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“The truth is, the ten or twenty minutes I was somebody’s mother were black magic”: Ariel Levy’s “Thanksgiving in Mongolia”

Ariel Levy’s latest piece for the New Yorker is a surreal and devastating account of brief motherhood, miscarriage and loss. It begins in her mid-thirties, after a decade of thinking, “I didn’t like childhood, and I was afraid that I’d have a child who didn’t, either. I was afraid I would be an awful mother. And I was afraid of being grounded, sessile.” But slowly:

The idea bloomed in my head that being governed by something other than my own wishes and wanderlust might be a pleasure, a release.

I got pregnant quickly, to my surprise and delight, shortly before my thirty-eighth birthday. It felt like making it onto a plane the moment before the gate closes—you can’t help but thrill. After only two months, I could hear the heartbeat of the creature inside me at the doctor’s office. It seemed like magic: a little eye of newt in my cauldron and suddenly I was a witch with the power to brew life into being. Even if you are not Robinson Crusoe in a solitary fort, as a human being you walk this world by yourself. But when you are pregnant you are never alone.

At five months, she takes a doctor-sanctioned trip to Mongolia. One night, wracked with pain, she runs to the bathroom:

I felt an unholy storm move through my body, and after that there is a brief lapse in my recollection; either I blacked out from the pain or I have blotted out the memory. And then there was another person on the floor in front of me, moving his arms and legs, alive. I heard myself say out loud, “This can’t be good.” But it looked good. My baby was as pretty as a seashell.

He was translucent and pink and very, very small, but he was flawless. His lovely lips were opening and closing, opening and closing, swallowing the new world. For a length of time I cannot delineate, I sat there, awestruck, transfixed. Every finger, every toenail, the golden shadow of his eyebrows coming in, the elegance of his shoulders—all of it was miraculous, astonishing. I held him up to my face, his head and shoulders filling my hand, his legs dangling almost to my elbow. I tried to think of something maternal I could do to convey to him that I was, in fact, his mother, and that I had the situation completely under control. I kissed his forehead and his skin felt like a silky frog’s on my mouth.

This happened at 19 weeks. “I had been so lucky,” she writes. “Very little had ever truly gone wrong for me before that night on the bathroom floor. And I knew, as surely as I now knew that I wanted a child, that this change in fortune was my fault. I had boarded a plane out of vanity and selfishness, and the dark Mongolian sky had punished me. I was still a witch, but my powers were all gone.” When she returned to the States:

Well-meaning women would tell me, “I had a miscarriage, too,” and I would reply, with unnerving intensity, “He was alive.” I had given birth, however briefly, to another human being, and it seemed crucial that people understand this. Often, after I told them, I tried to get them to look at the picture of the baby on my phone.

Read it, read it, be ready to cry; this piece is good beyond words.

[TNY]

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