That term first came to my mind when, as a child, I’d try to say “stream of consciousness” and end up with “brainflow.” It seems to fit here.

Welcome to the ramblings of my mind. (For now, these ones revolve mostly around films.)

A Life (short fiction)

Thursday, May 4th, 2023 9:30 am—Film

She feels the cries before she hears them. They seem to live in her now, in her nerves, her very bloodstream. They’re mixed together, she read that somewhere: their DNA entwined. Her child’s cells run through her body, blending past and future. She lifts her chin toward the showerhead and holds her hands to her face. Water spills over and around them. Then she lets go and feels the full force of the shower against her eyelids. It pelts, then slides like tears. She can hear the calls clearly now.

Her infant is safe, she’s fine. She’s with the father. But the mother can’t quell the primal urge to see for herself that her child is okay. It’s inescapable, an unbreakable tie. Still, she tries to stave it off. She needs this break, these moments away. Lather, rinse, repeat. She squeezes her eyes shut in a vain attempt to block out the cries.

She remembers taking baths during pregnancy, the baby churning when the water gets too hot. The movements are mild compared to the piercing protests that arise once the child becomes audible. But not every sound is distressing. The mother bears witness as her daughter discovers her own voice. On the change table, garbling as always, the baby suddenly stops, her face startled. Then she begins again. She realizes that the sound comes from her and that she is in control. “That’s your voice, my darling,” the mother says, in awe, in love. “You have a voice.”

Her daughter is born in water. The mother pulls her from her body, limbs in limbo, and the child emerges from the birthing tub to nestle in her arms, flowing out of and onto the mother, a continuation, until she’s cut free—a separate entity only to the unknowing eye.

She stares at the water pouring down from her, circling the drain, spiralling endlessly, a portal back to a space in time. She steps out of the shower and hastily tugs a towel from its rack, clutches it to her skin. With the water off, the whines and wails are insurmountable. Her child is two years old now. Jesus, does it ever stop? She rubs her hair dry, dry as it can be in seconds, and hurries to dress, to run downstairs. To answer the cry.

When her daughter is born, everything else goes still. Her husband, the midwives, they fade in the stunning presence of new life. She remembers life pre-motherhood, when there is no child to rest in her arms—when she learns to drive a stick shift in her brother’s pickup truck, or sneaks out with her cousins, underage, to hear their favourite band at a bar, or traces a heart with her finger on the frosty car window, just as her father pulls away but not too late for her crush to see it—but all of that slips into the “before” of her consciousness. Time is suspended. The child has left the mother’s body, other than the cells she leaves behind, the nourishment she still takes from the mother’s breast. Yet they remain together in a capsule that includes only them—an extension of the womb, encompassing them both. It feels wholly surreal and also like the only thing that exists.

She tells a friend that in those first hours of her daughter’s life, she has the clear and distinct knowledge that she is revisiting these moments; that they have all happened already and she is simply dropping back in.

Life recalibrates. Her daughter’s every function, every breath, defines her days. The size and scope of her baby become the only truth, so that when she showers and washes her own face, her features feel too big, monstrous compared to the infant’s tiny details. The mother is both gargoyle and goddess, imposing and unseen, the guardian of this exquisite being.

There are wretched moments, too. They last forever. Exhaustion is replaced with inexhaustible tantrums. The child pulls hair, weaponizes her skull, draws blood from lips. The mother enters a span in which bracing for pain is the norm; she discovers that the bodily sacrifice and weeping of fluids doesn’t end at birth. And the loop of repetition: she’s beat down by the sound of her own voice echoing as she struggles to coax her unrelenting child through mealtimes, bath times, bedtimes, until the words lose meaning and begin to sound like someone else’s voice, each word taking her further from what used to feel like her life. She reminds herself over and over not to wish it all away. “They have phases,” a friend tells her. “Everything passes.”

Time builds to a crawl, her tissues mend. She emerges from the capsule, sees it begin to unfold—life before her. Her daughter walks, talks, learns to dress herself. Does well at school, has no anxiety leaving her parents on the first day of kindergarten. Loses part of her tooth on the playground and launches the first of countless accounts of its undertakings: The Chronicles of the Missing Incisor. Comes home excited to finish middle school and start junior high. The mother loses track. Didn’t her child just start Grade 1? But she’s still here in her arms, cooing, nursing, crying, laughing. She hasn’t left. Yet.

No matter how tightly and how long the mother holds on, she can’t escape the fact that her daughter is constantly growing, reaching, pulling away from her.

She realizes the awful power of her influence as her three-year-old sees her compulsively twirl her hair (but when did she become so tense—after college, or marriage, or maybe after abandoning illustration for administration?) and promptly mimics the behaviour, tendrils around springy fingers. The mother feels the full weight of her role and vows to get it right.

“I love you.”

“Be careful.”

“Don’t do that!”

“I’m busy.”

“Let me help.”

“Please don’t go.”

“I miss you.”

Her daughter picks classes at high school, tries out for soccer but ditches it for dance, bangs pots hanging from the kitchen wall after the mother refuses to buy drums, switches schools to focus more on academics (and also, at least in part, to escape a failed relationship). There’s a terrifying near-miss on the road. Thank you. Thank you for sparing her. She mends. Decides to become a doctor and applies to an out-of-town university. The mother watches her board the bus with her girlfriend, after her first Thanksgiving visit home, and cries, and wonders if she will ever hold her child again. Her husband embraces her. Although he doesn’t cry along with her, she understands by now that he feels just as sad, feels just as much, as she does.

Her daughter is a doctor. The mother works, thinks ahead to retirement. Tries to acknowledge the current state of her face, her body, if not accept it. She is keenly critical of the aged reflection in the mirror yet also far removed from it. The looking glass forgets the lustrous hair that suits any length and the buoyancy she never really imagined would sink. She marvels that she’s still surprised to see in her friends the spread of grey hairs, the deepened wrinkles, softening lines. She is long past the point when she should expect to see youthful faces when meeting with her peers. But her head has a mind of its own.

Her first grandchild, a boy, is born. She’s instantly taken back to the times with her own infant, toddler, prickly preteen—all of it. The heart-rending tenderness and crushing devotion. The rage, the urgent pull to escape. She sits with her grandson, happy to offer his parents an evening away. Breastmilk warms in the steamer, the baby roots in her arms, she wants to hug him fiercely but knows to be gentle. Those tiny, spongy ribs. That miniscule space for the abdomen. She watches life pulse in and out and remembers the brief reprieves in her daughter’s earliest days: when putting her down for the night finally feels like something tangible despite knowing that the baby will be up again to feed in a few hours; when the suggestion of a possible, eventual return to normalcy brings great relief to her and her husband, even if true routine seems a lifetime away.

Nestled in her daughter’s plush recliner, drinking up the musky baby-smell of perfect silken skin while her grandson happily takes the bottle, her husband comes to her so clearly. She can almost hear him call out from their side door back home, “Salmon’s ready!” He’s been barbequing in the backyard, the rest of dinner assembled in the kitchen. Their teenage daughter emerges from her room, homework on hold, and they sit to chat and eat and smile. Suddenly she misses her husband with an ache that leaves her winded, wounded. How long has he been gone? Almost five years. Of all the times he infuriates her, makes her long for solitude. That night, she would give anything for a simple evening at home with him. With them—with their girl, still young enough to be held by her mother, drift asleep in her arms. She cradles her grandson and weeps.

When she leaves her home one afternoon, she doesn’t know that it will be for the last time. The cancerous cells are taking over, mixing with the rest of hers. She waits, she wades in and out. She’s in palliative care at the hospital where her daughter works. A nurse wheels her down the hall to see the fiery orange sunset through the curved glass panels of the sunroom. There’s her reflection again, in the frosty window. White wisps of hair, a small woman curled under a knit blanket, she’s clasped in glass, a snow globe within a globe. She wonders at the worries that ravaged her, everything she hurried for, what used to set her spinning in those younger years. Has this version of her, this woman in her chair, known all along that she was headed here? She closes her eyes. Feels the light bursting forth from the bay of windows. There is warmth, a bundle in her lap—the blanket? A child? The sides of her chair are firm. Wheelchair, rocking chair, high chair, or are they arms around her? Something solid, supportive. She’s slipping, coherent thoughts tumbling into dreams, tripping over memories. She may be in the moment she first holds her daughter or still an infant in her own mother’s arms or about to be born or whenever it is that anything really begins.

Her daughter laughs, pours water from a toy tea set, over the mother in the backyard. It’s balmy, summer. The child’s sundress is damp with imagined Earl Grey. So is the mother’s. Her daughter falls into her lap and wriggles and giggles. Light flares over the roof next door and onto their lawn.

The sun is warm. She’s there again, in the sunroom. Or is she there? A hand rests on hers—not the nurse’s but her daughter’s. Are they one and the same? Fingers slipping and clasping lightly. She grasps a single finger and summons all her might to close her fist around it, remembers her own infant’s clutch around her thumb. She feels her grandmother’s hand as she fades. Skin to skin, intertwined. She’s with her. She withers.

There’s a moment, late autumn. She stands on a small wooden footbridge with her young daughter, who tosses lattice-like leaves into the stream below and squeals joyfully as they’re pulled away with the current, enthralled by the voyage, their crumbling particles still buoyant enough to float. She returns to this moment, over and over.

Consciousness closes on itself, one tidy shell around a seed, contained, compressed, forever folding and then reopening. A heaving tide.

There’s a sound. A cry, perhaps. She’s unaware of who makes the sound, of where or what it comes from. It’s simply there, a resounding force, and she is coiled within it. Slowly she begins to open her eyes, not knowing what she’ll see.

10 Responses

  1. Frank Burke

    Wonderful, Amanda, as always. I love this. Thank you for posting.

  2. amanda

    Thanks very much, Frank! As always.

  3. jill Hodkinson

    Dear Amanda,
    Deeply felt — my tears – can’t see the keys.
    I do hope you get this published many times. It is good, very good with so much excellent vision.
    Beautiful and creative – and knowledgeable. Thank-you so much.

  4. amanda

    Thank you so much, dear Jill. I’m so touched that it resonates with you. Early Happy Mother’s Day!

  5. Hope Smith

    A beautiful meditation on mothering. The imagery is so rich. I hope it finds a wider audience!

  6. amanda

    Thank you, Hope!

  7. Catherine Jensen

    Thank you Amanda for this beautiful and sensitive reflection on the continuum of life, and on the intricate and interwoven thoughts and feelings that can inform our passage. I hope you will post more of your work!

  8. amanda

    Thanks very much, Catherine!

  9. Kathryn

    Lovely, just lovely! You clearly understand what it’s like to be a mother. You’ve captured that essence that’s often very difficult to put into words. Congrats!

  10. amanda

    So happy you felt that, Kathryn! Thank you.

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