This is not how it happened.
We held the cord in our hands. It was knotty, transparent, blue. We took a breath and cut the cord together. With silent blessings, we buried it in the earth beneath a peony bush. Ants were busy opening its buds. On our daily walks, we strolled past the bush and told you the cord’s story. You began with a delicate string. The string sustained you—even with a missing part. I poked your belly and said right here. There was a missing part, I repeated, and still, you grew whole. As time passed, you said words to the dirt below the bush and left precious objects at its feet: heart-shaped rocks, broken bike reflectors, silver coins, gum wrappers. I added your great-grandmother’s rosary and some pomegranate seeds. You pointed to your middle. With braided fingers, we left treasures to say thank you.
Instead, this is how it happened.
The first thing I noticed was the doctor’s hair. I gazed longingly at the frosted pixie. Behind her, your body moved in whispers of gray and white—a beautiful shadow. The first thing she noticed was the problems. She noticed problems while I noticed her hair. I imagined her hair’s edges floating from her scalp to slice me open. They left me cold.
The first thing she noticed was the cord. It had two vessels. I looked up, confused. This meant nothing to me. Even now, I question if I am describing it accurately. Were there two or three or four? Was it a vessel or an artery? I never remembered exactly how many there were or why they mattered. But I knew they did. I tried to remember the details. I made up mnemonics. I copied a diagram into my notebook with a faded pen. I longed to swallow the knowledge to make the missing vessel whole. Failing to remember made me feel like less of a mother. The least I could do was describe what was wrong. I was, after all, the keeper of this broken cord.
I remembered instead the beautiful shadow, the cold edges of her hair.
You were, they said, too small. I swallowed.
I asked why. How. She said she did not know. Sometimes these things just happen. Maybe a virus, but we really can’t be sure. The cords form in an instant. And this, to me, sounded like magic. I thought it was too much to ask of an instant. It was too much to ask of a body.
We were sent to the genetic counselor. She spoke in hushed tones through pamphlets—a language of tables that failed to contain the grief they conjured. She knew these offerings were not enough. I tried to imagine this as my own job—every day the pamphlets, the grief. But, at the round table with too many chairs, I could not feel sorry for her.
We waited in line for genetic testing. I watched my blood flow—the red liquid moving away from me and you. It carried the answers I needed but could not decode. I mourned the loss of a vessel I’d just learned existed. My thumbs asked the phone questions as I cursed technology, images, progress. I did not have to know. Knowing would not save me or you or us anyway. I learned that cats cut their own umbilical cords with their teeth.
But still, you grew.
And when I finally got to see the cord outside of the screen, I was too tired. I was too busy inhaling the ashes of my extinguished fear. As they checked you and made sure you were whole, I watched your dad cut the cord. We called Grandma and said your name aloud. I caught a glimpse of the cord being whisked away on a silver platter. It lay in gloved hands. Later, I felt shame for the image I pictured: the cord in the dumpster behind the hospital, cradled in plastic. In my mind, it rested beside bloody gloves and gauze—the blood maybe mine, maybe others’.
The navel is a knotty center that won’t be undone. Even dinosaur fossils show this imprint of connection. But we don’t often think of it as a scar. I look at your belly button and think it is a playful phrase, belly button—the little sibling of a navel. Yours was clamped and painted blue; the remnants fall quickly and leave only threads. I put my fingers in the swirling cavern and feel your center radiate. For a moment, we were connected.
There was no ceremony. I am sorry. And I thank it still.
The Good Mother Lizard
At the museum, my daughter filters dirt through a kitchen colander. She is searching for bones. As I inhale sand particles and sanitizer, my eyes wander to a nearby placard. “Good Mother Lizard,” it reads. I step closer, pulled like a rope by this arrangement of letters. I glance around—embarrassed by my hunger and the questions lodged in my larynx. My longing is shrouded by bones.
Dear Mother Lizard, please tell me.
Please tell me what it is to be a good mother.
I am like you, born with skin instead of scales.
Please take this abstraction in your tongue, your tail, your teeth, and hammer it into something I can touch, can feel, something I can do with my body.
If you could only tell me, I could know. And then I could be what she needs.
I leave this offering at the foot of her altar. But the placard offers little in response: a brief description of her habitat and date of extinction. I realize with frustration, once again, that someone thought a good mother needed no explanation.—I interrupt myself: a good mother does not turn from her child in the dirt to research what it means. Still, my hand slides into my purse. Through greasy pouches, stiff Band-aids, and wet cotton shorts, I feel the edges of my phone and enter the phrase into the search bar. Maiasaura (meaning “Good Mother Lizard”): a medium-sized brown reptile with a crest between her eyes. The lizard’s children were born with small, weak bodies and bulging eyes. For protection, they stayed in the nest and relied on their mother for longer than most of their kind. The mother lizard is known for being a great protector (Okoyomon, 2022).
I calculate the logic. If A is to B then…a good mother takes care of her children; a good mother provides food and protection. I slip my phone back into the chaos and kneel next to my daughter in the sand. As the grains dig into my knees, my thoughts wander from the sandbox and land once again upon the bones. I already resent the Good Mother. I resent that she knows how to care for and from whom to protect her young. I resent the cells that code this information. If she was such a skilled protector, I ask defensively, why are they all extinct?
But I know I am unfair—my imagination limited by blame. After all, the Good Mother had no part in her naming.
Okoyomon, A. “Meet Maiasaura, the Good Mother Lizard.” Science World. July 12, 2022.