by Kathleen Furin
Lynette sat, hands folded one over the other, tucked right into her lap. She had found that if she kept them folded together like this she could barely feel how they ached. Once her hands had been slender and competent. Now they drooped useless, swollen and dry. Lynette pressed them into the faded yellow quilt. She really wanted her purple blanket, the one that was tattered but cream-soft. Shawna must have thrown it away. Lately Shawna was throwing a lot of things away, trying to do it discreetly but somehow managing to get rid of the only things Lynette cared about. They had stopped discussing the inevitable out loud, Lynette’s steepening decline, the selling of her home, the move into a nursing home. But the way Shawna cleared things out, sneaking, scraping, an anxious mother bird in reverse, only accelerated when the conversation stopped.
The purple blanket Lynette wanted was given to her by a client whose baby had been breech. No one wanted to deliver her at all, let alone at home, and Lynette hadn’t been too sure either, but when the woman said she would do it alone if Lynette didn’t help her; well, she felt she had no choice. She’d still been fairly green, then, green but confident, and she had been certain almost all along that the breech was a rumpling, butt first instead of head, safest and easiest of all breech presentations. But at the birth she got that tingling feeling she got sometimes, pay attention, be careful, something is not right, and sure enough the first thing to emerge was a tiny, bluish foot. Lynette had held her breath, trying to remember what they’d learned in clinicals; “hands off the breech, hands off the breech,” — had they ever even talked about footlings? — and in a moment the other foot emerged. Then a butt with a squirt of fluid, a torso, one arm, another. Neither Lynette nor the woman had panicked in that instant before the head, streaked with blood and cheesy vernix, had squirmed out. The baby was fine, the mother beyond exhilarated. The mother made the blanket; a garish, purple tie-dye; out of fleece she’d dyed herself. It had been buried in the linen closet for years, but when Lynette pulled it out, maybe five, six years ago, it had become her favorite. But then Shawna took it, said she needed to clean it. Lynette was fairly certain she wouldn’t see it again.
Lynette listened out for Shawna now; she was late. Often at this hour Lynette was dozing already. But she hated to be asleep when Shawna came, so she fought the urge to close her eyes. Sleep was another constant for Lynette and Shawna to fight about. Shawna couldn’t understand Lynette’s odd hours, how she loved the fluid intimacy of the night. How happy it made Lynette, still, to be up late, remembering. Remembering the rushing out at two, three a.m., grabbing her birth kit and some extra towels and bananas on her way out the door. Women almost always delivered at night, if nobody interfered, and even though it had been years since Lynette had caught a baby her sleep patterns had stayed disrupted. One of her favorite things to do was to creep outside late at night, sit on her tiny porch and wait for the night noises to die down, the crickets, the trickles of conversation, the blare from someone’s TV. Lynette would watch as one by one the lights in the houses around her would flicker out. She would own the night then, just as she had when she’d gone speeding off, late late, into a row of houses in the city, perhaps, or down a lonesome dirt road in the middle of nowhere. She was the only one then, doing home births, and she worked with women in a six-hour radius covering four states. Sometimes Lynette drove in silence. Sometimes she put on talk radio. At other times she would blast music, whatever was on the radio, whatever the kids had left in the car. It was only Lynette, and that ineffable presence she always felt, driving to a birth. Something guiding her, not only towards the birth but through it, so somehow she’d know the cord was wrapped before she even needed to check, she’d know the baby was posterior, she’d know this woman was a bleeder. It was that presence that she was seeking now, in her late nights out, but she couldn’t explain this to Shawna. She was listening, in that utter silence, for that thing that came with the babies.
Shawna was such a disappointment. It was not hard, now, to admit that. Before the kids were grown she used to wonder about when you knew you were done as a mother, when you could step away and look at your project, your children, with pride or dismay, remembering the good, the painful, the things you knew you should have done differently. She saw now that this time came quicker than you ever could have imagined, that the regrets cut deeper, that you couldn’t even take credit for the right things, the good. She remembered Shawna at just five, still chubby with baby fat, wide-eyed, soft-cheeked, coloring quietly while Lynette did her pre-natals. Shawna was obsessed with watching birth videos then, and Lynette let her. Shawna used to talk about the day when she would get to catch the babies. The day which had never come, as Shawna had pursued her own passions and Lynette hers, the two of them somehow moving next to each other, parallel, yet always, ultimately, on their own.
Lynette knew it was her own fault. Births had always taken precedence, even over her own children, but she hadn’t fully understood what that would mean, how angry it would make them. She had an inkling the time she missed Shawna’s school play. Shawna was ten then and skinny and sullen, and the truth was Lynette had been so caught up in the birth that she hadn’t even remembered the play. Listen, listen, that primal power, attending births the greatest high in the world. She’d come home around midnight, sweaty, exhausted, and found a note in her underwear drawer when reaching in for fresh pajamas. “I hate you,” it read, words scrawled over an image of a scribbled cat with a big scowl. In tiny letters, under a crooked paw, “You were the only mom not there.”
Lynette took Shawna to Sweet Dreams the next day, bought her whatever she wanted. “Tell me about the play, sweetie,” she said, licking at gobs of sugar and fat. Shawna licked at her cone, raised a shoulder, looked away. “You missed it,” she finally said, pulling off a sprinkle. Shawna hated pink sprinkles, and would always pull them off, a habit that irritated the hell out of Lynette. By the time the pink sprinkles were off the cone would be a gooey, disgusting mess. Lynette sometimes pretended they only had the chocolate kind, but today she pressed her annoyance down deep, tried to make up with her daughter. “What about Noah Goldberg?” Lynette asked. “Did he throw up again, like last year?” Shawna pushed at her pile of pink sprinkles, crushing them into a paste on the swirling grey formica. “No, Mom,” she finally said. “Nobody threw up.”
“There’s a moment, in a birth,” Lynette said, needing Shawna to know what she knew. She looked at Shawna’s finger, with the shredded hangnails lined up diligently around the pale nail, the skinny finger pressing against the pink paste, and continued. “There’s a moment when everything gets suddenly quiet. Even the mother. She may have been moaning, howling as she shifted around, but just suddenly everything will go still. Almost like that moment, in the dawn, right before the sun rises.” Last summer, at the beach house, they’d watched the sun rise almost every day. It wasn’t really like that; on the beach you could hear the waves, and the calls of the sea birds; but it was the closest thing Lynette could think of. “If you listen for that moment you’ll know exactly when to put on your gloves. You’ll know exactly what to do, almost like an invisible hand is guiding you. Then the mom will get loud again and before you know it, we have a baby. Some people think the baby has a soul from the moment it was conceived. Not me. I’ve seen it, Shawna, I have. In that moment of almost unbearable stillness, the soul slips in.”
Lynette bit her lip, to keep herself from saying more. Her friends often told her she shared too much with her kids, was too open, they knew too much about adult things. And it wasn’t only that she didn’t always know how to be. It was also that she knew that she was responsible for this rift between her and Shawna. Even though she knew that Shawna would never understand still she hoped that if she could find the words to explain it then maybe it could make everything better. It wasn’t the being a mother that was so powerful, so important; being a mother was mundane, exhausting, unsatisfying. It was the catching of the babies, the pulling them into the world. Few people, other than midwives, understood this. Few people understood why her work always came first, even before her own children. So how could she possibly expect her own children to accept that they would never be the first, most important thing?
Shawna stared at the table. Lynette realized that the cat note was an unusually expressive action for Shawna. But this talk wasn’t helping, it wasn’t repairing whatever was broken between them. Shawna handed the remnants of her cone, frizzed with napkin and melty vanilla, to Lynette. She put on her headphones. Lynette sighed, letting her mind drift to the mystery of the babies, the magic of catching. There were no exact words for it. The soul slips in was as close as she could get.
Only one time had the soul not bothered. Her only dead baby, in all those years. The birth went on and on — the silent moment never came. She waited for it. Listened in like always. It wasn’t exactly like she could see or even hear the babies’ souls; no, it was more of an impression, a feeling, a soft touch on the back of her neck, a swirl of gold or green, a melody perhaps, a simple bass note. A “listening” was the only way Lynette knew to describe it. At that birth the mother never got silent because the baby wasn’t there. It was the only birth since the footling in which Lynette really wasn’t sure what to do. She often encouraged the mother, in that powerful part of the labor, to keep the focus on meeting her baby, her new baby that would soon emerge, but since she was suddenly certain this baby was dead she did not want to give the mother false hope. The labor went on, and even though she had a heartbeat on the Doppler until the very end she had known still that this baby was not going to make it. The mother pushed for over three hours, and Shawna had begun to think it may be time for a transfer — a tricky issue in this state, where home birth was neither legal nor illegal — when suddenly the mother cried, “oh, oh, oh no,” and the lifeless body slipped out, purple-black. Lynette had the resuscitation kit ready, but it was useless. She stayed with the mom for ten hours after the birth, cradling her raw grief, her bloodsweatspittearsmucous, in her own two hands. Nowadays there would have been a lawsuit but at that time this mother was nothing but grateful. Lynette had gone on to deliver all three of this woman’s subsequent children at home, calmly and competently. Whatever reason that baby had for not coming was its own reason. Before this experience Lynette had thought that losing a baby would be terrifying. But it wasn’t. Not at all. It was horribly sad, but not scary. She had done everything she could. There was no reason to be scared.
Just as she wasn’t scared now, waiting for Shawna, staring at her hands on the yellow quilt. The realization had dawned on her recently that what she was doing now was waiting to die. She had thought for many nights that she was listening for the powerful silence of birth noises. It made a kind of sense to her that she’d been mourning pieces of herself that had been left behind earlier in her life. Vitality. Not only of the babies and their new powerful mothers. Her own. She knew, now, though, that she was not listening for the birth sounds but rather for the thing that would call her out of this life. It was almost the same thing that was calling the babies in, but not quite. She wanted to know exactly what it sounded like, needed to be sure when she heard it. She’d had people die, when you live long enough there is no avoiding that, but aside from the baby she’d never been present for a death. Even Steve; his heart attack had been at the office, and on April 15th, tax day, which made for a good joke when they’d felt like they could joke again. It bothered her, that she didn’t know what Death would sound like. What she wanted now was to sit in the night, wrapped in a purple quilt, listening for the thing that would call her away. She was ready.
Not Shawna. Shawna was terrified of death. She was also terrified of losing Lynette. “You can’t lose what you never had, Shawna” a voice said inside of her, sometimes, a voice filled with remorse and guilt, but then she considered that might be all the more reason for Shawna to not welcome her loss. With Lynette dead, all hope of a normal mother-daughter relationship would be gone forever. But Shawna couldn’t express that, wouldn’t know how to express that, so she put all her anxious energy into being bossy. “You can’t keep coming outside at night,” Shawna had scolded, the day the morning nurse had come in and been unable to find Lynette. Shawna had hired a nurse for the morning because her own mornings were far too busy, and she didn’t trust Lynette to start her day alone. The morning nurse would come and help Lynette in and out of the shower, make coffee and toast, leave a little something Lynette could fix herself for lunch until Shawna came late in the day. Shawna had not become a midwife, herself, but an attorney. “I’m there for my kids,” Shawna would say sometimes, and while it was true that she worked regular hours, Lynette wondered if she ever noticed how distracted she was, how much more she seemed to care about her cases than her kids. Still. Shawna never missed a class play, made herself available for school trips, baked cupcakes and cookies and knew all the kids’ friends’ names, which is more than Lynette had been able to do.
Lynette stood to make her way into the house. She had been trying to get around without her cane, but the one knee was just so sore. It pained her to be confined to the house. She’d always been so active. She especially missed walking in the woods.
The night the baby died she did not go home. She’d been gone a long time; almost forty-eight hours; yet she needed something other than kids and dishes and everyday clatter. She’d stayed with the mother and the little dead baby for so long that it was dark again by the time she got on the road. Fortunately, Steve often worked from home, and unless it was tax season he had a lot of flexibility. That was the only way they’d been able to manage her career.
She’d driven into the Wissahickon, parking at a place that was a popular entry point for joggers and hikers. It was late, but the moon was big and bright, and she could see the trails easily. It had rained earlier, and the noise of the water still dripping from the trees melded with that of the river, a tiny, quiet rush of a river here. She hiked for a while, reflecting. She wasn’t a religious person, mostly because she could see the imperfections, the human error in how we thought about God. It was clear to her more than ever that what she did or didn’t do really didn’t so much matter. A baby that was going to make it would fight its way through no matter what, and one that wasn’t, wouldn’t. She had always known this, but she knew it now in a way that was deeper, different, that shifted things inside and out.
Lynette hiked until she came to a quiet place, a little up a smallish mountain, and settled herself at the base of a large, old tree. The roots of the tree pushed up and out, making a welcome V. Lynette pressed her butt down into the spaces between the roots, pressed her back against the tree. She wanted to become the tree, to just melt into the tree, to feel the tree’s strong trunk as her very own spine. She could still hear the river, down and below her, could hear the trees whisper among themselves as they danced in the dark. The baby would be back, she knew that baby would be back, it was merely a blip on the never-ending cycle, life, death, rebirth, life, death, rebirth. She pressed her hands into the sticky mud, willing herself to be utterly still, as still as that perfect pause, that soul moment. But even though she felt at peace, hands muddied, cold and raw, it didn’t come. It was something that only came with birth.
Lynette sat until the sun rose. She rose with it, stiffly, wiped her hands on her jeans, turned and followed the path back down to the river, followed the river out of the woods and into the parking lot, followed the cobblestone road to her home. Steve had already left with the kids, but there was a frittata in the oven for her, a note; call me when you wake up. She had never met anyone who really understood her calling but Steve had come close. When they’d first started dating he had been thrilled by her profession, her passion, the way nothing would stop her. Home birth was legal in only one of the four states she caught babies in, and he was impressed by her daring. Once they had the kids and the house he urged her to be cautious, but he never tried to stop her, although his resentment grew year after year. She thought sometimes that they were a perfect example of the thing you love the most in someone later becoming the thing you most despise. She had not wanted to marry, had tried to discourage Steve, had told him she didn’t ever want kids of her own. “The children of the world are my children,” she’d said, laughing, but somehow it had happened anyway, the wedding at St. Pete’s, a luncheon in her mother’s backyard, her missed period, Shawna, then Danny, then Joey-Jack. Joey and Danny came one right after the other and always seemed to need each other more than they needed her. They had none of the obligation, resentment, or need for her that Shawna did; once they were weaned they were on their way, playing with balls and guns, then sneaking cigarettes and condoms, and finally now with kids of their own.
After she’d found her place in the woods she frequented it more and more often, always alone, always at night. It was startling to her what a different world the Wissahickon was at night. During the day it was a large urban park, filled with joggers and bikers and mothers with toddlers feeding the ducks. At night it became a wild place, a lonely place, her place. She would make her way to her tree and sit. She would sit until she was sure she was no longer Lynette but a part of the tree, her eyes blinking out from its wizened trunk. One night four drunken teenagers came upon her. They were boys, loud and rough. One of them was singing and one of them was snapping branches off trees as he walked. She wasn’t afraid for even a minute, although they’d startled her at first. They passed right by her, so close she could see the freckles on one kid’s cheeks, the pierced lip of another, and they never even saw her, never even shot a glance in her direction. Another time, on a night with just a sliver of a moon, a raccoon walked right up to her. She sat, not moving when the raccoon came out of the brush. It sniffed around her for a minute, then pressed its nose right up under her chin. Lynette still didn’t move. She could smell its damp, mossy scent, and its eyes looked almost like the eyes of a just-caught baby, fresh, wise. They looked at each other for a minute, maybe more, and then the raccoon shambled on. She never saw it again.
“Mom?” Shawna called now. “Mom?” Her heels clattered across the hardwood floors. Lynette tried to stand, but Shawna stopped her. “No, no, sit,” she said. “I have a late meeting tonight, so I can’t stay, but here’s dinner.” Dinner for Shawna was usually take-out, even for her own family. Everything tasted too rich to Lynette, who just wanted bread, a little bread with jam, some fruit, maybe a yogurt now and again. Shawna whipped out chicken and some mashed potatoes, dished spinach onto a plate.
“Now eat,” she said, standing over her mother. Lynette picked at the spinach; too much cream.
“It’s delicious,” she said, not wanting Shawna to see how her hand shook when she raised it to her mouth. “Thank you.”
“Have you been outside again?” Shawna asked.
Lynette looked up at Shawna, hesitated. Why couldn’t she talk to her own daughter? She had never imagined they would be this distant, that it would be this difficult to talk about the things that mattered. But she didn’t need to answer; Shawna knew. She shook her head at Lynette.
“Mother. Please. It’s chilly. Please stay in. I’ll put on something for you, some Jeopardy? Tommy wants to know if you can make it to his game? I can bring the chair for you. It’s Sunday.”
Lynette nodded. Of course she could go to the game. The only time she saw her grandsons was at their games. They’d run over, peck at her cheek, “I’m playing forward today, Grandma!” run back into the game. She’d have to squint at their numbers to remember who was who, but usually by the end of the game she was asleep anyway. She’d heard her son-in-law, Bobby, complain about this. “Why do we drag her to these games when all she does is sleep through them?” he’d ask. “She’s my mother!” Shawna would hiss, and Bobby would help Lynette dutifully out of the car and onto the field, easing her into the sturdy camping chair he’d pull from the trunk.
Although she’d never seen a live raccoon again, once, when she’d gone to her spot, Lynette had found a dead one half-buried under a huge log, carcass of tree sheltering carcass of animal. She hadn’t seen it at first, hadn’t noticed it at all. But she’d sat so long the sun had begun to rise, and in the orangey pink she suddenly saw a tiny, five-fingered claw. It was strange, that she had sat with a carcass all night and only just noticed it. Its discovery felt to her like stepping slowly into a warm bath, heat on your feet and ankles, then your thighs, then before you knew it you were wrapped in warmth and could just sink back. She didn’t want to touch the raccoon, but she needed to see it. She wondered if it was the one she’d met. There was still a stingy swath of fur around the claw, and bits of bloody flesh right at the base of the spine, but the raccoon had otherwise been picked clean. She could see the spine unfettered, perfectly symmetrical, bits of bead and bone, like a treasure you’d find at the bottom of the sea, and she remembered a stanza from a children’s book she used to read at bedtime, to the kids, about the different months of the year. November’s said
“the beauty of the bone
Tall God must see our souls this way,
and Lynette found herself nodding now, saying yes yes yes to the raw glory of this creature which had passed.
“I have to get you into bed, Mom,” Shawna interrupted. “I have to run.” Lynette nodded. This had become a nightly battle, only Lynette had so little fight left. Shawna knew it was hard for Lynette to get out again, and liked to have her safely tucked in before she left. Tonight Lynette didn’t resist, didn’t even ask about the purple blanket although it was on her mind.
“No TV though, ok?” she asked instead. She hated the staticky blare, didn’t understand why people found it comforting. “I’ll just read.”
“You can’t read, Mother,” Shawna sighed. It was true. The letters swam together and gave her a headache. She rarely even tried anymore.
“It’s OK,” Lynette said. “I’m tired.” Maybe tonight she would just sleep, and that would be OK, and tomorrow night she could go out and listen for the sound, the sound that would call her out. She wished she could tell Shawna, about her place, her need for silence. But even if she told her and Shawna wanted to help her how would she do it? Walking was so difficult now, she’d never appreciated her body when it had worked the way it was supposed to, never appreciated how loosely her hips moved, how her knees bent, how fast she could go. It wasn’t only her knees now, her hips, too, ached constantly. She pictured them suddenly, in Bobby’s car, her and Shawna and Bobby and the grandkids, smushed in the back with their iPods and their baseball caps, complaining all the while, Bobby ushering her out of the car and onto the trail and then what? He couldn’t help her all the way to her tree. Shawna would be sighing and checking her Blackberry and the kids would be pinching each other and Bobby would be sweating and huffing and shooting secret, hateful glances at Shawna. And even if they did get her to her spot, then what? “Just leave me here to die,” Lynette would say, and Shawna would roll her eyes and say “Mother, please” and Bobby would whisper “I told you so” and Lynette would want to sit and die and the boys would shout and trample everything and Tommy would need to pee and Timmy would want McDonald’s and Shawna would have a meeting and they would drag her back down the hill and into the car and there was just no way that could ever happen, now was there?
But even as she told herself it couldn’t happen Lynette was determined to find a way to make it happen. She was craving Death. She wanted to be like the raccoon, to find an old, yeasty log to crawl into, to find it and crawl into it and be welcomed by bugs and molds and the funny magnificent light that forced its way in through the cracks in the log, to get there, to lie there, to just let go.
The next day she called Danny. “Hey, Mom, sorry I haven’t been by in a while.” Danny chuckled. Danny never came by. But if she could get him to, maybe he could drive her to the woods. “Can you stop by soon, honey?” she asked. Danny was her only hope; Joey lived in Japan. She could hear Danny hesitate, then, “Umm, sure, Ma, soon,” he said, and Lynette hung up the phone and felt like crying and called again three times but got the machine each time and knew, now, more than ever, that it was only her own karma, coming right back at her, can you do this, Mommy, can you do that, watch me Mommy, watch me, watch this, Mommy? Mommy? Mom? and her maybe, soon, not now, later, next week, next month, next summer….
Lynette realized, several nights later, that although she could never make it to her spot, it didn’t mean she couldn’t make it to a spot. Even in the darkest hours of the night now her own neighborhood was much too loud. A dog would bark, cars would drive by at all hours, sometimes blaring music. The stillness was harder and harder to find. Yet there was an entrance to the Wissahickon just four blocks down from her house. It wasn’t the prettiest part of the Wissahickon, and the trailhead was littered awfully, but it would do. If she could go at night she was certain she could find the beauty she had found in her own spot. She had to go, she was called, it was a calling, just like all the midwives always said. She had no choice now, with no one to help her, no one who understood. Negotiating the steps would be the hardest part.
Lynette pressed her weight against the rail and balanced herself with her cane. She half-slid down, one heavy step at a time. The steps seemed so much farther apart than they were supposed to be. She tried to tell herself she could hear the sussle of the river but of course that was impossible. She pushed herself, down, down, down. When she reached the bottom of the steps her knees were throbbing, and she had to lean against the railing for a while just to catch her breath.
She clumped along. Her cane really wasn’t sufficient, a walker would have been much better, but her cane was all she had. The sidewalks were cracked and ancient, making the walk even more difficult. She tried switching her cane from hand to hand. Even though it was November and the night air was cool she found herself sweating, stifled under Steve’s old wool sweater. She decided to pull it off, she could just leave it right here on the sidewalk. She eased herself down onto somebody’s stoop, pulled the sweater over her head. She felt much better without it, and realized she would feel much better without her nightgown on either. The problem with the nightgown was the buttons, there were so many and her hands shook as she tried to undo them. She finally managed to get enough undone that the gown would go over her head. The night air felt wonderful on her bare chest and back, but when she tried to stand again she just couldn’t do it. “Just breathe,” she told herself, “just breathe,” just like she used to tell the birthing women, only they had an incredible combination of power and vulnerability and all she had was vulnerability, there was no life-force to draw on here. Still. She thought back on all the births, so many that after a while they of course blended together, one into the next into the next, the primal cries, “water buffalo noises,” her apprentice had called them, the shouts, the heavy swaying, the babies’ coos and cries. The women had loved her, had gifted her with jewelry, art, breads and butters and handmade boxes. The women had loved her and she had loved them, even now if she went out she was sure to run into one of them, “Lynette!” they’d exclaim, “you delivered my Johnny! Remember?” and Lynette would nod even though she didn’t remember now, not really. She remembered things like the time they had set the placenta aside and later it was gone and then they found the cat hunched in a corner, chewing on it like a tigress. The woman who’d birthed in a circle of drumming men. As magic as each moment had been now they all blurred into one long sound. She had to listen, needed everyone and everything to just shut up, like she would tell Shawna and Danny and Joey-Jack when she was on three hours of sleep and one of them wouldn’t stop screaming or poking or pinching, mouths always open, unending maws of need.
“Breathe,” Lynette said out loud, and she pressed her shaking hands into the stoop, her neighbor’s stoop, tilted her weight towards her toes. What would her neighbor think if she came out and saw Lynette like this? Lynette almost smiled. She thought of the things she had done wrong and the things she had done right. On balance, her right things probably were a little slightly more than her wrong things, even when you factored in that she had been a bad mother, a bad wife. She deserved a good death, the death she wanted, in an old moldy log filled with incandescent light. This thought gave her the strength to stand again. She took a few more steps.
“Danny, you have got to get over here.” Shawna’s voice. “I don’t care! Of course we’ll sell the house, but she is going to need round the clock care and I can’t do it alone. I won’t do it alone!” Lynette could hear Shawna’s sniffles, the click of her heels as she paced. Lynette did not open her eyes. Her hip burned, encindered, wrapped in something tight. She tried to move, found it was impossible. She felt sticky tape on her arm, and pressure, could hear a faint TV. A hospital. Lynette remembered taking off her nightgown, the cool feel of the air around her, then what? A rock? A car? A fall? She closed her eyes again.
“Oh, Mother, please, just wake up,” Shawna said later, much later. “Wake up, Mom! I’ve spent my entire life chasing you, and now that you’re finally caught I have no idea what to do with you.” Lynette kept her eyes shut still. It sounded as if Shawna was crying again. She could feel Shawna’s hand on hers, the one attached to the arm without the tubes. She could feel Shawna rubbing at her papery skin, kneading at her wide distended veins. Mostly she could feel fire in her hip.
“Do you remember that time, Mom, when I was in kindergarten and that boy on the bus wouldn’t let me get off?” Lynette remembered, but why bring this up now? The sixth grader had put up his arm and blocked Shawna from leaving her seat. The bus had pulled away from their stop with no Shawna. Lynette, waiting there for Shawna, had raced after the bus at top speed, screaming at the driver to stop. The mortified bus driver pulled over and Lynette came onto the bus and pulled Shawna away from the boy. Later, even though they were home and Lynette held her close Shawna still wouldn’t stop crying, The world was not safe. Her place in it it was not safe. Lynette had pulled her into her arms then and let her nurse. The milk had been warm and sweet and Shawna hadn’t wanted to stop.
Lynette hated this story. It embarrassed her. Maybe because the only thing she had ever really understood was how the body worked. But she had let Shawna nurse. “Remember, Mom? You were still nursing Joey-Jack, and you said, “oh, honey, I will never be enough,” and you pulled me into your lap, until I fell asleep…When I woke up I heard you yelling, and I looked out the window and there was the boy, standing there. He was looking down but he said sorry loud enough for me to hear. You were so mad. He looked so small next to you, and I wasn’t scared anymore. You came in and made mac’n’cheese from scratch. You let me help you grate the cheese…..”
There was a slam and a swoosh of curtains then and the doctor came in and still Lynette kept her eyes shut. She could hear their voices, surgery, rehab, physical therapy, hear them planning her future as if she wanted one. After the doctor left Shawna cried and Lynette slept and later Lynette felt Shawna’s hand again, rubbing her own hand which lay like sandpaper against the sheet.
“I just want to die,” Lynette told Shawna, weeks later, when she was out of rehab already, ensconced in the skilled nursing facility. “Take me to the woods.” Shawna just shook her head.
“Please, Shawna. Please. I’m ready. I just want to die.”
“Mother, stop. Stop talking like that.” Lynette had been asking her for strange things lately, the djembe a client had given her, old earrings, a handmade frame with a picture of a baby she’d caught. The house had been sold and most of the things she was asking for were gone. Lynette wasn’t sure why she was asking for them. She thought maybe she needed strength, thought strength to live could perhaps be pulled from these few precious things. She was desperate to go, to get out, out of this place and out of this life. All she wanted was woods. She remembered where she had been going and why, she remembered the night air on her skin and that was all. She had been told she had fallen, the guy who delivered the New York Times had found her crumpled body, her steady cane. Here it was loud and everybody shouted at her and called her honey and made her sit when they wanted her to sit and stand when they wanted her to stand and whatever meds they gave her only made her feel worse. When she took them everything around her blurred and her mouth felt like it was filled with feathers, blue feathers, every time she took those pills she remembered the Halloween costume she had tried to make for Shawna in third grade. It was supposed to be a peacock, but in the end it just looked like a bedraggled bird, even though Lynette had come straight home from a birth and worked on it until the sun rose. The pills put blue feathers in her mouth and made her want to sleep and there was always a roaring in her ears, a roaring louder than the TV that ran constantly. Lynette knew that there was a thin silvery line between life and death, that they were different sides of the same blade, and that hers was turning now, but much too slowly. As a midwife she had always thought it was strange that they lived in a world where only life was affirmed, where life was sacred and death was not. Death was there, all around them, all the time. Why was it such a bad thing to want what was going to happen anyway? But no one understood, they just shook their heads and said “yes honey, of course honey, time for your meds honey, do you want to watch The View?”
One night Lynette sat alone, waiting for Shawna. A tall nurse in blue scrubs came in with her meds.
“Hello, sweetheart!” he said. “Waiting up for that busy daughter of yours?” Sometimes Lynette thought everyone tried extra hard with her, if only because they knew Shawna was a lawyer. He scribbled notes with a green marker on the little whiteboard attached to her bed. “Here you go,” he said, holding out a flimsy cup of pills and placing the clear plastic cup of water on her tray.
Lynette looked at him. He looked back, smiling. He watched her as she put the pills in her mouth then leaned over the edge of the bed and spit as hard as she could. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and looked directly at him.
“I know,” he said. “It’s not easy. I know.” He left the pills she had spit out on the floor and bustled out of the room. He came back in several minutes later with another little cup, stood over her, patted her arm soothingly. “You know you need to take these. They help.”
“They don’t!” Lynette cried. She pressed her lips together, hard.
“Just take this one, then,” he said, dumping three pills into his hand and holding out the cup with just the one left, the brownish-red one, why was it such an odd color? Lynette looked at his pale hairy arm holding out the cup. She thought about the blue feathers. The feathers choked, and his arm would choke too, but it was so soft. So commanding. She opened her mouth wide, but instead of putting the pill in she leaned over and bit down on his forearm as hard as she could. The nurse drew in his breath, but didn’t even shout. He shook his arm and pushed gently at her head but she didn’t let go until eventually he leaned down and held her nostrils together with a hard pinch. She opened her mouth to gasp in air and he was gone already and then back again, with a needle, and Lynette felt a blur, and later Shawna’s worried face, “oh, Mom.” So strange to see your own daughter with wrinkles, Lynette thought. There was talk of non-compliance, of geriatric psych, and Lynette suddenly knew, knew she would spend the last of her days in a small mean place with a TV always on and a blue feathered tongue and that her soul would slip away, as it had to, as it always does, but not on her terms, that she would never hear the call and would just go, whenever, wherever, no power at all. Lynette sat up and grasped for Shawna’s face. “I love you, Shawna,” she said. “I was never enough, but I always loved you.”
“Shh,” Shawna said, pushing her mother’s hands away. “I know, Mother, I know. Lie back down, OK?”
“Shawna, I …..” Lynette started and then trailed off, watching Shawna nod and murmur consolingly even without knowing what Lynette wanted to say, already on her phone, already in another world, her job, her kids, her sad little marriage, fingers flying over tiny letters that winked and buzzed and blinked.
Lynette lay down, compliant. She rolled onto her good side, away from Shawna, who was now returning a call to a client and speaking in an exaggerated whisper. She closed her eyes and pressed her tongue against the backs of her teeth, looking for a place that was soft, forgiving. Decay could start in the mouth, after all. She pressed all around her mouth, but her teeth everywhere held firm. Too firm. Firm enough to bite down hard. Glorious, alive. Unyielding. She could hear the techs’ loud laughter spilling in from the hallway, hear footsteps and the clickety-clack of rolled carts filled with vials and tubes and trays, hear the practically-muted TV and Shawna, “we filed that motion on Tuesday!” She held her breath for a moment, let it out in a noisy sputter. If she closed her eyes tighter and breathed just a little deeper maybe she could find her spot somewhere inside her head, smell the mud and the new grass poking and the force of fresh life thrusting its way through the branches of the trees, raw energy pulsing, exploding into tiny spiraled buds. But she couldn’t do it. It was just too loud. She opened her eyes, reached for a pillow, pulled it over the side of her face. The pillow crackled and sighed against her ear. She closed her eyes, then opened them again, lifting her gaze to the bare white wall.
You’re packing a bag with all the things you might need for a journey. What would you reach for next?