Rev. Johnson, the senior minister, had left for a much-needed six-week study leave at a retreat center. Stewart felt the whole burden of the church resting on him. He was gone most of the time now. I felt that he had abandoned us.
Mother was handling everything well, so I began to let go. Days and nights now flowed together. The motto of the Lamaze classes had been “Awake and Aware,” and I was now more wide awake than I had ever been in my life, and more aware. New insights and strange visions flooded into my mind. All the bottled up feelings from David’s birth began to burst out in a stream of words and then in bizarre actions.
My contacts with the universe seemed to come in cycles, or, more precisely, in waves. I would be carried up to the heights of knowledge and euphoria. Then I would crash down in despair. At first I welcomed these mental excursions, hoarding them and avoiding any remedy that might make them go away. Then I became frightened. I wanted to get off the roller coaster, but it would not stop.
Some of my first thoughts were about motherhood. ‘Motherhood is going to be a tremendously rewarding experience,’ I told myself. ‘I feel like a whole new person, almost as if I am making the transition from girl to woman in one leap. I was somehow childish, incomplete, until the baby opened me up’. I remembered the personality changes I had requested from Dr. Betts. Now, how amazing! I could see that this baby, just by being born, had opened the door to all my goals. From feeling the baby kick for months, and even from the pain, I had a whole new awareness of my body. ‘This baby will automatically cause me to be warmer, more spontaneous—all these things,’ I thought. I composed mental letters to that enthusiastic OB doctor in Atlanta. ‘You were wrong,’ I wanted to tell him. ‘The miracle is not what a mother does for her baby. It’s what the baby does for a woman.’
‘I can have it all, too,’ I promised myself. ‘I will keep my mind, my love of beautiful things. I won’t turn overnight into a Polly Potts or even a full-time care-giver like Mother. I can be a beautiful, intelligent woman and a mother. In fact, being a mother will increase my beauty and wisdom.’
Meanwhile, my mother found it difficult to be patient with these claims, when I voiced them. The breast-feeding had become a problem. My milk had come in, full force, and my small breasts could not stretch enough to hold it all. They were hot and packed tight and hard as cement. I could not find a comfortable position for sleeping. But I remembered what Mother had said about waiting until the baby cried before feeding him. I wouldn’t wake him for relief, and even though I massaged myself and stood under the hard shower, as the pamphlet from La Leche had advised, nothing seemed to help. I had tried to convince Mother and Stewart that my reaction was normal, But standing in the shower in the middle of the night, I told myself, ‘Surely,this is more than normal. Not everyone is flooded with such knowledge. I am special.’ The ups and downs of my thoughts were in synch with the filling and emptying of my breasts.
‘Look at me,’ I thought, ‘a big-boobed sex object after all these years. I really ought to pose for some pictures.’ When David stirred and then cried out in his cradle, I lifted him up eagerly. He sucked as usual and then almost cooked, surprised by the milk that now gushed out. But he soon adjusted to the new situation, and the steady rhythm of his sucking drained the tension from my body. ‘The life force is flowing from me to my child’ I thought.
‘It’s all like ocean waves,’ I suddenly realized. ‘Up and down. Up and down. I closed my eyes and could see again the wave pattern from Sis’s charts. ‘Life came from the sea didn’t it? And there’s still a wave-like rhythm to eating and getting hungry again, to sleeping and waking, to giving and taking. But there’s something more fundamental than that. Perhaps that’s why, in that math course, I never could comprehend the way you could do something or other to an equation to create numbers that would fill in the space under a sine curve. We humans are not meant to have such knowledge. The Lamaze people must never be told what they have stumbled onto. Those waves are an underlying pattern of the universe.’
Why had Stewart’s secretary said, “Oh, I know everything, and some day you will, too?” Now I thought I knew. It had not been a joke. That woman had been to this magical place, too.
Mother tried to suggest things that would help me to relax. But the wine that had let me doze after lunch the day before seemed to increase my engorgement now. I became obsessed with the idea of drugs interacting in my body, although at the moment I was taking nothing more than a laxative. “All these drugs interfere with my internal thermostat,” I said. I also didn’t want anyone to touch the thermostat for the furnace downstairs. I wanted an unchanging, warm climate for my baby.
I began to worry that David might be too special. As the oldest of my siblings, I had felt some of the burden of being a favored child, and I wanted to spare David from having to live up to the’ expectations of others. But I could see how steadily he was sleeping and how cleverly he was nursing. Perhaps he was more than an ordinary baby.
‘Oh, no,’ I thought. ‘He’s an Aquarius, isn’t he? And he was born near the cusp, maybe right on the stroke of the dawning of the season of Aquarius. Perhaps he has been chosen to usher in the new age. We’ve named him for a King of Israel and composer of psalms. How will he live up to his name?’
I thought of the verse of the Christmas carol: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” Those pretty words now seemed filled with terror. What a burden to carry—the hopes and fears of all the years. Mary must have been overwhelmed. No wonder she said little, preferring to ponder things in her heart.
Then I felt an angelic presence in the room. “Choose,” he said. “Do you want to be another Mary?”
I felt drawn to say yes, pulled as if by a powerful magnet. But I also felt that this was a temptation I should reject. I hung on the edge for a moment. Then I said, “No. No. That’s not what I want.”
“You have chosen well,” said the presence. “Now let me rock you.” I was gathered against this Spirit and rocked back and forth, up and down, for seconds or hours. I was simultaneously soothed and terrified. ‘How lucky I am,’ I thought, ‘to have my; agony and ecstasy come together instead of freaking out on guilt.’ Then the angel set me down, and I slept.
‘I could never have been the new Mary anyway,’ I thought when I woke for the next feeding. ‘This was certainly no immaculate conception.’ I remembered the night at the beach when David had probably been conceived. And Stewart would never want David and me to go off on some heavenly venture without him. In the churches and art museums we visited in Europe, he hadn’t liked the paintings of the Madonna with her child. He had preferred images of the holy family, especially one statue of Joseph holding the baby. I had gone through that whole painful birth ordeal so that Stewart wouldn’t be left out of the experience. ‘Besides,’ I thought, ‘if God does try again with a chosen individual for the new Messiah, which I doubt, that child is going to be brown or red or yellow, and probably female.’
When Stewart woke up the next morning, I begged him to check the astrology column in the paper and find out the starting date for the sign of Aquarius. I tried to tell him about my vision in the night. I thought he would be proud of me for turning down the angel’s invitation and choosing him.
Instead, he snapped at me, “I can’t stand to hear you going on in that weird, droning voice. You’ve lost all your sense of humor.”
No humor! I was outraged. But I didn’t know how to defend myself. I had been talking a blue streak for several days. Now I became cagey and held back.
Friends and church members were coming by with gifts and food. I watched them. Almost always they would notice something different in the house. “When did you put that picture up?” they would ask. “I never noticed that corner cupboard before. Is it an antique?” I interpreted their questions as signs, the touchstones of their personalities or messages to me about what was important in my house.
And although Stewart and I had abandoned the effort to assemble, fill out, and mail the birth announcements we had planned—a card in the shape of a little fish mobile—the news had spread. Cards and gifts arrived daily in the mail. I pored over the messages, seeing secret signs here, too. I continued to write my thank you notes, some of which must have been quite strange by now.
The telephone acted oddly. Often I would dial and get a recording or a wrong number. If I was going to reach the person I was calling, the phone would ring only once, no more. If it rang more than once, I knew the person I wanted to speak with would not be at home. “These phone signals are the most wonderful thing I’ve ever experienced,” I told my startled aunt and uncle on the phone.
“That’s wonderful, darling,” they said. “And how is the baby?”
“Oh, him,” I shrugged. “He’s thriving. He could survive no matter what.”
Some of the letters and calls brought news of friends in transition. People were moving, changing jobs, getting married, getting divorced. Everything seemed speeded up. “The whole world’s in transition,” I said. When I received a letter asking me to help select a new member for a church committee on which I served, I threw the letter in the trash and said, “That’s crazy.” When someone called to ask if I could fly to Atlanta for a meeting, I refused. “You know I have a new baby. And the plane might be hijacked.”
Stewart’s brother called. Static crackled on the line. “What should we do with these plants you gave us, Stewart?” he asked. “They’re taking over the house.” I was glad to hear that the plants were thriving. They might help Stewart’s brother survive when the continent blew apart.
I really began to believe that the world was coming to an end. And when I thought about disasters, I experienced them. This was more real than any nightmare. I became a mother in the floods in Pakistan. I was clinging to my child with one arm and to a tree with another, in the midst of swirling waters. I was powerless to hold on as the waters tore the child from my arms. Did the words to “Rock-a-bye-Baby” originate in a catastrophe such as this?
I thought about the nursery we had decorated with bright animal pictures. If the baby were sleeping there, would the room become a capsule, carrying representations of all forms of life—a blueprint for starting over, as in the movie 2001? And if he were in the cradle in my bedroom, as he was now, would the antique cradle float off like Noah’s ark? Loud motor noises in the night made me think of rockets taking off. I began to rearrange the books on the shelves, according to which ones were most essential for preserving our civilization—Shakespeare, certainly. What about James Joyce? And which of my favorite contemporary novels?
I remembered a presentation I had heard, describing a slave fort in Africa. The speaker had vividly portrayed the journey to America in the holds of ships. Now I was there. Babies were born as their mothers died. They rolled across the bottom of the ship to other hands that calmly picked them up. Somehow, to use Faulkner’s phrase, “they endured.”
(Now, forty-plus years later, I can perceive the theme of these fantasies. What dangerous impulses was I fighting against? I am so grateful that I never reached the point of acting on them.)
In the midst of the nightmares, my stitches fell out. No one had warned me that this would occur. Would I start bleeding? Although it was 2:00 AM, I called Dr. Eagle. He answered on the first ring, and his voice seemed strangely hushed. “That’s all right,” he said. “They’re supposed to do that.”
Why had he been right beside the phone? What was the awe I heard in his voice? Maybe something terrible had happened. Maybe Polly Potts’s baby had been deformed or dead. Wouldn’t it be terrible to be fully awake and aware for such a shock?
My mother’s brother Lawrence was dying. If the timing had been just a little different, I thought—and, who knows? Perhaps time doesn’t always work the way we perceive it—death could have slipped past David and me and chosen Uncle Lawrence. I stood in that moment. Death, a huge weight, moved around and around like a pendulum on a string. “Round and round and round it goes/And where it stops nobody knows.”
First death hung over Uncle Lawrence. Somehow he had been marred at birth so that David would be perfect. Death hesitated. Would it take Uncle Lawrence? The heater exploded. His flesh was burned. The infection spread. His lungs would give out.
Then death hung over David. I got up and stood close to the cradle to see if he was breathing.
“What are you doing now?” asked Stewart, at the end of his rope.
“I just needed to make sure he was breathing.”
“Of course he’s breathing. Go back to bed.”
But my grandmother’s child had stopped breathing. Grandmother had momentarily forgotten about him. Maybe if no one is thinking about a person, that person dies—just slips off the edge.
“I’ll watch over David,” promised Grandmother’s ghost. “This child will not stop breathing.”
Death moved and hung over me. The weight of it almost drove me through the floor. Since my stitches had fallen out, I was afraid of hemorrhaging and dying. So as not to make a mess, I took one of the baby’s rubber sheets and put it underneath me as I went downstairs to lie on the couch in the living room.
‘Dr. Eagle,’ I thought. ‘All the holes of my body have been open to you. Don’t let my life flow out.’ But I felt as if Stewart would have judged me: “Not much will to live.”
The weight, which had represented death, altered. Instead of a death sentence, it became the responsibility for keeping life going. For a moment, it was as if I were sustaining life on the planet. If I shut down my mind, or moved a finger, someone would die. ‘Please,’ I begged. ‘Let it be someone I don’t know.’
I had never felt so utterly alone. No one would watch with me through the night. I had to walk this lonesome valley by myself.
I had a sudden memory or vision of a friend I often talked with at parties. Oddly, for this day and age, he was haunted by theology. “Does God exist as a separate entity?” he wanted to know. “Or is he just in our minds?” I imagined my friend moving toward me now, across the braided rug. “Let me show you a secret sign,” he said. He moved his index finger around and around in a circle parallel to the floor. Then he faded out.
‘That’s the sign all right,’ I thought. ‘If God is just inside of people, then people must carry the burden of life. It passes around and around, and sometimes rests its full weight on one or two individuals. If everyone fell asleep at once, we would all die. The planet must be half in light while half in shadow, and the fretful minds of insomniacs preserve our lives.’
But I could not stop there. The circle of responsibility was only half the truth. Underneath this circle there was a gentle rocking motion, holding everything up. “You’re wrong,” I called to the space where my friend’s shadow had been. I made the circle with my right hand, while my left hand gently cradles the space beneath it.
A picture from a beloved book from my childhood came to me as I finally fell asleep. In it, a young girl was sleeping soundly. Her bed was surrounded by a dark space punctuated with stars. Beneath the picture was the verse: “And underneath are the everlasting arms.”
Stewart found me in the morning, lying on the rubber sheet on the couch. “We’re going to have to call Dr. Eagle,” he said.
“Oh no,” I exclaimed. “Something dreadful may have happened with Polly’s baby. He sounded so strange in the night. We mustn’t disturb him.”
“I just can’t understand why you want to protect Dr. Eagle,” he replied.
And I couldn’t explain to him the fragile chain I saw linking the professional helpers with those they helped—the patients who cured their doctors, the church members who saved their ministers, the sufferers who were locked away so that the rest of the world could go on. It was my time to keep quiet and hold on.
Stewart called him anyway. Dr. Eagle didn’t think my behavior sounded too abnormal. No, he didn’t want to see me.
He prescribed a mild tranquillizer. Stewart picked it up at the drugstore, but it didn’t seem to have any effect.
My behavior became even weirder. I was obsessed with my sorting activities. And I kept trying to throw things away—wash cloths in the toilet, the orange juice down the drain, and Mother’s picture in the trash. Mother was not too alarmed about her picture in the trash, but she had begun to fear for David’s safety. “Don’t worry,” I joked. “Nobody ever really throws the baby out with the bath water.”
The weight of the world kept the back of my neck tense. Several times, right after I had eaten, the weight slammed down and made me vomit. I was not particularly concerned by these symptoms.
The next night I found a pen and notebook and tried to record my thoughts, all the secrets of the universe that were flooding into my brain. I worked feverishly. Twice I fed David when he cried, holding him with my left arm while I propped up the notebook and kept writing with my right hand. I never turned out the light, even though Stewart slept restlessly in its glare.
Finally, near dawn, I looked at what I had created. Then I pulled the pages out of the notebook and carefully tore each one into sixty-four little squares, which I threw in the trash can beside the bed.
“If you stayed up all night writing, why did you throw the pages away?” Stewart grumbled in the morning. “I want to see what you wrote. It might give me a clue.”
I couldn’t tell him why I had destroyed my work. I tore it up because I didn’t want to try to hold on to all my visions. I was ready to get on with folding diapers and other ordinary activities. And I was not supposed to be the writer in the family. That was my father’s calling. And Stewart had cut me off earlier, saying he couldn’t stand the way I was droning on. So I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of knowing my secrets now.
I was ready to come back to reality. The trip had become too frightening. In despair, I called Ann Dickens, the mother of eleven children who had promised her help at the baby shower. Her calm voice answered after the first ring. “Just a minute. Let me get to another phone where I can hear you better.” Her teenagers were making a ruckus or having a crisis, I imagined.
“I’ve been having a lot of feelings of wonder, with this baby,” I tried to explain, “but now I’m getting scared. I can’t sleep. Stewart and my mother don’t seem to understand.” My voice broke.
“Sometimes family is wonderful,” said Ann. “But sometimes we need professional help.”
“Would you tell that to my husband and my mother?” I begged. And I called out, “Stewart, Mother, please get on the phone.”
Mother must have wondered what in the world I was doing now. There was no way she could fix breakfast downstairs and keep track of me at the same time. But she picked up the phone in the kitchen and sent Stewart upstairs to the other extension. Ann talked with them and repeated her advice. Although it was a Saturday morning, Stewart called Dr. Betts at home.
Finally, someone took the situation seriously. “I’m really surprised,” said Dr. Betts. “That doesn’t sound good at all. My schedule is full, but I can see you on my lunch hour on Monday. Do you think you can make it until then?”
Stewart thought so.
“Keep giving her those tranquillizers. And keep in touch,” said Dr. Betts.
The next day was Sunday. Stewart was going to baptize Ed and Diane’s baby. ‘That’s going to be so hard for him,’ I thought, ‘since we’ve had so much trouble with our own baby.’ I tried to send him strong mental messages: “Hold on. Don’t break down.”
Ed and Diane dropped by after the service. Mother and Stewart had decided against any more visitors, but I called down the stairs, “I want to see them.” Mother took care of their baby while they came up to my room.
I hugged them and asked how Stewart had done with the service. I tried to explain what I had been going through. “Listen,” I said, “you don’t know how much those elephants in the baby’s room have meant to me. Can you imagine what it would be like to give birth to an elephant? They carry them for two years, you know. Mother says that when an elephant gives birth, all the others stand around in a circle. I think they help in some way. And all the elephants in the house are helping us get through this.”
Perhaps I was trying to suggest that Ed and Diane were part of the circle around me. I was a bit jealous when they began to ooh and aah over David. I wanted them to pay attention to me. They looked somewhat bewildered as they left.
* * * * * * * *
As I tried to fill in the calendar, I asked my mother, “Just when did Uncle Lawrence die?”
“He died Saturday night,” she replied. “The funeral was Monday. Just one week after you came home from the hospital.”
“And you left us to go to the funeral?”
“You must have left not long after Ed and Diane came over. How did we ever manage without you?”
“I think Stewart had a hard time,” she admitted. “That Monday was the day he took you to see Dr. Betts. And you had to stop nursing David. Stewart told me you nursed him while you waited in the car outside the drugstore for Stewart to get your medicine.”
I was dismayed. Then I remembered. “That was Lottie Bumpus day.”
* * * * * * * *