Jasmine

Morning message on my machine: "Nora just had her baby, beautiful little girl, please come home." Mom's voice sounds too chipper. Something must be wrong.

That evening, I am in a train cutting through the woods; everything out my window is brand new. The summer solstice has just passed, and the longest day of the year is finally over. I travel with trepidation, which means I am afraid to arrive at my destination because Nora, my beautiful little strung-out sister just had a baby.

I love trains, but I do not love trains when they take me home because something ugly so often happens. Like the time Michael and I drove to New York City to see the Picasso Retrospective and I called home from Grand Central Station to let them know I was in New York in love and having fun. Nora answered and wanted to know if I had heard about Rita. I didn't want to hear, but she couldn't help herself. She had to tell me; it was too hard to hold in and besides it just happened yesterday, and I'm part of the family; she is my sister and it is my obligation to know since I am her witness. So even though I asked her not to Nora told me anyway. She said, "Rita's boyfriend shot himself dead with a rifle and Rita got kicked out of her apartment and she's going on trial for murder. His mother thinks she killed him for his life insurance. Can you imagine?"

Can't be happy for a second. I'll never get away. That's why I travel toward them with trepidation. I am the oldest of six children and therefore obligated to save them; it's my designated role. It is often called the role of the hero. I was born into it. I can't help myself. They hate me. Who can blame them? I act so much holier than them, like I have all the answers. Just listen to me, and I'll tell you exactly what to do with the rest of your life.

When I get to the hospital, Nora is sleeping with a cigarette burning down between her fingers; another cigarette burns away in the ashtray. A smoky cloud hangs over the room. I see no baby, and there are no flowers.

I wait for Nora to wake. Her face looks dirty like she's been walking down a dusty road. There is another new mother in the room. She looks fairly normal, which makes me uncomfortable because it's embarrassing how my family often acts like trailer trash.

I cannot look this new mother in the eye. I do not want to exchange pleasantries or small talk. No coo-coo. What a cute baby. Don't even want to smile and say hi. Just want to pretend like she's not here like I didn't see her. What can I say? I'm choking on my tongue. My stomach feels queasy, not queasy but longing. I am full of anxiety and dread which means I'm scared to death. There's something wrong with my family. "Hey Nora, Wake up. You're going to burn the hospital down."

Nora wakes up groggily. She is not happy to sec me. In fact, she looks angry that I'm here at all. I get huffy and use this wretched little punitive voice. "Don't you know, you're not supposed to smoke in the hospital? It's against the law." Nora just glares at me, and then I remember I forgot to bring flowers.

"Fuck flowers." She says.

Then Nora rings for the nurse. The nurse comes in and Nora asks for morphine. The nurse acts like she wants to slap Nora across the face and give her a piece of her mind. Nora's eyes fill with desperation. "I just had a baby. every inch of me is sore. You can make my pain go away; it's your job." She slurs her words loudly. The nurse gives her the morphine and leaves quickly. How could they give her morphine? This is a hospital; they must see how deranged she can be. Nora stamps out her cigarette then descends into an angry sleep.

I blunder out the door looking for the room full of babies. All the halls look and smell the same. I don't know where I'm going. I run into a nurse who tells me I need to go to another wing and up three floors. I follow her directions down the hall until I come to wing B where I find the elevator and take it to floor four. When I find the room, Nora's baby isn't there. I am told she has a private toom in wing C. That's two halls to the left then right to the elevator and up one. I walk fast then slow. Why would a baby have a private room? What if something's wrong? Nora did all those drugs, I'm sure they shared needles. What if she has AIDS?

I turn one identical corner after another until I find the baby. She is alone and on monitors; a cross and skull bone like a black flag on a pirate ship hangs above her bassinette like a hex sign warning me away. I want to run because I know I will love this baby, and she will change my life and I know, no matter what, she is my destiny, and that I am no longer merely who I was before she was born.

I pray to the commotion around me and back down the hall. "Poison. How could a baby be poison? Let her be all right." I want to lash out. "Let her be all right." I need to change my world and never see my family again as long as I live. I am so frightened that I corner a nurse and sob, "How could you put a poison sign over a baby's bed? You're cursing her the day she's born. Take it down now."

The nurse looks down on me like Nora and I are one and the same, like no decent person knows a person who brings a baby into the world like that. And she's right. Nora and I are one. We come from the same mother, the same father. We grew up in the same house. She's just younger, more beautiful and more tragic.

The nurse sees the worry in my face, and her face softens. She looks like she wants to put her arms around me, but she doesn't. She asks me to follow her back to the baby's room.

then places the baby in my arms and says, "She's perfect, just perfect. We have to be careful when the mother does drugs. We have to wean her. She'll be fine. You'll see."

"You mean the baby's doing cold turkey?"

"Yes, but she'll be fine. Babies are strong. You'll see."

I look into the baby's face for the first time. She looks a little like a volcano, her face all scrunched up and ready to explode, but as soon as I look into her eyes, she curls into my arms and I rock her back and forth. "Oh baby, sweet baby be all right. Be all right baby. Be all right."

As I rock her, I remember a recurring dream 1 have. In the dream, I have a baby, and the baby's always dying. I don't know what to do. I run through a maze of faces. I beg every face I see. "Please help me; my baby's dying. Help me. Please stop." But no one stops. They just keep going. I am invisible; my legs are rubbery, and 1 keep falling. Finally, one face out of the sea of faces stops and looks me in the eyes and says, "Feed her, stupid." So, I raise her to my breast, and she lives.