MODERN LOVE; I Need to Woman Up and Do This on My OwnBy ASHA BANDELE (NYT) 1727 words
Published: March 19, 2006
FIVE months after we were married, my husband, Rashid, and I had a honeymoon of sorts, a 44-hour jaunt in a trailer at the New York State prison where he lived. At 21 he had been convicted of a gang-related murder, which occurred three years before, and on this day he was in the 13th year of a 20-year sentence.
We had met five years earlier, when I was 23, a college student teaching poetry to prisoners. I believed then, as I do now, that poems can expand a soul. They had done so for me, and I was watching the same thing happen to prisoners, especially Rashid, already a man seeking transformation.
Over the course of a year and many discussions about changing ourselves and our world, we fell in love. With Rashid there was this breadth of dialogue I hadn't experienced before. Our conversations -- unspeakably honest -- were for me life-saving.
When I met Rashid, a failed marriage already behind me, no college degree yet, no direction for my future, I saw my life as a series of mistakes. He set that lie aside, made me see myself through his eyes until I could love my reflection.
When I could no longer stand not being able to touch this man who had so touched me, we married in the prison visiting room. Five months later we qualified for conjugal visits, and in a small two-bedroom trailer in a yard on the prison grounds we made love, again and again. But more, we had a period of semi-normalcy. We cooked, danced slow, watched television, showered together. For five years this was our life, the life we chose.
I didn't tell Rashid during this time that I would never have a baby with him while he was locked up. I knew many women with incarcerated husbands did so, and while I didn't judge them, it wasn't for me. I didn't want to be a single parent or bring a baby into a prison. But I didn't say this because at the time I didn't think I could get pregnant. I had been married before and never conceived. I made love to my husband and didn't worry.
Three weeks later I found out I was pregnant.I never considered keeping the baby. Even as I wept, listened to Rashid's pleading, I knew I wouldn't keep it. It wasn't just the prison or my unwillingness to be a single parent. It was also financial. Whatever income I generated as a freelance writer and poet covered the rent, lights and food but precious little else. What did I have to offer a child, except instability?
Against the love I felt for the baby who'd barely begun to take shape inside of me, I had an abortion in a Manhattan clinic that seemed less like a medical center than a factory. Despite the doctors, the nurses, all those women waiting just outside for their turn on the table, it was the most alone I've ever felt.
Though having the abortion was the right thing to do, I carried guilt about it for years. Had I been married under ''normal'' circumstances, I surely would have had the baby. The weight of destroying something that was created from great love was nearly unbearable. There was no way I could ever do it again.
A few years later I was on a book tour, celebrating what I felt was the beginning of my career, when Rashid and I were issued a date for a trailer. I flew home, armed myself with birth control and never thought once about the possibility of pregnancy. I was thinking about what was next for me on the literary horizon.
We made love and talked about our dreams, and when my period was a couple of days overdue, it didn't occur to me that I might be pregnant. But after six or seven days, reluctantly, I bought a test. The stick turned into dark pink double lines that could not be denied. When Rashid called, I told him directly: ''We're having a baby.''
I never thought not to have this baby.
She created herself in spite of spermicides. Her presence was predetermined. And I was 32. I might not have another chance to be the one thing I always wanted to be: a mother. Still, there were fears.
I worried about finding a stable job and child care. I was terrified of going through labor alone. But mostly I worried whether I would be able to raise a black girl safely in a world that seems to expand in its ability to hate and destroy.
LIVING in a culture where violence is extolled and blacks and women are often stand-ins for the bulls-eye, I worried about whether the life of my girl could be honored by anyone other than me. The rates of drug and alcohol abuse among young people, the violence that's glorified in pop culture, the girls who at 8 are having oral sex in school stairwells and the groundswell of so-called good girls out on the stroll terrified me.
Not because I judged any of these kids, but because I had been my own version of them. Against a Manhattan backdrop, my sister and I were given music, dance, horseback riding, swimming lessons and art classes. I attended private schools, went to the ballet, saw Judith Jamison dance ''Cry.'' But it was also a childhood punctured by violence. All the education and culture were no armor against the excesses and dangers of growing up in an urban environment too unwieldy to notice its children coming undone.
I began high school at 12, graduated at 15, and while I could put on heels and stumble behind the older girls, I couldn't negotiate the social settings -- bars and clubs -- where I found myself. On more than one occasion, what began for me as a fun night on the town ended as a date rape. There was always racism. When my child reached an age when she would have to negotiate survival, would she know how to speak to me, as I was unable to speak to my parents? Would I know how to listen?
And I had both my parents. My daughter had only me, and she would have to spend the first years of her life passing through metal detectors. Those concerns, more than any others kept me awake through the nights, wondering: Where could I go, where could I raise my child safely? I wanted to run, live off the grid, have my child, tell no one, keep her forever in my womb.
But I had to stay connected to Rashid, even as my trips to the prison became more hellish. The prison guards, normally disdainful of family members, became especially awful once I swelled with life. During one visit I had to request toilet paper four times so that I could please, please go to the bathroom.
The love between Rashid and I no longer disguised the blight, the stench and a terrible question took form in my head. As a mother, would I be able to navigate the prisons and maintain my relationship with Rashid?
But the rounder my tummy became, the more those fears either fell away or shrank to a manageable size. I gave myself over to reason, faith, Dr. Spock. I found work, and child care too. And I made it through labor, quite easily.
My water broke a minute after midnight, and less than 11 hours later my daughter, Nisa, was in my arms. Seven hours later we were home, and I was eating pizza. Fifteen days after that I was placing Nisa's body in her father's arms for the first time. He cried at the sight of her, and I wept too, but from the frustration of not having a place where we could be, at the most basic level, a family.
''You're such a good mother,'' my sister said once and then added, ''How do you do it?'' I heard this a lot during the first two years of Nisa's life, when I was writing a novel, working full time and meeting my deadlines. I told her not to believe the facade. It's impossibly hard to be a single mother.
I hate having to be the sole emotional and financialprovider for my child. The pressure's too great. If you slip, there's no one to catch you. But worse, there's no one to catch your baby. So somewhere among potty training, play dates, bylines and balancing the household books, I lost pieces of myself I'm only now trying to reclaim.
I started smoking again. I spent too many nights drinking wine and crying. There were times when pain threatened to define the whole of me. And no, no, I couldn't hold my marriage together.
CARING for Rashid and Nisa at the same time was more than I could bear: the weekly treks through metal detectors, the parts of my spirit that always got snagged by the razor wire. I still take Nisa to see her father, but staying romantically entangled with Rashid, when I most feel his absence, was too painful.
Every time I see her change, fall down, stand up again, I'm reminded that the only other person who loves her as I do isn't there to bear witness to her beauty. No one would ever lose an hour, as I still do, just watching her sleep. How could I live with that?
''I can't play at house or marriage anymore'' is what I finally said. ''I love you. But I need to woman up and do this on my own.''
Still, in that breakup I felt like I lost my husband, best friend, father and brother all at once. And I didn't just lose him -- I banished him. For that I may never be able to forgive myself. But I had to choose my child. Again.
Most mornings I'm awakened by Nisa's messy kisses. Her eyes ablaze with mischief and wonder, Nisa's query to me each sunrise is, ''What's our big adventure today, Mommy?''I grin back at my beloved, my child, and my mind begins to work. But before I come up with a plan, this is what I think each time she asks: Yes, Beloved. Our big adventure, indeed. Ours.