Sarah stopped rocking; a branch broke off in the wind, rolling down the roof, or did the lights flicker? She shuddered; she had a childhood fear of wind, of things unseen. How long until the power goes out?
The book she was trying to read lay on her lap, open; she rested her head against the hard wood of the rocker and closed her eyes. She had just recently begun reading in here, the room that once belonged to her oldest. She wanted to make it a happy room, a room for guests, as if new soft carpet and quiet seagreen paint could erase the echoes of her daughter’s sad, sad cries for the wrong kind of attention.
The flickering lights went out for good. Usually, she would spring to action, gather candles and flashlights to brace against a long night with no power and improvised dinner. Instead she rocked, eyes closed against the wind and setting sun. Even on the thick carpet, the chair rocked easily, solidly, almost by itself, the way something purchased to last would. Purchased because the baby books told her she’d need one.
Sarah hugged her knees against her chest. She did not miss her children; the quiet house now offered her a peace she hadn’t known she needed. She thought about the tiny duplex they bought when they were first married, how the wind sucked between the houses and rattled the old windows, how it gave her the thrilling feeling of a stranger in the house.
So long ago, so many hours just rocking, trying to get her babies to sleep, trying to empty her mind so the milk would flow. Desperate, always, for her children to sleep, for just a little peace. Since they’d been born it seemed as if all she’d ever wanted to do was have a little relief from them.
The book fell off her lap, spilling its marker, folding the thick pages. The week before, Sarah had come across a journal she kept during those baby days. In it was a long love letter written to her preschool daughter, describing their time together, the adorable things that delighted them both, her hopes and dreams. I fear I love you too much, she wrote. Did she know then that there is a kind of love that replaces you? Did she know, then, that this was a bad thing?
She never read back then, only baby books. When the time came to give them books away, Sarah remembered feeling vaguely angry. Now, sitting in this emptied room, she realized that the only piece of advice she really needed was the one she never, ever read: that all those things you think are important don’t matter at all, because what you need to fear is that your heart will be divided into too many pieces, and if you are an intensely private person with an inner life and do not really know who you are, you’d better find out immediately, because you will be forfeiting your soul, and by the time you regain it, it might be too late.
But instead she sat and rocked, and fell in love and forgot her other loves as things and time passed, one semester, one summer, one year gone at a time. It was dark outside now; miraculously, the power was restored. She could make dinner.
Sarah picked up the book and regained her place, re-reading a few paragraphs before she realized why she’d stopped—not the falling branch on the roof or the flickering lights, but a simple, beautiful description of a dolphin in the sea. Hot tears welled as it came flooding back; once, long ago, as she sat nursing, the sea came to her, in a story so complete and perfect that she ached to write it down, to save it, work on it, keep it and make it her own. It was as if the sea had spoken to her sleep-deprived imagination, as if the words had chosen her, as if she were a vessel, worthy. And then, realizing that her mother was in a separate place, that her attention was elsewhere, her baby stopped nursing, threw her head off the breast dramatically, reached up to grab Sarah’s face and pulled it down to look directly into her eyes, to tell her to knock off the dreaming and get back to business.
Sarah had laughed. She laughed because it was, for a split second, very funny. Then she cooed and the baby cooed and together they went back to nursing, and the phone rang, and the baby didn’t go to sleep, and dinner needed to be made and the stories she longed to write and the words that came to her disappeared, because she did not know that when stories are given to you, it is a precious gift, as precious as everything else in life, and that this gift, too, will demand total attention.
Janna Bialek has written for The Washington Post, Baltimore Sun Magazine, and various literary journals, as well as a monthly column for The Urbanite magazine. Her work is in two anthologies,Uncommon Waters: Women Write about Fishing, and In My Life: Encounters with the Beatles. She has two grown children, and is still trying to understand how to be a parent. She also writes about parenting and social issues on her blog, http://unitedstatesofadolescents.blogspot.com/