I’ve always been told that every word of this story is true:
On an icy Monday morning early in January a bunch of years ago, my mother, lying in bed next to my father, felt her water break. She turned and shook him awake.
“Michael,” she said. “It’s time. I’m in labor.”
If what you’re now expecting from my father is a celebratory response or even one of mild sleep-induced anxiety, you didn’t know the man.
“It’s rush hour! How could you go into labor during rush hour on a Monday?" he exclaimed as my mother calmly got out of what I’m guessing had become a very wet bed.
“I’m going to take a shower and I’ll be in soon,” she told the doctor over the phone. She had been in labor with my sister for twenty-three and a half hours. She figured she had some time to make herself look pretty.
“Get here now!” replied the doctor, who sounded not at all amused that she wanted to take a moment to pull a deep conditioning treatment through her long hair – hair she would soon cut off when she realized that I was the kind of baby who spit up constantly, and always directly into her long locks.
My two grandmothers were staying at the house in preparation of the new baby’s arrival. My parents woke them and told them it was time, and the two women – one very tall, one very short – flew into the kind of hysteria only two Jewish grandmothers can possibly create in an early dawn while my toddler sister waved goodbye to my parents with far more composure than the adults who were tasked with taking care of her.
While my parents were gone, it became the job of my two grandmothers to finally put the baby clothes into the dresser drawers in the nursery. It’s Jewish lore that you do not prepare the room for the baby early in the pregnancy due to pure superstition, but now it was time to set up things like a crib and a stack of terrycloth onesies.
They threw clothing into the drawer, and my four and a half year old sister, not liking how they did it, took every article of clothing out and refolded it all neatly.
Meanwhile, my father was driving over a hundred miles an hour towards the hospital. He took curbs, drove across a divider, and then almost mowed down a school crossing guard who dove into bushes for safety.
And then he got pulled over by a cop.
“She’s having a baby!” he screamed out the window, pointing to my mother whose contractions had started to come every minute and a half. And so, rather than arresting him for possible vehicular manslaughter, the police officer gave them an escort to the hospital, complete with flashing lights and sirens.
Careening into the parking lot, my father pulled up to the front.
“Get out,” he said to my mother. “I’ll go park.”
My mother looked at him like he was insane. She was about thirty minutes from giving birth. She could hardly stand up straight. She was not waiting alone on a curb while my father hunted for a good parking spot.
“I’ll go with you,” she huffed.
The walk across the parking lot took quite a while as my mother stopped every few steps to do some Lamaze breathing. Once they finally made it inside, they were ushered immediately into a delivery room.
My father didn’t stay. I guess men didn’t do things like that back then, or at least men like my father didn’t. He left and went home, and when he pulled into the driveway he was met at the front door by my grandmothers who told him to turn around and go back to the hospital.
I had just been born.
I came out quickly. While in labor with my sister, my mother had been in a bed for hours and hours. The nurses even gave her a cigarette.
“Don’t inhale so deeply,” the nurse told her, and my mother did not inhale at full strength, but we all still wonder if maybe that’s why Leigh can’t do math.
“Don’t push,” the doctor said to my mother that morning while I was ready to enter the world.
“You have got to be kidding me,” my mother responded, and I came flying out. The doctor caught me.
I was born so fast that my skin was mottled and purple and my head was kind of shaped like a cone. My eyes were fully bloodshot from the quick force of my entrance onto the planet and I had two deep dimples in my cheeks that made it look like I had been socked in the face on either side.
“Isn’t she beautiful?” marveled my father once he was back at the hospital.
“She cute,” said my mother who probably would have liked having a baby that didn’t look like a dimpled Conehead.
And on the day that we were released from the hospital, my father carried me into the house, walked passed my grandmothers who stood there with their arms outstretched, and placed me directly on the floor so that Brandy, our huge Collie, could lick me.
My tall grandmother clutched at her heart while the short one held on to the wall for support at the sight of the dog’s tongue sweeping across my face.
Is all of that true?
I have absolutely no idea.
See, I don’t remember my father ever telling me about the story of my birth, so these recollections are entirely my mother’s. And it’s not that I think she is intentionally lying, but all those details dohelp to make it a better story.
When I read the book The Things They Carried for the first time, what felt most profound to me was not any of the war stories, but that Tim O’Brien spoke of how to allow a reader to feel the truth of an experience by including fictional elements that would help make the reality of the situation pop and resonate. There was a way to squarely get at the truth through telling tales of fiction, and that lesson was a powerful one – and it has stayed with me.
Maybe my father didn’t almost hit that crossing guard – maybe he had just seen her in the distance – but by including that anecdote into the story, his frenzy becomes far more intense. Whoever hears the story can feel the crazed determination to get a woman to the hospital rather than have to deliver a baby in a sedan on the L.I.E., one that was probably covered in wrappers and empty cups from Carvel. It’s the addition of details, whether they happened or not, that brings the truth to light.
I kept O’Brien’s lesson and the story of my birth in my head when I wrote my novel a few years ago. Student was a heavily-fictionalized account of what my life was like during my last five months of college and the summer that followed, but I wanted the reader to experience what it had all really been like – what it had all really felt like – and so I used some real events but embellished the fuck out of them to make anyone who had not been there understand what the end of an era felt like for a girl not at all ready to transcend beyond that time.
The mixing and blending of reality and fiction most appeared in the portion of the story that appears near the conclusion of the book when Jaye and her sister Cathryn visit the abandoned grounds of their former sleepaway camp. Jaye is twenty-one years old when they drive there in Cathryn’s white Saturn and walk the grounds, remembering the long-ago days they felt like the place was their summer home. They go through the doors of their old bunks and see Cathryn’s name written on the wall in a silver paint pen and then they write their names above it and the year of their return. And as they drive away, Jaye realizes that revisiting her past has allowed her to pave the way towards her future that all of a sudden makes far more sense than it had before.
Actually going back to my old sleepaway camp? That happened.
But it didn’t happen the way it did in my book.
What really went down was that I found out the camp had not been built into condos as we had always heard. It was just standing there, barren, and I had an urge at the age of twenty-five to see the land and the lake. I don’t know what caused me to long for my old camp terrain, to feel that gigantic pull of nostalgia, but I know it was a real need and that I would make it happen.
My sister Leigh had just given birth to my nephew. She could not leave an infant for hours at a time, and it wasn’t like we could bring him to a place probably covered in poison ivy and swarming mosquitoes, so I asked my mother if she would take the drive with me instead. We drove up there, using a map I had printed out from Yahoo, and we hopped a small fence and walked around the grounds of my former camp.
The bunks were locked. We could not walk into them.
Much of the land was overgrown; we could not make our way to where the ropes course had once been, high in the trees.
We did not see Leigh’s name or mine written anywhere, but I did use a stick to carve my initials and Leigh’s into a building near the waterfront.
And when we drove home, I was not confronted by any major revelations that came from comprehending the events of my past. And at twenty-five, my future and the choices I would have to make and then live with all still felt very far away.
But I wrote the experience the way I wish it had really gone down. I loved being at that camp with my mother, but it would have meant something different to be there with my sister who had her own storage house of memories of the place. And I wish we had access to the bunks we had slept in, wooden structures inside of which we had made decisions, both big and small, that really seemed to mean something back then. And I really wished I had actually had the clarity in the moment that would have allowed me to see that literally revisiting my past could help shape the trajectory of the steps I would take next, but that’s just not what happened.
The beauty of writing fiction is that you can make anything happen the way that you want it to happen. You have control. You get to make people say what you always wish they would say and you get to make a character who is based on you sound witty and profound with every word she utters. And you make your reader experience the moment exactly the way you want, and the fiction you weave like vividly colored ribbons through the bones of what is true makes every sentiment shine like a star you would have loved to have seen, but the night you looked for it the sky was too cloudy.
These days I’m writing nonfiction exclusively. Memoir-style pieces are where my head is, and yet I still seek to allow the reader to feel what I felt in the moment, to understand the stakes of what transpired, to see how it all happened. Writing about the pure truth is hard. You have to dig deeply into the marrow of the moment to expose the truth. You have to seek something out deep inside of yourself that allows you to confront how things really went down, including the choices you made when you were perhaps wise enough to know better.
You expose your truth to a world you have learned is not always very kind.
Crafting stories of unadulterated truth is a challenge. It’s an exercise in vulnerability that leaves your throat and your fingers feeling raw. It takes you back into the events that made you become the person you are exactly right now.
It makes you wonder who you will become.
And it causes you to ponder if your dramatic entrance into the world – if the story that your mother always swore was completely true – was really just a premonition for all that would come next.