Chapter 1: Lit Match
Have you ever noticed that a midwife’s quickest route to fame is screwing up?
I’m a lucky exception—my screwiest birth was a success, and that’s what rattled the authorities. A soft-faced mother, a glowing father, a filmy newborn flopping into my hands… But birth done quietly, naturally, in the bowels of the night, can make medical institutions go ballistic and upend our country’s laws.
You asked about my night in jail and how I felt the next morning when I found my name headlined on the front page of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. You and everyone else! If you want to be my apprentice you need to understand that the sensational births are insignificant compared with the thousand ordinary moments that come before, private moments when we choose life over death and allow ourselves to be imperceptibly changed. These are what make a midwife.
So yes, I’ll tell you the story.
It begins with a mother, as all midwives’ stories do: My beautiful mother, her silvery blond hair clipped back, hands clasped, the wedding ring a bit loose on her finger, her cheeks more heavily blushed than she would have liked, her mouth relaxed. Against white satin her practical wool skirt and chunky shoes seemed dowdy. Before the doors opened for the viewing I hesitated over her, shocked, regretful, trying to trace my origins back into her elegant body. She seemed so self-contained! I wanted desperately to touch her hands, but didn’t.
She’d been collating the church newsletter, walking around a Sunday school table piled with multicolored pages with her Elsie Circle friends, stacking one sheet of mundane church happenings beneath the next and smacking them with the stapler, just as she’d done on the fifteenth of every month for as long as I could remember. Those women had worn a path into the Berber carpet over the years. She collapsed—an aneurism. She was sixty-one. After the funeral, her friend Maggie placed one frail hand on my shoulder and handed me a stack of pastel pages. “Her body hit the floor first, dear,” she said. “Then these floated down. Just like angels’ wings. You should have them.”
I’d taken the unstapled pages and passed them to Leif. Later, when he slid them to me across the kitchen table, we couldn’t stop laughing at the absurdity, but in that moment after the service, I was numb, robotic, shaking hands with the parade of Chester Prairie folk in their gravest summer church clothes, nodding at condolences I heard but couldn’t comprehend. I kept glancing sideways at Dad, who despite wearing a suit and tie seemed naked without his clergy robes. The narthex closed in on me. I’d known this same strangle-hold I’d felt as a teenager, only now, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Dad, I felt strangely complicit.
Once again here I was, the pastor’s daughter, object of sad, sympathetic smiles. Mom, I kept reminding myself, was not down in the kitchen filling warming pans with ham and mashed potatoes. Mom would not dote on Leif over dinner, nor would she fold my hand around a paper bag of soup containers, left-over roasted chicken and fresh-baked cookies when we headed home. Leif hovered respectfully behind my right shoulder; I was glad for his company, I couldn’t wait to collapse into his arms, and yet I wanted Mom more.
Mom had adored Leif, and now she wouldn’t be at our wedding. Leif’s quiet Danish demeanor made up for what I had worried would be three serious counts against him—that he sweat for a living, preferred to go birding on Sunday mornings, and cohabited with me. But Leif grew up two towns west of Chester Prairie. He had straw-blond hair and limbs like a yoga instructor. We’d bonded in Community College English class when we discovered we were both recovering Lutherans. Leif had been my passport to freedom; after graduation we rented a studio apartment in St. Paul and consoled one another in the early, overwhelming days of job hunting and city driving. I scored a job in a big city hospital, Leif began trimming trees for St. Paul, and we toasted our liberation with cheap champagne.
I loved seeing Leif tethered to high elm limbs, swinging from branch to branch with his chain-saw. When he came home after work he smelled of gasoline and sap. I picked woodchips from his hair. Sometimes he brought me abandoned bird nests. When we visited the parsonage, Mom poured him black coffee in her best china and warmly inquired about his parents. Dad glowed as though Leif were the son he’d always wanted. With Leif I knew the rare satisfaction of having done something right.
Down in the church basement I ate pickles for lunch while Mom’s friends relayed fond anecdotes (“She was a dear, bringing over hot dishes when Toby was sick”) and Dad worked the room with his shoulders strangely hunched. Once the crowd thinned I couldn’t bring myself to return to the parsonage where Leif would pat me and Dad would stoically wander from room to room, touching Mom’s knick-knacks as though for the first time. I told them I needed to be alone and drove out to Little Long Lake.
The lake had been my refuge ever since I’d been old enough to walk a mile on my own. In a town where kids avoided me because I was the pastor’s daughter, where I monitored my every decision for fear of reflecting poorly on my father, the lake was a wide, expansive breath. It dissolved me. Upheld by glacial melt, anything was possible.
I parked at the public boat launch. Our bags were still in the trunk; I pulled out my suit and changed in the port-a-potty at the edge of the lot.
The south and west ends of Little Long are swampy, bordering the sparse woodlands of a county park; to the north and east are houses, their lawns that day littered with boats, picnic tables, and half-inflated inner tubes. Given the heat the beach was strangely silent, but it was early September, a weekday, and kids were in school. A few maple leaves floated at the lake’s edge. Geese had left their slimy mess and webbed prints all over the sand. I strode into the shallows, grateful for the sharp cold.
With a gasp and push I was under, madly paddling and kicking until I could breathe again. Then I stopped, my arms and legs splayed, all of me suspended. Air was a warm bubble in my chest. Where was Mom now? Released back into creation, surely, part of the water’s chill, the comforting sun, the enormous darkness holding me. I hadn’t connected with her dead body but now I imagined a cord spiraling like lakeweed from my center downward through tannin-stained sunlight into muck, into her. The cord swayed in the lake’s currents. Quiet pressed my eardrums. Here, finally, I knew her. I accepted the silence, the water’s embrace, and the sustenance seeping up, up.