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Issue 23: 28 April 2024
Essay: 972 words
By Susan Tekulve

Of Fear


My son in my womb, I steered clear of the microwave, afraid I’d radiate his brain. I drank no coffee, ate no chocolate, so he’d grow, according to my dog-eared childbirth manual, into the size of an olive, a ripe peach. I wasn’t mystical, but I let old laundromat ladies tie my wedding ring to a string, and swing it above my abdomen, telling me what I already knew, his gender, which I kept secret because my husband wanted to be surprised. I didn’t. I let the obstetrician slip me a Post-it® Note, the word “male” written on it, and I kept the note in a secret compartment of my wallet for years after my son was born. Though I wasn’t musical, at week sixteen I drifted Chopin’s nocturnes into the amniotic fluid surrounding him, soothing and developing his hearing with soft and constant arpeggios. He was a kicker. I ran my hands over his arms and elbows rippling my stomach from within, reassuring myself he was yet alive while I took tepid baths, afraid that if I allowed the water’s temperature to rise above my body’s temperature, I’d boil him.

By August, my abdomen the size of a beach ball, I wobbled beside my mother on the shoreline of a sea island off the coast of Charleston. The island was my parent’s newlywed home, the one they returned to from their native Ohio every summer. My mother loved pointing out the pink four-unit apartment where they’d lived, the bridge she stood upon, waving at my father’s submarine disappearing from the port, headed to Guantanamo Bay to spy on another sandbagged harbor surrounded by steep hills and enclaves. My father served in the Navy for two years before the Cuban Missile Crisis, a series of secret military and government miscalculations. We now know Guantanamo Bay as the shameful place that served as a detention camp for asylum-seekers and HIV-positive refugees, mostly Haitians, in the 1990s. At the beginning of the War On Terror, George W. Bush turned it into a detention center that abused and tortured prisoners held indefinitely without trial.

But back in 1961, my father served as a cook on his submarine, making fried chicken for his shipmates, tossing raw scraps into the ship’s wake, watching seagulls argue over them. He had no war stories of his own to tell, but my mother had plenty of secret terrors. She’d had three stillborn daughters before me. According to family lore my father and her father buried them in an unnamed Methodist cemetery on the other side of town, instead of in the Catholic cemetery near our home church, so my mother, a staunch Catholic, wouldn’t be reminded of her body’s failures. As she was birthing me, the doctor lost my heartbeat. When I arrived alive and yellowed by jaundice, my mother turned her face to the wall, afraid to name me until she was sure I’d live. I remained nameless for three days. My father, trying to lighten my mother’s mood, voted to name me Chuck, but a kind nurse stepped in, naming me Susan. My mother’s favorite aunt, Carol, came to visit her in the maternity ward, and that was how I received my middle name.

As my mother and I walked the shoreline of the sea island, I asked her what it was like to give birth. “It felt like someone tied my insides together with a rope,” she said. “Then they tied the other end to a horse and slapped the horse on the rear.” But it wasn’t just my mother who told me horrendous labor stories. My mother-in-law, whose speech resembled the cadence of the King James Bible she read every morning, softly terrorized me with tales of her tailbone breaking while giving birth to her first child, my husband, then breaking twice more as she delivered my husband’s younger sister and brother.

My own body shook through fifteen hours of dry back labor, and I passed out before I saw my son alive, lying on his back in an incubator across the room, beneath a window haloed by sun. My first motherly feelings were shame. Was my son counting his own toes and fingers because I wasn’t awake to perform my first parental duty? My son was so alive, so hungry, he nursed until my breasts became engorged, and I became feverish. My mother flew down from Ohio to help, arriving as my husband fed my son his first bottle. The infection in my chest stung so badly I couldn’t hold my baby, so I sat in the next room, wondering what comfort I could give my child now that I couldn’t pull him close for nourishment. I cried as the wasted milk rolled down to my navel. I’d hoped to pull myself together by the time my mother arrived, but she found me wearing a soaked shirt, shaking again, saying, “They’re going to kick me out of the La Leche league.”

“Don’t get so upset,” she said. “A lot of women can’t nurse. Why do you think they invented formula?” She led me upstairs to the master bedroom, lifted my wet shirt, and towel dried me. I held the bedpost as she wound ACE™ Bandages around my swollen chest. She yanked tightly, nearly pulling me off my feet. I winced at the pressure that would stop the milk from flowing. My husband had placed our son in his bassinet beside the bed. He was counting his own fingers and toes again. I felt another wave of shame, a loosening of my bound milk ducts. Then, I looked again, saw his fingers fluttering the air as if moving over the frets of an invisible guitar. That’s when I began to understand the music of motherhood, the descending and ascending arpeggios of it.

— From a series of flash essays inspired by French philosopher Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), the inventor of the literary essay and author of Essays. Montaigne’s seminal collection comprises 107 chapters in three books, and his essays “Of Fear” and “Of Friendship” appear in Book One.

Susan Tekulve’s
Issue 23 (April 2024)

newest book is Second Shift: Essays (Del Sol Press). She is also the author of In the Garden of Stone (Hub City Press), winner of the South Carolina Novel Prize and a Gold IPPY Award. And she has two short-story collections published: Savage Pilgrims (Serving House Books) and My Mother’s War Stories (Winnow Press), the latter of which received the 2004 Winnow Press fiction prize. Her web chapbook, Wash Day, appears in the Web Del Sol International Chapbook Series.

Her nonfiction, short stories, and essays have appeared in journals such as The Comstock Review, Denver Quarterly, The Georgia Review, Italian Americana, The Louisville Review, MacQueen’s Quinterly, New Letters, Puerto del Sol, and Shenandoah. Ms. Tekulve has received scholarships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She teaches in the BFA and MFA writing programs at Converse University.

Author’s website: https://susantekulve.com/

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