Published on October 24th, 2019 | by Marisol Cortez2
Nonetheless, at each gate Bidu took one thing from Inanna, lifting from her the trappings of innocence and beliefs she no longer needed to complete her journey. Each time, the proud queen protested, “It isn’t fair! Give it back!” Gate by gate, Bidu reminded Inanna that the ways of the underworld, of Laborland, are ancient and may not be questioned. … After Inanna lost all her worldly possessions, her mehda of power and protection, what remained that could not be taken?
—Pam England, Ancient Maps for Modern Birth (2015)
My grandmother on my dad’s side–Mexican but also Jewish, a secret identity she took to the grave for us to learn about only posthumously–told me all kinds of stuff when I was a kid, cautionary tales in a minor key, gloomy old wives’ tales that have stayed with me as an adult, poisoning my mind as self-fulfilling prophecies–or maybe they were just true enough to be true sometimes. Like:
- Never walk too close to the curb when it’s raining; kids have been swept away by street drainage and into the open mouths of storm drains. Stephen King got very famous writing a novel about that one. (Funny story: wrote a paper about It for an English class when I was 21. Then, during grad school, I expanded that paper into a dissertation chapter, which I was working on at 28 the day I went into labor with my daughter. Eleven years later, at 39, I was still working on that chapter the day I went into labor with my son, revising it as an article for publication.)
- Never stick your hand into the small waxy leaves of ornamental bushes outside homes and buildings while walking past: wasps may have hung nests inside. My mom says she found this one to be true even without having been warned by my grandmother.
- Always eat your fruits and veggies, because when Uncle Edgar was doing his residency in medical school, he routinely had to scrape feces surgically from the colons of people who hadn’t listened to their welitas and eaten their fruits and veggies. This one sort of happened to my sister when she was ten; for three weeks she didn’t poop, even after two enemas and a pound of grapes. When asked why she was so bunged up, she only recalls being scared that pooping would hurt–and so she simply held it. Luckily, she eventually unleashed before surgical intervention became necessary.
- And: Every time you have a child, you lose a tooth. That’s the one I’m thinking about now, waiting in the dentist office a week after giving birth.
Coming from a woman who herself would birth fourteen babies, this last one couldn’t have been literally true or else my grandma would have been missing half her mouth. But her words come back to me in the waiting room, and then in the chair waiting for the numbing meds to take hold, after which the dentist will come back and start the extraction of my lower first molar, a large tooth smack in the middle of my jaw. The first tooth I’ve lost in adulthood. There’s something in it that slides from hubris–my feeling of having gotten away with pregnancy and home birth at this age without complication–to humility to humiliation, almost. I’m embarrassed to be losing a tooth at 39. It reminds me of what our birthing instructor said about birth fairies, her name for the element of chaos or the unexpected that visits every birth. It reminds me of the prescription for that anticipated chaos, which is to cultivate an open heart ready to do whatever is necessary.
And, it reminds me of the ancient story our birthing instructor told us, an ancient Sumerian tale about a woman’s descent into the underworld, an allegory for birth as a mythic rite of passage. A queen, warrior, and poet, Inanna was a “woman of power.” But as she moved through the underworld, bedecked in the items of status and value she had brought with her from aboveground as protection–crowns, breastplates, necklaces–she encountered a series of locked gates. To proceed, she had to give up these items one by one until, finally, she was left with only herself. The message, as Pam England writes in Ancient and Modern Maps of Birth, is that any
rite of passage, by nature, brings you to your knees–that is, to the edge. By passing through the gates, you develop a wisdom that cannot be gained in any other way. … To receive the treasure (wisdom, compassion, a child), the Gatekeeper exacts a price: The Warrior must part with something of value. It is this exchange and willingness to sacrifice that creates the energy and momentum required to open and pass though the gate. This is how the Maiden evolves into the Warrior Mother. … These unwanted moments become threshold moments when the Gatekeeper within inquires, “Who am I without my robe? Who am I when my birth plan is not followed? Who am I when birth doesn’t follow my plan?”
The day before, I sat in the same chair I sit in now, crying as the dentist told me it was worse than she’d thought initially. I’d been having discomfort, though not pain exactly, in that tooth my whole pregnancy. I’d wake up in the morning with the strangest sensation that the tooth was hollow–that’s the only way I can put it. But I’d chalked it up to the effect of hormonal changes to my gums, which is not uncommon. It had happened when I was pregnant with Xochitl, and they had given me a monojet dental syringe and told me to irrigate my swollen gums with saltwater, which helped. So I figured that my dental issues would resolve after labor. But this time there’d been an infection in the tooth, beneath the filling; since I’d avoided x-rays during my pregnancy with Wolfi, it had gone undetected. But when the dentist began drilling, thinking it was a matter of simply replacing a cracked filling, she realized the tooth was infected and that the infection was extensive, dead nerve tissue reaching down into the pulp.
Meanwhile, increasingly urgent texts from home said the baby was hungry, and when the dentist and tech moved into an adjacent exam room to tend to another patient, I felt oxytocin rush my body at the thought of him crying for me, followed by an anguished ache in my breasts, like a searchlight frantically piercing the darkness, looking for something or someone missing. Where are you?? I began to shake and cry, tears dripping out the sides of the safety glasses they’d had me slip on. Partly it was the shocking news about my tooth and what it would mean to lose it, but it was more immediately the baby crying at home for me, which undid me emotionally. I felt like the mama cat who gave birth in our yard last summer when we finally took away her kittens to socialize and rehome them–pacing the yard, calling, growing increasingly frantic and distressed. That was right around the time we learned that the Trump administration had been separating children from their parents at the border, and the sound of her crying had made me cry too, thinking of those children. I was just a few weeks pregnant then.
The dental tech was 20 or 21 at most, a very young Black woman seemingly fresh out of school. When she came in momentarily and saw I was crying, she had asked if I was in pain. But when all I could do with my mouth full of gauze was shake my head, tears oozing from my eyes, she had hurried from the room, not sure what to do.
Still, she was the one the day before who had patted my shoulder when the dentist began scooping pulp and pus like cantaloupe innards from the core of my dying tooth, leaving only its enamel exterior standing like a bombed out building. The dentist–a tall, large-framed Black woman in her fifties with subtle purple highlights in her hair–had given me a choice: emergency root canal, which would put the tooth in a holding pattern for eventual extraction, or extraction. The dentist is from Alabama originally, one of the only Black women in her graduating class at dental school, from the looks of a framed portrait that proudly hangs on the wall of her cramped office. Now she’s a dentist on the near-Eastside of San Antonio, her practice squeezed into one of the small houses left standing after they razed Ellis Alley, a historic Black community where emancipated slaves once settled. I picked her because she was one of the few dentists in town who took my Obamacare insurance, and because I was impressed by an article I came across, describing her previous work practicing prison dentistry. Even now, many of her clients walk in off the street, uninsured or underinsured, beat up by life.
Just pull it, I’d told the dentist the day before. I’d been too distressed by the thought of my hungry newborn to give the choice much consideration. Pull it, but not right now, I’d begged. Tomorrow. Take the nerve so that it doesn’t hurt and then I’ll come back tomorrow for the extraction.
The tech is so young. Back in the chair again the next day as we wait for the dentist, I tell her that however intense it might be to get your tooth pulled, I doubt it can match the intensity of unmedicated labor. I’m trying to pump myself up, to convince myself I’ve already done the hard part.
The tech’s eyes widen above her blue surgical mask, hearing that I had a natural birth at home.
What is the pain like, she wants to know, on a scale from 1 to 10?
It’s pretty intense, I say. It’s probably the most pain I’ve been in–not that I have much experience with pain! But it also has a different meaning from regular pain. So it’s intense, but it’s not like anything is wrong. You’re about to meet your baby.
Shortly thereafter the dentist comes in and extraction commences. I close my eyes. The idea doesn’t bother me, but I don’t really want to see the forceps and pincers and drills she’s using either. I don’t feel any pain, only pressure: she pushes awhile, wiggling the tooth. Then she pulls, so strong I somehow feel the counterforce on the upper left side of my jaw, diagonally. Then I hear a crack as my tooth comes out in pieces. She mutters–something like, well, all is not lost–but I can’t understand what she says and don’t really want to know if things are not going as planned. It hasn’t been a clean, straightforward extraction like she was hoping, is what I gather.
She drills for a while, into what remains of the tooth, I think. My sense is that the top part, that empty enamel shell left standing, is gone, and what remains is subterranean, lying below the gum line. She drills and pulls, drills, and pulls. Inside the cave of my closed eyes, I visualize a clean extraction, a neat extraction, reaching for the birthing affirmations I had brainstormed before labor. While most of them flew out the window during my actual labor, I cling to them like a lifebuoy now as I sit in the chair and give birth to my dead tooth. I’m brave. I’m tough as fuck. I’m ready to do whatever is required. I can do this. I am doing this. I’m brave. I’m brave.
Just one root tip left, the tech reassures me, as my affirmations turn into Hail Mary fulla grace.
Then it’s done. The tech packs my mouth with gauze and tells me to bite down to stanch the bleeding. She hands me some sheets on post-op care and that’s it. At checkout I communicate by writing and signs, mouth full of cotton. I feel ashamed, realizing my body now bears marks of some irreversible process, of damage or aging that can’t be undone or fixed. If my first child was proof that bodies are resilient, my second is proof that they are also limited, that they age and change along a one-way process.
And yet as England writes, any wound or scar is also a story, is also wisdom gained:
In hero myths and stories, the protagonist faces a moment when he or she must break the rules to go on. Perhaps she is warned not to eat or drink anything in the other world, but she does it anyway. Bluebeard warns his bride not to open a certain door, but she opens it anyway. If the heroine is cautious or follows the rules, she remains a Good Girl, unchanged–end of story. But if she is a Birth Warrior, she does the One Forbidden Thing, even if she is terrified or faces uncertain consequences. Her journey continues, her soul grows, and rebirth is assured. That is what makes a great story.