Triptych

by Eileen Drennen

 

1.

The wipers make their slow dance across the windshield. Their constancy – like clocks and metronomes – is soothing. It comforts you to know the next sound is coming and the one after and the one after that, a rhythm to lull and fall into. Something to rely on.

Your mother crying in the passenger seat while trying to sound like she's just blowing her nose. From the back seat, you notice a silver pincurl clip she's missed in the back of her brown curls, which you consider grabbing for her but then don’t. Your father has both hands on the steering wheel. All you can see of him in the rearview mirror are the corners of his dark glasses and the slopey side of his gray felt fedora. All his attention is on the road, which seems to wind in sharp curves every couple miles. You don't care about seatbelts, just want to somehow stay right in the middle where you can see them both. Being pulled from one side of the car to the other as it hugs the twisty road is a relief, like being on one of those rides at the fair. It never does any good to fight the forces that swirl you around in circles, tumble you up and slam you down. All you can do is let go.

It's that gray mid-winter light where everything looks so same and dead you're grateful for the blare of any bright red traffic light screaming STOP or the orangey yellow of a metal sign ordering drivers to YIELD.

You wish you could think of anything to say besides “I’m sorry.” No matter how many times you say it – by now you've lost count – it never seems to make anyone  feel better. Reminds you of when you were 7 and your brother was 5 and you got caught in a whopping lie about how you two ended up wet and muddy on a Saturday where you were supposed to be playing quietly in the backyard. The forest trail behind the just-born subdivision always beckoned, and on this afternoon you agreed no one would mind if you just explored the stretch behind the houses on your block but then neither of you were strong enough to resist the pull of following the path as far as it led. It must have been a sunny day when you reached the pond. You'd just heard about Huck Finn and the idea of building a raft to sail across the murky green pool seemed like a dream you could keep secret. There were pieces of wood and you looked for ways to tie them together – or maybe you tried to float on the biggest, on its own. Tadpoles were another lure, and whether you slipped in or jumped or just forgot to notice you weren't on land anymore isn't clear. When you realized it was getting late and you'd have to go home, muddy and wet, you suggested he start to cry so you could say some older boys pushed you both in – or just him, and you jumped in after to pull him out.

You found it amazing that just thinking about the story and being afraid helped summon tears, but your parents hadn't bought it, nor the long string of I’m sorrys you both chanted – weeping real tears suddenly at the realization that a spanking was next  – stringing them together so fast they sounded like a blur of SSSes.

That’s what you feel like now, in the car. A blur of sorry SSSes.

On the radio, Frank Sinatra is singing something about the men in his little girl’s life, which makes your cheeks burn, even though you've only had one and he's 16 like you. But you don't want to ask anyone to change the station, if your mom's kind of music helps her when you can't.

She's the one who insisted they take you down to the hospital 45 minutes away. She wants the doctor who delivered her sixth and final baby to do the procedure on her fourth child, first to turn up pregnant. It's only been legal since January, since your own health is not at risk and this is a decision about timing and what's best for your 16-year-old self and even though everyone keeps saying it has to be your decision, you feel pulled along by the certainty of your boyfriend and his family who say he can't marry you yet, he's too young, you two need to finish school and do things in the right order. There will be other babies when we're ready, he promises.

You wish you could climb up front and sit with your head on your mother's lap, so she could stroke your hair the way she used to, when it was just starting to get long enough to play with. She'd have you rest your chin on the edge of your mattress, and brush your hair over the side in a staticky curtain that smelled like electric shampoo.

 One hundred strokes was supposed to be the magic number that made your hair grow or shine or something – who cared what, so long as your mother kept brushing. You liked it best before she got to 50 when you knew the end was coming closer. The brushings weren't routine, so whenever you got one, you didn't want it to end. With your eyes closed and your arms flung over the sides of the bed, the surface of your head became the focus of everything. It grew warm and tingly with each bristly swoosh, flooding you with a dizzy contentment you'd chased ever since.

On this particular overcast morning, your mother won't look you in the face. She keeps pretending to look for something in her pocketbook even though there's almost nothing in in, just her fancy tweed and burgundy leather wallet, a yellow box of Chiclets, her fuchsia lipstick, a flowery hankie that smells like her perfume and a lucky beach stone from Ireland.

If she'd been able to find words for this occasion, you wonder what would they have been. Would it have been a story about one of the English or French queens who suffered great loss but found a way to write herself a happy ending? Or would she have finally told you about Ireland's warrior queen Maeve, who accumulated lovers not  children, and made them promise to bury her standing, spear in hand, facing north, the land of her enemies?

Once you arrive at the hospital, your mother's longtime doctor – tall, balding, thin – sits you down to talk in private. With his wispy tufts of dark hair, limpid brown eyes and generous lips, he's what you imagine someone would look like if he had Don Knotts and George Hamilton for brothers. It's not too late to change your mind, he says. This has to be your decision, he says, not anyone else's.

You tell him it's already decided. Your boyfriend and his family are certain. Your parents are going along with whatever you say. Maybe you tell him your parents have been great, offering to let you get married and live at home so you could finish high school. Maybe you say something about not being able to do any of that on your own. Maybe you just look for the right words.

He wants to know what you think. You see your boyfriend's point, you say.

His doesn't have to say he feels sorry for you, his eyes do. You wish there was something you could say to make him feel better. When he says, finally, it has to come from you, you wonder how grown-ups even believe that and don't know how to tell him you don't really know what that means. You wonder if he was ever 16 when the only thing you know for sure is true love will get you through anything. You wish you could tell him you can't live without love and it confuses you when people talk about the future because it all looks like some long black tunnel you don't understand how anyone sees anything in.

He says he'll see you the next morning at 6 and here's medicine to take tonight and tomorrow they'll give you more and you won't feel any pain. He calls it a D&C and tells you there will be cramps and blood for a few days but you'll be fine and are you using birth control. When you say yes, you're on the pill, he tells you to double up, add condoms or foam. You're one of those girls who will need more protection.

That night, you dream of the microscope world, those biology class words you love to roll around on your tongue: mitochondria, nucleotides, membrane, that place where squiggles motor around with authority. You start out looking down on their frenzied ballet through the eyepiece, then find yourself swimming in their tiny viscous sea. A humming fills your ears like the inside of a hive. Shapes zoom past and you try to stay out of their purposeful swoops here and there but there is no road.  Tiny cilia brush your face, a graceful see-through cell, its insides as clear as on one of those overlays in the biology text. A double helix sails by, twisting so fast the red strand and blue strand blur into purple. You feel pulled forward by a current of warmth, into dark pink folds that open into a dark lake. Something pulses and glows, filling the cave with a fast drumbeat. It looks like the inside of an ear or beet macaroni. You wait for a sentence to form, for someone to say something. When you wake, your muscles ache but your head is empty.

 

*  *  *

 

2.

The tape, labeled December 1988, begins in the middle of my mother's story.

She'd told it to me before – her  “true abortion story” – though it's nothing like either of mine. I can't remember when she first told me, or why. Maybe she was trying to make me feel better, assuring me that I was meant to be – or just sharing what little part of my experiences she could. I imagine her tucking a string of hair behind my ear as she spoke, inspecting my face with that undimmed beam, delighted but perplexed by the creature she'd brought forth. It was probably part of the long conversations I only half heard about my own pregnancies, one in March and one in November, in 1973. In between, I turned 17. Maybe she was trying to tell me she loved me before I was born – and now – no matter what. But you don't always hear what your parents are trying to tell you. What stuck from the revelation about my own beginnings was a sense of doubt, that I'd cheated fate, that I'd snuck in through a back door that someone had left open.

Her story was rooted in learning about her illness.

In 1955, just before she became pregnant with me, she was finally given a name for the confusing symptoms that had been stealing her motion and memory and the feeling in her legs, causing her to step into a scalding bath with one leg but not notice until the sensate limb registered a painful scorching. Multiple sclerosis was the name for the disease that would over time erode the functioning of her central nervous system. No one could say how long it would take or what would happen when. All they knew was that stress made it worse, and having three children in two years was stress enough.

Once it became clear she was carrying her fourth, her doctors spoke up – answering the prayers of relatives who'd worried at the strain, but hadn't been able to figure out how, or what, to say. She was advised to consider her family complete with three children and have a therapeutic abortion quickly.  The strain was too much, they said. As someone who worked outside the home and had already lost weeks to mysterious hospital stays, now that they understood the root of her problems, she needed to preserve what healthy years lay ahead. Her disease was unpredictable enough. Why add risk factors that could be avoided?

I was 32 the winter day I visited my parents in the retirement house they'd had built in a wooded acre lot and named Fairhaven. It was probably a few weeks before Christmas, which they preferred to spend alone. I didn't understand how they could live  in a corner of the Florida panhandle where oystermen out-numbered retirees but still prefer their fish frozen, from Mrs. Paul.

With my new Paul Prudhomme cookbook in tow, I came down to record them telling the family stories together. Not just to get the names and dates and addresses straight, but to ask for details like a reporter.

Intent on my shrimp jambalaya, I didn't switch on the tape recorder fast enough. By the time I did – Side 1 starts with the clank of silverware in bowls, tinkly Irish harp music in the background, random sniffles from the spicy stew – my mother is already remembering how she told the doctor there is nothing he can do to change her mind:

 

“And I said to him that the God who made this child would take care of me, and it.”

“And you didn't even know I was an 'it,' ” I deadpan, only later wondering at my blank voice. The tape only captures the sound of the meal so I don't remember if she smiled, or talked right over my lame joke.

“And Dr. Cassara took me in the hospital on the delivery date.  At 9 o' clock when we got there, it was pouring rain. And at 11 o'clock, you were born. You turned over. You were face down or face up, whatever – you righted yourself.

“You were actually dancing inside,” my father says between chews.

“I was face down and I was supposed to be face up?”

“Right – you righted yourself. And the nuns were so pleased they thought you should be called Caritas, because it was Trinity Sunday on the day you were born.”

“I thought it was Trinitas.” (I blanched, at 11, when she first told me that detail; I was mortified to think there'd been even a moment where they considered christening me something that would result in me sharing a nickname with Latin horn-player Trini Lopez.)

“No,” she says. “The nuns in the hospital wanted Caritas.”

“The nuns in the hospital may have had Caritas,” says Dad. “But Bessie (his aunt, the nun and family strong-arm) had Trinitas.”

“Ok,” she says. “And after all was over, and he examined me, he said I was better than I had been before. He said, medicine knows about when the child comes out, and something about what goes in. But we don't know what happens in a woman's body during pregnancy. And something has happened. So, that's . . .  you were my fifth child. (Actually, I'm her fourth, and listening to the tape now, I can't believe I didn't correct her. I don't blame her for losing track – when my father got mad, he'd have to run through the litany of names until he landed on the right one. When I finally speak, I'm  focused on the food, worried I've made it too spicy.)

“Can I ask you something?” I say.

“Yes.”

“Do you want the plain tomato sauce to cut that down with?”

“Not at all! Don't you dare cut my sauce.” Her speech is still clear – and hearing her voice so strong and close makes me weep for missing her. Which blends in with the sniffles on the tape, as we all eat and chew, bang forks and crinkle napkins, occasionally  stopping to wipe our noses.

Sniffles.

“Mmmm,” she says. “Oh, it's good, Eileen. Mmmm.”

She picks up her story.

“In the seventh month, you know I had to go to the hospital in an ambulance.”

“In my seventh month?”

“Mm-hmm. But I didn't want the other little children – Maura, Dee Dee and Susan – to be frightened. So I called my neighbor and asked her if she would mind them so they wouldn't see their mother being taken out on a stretcher – they were little – until Daddy came home from work. He [the doctor] kept me in the hospital for several days, until the bleeding stopped.

“There was a partial placenta previa, was what it was. But nothing else went wrong. Everything else went just absolutely sublimely. And then, what a baby we got!

“And he said” – she looks at my father – “I don't care what anybody says, THIS one is going to be Eileen. Of course, he also put Moira on it.”

“It's a good thing,” I say, terribly fond of my middle name at last, having wished it were plainer when I was little. “Where'd you get that off of?” I ask, with a mouth full of shrimp and rice.

“It's a Greek word,” she says. “Means fate. He knows Greek.” She says this last bit with a smile, because we both know this is a fact no one escapes for long.

“Where'd you get that?” I ask my father. “That book?” I always wondered why we had a book on our shelf with my middle name on it, in large red letters.

“No,” he says, crunching on an end of baguette. “It's supposed to be the Irish version for Mary.”

“It's both though,” I say, pleased to have such duality built in to the middle of the words that equal Me.

“But Moira in Greek means fate,” he says. “Fatus.”

“I got the best of both worlds,” I say.

“So that is my true abortion story,” my mother says. “That's why I feel it must always be the woman's decision. If a doctor told me – or a judge said – you must have, or you cannot have this baby . . .  it's a divine right. It has to be the mother's decision.

“You know where fate comes from?” My father's still deep in etymology.

“He'll tell you,” my mother says.

“To speak: Farro, farri, fatus est.”

“Huh,” I say.

“So,” he says, “it's a divine decree. Therefore, the fates. Got it?

“Got it. This is making you sniffle,” I say. “You know why?”

“I'm sniffling because you're sniffling,” he says.

“You were such a beautiful baby,” my mother says.

“Sorry at how disgusting it is,” he laughs. Their voices overlap, two different lines of one song.

“They were saying it,” she says, “because I was perfectly conscious, I was not under the ether. I could hear everything they were saying: 'she was so beautiful, she's such a beautiful baby.' ”

“You know you're being bugged over there,” my father points to the tape recorder with one hand while swiping a napkin over his beard with the other. “Every word you say is being taken down by the FBI and the CIA.”

“Aunt Stella used to call you her sweetness,” my mother says of the older nursemaid I imagine remembering – wasn't she the one who sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” into my ear while rocking me to sleep? – but we have no photos. Her daughter came to work for us after she retired. There's one foggy picture of us with her, but she didn't last as long nor make half the impression her mother did.

'My sweetness,' ” Mom wants to make sure I have the right words, the ones Aunt Stella actually used. “She used to lather you with baby oil.”

“That's right,” Dad says. “She'd lather you up like a pig's hind bottom.”

We sniffle. The shrimp is perfect.

 

*   *   *

3.

When I tried not to think about my unborn children, not remember or imagine, it hurt more.

The first time someone suggested I really try to picture them, I couldn't find faces. I was stretched out on a massage table at a shaman's house. I'd met her at a sweat lodge a friend dragged me to. Balancing your energy, she said, was like getting a massage on the inside.

As she waved her hands over my arms and legs, tracing meridians and smoothing out pathways, I felt strange sensations of heat. She hovered over my middle, said she felt knotted energy in my uterus. Tears leaked down my cheeks. As I provided her with particulars – three pregnancies but only one live birth – I kept my eyes closed.

“Where do you feel them?” she asked.

“Out there, somewhere, floating around.”

“Let's bring them back to your heart,” she said. “Think of a place you always felt safe.” The sloped attic bedroom of my teen years swooped into view.

“What or who would you like to put in there with them?”

The face of my father, who'd recently died, appeared. Just months before he left for good, he'd labored to convince me that they had only been collections of cells, not yet formed, potential lives. He was shocked, 40 years later, at the sharpness of my grief.

It had been for the best, he argued. You have nothing to feel guilty for.

Easy for you to say, I told him. You haven't been going to confession to different priests for years, hoping one of them could say the words that would switch off the sear. I don't remember how much I told him about praying to the spirits themselves for forgiveness, sending love, never forgetting. That was the only kind of relationship I could have with them. As my first two – whatever it turns out they actually were – I would never turn my back on them, pretend they hadn't been part of me. They were the first spirits who lived in me, no matter how briefly. They were full siblings to my beautiful son, whom I'd managed to bring forth into this world to be raised by another family. He's gone on to make two new lives from his, so the line of lives I carried unfurls still.

He's here because they aren't. My week with him in June 1976 is more than I got with them, and I thank them still for helping me survive that. If I hadn't sleep-walked through losing them in 1973, I wouldn't have known how deeply I wanted him to live.

Now that Dad is whereever they are, I imagine he understands.

“What else is in the room?” the healer asks.

I see a magical crib that's more than just a place to sleep, a Frank Lloyd Wright construction for smart babies, all dark wood and stained glass and room to grow. Comfort and beauty and space.

I saw the backs of their heads, his dark curls and her lighter, fine hair. Barely a year apart. In my imagination, she was just sitting up and he wasn't yet trying to climb out of the fancy crib. I could see my father's face, all soft and intrigued to meet these grandchildren that were now his to watch over and delight with the kinds of nonsense endearments he showered over my baby sister, their sixth and final child. Wee Firkins was my favorite, so I drag that name out and hear it, in his voice.

I don't know why I gave them names – Gus and Lis – or why I felt he was a boy and she a girl. Somehow, naming them felt like respecting who they were, whether it was a life or a possibility or just smoke. They were part of me yet apart from me. Naming them helped me hold on, then kept me pinned with a specific grief.

Once I had the images clear in my mind, she said something about pulling them into my heart. Did she have me make a fist? Move them, as if my hand were a computer mouse and they were images on a screen that I was moving from desktop to folder?

I felt a warmth traveling – and a fullness in my chest.

 

Seven years later, I went to see a medium.

Not for anything in particular, just because I'd read her book and found it intriguing; two friends believed she was “the real thing.”

When I arrive at the medium's bright office loft, I take pains to say as little as possible – my name, but not what I do for a living – because I'm here to listen.

Halfway through the session, she tells me my mother has joined us. She wants to tell me she's sorry, the medium says, for not “recognizing my needs” when I was growing up, for focusing too much on herself. She's filled with regret and wants me to hear that from her.

The medium sits with her legs tucked up under her, writing as fast as she can on a stack of white paper. Sometimes she looks up or around the room, but mostly she looks down as she scribbles. At some point, she asks if I have any questions for my mother.

“Is there anything she wants me to pass along to her other children,” I say, “or grandchildren?”

She speaks as she transcribes what she says are my mother's words. “My grandchildren! I love them all and they are not children. Your babies, no matter how old, they are still babies.”

Then she looks up from the page, squints her eyes, as if she's trying to read something just out of view.

“I see two parallel lines,” she says, “standing next to each other. Like an equal sign on its side. . . .”

I listen and watch the questions in her face.

 “Wait,” she says. “You don't have 11 children, do you?”

I want to help clarify – but I don't want to spill the story.

“I had three pregnancies,” I say, “and one birth.”

She returns to speaking as my mother.

“You are right to know you have three children. It was not one persistent child, and the two I have are wonderful beings – they are my teachers! It's true. They straightened me out. You had two boys and one girl.

“The one that made it through is fine, the two who did not, have something to say.

“Go ahead,” she says. “This is a male who goes by the name of Nathan – his past life name.

“ 'Hello Mom. Are you listening? I've waited a long time to talk. I want to say I love you. I am not hurt. I completely understand. Timing is everything. But it was worth a shot. You hurt more than I do. By the way, you didn't kill me.' ”

The medium stops and looks at me, as if she's interrupting. “You didn't think that, did you?”

I nod, my face wet.

Nathan resumes.

“You didn't. I was not in the belly. I knew your options so I hung around the outside, waited for you and you had decided – so I left you. That is how it was for me. Oh, I didn't choose another mom because I wanted to wait for you. Is that cool? I'll wait for you to come back here – or I'll get in as a grandson.”

Did the other one want to speak too? I ask.

The medium waits. Smiles, shakes her head. “She's quiet,” she says. “Shy. She says 'I love you too.' ”

It's pitiful how relieved I feel, while doubting all of it. How's it possible for her to know what that would mean for me to hear? An equal sign on its side? What are the odds of making that kind of guess? Do I have it written all over my face? Is she just an astute student of human – particularly female – nature? Do only women in pain come to her, and are the reasons for our pain so predictable? Am I in a demographic now, coming of age as she can plainly tell, in the '70s, when the world was such a different place? Do most women have several interrupted pregnancies under their belts they never talk about?

I will ask her none of those questions, still uncertain she's given me answers. As I walk out to the car, all I know is she gave me something.

Later, I consider how my burning need to know for sure – to understand, to diagram and take apart and illuminate every dark place – has dimmed. It's not that I've lost my curiosity: It's as strong as ever. I just don't believe, as I once did, that every question has an answer.

Every year here makes me more grateful for mystery. It's a dark, velvet cloak with millions of folds, in which possibility never dies.