This is a confessional story. It has an air of “what just happened here?” and “kind words make a difference” and “sheer dumb luck.” It’s about forgiving one’s self, too.
It was 1982. I was a mother at 17. Most everyone in my peer group was. I had recently lost my beloved Grandma to “old age.” She never got to meet my son. Typically, when my 8 month old son napped, I typed away on my electric typewriter; doing my best to finish correspondence course work. I also did the things a mother must do: I cleaned, changed diapers, filled bottles with formula, and I read every book I could find (usually from the library) about child care and then weighed the info, and used my own judgement. This was before the internet, so if I had a question or a concern I couldn’t Google it. I knew I couldn’t do everything right, but I sure wanted to try!
My son and I lived with my parents and they were awesome, loving, devoted grandparents. Cleaning meant making sure three rooms were less hoarded: my room, the living room, and the baby’s room, because these were the places I spent time with the baby. I tried ‘cleaning’ the kitchen, usually in the middle of the night when my mother was sleeping, or when she was at work; because she would get mad at me: “Where’s that junk mail envelope from the insurance company that was on the shelf under the bouillon cubes next to that empty lightbulb box I was saving? I had a recipe written on that. And where’s the lightbulb box? I hope you didn’t throw that out too!?”
I’d answer something like this: “Don’t worry… Anything that seemed important, I put in the second drawer, I made a special junk drawer to clear surfaces and have a place on the table or the counter for other things.”
“How could you fit anything in the second drawer?! That was so full it wouldn’t open- with stuff I was saving.”
“Well, I straightened that stuff out too, and now other stuff fits…”
I didn’t mean to cause her anxiety, but I sure did seem to make her anxious. And in a week, clutter creeped back in, as you can see here in this rather unflattering photo of me at the time.
But I had anxiety too…
One night I dreamed that my baby was crying, amazingly loud! In the dream, I went to his nursery and there he was, morphed somehow (in only the way dreams can transform) into a gigantic baby who filled the whole room from ceiling to floor; his colossal baby limbs flailing! I struggled to roll him. To unfasten his massive diaper which was bigger than I was. It was very hard work. I had to duck his kicking legs which diced through the air narrowly missing my head.
When I awoke, I realized my baby really was crying! As I fed him in the antique kitchen rocker that overlooked the cornfield, tears stung my eyes… Did the enormous baby in my dream symbolize my inability to tackle the monumental journey of caring for him? It was one of the most important jobs I’d ever have. Was my ‘giant baby dream’ a harbinger that I could not handle child care?
“Why, you’re just a baby yourself!” a stranger had said to me recently. How I wanted to prove her wrong!
One of the books I consulted suggested that 8 month old babies, who could grasp things and sit up, could be stimulated by “homemade” decorations and toys. My mother worked at a school and brought me leftover supplies from the art teacher’s classroom. I sewed colorful wall hangings in the shape of blocks, bottles, and so on; and then stuffed them with padding from old pillows and hung them on the wall. I collected textures and we sat in the grass; my baby and me, that hot August summer. I took his fingers in mine and guided them over blades of grass, swatches of faux fur, and the cardboard ribbing on empty light bulb boxes. We peered through paper towel tubes. We smelled flowers. I strapped a baby seat onto my bicycle and took him for long rides past cow pastures and down a dirt path where I knew wild bunnies played. With the wind in both our hair (what little he had), I heard him giggling behind me as dogs barked from porches and the sun warmed our faces.
I raided my mother’s house for safe “homemade” playthings: wooden spoons, pots, plastic cups and even a wooden hatrack. There was a pantry off the kitchen, with an askew curtain blocking what was inside. The little room had shelves on the farthest wall, lined with our cooking pots and had hooks on the side walls, which held cooking supplies (and a pantyhose with summer plant bulbs in the legs, an umbrella with a broken frame, and hedgeclippers I’d never seen used, you get the idea.)
Once you pushed the curtain aside, you could pull a drawstring and shed light on the situation. There was at least 3 feet of debris on the floor that one had to step over to reach the pans. We all scaled this heap of stuff, as if it were the most natural thing to do. Anyway, I went in there in search of stimulating household items that could be repurposed into toddler toys. Ever wary of anything I deemed unsafe, I spied an expandable coatrack hanging off a peg; like this one pictured here:
Made of natural hardwood, it made a series of three diamond shapes when expanded- accordion style- with ten pegs that could hold mugs or hats. It could be stretched out and closed again. He was just a baby, but he was able to lift the device gently and operate its accordion function. It made him giggle. I watched closely so he wouldn’t pinch himself. It didn’t snap tightly closed and seemed safe enough, for a short period of exploration, supervised.
It was a sweltering day. I set my baby on the hardwood floor; where he sat up surrounded by his store bought teethers, the rack pictured here, a large rubber ball and other toys. He gripped a Zwieback biscuit in his fist. I watched, sweating now, as he cooed, nibbled his biscuit, and communicated his pleasure to me in glances and smiles.
I was mindful of not raising the electric bill unnecessarily. I lived with my parents and respected the bills they were faced with. But I HAD to turn on that dusty box fan in the window! My back was turned for seconds.
That’s all it took.
Apparently my nightmare had been a prophecy. No one should’ve entrusted ME with this precious life, my baby, who I heard choking, gasping for air behind me. I whisked him into my arms immediately; prepared to do the Heimlich and send that lodged piece of biscuit flying from his mouth! My mother, who’d been washing dishes, ( our house was in disarray but to her credit we always had clean clothes, regular meals, and clean dishes) came running. She was full of questions I didn’t have answers for. Then she did what was probably the worst thing anyone should do in a situation like that. I don’t recommend it. She took my baby from me and turned him upside down.
Somehow the choking subsided (although no food fell from his mouth). Odd, we thought. But he’d apparently swallowed the blockage. The piece of biscuit?
My mother inspected his “toys.” There was a peg from the rack that had come off. She held it in her hand as I watched her sweep the entire room; as if she were looking for something. She even moved the couch. She never did that! I had babyproofed the room to my satisfaction, had swept it not long ago in fact, and everyone, realizing the importance of the baby proofing that I’d done, were keeping it fairly tidy. We had a couch that raised a dust cloud if you smacked it, and curious tiny black beetles would often stray out from its seams, but you can’t fix everything. I liked sitting in the rocker. We had several of those – almost one for each room.
Later that afternoon, while I was in the dentist’s chair, my mother watched her grandson in the waiting room. When I was finished with my appointment, she said to me, “We’re going to the ER. Something’s wrong. He’s happy enough but he keeps throwing up.”
Later, as my baby sat on the gurney grinning, charming the nurses, his x-ray was put up on a light box. People came from all over the hospital to see the unmistakable white shape of an inch and a half long nail on the screen. How could such a thing be in the stomach of this happy innocent baby? How had I allowed him to access the nail which had held on that wooden peg?
I was the worst mother in the world. I should’ve checked it more thoroughly, should’ve sensed that anything in the pantry would likely be in serious disrepair. I had tested the pegs. They hadn’t seemed loose. But here we were.
For six hours I paced. Down the hall. Past the impressionistic babbling brook print on the wall, past three exam rooms, doors all open. Sharp Uturn at the nurses station. Over and over I did this, frown in place, tears just a thought away, brow furrowed. Head down watching my sneakers as I paced my route across the shining white floor.
The operation was taking too long. They said it would be a few hours but six had passed. A doctor came to me in scrubs with an update. It was going well but the nail had shifted since it was seen on the X-ray. We had caught it before it tried to leave the stomach and there were no perforations.
I tried to sit down but well intended nurses kept approaching me.
“This is more common than you think. We see this a lot,”
one of them said to me.
“My baby swallowed a marble once, but was able to pass it…” another nurse confided in me, patting my arm.
I needed to be alone; so I went to the little room in the ER where my baby had been examined when we arrived.
I stood facing the reflective paper towel holder on the wall which was eye level. I could see my despicable face, distorted and blurry in the mirror-like reflection.
I closed my eyes.
Tried to will away tears.
However this turned out, I needed to be strong.
That’s when I heard it. A matronly voice. Sincere. Kind. One sentence.
“All mothers go to heaven.”
My eyes popped open; my features relaxed. I turned to see who’d spoken and caught a flash of someone leaving the room. I hurried to the door and surprisingly, saw no one in the corridor.
Composed now, I rejoined my family. With my chin UP.
Finally the doctor came to tell us he had had no complications. He would always have a scar on his tummy, but he was okay.
His father and I were together 26 years, until my husband’s death in 2005.
My son is now a computer whiz; the father of two girls who he likes to take fishing. He’s an intelligent, funny, interesting man who runs his own paranormal investigative group. Like my son, I believe in spirit visitation. In 1982, a mysterious voice brought me comfort and faith in a hospital room.
I still have the dam nail.