In the weeks before I was born, my father encounters a statistic that shows that women in their 5th pregnancy have a higher chance of hemorrhaging. My father is concerned. While my mother is a universal donor, she can only receive O- blood in return. Since the only blood bank in the province of Pastaza, is a walking blood bank (my mother), my father fears that were my mother to hemorrhage, she would die. So he sends my mother on the 9-hour mountain road up to Quito and asks a medical missionary colleague for a favor, he asks that he track down O- blood for my mother and have it on hand in case of emergency. But for some reason (the excuses vary), the doctor doesn’t come through.
In Quito, while my mother waits, she stays in a room above the hospital. She reads the Bible. She prays. She imagines holding me in her arms. My mother has a powerful imagination. When she goes into labor, she calls a missionary nurse, a friend of hers living across the street who comes to help her. Together, they walk through the hospital halls throughout the day and in the evening they head to the delivery room. At 9:30 p.m. on May 12, 1965, my mother gives birth in the company of medical staff but otherwise, alone. I am born loud and healthy, a whopping 9 + lbs.
The pediatrician checks me and goes home.
The obstetrician checks on my mother and goes home.
But then, several hours after delivery, just as my father feared, my mother begins to bleed. The hospital has no O- blood. The resident dials the obstetrician who has gone home to bed and doesn’t answer his telephone. Now, the resident holds my mother’s life in his hands.
Desperate to keep my mother alive, the resident massages her belly and talks to her. “Tell me a story, Señora. Tell me the story of your life.”
And this is the story that comes to my mother as she hovers beneath the rippling curtains of death:
Earlier that year my father takes my mother on a romantic get-away to a simple elegant hotel in the forest run by an elegant man, Don Francisco. The lodge has a small menagerie--jungle animals chained or trapped in cages. A watusa, a howler monkey, a spider monkey, a marmoset, a capuchin chained at the leg, a honey bear, a tortoise, a giant anteater, a sloth, a blue macaw eating bananas, a rainbow boa, and, an ocelot pacing his cage.
My mother admires the ocelot.
Later that night, after dinner, my father remains in the dining room talking to the other guests and my mother returns to her cabin. My mother bathes by candlelight. She slips into her negligee. Traces the curve of her lips with dark lipstick, brushes her glistening mahogany hair, and then she climbs into bed and waits for my father.
In the dark corner of the room, something stirs. The flame flickers in shimmering eyes as the ocelot emerges from the shadows. He circles the bed, twitching his tail in slow anticipation. My mother watches him and then, slowly, slides up on the bed and stands with her back to the wall. She calls for my father. My father doesn’t hear her.
The ocelot takes his time. Back and forth he circles the bed, admiring my beautiful mother, her green eyes, her glowing skin...
My mother calls louder. Before long someone knocks on her cabin door. “Señora? Señora? Can I help you?” The elegant Don Francisco has heard her.
“Help me,” she calls, “the ocelot…”
Don Francisco knocks again. “Señora, tranquila. Come, unlock the door for me and I will capture the ocelot. I will help you, Señora! I will save you! But first, you must unlock the door.”
But my mother, caught between modesty or an intuitive sense of increasing danger, refuses. “Help me! I want my husband.”
Don Fransisco keeps knocking, insisting. The ocelot paces. Watching. Waiting.
She calls again and again, “Please, get my husband.” Finally, Don Fransisco leaves my mother to the ocelot and goes to search out my father who comes, as he should, and rescues her.
In my mythic life, this is the story of my conception: the ocelot pacing at the foot of the bed, my mother in the candlelight, both overcome with desire...
This is the story my mother tells as she is alone and dying. When she finishes her story, she drifts into dreams. “Wake me up,” she murmurs to the resident who continues massaging her belly, “Wake me up before I die, I might have something to say.”
In the dark morning hours after my birth, an official at the American embassy opens their citizen files and searches for a universal donor. Just before dawn, before the very first sunrise of my life, the blood of an American colonel saves my mother’s life.
My mother weeps for days after I am born. She wants to see no one.
Perhaps we all are.
Before my mother travels to Quito for my birth, my parents send my oldest brother out in the MAF Cessna with Frank Colinger, a single American missionary, to Arajuno.
Arajuno is a Kichwa community with an airstrip built by Shell, the Dutch oil company in their search for oil in the late 1930's. Between 1945 and 1962, 23 new Evangelical churches and missions are welcomed to Ecuador in part to challenge the iron grip of the Catholic church over the country, but also with the hope that they would successfully missionize the Amazon, “pacifying” the people and opening up the Ecuadorian Amazon to oil.
As they work to bring Christ’s gospel to the Amazon, the missionaries use the abandoned oil strips to reach the forest communities. Arajuno is one of the river communities on these strips.
My brother is 10. He follows Frank down mud paths from house to house visiting families, sitting on wooden benches, drinking chicha. They hunt in the forest. They watch the rain.
They watch the river rise.
Several days into their visit, tragedy strikes.
While my brother stands on the bank watching, a canoe carrying children across the flooded river to school overturns. 10 children drown. Sisters, brothers, cousins--all lost to the swollen river.
One by one, the river gives up the bodies. One by one, the fathers and uncles pull their children in. The children are older and younger than my brother. Some families have lost more than one child.
For the next few nights, my brother follows Frank from house to house as they attend the wakes. At every house, as they approach, they can hear the wailing. The keening pierces the forest, a sharp song of sorrow that flows through the darkness and continues through the rising light of day, it swells with the sun and falls after noon and then calls for the darkness to return. Sometimes the rain swallows the song and sometimes the sorrow swallows the rain.
My brother comes to me cloaked in the spirits of these children.
Years later he tells me that when he sees me for the first time, he recognizes me.
My mother was a universal donor.
I remember her telling the story of how when she was in college a boyfriend asked her to marry him but said that before she gave him her answer she needed to read a 70-page missive that he had written by hand.
He planned on being a pastor and so much of the letter was about his expectations of her as a "good pastor's wife." One of the requirements was that she play piano in his church. My mother was in turmoil. She thought she ought to marry him but wasn't so keen on all the requirements, nor was she so keen on him. She found him a bit arrogant and he was very invested in the idea that women should be silent and subservient to their husbands.
My mother wasn't the silent type. She was also peeved that he thought her fitting, in part, because she played the piano. Finally, after much prayer and heartfelt conversations with my grandmother, she gathered her courage and told him no.
And then she found my father.
My father was very shy and my mother was extraordinarily outgoing. She basically organized the relationship and eventually, they were married.
He was a doctor headed for the Amazon and, by good fortune, she had O- blood and was a universal donor. My dad had married a walking blood bank.
In Shell, our family lived across the street from the hospital. We didn't have a telephone and when emergency patients came in at night the nurse would cross the street and throw pebbles at my parent's window to wake my father up. Frequently, if the patient needed blood, my father would return, gently wake my mother, ask my mother to stretch out her arm and take her blood.
It always made me smile that my mother was annoyed by the pastor who assumed she would play piano in his church, but not phased by the doctor who would take her blood whenever a patient needed it.