She had always floated like a ghost, immune to the elements, unburdened by the allure of sensations as insignificant as goose bumps and as complex as a sensual tingle. She and the world could see each other, but they could not touch.
When her mother had held her in her arms for the first time, she hadn’t felt her mother’s fingertips combing back the oily wisps on her forehead, or her nails stroking her tight fists. They must have cuddled together in the hospital bed, never truly touching. She hadn’t known, at least not at first, that it wasn’t normal not to feel, that the world wasn’t so far away for everyone else. Her parents had noticed it when she clapped and when she crawled, how she often missed her hardy hands and wobbled on otherwise sturdy legs. The doctors had told them that she, when coming into contact with anything at all, would detect nothing.
She had learned to walk by memorizing a pattern – left, right, left, right – rather than acquainting with the cold wood of the kitchen floor. She had to look to insure that the soles of her feet met the ground. When they didn’t, she would fall. The blood poking out of little holes on her knee and the bruises forming under her shin were to her like an abstract art piece. She would mix the fluid and the indigo marks together in a morbid picture until her mother caught her and wiped her clean with water. Hot or cold, she was never sure. Her mother didn’t understand that the pictures were all she had; the cuts patched up with ointment and bandages wouldn’t even sting. She always paid attention to exactly how tall she stood, legs fully extended, and to how her body fell when she was balanced. It was not to avoid the bodily artwork, but the look on her mother’s face each time she told her nothing hurt.
Even though she knew it was foolish, she hoped the power of motherhood would restore the senses stolen from her; perhaps a love so strong and pure would awaken her numb nerves. Maybe she would sense the tiny puffs of her son’s breath on her arm, feel the softness of his curled fingers.
When the nurse handed the little blue bundle to her, eyes glittering with tears, mouth open in the angry cry of birth, she realized that her son was just like everyone, and everything, else. Something that needed to be carried, he could have been the books she carted around in college or the laundry she towed to the couch to fold. He looked just like his father and sobbed as loud as she did. That would have to be enough.
Her muscles were competent and held him well, but she feared he would join the trail of brokenness she left in her wake. Things too light were often mishandled and tumbled to the ground without warning, crashing to with a heart-wrenching shatter. She positioned his head and limbs in her bowed arms so that he could barely move. Every time she saw him wiggle, she tightened her grip, insuring that he never joined the graveyard of the broken. And maybe, if he was just close enough, she could make up for what she could not feel.
She so much desired to feel her son, that she didn’t mind any of the things that annoyed her husband. The stench of the baby’s diapers and the sound of his screams each night were her way of knowing that he was close, that he was real. Sometimes she would slide one of his little fingers into her mouth, just to see if he was salty or sour, sweet or bitter. He usually ended up tasting like very little unless he’d just stuck his hand into the mashed peas, but she’d keep his hand there until he yanked it away to grab at something else.
Her husband grew weary, loosing sleep over the baby’s need for milk and swaying arms. She didn’t mind the restlessness and was alert to the baby’s cry, jumping out of bed, desperate for him to be a little more real than everything else, even if his pain in his cry broke her heart in the process. If he was alive, truly alive, then so was she. Maybe that’s why she’d wanted him to be born so badly, to prove to herself, that she was a part of this life, so much so that life itself could grow within her.
At night she rocked him longer than she needed to, bringing his small body close to her face so that she could hear his heartbeat thumping in his chest. She let him settle into her lap and held him until the moment was quiet enough that she could hear her own heartbeat. Alive, alive, cried the beat each night, alive, alive. She listened until she was convinced that she was heavy in her chair, no longer floating.