I’ve been wanting to talk about this New Yorker essay by Ariel Levy, Thanksgiving in Mongolia, since I started this blog (admittedly, not such a long time ago). More accurately, I’ve been wanting to talk about it since I first read it. That must have been six months ago. I read it in the middle of a slow day at work and ended up crying in my office. Since then I’ve reread it about a dozen times, and to some extent have teared up every time. And I’d like to be clear–I don’t cry very often. It’s the story of a miscarriage the writer suffered while traveling in Mongolia, not a topic that I’d ordinarily be drawn to, or one that would ordinarily jerk my tears. But this is a very special piece of writing (quite deservedly, it won the National Magazine Award in essay writing in 2014). I was going to find some way to work it into a Top Five list (Top Five Tear-Jerkers? Top Five Personal Traumas? Top Five Horrible Things That Can Happen To You In Mongolia?) but when I thought about how much this essay means to me I knew I couldn’t embed it in a listicle. I’ve tried more than once to pinpoint why it has such an impact on me. It starts with Levy’s initial ambivalence towards motherhood. She describes her adventures as a journalist and explorer, her love affair with travel, and her fear that a child might put an end to that life with refreshing honesty.
I didn’t like childhood, and I was afraid that I’d have a child who didn’t, either. I was afraid I would be an awful mother. And I was afraid of being grounded, sessile—stuck in one spot for eighteen years of oboe lessons and math homework that I couldn’t finish the first time around.
Ultimately she and her partner decide to take the plunge and have a baby when, “The idea bloomed in my head that being governed by something other than my own wishes and wanderlust might be a pleasure, a release.” Before giving birth, Levy decides to engage in one last bout of wanderlust.
My doctor told me that it was fine to fly up until the third trimester, so when I was five months pregnant I decided to take one last big trip. It would be at least a year, maybe two, before I’d be able to leave home for weeks on end and feel the elation of a new place revealing itself. (It’s like having a new lover—even the parts you aren’t crazy about have the crackling fascination of the unfamiliar.)Just before Thanksgiving, I went to Mongolia.
People were alarmed when I told them where I was going, but I was pleased with myself. I liked the idea of being the kind of woman who’d go to the Gobi Desert pregnant, just as, at twenty-two, I’d liked the idea of being the kind of girl who’d go to India by herself. And I liked the idea of telling my kid, “When you were inside me, we went to see the edge of the earth.”
But in Mongolia the situation turns ominous as a slight pain in Levy’s abdomen grows worse and worse. She ends up giving birth in the bathroom of her hotel room, and what follows is one of the saddest things I have ever read:
I felt an unholy storm move through my body, and after that there is a brief lapse in my recollection; either I blacked out from the pain or I have blotted out the memory. And then there was another person on the floor in front of me, moving his arms and legs, alive. I heard myself say out loud, “This can’t be good.”
But it looked good. My baby was as pretty as a seashell. He was translucent and pink and very, very small, but he was flawless. His lovely lips were opening and closing, opening and closing, swallowing the new world. For a length of time I cannot delineate, I sat there, awestruck, transfixed. Every finger, every toenail, the golden shadow of his eyebrows coming in, the elegance of his shoulders—all of it was miraculous, astonishing. I held him up to my face, his head and shoulders filling my hand, his legs dangling almost to my elbow. I tried to think of something maternal I could do to convey to him that I was, in fact, his mother, and that I had the situation completely under control. I kissed his forehead and his skin felt like a silky frog’s on my mouth.
In my hand, his skin started to turn a soft shade of purple. I bled my way across the room to my phone and dialed the number for Cox’s doctor. I told the voice that answered that I had given birth in the Blue Sky Hotel and that I had been pregnant for nineteen weeks. The voice said that the baby would not live. “He’s alive now,” I said, looking at the person in my left hand. The voice said that he understood, but that it wouldn’t last, and that he would send an ambulance for us right away. I told him that if there was no chance the baby would make it I might as well take a cab. He said that that was not a good idea. Before I put down my phone, I took a picture of my son. I worried that if I didn’t I would never believe he had existed.
I worry that by extracting quotes like this, I”m actually robbing the essay of its power. So much of its magic is its perfect and painstakingly built structure. I can’t replicate her how powerful it is, bearing witness to Levy’s journey from a woman ambivalent towards motherhood to this final, heartbreaking conclusion:
But the truth is, the ten or twenty minutes I was somebody’s mother were black magic. There is no adventure I would trade them for; there is no place I would rather have seen. Sometimes, when I think about it, I still feel a dark hurt from some primal part of myself, and if I’m alone in my apartment when this happens I will hear myself making sounds that I never made before I went to Mongolia. I realize that I have turned back into a wounded witch, wailing in the forest, undone. Most of the time it seems sort of O.K., though, natural. Nature. Mother Nature. She is free to do whatever she chooses.