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Your Mother Imagines You Dead

She imagines you dead in the bathtub. The split second you slide under. The gasp. The sputter. She catches you, placing her hands around your tiny waist, your body like a slippery fish. She lifts you up and presses you to her chest.

She imagines you dead as she walks up the stairs with you in her arms.

She imagines you dead when she sees it in her mind only: her foot, cushioned in a sock, slips on the edge, and the two of you tumble down. Two bodies. One big and unwieldy. One so small it would be crushed by the weight of her.

She wants you to sleep. She’s obsessed with the idea of sleep. She fantasizes about it so hard it keeps her awake at night. Sleep, she thinks. Just sleep. When you finally do, she imagines you dead. She checks the clock. 7:30 a.m. You couldn’t possibly sleep so late. Are you breathing? Should she check? She imagines you dead as she tiptoes quietly into your room, as she peers over your crib to find your limbs sprawled out like a teddy bear. When a few seconds later you cry, she breathes, then she whispers it—shit— because now you are the second worst thing: awake.

Anxiety believes if she rehearses tragedy she’ll prevent tragedy. Her therapist tells her this. The anxiety, the therapist says, is telling her body a story. But she’s never liked stories, has never liked the body. Instead, she’s always held to the rough edges of her anxiety. She’s always believed if she holds on tight enough her thoughts might save her.  

She imagines you dead at dinner. In the kitchen. When you’re eating the piece of cheese. When you’re eating the piece of meat. When you’re eating the tortilla and the raspberry she’s cut in half. When you’re drinking from the sippy cup and you cough so softly your dad doesn’t even notice. She imagines you dead when your dad says, “She’s drooling a lot” and she looks in your mouth and says, “What’s that?” then reaches in and pulls out a small piece of a nylon dog bone. You weren’t even choking, she thinks, so how could she think you were dying?

She’s your mother. She doesn’t need a reason to imagine you dead.
She imagines you dead when she goes to work and leaves you with the babysitter.
When she goes to work out at the gym and leaves you in the little daycare area with the long staircase and thinks, “Do they know the dangers of staircases?”

She imagines you dead in the summertime: heat exhaustion. In the wintertime: frostbite. She imagines you dead in the car. That half second before she looks in the rearview mirror and sees you smile.

She imagines you dead before all of this. When you’re still part of her. When she’s so used to the feel of your kick against the inside of her body that she presses her hand to her stomach, tracing the movement of you like piano keys. Those days you stopped kicking, briefly, and she first imagined you—

But that was early on. How she already loved you enough to imagine you dead. “I note you equate love with these anxious thoughts,” the therapist says.

She imagines you dead when you’re even smaller than this. When you’re the size of—she reads it online—a blueberry. She imagines you dead when she goes to pee. When, for months, every time she pees she also pauses, looking for blood in the toilet water. Blood on the toilet paper. She’s waiting for blood because she doesn’t think you are possible. Because she can’t imagine a world kind enough to let you live. Because she can’t imagine her body is kind enough until it is.
Someday, if life is kind, she’ll die before you. Someday, if life is kind, you will be the one to answer the phone call. The hospital room will be stuffy, too small, and not what she deserved. You will remember the silence, the incessant beeping of the monitors. You will slip your hand into hers and hope she knows.   

But first, before all of this, she will continue to imagine you: dead, dead, dead, dead. Will she do this for the rest of her life? Imagining all the various ways you might die?

She doesn’t know. For now, what she knows is this. She imagines you dead even as you fill every empty space with life. Each morning, she goes to you. The light in your nursery is golden and promising. She breathes it in, sucking in the life of it.


Bethany Marcel is an alumna of the Tin House Workshop and a reader at The Rumpus. Her work has been published in Catapult, Literary Hub, Midnight Breakfast, Creative Nonfiction, Longleaf Review, Post Road, and elsewhere. She’s been awarded a Career Opportunity Grant from the Oregon Arts Commission and her work has been supported by residencies from Vermont Studio Center and Spruce Art. You can find her online at www.bethanymarcel.com

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