6. IN THE HOSPITAL

A nurse took the baby away. Stewart, elated, kissed me goodbye. And someone wheeled me to my room. A young dark-haired nurse pulled the slime-green curtains to separate my bed from the next one. “So you’re the one who precipitated in the bed,” she said. I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but I had lived all my life in fear of that tone of voice—critical, reproving. She blamed me, apparently. The near catastrophe of my baby’s sudden birth must have been my fault.

“Your doctor prescribed aspirin and a sleeping pill,” the nurse continued, holding out a hand with three pills. “Does he know you plan to nurse the baby? He shouldn’t have sent you the aspirin.”

Here was a problem. Who should I trust? Dr. Eagle had let me down, perhaps, but he was the established medical authority. This cocky nurse might not know anything, but she had that school teacher-style assurance. I didn’t take the aspirin. And I didn’t sleep the rest of the night.

When Dr. Eagle checked on me the next morning, he brushed it all aside. “That nurse didn’t know anything. The aspirin won’t hurt you or your baby. Prepared childbirth isn’t for everyone, but for young couples who are well prepared. . .” His face took on a satisfied, almost rapt expression. “And don’t worry; you’ll sleep tonight.” And he left.

Stewart couldn’t make it to see me that first morning. The hospital was too far away from our home in Raleigh, and he had duties at the church. I wondered if I might not need him now more than I had the night before, and if the distance was an unreasonable price to pay for his presence at David’s birth.
I began to make conversation with my roommate, Jean. Jean was in pain. She’d had surgery to tie her tubes after delivering a healthy little girl, her second. I was surprised that she would have major surgery so soon after the trauma of childbirth. “The doctors said they found something funny inside me, so they took that out, too, while they were in there,” Jean explained.

“Something funny? What? A growth? An odd organ?

“I don’t know. Anyway, now I can’t keep anything on my stomach. If I could just get my strength back.” Jean’s voice was a settled whine. Her husband, a big truck driver with a crew cut, came in with their baby. He asked if Jean wanted to give her the bottle. Too weak even for that task, Jean shook her head.

I went down the hall to look through the nursery window at my son. The grandmotherly nurse on duty explained that he couldn’t come out for a feeding yet. “He’s too little and too cold,” she said gently. I stared in amazement at David’s perfect features. He was lying on his side behind the glass, and his blue eyes were open. His chin and lower lip trembled slightly. “He’s beautiful,” I whispered.

“He’s a fine, clean-cut young man,” the nurse replied.

How in the world could he be anything but clean-cut at his age? I wondered. Suddenly, I needed to cry—for joy, for relief. As fast as my weak legs would carry me, I rushed back to my room and shut myself in the little bathroom to sob. Jean became alarmed. “What’s the matter?” she called. “Are you all right?”

I came out of the bathroom, drying my eyes. “He’s just so beautiful,” was all I could say. I wished for a private space where I could cry for as long as I needed to. I hadn’t felt free to scream during the painful pushing the night before, and now I couldn’t cry without alarming my roommate. So I had yet another strong emotion to cram back down my throat.

When Stewart came to see me that afternoon, Jean had been wheeled out of the room—for further surgery I supposed.

“It sounds like she doesn’t have much will to live,” Stewart commented when I told him about Jean. His remark irritated me. Who was he to judge? And how could anyone know whether or not someone else had “the will to live”?
Stewart had arranged for me to change to the room across the hall, a ward instead of a semi-private room. It would be less expensive. And it was empty for the moment.

I never saw Jean again. When I went back into that room to check, all her things had been removed. Perhaps she had died, I thought. Perhaps the meddling surgeons had taken out something that looked “funny” but was unique to her and kept her alive.

In spite of the botched delivery of our baby, or maybe because of it, I was even more determined to do everything right from here on out. The grandmotherly nurse brought David to me the first morning and showed me how to hold him at my breast. “I nursed all my own babies,” she said with a sigh. David was more interested this time and was fast to catch on. I enjoyed holding him to my breast. Even though I knew he was not getting any real milk yet, I felt powerful as I supplied what he needed. When the cocky nurse replaced the grandmotherly one on a later shift, I was glad that I didn’t need to ask for any more help. I pinched the nipple for the baby’s mouth, and he immediately began his fast, rhythmic sucking. ‘We can manage fine,’ I thought.

Dr. Eagle was right about one thing: I did sleep that night. But I set the alarm for a few minutes before David would be brought in for feeding. I’d read somewhere about how babies learn to perceive faces, after many exposures, putting features together to make a whole. I didn’t want David to be confused by seeing me sometimes in glasses, sometimes not. For some reason, it didn’t occur to me to just leave the glasses off. Maybe I wanted to see his face more clearly than my near-sightedness would allow. So I got up, washed my breasts and hands, and put in my contact lenses. I was ready, smiling and waiting. Afterwards, I reset the alarm. I certainly didn’t want to sleep through a feeding.

The alarm went off twice more during the night for the feeding routine. I was awakened a third time by yelling—whooping it was really—down by the elevator. My new roommate had arrived at the hospital.

Her name was Bunny Wren, and she started talking as soon as she was wheeled into the room just before daybreak. “My mamma is gonna be so proud. She has ten children, and I’m the first one to have both a boy and a girl. Did you hear that hollering in the night? That was me. I’ve never even been for a checkup. I had an appointment at the clinic for tomorrow. (I thought I was about seven months along.) And here came the baby last night. Wait until my uncle gets here tomorrow. He’s the one that named me. Boy, will he be proud. Where’s breakfast? I sure am hungry.” And she bounced off the bed and into the bathroom as soon as the bag of fluids was unhooked from her arm.

I stared at her in amazement. Moments after delivery, Bunny had more pep than I had after more than twenty-four hours. I was sore, and I tottered when I walked down the hall. My muscles were flabby, although I’d avoided anesthetics. But Bunny seemed completely unshaken.

Bunny Wren chirped on. She was going to bottle feed her baby, she said. None of that nursing mess for her. That way she could go right back to work as a bookkeeper at the trailer sales lot. “And I’m gonna have those doctors fix me up so I can’t have any more,” she declared. “This is enough.”

I started to warn Bunny about Jeanette’s experience, but I decided not to. I tried to tell her about Lamaze but gave up. I wondered if Bunny’s way wasn’t closer to “natural childbirth” than mine. Most people get through childbirth one way or another, I told myself. Peasant women squat in the fields. They make it. What had I been so worried about? But Jean’s disappearance and the childbirth fatalities recorded in my grandfather’s book of family history left doubts in the back of my mind.

It was Sunday. Stewart was preaching, giving an account of his joy and excitement at being present when David was born. He brought the audio tape of the delivery in the afternoon. We had shared the experience, but we felt entirely different about it. I couldn’t explain to him the panic and guilt I felt when I remembered that night. Now I felt very remote from him—exactly what we had been trying to prevent.

Except for the times when Stewart was visiting, I tried to tackle the unending list of thank you notes for shower gifts. Bunny babbled on, and the hospital routine interrupted any attempt to sleep. There was always someone clanging up and down the hall, and at least half the time that someone had a task for me. “Put this heat lamp on your stitches for twenty minutes.” “It’s time for supper.” “We need to take your temperature. “The nurse needs to check if you’ve emptied your bladder.” “Are you ready to feed you baby?” I wondered how anyone ever got any rest in a hospital.

That Sunday night, time began to slip. My watch seemed to stop or speed wildly ahead. The cocky nurse scolded me for calling the station to ask about the 4:00 AM feeding when it was only 1:30. As soon as it grew light outside, I decided that I had to get out of this place. I didn’t want to meet all the friends and relations I’d heard Bunny calling on the phone the day before. I wanted to go home.

“You’ve only been here two days and three nights,” remarked Dr. Eagle when I asked about going home as soon as he made his rounds after breakfast. “But I don’t tell my patients what to do. Go ahead if you’re sure you’re ready.”
“But I’m not ready,” Stewart protested when I called to ask him to come get me. “The dishes aren’t done. The house is a mess. I was going to do all that this morning.”

“You can do it after I get there,” I urged. “After David and I get there.” (I had almost forgotten about bringing him home with me.) “And Mother is coming in tonight to help out.”

Stewart came to get me. The nurse who came in to help us dress the baby for the trip home shook her head at the lightweight clothes and blankets Stewart brought on this January day. “What you call yourselves trying to do? You better dress that child warmer in this weather.”

I was embarrassed. I put David in his new infant seat to carry him to the car, but I took him out and held him in my lap for the trip home. The rules were different then, but I knew this could be dangerous. Still, I remembered the friend who had said, “You know you’re going to want to bring that baby home in your arms.” How could I follow everyone’s conflicting advice at once? How could I meet my goal of doing everything right? I had to get some rest.

* * * * * * * * * *
On that day when my mother sat me down to sort things out, I saw nothing at all on the calendar for the two weeks after January 22. By now I had filled in the three days I’d spent in the hospital and firmly written “Home” in the square for Monday, January 25. But what had happened in all the blank spaces that followed? I had not left the house, Mother reminded me, except for trips to Dr. Betts during the first week of February. What else had happened during those unmarked days?

During that period, so many thoughts had churned around in my mind that I knew I might never sort them all out. That’s what I had to work on, with my psychiatrist. But I thought I could remember the first day or so clearly enough.

“Would you like to give David a bottle while you think?” Mother asked. “See how cute he looks in his new outfit?” She drew back the blanket.

Why on earth is he wearing that? I thought. I would never have dressed him in that little tee-shirt and short pants in winter. He needed to have his footie pajamas on. But I kept quiet. I was just beginning to sense what a large burden my mother had been carrying—care of a house and an infant and a young mother out of her head. I took David meekly and held the bottle up, as Mother instructed. I stared into his eyes, wondering if he recognized me at all. “He won’t even know me,” I sighed.

“Of course he knows you,” Mother reassured me. “You nursed him for a week, and even if you don’t remember it, you’ve given him at least one bottle almost every day since then. Stewart and I helped you. It seemed to relax you. Hold the bottle up a little higher, now, so he won’t swallow air.”

I wondered how I would ever establish communication with this small person. He ate greedily, and then Mother changed him and put him down for a nap.

“Don’t we need to play with him?” I asked.

“Babies this size mostly need to sleep,” she replied firmly.

I sighed and began to reconstruct our first days after the hospital stay.

* * * * * * * * * *

Advertisements

7. AT HOME

When we arrived home, Stewart carried the baby upstairs to his crib. Then he carried me up the same stairs. Now we had to change our first diaper. The new gauze diapers were stiff. “Are you sure you bought the right kind?” Stewart asked. “These look like paper.”

“Yes, I’m sure,” I snapped. “They just haven’t been washed yet.”

We had bought a washing machine just before I went into the hospital, but it still hadn’t been delivered. So we decided to use pampers. We picked David up and took off his wet diaper. In those days, pampers didn’t come with those little self-sticking tabs, and it was necessary to use diaper pins. But we couldn’t make the oversized pins pierce the paper diapers. We were both frustrated. David began to cry. Finally, Stewart forced the pins through. I nursed David, and soon he fell asleep.

I began to wish that Stewart had gone with me to the Red Cross baby care classes. Then there would have been two of us to remember all the little tricks. Now, when I told him what I thought I remembered from those classes, I didn’t have any authority. I wondered if we had made a mistake to attempt this on our own. Here we were–two bumbling amateurs. How would we manage? We could hardly wait for my mother to arrive that night, fresh from her brush-up course and with the experience of caring for four children of her own (two arriving together as twins). She wasn’t expecting David and me to be home from the hospital yet, and we decided not to tell her until after Stewart picked her up at the airport and brought her to our house. It would be a surprise.

That afternoon, Stewart wanted us to listen together to the audio-tape he had made in the labor room. I was reluctant. “There are some good things about the way memory works,” I tried to explain. “It frightens me to have every second recorded, when my mind might want to forget it.”

But Stewart insisted, and I joined him in listening. And was surprised. What I remembered was my pain. But of course I couldn’t hear that. What I heard was the encouragement of Stewart, Sis, the nurse, and the doctor. With all that help, what right did I have to complain? There was Sis, like the sister I never had, helping beside my bed, as women had always helped each other give birth. My experience must not have been so bad after all.
At the end of the tape were peculiar animal noises, something between a whimper and a shriek. I realized I must have made them when I first saw the baby move.

Stewart and I muddled through a few more diaper changes. Stewart warmed up some of the roast that had been in the oven the night we left for the hospital. He cooked some vegetables, too, and brought my supper upstairs with a flourish.

Mother arrived a few hours later. She gave a small squeal when she came up the stairs and found me already at home, nursing the baby. She could hardly wait for a pause so that she could hold her first grandchild.
Then she cheerfully pitched in. She washed the diapers in the bathtub. (Stewart and I would never have thought of doing that.) But first she sent Stewart out to buy soap flakes—Ivory Snow. “You can’t was diapers in detergent,” she asserted. She showed us how to keep the pins in a cake of soap so that they would slide through the diapers. “We’ll get this baby in real diapers as soon as they dry on the clothesline,” she said. “His little bottom doesn’t look so good.” There was reproach in her voice. She used a flashlight as she hung the diapers on the line in the back yard.

I decided not to fight Mother for the first baby care tasks. I felt so helpless that I was glad to have Mother take over, at least for now. There would be time enough in the next few days for me to learn how to manage for David.
Besides, Mother thrived on being needed. I remembered being startled at photographs of my mother right after her wedding. Such an attractive, graceful girl. But sometime after my birth, or after the three brothers who followed in quick succession (four children under the age of five) Mother had lost her carefree winsomeness. She had become a nurturer. That defined her completely. When the last child left home and she had a hysterectomy, Mother experienced the first in a series of depressions. There had no longer been any need for her quick efficiency. Now there was. I could read a sense of purpose in every gesture she made.

My father called from Atlanta, where he was involved in a church conference. “Oh no,” he said. “Can’t wash diapers in detergent. Take care, Princess. Let Mother help and get plenty of rest.”

The guest bed and the crib were in the nursery. I told Mother she could settle there. At night, the baby would sleep in the room with Stewart and me, next to the book case, in the antique cradle we had found.

I had come home to rest, but that night I was as wakeful as I had been at the hospital. I was haunted by might-have-beens. What if Sis had not been there? What if I had asked for medication for the pain? But what if the drugs had affected the baby? What if Dr. Eagle had not been out of the room when the baby’s head appeared? What if I hadn’t pushed so hard? What if I had pushed harder, or had started pushing earlier? Could the baby have hung on to the edge of the bed with his tiny toes? (Mother had told me that in their first few hours after birth, babies have grasping toes like monkeys.) What if I hadn’t taken the tedral for asthma? Would I have slept better? Maybe without it I would have choked and been unable to breathe. What if I had not listened to the nurse and had taken the aspirin to help me sleep? Would a different combination of medicines have reacted differently with my system? What if the baby had died? What if the baby had died? I couldn’t stop worrying about what might have happened.

The next day, Tuesday, Mother got a phone call about her brother Lawrence. He was the one I had thought of when I filled out Dr. Eagle’s forms, the one with the cleft palate. Now he had been badly burned by an exploding oil heater. There was little hope that he would survive. “I may have to leave here and go to South Carolina for the funeral if he dies,” Mother said.

Stewart, who was good at drawing people out, got Mother to talk a little more about Lawrence. “He had a very unhappy childhood,” she said. “He never could talk right or do anything else right. Finally, when he was almost thirty, he had the operation. His older brother went with him to Washington and stayed with Lawrence through the whole horribly painful ordeal.

“The last years of his life were unfortunate, too. His wife left him. He was living alone in a rooming house. It’s all very sad.”

The washing machine and dryer arrived. Mother continued to manage David’s care. But I was firmly in charge of feeding him. He nursed eagerly. Then he napped most of the time, waking every four hours, almost as if he had an alarm clock in his stomach. Mother suggested that I shouldn’t feed him too often. “It’s good for babies to cry and then get what they want,” she said. “It gives them a sense of power.”

I did not sleep well Tuesday night either. This time my worries were about the present and future: Do we have enough diaper pins? Is the cold draft from the front windows reaching the baby in his cradle? Is the thermostat turned up high enough? Could the bookcase fall over on the baby? If something happened to me, if I finally fell asleep so deeply that I couldn’t be awakened, would Mother and Stewart by able to hold David up against me so he could nurse?

“How did you sleep?” Mother asked anxiously the next morning. “Not so well, again,” I admitted. “But I think it’s normal to be excited at first.”

Mother thought things were beginning to go beyond normal. I had slept fitfully for the first two nights in the hospital, and then not at all for the next three. I seemed unable to nap in the day either. Something had to break.

I kept calling Mother to tell her things, interrupting the meal cooking and diaper changing, about which I was less and less concerned. I talked faster and faster, with my voice pitched higher and higher, making less and less sense. First Mother, then Stewart began to be alarmed.

8. AWAKE AND AWARE

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?”

She nodded.

“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.”
* * * * * * * *

9. LOTTIE BUMPUS

Since Mother was out of town, we had no choice but to bring David with us when we went to see Dr. Betts during his lunch hour on Monday. I insisted on packing the car with blankets in case of an emergency. Dr. Betts’s secretary said she would be happy to watch the baby for us.

Dr. Betts took one look at me and went into high gear. He made a call and sent us across the parking lot to the office of an OB-GYN, to see about getting my milk dried up. That doctor, deciding to avoid complications with whatever drugs Dr. Betts was going to prescribe, resorted to an old-fashioned method. He told Stewart how to bind me tightly with an old sheet. As this discussion was going on, I stared at the plump nurse who was checking me.

‘I’ll grant you a wish,’ I thought. ‘Would you like to be thin? Done.’

We returned to Dr. Betts. Stewart stayed in his office for a long time while I sat in the waiting room with David and the receptionist. I stared at a comically distorted map of the South that hung on the wall. Maybe, I thought, the country would break apart. My parents were in South Carolina with all her family. If the continent dissolved, that would be a good place for them to end up.

Then I was called in to join Stewart and Dr. Betts. Even though I wasn’t rational at all, Dr. Betts tried to talk to me. He was trying to piece together what had happened during the delivery.

“You precipitated in the bed, huh?” he said.

That was the word the nurse had used—precipitating. Like rain or sleet.

“Let me tell you something that happened to me,” he added. “When I was a senior in medical school, you flunked the course if you had a patient precipitate in the bed. When my patient came in, she was a big black woman about to have her twelfth baby. Her name was Lottie Bumpus. I thought, ‘Oh my God, I don’t have a chance.’ I put her on the bed to wheel her down the hall. On the way, I bumped against the bed, and she said, ‘Lawsy, doctor, I think this baby done come.’ I had bumped Lottie Bumpus’s baby right out.” He chuckled at the joke.

I couldn’t share his laughter—not quite yet. Here was new information. Precipitation in the bed was considered to be the doctor’s fault. But this incident must not have ended his career.

“You didn’t fail, though, did you?” I asked.

“Huh?”

“Because here you are now, practicing medicine.”

“Oh, they let me through,” he said.

Now I could enjoy the story. “Lawsy, doctor, I think this baby done come.” Lottie had been trying to help the young medical student. She was trying to hold the baby in, but she couldn’t. And it didn’t count against her. Or him. Nobody had failed, after all. It was all right.

“Lawsy, doctor, I think this baby done come,” I repeated. I giggled. It was my first non-hysterical laughter in a week, and it bubbled up, washing everything clean.

“This was a healing moment, doctor,” I told him.

10. TRANQUILLIZED

The confusion of the next week would never be sorted out. I had indeed nursed David in the car. Stewart went in to get the strong tranquillizers Dr. Betts had prescribed. (I would later learn that the drugs were thorazine and haldol.) Stewart promised he would not be gone long. Then David started crying. It always upset me when he cried. “Wait,” I urged him. But, of course, David knew nothing about waiting. I got one of the blankets and covered us both so that I could feed him. No one would look in. And besides, those nursing mothers from La Leche did this sort of thing all the time.

As soon as I took the first one of these new pills, the nursing would have to stop, of course. Mother had prepared for this event, by stocking in bottles and showing Stewart how to sterilize them. But he waited until she returned from South Carolina on Monday night to begin the new routine.

The tranquillizers hit me like a huge breaker, and I went under in total confusion. With the tight binding around my breasts, I felt like someone in ancient China, with feet bound for the sake of beauty. David was now sleeping in the crib in the nursery with Mother. I would hear him cry and long to nurse him, although I’d been told that would poison him. For the first few nights, mother would grab him and carry him downstairs with her as she warmed his bottle, to protect him.

I sensed that my feelings—my confusion about whether it was day or night, my fear of noises, and my reactions to the strangeness of the world in general—were like those of an infant. I was not sure which one of us was being born. I believed I now understood what it was like to be an autistic child, shocked into a world of self-absorption by the trauma of birth.

I wouldn’t keep my clothes on. I told Mother, “I used to be aloof. Now I could be intimate with anyone who came along.” Mother covered me up and stifled a groan. Several times I checked to see if I could find the birthmark on my hip. If it was still there, I must still be the same person. What would an unmarked individual do in such a crisis? “Why are all these hundreds of doctors tampering with my delicate thermostat?” I complained.

Actually, at the moment, the only doctor was Dr. Betts. But his drugs were certainly affecting my internal thermostat. Dr. Betts was now seeing us on his lunch hour every day. He was doing everything he could to keep me from having to be locked up in the hospital. I was anxious every time we left David with my Mother to go to an appointment. It was a real act of faith to believe that the car would not leave the road like a spaceship and that we would get back home to David. It was an act of faith to believe that Stewart would come back into the waiting room from behind the doctor’s closed door and that I would recognize him when he did.

One day Stewart stayed home from work to help me put together the laundry cart that had been a gift from Ann Dickens. Square bars had to be fitted together, and if one side was too tight, the other could not be connected. The project seemed to take us forever. ‘This is the longest day,’ I thought. ‘We are like two retarded children, but even two retarded children could start life again if they were left alone on the planet.’ When I slept afterwards, I imagined the new washer and dryer floating down the street, along with the swing set from the neighbors’ yard.

I was convinced that I was swinging back and forth in time. I tried to guess what day it was by looking at the things around me. If there were three clean robes folded at the foot of the bed, perhaps it was Tuesday. If the robes were there the next time I looked, we must have swung back to Tuesday again, even if we had been propelled into another day in between. When Mother let me hold David again, he drew up his feet. Maybe he was growing backwards. Or he snorted with little pig-like noises. ‘I’m just as glad to miss the pig stage,’ I thought. When the candlestick on the dining room table was turned away from me, so that I could not see the usual wax drippings, I thought we must have gone back in time to when that candlestick was new, before we had even moved to Raleigh.

Only a few close friends were coming to visit now. When they came, I said very little because I kept seeing weights hanging over their heads. Several times a visitor would be knitting or chrocheting while talking with Mother. I stared at their moving hands, as they repeated the movements of my earlier visions—up and down, back and forth. Maybe these gentle motions sustained life after all.

The nighttime visions stopped. But little phrases came to my mind and sometimes burst out of my mouth with the urgency of prophecy. ‘I am a gene in a washing machine’ was a secret I kept to myself. But I did try to share some of my new wisdom with others: “Follow your fundamental instincts,” “Hang on to your plants and they’ll hand on to you,” “Go with the flow,” “If anyone builds a dream house, it becomes a tomb,” and “Betts know best.” I made a little chant of the words “normal, normal, normal,” with which to comfort myself. And before I ever heard the Beatles’ version on the radio—I was sure of this—I made up a little song: “We can work it out, we can work it out, we can work it out—together.”

A print by Sister Corita Kent in the dining room was a message for me. The big orange letters said, “COME ALIVE.” The smaller blue ones said, “You can make it.” The tenth time I studied the picture I decided it meant, “You can make it come alive.”

Stewart began to play little games with me. He would sing along with me in the shower, “Normal, normal, normal.” Or he would say, “Hang on to your fish,” and wait for me to respond, “And they’ll hang on to you.” On our daily trips to Dr. Betts, he would ask, “What does this remind you of?” I would stop staring at the billboards to see if the letters had become dislocated and fallen off and reply, “Our trip to Europe.” In truth, this errand through the streets and avenues of Raleigh had very little in common with our camping trip through Europe two years previously, but we were riding in the same car and, I suppose, moving through unknown territory.

As part of his reality therapy, Stewart would remind me. “When was Polly Potts’s baby born? Not the day you called the doctor. A week later. And everything was fine.”

Dr. Betts persisted in his efforts to keep me out of the hospital. Even at my lowest paint, I wanted to be with David and Stewart, and he realized that being suddenly shut away from them might make it more difficult for me to recover from my psychosis. But Mother, despite all her competence, could hardly be expected to carry out the functions of childcare, housekeeping, and psychiatric nursing for a long period, especially since it was part of her job to protect the child from the psychiatric patient. Dr. Betts and Stewart began to consider sending me to a mental health center during the day.

“No day care,” I protested when I overheard this conversation. “I don’t want my baby sent to day care.”

“Oh, not the baby,” sputtered Dr. Betts. “We were talking about your mother, something to help her out.”

“That’s OK,” I replied, thinking that my mother might be sent somewhere during the days.

On Friday, Stewart and Dr. Betts decided that I would begin spending my days in a mental health center the following Monday. But on Saturday morning, I came down the stairs, took the calendar Mother handed to me, and began to sort things out.

Mother was delighted at the progress I was making. When Stewart came home to lunch, she told him, “Grace is so much better. Look here. She’s been making a record of what’s happened.”

Stewart looked at me and smiled. “Your eyes look better,” he said. “And I didn’t hear that high pitch in your voice just now.”

I suddenly remembered that Stewart had been meeting with a couple planning a wedding. “I was all worried about your feelings at the baptism for Ed and Diane’s baby,” I told him. “It’s going to be even harder for you to do a wedding, I bet.”

Stewart admitted, “Some of those words about in sickness and in health do have a new ring to them. I’m not sure I could have held out indefinitely.”

I recalled a moment from the night before. Stewart was trying to get me to take my medicine, and I couldn’t get the pill to go down. He finally got so frustrated that he slugged me. Not hard. But it was the first time ever during our marriage (and it would turn out to be the last).

“I can’t swallow,” I told Mother. “And those drugs are making me full of milk again.”

Mother brought me a memo pad and a pencil just as quickly as she had produced the calendar. “Here,” she said. “Write that down. Make a list of all the things you want to ask Dr. Betts on Monday.”

When Monday came, Dr. Betts said, “Hold out your hand. Um hum. It’s trembling. Drug-induced Parkinsonianism. Well, we can give you another pill for that.” He checked a reference book and found that lactation, indeed, was a result of one of the tranquillizers. “You’ll just have to handle that the best way you can,” he said. “Use the binding again if you have to.”

With each visit that followed I felt I was giving up some of my crazy powers, peeling them away. I gladly let go of the illusion of swinging back and forth in time. It was harder to stop beaming messages to friends and relatives. On one occasion, Stewart read Dr. Betts some notes he had jotted down, recording things I had said. I had been talking about life and death, agony and ecstasy.

“Still having ambivalent feelings, I see,” said Dr. Betts.

Ambivalent feelings! I was incensed. Hadn’t he read Heraclitus? Didn’t he know that all seers and mystics saw the balance of opposites in the universe?

But I didn’t object out loud. I was willing to give up some of my insights, too, if that was required for me to be able to function as a wife and mother.

I offered up accounts of several of my dreams, which Dr. Betts, fortunately, refrained from interpreting. They were even more clinical than Polly Potts’s typical conversation. In one, I was helping one of the younger brothers who had crowded into the family when I was not much more than a baby myself. As I helped him toward the bathroom, I imagined that his bowel movement fell down, down into the basement and out of sight. In another dream, I was nursing David. But when I looked down, the face was Mother’s.

“Doesn’t it feel better not to hold in those secrets?” asked Stewart.

I wasn’t sure.

But Stewart wanted no part of secrecy about my breakdown. He had been furious when I told callers, “I’m just fine,” in a hysterical voice. He would take the phone and say, “Grace is manic. We’re hoping she’ll soon be better.”
After having wanted to be the perfect mother, after even considering being the second Mary, I now had to face up to being a total failure, and to having that failure made public. My humiliation was complete when Stewart would take me for a walk in the neighborhood, or to the grocery store, over-drugged, my eyes dimmed, my feet shuffling. ‘If anybody recognized me, they’ll just have to recognize me,’ I told myself.

During the days I now worked hard at proving that I could be competent. I mastered the complicated sterilizing process that Mother insisted was necessary. I let Mother show me how to work the new washing machine. I took over the meal preparation.

Mother was careful to shift various tasks to me gradually, as she worked herself out of a job. She decided it was safe to leave David in the nursery, and she moved to the sofa-bed downstairs to sleep. Finally convinced that Stewart and I could manage on our own, she made preparations to leave.

At night, I was weaving together a new sense of myself. I saw that although I had changed because of what I’d been through during David’s birth and afterwards, I was also in many ways the same person I had always been. As a drowning person, they say, sees all the scenes of his or her life flash by, I began to remember happenings and feelings I had long forgotten—a childhood bout of hepatitis that left me weak and dependent, intense religious experiences of adolescence, my early days of falling in love with Stewart. I was putting together the pieces of my identity.

I wanted so badly to seem well that I became crafty about what I said and didn’t say. Just before we left to take Mother to the airport, she insisted that we take apart the drainpipe in the kitchen sink to find a butter knife that had slipped down the drain as she washed dishes the day before. ‘Do you know what this reminds me of?’ I wanted to say. I remembered one Christmas when, after dinner, Mother had gone to the kitchen alone to wash the dishes while the rest of us engaged in a lively conversation. She didn’t leave the dishes in the kitchen to come join us, and she didn’t call any of us to come help her. But perhaps resentment played a part in what happened next. Mother cut her finger on a knife hidden in the soapy water and had to be taken to the hospital for stitches.

That memory seemed very significant, but I refrained from mentioning it. If I did, Mother might not leave. And more than anything, I wanted Stewart, David and me to be on our own.

11 ON OUR OWN.

As soon as Mother left, I promptly relapsed. I never again had those frightening visions, but the feelings that had accompanied the hallucinations—the crippling weight and the terror—returned again and again. The same drug dose that had worked one day would send me spinning into confused sleep the next. Dr. Betts kept juggling the medications to find the right combination.

I think I was testing Stewart, trying to ask, ‘Are you really with me? Will you take care of me when I need you? Or when Sis is not in the room and Mother has gone back to Atlanta, am I actually all alone?’
Also I felt that I could not measure up to Mother’s standards—having the meat, the vegetables, and the starch for supper all hot and ready at the same time, along with a choice of three beverages. And if I couldn’t win this competition, I just wouldn’t play.

Stewart was still trying to carry out his duties at the church. Several times he left me alone with David when I was scarcely functioning. Once some friends stopped by to see us, took one look, and bundled David and me off to their house, where we listened to Mozart all evening. Another time Ann Dickens came by to visit. David was crying. His diaper was clean, and I had just given him a bottle. “I don’t know what to do when he cries,” I said frantically.

“Let me rock him,” Ann said. She rocked David and listened to me talk about difficult transitions, and when she left, just before Stewart returned for supper, David and I were both calm.

Finally some of the church officers had to tell Stewart, “The church can manage without you for a while. You need to stay home with your wife.”

And he did—for as many hours as he could stand. On one of our appointments I heard Dr. Betts joking with him. “How are you doing? Manic patients are exhausting to be around. They wear me out.”

“I know,” Stewart laughed. “They were the ones I avoided when I was a hospital chaplain in Atlanta.”

To break the monotony, Stewart allowed himself a few pleasures. An old friend from college had invited Stewart to an NC State basketball game. The friend’s wife was planning to stay home because of an allergy, but Stewart persuaded her to come to our house and keep me and David company so that he could go to the game.

Or Stewart would pack us all off to visit people when he couldn’t stand being in the house any longer. The drugs made me absent-minded, and I was afraid of forgetting something essential when we departed on one of these outings—diapers, pins, baby powder, formula, a needle in case the nipple on the bottle was clogged. Finally I realized that

I could keep a diaper bag permanently packed so that I wouldn’t have to assemble all these items each time. But what if we forgot the baby?

One of Stewart’s favorite hobbies was shopping for bargains at the K-Mart, and one morning he dragged me out for a shopping expedition with him, in search of those blue light specials—even though I was in a complete Zombie state from the tranquillizers. I decided that, because of my love for him, I could bear the humiliation I felt.

In my humbled state, I could not trust myself. I had to take advice from any available source. A neighbor saw me pushing David in his carriage after lunch and said, “I always liked to do that. Then I would go home and the baby and I would both sleep.” So I went home and lay down while David napped, even though I was not sleepy at all. When several older friends said, “I wish you could have a maid like I did to help with my baby,” I got busy and found someone who could come in to baby sit and do light housework once a week. Stewart let me take all the responsibility for that step, and were both surprised that I could keep up with the various slips of paper on which I had written suggested phone numbers and that I could make the arrangements.

“Sometimes you have to push yourself,” Mother had said.

“Don’t push yourself, honey,” my father told me over the telephone.

Once again the issue was whether to push or not to push. And once again I didn’t know what I should do.

I found that rocking David and singing to him calmed both of us. The words to the old spirituals seemed to capture my feelings. Mother had sung them to me as a child, her voice bouncing lightly on each note in precise rhythm. I let my voice linger and swell. Sometimes sobs would block my throat.
Stewart was relieved that he only heard me sing, “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” one time. More often I sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” I laughed at the words to another song I remembered:
Noah, he built him, he built him an arky, arky
Built it out of hickory barky barky.

Perilous voyages were firmly fixed in the memories of the African Americans who composed these spirituals. And those anonymous poets seemed to know about how it felt to ride the waves:

Sometimes I’m up, sometimes I’m down,
Oh, yes, Lord.
Sometimes I’m almost to the ground,
Oh, yes, Lord.

Almost anything could become a test of my fragile grasp on reality. Once Dr. Betts wrote the wrong name on my prescription. Had I changed identities? I got a card from the framing shop saying that the Sister Corita print needed to be picked up. But there it was, framed, hanging in the dining room, where its message had been comforting me all along. Had time reversed course? The man who came to fix our furnace said, “Lady, that old switch must have come over on the ark.” And the ad on the radio beckoned: “Come see lions, tigers, elephants, and the grandest collection of animals since Noah.” Did the whole outside world know about the song I’d been singing to my baby and the animal illustrations on the nursery wall? In between the circus ads there were frightening warnings of possible tornados.

I became aware that the days when I had something scheduled on the calendar—even something as mundane as a trip to the grocery store—were the days when I stayed in touch with the real world. On days when the calendar was blank, I was more likely to lose contact. I was the kind of person who always lived several steps ahead of myself. Meetings, assignments, appointments, and parties had given structure to my life. What would be written on the calendar now that my main task was to support an infant’s life? “Wash diapers,” “Fold baby clothes,” “Sterilize bottles”? I began to write some of these tasks in the blank spaces on the calendar and to make lists of weekly and occasional household tasks so that I could see how I would be filling my time. Or I invited friends to visit and duly entered their names like an appointment. I realized that I needed to learn to live in the moment. Perhaps I could even allow myself some unstructured time to sit with David and enjoy his company.

‘What do I want to do with my life,’ I asked myself. ‘What will it all add up to?’ I wanted to be a good mother, but I didn’t want to be the Madonna. Did I want to be a saint? That sounded scary. If I were a saint, it would have to be a secret—even from myself. Otherwise, I would be very unsaintly in my conceit. Was there such a thing as a secret saint?

What about Ann Dickens? Or the clerk on my recent solo trip to the grocery store, who told me patiently where twenty different items were? Or the friend who got a sitter for her own children and came by to give Stewart and me an afternoon out—an act of kindness she performed to mark the day and hour of her ex-husband’s re-marriage.
One evening I heard Stewart talking on the phone to my mother. “I don’t know,” he was saying. “We might need you to come back.”

“What for?” I demanded. “To take care of David? I don’t need her to take care of him.”

“No,” he patiently explained. “To take care of you. Someone’s been having to be here to take care of you.”
I never again allowed myself to get out of touch with reality for a whole day. I had some bad hours and then only bad moments and finally only the ups and downs that are considered normal. Dr. Betts had assured Stewart that my condition would be “self-limiting.” Apparently, it had run its course.

12. RITUALS AND CELEBRATIONS

Four celebrations marked the end of my craziness and the beginnings of my new life.

Ed’s birthday and mine were two weeks apart, and Ed and Diane invited us to go out for a joint birthday celebration. I felt very fragile and carried myself like a porcelain pitcher. We left David along with Ed and Diane’s baby with Diane’s mother and went out to eat at a restaurant. As we stood waiting to be seated, I watched the waiters and busboys. Slowly they were clearing things away, rolling up dirty linens, putting on fresh table cloths, re-setting tables. The whole room seemed full of people sorting and re-sorting—a normal part of life. Later, Ed and I blew out candles and took pictures to celebrate the continuity of friendship.

Stewart took me with him to an experimental worship service at a downtown church. I stopped by the nursery but could not bring myself to leave David there. I took him with me as he slept soundly in the crook of my arm. Before the slides were shown, the light from the projector cast our shadow on the screen—in that Madonna and child pose. People sat together in small groups, and we were told to write down something that kept us from being whole. “Nothing,’ I thought. ‘I have been torn open, but now I am healed and whole.’ Each small group was to act out a ritual of love. Without speaking, I helped my group to form a circle of linked arms and rock back in forth in one of the secret motions of the universe.

The young women from our church invited me to a circle meeting. Each person was bringing something to share. As we arrived at the home of the hostess, various women remarked on the furnishings: “I never noticed those chairs before.” “Did you get that new wall hanging in Mexico?” and so forth. These kinds of questions were perfectly normal, I realized, not magical signs.

What I had brought to share was a paper I had written in college. It had turned up during some of the sorting and rummaging I’d been doing in recent weeks. The topic was Salinger’s novel Franny and Zooey, the story of a spiritual breakdown. Franny begins to recover when her brother tells her about an imaginary “fat lady,” who wants the best for her and deserves the best from her. Not as a crazy rant, but calmly, tentatively, I tied Salinger’s story to the notion of secret saints. Everyone nodded. They understood. Then each of us was given a daffodil as a sign of spring and hope. We had car-pooled to the meeting, and as we left, the woman driving asked the rest of us, “Have you ever been singing and all of a sudden realized what the words meant and had to stop because you were crying?” Hmm. Maybe I wasn’t so peculiar—or special. Evidently this kind of thing could happen to anyone.

Exactly eight weeks after David was born, the calendar read “Post Partum Party.” I took my last tranquillizer that day. Stewart and I had invited all the friends who had meant to most to use during the crisis to come to our house for a celebration. When the guests arrived, I was upstairs feeding David. Then I came down. Someone handed me a bouquet of flowers, and I walked through our gathered friends with them in my arms. “I love that picture on the wall,” someone said. “What does it say besides ‘Come Alive’? “You look beautiful,” said someone else. “Radiant. You remind me of Cleopatra.”

I had decided to stop being crazy. Of course, I had been helped with therapy, medications, and TLC from my mother and my husband, but it also seemed like a choice. I was beginning to take joy in being with David. At only two months, he had not yet developed a unique personality, but I liked the brightness of his eyes, the way they focused on the light or the fish swimming in the aquarium. I loved his early half-smiles. I could now imagine him growing up and could accept the concept of being responsible for him during the years that would take. I could visualize him taking his first steps or joining Stewart in catching turtles, fishing, playing ball. I hoped and expected that he would have a normal boyhood.

I wanted to spend the rest of my life with Stewart, grateful to him for sticking with me through the hard times.
But, perhaps because of my psychotic interlude, I found the strength to ask for more. I wanted my tombstone to say more than “beloved wife and mother.” I would keep the babysitter I had found and get out of the house once a week.

I would make the time to finish my thesis and complete my graduate degree. Later, I hoped I would find a way to resume the teaching career I had interrupted. And perhaps I could write something that was more than an appraisal of another writer’s work. Maybe a few of the ideas I had written down and torn up would resurface in comprehensible and compelling forms.

I did not plan to give up being an attractive woman in order to be a mother. I was enjoying my new sense of my body—beyond its capacity for bearing and feeding children.

I had chosen to give up the telepathy, the signs and slogans, the sudden flashes of insight. Several times I told my mother that if I lived to be an old woman, I could become a mystic. (Now that I am much older, that idea has less appeal.) For the time being, I put such things aside—not completely discarded, but hidden. I hoped I would be able to locate the things I had learned beyond the borders of rationality—if I had need of them.