This short story first published in Fire & Knives ~
My brother came screaming into this world like the womb he was living in had burst into flames. He was small and spidery with his eyes clamped shut, his mouth stretched open, and a thick shock of jet black hair projecting from his beet red head. Their first-born child was a son. My father’s pride. My mother’s pain. It would be years before he stopped screaming.
Two weeks after giving birth, my mother was preparing to host a dinner party. Before the guests arrived, she checked on her brand new son who’d been crying on and off all day. When a baby cries, it cries with its whole body. Its tiny fingers ball into fists, and its arms alternately contract and flail. Toes curl, and knees retract legs into the familiar fetal position. Those legs shoot back out with an independent vengeance, then contract again. Even the baby’s tongue gets into the action, constricting to cause those choking gasps for air. This was a real, solid cry. But that wouldn’t have worried my mother. Not in 1969. What worried my mother that day—what caused her to phone her friends and tell them the dinner party was off—was the curious way the baby’s left leg failed to move in conjunction with the rest of its contorting body. Even as both arms, the other leg, all ten fingers, and at least five toes repeatedly launched then retreated in syncopated time, his left leg lay flaccid. Curled atop his torso like a wilted stem, that leg was completely motionless.
Laughter in the drawing room drifted upstairs to the guest room where my mother sat at the dressing table preparing to return to the hospital to breastfeed her newborn son. She’d noticed Paul’s leg three hours before Liz and Al were due to arrive for dinner. It was supposed to be an appreciation dinner for the volunteer work Liz did in her class. Instead of showing appreciation, she thought now, she’d been squatting in her aide’s home for nearly a week. Liz and Al’s home in Williamsport was twenty minutes closer to Divine Providence hospital than she and my father’s home in Muncy. At two weeks old, Paul was on a three-hour feeding schedule. If it hadn’t been for Liz’s invitation, my mother knew she wouldn’t be getting the two-hour sleep sprints that were barely keeping her going. It was the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. This was the third dinner party Liz and Al had hosted since my mother and father arrived six days earlier.
Hearing ice cubes chatter inside empty glasses downstairs, my mother pictured crystal tumblers being refilled with vodka, scotch, bourbon, and gin. For a moment, she imagined being the eighty-proof liquid trapped inside one of those tumblers, rolling in languorous waves around the perimeter.
“Carol, it’s time,” said my father, materializing in the doorway and disappearing before she could be sure he’d been there. The 100-watt bulb in the Stiffel floor lamp hummed to the tune of a much higher voltage, in harmony with the electrical current of her sleep-deprived body. She grabbed her wig and, placing it on her head, tucked the unwashed strands of hair beneath it as she descended the stairs and maneuvered through the party and out the door to the car, where her husband now waited with the engine running. It was snowing again.
Liz and Al’s house perched at the pinnacle of a forty-five degree incline, and the Grand Prix typically fishtailed as my father pumped the brakes on the way down. My mother stared through the windshield beyond the kaleidoscope of swirling snow at the darkened road ahead. She remembered the time the mother of one of her Head Start students had invited she and Liz into her home for a piece of cake. The slices of cake were enormous—almost the size you’d serve an entire birthday party, they’d later agreed. Still, they both did their best to eat what they’d been served. After leaving the house to continue on their visiting rounds, Liz mentioned that she’d seen a rat, comparable in size to the cake slices they’d just consumed, run across the floor of the kitchen as they ate.
The car slowed to a stop in front of the hospital’s main entrance, and bracing herself against the snow, my mother hurried through the main doors. When she entered Paul’s room, a nurse handed her a sterile gown. There’d been another baby in the room when my brother had first been admitted, she was almost certain. She unfolded the gown, wondering if she could have been mistaken. Paul’s cry penetrated her eardrums like a high-explosive bullet, igniting every nerve ending. She pushed her arms through the openings in the front of the gown and looped the strings in back as she leaned forward, jostling the crib to reach in for her son. Paul’s cries turned to screams.
The doctors had put a cast on Paul’s damaged leg. She wasn’t sure why. Thinking the problem was cellulitis, Paul’s doctor had started him on antibiotics via shots to his rump, but his rump had since hardened to the shots. They’d had to cut an opening in his other ankle to administer the antibiotic through an IV tube. No wonder he screams, my mother thought. She wished cellulitis had been the final prognosis.
“We’ve run more tests,” the pediatrician had told my parents the previous afternoon.
“What is it?” My mother sensed the doctor’s darkened mood.
“It’s a condition called osteomyelitis. It’s an infection in his bone.”
She’d then asked, for the first time since Paul was admitted, “Will he be OK?”
“I can’t say,” the doctor had replied.
She pushed the conversation from her mind as she pulled the baby toward her chest. Careful not to disturb the IV, my mother placed her left arm under Paul’s back, supporting his head with her left hand and balancing his torso and the leg with the IV tube on top of her forearm. She reached over his flailing arms with her right hand to lift his left leg so that the cast rested on her left breast, the opposite from which she would feed. Then she moved to open the gown, but she found no opening.
Standing with her screaming baby balanced on one arm, my mother began to tremble. My father appeared as the first sob turned into another, and he placed his arms under the baby just as my mother fell, deflating like a popped balloon, into the chair beside the crib.
“I—I—I—can’t—I—can’t—” My father rocked the baby and cooed in his ear. “I can’t—do it—anymore,” my mother said, tears now soaking the front of her once sterile gown.
“What do you want to do?” my father said in the voice he was using for Paul.
“I don’t—know.” My mother’s sobs slowed. “I just know—I can’t do this anymore.”
“I have to go back to work next week,” my father said. The high school was at a shortage for substitute band directors, and he’d been fortunate to get a full week off.
“I need to go home. I need to sleep, or I’m not going to make it,” my mother said. Then she stood up, reversed her hospital gown, took her baby in her arms, and once again, performed the balancing act that would allow him to feed.
When my parents returned to Liz and Al’s that evening, the guests were seated in the dining room. A fresh batch of Al’s law practice associates lined the twelve-foot mahogany table. My mother watched through the open doorway as rosy-cheeked lawyers and bulbous-nosed businessmen filled wine glasses for their porcelain wives. Removing her coat and scarf, she turned toward the staircase.
“Carol, Flor!” Liz heard my parents shedding their winter layers and entered the foyer to usher them into the dining room. “How is Paul?” she asked.
“He’s the same,” my mother said. “The nurses are going to give him formula tonight, so I can get some sleep.”
“Oh Carol, that’s wonderful,” Liz said. “Here, have a little glass of wine. I can’t imagine what you must be going through.”
My mother watched the deep burgundy liquid fill her glass and took a long sip. Liz moved to the end of the table where she spooned steaming white rice on to each plate before Al piled it high with a vibrant casserole of rich green broccoli and roasted chicken in thick cream sauce covered with melted cheese, still bubbling from the oven, and topped with buttery breadcrumbs toasted to a golden-brown crust. My mother thought she’d never seen a more beautiful meal, and when the waft of curried chicken hit her with the passing of plates around the table, her stomach rumbled in response. She lifted her wine glass, which was somehow empty, and before she could place it back down, a hand appeared from behind with a wine bottle to fill her glass again.
As she sipped the second glass of wine, my mother’s thoughts drifted toward the concept of a full night’s sleep. Each sip carried her closer, and she’d almost grasped it when the first bite of food reeled her back to the dinner table. She pulled the fork from her mouth and closed her eyes to savor the tang of curry against hearty chicken with a burst of fresh broccoli steamed just beyond firm. The breadcrumbs added a balancing texture against the rich, creamy sauce, and melted cheese drew the flavors together into a zesty conclusion that left her wanting indeterminately more. She hadn’t realized she was so hungry.
“It’s chicken divan,” Liz whispered to my mother as she stood up to fill her water glass. “Do you like it?” My mother’s mouth was too full to answer.
Conversations merged with the clinking of silver against china, and crystal stemware chimed in harmony with highball glasses in holiday toast. My mother felt like she was watching the scene from a place outside of herself, hovering beyond the table and witnessing the events, as if in a dream. She was talking. She was telling everyone about the breast pump or, more accurately, the breast milk sucking machine. They were laughing. And she was laughing too.
The plastic funnel was designed to fit on the end of a breast, and a tube attached to the funnel led to the hand-pump which, when squeezed, was supposed to create the suction that would pull the milk from the nipple. The funnel had been cold, and her nipple had practically retracted at the tenacious pull of the contrived suction. It was repulsive, she remembered. Her milk stopped altogether after a few moments with the contraption.
Though the doctor insisted that Paul needed breast milk for nutrients, he also agreed that my mother needed sleep in order to get through whatever the next days and weeks would bring. The nurses would feed him formula overnight, the doctor conceded, since my mother would now spend full days in the hospital, breastfeeding her son as often as necessary.
Before dessert was served, my mother excused herself. She returned to the guest room and sat at the dressing table noticing that something in her reflection wasn’t right. Throughout the entire evening, my mother realized, none of the nurses, doctors, lawyers, businessmen or their wives—not even Liz had told her that her wig was on backward. Her husband, she knew, would not have noticed. She flung the wig on the dressing table and, rather than comb her limp hair, fell into bed, succumbing to the exhaustion that had consumed her week.
My parents packed their few belongings into the Grand Prix at six o’clock the next morning. Liz was already awake with her coffee, and as my mother left, pressed a folded piece of paper into her hand.
“What’s this?” my mother asked.
“You can look at it later,” Liz said. “Just a little something to take with you.”
“Thank you,” my mother said.
“No thanks are necessary,” Liz said, “and you know the invitation is open.”
My mother slid the paper into her coat pocket as she walked out the door into the frigid morning air. It would be almost a year before she found that paper again.
The next two weeks felt like two years as my parents performed the daily hospital rituals that they prayed would stack the scales of fate in their new family’s favor. Just before Paul was scheduled for surgery to drain the infected area, his pediatrician made a visit to his hospital room.
“He’s showing signs of improvement,” the pediatrician told my parents. “The infection is draining on its own.”
“Is that good?” my mother asked.
“It’s the best thing that could have happened,” the doctor said. “We’ll watch it for a few more days and then get him out of this hospital before he picks up something else in here.”
By the time he was released from the hospital, osteomyelitis wasn’t my brother’s only problem. I often wondered, as a young child, why photographs showed him with a belly button that rivaled Pinocchio’s nose after an obvious whopper. Paul’s navel wore a hole in all of his shirts and protruded at least an inch in perpendicular relation to his torso.
Apparently, he had cried so hard for so long in the hospital that he’d given himself two hernias. One was umbilical and the other, inguinal. The inguinal posed the larger problem. They’d have to operate, the doctor informed my parents, but not before they knew the osteomyelitis had completely cleared. This they checked by extracting blood from Paul’s jugular vein. The osteomyelitis was under control, but it would be months before my brother was completely out of danger. It would be years before my parents would fully accept that.
The following Christmas, my mother was five months pregnant with me. She grabbed her old coat on the way to a doctor’s appointment when, reaching into the pocket for her gloves, she found the folded piece of paper that Liz had pressed into her hand the year before. She opened it. And here’s what it said.
Spread 20 oz. chopped broccoli on bottom of buttered 9×13” pan.
Chop 3 cooked chicken breasts and spread over broccoli.
2 cans cream of chicken soup
1 cup mayonnaise
1 Tbsp. curry powder
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
Spread sauce over chicken
16 oz. Velveeta cheese – sliced and placed evenly atop sauce
2 cups fresh breadcrumbs
3 Tbsp. melted butter
Sprinkle buttered breadcrumbs over cheese
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Bake for 30 minutes.
My mother made chicken divan for Christmas that year. Technically, I ate it too, since I was there in the womb, partaking from the safety of my home within a home. It’s been forty years, and there hasn’t been a Christmas without chicken divan since.