Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Clean Start

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When the phone rang I was in the bathtub -- nine months pregnant with my first child, soaking swollen ankles. It was my dad on the line. Your brother didn’t pass his drug test. Can he stay with you a few days? Until he gets clean?

My parents had bought my brother a one-way ticket from Salt Lake City to Tucson, hoping he could get himself a bed in a subsidized rehab program there. They’d sent him off with a few dollars for lunch and a pack of cigarettes, hoping it would be the last thing he’d ever ask of them.

As usual, it wasn’t.

Of course, I told my dad, having inherited his inability to say no. I dried off, dressed, and sped an hour to Tucson -- belly pressed to the steering wheel -- where I found my brother on the curb of the rehab center, slumped on a borrowed duffel bag.

Once, at a group meeting for families, a hard-nosed counselor leaned into her microphone and charged the fraught audience: You’re addicted to their addiction! The phrase was one my sisters and I came to joke about, imitating her inflection in our phone conversations. You’re addicted to their addiction! we’d say with emphasis and laugh, sometimes, when our brother’s heroin addiction had momentarily ebbed. What that counselor had meant (and what we -- his family -- intrinsically knew and despised about ourselves) was that our brother’s destructive behavior was linked to our own.

On the drive home, my brother explained that his time-honored tricks for cheating drug tests had failed him. But he didn’t think it would be more than a few days until he could pee clean. I turned to look at him. Austin: my kid brother. He was 25 -- two years younger than me. Tall. Freckled and curly-headed. Funny, musical, and ironically charismatic. In his presence, you almost forgot he was breaking your heart.

If the baby comes before I can get into rehab . . . I mean . . . I can wait outside or something.

I envisioned him lurking among our overgrown cactus, flicking cigarette butts into the neighbor’s yard, impatient for the whole ordeal -- this birth-of-my-first-born -- to be over.

Early in my pregnancy, I’d decided to have the baby at home. I was drawn in by my midwife’s tales of smooth and beautiful births: private, peaceful affairs that took place in people’s bedrooms. The mothers gave birth and the midwife simply showed up to catch the babies. At least, that was how she described it. My husband, Dave, had taken a little more convincing. But after meeting the midwife (a woman who looked more like his conservative mother than a home-birth hippie), he eased into the idea.

That day, Dave arrived home from work to see Austin through the kitchen window, smoking in the backyard. Though he comes from a long line of predictably straight-laced Mormons, my husband takes my family’s troubles in surprising stride.

Where is he putting his butts? he wondered aloud.

Austin came back inside. Trailing cigarette smoke, he plunged face first onto the sofa.

I’d done everything I could for this baby: quit my job, taken long walks with the dog, drunk up shakes made with chlorophyll and spinach, and chanted with the turban-wearing prenatal yoga instructor on my television screen each morning.

I decided on a water birth, having read somewhere that transitioning from amniotic fluid to water would give my baby a gentle introduction to her new environment. It would be an un-medicated labor: she’d enter the world alert; clean; free from even a small dose of whatever sensation kept my brother spending his days sweating shirtless on our spare bed sheets.

I wanted what my parents had wanted for their son in rehab: a clean start. I wondered at what point in his life their good intentions had backfired. I wondered if I, too, with these elaborate birth preparations, was on that point. Was I already coddling my baby? Already addicted to her unborn addictions?

Midweek, Austin ran out of cigarettes. These are the only things keeping me together, Sis.

I offered him some cash, pointed the way to the gas station.

I don’t have my ID.

Then how did you get on the plane?

I did have it. But then some guy mugged me when I was waiting for you outside that rehab.

Austin was full of these stories -- highly improbable happenings that somehow ended in convincing our dad to lend him more money, or convincing our mom that the plants growing in the back acre were not marijuana, or, in this case, convincing me to buy him cigarettes.

I drove to the Chevron. Austin waited in the car.

At the counter I shifted, uneasy. I’d never smoked. Not once. Had never in my life ingested anything more harmful than a Coca Cola. And not even that while I’d been pregnant.

The cashier reached up to the shelf at my request.

I think that’s the brand, anyway, I told her. It’s for my brother. Even to this gruff blue-vested stranger, I felt the need to explain myself.

The cashier -- a woman in her forties -- pulled the pack away from me. You can’t buy cigarettes for other people.

I assured her that my brother was out in the car. Had lost his ID. Had been mugged, actually. Was well over 18.

No.

I returned empty-handed.

Why would you tell her they were for me?

I glared at him. I should have been home napping, or scrubbing the floors, or reading up on the incredibly raw pain I would undergo any minute now. Instead, I was being humiliated at a gas station -- bawled out for screwing up a cigarette purchase I hadn’t wanted to make in the first place. And what about Austin? He should have been in rehab or college or playing in a weekend-gig blues band somewhere. He should have been having a better life.

I could hear that counselor, her voice now coming through the husky Chevron cashier: You’re addicted to his addiction! She was right. I desperately wanted to change that and yet found myself driving to the Circle K down the street and (this time, with my mouth shut) buying my brother two packs, so he wouldn’t have another chance to ask. So I wouldn’t have another chance to cave.

The decision to do a homebirth had actually surprised me. Ordinarily, I’m the type to avoid pain, to put off inevitable dental work or dodge blood drives -- afraid of a needle prick. So, although the idea of natural childbirth fascinated me, I never thought I could cope with its intensity and said so to the midwife, whom I’d interviewed more out of curiosity than anything.

She looked me in the eyes. You know, Lacy, you could do it.

And in that moment, with this stranger’s almost casual assertion, this absolute belief in some inherent ability of mine, she convinced me that I could surmount the seemingly impossible.

I turned to my brother on the drive home. I don’t want to do this any more.

Later that night, I started feeling contractions. One of my sisters drove three hours to pick up Austin and redeliver him to rehab.

Bring the baby up to Tucson to meet her uncle sometime? he asked on his way out the door.

Of course.

My daughter came the next morning in an uncomplicated and beautiful birth under water. She didn’t even cry.

Have you ever seen a baby who didn’t cry? I asked the midwife.

It’s rare, she said. This one was so ready to leave where she’s been.


Lacy Arnett is a recent graduate of the MFA program at Lesley University. Her fiction has appeared in 322 Review and Mirage. She lives with her husband and two daughters in El Paso, Texas, and occasionally blogs about writing, rejection, and motherguilt.


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