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Messed Up at Lamaze Last Night 


because thinking about breathing is as hard as thinking about dancing, making love while you're trying to do it, because the rhythms you were tapping on my shoulder didn't correspond to what was going on inside; we were supposed to visualize our way through a contraction by walking through a deep purple triangle toward a white light where a lake awaited us, and by that lake were flowers that would flutter each time I exhaled -- if I exhaled on time -- but I did not exhale on time, because I really did have cramps I was trying to work through; they call these Braxton-Hicks contractions, a fancy term for false labor, a side-effect of stress or too much water. Halfway through the class that April storm kicked up and the lights went out and the guard came in to tell us that the backup generator was going to make the building creak. And the building creaked. I messed up because the breathing I was doing to give life was so much like my father's breathing just to stay alive, in a pattern so baroque it took attention: four sharp and hasty gasps and then a feeble drawing-in suspended for a full 12 seconds, which scared me, made me pump his hand until the caught air rushed out in an abrasive rale. I messed up because last night you only looked on my face and on my lips for signs that I was with you, but inside my face had settled like an overlay his brow, his eyes, his stalwart open mouth, and I was my father, mucus snaring my throat, and that false labor was real; I rode through it, I rode -- and I was so proud of how he hung on with all that breathing, proud as if he'd been a child of mine, but they have a name for that, too, a fancy term for "almost dead" that the nurse with blinky eyes used after she refused to pump the fluid from his lungs because she said that she'd been through this, he was trying much too hard. She told me, "Tell him it's Ok. Go on, and tell him it's Ok," and I broke down because it wasn't --


Ellen McGrath Smith teaches at the University of Pittsburgh and in the Carlow University Madwomen in the Attic program. Poems have appeared in Kestrel, Oranges & Sardines, Diner, 5 a.m., Oxford Magazine, The Prose Poem, Southern Poetry Review, Descant (Canada), and others. Her critical work has been published in Sagetrieb, The Denver Quarterly, The American Book Review and other journals. Her poetry has been recognized with an Academy of American Poets award, a Rainmaker Award from Zone 3 magazine, and, more recently, a 2007 Individual Artist grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.


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