A Heart Outside Your Body

What no one tells you when you are pregnant:

Yes, having children means you get to re-live the world through young eyes--Christmas morning, having turned into a cynical gift-grab somewhere in late adolescence, is magical again, the first taste of ice cream is transcendent, a birthday (not your own!) is an occasion for spinning with joy, the skirt of your new dress flaring out around you.

What they don't tell you is that you also get to re-experience the hell of feeling isolated and ostracized by the pom-squad-and-volleyball team queens in the middle school lunch room, and, this time, it is far more painful!  You get to watch your heart, now outside your body, walking around without layers of bone and protective muscle and sinew encasing it.  No, your heart is a bloody, pulpy, defenceless mess, pumping away for all to see, vulnerable to toxins and dust and every sort of barb thrown its way.  That is how it feels.

She came home, droopy in her baggy Athletics uniform, not lashing out angrily, not slamming doors or hurling insults, but subdued, nearly mute in her misery.  The girl silenced and devoid of spirit was almost worse than the raging tiger that sometimes crashes into the house after school.

"Can we move?" she asked.  "Please?"

It seems that S______, already on the "A" volleyball team and a long-time member of an expensive volleyball league populated with popular girls, was spurned by the boy she liked.  He asked out one of her friends instead and S________ was crushed.  However, this event weirdly capitulated her into celebrity status with the "in" crowd.  Everyone vied to sit with her at lunch, offering her solace in her heartbreak and Almost-Teen ate alone. She knew this was coming.  At the beginning of the year, S________, her friendships with the popular girls solidified from a summer playing club volleyball, said ominously: "I think we should branch out more this year and be open to friends with more people."  And now Almost-Teen picks at her pastacio nuts, silently watching S_______ talking and laughing, surrounded by admirers.

Now she leaned her head against me and I see the joy that was her birthright is gone.  The pure delighted laugh of the sixth-month-old looking into the face of a friendly dog, the toddler who ran on the beach at sunset, stopping to scoop up wet sand and watching it drip through her fingers like Oobleck, the two-year-old who had to dance whenever she heard music, swaying with abandon next to a calypso band on a cruise ship--nearly thirteen years of life have extinguished the light that used to be in her eyes and I want to scream at the unfairness of it.

I came down from reading to the little sisters and there she sat, for once done with homework, idle and catatonic in the brightly-lit dining room (she turns up the lights in an effort to keep the cockroaches at bay). 

"Come on.  Do you want me to read to you?"

She nods.  I used to read to her every night, carefully choosing books above her reading level in vocabulary and content.  I still read to her when I can, but there rarely is time; often, she is still doing homework when I head, yawning, to bed.  We are currently reading Watership Down; we've been reading it for nearly a year and a half and we're two-thirds of the way through. 

She is waiting in bed, curled on her side, her eyes open and staring and so very sad.  I begin reading.  Bigwig is convincing Hyzenthlay to leave Efrafa and I read, casting sideways glances.  I curl around the duvet-covered lump that is my child, trying to transfer love and strength and protection from my body into hers.  But I can't.  I slip my hand between her face and the pillow and feel a warm wetness.  I read, finishing the chapter, but I have no idea what it is that I have read.  I want to snatch up my heart, the one I see beating before me in the guise of an almost-teenaged girl, each sorrowful, painful beat reverberating painfully in my own chest.  I see every one of my bad choices, each one of my faults manifested in the tears that wet the pillow and I long to pick up my heart and put it in a place that is safe and protected.

But that is impossible and so your heart beats on without you as you watch helplessly from the sidelines.  And that is what no one ever told you, thirteen years ago, when you were pregnant.

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