What We Think We Feel

I.
Mom says she has her mother with her
in the car. I can’t tell if she’s
joking—Mama, Granny’s dead. But Mom
means the ashes. In the kitchen, chopping parsley,
Mom tells me that she picked them up
from Waco, drove them to our home. She’s been
talking to them all day, showing them
around. Here is the grocery store.
Here is our church. This is how
I live. She says it’s nice to have Granny

silent for once, then starts
to cry, to say she doesn’t mean
that, quite, but I know why
she said it. I tell her, I was there,

that evening at the restaurant, I was
nine, when Granny made our waitress cry.
I was there, digging my nails into the bottoms
of my thighs, watching bubbles leap
off the red straw in my soda, not looking
at anyone, pretending not
to notice, like always—I was there.

I tell Mom this story, and it is
different, but the same as every other
story I’ve told her in the past week,
so I quiet. Mom

doesn’t, or can’t, although as she turns
away, I see her hands tremble over
dinner, as she stoops above a pot
of squash soup. Beneath oily hair, her face
tightens, lips moving furiously,
as she works through it
again and again,
spilling soft confessions
into the rising steam.

II.
Mom tells me the reason Granny
was the way she was was

because her mother didn’t love her.
And that makes all

the difference, see, Mom’s
saying. She tries to work her hands

through this logic, stroking
the same small place on my arm over

and over. Her explanation seems
reasonable. I tell her so. She nods.

Her hands still, then
pick up again, because what if

it carries through generations, this
not-loving?

III.
The day after my grandmother’s funeral, I
stayed in bed with my mother, watching
women spread raw legs in a television show
about midwives, a drama, but based
on true stories. I told Mom

not to watch it, so soon after Granny’s death,
but she insisted, cradled the laptop between
her hips and tried not to move, while

onscreen, a woman was torn apart
down her inner seams. She had
red hair, the woman, she didn’t
scream much, just thrust breath
from her mouth in fast
pants—in-out-in-out-in-
out. The veins

on her swollen legs looked like
brains, purpled and meaty, and the veins
in Mom’s hand stood tight as rope
as she gripped my arm, moaned along with
the woman—when she finally

started to howl, neck slick and
bent back, and the baby wouldn’t
come, Mom upset the screen on her lap, shouting

please, please, please—

I thought, surely the veins
must burst, I wanted
to say hush, Mama, be quiet, I wanted
to say it’s okay, you loved her
in the best way that
you could, but

it is not enough.

Onscreen, at last, the child fell
from the woman, followed
by a flood of dark waters. Mom
was crying, yet we watched a second episode,
a third, another and another and
another, watched mother after swollen
mother drop bloody child from her hips,

then take it in her hands,
having given all of herself
for its existence, wrap it
in her breasts, hold it against
her skin with nothing
in between.

IV.
Mama, it’s no answer, but
here’s what I think:

Two, three years ago. I had been coughing all day.
I could hardly walk

so bent over and spent
I was, sick at Thanksgiving

and unwelcome at Dad’s sister’s
house, with my raw germs and desire

for silence. We needed somewhere
to go, so you snuck me across town and

into Granny’s apartment, past the nurses
in their faded scrubs,

the old women with their crooked
lipstick smiles, a man alone

at a chessboard. We didn’t
tell her I was sick—when I kissed

her chin, I tightened my gut, managed
to keep my lungs still. But later

while she slept, beneath the roar
of her humidifier and the hiss

of breathing tubes that snaked
around the loose flesh of her face,

you washed bruise-like traces
of mascara from my cheeks

and held me together
by my shoulders, as I hacked

and hacked. We slept on her couch,
beneath the loose stiches of an afghan

she had knit years ago, an elaborate
twisting of blues and greens and gold.
It swallowed us, so you were grafted
to my shivering body, the regular ebb

of your chest stilling
my breathing. Mama, it was the first

I had rested in days, cradled
by you, both of us in the house

of your mother, and I loved her
for the peace she could give us.

When we left, the next morning,
and you stooped above her whiskered face

to wake her, I remember how your own face
was pale from staying up with me,

as you always have, Mama, giving me
your long nights. Granny told us

to come back soon, which
we did, which you always did. And because

Granny always meant what she said,
she meant this, when her sleepy lips murmured

Margaret, you’re a good girl.

V.
But her hands have moved
to my face, because even

still, Mom knows she must
be guilty. She’s clutching

at my cheeks, whispering
I’m sorry—for what, I say, and I almost

resent her ridiculous logic,
her hungry, hungry hands,

so fragile and tired and full of needs I can’t fulfill. Mama,
it’s no answer, but after everything, this

is what I most remember, that there was
love, and I’m telling you about it as best I can.