Chapter Six: My Life Without Me by Jasmina Tesanovic
6. My daughter
I am feeling my first delivery pains, I don’t want to go to the hospital. I know the staff will call me “Mother” there, and scold me for failing their communist motherly codex. I don’t want their medicines, I don’t want their shots. I don’t want the special treatment I will get as the daughter of a pediatrician. I just want to be a common woman having a common baby, just as women have babies all over the world.
I want that simple feeling of connection to the earth and the sky. A simple condition of being invisible, nothing, zero, like a flower in a sea of flowers. So, my amniotic liquid, that ocean of life, is all over my legs. I jump into the car and tell my husband, the genetic donor:
- Drive me fast to that hospital or we will have the baby in the car.
He is trembling. Fatherhood has made him a gaunt, frightened shadow of the tall, slender, lively character I used to know. Womanhood was never his strong point. On the contrary, he always thought women were a natural disaster. Aliens in a man’s life, for good or ill.
Babies? Well, this one was a supernatural phenomenon to both of us. I relied on the statistics of childbirth. Everything will likely be OK, as long as the doctors don’t get their hands on me.
That day, the hospital was trenched all around with public works and workers…
- Hurry, I was screaming.
- Take my bag, I’ll need it, there is nothing in the ward, no cotton, no night gowns, no aspirin.
It was moment of general stasis after the death of Tito, but before the wars of Milosevic…
One thing I never regretted about my husband was his excellent genetics. But he was breathless and knock-kneed in the crisis of childbirth; until his deathbed, twenty-three years later, I never saw him make such a face. It was just plain fear of a major force — not in his body, but in mine.
Sometimes, he claimed I stole the oxygen from a room when I breathed so heavily. He was a poet. He stole other people’ s lives by telling tales about them. He was a poet.
When he was a small boy, other boys would beat him, even girls would beat him, for ignoring their childhood games to tell them amazing lies about fairies and mermaids. His mother was a female masterpiece of soaring, hysterical imagination. His father was an eccentric war hero. After the turmoil of World War II, his victorious talents turned into obsession and paranoia: he was continually reading and writing the same books, which he showed to no one. They were genetic treasures for the child I cherished.
- Hey nurse, I screamed seeing a white figure passing by me…
I ran after her, but she serenely ignored us. My poet simply collapsed. Small white nurses jumped to their quick feet, keen to aid the mustached, good looking pregnant father. I seized that opportunity to dodge all of them and find a delivery bed. In those days, to find such a bed was a luxury, and I had spotted one that happened to be empty…
- Hey you, wait, you cannot go there in your shoes… I heard the nurse shout.
Giving birth is actually a birthday for a woman: a day of birth, to be celebrated, to be remembered. But what for? The baby travels the shortest tunnel in her life, to join the longest and most dangerous adventure in the world. The mother should be celebrated just for being there and enduring it. For having a female body which can put up with tons of pressure. The massive force of biology, evolution, humanity, whatever…
But once again, it goes without saying, life could have happened without me. Dead women have been kept alive by machines to deliver a baby. Months pass, and they deliver an heir to the family, the president, the flag. Bereft of the live within, they are buried with a lot of glory.
The woman next to me was screaming her head off. It was a clear hot day of July, no air conditioning. She was in labor pain, a pain I thought sooner or later will strike me too, for daring to meddle with nature, to play the genetic lottery. But I didn’t suffer: I plain forgot the pain, and started hallucinating. I saw the mermaids wagging their long tails in the air around me and the hospital clock in front of me seemed huge as the moon.
- Mother, pull yourself together! a stern female voice shouted at me.
My moon and the mermaids vanished and I found myself sitting upright in a hospital bed.
- Don’t you see your baby is coming, hey, you are going to drop the baby, stop it, and hang on for a minute, wait, I need to wash my hands…
I hadn’t the faintest idea what she was talking about, but I felt real guilt.
So I pretended I was keen to please her, and the baby came out smoothly and happily.
- Oh what a lovely baby, said the nurse, all dolled up in her white overalls. For some reason all nurses are cute in uniform. Even ugly women become attractive as nurses. Likely because their suffering patients need to see them that way.
- Mother, hold the baby, for heaven’s sake, she kept shouting at me. She was beaming at the baby, whom she obviously preferred to me, a problem patient who could not pull herself together.
- She looks like me, you know, said the nurse. She looks like Liz Taylor, not at all like you.
She was right. The baby did not look like me. The baby was a black and hairy creature screaming her head off. I was at a loss. This was the price I paid for reading the entire works of Thomas Mann while pregnant, instead of self-help books for mothers.
- Well, give her your breast.
- Which one? I asked in alarm.
- Oh any one, you silly, don’t you see she needs your warmth…
I saw no such thing. My baby looked to me like an alien who would someday bury me. She had a slightly crooked neck and her left side was smaller than her right side. She reminded me of my husband’s uncle. A kind, but simple minded little guy. A bus driver.
- Mother, the nurse screamed, your breast is bleeding! Give me that baby; you cannot give blood to a new born, oh for heaven’s sake!
She snatched my baby and took it away somewhere. It was a baby boom year. In the previous year, for months on end, we had lacked electricity: blackouts sent the whole country to bed. That quiet failure of power was the beginning of the fall of my country. My country, the country that my parents built and fought for, had nearly died for. That country that gave my family honor and privilege, that I was born into as a “red princess,” but denied any chance to inherit.
I often do feel like a Hamlet figure: the heir of a state with a rottenness in it. I wonder if Hamlet was gay, or maybe a woman. Ophelia was a saint or a madwoman, but Hamlet? Oh, he could have been any of us hesitant women, awaiting birth in that delivery ward. Did I have any hint of my troubled future: the princess with the pea beneath her mattress…?
No, no hint whatsoever. That is one of the secret conditions of being a princess: princesses don’t know if other women eat bread or brioche. Women may be already starving, freezing, imprisoned, losing their jobs… Or they may face all that experience, and then take a bullet or a guillotine blade, like Anastasia and Marie Antoinette.
- Mother, come on…
Oh I did come on; I jumped to my feet, snatched my bag and ran from the room.
- Mother, wait, you can’t walk away, you just delivered a baby, you must rest…
But I am OK really, I offered, stammering helplessly and holding my big bag tightly. I can walk now, don’t worry… I was doing my best to escape the cute bossy nurse and my role as Mother, but whatever I said made her angrier, whatever I did made her furious…I was just breaking all the rules; I wish Thomas Mann was there to see me!
My mother came to visit me, although the hospital was closed to visitors because of a salmonella infection. Three babies had died. Top secret in the hospital, but my mother, as a doctor, was the first to know bad news, and always keen to tell me.
My mother came all dolled up too, in her white coat with her stethoscope around her neck. She gave me an official kiss, as other nurses gazed at her in awe and respect. She was the toughest of them all, a goddess and whip to the lot of them. She then scrutinized the baby: yes, she is pretty, she sentenced. My mother definitely looked like Liz Taylor, and this baby, oh well, took straight after my mother, without bothering for one atom of a cell to look like me.
Believe it or not, I was relieved. I imagined my baby’s future as a stern successful doctor, free of self-doubt. Relieved also that my baby was a girl: what on earth could I have done with a boy? How can a woman give birth to a man? Makes no sense, men should do that.
I snatched my baby defiantly and faced down the nurse:
- I am going home, I don’t want my baby to die of a state secret called salmonella. And I will tell other mothers to do the same.
The two women, nurse and doctor, could not believe their ears. Or their eyes, because I left, holding my silent baby like a breadloaf. Why do babies like to be carried upside down. My mother never told me this.
My mother never forgave my rude behavior in fleeing her hospital, nor my savage upbringing of her granddaughter. But at least, as a new grandmother, she had a role to perform: to undo my own doings as much as she could.
When my daughter was four months old, her father, my husband, disappeared in his car. I carried her on my breast until dawn, searching for him in the hospitals and morgues.
I imagined myself a widow with a baby who would never know her father. What kind of proper story could I tell her? I asked the sleepy morgue keepers if they had any tall, thin young men killed by car crashes during that icy December night.
- You mean the poet? said the morgue man very enthusiastically.
- Well yes. He’s that poet.
- That’s your dead man, your husband?
- Well, yes.
- And this is his daughter?
- Wow I never knew he was married, can I see the baby, can you autograph his book?
This was the Zemun district of Belgrade, an area where poets were considered of major community value.
- If I receive his body, you will be the first to know, he promised. He’d been reading the poems to pass time in the morgue.
A book, a body, a child, a signature…
When I found him, alive and shivering along the road after abandoning his crashed car, he had broken arms and a lacerated face. But he was walking briskly: he always wanted to live or die in his boots. I took him to the first hospital.
- Man, said the male nurse, I have to fix you at once or you will bleed your life out. Come on, we cannot wait for the doctor, lie here, I will give you an injection.
- Nooooooooo! My sturdy genetic donor could pull a cart out of deep mud, thin as he was. But he could never bear to have a cruel needle jabbed in his body.
- Come on, man, I have to cut that sweater off you and fix your arms and sockets…
- Nooooooo, the refusal came even louder. He prized his beloved sweater more than own skin.
Three male nurses came in: two held him, the third one cut his name-branded yellow sweater. They closed the door and set to work on his broken arms. The screams we heard were inhuman. An old lady lying on the wheeled bed, having just been whacked by a tram, skipped off that bed and limped away with a trail of blood after her. In those cold and dim early hours, any hospital is like a butcher’s shop.
- Man, you are strong, said the main butcher, praising him. — My heart would not have stood that much pain.
Twenty three years later: after I dyed my hair, the phone rang.
- Mom he is dying, my daughter said. Her tearful voice was trembling with responsibility.
- I cannot handle this alone, and he won’t have anybody. Come inside his home.
- OK, said I, I just dyed my hair and it is midnight. Give me the phone numbers of his best friend, his girlfriend, and his doctor.
- But he does not want anybody here, he will kill me, if he knows what I am doing!
- Nobody will kill you. Give me the numbers.
I phoned each and every one of them. He had refused to see anybody in his last months. I haven’t seen him in the last years and knew his friends not at all. But I made them come gather at his door. We staged a raid. First, his doctor, then his best friend, then his girlfriend, then his old friend. Then me, his ex-wife..
I heard him talking humbly as a patient , flirting as a lover, laughing as a buddy, shaking hands as an old pal. Then I entered the scene and gave orders.
- You must take care of your body or commit suicide. This won’t do, I won’t allow you.
- How cruel you are Mom! said my daughter in dismay.
- She is right, said her father, called to his biblical duty.
- Tomorrow you go to the hospital and you take your therapy.
- Yes ma’am, he said.
I left, we all left, the next day we put him in the hospital.
That evening when I got back home, my hair looked really multicolored and pretty, like a lioness’ crown.
- At least I dyed my hair properly, I said to my friend.
He died after a couple of weeks. I was in San Francisco. I flew back to Belgrade immediately: I entered my flat. On the sofa of the living room, his big black tuxedo was spread. On the floor his big black shining shoes. His wallet was on the table.
Somebody knocked on my door.
Two efficient young men in uniforms conquered my living room. They were full of ideas and written plans for his lively and elegant funeral. As if it were a party: they were proud of this honorable man they were entrusted to bury, but they had some concrete problems: a coffin extra size, a client who was a freemason and had his own burial rituals.
What did all this have to do with me? Nothing: I scarcely managed to dress for the funeral, All in black. But I felt that things were falling into place. This is what is expected from you when you marry and have children with a man. To take care of the children, and to bury him. Not even a divorce can spare you that.