by Valarie Rea
Stratum One: Mother
When my mother was eighteen years old and I ten months our bond was instantly severed in a car accident. She was declared dead on arrival. They said her heart was crushed. A synonym for crushed is disheartened.
At sixteen, when she conceived me—she held me in the salty waters of her ocean where I swam like a happy fish beneath the surface of her belly.
At seventeen, when she birthed me—her water broke, and I swam to the surface of the world. Swam out of her body along with blood and shit. A cracking of bone.
She held me deep inside of herself where I swam safely for nine months –but we were given only ten months once I’d surfaced for air. By land and by sea we were given nineteen months together.
She was eighteen when she left me here—left me amidst shards of glass and the crumpled metal of a car. Stranded on earth alone. A land animal with no way to swim back in to her murky depths.
Her body of water left me clinging to a ghost.
My dad told me she screamed to the paramedics, “My Baby! Bring me my baby!”
And they did. And there I was left—surrounded in her arms for her last moment.
I was there with her as her ghost slipped slowly away.
She whispers to me in dreams. Dreams where I feel a deep indescribable ache right where my belly button is. The whole dream is just that. An indescribable ache where my belly button is, and I am certain it is a memory of the crash—a memory of her ghost as it separated from my ghost.
Stratum Two: Motherless Child
For 578 days I had a mother who held and nurtured me—a mom whose voice I recognized. But I’ve been a Motherless Child for 18,779 days. I grew up with a mom whose voice and smell I didn’t remember.
The first way I didn’t belong—the first way in which I was different—was as a Motherless Child.
I began the stages of grief before I cut my teeth. I grew up with the cemetery as my own private and personal park. On its surface, the cemetery was a vast and green loveliness— the grass stretched to unseeable lengths.
Eventually, I realized visiting my mom at the cemetery really meant visiting her body which lay below the surface of well-manicured lawns—under layers of earth and sharp fragments of stone.
I was three when I finally asked where she was. My father kept the answer simple. He told me she was dead—he told me dead meant her body was in a box, and the box was in the ground at the cemetery. He told me the box was pretty and pink. He told me she was with the angels and watching over me.
At three what I saw under my dad’s story was seen with a Beginner’s Mind.
The box I saw was not macabre or scary. The box I saw was a perfectly square birthday-present-box wrapped up in frosting-pink paper on top of which was a pink cellophane bow and curling strings of ribbon.
He told me he had her wedding ring in a box and one day it would be mine.
I wondered if that box was pink too.
I remember thinking if my dad still had her ring he must have jumped up after my mother’s body as it floated upward towards a sea of clouds—angels at the helm.
In my three-year-old mind I see him jump up after her rising body—I see him barely able to reach her by the tips of her fingers as he pulls the ring free. I see him watch her as she drifts away like a child’s lost balloon.
At the cemetery there was a section for dead babies. As I grew older I realized I could have been there instead of my mother. There was guilt with that realization. Guilt changes a child’s view of the world. The guilt that I had somehow caused her death by surviving left me feeling as if I were weighed down with rocks—easily drowned should I enter a body of water.
Stratum Three: Childless Mother
My mother’s story was a myth unraveled to me like a long thread—a fishing line dropped to the bottom of the sea weighted with the ghost of her memory.
Her true story surfaced from under the lid of a cedar hope chest my great-grandfather had made for her. The hope within the chest was dead, but her voice within it was very much alive. It was in excavating to the surface the granite and cold marble of her life that I learned her many secrets.
From the depths of this chest I unearthed fragments of her voice. Unearthed the topographical features of her underwater world—her teenaged truths inked onto paper like words tattooed onto skin. I found love letters to my father and poetry written with her own hand. The hands of my mother. The hands that held me as she crossed from an earthly ocean to a heavenly sea are the same hands that wrote those poems. Her poems were a map that led me through the oceanic subduction zones and volcanic rings of fire which were her life.
Stories told by the living about the dead are often altered to cast the missing in the best light. It was through the stories I found within the cedar chest—the stories my mother told me herself— I learned the most. It was in holding her words to my ear like a seashell I learned there were less than nine months between her wedding vows and my entrance into the world. This made her real. This made the flesh and blood of her materialize. Made me realize my mother was not just a myth. She was human and fallible. Not just a sainted reproduction.
Following her water bearing strata I dove into an ocean of my own words and held my breath as I began to put my words to paper. Like the letters carved onto her headstone, I began carving my letters into stories.
In those few years of becoming fertile young women with ripened wombs—words were our common ground. And the closer I came to the age of sixteen—the age she was when I first swam within her— I realized she and I were more alike than dissimilar.
These similarities began to unravel me. Our two separate lives followed an interwoven and irrevocable path. I became convinced I would die in a car wreck by the time I was eighteen. I believed to my core my early death was preordained. The words of my own myth—my own death—had been cut into the rocky sediment of an underground cave years before. It was an unalterable fact that my life would end like hers.
I was so certain my path would mimic hers that when— at sixteen—I felt the geo-thermal trembling of my own fish as it swam within me I was not brave enough to let it surface. I was convinced I would die and leave my child here alone—a castaway on a deserted island, and I could not do it.
And when at seventeen I felt a second fish begin its snorkeling dive within my womb I was certain my death would follow the birth—so I drowned the fish instead. And I know it sounds monstrous.
I was not a mother. I was a monster—or so the second doctor would have me believe. He inserted a small peg of seaweed into my cervix so there would be a bigger opening to implant other things—tubes and vacuums. On his table— legs spread akimbo— I saw myself in the reflection of the glasses he wore as he leaned in close to me and suctioned things out. He sucked from my womb bone and teeth—scales and gills. He used judgment and scorn to suction out my little guppy. My gilled lovely. And I thought there would be plenty of time. If I waited until I was older than eighteen to let my daughter or son swim to the surface then I would be able to remain on land with them. I thought if I waited I would outlive my mother, and I wouldn’t leave behind another Motherless Child.
But it never happened again after that second swimming. After I drowned the second fish—pullled it from the water of my womb to gulp and smother on land—nothing swam in me again. My ocean was a dead zone. My water poisoned.
Once a Motherless Child. Forever a Childless Mother. A Striation. Two parallel lives reflected from opposite mirrors.
Valarie Rea is a creative nonfiction writer from Portland. Her work is best described by what Kate Millet calls Testimony Writing, “literature of the witness…rooted like a flower amid carnage.” Through her work, Valarie strives to make invisible humans visible. She is currently working on a memoir about women, street level-prostitution, and homelessness. Valarie writes with Lidia Yuknavitch at Corporeal Writing and Brian Benson at The Attic. Besides writing, Valarie works with women who have experienced sexual violence to help them navigate their path back to freedom.