I really hate it when autobiographical tales begin with an account of the subject’s mother and father: how they were born, where they met, and so on.
Incidentally, I’m going to begin with an account of how my mother was born.
Or rather, not born. At least in the beginning.
There were complications during my grandmother’s pregnancy, and the baby died. As many times I’ve heard the story, from both my grandmother, who was there to experience it, and my mother, who was at the time, dead, I’m not sure exactly why the baby died. But it wasn’t an error in medical science: my mother wasn’t Juliet drinking the sleeping potion and appearing, for all intents and purposes to be dead, she was quite literally a dead fetus. My grandmother had carried her about halfway to term, and when the baby died, the doctor’s told her she would have to have the poor thing removed before it began to make her sick.
My grandmother was in shock and denial, and refused. She went home. I don’t know exactly how long. In my recollection of my grandmother recounting the story, I believe she said it was a couple of months, but I suspect it was closer to a few days or a couple of weeks. Whatever the length of time my grandmother continued to carry her dead daughter, the baby was beginning to decompose, poisoning her bloodstream and making her very ill.
Someone eventually dragged my grandmother to the hospital, and as she waited, racked with the guilt so many mothers who lose their children feel, she could see out of her window, across the courtyard of the hospital, the window to her own grandmother’s room, and that woman lay dying, with her family surrounding her. My grandmother was doubly distressed, due to both the loss of her own child, which she refused to accept, despite it’s clear and present danger to her own body, and the impending loss of her grandmother, my great-great-grandmother. She began to notice a commotion in the room across the courtyard, and when one of her cousin’s picked up the receiver to the telephone by the bed, she received the news confirming her suspicion, that her grandmother had indeed just passed away.
At exactly that moment, the baby kicked.
My grandmother was in further shock. She didn’t understand. A nurse was nearby and when my grandmother alerted her to this, she inspected my grandmother, and sure enough, the baby was moving. Instantly a flood of doctor’s, nurses, equipment, all cascaded into the hospital room, wires and electrodes and IV’s being pressed into her, and upon examination it was determined that yes, somehow, inconceivably, this baby has come to life again. My grandmother, who was in what I can only imagine was a combined state of horrible grief, disbelieving relief, and utter shock at the coincidence of both, turned to the doctor who was maintaining her and through her tears, croaked, “What happened?”
The doctor looked down at her and said, “Ma’am, I can offer you no medical explanation in my power to explain why your daughter is alive. All I can say is this: ‘the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.'”
I am not, as you will come to see, a religious person, and particularly not a Christian person. However I will admit that in the circumstances, that was a damn good dramatic line to drop, and really makes the whole experience seem like a Hallmark movie of some kind.
My grandmother’s life was absolutely filled with stories like this, and I regret that she passed away when I was eighteen, too young and selfish to have had the foresight to sit with an audio recorder or a notebook and take down the stories of her incredible life, and make a chronicle. However I will from time to time try and write down what I can remember hearing from her, sitting at her side in the couch of her small apartment during her final decade or so, listening attentively until four in the morning, sipping one of her many Diet Coke’s and petting her poodle while she watched a muted episode of The Nanny or smoked away at cigarette after cigarette.
But as I said, the baby lived. She continued to carry it to full term, and when my mother was born, there was a dark ring around her eye from where, as a fetus, and a dead one at that, she had begun to dematerialize, and this mark on her skin remained until she started school, when all the other little girls thought she was wearing eyeshadow on one eye.
This isn’t the first time my mother faced death and survived. When she was a young girl of about six, she and her sister were playing outside in their backyard, and happening to be stomping around gayly in a ditch, that no one at the time realized was actually sewage from a broken pipe seeping up through the ground. Because of her exposure, my mother contracted Hepatitis, and the rarer, deadlier form at that. She was placed in a quarantined hospital room, shut away from her family the way the little boy from ET was, speaking to her mother and kissing her through a sheet of glass for months. The doctor’s did everything they could to help, but she was going to need to remain quarantined for a long time.
My mother cried to her mother and sister on the opposite side of the glass, saying how much she loved them and missed them and begging to be allowed to go home. It was unclear whether or not she would die here, quarantined behind glass, unable to feel the touch of her mother’s hand. My grandmother asked to be allowed inside, but was not. Finally, my grandmother had had enough. The child was sick, yes, very sick, and it was true that she could die, but to my grandmother, what the doctor’s said didn’t matter anymore, her daughter was suffering unbearably and had been for months, not only was the little girl sick, but she was physically separated from the people she loved, and my grandmother opened the door and marched into the quarantine room, unhooked her from the machines, and picked her daughter up out of the bed. The doctor’s flooded in and told her she had to stop, she had to leave the child in quarantine, or she could become sicker than she was now: the little girl’s immune system couldn’t handle the outside world, she was barely hanging on by a thread as it was.
Her daughter in her arms, my grandmother told the doctor’s to shove it and carried her into the parking lot, strapped her into a seat, and took her home. My mother should have died. She wasn’t simply infected with Hepatitis, she was dying from Hepatitis, and exposure to the outside world should have done her in. But for some reason, within a couple of weeks, the disease was gone. It’s mark was irrevocable: for her entire life my mother has had a weakened immune system, is susceptible to toxicity and can become violently ill at the smell of bleach or other chemicals, as well as being more prone to sickness than others, but she did survive.
I hesitate to use the word “miraculous” when describing these circumstances because I don’t know if I believe in miracles, at least not any that are mandated by a divine hand, but if you’d like to believe that these moments of inexplicable escape from death were miraculous, I won’t and can’t stop you.
It may well be understood how, from these accounts of her childhood handed down to her by her own mother, along with the many coincidences and narrow escapes from danger she’s experienced in her life, my mother is a devoutly religious Christian. I can’t really fault her entirely: had I slipped from the cold hands of death myself so many times, I might be inclined to believe there being some authority involved who had chosen to allow me to live. However, even though I tend to be first an emotional person, and then a thinking person, I do eventually, after the emotion subsides, allow myself to examine, something which my mother regrettably does not do, and I suspect that even if I had experienced such incredible luck, I would still be unable to reconcile my own safety at the supposed hand of the Divine with the cruel death of children and adults all around the world who suffer at every moment of every day, and who are not spared so kindly. Where was the Divine hand then? Was it too busy saving my mother, or in this hypothetical case, me? This isn’t something my mother really considers, and she marvels that I can remain an unbeliever in the face of what she considers to be such certain proof of God’s existence: how could she have been spared from certain death so many times, if not for the will of God, who must have had some Divine purpose yet for her to fulfill?
If that Divine purpose was to continually tell me that I’m going to burn in hell, to use religion as an excuse to stick her nose into other people’s gossip while telling them she’ll be sure to pray for them, and to condemn every person who ever comes to her asking for advice as living in sin and in desperate need of giving their life over to God, then she has fulfilled it admirably. Otherwise, I doubt it’s the case.
My mother shouldn’t even have been able to conceive children, weak as her system was, but in her time she has birthed three: my older brother, myself, and my younger sister. All of them will appear in the tale before you, and there is more to come on my mother, and very soon, my father, who I hesitate to mention in this opening chapter only because the deplorable man has no goodness to contribute to any story, but this will be, ultimately an account of who I am. The players are many and varied, but this is, as best as I can tell it, my story.