Notes from the Birth Year: On Mind and Memory

Mia Ayumi Malhotra

 

Today I am thinking about the mind’s relationship to memory, and how my daughter is old enough now that there are things she does not remember about her life.

In other words, my daughter has acquired the ability to forget.

In conversation, I find myself saying when you were a baby and when you were little, and the look she gives me—

It’s as though I’m telling her about someone else’s life. Which I am, in a way.

These days, she inhabits life with such keyed-up intensity, that it surprises me that anything could escape her; yet, she has forgotten the name of her first stuffed animal, the songs we once sang her at bedtime.

Hours passed in half-sleep, before she knew her hands were her own, held them, drifting of their own volition, before her unrecognizing face.

[H]ow it had felt to be wordless, completely of the physical world—that even before my body was an instrument for language it had been an instrument for memory.1

Like the memory of her birth, these moments must be buried somewhere in her creature self, which I recognized in her dark, rabbity eyes as she lay folded on my breast, rosy and womb-shaped.

I have now begun telling her the story of her birth.

You were blue, I say. The umbilical cord was wrapped around your neck three times. They took you away, and then they brought you back.

Her face fills with questions, like water running into a glass. Why did they take me away? Where did I go? How long until they brought me back?

With this telling, I am making for her an origin story. And I realize that in the mythology of her life, I am somewhat incidental. This is about her, not me.

Birth work, the doula reminds me, is a lifelong process. I will tell my daughters’ birth stories for the rest of my life. I weep to hold these memories, charged with the responsibility of remembering what my children do not.

Each drawn-out day and fractured, contraction-gutted night. Each twitch, each pain—my belly, a luminous bulge that torqued this way, then that.

How each child, obstructed in some way—one by the entanglement of the umbilical cord, the other by a thick, unforgiving cuff of scar tissue—emerged, roaring with light, in a thunderous, bleached-out moment I will never forget.

Sticky new life suckling at my breast. My belly draped slackly across my body as I stood to pee.

These are moments worth remembering, though in recalling them, I risk altering them. Episodic memory, a tricky, shape-shifting thing.

The least contaminated memory might exist in the brain of a patient with amnesia—in the brain of someone who cannot contaminate it by remembering it.2

The perfect memory, forged in the newborn’s mind, before she knows enough to forget. Nipple, lips. Her first swallow, followed by another, that reflex that leads to life.

A kind of grace, that she does not remember this moment enough to lose it.

(notes: from Sarah Manguso, Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, Graywolf Press, 2015)

Mia Ayumi Malhotra is the author of Isako Isako, winner of the 2017 Alice James Award. Her poems have appeared in literary journals and anthologies, including Indiana Review, The Greensboro Review, Best New Poets, and Dismantle: An Anthology of Writing from the VONA/Voices Writing Workshop. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family.


image: Vincent Manasala, Philippines Mother and Child, 1965