Thursday, May 9, 2013

Learning the Mother Tongue

(This is the essay I shared at the Listen to Your Mother event last week. It feels even more vulnerable to post it here, without the podium to mediate! That said...)

Having nursed my two oldest children until they were practically able to write about the experience themselves, I was completely unprepared for the gauntlet of bottle-and-formula paraphernalia that adopting infant triplets would prompt me to run. In fact, when I first encountered a stiff-bristled nipple brush at Target, I involuntarily clutched my own breasts and gasped, “what woman would do that to herself!?” In time, I learned it was designed to scrub latex. This epiphany heralded the first in a long line of lessons that adoption would re-teach me about the language of motherhood.

When my first two cried out in colicky rage, I cried too, wondering why, at 3 a.m., they hated sleep so fiercely. At the same hour, six years later, I juggled three four-month-olds to silence a symphony of screams. This time, though, I half-smiled, awed by having been chosen to mother these miracles, grace deepened by my awareness that only tragedy and poverty could mobilize a love so deep, so radical, that I might be entrusted with these precious 3 a.m. tears.

During the mortal fatigue of one night-turned-morning with the triplets, it hit me how very chosen I had also been the first two times I’d walked this rut into the floorboards, and how very precious had been the tears. SHHH, shhhh, shhh, shhh, shhhh, I’d breathed out the mantra of maternity while I endlessly rocked and walked. Some nights, several minutes after I knew the trusting limpness of a baby asleep against my heart, I’d still softly shhhhh, shhhh, shhhhh. Maybe to quiet myself.

Did you know that every culture around the world makes some approximation of this sound to soothe a crying child? They say it’s an imitation of the sound of the mother’s heart as heard in utero. I love the thought that a mama’s heart is the elusive mother tongue of the world, the language that binds us all together. It was not my heart that first taught its cadence to three of my five babies, but shhhh, shhhh, shhhhh, my heart still lisps every time they get theirs broken. SHHHHH, shhhhh, shhhhh, I breath. There will be other games, other friends, other chances. My mama heart beats to siphon away their pain, to carry what I can, to quiet what I can’t.

When we initiated the process of adopting from Ethiopia, I wrote this unsendable letter to a mother whose love I will spend the rest of my life living up to, the mother whose heart would teach our babies the rhythm of peace.

Dear Mama,
I have been a pregnant woman, have caressed my swelling middle, humming private lullabies to a private baby growing quiet and secret inside of me. I have cherished the fluttery kicks that no one else could feel, and I have scrambled to share the forceful elbow rolls of a baby grown so cramped inside of me that every motion protrudes in tiny, visible waves. It is your face that I see, now, when I dream of my child, your pregnant laughing face. And I wonder. Do you imagine his future? Do you picture her face? Do you picture mine?
Your face beams out from a table of tangled statistics that explode in my heart. 
 Are you the one woman in 14 whose body will break in the final, heroic push to share life? Are you one of the millions whose hunger and pain have set your jaw with the hard hope that your baby (our baby?) must have more? Are you one of the uncountable many whose body will be wracked by malaria or HIV or diphtheria or typhoid or mumps (diseases I dreaded being vaccinated for in gradeschool)?
 Are you going to die? How can I dream of you, with your pregnant, laughing face, and pray for my baby to come home soon? What kind of person am I?

What kind of person are you? I wish I knew. I may not ever know. We are mothers, now, together. I wish I knew if you know that. Do you dream of me? Do you dream of the hope laid out before all of us? Or do you dream of nights watching your baby (our baby?) breathe? You are
my baby's mama. Love hovers just above all of my feelings about you and your pregnant, laughing face.
 My feelings ride lower, closer to the earth. We are mothers together, here on this complicated ground.
 You pay the price; I get the blessing. Is that what adoption is?
 I know that story. I learned it in Sunday school. But I have failed to honor God, again and again. I will not fail our baby. I will mother with all of my heart.

I finished that letter nine months to the day before Ayelech lay down her life loving our kids into this world. Over the past five years, I have sent it again and again, carried forward to heaven in every beat of my heart. Last year, God blessed me with two more babies, two babies that would only know my love as a heartbeat before flying home to heaven. The ache of my empty arms sometimes makes it hard even to hold the five impossibly beautiful children that still press in, close, for love. But in my sadness, I have imagined Ayelech, backlit by eternity, rocking my two little ones while I rock three of hers here, in this world where joy still wears barbs on its back and beauty still drags its rough belly through the mess we’ve made in our clumsy efforts at love. I imagine the day when I fly home to heaven; she and I will clutch each other’s hands and, laughing, share stories of children we both have learned to love. Or maybe, we will just fall into each other’s arms and whisper, in the language we both know best, shhh, shhhh, shhhh. Because, maybe the mother tongue is really the heartbeat of God, and we’re all still waiting to be born.