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birth and death: a story in three parts

March 5, 2010

Before ever experiencing birth firsthand, I was a silent witness to two.

Two deaths as well.

I am currently working with the incredibly talented and helpful Tanya Taylor Rubinstein every Friday to develop some stories that have been simmering on the back burner of my life for so very long. Along with three other amazing writers, I’m slowly plotting out the pieces of some larger story…stumbling over words along the way, while simultaneously finding moments of epiphany when I least expect it. It’s been an incredible experience thus far, and has served to shine a light on the depths of my memory. To all you writers out there, if you ever have the opportunity to work with Tanya in any form, don’t think about it for a moment, just do it.

What follows happened in early 1991. I was an idealistic 18 year-old wandering first in Mexico then around the wintry streets of Santa Fe, my hometown, as a newly fledged but very confused adult…of sorts. It’s fair to say I wandered into the following scenes, and that they became an integral part of me in ways that I am only now beginning to understand on a deeper level. Only time will tell how these will weave into the work I’m doing. For now, I wanted to share them here.

A quick warning: for the particularly sensitive, these stories may be unsettling

~~~~~~~~

The blade of a pocketknife catches the noon sun seconds before disappearing into the rounded pink flesh of a pig that is trussed up in a tree opposite the church. This tiny Mexican town is made of red dust and time and the laughter of children who board at the open-air school across the way…but there is something else too. Some desperation that has brought us to this point with the pig in the air, upside down, twisting on the ropes holding her feet. I can hear her struggling for breath across the distance between us, just as I hold my own breath in horror when her blood bubbles up around the blade.

It draws a reddening line down the length of her abdomen, and my vision blurs with tears.

I forget, as I watch, why we are here. Everything in my world has narrowed to the sight of the pig.

Surrounding her are my classmates and teachers. Standing by, men from the village wearing baseball caps. A woman in a long skirt.

The pig grunts.

The knife sinks to the hilt but the motion is delicate.

There is blood everywhere now, up the arms of the man cutting through flesh and layers of fat. He is one of the leaders of this three-week trip down the Baja peninsula, a class through Prescott College, in Arizona, called A Cultural Survey of Baja California. There are 14 of us. We have two vans and a pickup truck, filled with camping gear, topped with sea kayaks. We’ve picked up a black dog with chopped off ears along the way. I ran my finger along the scarred edge of his ear after he adopted us, and wondered who cut him and why. He just grinned at me, tongue hanging sideways, and waited to jump back into the pickup.

We arrived in this village to tour the boarding school and learn something about the educational system here in the poorer parts of Baja. But the lesson we left with late in the afternoon was not one we’d anticipated.

I wipe my arm across my eyes and refocus. Now, our leader, Todd, has his hands inside the pig, pulling the opening apart. The pig is still, her blood running on the ground. I need some shirts, someone says. The boys start taking off their tee shirts and handing them forward. Todd reaches deep inside the pig and moves his hand around. I imagine him coming out with her heart, steaming in the sunshine, holding it aloft still beating. But instead, he slowly brings out a tiny body. A miniature of the animal hanging before us. Todd places it carefully in one of the tee shirts and a new set of hands lift it up.

Time moves slowly as more tiny creatures are brought into the light and deposited on white cloth proffered by the other students. Then, it’s my turn.

I am handed a tee shirt, and hold it out. Todd’s bloody hands emerge once again, and he turns to me. The blood-covered piglet is settled into the cradle of white fabric in my hands, and I fold it up, bring it instinctively up to my chest and begin to rub it between my hands. The taut little body in my grasp is still at first. I rub it vigorously, not daring to look, until I feel a tension and expansion, as the new lungs draw a first breath. I open my hands. The shirt falls away from the body. The little legs jerk, the snout opens. I watch the tiny chest rise, fall. Gasping life in the Mexican sun.

The white fabric is imprinted with the outline of the body in blood.

The woman in the skirt is beaming as she walks up to me and says in halting English that the piglet is premature. She points to the curled hooves and the straight tail. The village will feed these babies with bottles now that their mother is dead.

All the piglets are breathing, their cries so high and airy we wonder if we’re really hearing them. We pass them off to the villagers who circle around, their faces lit with smiles of relief and hope. As I hand my baby off to the woman in the skirt, I realize what we’ve done for them. Todd, the teacher lifting the piglets into the world, is the son of a veterinarian. When the townspeople learned this, they asked him to look at the laboring pig. The rest is a story I can’t tell, for I was wandering around the old church taking pictures when things were decided.

As the piglets were carried away, the mother was still hanging from the tree, a bloody crucifixion just yards from the church. But now, her children could fill their lungs. They could grow under the gentle care of the people who relied on their animals for their own lives in a way I somehow knew my fellow classmates and I just couldn’t truly understand…because we never had to.

The following day, we went to the grocery store to stock up on the basics. Boxed cookies. Dented cans of juice. Dusty produce that looked withered beneath the banks of florescent lights. The juice was fermented and over-sugared, the bananas overripe. We sat in the plaza of another little town, faced a church with peeling plaster, and dreamt of fresh food.

~~~

It is March. Back in Santa Fe, the Baja countryside is reduced to snapshot moments in my mind. Now, instead of school I work. Every morning I pull myself out of bed in the dark and drive through winding neighborhood roads to the clinic. I go in the back door, pick out a new scrub shirt for the day. Then I greet the cat that lives there, and check on the animals that spent the night. Orient myself to the day that unfolds in this small dog and cat clinic where my own beloved dog—my first—passed away under the stick of a needle one morning long ago. She was too sick to walk into the clinic, and so was carried through the door both ways. On the way out, my eyes foggy with tears, I was crushed to see urine run from beneath her tail and stain the sidewalk.

My father hurt his back digging her grave, and forgot to remove her collar.

Now it’s five years later, and I tend to other people’s ailing pets. I assist with cleaning, procedures, appointments, x-rays. Press myself into deep fur as I wrap my arm around shivering, frightened bodies and hold tight while the vet tech slips a needle into a leg vein in preparation for surgery. I hold hemostats clamped on snakelike fallopian tubes of various sizes, while the vet sutures and separates uterine tissue. We do this daily.

I was crushed, one afternoon, to watch the vet methodically remove a dog’s uterus that bulged around the form of tiny puppies within.

One of our clients breeds mastiffs, and we are always amazed at how large her dogs are when she brings them in, two at a time, for exams and vaccinations. Looking from the operating room across the back hall and into an open exam room, I’d be able to see the hulking head of one of these dogs sitting on the other side of the tall exam table. We’d regard each other across the space, panting dog, eyes melting beneath folds of skin. Indifferent.

Good Friday. It’s raining, cold. The clouds skim low around the tops of trees and powerlines.
On the operating table in front of me is a mastiff. She weighs more than 150 pounds. It took three grown men to lift her on the table and settle her on her back for surgery. The anesthesia machine exhales into the room, clicks, inhales. Her chest rises and falls as they drape her and focus the light on her belly. I stand back, watching in wonder. This is no ordinary surgery. Today, this dog will become a mother.

I wonder to myself why the breeder wouldn’t allow this dog to go into labor, but I don’t dwell on the thought very long. I don’t dwell on much of anything, in fact, as I watch the vet pick up the scalpel in his gloved hand and precisely position it above the belly. He makes a clean cut down the length of the abdomen.

The dog’s chest rises, falls.

Blood pools along the edges of the incision and is dabbed away by the vet tech, who is standing by with gauze.

The cut grows deeper, skin is clamped to the side. The tech uses suction to clear a path deep within the dog’s body so the vet can separate muscle and fat from organ. He finds the uterus, heavy with life, and removes the first puppy.

I have been told to just watch. The other assistant, who is wedded to her own authority borne of nothing more than a longer length of employment at the clinic, insinuated that I wouldn’t know what to do if allowed to help and further, that I’d do it all wrong. So I stand back, my anger over her constant unfounded disapproval simmering just below the surface of my fascination. I watch puppies emerge and disappear into sterile pieces of blue fabric. Several people stand by waiting to help. Those already holding puppies grasp them in both hands and swing them up, down, to drain the fluids from the lungs.

I watch as the people scramble to receive more babies. Watch, my hands still by my side, as the vet lifts another out from the bloody opening and examines it. The tiny creature is limp in his hand, its skin a sickly shade of green. The vet rubs it roughly, flips it over, and frowns. Then he leans over and deposits it in the pile of placentas and tissue growing by his feet on the operating room floor. My eyes follow the little green pup. It has a perfect little tail, tiny folded ears. Rounded paws with minuscule pads. The commotion around me dissolves in my own mind as I stare and imagine the tiny heart inside that puppy chest, stilled…by what? Nobody knows. The vet lifts another pup into the light, rubs it briskly, and hands it off when it wiggles and cries out. I watch briefly, then look back at the discarded body.

I want to scoop it up out of the blood and membranes, wipe the green from its skin and breathe life into the tiny nose. I hear this can be done…that you can resuscitate animals just like you can with people. I wonder why nobody cares enough to try, even as I know that they all literally have their hands full, as puppy after puppy comes into the world. It’s like the whelping scene from 101 Dalmations… 6 puppies…then 8, no, ten! Eleven! Eleven puppies!

No…ten puppies. The eleventh is green, lifeless….

Until…it isn’t. One of the feet twitches. The tail rises, falls. I squint, not trusting my eyes. Wonder quickly if I want so badly for the puppy to live that my mind is playing tricks on me.

“I think that one moved,” I say to the room. Puppies crying out, learning to breathe, swinging up down all around me, but my focus is on the forgotten green one.

“It’s green,” says the vet without looking up. He’s peering deep within the mother, running his fingers down the length of her uterus.

“It may be green but it’s moving,” I reply.

He stops what he’s doing and looks too. Picks up the little body and rubs it with one hand. The pup lifts its head, opens its mouth. Someone offers up a blue cloth and the pup is folded within.

Nobody looks at me or says anything, and soon the vet is closing the incision. 13 mastiff puppies breathe and cry and squirm.

Three men lift the dog from the table and maneuver her into the largest pen. One by one the dried and crying puppies are placed against her. They inch their way toward her warmth, heads swaying side to side until they find a nipple. Soon they’re all happily nursing, and their mother comes to, swooning.

I am helping clean the operating room when I hear it. Distant, through block walls, a high-pitched slam, the whine of rubber on asphalt. Three of us put down what we’re doing and go outside to look.

The air smells like rain and the promise of snow. The wind curls in front of me, chilling, before changing course to wrap itself around the twisted vehicles in the street. I stand on the sidewalk outside the clinic and try to make sense of what I’m seeing.

A truck rests against a light pole. A sedan sits across both lanes of traffic, the passenger side crumpled. It’s slanted to face me, giving me a clear view into the car through the windshield.

There is a person, his head fallen to one side and resting on the edge of the window. His eyes are wide, staring up, into the frozen clouds. From my place on this few inches of cold concrete I can only watch as the man’s face twitches. The lips move… but the eyes never fix on anything. Not anything in this world.
Suddenly, someone runs into the scene yelling something about vitals. He vaults over the hood of the car, reaches through the window, and checks for a pulse. I am relieved…somebody is here to help. Somebody who knows more than I do.

But then the man inexplicably says something like “he’s fine,” and disappears.

He isn’t fine. He isn’t moving anymore. His eyes haven’t wavered from that long, last upward gaze, and all I can do is stand in this spot in the damp cold, my own gaze stuck on his face.

The rest of the day is a dream. Puppies nurse and writhe against their mother as emergency vehicles scream at last to the scene, to disassemble the destruction. The man with his eyes locked on the heavens is zipped into a bag and wheeled without hurry to an ambulance. The other man—the one behind the wheel of that errant sedan—is covered in blood but talking. He sits on the curb in a daze before he, too, is taken away in an ambulance. I go back and forth between the warm operating room and the chill of the coming storm outside.

Back and forth between the birth and the death.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. sudasi j. clement permalink
    March 5, 2010 4:28 pm

    Wow, Ana, this is really good writing. I was riveted from start to finish. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to work with Tanya. Good luck with this– I can’t wait to read/hear more!

    • ana june permalink
      March 5, 2010 9:37 pm

      Thank you Sudasi! I think you’d love working with Tanya. This has been an incredible experience for me as a writer. 🙂

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