Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Loss

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Photo by Randy Fath. See more of Randy's work at unsplash.com/@randyfath.

Photo by Randy Fath. See more of Randy's work at unsplash.com/@randyfath.

Shadows are long on the quiet sidewalk when I pull into my driveway with Emma, my three-month-old baby girl. The sky is a golden blue haze, and a light breeze filters through the bougainvilleas, carrying the taste of salt with an undercurrent of seaweed and coconut sunscreen. A dampness hangs in the air. My home sits on the fringes of a very good neighborhood; close enough to smell the Pacific Ocean and carefully positioned to take advantage of a partial ocean view. The property line holds on by its fingertips.

My husband Curtis and I live on this peaceful street in a rented house owned by an old woman named Berta. We answered Berta's ad, as did hordes of others—many young college graduates, bachelors, divorcees, all looking to rent a home in this coveted neighborhood. Berta chose Curtis and me, the picture of a young, happy, married couple, expecting a baby. I taught first grade at the elementary school nearby, and Curtis worked construction for a successful builder in town. His large, calloused hand was clamped painfully on my shoulder as we walked through the little beach house. The three of us crowded into the master bathroom and peered out the window when Berta pointed out the ocean view. I sat on Berta's musty, lavender couch and drank tea, as the old woman told us small details about the house.

As she spoke, Berta put a gnarled, liver-spotted hand on my swollen belly and said she had never been able to have children. I imagined a young Berta with her husband. Year after year, their childless home filled instead with knitted afghans and hand-sewn quilts. And there I was, married not even a year, and already expecting a baby. I shifted uncomfortably and touched Berta's hand, feeling her dry skin, paper-thin and intertwined with soft purple veins.

We signed a year lease and made the place our home. I sewed white eyelet curtains for the nursery and unpacked our wedding china into the kitchen cupboards. A month later, the baby came.

I remember those early weeks of parenthood through a hazy, sleep-deprived lens. Emma's tiny red-faced wailing, needing me constantly. Curtis was on edge, tired and stressed from the added financial strain of a baby, he explained. I told myself we were working through the growing pains of a new baby. I replayed sentences in my head before speaking to him, editing and censoring myself. Trying to find the words that wouldn't anger him. I didn't always succeed, so I wore long sleeves in the heat of July, covering the mottled purple bruises where his hands gripped my arms in frustration.

As I set about collecting Emma from the car, a man walks up the sidewalk. He walks purposefully, if somewhat slowly, with long strides. I glance toward him before reaching into the back seat to unstrap the car seat. His head is down, sunglasses on, hands stuffed in the front pockets of his jeans.

Through the back car window I notice the man again. He's closer, and a slight panic cramps my stomach. I hear his footsteps on the asphalt as he crosses the street toward me.

Carefully, I pull my daughter's arm out of the car seat straps. Emma is on the verge of sleep; hooded eyes, her rosebud mouth puckered around her pacifier. I try to move her gently, hoping to make the precarious transfer from my arms into her crib, and possibly steal a few precious moments alone while she naps.

I ache. The constant weight of the baby in my arms, the car seat, diaper bag, the brick of worry I carry with me everywhere wears me down until even the simplest tasks exhaust me. Motherhood has hollowed me out. I no longer remember what I did with the oceans of free time at my disposal before I had a baby. Emma is all-consuming; she is wonderful and beautiful and overwhelming. I find myself crying when I look at her tiny, pink nose, and I'm not sure if it is the lack of sleep or that my complete and blooming heart has been cut open. She is the first thing that is utterly mine.

Through the back car window I notice the man again. He's closer, and a slight panic cramps my stomach. I hear his footsteps on the asphalt as he crosses the street toward me.

"Excuse me, miss?" he says.

I straighten up with the baby in my arms. When I turn toward his voice, he is standing at the edge of my driveway.

He wants directions, I think.

His hand is inside his flannel shirt, and as he walks toward me, he pulls the edge of his shirt back. A gray-black, metal handle is tucked into the waist of his low-slung jeans. I have never seen a real gun before, but this one is close enough for me to reach out and touch. I imagine the feel of it against my skin: smooth, cold, hard metal. It is the most real thing I have ever seen.

My heart pounds against my daughter, who sleeps peacefully in my arms. I hold my breath.

"Your ring," he says.

The man nods toward my hand. He holds the gun low, against his side. For a brief moment, I think of when my husband first slid the ring on my finger, stumbling, nervous, down on one knee. I shift Emma to the crook of my arm and awkwardly pull my wedding ring off my finger and drop it into his outstretched hand. He shoves my ring in his pocket. Emma nestles against me, and I pat her gently with my ringless hand.

I freeze as he reaches toward Emma. The palm of his hand cradles my baby's sleeping head, and his thumb strokes her forehead.

"How old?" he asks, looking up from Emma and making eye contact with me for the first time. His eyes are dark, and his voice is smooth, warm, unexpected. I am undone, this terrifying moment is pierced by his simple, ordinary question.

"Three months," I reply. The sound of my own voice surprises me. Despite my racing heart, it is calm.

"She's beautiful," he says. I nod.

"What's her name?" he asks.

I open my mouth, but I can't say it. I can't give him that piece of my baby, of myself. A small, wet sob escapes instead, and a tear slides down my cheek, dripping off the edge of my chin.

His face softens. I feel his gaze on me as I look down at Emma. She smiles absently in her sleep. I stare at the asphalt driveway, his shoes, black Nikes scuffed and worn at the toes. He holds the gun in his hand, held tightly against his hip. It's so close to Emma's foot, dangling out of the crook of my arm. My throat clenches. I look up and meet his gaze.

"Get in the car," he says.

I sit in the driver's seat. Door open, baby in my lap.

Crouching down, his face so close I can smell his last cigarette, he tells me to count to 100 before I get out of the car. He closes the door, and walks away in the same direction from which he had come. His footsteps are soft, easy. A casual stroll. I watch him walk away in the rearview mirror, his shoulders sag slightly, easy posture.

I count quietly in the car. Trembling, I clutch Emma to my chest, and feel the horrible, erratic thumping of my heart pound against her. My throat is tight, and my breath comes in ragged, shallow gasps. In the rearview mirror, he is getting smaller, farther away. He sweeps his head side to side, surveying the quiet, empty sidewalks.

Drenched in sweat, I count until I am sure he is gone. I force myself to steady my breathing. When he is no longer in sight, I open the car door and run up the driveway with the baby in my arms. The sudden movement wakes Emma, and she lets out a wail.

It doesn't take more than five minutes for the police to arrive, sirens blaring, lights flashing. They politely ring the doorbell, a seemingly ridiculous gesture after their dramatic arrival. Curtis arrives home from work moments later.

I sit on the couch while the two policemen take a brief, useless report. The older of the two men, with dark hair graying at the temples, his sunglasses pushed on top of his head, stands next to me and asks questions I can't answer. He scratches across his metal clipboard with a ballpoint pen.

"Who does that?" My husband barks to no one in particular. "Who steals from a mother with her baby? Who takes a wedding ring off a woman's finger? Such a fucking animal…"

"How tall would you guess he was?" He holds up his hand to his forehead. "This tall?" He moves his hand up a few inches above his own head. "Or this tall?"

I shake my head, "Maybe . . . I don't remember exactly..."

"How old would you say he was? Like twenty? Twenty-five? Thirty?" He lists off ages encouragingly.

"Yeah..."

"Which one?" He raises his pen above his clipboard.

"Oh... maybe twenty-five? Or maybe twenty? I don't know, I'm sorry...."

"And the gun? A .45? A pistol? A....."

"Yeah, I have no idea. It was black," I answer.

The younger cop hangs back, swaying on his feet, his gaze darting out the front window, watching. This is action, excitement, a gun.

"Who does that?" My husband barks to no one in particular. "Who steals from a mother with her baby? Who takes a wedding ring off a woman's finger? Such a fucking animal…"

Curtis paces the living room. Angry that he wasn't here. Angry that he couldn't help. Angry the man got away.

"We'll let you know if your ring turns up," the older officer tells me. "Sometimes they end up in pawnshops, you know..." he trails off.

"Sure, thank you," I say.

The officers shake my husband's hand and nod to me as they walk out the front door. Curtis bolts the door behind them and tests the knob to ensure it's locked. It is over.

Emma fusses in my arms. Absently, I lift her, adjusting the blanket and unbuttoning my shirt to nurse. Emma squirms and bites down painfully on my breast, sucking impatiently. My body is stressed, and the milk won't come. I feel dried up and useless. Her tiny fist grabs at my flesh, frustrated and angry.

"Your milk production is slowing down," the pediatrician had told me on our last visit. "It's natural," she said. "Some women can nurse longer than others."

"Just give her a bottle!" Curtis snaps from the bedroom when Emma begins to cry.

Loneliness grips my chest as I carry Emma into the kitchen to mix a bottle. For all Curtis's show of concern in front of the officers, he doesn't ask how I am. The events of the day tumble around me. I stand at the counter, blinking at the bright fluorescent overhead lights. The white cupboards; the fridge, still decorated with grainy gray and white ultrasound photos; ceramic mugs ringed with brown sticky remnants of morning coffee, startlingly familiar, strangely unaffected. I wonder how so much could have changed in my world in that afternoon, when everything is exactly the same.

I cradle Emma in my arm and, one-handed, attempt to open the can of formula. My hand shakes as I twist the lid, and the can slips out of my sweaty fingers, dumping powdered formula onto the counter and the floor. Curtis's heavy footsteps pound into the kitchen, and, surveying the mess, he grabs my wrist, twisting it roughly. I drop the lid, and it clatters to the floor .

Curtis takes the bottle from the counter and leans to pick up the half-empty can of formula. I hold Emma against me as he scoops the formula into the bottle and fills it with tap water. He shakes the bottle, thrusts it into my hand, and storms out of the kitchen. His shoes leave wide imprints in the spilled formula, and he tracks white powdery footprints into the hallway. The bedroom door slams.

My hand shakes as I hold Emma's bottle, and she feels so heavy in my arms. I lean against the kitchen counter trying to steady myself. I want to move into a chair, but I don't trust myself to carry Emma across the room. With my back against the wall, I slide down onto the kitchen floor and sit with Emma while she finishes her bottle. A phantom ache settles in my chest. The tiny foothold I thought I had on my daughter's survival is gone. Stark vulnerability cuts through me. I close my eyes and see the gun pointing at her. How close he was.

Throughout the night Curtis prowls through the house, checking the doors, checking windows, watching the driveway, thinking of ways to further insulate us from the world.

Emma sleeps between us that night. Neither Curtis nor I sleep much. I tuck a blanket around Emma and steal into the bathroom to look out the window. The moon creates a silvery reflection on the water as it fades into the dusky purple sky. I crack the window and press my cheek against the screen. It is low tide; I can tell by the strong smell of seaweed rot in the air. My world has cracked down the middle, and tide continues to rise and fall. In this still-quiet hour, the water crashes against the shore. I want to lose myself in this white noise; I want to be tossed into the white foam and kick against the powerful waves until I drift farther into the calm, icy water, letting my body float away from this fear and anxiety that paralyzes me. How can I keep my baby safe? I can buy car seats and electrical outlet protectors, install baby gates and cover the sharp edges on the coffee table. There were things I thought I could control. But now I know it doesn't matter; Emma could still be shot dead in my arms by a man who wants my wedding ring. I can hear Emma whimper from the next room, and I know that I can never again drift alone, unburdened, guided only by the pull of the tide. My heart is tied to hers, and I realize the tremendous burden in loving another person completely.

During the night Emma grips my finger with her tiny hand and sucks noisily on her pacifier. Sometime toward dawn, tears roll down Curtis's face as he props himself up on one arm and watches Emma sleep, her dark lashes resting on smooth, pink cheeks. Strips of early sunlight stream through the crack in the bedroom curtains; the light seems dreamlike, unreal. I fall asleep. I dream of a gun.

After that night, all anyone wants to talk about is the ring. The gun. The story.

I remember his hand cradling Emma's head. I think of the tenderness in his gesture. I can't recall a time when Curtis touched Emma so softly. I wonder about the man who stole my ring. Did the ring buy his drugs? Pay his rent? Buy diapers?

At first I try to explain, it wasn't what happened, it was what didn't happen. What could have happened. What could still happen. I can't find the words to say this. Curtis fills in my silence with his own words until it becomes his story. His dramatic retelling, drawing out small details, creating tension where there had been none before. He finds a willing audience in our friends and family. He tells the mailman, the neighbors, the waitress who pours our coffee. The story bleeds into every corner of my life.

I dread the cocktail party conversation. My stomach drops when I hear the first line.

"Did you hear what happened to Grace?"

The pointless, insensitive questions leave me avoiding my circle of friends; women who clutch their left hands protectively, listening to Curtis's story, enthralled and wide eyed, gasping and shaking their heads. Each time, stripping me bare. Each time, a violation of my memory, my experience. They wanted every detail from me. What did he say? What did you do? How did you feel? I couldn't explain how I truly felt. I wasn't angry. I was sad. I was lost. I was violated. And in a tiny part of my mind, I felt a small tug of protection for the man who stole my ring.

I remember his hand cradling Emma's head. I think of the tenderness in his gesture. I can't recall a time when Curtis touched Emma so softly. I wonder about the man who stole my ring. Did the ring buy his drugs? Pay his rent? Buy diapers?

I wrap my hand around the back of Emma's head, as he had done, and I stroke her forehead with my thumb. Gentle. Sweet.

When Curtis retells the story, a vein throbs at his temple as he slams his fist against the doorway in frustration. It tears at him, this violation of his wife, his child, and his home. Missing the action seems to infuriate Curtis more than the event itself. And the excitement I hear in my husband's voice as he retells the story doesn't hold any fear or sadness or pain.

"If I had been there…" Curtis would continue on with graphic details of just what he would have done to this cowardly man who stole his wife's wedding ring. Rage simmers at the edge of his voice.

I represent a missed opportunity for him to be a hero. He grabs the door from a man who holds it for me, intentionally bumping shoulders with a man he feels is walking too close to my side. After telling Curtis the opossum in our backyard hissed at me, he traps it in a pillowcase and beats it to death with a shovel in the backyard. When he holds my arm in public in a seemingly loving gesture, he leaves a series of small purple bruises across my forearm.

I read about my robbery in the crime report of my small local paper. Four sentences.

On the 2300 block of Sepulveda Boulevard, an unidentified armed suspect, male, robbed a 27-year-old Manhattan Beach resident, female, at gunpoint. The suspect stole a wedding ring, valued at $1,500. Victim was unhurt. Anyone with information relating to the incident is asked to contact MBPD.

I cut the police report out and fold it inside Emma's baby book. Curtis and I wait for the insurance check, and he talks of a new ring.

"Let's wait," I say. "They might find it." Although I don't believe they will.

Friends offer to accompany Emma and me to the park, to the grocery store. Curtis works from home. None of this gives me comfort. I don't feel protected. I feel trapped. The robbery has taken my peace, Emma has taken my heart, but my husband is taking the last piece of my independence.

The faint, pale imprint my wedding ring left behind on my finger begins to fade.

I start researching pawn shops. The nondescript names themselves seem seedy and suspicious. Pawn 4 Dollars. Cash for Gold. 24-Hour Pawn. Located across the freeway, a 20-minute drive and a world away.

I pack up Emma's diaper bag and tell Curtis we are spending the day with my mom. I drop Emma at my mom's house and tell her I am spending the day with Curtis. I feel a pinprick of anxiety handing Emma over to my mom. My mind shuffles through all the possible hazards; her small face pressed against a soft mattress; her body rolling off the changing table when my mom turns her back to grab a diaper; the soft pulsing spot above her forehead crashing against the hardwood floor.

I drive. Passing the exit I normally take for home, I continue speeding down the freeway to another part of town.

The first pawnshop I enter is an old stucco building, the white paint faded to a sun-bleached gray and peeled away from the doorframe in long, frayed tongues. The bell attached to the door chimes as I enter, more of a warning than a welcome. The shop owner, an old Middle Eastern man with a wrinkled face and a thin fringe of white hair encircling his bald head, perches on a high stool behind the counter, his face half-covered by a newspaper. Small, wire-framed glasses slide down the narrow bridge of his nose as he nods, acknowledging my arrival.

The large front window is dirty and only allows a pale, thin light to shine through. The shop is tired, used; dim corners and worn, spongy gray carpet.

Along the walls, long glass-fronted cabinets hold trays of jewelry: rings and necklaces, bracelets and pins. The pieces sit naked on the shelves, stripped of their sentimental value, waiting for a new life.

The shop owner stands quietly and sets his newspaper on the stool as he approaches the counter where I stand. He speaks with the broken English of someone who has lived too long to embrace another language.

"Something you like to see?"

"This," I say, pointing to a tiny, jeweled tiara.

He pulls it from the shelf and sets it on the glass countertop in front of me. A small silver half circle, set with glittery stones. I pick it up and examine the small, steel teeth of the hair combs underneath. Something a flower girl would wear, or perhaps for a first communion, placed on a fussy hairdo of a squirming, little girl.

"Real silver," he tells me, "see here," He points to the small numbers stamped into the side of the tiara. "The stones," he shakes his head, "the stones are nothing, but the silver is valuable."

I nod and hand the piece back to him. I ask to hold a broach, a watch, a heavy gold bracelet.

With each piece I wonder what has brought it here. I hold a small gold ring, a ring for a child, set with an aquamarine center stone surrounded by a circle of tiny diamond chips. A birthday gift? A Quinceanera? And who had decided to bring the ring here? A father? Her mother? The girl herself, now grown and needing money more than memories? Or was it stolen off her finger? I hold the ring in my palm, willing it to tell me its story.

I look at the diamond rings, row after row of them until even the most beautiful stones look cheap and gaudy. I hesitate at the end of the last case.

I wonder if there could be a woman in a pawnshop at this moment holding my ring, feeling my panic. Does her heart race as she tries the ring on her finger and flash with worry as she thinks about a baby girl she doesn't know? Or does she choose my ring, perhaps with her fiancé, and wear it out of the shop proudly, giving it a new life, all memories of me forgotten?

"My wedding ring is gone," I tell him.

"You lost?" he asks. "An accident?"

I shake my head, and he looks down at my hands. I quickly pull my sleeve down to cover the ugly purple bruise encircling my wrist. He looks at me through his glasses; his eyes are clear and kind.

"Rings," he says, waving his hand toward a glass case filled with rings nestled in black velvet cushions. "We have so many."

I look at the diamond rings, row after row of them until even the most beautiful stones look cheap and gaudy. I hesitate at the end of the last case.

It takes me a moment. My eyes recognize it instantly, but my mind reels back with shock. There it is. My ring. A simple gold band, the center stone a princess cut, half carat diamond with a slight flaw that most people wouldn't notice, but which discounted the jewel considerably. The center stone is flanked by two smaller diamonds taken from a pair of earrings, a gift from my parents on my 21st birthday.

"Can I see that one?" I ask.

The man nods and pulls my ring out of the crease in the black velvet cushion. I hold the ring in my hand. It is spoiled, haunted, sticky with fear and anxiety.... I can't imagine sliding that ring back on my finger. I can't stop thinking of the last moment I pulled it off. But still. I can't leave it here. I remember wearing that ring when we found our little house. I loved how it sparkled on my finger. I imagined the life we would create together. Even now, when I think of that salty air, scented heavily with the bougainvillea that weaved up the trellis outside what would become our bedroom window, something seeps into my heart and I remember the time as I wish it was. I long for a time that never really happened.

I hand the ring back to the man, and he peers at the stone through his loupe.

"It's flawed, you know," he tells me. "But the gold is valuable. You give me $500.00?"

I write a check out of our joint account, spending the grocery money for the month.

Transaction completed, I thank him and open the door to leave, the bell chiming behind me. I step into a flood of daylight, which blinds me temporarily as I blink and let my eyes adjust to the brightness.

I drive away, past the seedy pawn shops, the littered bus stops, the dirty unwashed streets. My hands grip the steering wheel as I watch the road ahead. I see before me days and years of quiet pain. I imagine my baby growing into a little girl, into an angst-ridden teenager, into a woman who falls in love with a man who hides his control behind the guise of protection. I imagine her carefully constructing the façade of a perfect life, wearing long sleeves to hide dark, swollen bruises in the summertime, and weaving tales of clumsiness and accidents. I think of all the ways I try to keep my daughter safe, and all the ways that I will fail her.

I stop at a red light and watch the sun glitter off the car in front of me. My purse is sitting on the passenger seat, and I reach inside and roll the ring between my fingers.

I pull off the side street near my home. I park along the cliffs and watch the quiet horizon. Stepping out of my car, I grab my purse and walk down the grassy trail to the cliff's edge. Below me, jagged brown rocks open into a jade pool, which darkens into a deep emerald in the center and looks deceptively inviting. At low tide, when the ocean is calm with no swells, this sea cave is magical; dark and mysterious. When the tide rises and water fills the cave, the waves swirl and create a foamy white whirlpool, a dangerous cocktail of power and depth. I see myself at 17, standing on these rocks, waiting for the calm before the waves, for a safe moment to jump into the sea cave and swim back out. My body wild with fear and excitement, unaware of the real danger.

The blazing afternoon sunshine floods the ocean with gold; soft light sparkles on the water, and it's so beautiful it hurts my heart. I wonder how something could be so dangerous and so glorious, so damning but so brilliant. I pull the ring out of my purse and hold it tightly in my fist, the diamond pressing painfully against the palm of my hand. When I see a wave heading into the sea cave, I toss the ring into the water and watch the ocean swallow it up. The water churns and rises, spitting white foam back out into the receding tide.


Megan Hart is a mother of three and a kindergarten teacher in Boise, Idaho. She enjoys writing, running and spending time with her family. Recently, Megan won a 2018 Idaho Press Award for excellence in journalism for her compelling first person account in the Idaho Statesman on the practice of lockdown drills in kindergarten.


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