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					                                                                  Copyright: Helen Tosch, 2005


                                       Sins of the Mother

                                                 1.
It wasn‟t magical, gentle, or amazing. It wasn‟t miraculous or sweet or any of the adjectives that
people use to describe the emotions one feels upon first laying eyes or hands on a newborn
baby. It was November 1, five weeks after my 19th birthday, when my child entered the world
after a 40-hour labor. I was scared and alone, and I felt nothing but empty.

For months I‟d prepared, as well as I could considering the circumstances, for giving birth to a
little girl. I had picked out her name—Elizabeth Grace—the only name she could have. I knew
what she looked like, and imagined how adorable she‟d look in a pair of pink checked Oshkosh
B‟gosh overalls with a ruffled T-shirt underneath. I dreamed of being best friends as well as
mother and daughter. We‟d pick red grapes together and eat them right off the vine. We‟d
laugh and watch Little House on the Prairie reruns and she‟d love them as much as I did. She‟d
want to marry Almonzo too. I hoped she‟d be as beautiful as her grandma and as smart as her
grandpa. And of course, she‟d have the heart and soul of her mom. We‟d read together and
have girl talks and secrets—lots of secrets. I knew I‟d love her more than anyone or anything.

When she was born, however, she surprised me with a penis.

“Oh, shit,” was all I could say when the doctor exclaimed “it‟s a boy”. It‟s pathetic but true. I
wanted to cry. I looked at him—a wriggling, wailing, gooey baby boy, dangling parts and all,
and I thought nothing. Felt nothing. He weighed 5lbs 9oz, a good size for a preemie born five
weeks too early, and he was 19.5 inches long. That‟s what they told me. My mom, who was
standing next to me, said “look, Anna, he has the „Fus‟ lip”, as if she couldn‟t think of anything
else. I knew what she meant; he had his father‟s lips. And profile. She was right. I saw it too,
and it was too much for me to handle. I couldn‟t believe my luck—a boy who looked like his
perpetually absent father and his father before him. Here began another generation of good-
looking jerks with a damn dimpled chin and slightly protruding lower lip. It was all I needed. I
wanted to vomit, but the ice chips I‟d eaten hardly seemed worth the effort of heaving.

The nurses had just finished cutting the cord and were in the process of weighing and washing
him, when his crying stopped. Just like that. Thank God, I thought. I couldn‟t handle any more
baby boy noise. Then, before I could register another silent, self-pitying complaint, the nurses
ceased their cooing. There was an oxygen mask, almost as big as his head, covering his mouth
and nose. Pump, pump, pump.

“He‟s not responding. Should we tube him?” I heard someone ask.

“Not yet,” another voice responded.

In seconds, the mood in the room had changed from jovial to urgent. The baby on the table—
my son—was turning blue. Not just his lips, but his entire body. From what I remember, my
mom was standing over me, holding my hand. I think she was crying. A vague scent of
microwave popcorn lingered in the air from the snack my dad had earlier, tempered a bit with
antiseptic soap. My feet were still in stirrups, but the back-tie hospital gown was covering
everything but my calves. The pain of labor had subsided, but I still hurt. The cameras had
ceased flashing. My dad was at the foot of the bed, having just finished inspecting the afterbirth
(why, I don‟t know). He was silent but his eyes belied his calm. Medical speak swirled around
the room and, though I didn‟t completely understand the words, kindled the cinders in my heart.
I started to cry. That time, however, it wasn‟t for me and my shattered dreams of mother-
                                                                             Sins of the Mother
daughter teas. It was for Maxwell, Emmet, Andrew, Eddie…whatever his name was to become.
I cried for my son. Penis or no, I loved him. Maybe not as much as I should have, but I loved
him.

Then, for the first time in months, I began to pray—silent and splintered. Please God. I‟m sorry
God. I‟ll do anything. Forgive me. Help him. I really do want him. I know. No right to ask, but.
I‟m sorry for what I thought. And that sex before marriage issue. I understand. I‟m sorry.
Please help. I‟m terrible at this. I love you. I love him. You don‟t want him; he has a “Fus” lip.
I want him. Please. I promise I won‟t name him Elizabeth and make him wear dresses. Help
him.

A nurse was still pumping air into his lungs when they took him away. But before they carried
him out of the room, someone placed him on my chest and my dad took a picture. I don‟t
remember it, but the photograph does. My eyes are closed, but I‟m smiling. He‟s a little pinker
and looks almost healthy. My mom is standing next to me, trying to smile through the tears.

It‟s strange how sketchy those moments are. My brain has somehow managed to catalog my
entire life in vivid color and detail, from my first crush at two years old (Tommy Jacobs) until this
moment as I write, with the exception of the day I delivered my son. I haven‟t forgotten, but it‟s
grainy and faded, almost like it never happened at all. It could have been sleep deprivation that
clouded my memory, but more than likely it was shame goggles overshadowing the pathetic,
painful truth. The truth about the day I both wished my son away and prayed for his survival.
Though I struggle to remember, I will never forget.

                                                 2.

The intensive care unit was a steady 70 degrees, but to me it felt about as warm as a January
day in Chicago. The florescent lights made me wish I‟d worn sunglasses. Everything was
white, with the exception of the color-coated blankets letting everyone know whether the baby in
the isolette was a boy or a girl. This was not the nursery. There weren‟t any babies crying, in
fact, the room was eerily quiet, only the purring of machines and squeaks of nursing shoes
crossing the floor filled air.

When my parents and I walked in, Max was lying still in his crib. Only his chest moved, almost
spastically, as he struggled for air. I had decided to name him Maxwell after my dad and his
mother who had died before I was born. It was his middle name and her maiden name.
Besides that, the nickname Max just seemed to fit.

My favorite nurse Julie looked up at us as she prepared him for what was about to happen. The
oxygen tent he‟d been living under for the last nineteen hours hadn‟t been doing enough to keep
his oxygen saturation where it needed to be, so he had to be intubated and ventilated. The
hospital where I‟d delivered Max couldn‟t offer that kind of care, so the doctors had decided to
transfer him to a teaching hospital in the city with a level IV neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

Before he left, however, a pastor was going to baptize him. The doctor on duty learned we were
Catholic, he had urged us to request baptism, “just to be on the safe side”. I loathed the man.
He was about 6‟2”, but slouched so much he stood almost eye to eye with my 5‟10” father.
When he shook my hand, he looked at my shoes rather than my face; and when he relayed
information, he talked over me to my parents. It was humiliating. Besides that, he had a
tremendous nose that squeaked faintly upon each exhale. His nostrils were so big I imagined
stuffing marbles, or gumballs for that matter, up there. I wondered how many would fit before
he‟d sneeze and shoot them all out in rapid fire.



                                                                                                    2
                                                                               Sins of the Mother
“Hey, everyone, I was just getting Max all handsome for his baptism,” Julie said. She was
upbeat, but not saccharine. I could tell she really cared about the babies. “The chaplain just
called. She‟ll be here in a couple of minutes.”

I didn‟t want to baptize him. It seemed to me like giving God permission to take him away from
me. “Now that we‟ve taken care of Original Sin, God, please feel free to bring him home”. I
realize it was superstitious, but it was exactly how I felt.

The baptism was over five minutes after the minister arrived. She wore a white robe over a pair
of orange and brown pants that had been awful even in the decade she‟d purchased them.
Despite her lack of fashion sense, however, she was quite nice. She offered up a genuine,
heart felt prayer for Max. Her compassion was calming, but not calming enough to keep me
from gnawing on my nails that were long for the first time in my life thanks to high doses of
prenatal vitamins. The picture of the baptism shows me sitting in a plastic chair in front of his
isolette with my parents standing next to me. We were all wearing yellow gowns over our
clothes. Underneath, my parents were dressed like they were going to work, and I was wearing
a pair of embarrassingly thread-bare cotton pajamas with pink and purple hearts dotting the
fabric. All you see of the minister is her arm, and she‟s pouring water on Max‟s forehead with a
makeshift baptismal font that looks like a gold-painted aluminum ashtray from McDonalds. Her
wrist is blocking Max‟s face, but if I remember correctly, he wasn‟t crying. Then, in the name of
the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, it was over. Original sin sluiced away—poof!—just like
that. Yet, by some miracle, he continued to breathe. Not easily, you could see the retraction of
his chest as he struggled for air, but he did breathe on his own. Within hours, however, that
would change.

                                                      3.

Max left the hospital in an ambulance and I had to stay behind. In the maternity ward, rules
were rules, and were not made, as I‟d always believed, to be broken. I had to remain caged in
my room until I could show proof positive that I could, indeed, have a bowel movement without
incident. Lovely. I couldn‟t wait to show the evidence, like a prize heifer at a 4-H show. I hoped
the lucky recipient of my gift would be the same nurse who, during my labor, had so lovingly
shoved a catheter into my urethra, failing miserably on the first two attempts. When I told her it
hurt, she‟d responded with, “Don‟t be such a wimp. I‟ve done hundreds of these and I know
they‟re not that bad.” I wanted to kick her. Then, because I wasn‟t appreciative of her skill I‟m
sure, she started over again. Poke. Poke. Prod. Shove. Oh wait, there it is! Jam and slide.
“See, wasn‟t that easy,” said Nurse Ratchet in the flesh. It was a statement inviting no contrary
answers. For the first time since potty training, I looked forward to pooping, not only to get out
of the hospital, but also to give her a little thank-you-for-your-gentleness gift.

Though I did want to follow Max, a part of me was glad to have time to rest. The nurses
promised to wake me if there were any changes in his condition, so I decided I could probably
use a nap. And, though my breasts ached as they grew heavy with milk, I fell into a deep sleep
around 9pm.

The clock read 3:02 in the morning when I awoke with a start. I thought I‟d been having a
nightmare, because my heart was racing and I was trembling and nauseous. Though I couldn‟t
quite shake the disorientation of sleep, I knew something was wrong. I remember pressing the
nurses call button, but no one came. I wanted to phone the other hospital, but I couldn‟t find the
number. So I just sat in my bed, crossed my fingers, and hoped that there had simply been a
glitch in my mother‟s intuition. Eventually, I fell back into a restless, dream-filled sleep. I dreamt
about Max. He was lying in his crib, staring at me, when his lips began to lose color. Then,
though he was only a few days old, he started talking to me. “Aren‟t you going to help me,
Mommy?” “Would you love me more if I were a girl?” The “me” in my dream was amazed, but
                                                                                                    3
                                                                                 Sins of the Mother
not shocked, that he was talking. I was glad that he had inherited my verbal ability rather than
his father‟s, but, I was devastated to hear what he was saying. I tried to talk back and assure
him that I was going to help and that I loved him more than anything, but I couldn‟t. Something
paralyzed me, and I couldn‟t help my own child. In the dream, Max continued to talk to me, but
the words became more undecipherable as he gasped for air. I saw the nurses‟ call button and
wanted to push it, but my body wouldn‟t cooperate. Then, a giant pink phone on the table
started to ring. It was a rotary dial phone with an enormous handset that jiggled with each ring.
No matter what I did, the phone continued to clang.

Somehow, my unconscious mind began to register what was going on in the waking world, and
woke me up in time to answer the phone on my nightstand.

“Hello,” I managed.

It was an NICU nurse at the hospital where Max was staying. I looked at the clock. It was
7:16a.m. I could hear my roommate and her baby through the curtain. The suckling sounds the
baby was making drew milk from my breasts, wetting my pajama top.

“Anna Gordon? This is Nancy. I‟m one of the nurses taking care of Max.”

I could feel a pulse in my temples and abdomen as well as my chest as my heart punched my
rib cage, trying to escape.

“I hate to tell you this over the phone, but Max has taken a turn for the worse.”

My 3a.m. premonition flooded my memory and burned my eyes with hot tears.

“He‟s stable now, but he‟s had a rough time for the past few hours. I hope you‟ll be able to
come down and see him.”

“What time did all this happen?” I asked, though I already knew the answer.

“His oxygen saturation dropped dramatically at about 3 o‟clock this morning.”

I took a deep breath, stuttered with sobs I couldn‟t stifle.

“Thank you,” was all I could say before I hung up the phone. Just then, as I was about to call
my mom to tell her the news, she walked into the room. She had tears in her eyes too—one of
the nurses had told her about Max when she‟d checked in.

“Oh Anna, I‟m so sorry, honey. We‟re going to get you out of here so you can go see him.” She
made a good effort to hide her fear, but I could sense it. “He‟s going to be okay. I‟ve got all of
the people at church praying for him. He‟ll be fine.”

Though we both wanted to believe those words, neither of us was convinced.

As my mom promised, she got me out of the hospital, courtesy of her friendship with my
gynecologist. For the next few days, we took shifts at Max‟s bedside, watching helplessly, not
even allowed to even touch him as he fought for his life.

                                                  4.

November 8, 1989 was a typical late autumn day in Chicago. The wind was a blatant pain in
the butt, the clouds refused to allow a peek at the sun, and dead, fallen leaves swarmed my
                                                                                                 4
                                                                                  Sins of the Mother
ankles as I walked from the parking lot into the hospital. It was the sixth day I‟d retraced those
steps. The hallways welcomed me with the scent of stale sickness unsuccessfully masked by
artificially lemon-scented floor cleaner. I breathed through my mouth to avoid smelling it and
had to stifle a gag when I tasted it instead.

When I arrived at the NICU, I saw my parents through the door. As I pushed up my sleeves,
covered my arms in anti-bacterial soap, rinsed, and adorned myself with gown, slippers, and
head cover—all a lovely blue mesh—I watched them. Dad was sitting in a wooden rocking chair
dedicated to a child who‟d never seen the light of day except through the heavily-tinted hospital
windows. My mom was standing by Max‟s isolette. The two gloves that let us touch Max
without disturbing the sterile atmosphere that allowed him to survive swallowed up her forearms.
She was bent over him, most likely whispering through her mask into his plastic home, telling
him how much she loved him—willing him to survive. I could hear the beeps, murmurs, and
wheezes of the life-sustaining machines attached to each child‟s isolette, and I felt so detached
from it all.

Max was eight days old and, with the exception of having him rested on my chest in the delivery
room, I‟d never held him—never touched his hands or his feet or kissed his soft forehead.
Maybe I had been preparing myself for Max to die or maybe the trauma of it all forced me into
unfeeling. But whatever it was, I knew I didn‟t like it.

When I‟d gone home for lunch and a 20-minute nap, I‟d spotted the adoption brochures I‟d
promised to read months ago with no intention of doing so. Though my parents never pushed
me, they did encourage me to explore all of the options. I never could have gone through with
an abortion, so my choices were parenting or giving up—which is exactly what that option felt
like to me. I went through the motions and pretended to consider it, but the more people
encouraged me to do it, the more determined I was to keep my child. Stubbornness has always
been one of my weaknesses, but during those times, I was convinced it was a strength. I
wouldn‟t let an adoption counselor looking out for her own interest and job security bully me. I
was nineteen and fully capable of being a mother. I‟d always dreamed of being a young, cool
mom and now I‟d get my wish. Forget what the rest of the world thought. I convinced myself I
didn‟t care.

In the week after Max was born, however, fear and selfishness had created an emotional void
where my passion and motherly love used to reside. On that afternoon, while picking apart a
day-old turkey sandwich and feeding more to Bo, our 80-pound lap dog, than I ate, I read an
adoption brochure. This particular agency allowed for open adoptions. “An ideal arrangement if
you want to be a part of your child‟s life but cannot give him the kind of family you want for him”,
was how they described the process. The cover had a picture of a couple walking side by side
under a canopy of brilliantly colored leaves, pushing a stroller and still managing to hold hands.
It was obvious propaganda, but I have to admit it affected me.

As I read, I began to think that maybe I‟d made a hasty decision. Maybe I‟d been kidding myself
when I thought I could be a good mother to a helpless baby, especially a sick one. With each
paragraph I read, my confidence and parenting resolve began to crumble. The bond I was
supposed to feel was hiding like lost keys—I knew it was there somewhere, I‟d just felt it after
all, but I couldn‟t locate the damn feeling. The baby boy I‟d been visiting, my son, was slowly
becoming a stranger to me. I hadn‟t been able to hold him, nurse him, or cradle him in my
arms. I couldn‟t even feel his skin. The red, shriveled boy, unnaturally swollen from a drug that
left him in a semi-paralytic state so he couldn‟t fight the tubes forced down his throat, was just a
boy. He was a sad, helpless, boy who was, according to the doctors, probably not going to live.

As I stood in the doorway and watched my parents watching over Max, I was so sad and felt so
entirely defeated. They were obviously in love with their first grandson. I couldn‟t imagine
                                                                                                   5
                                                                              Sins of the Mother
telling them that I was going to take him away from them; but it was even more difficult to
imagine twenty-some years of selfless dedication to a child I was beginning to think I was
incapable of loving the way he deserved to be loved.

My mom glanced up from the crib as I walked toward them. Much to my surprise, she was
smiling and appeared refreshed and hopeful. My heart was aching.

“Good news, Anna. We get to hold him today. The nurses will be right back. We‟re going to
give him a bath too.”

He definitely needed a bath. He‟d been spitting up on himself for days.

My dad put his book down, and the three of us talked for a few minutes while waiting for the
nurses. We marveled at the triplets across the aisle from Max. They were two months old and
still weighed less than 3 pounds each. Reena, Miranda, and Joseph were their names, and
they‟d been born 11 weeks premature at little more than one pound. Two months later, their
skin remained translucent and veins mapped their foreheads. Reena and Miranda were
identical, and Joseph was the odd man out. He was also the sickest of the three and had a
shunt in his head to drain excess fluid from the brain. All three of them were on ventilators. As
amazing as they were, I have to say, they were quite ugly. Not scary, bag-their-heads ugly, but
sad, almost beautiful ugly—much like Frankenstein‟s monster. Much worse than that, however,
was the fact that they hadn‟t had one visitor in the past week. According to the nurses, it was
quite common for parents to abandon their sick and dying children to the care of hospital staff.
The idea disgusted me.

As we waited, I struggled with what I would tell my parents. I was terrible at keeping my own
secrets, but I thought I should wait until we got home.

Nancy walked up and interrupted my thought process. “Hi, Anna. I hope you got some sleep
when you went home.”

“Not much, but I did have something to eat,” I answered. “So, is it true? Do I get to hold him?”

She replied by reaching into Max‟s isolette and gently bringing him out. “Do you want to sit
down? It might be easier for you,” she said, hinting that my dad get out of the chair.

It was a moment I will always remember. Max was now receiving oxygen through a nasal
cannula rather than a ventilator, and I had the tubing draped across my lap. A stripped cotton
blanket wrapped his body and his head smelled vaguely of rotten milk. Spit bubbles on his lips
threatened to slip onto his dimpled chin. His eyes were clear and his skin had started to lose
the jaundice-yellow tint. He melted into my arms, as if he‟d been there hundreds of times
before. It was magic. And though he farted in my lap a few times and spit up what seemed like
an entire meal on my favorite maternity shirt, I knew I had, in fact, made the right decision. I
was going to keep him and the adoption talk with my parents was no longer necessary. The
bond I‟d been seeking without success crashed into my chest and nearly knocked the wind out
of me. I‟d never felt closer to anyone.

                                               5.

The first few months at home were relatively uneventful. I took to mothering well in the
beginning, but eventually the novelty wore off and I began to struggle. My desire for freedom
and youth continuously battled my love for Max and my sense of responsibility. I tried to juggle
the life of a twenty-year-old with the duties of parenting, and I failed miserably. I loved Max


                                                                                                   6
                                                                            Sins of the Mother
more than I loved anyone, but I also wanted a life. Boys had always been a huge part of my life,
and I missed having them around. I longed for the days when I‟d been adored and chased.

From the time Max was about six months old until he was five; my life was dotted, no splattered,
with chaos. I went though boyfriends and jobs, tossing them away as if they had an expiration
date that had passed the week before. Though I learned something from each job and even
each boyfriend, I did not learn how to avoid the same mistake the next time. Those five years
were marred with one bad decision after another. I was depressed and lonely and felt nearly
worthless. Max was truly the only source of enjoyment in my life, and though I loved him more
than I‟d ever imagined possible, it wasn‟t enough. I wasn‟t satisfied and continually sought
fulfillment somewhere outside of myself. I reveled in the thrill of the chase, and always got what
I wanted. But the prizes often left me feeling even emptier.

Eventually, I began to realize that I needed to take charge and do something about my life. I
was beginning to become everything I loathed, and I knew that I‟d never escape my downward
spiral unless I made some real changes. I thought about the future I‟d always dreamed of yet
had begun to accept I‟d never have. I was stuck and I knew it. I wanted nothing more than to
be successful and, more importantly, to be the kind of person Max would be proud of. But I
didn‟t know how to get out of my own way and move forward.

The Christmas just after Max turned five, I wrote him a letter. I wanted him to know how
important he was to me and I needed to apologize for all the ways I‟d failed him. I cried as I
wrote it.

Dear Max.

It’s 1994 and almost Christmas—it will be your sixth. You’re getting everything you want this
year, or so Santa told me after you sat in his lap at the mall. I imagine you’ll wake up on
Christmas morning and try to sneak downstairs to peek at the tree before anyone else, but
Granny will grab you, tickle you, and tell you to be patient. When I was a kid I hated that, but
loved it at the same time. Christmas was magical for me. Santa, Rudolph, tree-shaped cookies
covered in colored sprinkles, midnight mass, lights, stockings, hearing bells in the distance, and
love—plenty of love. I hope it is for you as well. I wish I could guarantee it. I wish I could give
you everything—not just presents and candy, but love. Unconditional, supportive, encouraging,
kind, forever love. The kind you deserve. Max, if someday I am able to take care of you without
the help of Granny and Grandpa, I hope you can forgive me for who I am now—and for who I
am not. I love you with every ounce of my being. I love you more than I’ve ever loved anyone,
but I’m a mess and I don’t know how to be a good mother to you. You’re so perfect and you
give love so freely. Your hugs give me the strength to get out of bed in the morning and your
smile and laugh can thaw the cold and dark in my heart. You inspire me every day. You are the
best, Max. In every way. Don’t ever forget that and please always believe that I love you, now
and forever, as much as it is possible to love. Merry Christmas, my Max. Thank you for loving
me even when I don’t deserve it. You are my Santa. You make me believe.

Love,
Mommy.

That letter was the beginning. Though I wasn‟t yet the person I knew I had to be, I realized what
I had to do as I wrote that letter and read it over and over. For so long, I‟d been trying to make a
good life for myself and Max in many of the wrong ways, and I‟d justified it by telling myself that I
was doing it for Max. What I didn‟t see was that through my search for the perfect life, I‟d lost
sight of what mattered most in the world. That night I made a decision to dedicate myself to
Max and his needs and let the rest fall into place. In 1994, Santa brought me the best
Christmas gift I‟d ever received—a second chance.
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