine so much). Then we stripped you into your original birthday suit so you could eat cake as messily and freely as you desired. You clapped as we sang “Happy Birthday” and didn’t seem to mind that I blew out your candle. Sitting in your highchair, you took one bite of the vanilla cake with buttercream frosting then shoved the whole slice in your mouth. I worried you might choke. But you swallowed like a cake-eating champ then yelled for more. I offered you water, but you batted it away. “More cake!” you demanded with your flailing arms.

Everybody cheered.

 

Pot House Trail

A catfish jumped out of the river near where I was crouched on the bank, combing my fingers through clam shells and mud. I jumped too. All had been quiet and still, and my focus had been on the ground. It was as if the fish had snuck up on me and yelled, “Boo!”

I looked up. The river rippled where the fish had been. I’m glad the creature got my attention. The long brown line of water flowed like a road cut between the trees. The yellow bank bordered the river like a welcoming sidewalk. Dogwoods showed off their spring attire; their white blossoms bounced in the breeze. After a very long winter, the forest was again becoming green.

It was cool out and the sky was open and blue. The trail was muddy from yesterday’s rain. The grassy parts of the trail felt like stepping on a wet sponge.

“Should’ve worn my muck boots,” said Caleb, toting Levi in a child carrier on his back.

“Ba ba ya ya na na,” replied Levi, as if to say what for? He had on socks, but no shoes. Even when we put shoes on him, he pulls them right off. Toddlers, like the rest of us it seems, just want to be free.

Caleb, who’s always noticing things I don’t, stopped to show me an old cobblestone wall that had a wide opening where the trail went through it, and that nature had reclaimed with moss and bramble and vines.

“They cut through it I bet when they made this trail.”

“What was it for?” I asked.

“Probably a property boundary between farm plots. When farmers clear their fields every spring in preparation for planting, they pull all the rocks out and stack them to make walls like this.”

The wall reminded me of the old broken-down home my mom and I used to canoe to at her family’s lake property on the back of Lookout Mountain. I was a girl, and my mom and I would find rusty kitchen tools (and sometimes water moccasins) under the busted bricks–the decayed bones–of the 19th century dwelling. We called our finds treasure and stored them in a brown paper bag. One time I found a tiny porcelain doll with a missing head that I still have, closed up in a matchbox.

“A little girl must’ve lived here,” my mom said the day I found the doll. “The world we live in is like a wedding cake,” she said. “It has many layers. But you have to cut into it to know.”

A walk in nature always makes for a good slice.