Liquid Amber. An essay by Nancy Townsley

When you called to tell me you were expecting, I was sitting with four other people in a booth at a diner, having brunch. I stayed on the phone too long, etiquette-wise, listening to the late-winter tsunami of excitement in your voice, its timbre of astonishment. We were celebrating my friend’s birthday, and though I didn’t know it then, it would be the last real meal out any of us would have for months.

After we hung up I wanted to call you right back, to hear more about what it had been like for you when you watched the line on the plastic stick turn dark blue, but at that point there was cake on the table, so I didn’t. We blew out candles instead and talked about the news on CNN that a second person had died of coronavirus up in Washington state and that there were five more people in California who had tested positive. All of a sudden you felt very far away.

This was before we had a dawning recognition that our lives were about to change in ways we could not have imagined at the start of the year, before those strange spiky balls started bouncing across our TV screens like ghostly Pac-Men and we were told to beware, to be careful, to wash our hands, to keep our distance, or else. We didn’t know exactly what the or else was, but we sang songs that lasted twenty seconds anyway, to ward off the virus. We went to the store and regarded each other suspiciously, as if we could detect contagion in the twitch of an eyebrow, the nervous quiver of a lip.

We kept on looking forward to what was to come before we realized we could not possibly know how things would turn out. I mean, who can ever know anyway, but we are used to seeing around the corner.

Not so long after the beginning, you called again to report tiny taps inside your belly, gurgles that made you wonder if it was the baby or indigestion because you’d eaten too many dried apricots that afternoon. It was probably the apricots, you said, but you were already at seventeen weeks, so I said it for sure was the baby and how wonderful it must be to have actual evidence that they were in there, when before that you mostly had to rely on external clues: an absent period, fuller breasts, no glass of wine with dinner.

Now it’s mid-summer and the solid knocks against the walls of your uterus are hard proof that a little human resides in there, ingesting amniotic fluid, sucking fingers, blinking eyes, practicing ninja moves in the dark of night. You tell me the kicks hurt sometimes. You read articles saying it could be your round ligaments lengthening, getting your body ready for labor, that the two kinds of pain can get jumbled in the anxious mother-brain, but you know better. It’s the baby. It’s definitely them. They are part of you now.

I cannot feel those things because I am not you. I am not the mother-to-be, or really even the mother anymore. I am the grandmother-in-waiting, awkward and over-eager, learning this new role and unlearning all the old ones. The journey is exhilarating and exhausting. Sometimes it’s confusing. It is all luck and clumsy unabashed love, like the first performance on an instrument you didn’t practice nearly enough before the stage lights went up. I am unprepared but I am trying. And I will keep trying, for you and for your baby.

So much has changed in a generation it is mind-spinning. Then, we laid you down on your stomach, to prevent SIDS. Now, you lay the baby down on their back, also to prevent SIDS. Then, a blanket and a toy in the crib, to soothe a wakeful infant. Now, none of that, ever, and also no bumper pads. Then, we had Dr. Spock and Penelope Leach and T. Berry Brazelton. Now, you have doulas and a fervent community of women. You feel the full weight of how fortunate you are, to be so favored.

There is a scare at the end of the sixth month, when you are running the trail near the reservoir. You slip on some gravel and fall on your stomach, Superman style. A nice man walking his dog hangs around, makes sure you’re okay. You have road rash and bruises, but the baby is fine, cushioned by the layers of you. No more running, your midwife says after the ultrasound. Or bike riding, for that matter. You agree but keep going to yoga. You fold daily meditation into your routine. It is not the same as running, but it will have to do. You are mostly fine with that, sort of.

By August it’s almost time for you to go back to teaching, and I am secretly relieved when you tell me it will be all online, even though you say it will be harder that way. You can’t Zoom your way to an excellent education. Plus, you miss your students, whom you haven’t seen since March, and it is disappointing that you’ve gestated in private practically the whole time, with only a few friends coming by to visit, six feet away in lawn chairs. The virus sucks, on that we agree, even as I wonder if I’ll get to fly to see you in September, when you’ll only have eight weeks to go. Chin up, I say, by early November you will be holding your beautiful child in your arms, this new human with a name I don’t yet know. Until then you and your partner are taking precautions, doing what you can to stay healthy, singing with your hands under the water, Row Row Row Your Boat.

And listen, on the night they are born, beloveds near and far will put flame to candle, beeswax, hoping, anticipating, ringing in the mystery.

This is the time of your life, dear daughter. The time of my life has passed, dissolved in the briny mists, left to what memories I can conjure. I lend you fragments of my mother-journey whenever you ask, vivid and unintentionally curated, relics tenderly, carefully held. All the hours I spent with you inside me way back when were sticky-sweet, like liquid amber, the resin trees exude when their bark is peeled away. Wounded and exposed, the living thing responds by oozing light.

I remember it so well, as well as thirty-two years ago can be remembered. It was an unbearably hot summer, three days at 100 degrees or more. I spent most of my time on the sofa, in front of an oscillating fan, drinking juice in a tumbler with ice, waiting impatiently for you. I talked to you and pushed your little knee back in when it jabbed at my innards, when your sister asked me to read Goodnight Moon just one more time, when I lay in my bed in pools of sweat. The morning you came, the hard part took two hours. “Only five pushes,” read your father’s handwritten hospital notes. You yelled after the doctor snipped the cord from around your wet neck, an unexpected complication that could have gone wrong but didn’t.

All of this before women held their babies upright at the breast, to avoid gas. We knew nothing, but we also knew everything. Nothing changes. Everything does.

In the mornings after showering, when I catch my reflection just right in the mirror, I can still see the jagged light blue lines that streak the sides of my aging abdomen, like milky white contrails in the sky, like the line on your pregnancy test only fainter, scars that first appeared when you were still inside me, when I was getting bigger every day, when my skin expanded as far as it could before splitting. They are so much more than stretch marks, the blue lines, the physical detritus of growing you, telling the story of that one winter and spring and summer before you burst into the world a week early, a dark-eyed Virgo imbued with passion and intellect and resourcefulness. The temperature cooled to 77 the day we brought you home, your room decorated with pastel-rainbow curtains and the crib lined with matching bumper pads, made by your grandmother, my mother, now gone from here, existing as stardust.

In the midst of this great not-knowing, I offer you what I can. You will do the rest. It’s your turn to bring the light.


Nancy Townsley is a longtime community newspaper journalist living in a floating home on the Multnomah Channel near Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in Brain, Child Magazine, NAILED Magazine, The Riveter Magazine, Elephant Journal, The Manifest-Station, and Brave on the Page: Oregon Writers on Craft and the Creative Life (2012, Forest Avenue Press). She is working on a novel about a journalist-turned-activist in a time of devalued news.

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