I remember the close warmth of the Texas night, the small bedroom with its peach-toned walls, and the humid air punctuated by my mother’s swift, hard breath. I remember the smell: the pungent scent of the herbs I’d been told to boil, the greenish scent of olive oil, and a scent I’d never fully encountered before, that of skin and blood and sweat in a heady mingling of sour and sweet.

“Stand closer, hon,” said Tami, my mother’s impromptu midwife. “I need you to hand me that towel as soon as the baby comes.” She looked at my mother, my exhausted, tense-muscled mother, and nodded. “One more hard push.”

I watched my mother close her eyes in a sheet-white face blank of every emotion except hard concentration and pain. I watched her sweat-soaked chest rise, saw her teeth set at the last, and I witnessed the cost of that push upon every nerve and muscle in her body.

And then all I saw was the baby.

She was born. In a rush of water and blood, my sister emerged, as if on a tide from another world, this small, pink, compact body, astonishingly complete. “Hello, little precious” Tami whispered, taking the tiny body in calm, firm hands, leaning over, rubbing her wet, new skin, reaching for the towel that I had at the ready.

I felt suddenly panicked at the quiet. I leaned in close and was just in time to witness my sister’s first, shuddering breath, the crinkling of her tiny eyes, and the wail, the blessed, startled cry that all babies give at finding themselves outside the warm contours of their first home.

People speak of newborns as perfect, and that is the word that comes to my fingers, but I don’t think we mean aesthetic perfection ...

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