“But in my postpartum life on a rainy December evening, compassion flowed into the recesses of my soul.” Struggling with a newfound role, a mother ponders how giving life has awakened her empathy towards the suffering, and allowed a realization of what true love is…
by: Bethany Bruno
“Please don’t be dead,” I said, as I scampered towards the frail body resting by the side of the road. Having just swerved into a sharp U-turn, my tires squealed in protest as I slammed on the brakes. I hoped it wasn’t too late. I wished the little creature, a gray kitten, would mew or perk up as soon as I approached. Its delicate chest would rise, then fall, signifying signs of life. We both remained motionless as December’s freezing rain spattered onto my wool beanie, dampening my thick hair underneath. The amber colored hazard lights of my Chevy Equinox flashed behind me. Cars laden with brand-new toys and exhausted parents sped past, on their way back home after a hectic Christmas. Unaware of the aching hope scattered along the walls of my aching heart. My own baby girl was cooing in her cozy, safe car seat, oblivious of her mother’s frantic mission.
It was the day after Christmas, 2021, when I found myself at a crossroads with my new role in motherhood. Since having my first baby, I struggled with the overwhelming role of caretaker. I could feed, hold, and change my six-month-old, if she didn’t scream. Somehow, each screech penetrated my emotional armor, sending me into a tailspin of anxiety. I’d search for an ailment through each crescendo of sobs. Each blaring shriek resembled the million cicadas that bombarded our quiet country house every summer night. An ear-splitting buzzing amongst the otherwise stillness surrounds the Alabama countryside. Her gut-wrenching cries boomed against my inner walls, long after she fell asleep.
Though I loved my sweet baby, I often felt disconnected. Parenting alone, especially when you’re inexperienced, felt as though I was drifting farther away from the comfort of a familiar shoreline. Yet there I was, drifting further into the sea, uncertain of what sea monsters circled below my feet. Treading along, my fears were remnants of guilt for not having a tether of pure elation when in proximity to my baby.
I spent a few hours at my mom’s house in an attempt drain my stress-battery, which was at full capacity after an exhausting Christmas day. I dozed off sitting upright in her recliner, using a Winnie the Pooh baby blanket for warmth. When I awoke to yet another cry from my baby, I jumped up to help with her diaper change. There, on the makeshift changing station upon the ottoman of my mom’s couch, was a small, teal board book, Are You My Mother?, with a little bird standing atop a dog’s head on the cover. I began turning each thick cardboard page, reading along. It opens with a mother bird waiting for her baby to hatch. After the mother leaves the nest to find food, the baby plops out of its egg into an empty nest. Desperate to find its mother, it journeys outside of the nest. Along the way, it asks a slew of random animals and a construction site excavator if they are its mother. They all say no. Then, the baby bird is placed back in its protective nest right as the mother returns. In the end, the baby becomes ecstatic because it has finally found its mother. It’s a cute and simple story, perfect for assuring children of their mother’s unconditional love — how mothers always find their way back to their babies. And even when they’re not with us, which will happen, they’re out there somewhere, looking out for us. “I used to read it to you all the time,” my mom said while wiping Frankie’s rear. “I figured we should keep the tradition.”
The sun pulled an Irish goodbye, disappearing without so much as a whimper. With Frankie’s car seat clicked into its base, I began blasting the heat as our screeching garage door rose. Before she had a chance to whine, I pressed the musical light up mirror strapped to the headrest in front of her massive car seat. I looked forward to driving and listening to the soothing piano forte entwined with the chirping of songbirds. It replaced my trusty car radio due to those spontaneous, loud commercials which poked Frankie awake. Driving along the foggy, slick North Alabama roads in the middle of winter could be a challenge. More than ever as the rain was undecided about whether it wanted to be wet or snow. As I pulled the windshield lever down, trying to wipe away the small drops of icy rain, I saw a small gray clump of fur laying on the side of the road. Passing it by in a blur of fog and speed, I did a double take in the rear-view mirror. Within a second, the unmistakable image was far away.
Before becoming a mother, driving past a dead animal on the side of the road evoked no emotion. Maybe an occasional whisper of “oh no” as the white lines of the road flew by with the press of my gas pedal. Growing up near a wooded lot in South Florida, flattened squirrels, possums, and raccoons lined my neighborhood daily. Roadkill is a natural part of our expanding surroundings. It’s all part of the circle of life. But in my postpartum life on a rainy December evening, compassion flowed into the recesses of my soul. There lay a newborn kitten, void of all the life it had been given through its mother. I stared at its unmoving chest, an outlined ribcage thanks to paper thin skin stretched across each curved bone.
I thought of my preemie baby, who struggled in her first few days. As I lay in crippling abdominal pain post-emergency c-section, my husband stood guard as she sunbathed in UV light projected onto her transparent bassinet basket. After eight months of non-stop sickness while growing this ball of cells around in my stomach, I become attached. She was my invisible best friend, a passenger hitching a ride with me. Her life depended on me. Though I couldn’t see her, I felt her blossoming inside of my womb with each passing day. Then she was pulled out into the world, defenseless, underweight, and struggling to breathe. The emotional wires were sparked as they connected, signaling my brain to experience the pure love mothers have for their children. Every creature in the world was born from a mother, and if they were lucky, they thrived because of her love. Watching my scrawny bundle of skin and bones fight to stay in this world awakened my empathy towards the suffering.
I wiped my hand over my face, trying to unblur the scene in front of my feet. Rubbing my eyes didn’t make the kitten any less dead. I looked around at my surroundings, which included a few houses and the darkened Capshaw Mountain. On the other side of the two-lane road was the Harvest-Monrovia Water Authority water tower. I was looking for its mother, who would be searching for her missing baby. She needed to know; she deserved to know. How could any mother go on living when the baby they birthed into the world could be crying out for them? A mother’s comfort is engrained in all of us, especially during moments of pain. There are countless stories of grown men on the verge of death calling out to their mothers. Pleading with them to make it stop, to make it better. George Floyd, while being suffocated, attempted to scream for his momma.
Page after page of Are You My Mother? inundated my mind. I recalled the resilient little bird flapping its wings in unbridled joy from being reunited with its mother. A happy ending, unlike our brutal world of uncertainty. I looked back down once more at the dead kitten as a muffled sob escaped through my aching chapped lips. Maybe this baby was also in search of its mother and naively stepped onto the dangerous road. In the blink of an eye, tragedy struck in the form of a speeding vehicle. It mewed in long bursts for its mother. Crying for safety from the dangerous world. All the while, its mother was somewhere out there, perhaps roaming between the trees on Capshaw Mountain in search of food or shelter for her babies. She did not know her baby needed her. How could she have known her baby lay dying without the comfort of its mother, as her fragile infant inhaled a final, ragged breath amongst the freezing raindrops plopping onto the patches of black ice?
Tears as thick as rain washed down my already wet face. I prayed for the dead kitten and its mother. She’d never know what became of her baby. A part of me hoped she had other kittens to care for but would always grieve for the baby she lost. There would always be a small nook within the chambers of her heart, a remembrance of her tiny gray pilgrim, who, in its unwavering search for her, never came home. As I plopped my wet bottom back onto the heated driver’s seat, I peered in the rearview mirror at my baby. She was awake now, looking around the car’s cabin, wonderstruck. You forget as a jaded adult how this world is filled with fresh marvels. As I drove back home, a mere few minutes away, she looked into the mirror attached to the headrest in front of her. Her reflection was clear the instant I parked under the streetlamps’ glow. I gave a silly smile. She wiggled like a worm before returning my wimpy smile with a full megawatt grin. She couldn’t say the words, and she wouldn’t understand mine if I had spoken. But, as we stared at each other, I felt certain of my love for my baby.
Bethany Bruno is a Southern writer, born and raised in South Florida. She obtained a BA in English from Flagler College and later earned an MA from the University of North Florida. Her writing has been previously featured in several journals, including The MacGuffin, Ruminate, BULL, and Lunch Ticket Magazine. She was recently a contributor to the chapbook, “Those Who Scream.” She was previously nominated for 2021’s Best of the Net. Together with her husband and daughter, she currently resides in Alabama.