mama altar

it started as i drove home from the grocery, my eyes stinging with tears.

i’d gone in to grab some orange juice, a perennial thirst in this house. ran into my friend adreine, who runs the front end, who over the years, as she’s rung up my eggs, shoved my gallons of milk down the beltway, has filled me in on her longing, her longing to please grow a baby. all around her it seems, everyone else is getting good news, getting pregnant. not adreine. she, nearly 40, has had month after month of the no news that is very sad news in the baby department. as we talked, i wiped a tear from right by her eye, her beautiful, beautiful eye.

then i drove home, crying too.

i know what it is to bang on the locked gates of heaven and feel like nobody’s home, nobody’s listening. i know what it is to want, more than anything, the round lump of baby in your so-aching arms.

just a few days before the grocery i’d walked into a quite crowded room but could not miss the lightbeams shining from a friend. a friend who this time, for the first time, wore a billowy top that shouted, without hesitation, “i’m pregnant. i’m waiting.”

the beam on her face reminded me of ones i’d once worn. i couldn’t help–again–my own tear or two, moved by the joy of remembering. but as we talked i found out she too knew what it was to hold her deep breath. she’d lost one little girl, and she was scared, scared to trembling, that she could lose this one too. not that there was any reason she would. just because she’s a mama who’s been there. and once you’re there, it’s terribly hard to not think you’ll land there again.

i’ve been in that place myself. know what it is to wear a miracle ’round your middle. know what it is to hold your breath for nine very long months, so afraid that the miracle could so slip away. i too lost a little girl. once stared at the fuzzy gray lines of a baby stone still in my womb. looked into her face as she slipped through my fingers. left her behind in a little wood box, dug into the earth, on my papa’s own grave, in the drizzly cold of a cemetery, 12 years ago.

i know the dark and the light of fertility. i know its abyss and its mountaintop. i know the breathlessness of the ascent, and the gasping for air when you’re pushed off the trail.

i am forever a woman whose heart was seared by the loss and the triumph of childbirth.

i am, i’m afraid, a card-carrying member of the sisterhood for life.

and you do not abandon your sisters.

you build them an altar. you say a prayer, yes. but, even more, you build a prayer tableau and you take it to the next power.

you gather the makings of your prayerful intentions, the physical manifestation of what it is you are asking. it’s something that women, indigenous wise women, have been doing for ages. my friend mary ellen has taught me. my mother, who builds may altars, has too.

it’s there when you’re not. it’s there when you wander past, reminding. nudging: whisper a prayer. don’t forget. don’t leave those women alone. hold them close in your prayer.

and so, spurred by those faces, one in deep longing, the other in deep hope, i came home and started to gather.

i gathered talismans of hope and believing. of my own dreams that had finally come true. i pulled from my top drawer the little pregnancy test, the one that i’ve kept since the cold afternoon when the plus sign turned pink and my dream that would never come true, started to come. i reached in the drawer by my bed, lifted the armbands of delivery, one for mama, one for baby. i plucked the most blessed mother of all. and a gold-winged angel to boot. i snatched a few tulips from the kitchen, decided blood red was a color quite apt. i even remembered the tiniest prayer book, one that once was my mother’s. and then i laid them all on a rectangle of lace made by the grandma i never knew, the one who, at 40, gave birth to the man i called papa.

i made an altar for the mamas to be. the two that i know and the hundreds and thousands i don’t.

we are a sorority who share a particular pain, often unspoken. sometimes you haven’t a clue who your sisters are.

but once you’ve been where they are, you can never again look into the eyes of a woman afraid, a woman desperately longing for life, and not join her brigade.

you pray, and you pray mightily. you get down on your knees. you beg at the locked gate of heaven. you make deals, if you have to. and you pray to God that you do not hear only the echo of your deep incantation lost in the canyon of No.

you know what it is to hear the sound of your heart cracking. you do not leave a mama abandoned. you do not leave her to tremble, to quiver alone.

you muster the force deep inside you. you envision a babe, safe and asleep, in her arms. and you pray to God that someone is listening, someone comes through for those mamas.

if there is a sorority of promise, you are signed on. for ever, for life. and so i bow down at the altar.

please, whisper a prayer for the mamas. for adreine, for trish, and for all of the ones whose names we don’t even know.