I’m digging with my bare hands through the hard backyard clay I’ve loosened with a shovel, looking for the mother root—hoping there is one. Somewhere in the fluorescent-lit aisle of a hardware store are the pair of gloves that could save my hands, and I curse myself just a little for lacking foresight. I try to keep myself upright on the crest of the hill.
Lately, I’ve felt that this is the apex of my life—the tip top of the roller coaster—and I’m about to begin the terrifying, high-speed descent—into what? Death? I don’t think I’m that fatalistic. The descent isn’t terrifying because I’m nearing an end: it’s terrifying because it’s the same as the ascent, but backwards. I’ve seen all of this before, but from a different angle, a different point view. Maybe a different self. I left Oregon when I was eighteen, and here I am returning eighteen years later, this time with a son who looks alarmingly like me. He has my face shape, my exact eye color. And my mother comes over sometimes to hold him, feed him, give him small and thoughtful gifts. Watching her gives me the sense that I’m witnessing myself before memory or story, a raw bundle of synapse and nerve, soothed and lulled in her arms.
The mother root: it must be invisible, I think to myself, shaking my head to watch a cloud of dust stream out from my hair. My sweat makes little tributaries of mud down my neck toward my breasts where I still remember the full ache of milk. When I began, I was sure I could find it. It occurs to me now that it doesn’t exist, that it’s something I made up. I wanted these chaotic vines to be a map that would lead to the source. Where I could unearth control of my yard. But what I found is an underground sprawl, an intricate weaving of roots so dense and deep it’s impossible to make sense of them. There’s no key here. Each time I dig up what looks like an innocent young shoot, I always find it’s just a greener branch on a gnarled, woody shoot that leads deeper and deeper into the earth, and the deeper I go, the thicker and more branch-like the root.
Because the backyard was an unlovely expanse of dirt and mulch simmering with blackberry bushes, the house was a good deal for its locale. It needed a gardener’s eye, and more desperately, a gardener’s tools. My husband and I do not consider ourselves gardeners, but the house was in a good school district—one of many choices we made in a deluge of decisions that we called Being Good Parents. This included our move back to the Northwest to be near my family, although it meant leaving Cincinnati—where we married and bought our first house, where I suffered through pregnancy and gave birth to our son. Leaving meant uprooting everything.
At the end of July in Cincinnati, as I watched the humidity gather on every semi-flat surface—the hood of cars, windowsills, the grooved leaves of hosta—I couldn’t help but think the whole city was pregnant, swollen. For nine months I watched my body stretch to grotesque proportions, my abdomen so distended that I had no control over the muscles. The baby, clearly uncomfortable inside my dangerously taut skin (little ripples of red sprawled across me like lightning), turned and kicked. Hard. As if he might, at any moment, break out. At a week overdue, I couldn’t help but feel stood up. I wept inconsolably everywhere I went—in the house, in the heat outside, along the streets where tar oozed from each poorly patched hole and kudzu vines curled more tightly around their host-poles. In the cemetery, I witnessed wasps stinging a cicada to death, algae quelling the surface of ponds, everything multiplied, terrifying.
The night I finally went into labor, I was eager, happy. For twelve hours I felt the waves of pain move through me in closer and closer intervals until the sun rose, then my labor stopped. Something was wrong. Strange fluids leaked from my body. For five days, I woke and slept in a state of alarm, trying every remedy to bring the pain back: chilies, pressure points, walking for miles. By the end of the week, a doctor agreed to examine me. My amniotic fluid was too low. My son needed to come out now. At the hospital my husband held my hand as I was given an epidural. The anesthesiologist noted the distress in my face and injected something into the tube at my wrist. In moments, I floated ever so slightly above myself, like a cloud of numbed nerves above the landscape of my body. Awake on the table, trembling from adrenaline, I stared at the white sheet strung up at my sternum to hide the scene behind it—I imagined a red line cut through my muscles, my organs loose in the gloved hands of strangers—as narcotics blurred the edges of my vision.
That I’d expected something else entirely—a natural birth—no longer mattered. The surgeon wrestled her hands into the opening she made in me and tugged—so surprising, how rough it felt, how my boy came out through that bloody door. I expected the sound of crying, but instead I heard the surgeon’s voice yelling, Somebody help me here!—followed by the sound of sucking, then wet coughing. I asked the blurry figures I knew must be holding my newborn what was happening, surprised at how far away my voice sounded. My husband told me our boy had fluid in his lungs. I have no idea how much time passed as my boy coughed, as the surgeon sutured me shut. Eventually they laid my tiny son, warm and delicate, on my bare chest. When I said his name, he opened his eyes.
Nothing is what it seems at the beginning. Take the creek in our backyard here in Georgia, for example: a low, docile muddy little flow of Atlanta city’s runoff. For the first month we lived here it was barely noticeable through the kudzu. I’d been calling the stream Lazy Stanley in my mind.
Then today, after an astonishing downpour (the rain falls so hard here, you’d think you could swim up through it), our backyard flooded. Nothing serious: the kids’ metal playset an inch or so underwater, but no real damage beyond the growth of mildew. From our window, though, we could see the creek was absolutely livid. A whole mob of water unleashed within it, city trash churned against the steep shore, branches swept away, even some of the kudzu pulled out of place.
The kudzu thrives with terrifying success here, far more prolific than the blackberries in Oregon. The vine covers the trunks of trees and the space between them so completely that for the first little while we didn’t even know there was an apartment building behind us, across the creek—just a wall of curling green several stories high. The week we first moved in, we noticed lights at night and wondered what was there. Having only lived here a few months now, we still only have a vague idea. I suppose I could walk to the building to see it with my own eyes instead of viewing it on Google maps, but there’s no good walkable path to get there—a highway, a creek engulfed by vines. And besides what would I do when I got there? Knock on the apartment doors to introduce myself? Hello. I’m new here. I just moved with my family from Oregon to start a new job. This means I left home again. This means I can probably never go back, and I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t hurt me, that I don’t still push at it in my mind like the edge of a bruise. But somehow that hurt is better than trying to feel at home in a place that’s overgrown by memory. As it turns out, memory is rootless. You can follow it all the way down to nothing.