My son took his first breath.
“It’s a boy!” the doctor and nurses shouted, laughing and smiling. They handed his premature, wriggling body to me.
“Hello there,” I said, stroking his tiny face. I began to apologize, and promise.
I apologized for the unusual circumstances surrounding his arrival. Lying there as I was, sans husband or partner, I hadn’t done pregnancy—and wouldn’t be doing parenthood—anywhere near what might be considered “traditionally.” In fact, his biological father and I weren’t even speaking.
I promised I’d be a good mother. I vowed to break the “chain of crazy” I’d inherited from my parents. I would do things better, differently.
As the nurses scurried his five-weeks-early body away to be weighed, measured, and evaluated, the doctor peeked up at me. “Want to see the placenta?” she asked.
I’m not sure I’d think so today, but that night the placenta was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. Scarlet ribbons extended from a ruby red center, spoking out toward round edges, forming a circular map of sorts. From its middle snaked the main highway that had connected me to him until just moments ago. It charted the path that led to life: The route that nutrients had traveled to nurture my newly born baby boy for the last nine months.
It was miraculous.
I’d think about that roadmap from time to time over the next several years, especially as my son’s complicated genes became apparent. He has a rare genetic condition that’s led to a couple of heart procedures. He’s endured more doctor visits and hospital stays than the average kid. Ultimately though, he is fine.
When his condition first became known, I was scared. For perspective, I’d think back to that glorious placenta and marvel that he’d been born at all. It seemed to me then, and does still: Human life is a miracle. There are so many things that can go wrong. Luckily, his complications turned out to be manageable.
Years passed. He grew up, healthy and happy, giving me hope that the crazy-chain had, indeed, been broken. My time for taking care of him was ending. He went away to college.
Just a few months later, I was called on to care for someone else.
My 85-year-old father-in-law, Tom, became too ill to live alone, so my husband and I relocated him to Arizona to be closer to us. I oversaw Tom’s care, just as I had my son’s.
For the next several months, I ushered him to and from various doctor’s appointments and visited the skilled nursing facility we’d found for him, several times a week. We went on lunch outings and for wheelchair rides outside, enjoying the beautiful desert spring weather and chatting.
Tom wasn’t much of a talker.
Still, during one of our adventures he revealed his wish that he’d had a daughter, in addition to his two sons. He mused that the time we shared then, in what I’m sure he knew were the last months of his life, would be the closest he would get.
He’d never had a daughter; I’d had two terrible fathers. But now, we found ourselves together.
It somehow made perfect sense.
On April 20 that year, our unexpected father/daughter alliance abruptly ended. As I walked into the facility that morning, the nurses called out from behind the counter, “He’s not doing well.”
I ran to his room.
His scrawny frame heaved as he coughed up thick green bile. The hospice nurse and I propped him up, swabbing the inside of his mouth with giant moistened Q-tips. He kept coughing, panicked, as his terrified eyes searched mine for answers, or maybe reassurance.
“You’re okay,” I lied. “You’ll be fine.”
A half hour in, the nurse got up to make a call, leaving me there alone, eye-to-eye with my crimson-faced, choking father-in-law. When she returned to the room, she looked suddenly startled. She called out the door for help. “He’s going,” she yelled.
Tom’s gasps quickened, his face growing redder as the veins in his face began to protrude, snaking out from his nose to his temples, his mouth, and down his neck. Placental. As he struggled for air, I blurted out random thoughts: “We love you. You’ve been a good dad. It’s going to be okay.”
He couldn’t speak, but grasped my forearms and stared into my eyes, forging an intimate alliance. He stopped breathing, collapsed into me, and died in my arms.
The blood red roadmap of his face paled; I cried out.
I’d never seen death first-hand before.
Twenty years before, scarlet placenta pathways had joined me to my son, beginning his life. Now, similar road-like veins had carried Tom’s illness, ending his life.
In both cases, sacred connections had been created.
Georgianna Marie is an aspiring author, currently developing a series of personal essays. After discovering the beautiful Oregon Coast in 2020, she purchased a cabin in Manzanita. She spends half her time in Oregon, and half in the Phoenix desert, with her husband Tim and their dog, Penny.