I was supposed to be a New Year’s baby but Dr. Presley wanted to go quail hunting with his grandson that weekend, so the C-section was scheduled a week later. Thanks to my older brother’s Taurean stubbornness and literal big-headedness my mother was spared the joys of natural childbirth. Dr. Presley advised the same for the next and, ostensibly, last child. “Besides, no harm in stayin’ in the oven a bit longer,” he quipped. Over the course of his long, unremarkable career Dr. Presley had delivered my mother then brother and had all but given up delivering babies. He was more comfortable administering routine vaccinations and weekly B-12 shots. But at my mother’s insistence—and in spite of his palsy—Dr. Presley took me on as his last case. He claimed to be doing his “Pun’kin,” as he called her, this one special favor.
Coming into the world on Elvis’ birthday with a doctor named Presley seemed fortuitous until, wielding the silvery smooth scalpel in his aged unsteady hand, the doctor sliced through the walls of my mother’s uterus and into my unborn skin. Inside the warm soothing waters, inside the silent weightlessness, I was safe. Then the prick of cold steel marked the first in a series of rude awakenings. I was scarred for life even before birth.
Right after his botched final delivery, Dr. Presley stalls at the door of the semi-private room at Nightingale Hospital in El Campo, Texas.
“Pun’kin? I hate to tell ya this. But I nicked that little fella of yours. I just plain nicked ‘em,” he confesses.
“What??” It isn’t the doctor’s presence or even the verb nick that she has a hard time understanding. It’s the pronoun him. Her heart sinks.
Months earlier Dell Rose, aka “Pun’kin,” instinctively had wanted to paint the baby’s room pink but at the last minute goes with a pastel yellow to play it safe. In her heart of hearts, though, she knows it’s a girl. She just knows it. She’s even picked out the name—Joy Michelle. More than anything this child is going to be her best friend, her confidante, someone who’ll always be there for her, not to mention a sure-fire way to save a failing marriage. Her pride. Her Joy.
“I’m really really sorry, Pun’kin. I tried to tell ya. I’ve gotten too old for these now.”
“Is he okay? Tell me everything’s okay” she pleas, her need to confirm my health competing with her own need for consolation.
“He’s fine. Just a couple-a stitches.”
“Where??” she panics.
“Left shoulder blade.”
A little lower and she might have had that girl after all.
My first memory is of drowning. I sink down, down, down to the scratchy cement bottom of the pool and lie in awe of the still blue quiet. I stare upward at diamonds of light as they shimmer on the surface. I don’t know how to swim. Don’t even try. Then a muffled splash from above as two cupped hands dive through the water and snatch me from below, our bodies leaving trails of pearled bubbles in the wake of rescue. Poolside, an older teenage boy puts his lips to mine and chlorinated water makes its way up through burning lungs and out my mouth. I awaken to a sinewy long-haired lifeguard smiling over me with dark brown eyes and tanned skin to match. His face is crowned by rays of brilliant sun, and I’m aware of his majestic beauty.
I am saved.
I’d been pushed into the deep end by a fat kid named Monte. He lives in our apartment complex and his mother had offered to babysit us while mom was at work. Having moved to a Houston suburb after divorcing my father a year earlier, my mother is struggling to make it on her own with an eight and three-year-old. Still in her twenties, she does anything from cocktail waitressing and secretarial work to playing tambourine in a rock band, not to mention pursuing her own after-hours recreation. This means shuffling us from one sitter to the next. And it was under the careless watch of one of these strangers that I nearly met a premature end in the over-chlorinated waters at the Meadowbrook Apartments.
I put up my greatest fight when mom drops me off at these strange houses or when the sitters come to us. There are tears, swinging fists, and head-shaking no-no-no-no-nos! Worse are the nights when taken unknowingly to a sitter after falling asleep in the early evening. I’d been gently put to bed on my very own blue striped cotton sheets only to awaken on nubby percale that are yellow, not blue. I scan the bedroom finding an assortment of stuffed animals—a bright pink bear, a giraffe wearing a helmet—that are not mine, hear voices in nearby rooms belonging to some other family.
This isn’t home.
My second memory is of being attacked by a rooster. A year after my involuntary swim at Meadowbrook, we move to Shelbyville, Texas, with my mom’s new husband, Victor. He manages a small convenience store and we live in a double-wide trailer directly behind it. Because I can run into the store and grab any one piece of candy I want, I think we’re rich. We live on the outskirts of town and have chickens, roosters, and even a few pigs running wild on our property. No fences or lawn, only a reddish-brown dirt everywhere. Sitting on the rusted yellow swing set out back with my feet dangling well above ground, I feel it before I hear it. A sharp sting on the back of my heel. Then another. And another. Baaaaawk-bawk-bawk-baaaaawk! A flash of his red comb and the assault is under way. I pump the metal chains in a furious effort to swing higher but no matter how high I swing, that red-necked razor-beaked rooster flutters just high enough to show me who’s boss. Baaaaawk-bawk-bawk-baaaaawk! Through the tiny kitchen window of the trailer I see my mom’s big hair bent over the sink. She’s washing dishes. I desperately wave for help and when she looks up, she gives an open-mouthed smile and waves back. She doesn’t see the rooster. She’s smiling and waving, waving and smiling. I’m screaming bloody murder, open-mouthed and crying out. Crying and waving, waving and crying.