Cords by Bethany Jarmul
My newborn is blue, not breathing, her umbilical cord wrapped three times around her neck.
“Is she okay? Is she okay?” My voice catches in my throat while the doctor unwinds her like a ball of yarn.
No one answers me.
I imagine her potential life—the tiny pink ribbons and melodic giggles, the first wobbly steps, her voice saying “Mama” to “Mommy” to “Mom,” the scraped knees and broken hearts, the report cards and spelling bees, from first bicycle to first car. Her saying “goodbye”and driving off—though I’ve yet to say “hello.”
The umbilical cord forms 13-to-38 days after conception, connecting the fetus to the placenta—her life blood. It’s a part of her—contains her DNA, vital to her survival and growth. Two arteries and one vein buried within Wharton’s jelly, inside a spongy, pale yellow tube. For nine months, it preserved my baby’s life. Now, the cord threatens to end it.
In some ways, the cords that keep us alive are biology’s bonds—a pile of cells and impulses, lungs expanding, oxygen-depleted blood cells exchanged for oxygen-rich ones.
But other cords also bring us life. The warmth of the first spring morning—violet, gold, and white nasturtiums stretching their stems. Waterfalls plummeting. Snow-capped mountains rising from green valleys. The sugar maple trees in our backyard—leaves turning to rubies. Wisteria climbing the bricks of my childhood home. The gift from a stranger tied with thread, the strands of my husband’s beard tickling my cheeks, my sister’s embrace, ribbon threading a handmade card from a friend. Our knees bruised from praying, words braided into promises, the tiny zygote formed from egg and sperm.
The sunshine spills into the hospital room, unaware of the thick tension its rays cannot dispel. The doctor cuts my daughter’s umbilical cord. My baby and I—separated for the first time. I feel the emptiness of my womb, an overstretched, deflated balloon. My husband grips my hand, worry-lines creasing his forehead, eyes on our daughter. I stare at the doctor’s gloved hands.
Nature gives life and takes it away. The decaying oak tree that threatened our home, the black ice that spun my sister’s car out of control, the river that ended my great uncle’s life—my papa left to identify his swollen body. 3,960 people die from unintentional drownings each year, lightning strikes kill 49, wildfires claim 33,000 lives—not to mention hurricanes and tornadoes, falling trees, poisonous frogs, mosquitos, hippos, lions, sharks, bacteria and viruses. Nature can perhaps be forgiven; it has no malicious intent.
We’ve all felt others place the cord around our necks. My childhood pastor who was caught in an affair, the boy at camp who touched me without asking. Abusers, rapists, or worse. Humans kill humans—because of twisted strands of ideology, religion, from enemy nations, for skin color, from jealousy, stupidity, because of mental illness or hatred or fear. We need each other to survive. It’s true. And beyond nearly breathing, to live meaningful lives. But we also choke each other out, drown one another, shoot, slice, inject, burn, push, poison, strangle, suffocate, intoxicate, infuriate.
While fearing the loss of a most meaningful cord, my daughter—my heart beats with the hope of strings unseen—of souls, of spirits, of a sustainer of life. Both humanity and nature, suspended by invisible ropes. As I face the unimaginable, I feel the cords vibrating like guitar strings, pulsating with woody harmonies, quivering every fiber of my being.
The OB hands the pediatric team my silent, chubby baby, covered in vernix and blood. They wipe and suck and squeeze. Finally, she cries.
They place her on my chest. She blinks at the unfamiliar world while they stitch up the bleeding mess she’s made of me. I breathe deeply, watch her chest rise and fall, feel my muscles relax under the weight of her fluttering body. A vine sprouts from my soul drawn to the rhythmic drumming of her tiny heart—the two of us connected once more.
Bethany Jarmul is a writer, essayist, and poet. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Citron Review, Literary Mama, and Sky Island Journal among others. She earned first place in Women On Writing's Q2 2022 essay contest. She lives near Pittsburgh with her husband and two kids. She loves drinking chai lattes, reading memoirs, and taking nature walks. Connect with her at bethanyjarmul.com or on Twitter: @BethanyJarmul.