Nik Shier :: Learning to Grieve Considering Birth (excerpt)

First, I was writing a story about a woman who died and came back to life as her own mother:

She woke up too early and had the same hands: strong, scarred, cracking and cramped. The year was 1996 and she was 28, still. Exhausted, she knew she had to get up and leave for work. She dressed quickly and on her way to the kitchen she tripped on the tearing linoleum of the trailer floor. Goddamnit. When I get paid I need to get duct tape. She opened the fridge and saw the remains of what the WIC check supplied: two eggs and maybe a glass of milk left in the plastic gallon marked 2%. She almost cried. Always empty. Except for the plastic Tupperware pitcher of red Kool-Aid for the kids and the Mt. Dew she drank. She grabbed a can of Dew and lit a Salem. She walked to the opposite end of the trailer where her 5 children were still sleeping. She, we, woke up twelve year-old me. I remembered that blood-red, metal bunk bed she ordered us new. She told me she was going to finish getting ready for work and I needed to get the kids breakfast before school. I watched my compulsively obedient-self move as if this had always been and would always be her life. Barefoot in the kitchen, the girl cut her foot on the broken flooring, but said nothing. We grabbed our keys off the table as she turned to us and said: “There is nothing to eat.” Inside we said: I know, baby. In the same instant our hand stung as it smacked into the resistance of her steady cheek. If she cried, we did not see it– we couldnʼt stay and risk losing this factory job.

And then, I was writing a story about a woman who died and came back to life as her own father:

She stayed up late. When she clicked off the TV, she stared back into her old face in the dusty reflection: blue eyes under dark, thick brows and those full, worm lips. The year was 1994 and she was 28, still. She turned back on the TV, though she was exhausted. Why would this body not let her just go to bed. His brain asked: why? It did not feel like the insomnia she knew in her own life. Her body, his body, wanted so urgently to go to the bedroom, but his brain, or her own, would not let the body lift from the couch. His brain asked: Am I? Fewer than 20 channels were scanned and she was back to the first again. As if in a trance now, walking toward the full moon, his body stood over his bed. His brain said: doing this. Asleep, where he made her lie, was his daughter. As they crawled into bed, one body, she remembered. She hardly recognized her ten year-old self.

I am the woman.

These are only stories, still both of my parents died young.

Have they come back to life as their daughter?
Can they both fit inside of me?

I can feel them fighting there, like they did when they were together. Before my second birthday, just after my motherʼs eighteenth. I donʼt remember them together. Never saw my father put out cigarettes on my motherʼs flesh. I was never made to watch, as she was made to eat their  remains.

I have no memory of my conception; I cannot discern if it was sex or rape.

I believe in ghosts. The sort we see in horror films, the almost tangible kind. The ones who observe and manipulate the world of the living.

Who doesnʼt have unfinished business?

At least, I believed in ghosts before my parentʼs died. But now I am mourning and they are gone. People forget this all of the time. It is a linear process. There are steps. A beginning. An end.

Why havenʼt you finished yet?

It is like a good book. Donʼt set it down: open it, progress from cover to cover, and then close it again. Shelve your emotional response. Ignore your bodyʼs tremble. Move on. When pain becomes visible, people step up to push you along. They want it to end: She is still with you.

Life is full of contradiction.

When the best book ends do you put it on a shelf, forgotten?

Do you walk around in a daze, which no one can understand,
mourning the sudden loss of the characters
or the reality that you were just absorbed in?

Donʼt rush.
Set that book down.
Pick it up again.
Read it backwards.
Write in the margins.
Begin again.
I wonʼt convince you to believe in ghosts.

As children we hide under our blankets, bodies clenched, and say:

“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep…”
“There is no such thing. There is no such thing. There is no such thing…”

There is no end.

But if there is no right,
can there be wrong?

Some of us believe in good and some of us try to wish away the bad.
This is not the best way to balance a seesaw.

Do you believe in what you cannot see?
Are you too busy remembering what you saw?

As children, we met at Grace Bible Church for Youth Group to get away from our homes. First, my friend Tricia and I walked by a gas station and stole a 12-pack of Pepsi. I was hesitant. She said: “It is sitting outside. Why would they leave it outside if they didnʼt want people to take it? “ This made sense to me.

At Youth Group, we learned John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only begotten son.” This made no sense to me.

Why did God love the world more than his son?

I felt the Pepsi stick to my teeth and fill my empty stomach with bubbles and thought:

I donʼt need another father offering me up to the world.

And I sit here now with a can of Pepsi next to me. It has rotted my teeth and expanded my belly and I think: My addiction fuels corn subsidies. I steal money from Mexican farmers while I poison myself.

What is wrong with me?

But of course one can of Pepsi did not do this.

I measure the years in 12-packs.

Not long after we began talking, my girlfriend shared a story with me about wheat pennies. Her father used to collect them and now whenever someone uses one to pay at their familyʼs business, she believes it is a gift from him. A connection that remains present, even after his death.

Something unreachable inside of me has been turned on knowing that she was not only well cared for, but loved as a child.

Is it selfish to take this joy and crush it
when I realize what it means for me?

I think so, but I cannot help it.

If I validate for her, like I yearn to, that her father is still present,
what does that mean about me and mine?

Is my father still sneaking in to the bathroom to watch me shower?

Will he come to press the weight of his lifeless body against mine in the night?

Does he have a penis in death?

Before all of this, I was just a body.
I came into this world as a body.

Pulled screaming and covered in blood and liquid nourishment from another body and my own waste.

Half-out of my motherʼs sliced uterus, screaming,

I clung to my un-gendered body.

A stranger cut my umbilical cord.

And then I was fully born, my vagina exposed, and I was laid in my pink crib,

wearing the pink cap knitted by the arthritic hands of our culture.

                                       I was alive.

                                       I began living:

in this world.


Selections of this work also appear in print.