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Witnessing Our Words

Spring is a deliciously manic season for me. I sit cross-legged on the sidewalk in front of a hospital in Queens, eyes closed and face tilted toward the sun: this is my process for shedding the callous of the previous months seasonal depression, which, despite my best efforts, I get, and then forget about, like clockwork every year. This is the first very warm day in a while. I don't want to move, for fear of ruining it, so I try to see everything through my closed lids. The sidewalk is empty and I'm shameless. Someone shoots me a brief and misguided sympathetic look while tossing change at me.

In reality my eyes should be open: I'm supposed to be looking for someone I've never seen before, a client who would like me to attend, as a doula, the birth of her child . We've been put in touch through the adoption agency she is working with to find a family for her baby. I think that if she were to come and see me, sitting in the middle of the sidewalk, it might make a poor first impression-- her birth attendent publicly sleeping on the street. With tremendous chagrin I pull myself out of my kitten pose.

I was told that she looked like an actress; this is true. I look down the street and see a tiny bird woman with the tell-tale baby belly coming toward me. Her gait is wobbly, the added circularity of pregnancy surprising to her body. And while her movement is awkward and she hides behind a long, dark overcoat, she is joyful and warm, the kind of personality that wraps you in an embrace that you want to hold and protect from bruises.

We talk for an hour or so. I do not ask about the circumstances of the pregnancy; I'm careful not to overstep any boundaries by voicing assumptions; I do not ask personal questions that would yield answers at ambiguous expense. I'm always surprised by how little is actually my business to know.

One of the most important things I've learned as a doula is the extent to which I am unable to take my clients' pain away, and that it isn't my place to promise such a thing. That road leads to madness. My talents are limited to guidance and patience. But in talking to her, I wish desperately that I could. She is alone, undocumented, without money, and from a culture that doesn't support single mothers, and she isn't proud but she's happy, attached to the baby. She tells me that she has never held a baby before, but she's excited for the moment she can.

We walk to the train station. There are roadblocks everywhere for her and I can't think of any ideas to evade them. I tell her that her decision is one of the hardest and most selfless decisions anyone can make, and that even though she might not be the primary guardian for her daughter-to-be, she will always be able to do justice to the fact that she is her mother by maintaining some presence in her life; that she is irreplaceable. She smiles and gives me a hug, and then what I assume is an affectionate pinch that is painful and throbs for longer than it should have. I tell her that I will wait with bated breath for her call.

I walk up the train platform alone, feeling high off of our meeting and the sun and the relief that people like her exist in the world, and this carries me onto the train. Everything gets under my skin; I'm riding a seductive bliss that I would dread ending if I were able to conceptualize dread. Thoughts enter my head like whips and stay burning with sharp intensity. I am anxious for the satisfaction of my own movement but I settle for the train.

On the train there is a new father holding a baby, with clothes that were meticiously picked at matched: tiny baby sneakers, a sweatervest. He hums into the baby's ear. He is so in love, I think, admiring his unabashed tenderness. I try to reel in my gaze so as not to seem voyeuristic and creepy, a baby-watcher trying to ruin a moment of intimacy between a parent and child. I want to look more, but I would ruin it if I did.

A toddler screams, and has been screaming, in tantrum, screams of the deep frustration and turmoil that can only happen as one reaches the age to desire independence only to be told that he cannot have it, at all. The screaming is rhythmic. Horrible. I try to smile and wave at the toddler, which assuages him for just long enough to look in horror and scream more forcefully. The pulsating, little screams sound like someone is being killed, slowly. People force themselves into books and newspapers, turn their headphones up, some change cars entirely. I think about my birth control.

A girl, maybe about seven or so, is across the train and has been playing with her balloon happily since before I got on. She reminds me of Madeline, the children's book character. She stops and smiles, in front of the small, screaming little boy, who looks in astonishment as she ties her balloon around his wrist, and skips back to her mother who smiles proudly. The little boy giggles and plays with his new balloon.

The people with their headphones and their books are buried in themselves: they've missed it. They've missed this amazing moment of generosity and gratitude, one for which I find myself weeping. I feel cracked open by vibrating catharsis and I'm left weeping out of gratitude myself, and I'm not entirely sure why. My client and the fact that she is wonderful, the man and his new baby, the little girl sharing her balloon when most people in New York cling to everything as tight as they can. The ride back home is almost an hour long, but I stand in the doorway of the train, publicly, joyfully weeping without care and to the extent people noticer the crazy, crying girl on the train they don't approach me, and I don't even attempt to approach myself, really, until I've realized my stop has long passed.

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