My mother and I were walking down Agua Marina Street in Dominican Republic. The sun blazing and my father dying. She had left him when I was six years old but now she treated him like a parent because he was old enough to be her father. He spent most of his life working multiple jobs, stingy as fuck so he could pile enough cash in the bank so he could eventually retire back home like una persona decente. But then we find him lying on a lumpy mattress, legally blind because of diabetes, missing toes, barely able to get up, living his last days inside a dank, small apartment, water infiltrating from the side walls and ceiling, the walls bubbling up, threatening to burst. Drip. Drip. Drip. Buckets everywhere, the drips just barely missing his bed that he had inched with time to the farthest corner. My mother and I were both unhinged by the sight of him living in a home in desperate need of repair. Even so, he laughed constantly, telling bad jokes as if death were not a worry, getting inappropriate hard-ons when one of the many women in his life changed his diaper. So many women. His daughters, his ex-wives, his sisters, his sister-in-law. All of them taking on the care of this man. But the person who volunteered to stay with him 24/7 was his sixteen-year-old daughter, my half-sister. I asked her why—he was such a dick to her, to me, to everyone—and she said, because he’s my father.
That’s what children are for, my mother said, sweat beads all over my chest, the humidity suffocating.
I don’t know if I’ll ever have children, I said.
It doesn’t surprise me. You’re like your grandmother, not maternal at all, she said.
I was 31 at the time, in love with a man who already had his children and said he didn’t want any more. I also was invested in having the freedom to travel and not be responsible for anyone. But when she said this to me, it hurt. A lot.
In our apartment we had many reproductions of famous paintings from the time I interned at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I would buy them as gifts with my 20 percent discount. My mother would frame and install them in a way that made our prewar apartment look “fancy.” They complemented the chandelier in the foyer and baroque-style dining table. For years I studied one by Raphael placed near the kitchen, where we spent most of our time at home. It was one of the Madonna and child, both of them with faraway eyes looking down and away in two different directions. A chubby naked Jesus clutching his mother’s chest. He seems very light in her arms, like she’s barely holding him, and maybe that’s the point. Then there was this other one I hung in my room by Gustav Klimt: also a mother and child, it was poster-sized and taped on the wall, the edges all ratty because it kept peeling off. I loved that one because unlike the Raphael painting where Mary seemed so solemn, maybe because she didn’t choose to have a baby, the Klimt depiction of motherhood was sensual and intimate. The child and mother both have their eyes closed and they are clinging to each other in the most tender way. The child’s hand stretches over her bare chest. These artists could not be more different. Raphael was orphaned at eleven and spent many years painting on the walls of the Vatican. He was commissioned to paint the Virgin. And Klimt fathered fourteen children, had numerous affairs and claimed an aesthetic interest in nuda veritas. The way his subjects grasp, cling, hold onto the other, reveal something about his erotic interior, and motherhood was no exception.