These are Not My Hands

By CHRISTINA LOVIN

They must have struggled. Any healthy living being struggles as the breath in the body is replaced with suffocating fluid. The mother’s strength and determination were incredible in her grisly, yet methodical labor. Just as the uncontrollable contractions of her uterus had expelled them from her body, the unbridled spasms of her dementia discharged them from her presence. The private horror of those minutes, as time resolutely advanced and the life of a small human ceased, followed by another, and another, one more, then yet another (the last), is unimaginable to any sane person. This is not my life. This is not my house. These are not my hands. These are not my children. I want so much to believe that these were the voices, the thoughts of the quiet Texas housewife as the hand with which she had nurtured bore down on the struggling bodies of her five children—plunging them one by one under the water (was it warm or cold?) in the very tub where their small forms had been gently washed so many happy bedtimes before.

The dispassionate face, small and heart-shaped behind the mane of dark hair that washes in waves around the thin, rounded shoulders: I have seen Andrea Yates. Her blank eyes held only the reflected glares of the courthouse lighting and flashing cameras. Like the others—reporters, police, attorneys—who studied the calm, steady gaze, I could see only a void, the shape of what was missing, what was lost. The Yates family photographs (much like those found on millions of mantels or bookshelves across the country)—a totem pole of gap-toothed boys, another frame filled with the wrenching, gummy smile of an infant daughter—accompanied news broadcasts of the horror with increasing regularity, as if the faces of the dead become public domain, along with every aspect of the family’s life together, every detail that can be displayed scrutiny: The modest house, its image wavering behind the heat of Texas summer asphalt. The four boys, two dressed in brown paper grocery sacks, decorated as ersatz Native Americans. The shocked and confused neighborhood, the residents clinging to one another as the candles they hold burned low in the humid night. Pallbearers carrying the flower-covered caskets that are heart-breakingly small. The father, still in shock, but stunned by a truth he cannot yet let himself believe: they are gone. All of them are gone, leaving him as the only real witness to the weeks and years leading up to these days of loss.

I wept when I read that prosecutors were considering the death penalty in Andrea Yates’s trial for murdering her five children. The tears welled from some part of me that had not been probed for decades. Andrea Yates is not the only woman whose face, along with those of her dead children, is familiar to me. There have been others, but none so impassive and stoic in her madness. Perhaps my tears were for myself. I looked into the face of a woman who had watched as the final few bubbles of air escaped the lips of her last living child and rose to the surface of the cleansing water. I saw that those eyes held the depths of an abandoned quarry—clear, but unfathomable. Perilous. As well I know.

 ***

My first pregnancy had been full of excitement, anticipation and the expected morning sickness. I had been married for 18 months when a lingering episode of stomach flu turned out to be something more persistent. I had wanted to get pregnant even sooner, but time and financial constraints had made the consideration of having a baby out of the question. By the time it was confirmed that I was carrying a child, my husband was six months into his first position as an eighth grade English teacher in a small Ohio town. We had weathered the usual newlywed storms and felt comfortable in the newly constructed duplex we had secured through a friend. Even on a schoolteacher’s salary, this baby would be welcomed and cherished, whoever he or she would be.

My labor was long and arduous, but with the help of some manipulation and the injection of contraction-strengthening drugs, my daughter emerged from my body. She was puffy and bloody, but with a full head of dark hair and eyes of some improbable shade of blue (mine are green, her father’s, brown). The low moans of the night, the screams I could not even recognize as my own and the pain—all were forgotten as I looked down at the strikingly familiar stranger at my breast.

She was not an ordinary baby. I say this not from a mother’s pride; it is a fact. She was fat and happy from birth. At one week, she no longer woke up for that bane of new parents’ existence—the two o’clock feeding. By the time she was six weeks old, she would sleep for 12 hours, from six in the evening until six in the morning. She slept all morning. She slept all afternoon. She grew chubby, alert and healthy.

I took her on walks, at first in the European-style baby buggy with high wheels and Mary Poppins-style hood, then later in a sleek, modern stroller. I loved her fiercely, and any disquiet I felt—the frustration and deep unhappiness—had no reasonable place in what was an otherwise idyllic domestic life. Guilt hounded me. I should be happy. I wasn’t. I tried to be a good mother, but some nagging sensation of being out of balance persisted daily. When my husband took a teaching job in the same town where I had grown up, I had my mother nearby to help and advise me. Friends I had known all my life were close by, my marriage seemed sound, and my child was beautiful and healthy. Yet the nagging sense of being on the verge of losing control was always there—palpable, but undefined. What was wrong with me?

Those feelings of dread and despair were beginning to dissipate by the time my daughter was a cheerful 1-year-old. She was a delight with an astounding intelligence. The ability to reason was still many months away, however. The daily battle of wills that would continue between us until she had grown into an adult was then merely in the reconnoiter stage. My days were filled with Dr. Seuss and Sesame Street, along with dozens of dolls. Magnetic alphabets covered the refrigerator door. I enjoyed teaching her; she enjoyed learning. She was bright and funny. I found that I was content, totally wrapped up in the life of this little girl. I wanted my life to continue, just like this, forever. Things change. They always do.

I had taken birth control pills for more than a year when I was first married. The small blue tablets always left me nauseated and lethargic, particularly at the beginning of each cycle.

Stories of women dying from brain hemorrhages had begun to appear in the media. The Sexual Revolution had already taken its first casualties. I would learn that my own body was not without damage from the high doses of hormones used in those early days of ubiquitous compacts of tablets hidden in the medicine cabinets or nightstands of hundreds of thousands of young married couples and single women. Following my daughter’s birth, I had opted for a less hormonally invasive method of birth control: contraceptive foam. When, shortly before our second Christmas as a family (Mom, Dad, Baby), I began feeling nauseated again, I laughingly said that if I were pregnant, the next child would be named Delfen. This was after I cried. I did not want another child. Not yet.

The prospective heat of a hot Illinois summer loomed ahead of me, with a due date in mid-July. And what a hot summer it turned out to be. July came and went in the heat of an exceptionally torrid Midwestern summer. Near the end of July, two weeks past my due date, I tripped and fell. Even the impact of a fall that rolled me over my huge belly, causing me to scrape my chin on concrete, had done nothing to hurry nature. By the beginning of the second week of August, more than three weeks past the scheduled due date, my obstetrician, who was planning a late summer vacation and didn’t want to deal with loose ends, decided to lend nature a hand. I was hospitalized the next day. By the afternoon of August 11, I was holding my second daughter. The labor had been swift, but again, drug-induced. The doctor had mercifully released the uterine fluid in an effort to shorten the intense labor brought on by medications. I had barely made it into the delivery room before my plump, fair girl was born. I was anxious to get home and be a family again, a family of four now.

We had begun to look for a home of our own in the early spring of that year, while I was still able to waddle around and look at houses. The house we had decided upon was small—a two-bedroom Cape Cod, with a finished attic—but attractive, well maintained and near the school where my husband taught. We would be closing on the house in late September, moving in on October 1. My second daughter, however, was brought home to the rental house in which we had been living for over a year, the house with no air conditioning and little insulation. The house that is now gone, burned to the ground with some unfortunate occupant years later. The house in which the real horror began.

This new baby was not at all the easy-care infant her sister had been. She was terribly skinny and did not eat well. She moaned softly much of the time, even in her sleep, as if she were having nightmares or was in pain. She woke every three hours or less, around the clock. She grew longer, but did not gain weight. My frustration and weariness grew with each day. I was sick from contracting a stubborn UTI while in the hospital (the gift of a careless CNA). My energy was not returning as quickly as it should have. I began to feel the return of the despondency that had troubled me after my first delivery. This time the postpartum demons that had merely tiptoed through my mind before were wearing boots. Heavy black books, with cleats. And they were not alone.

Memory is sometimes like a photo album: there are events imprinted on the receptors of the brain that are as vivid and frozen as the gaping ovoid mouth of Munch’s tortured soul as he stands, hands to his face, on a bridge (the bridge to what? from where? and who are the other people there?). My infant child, dead in my mother’s arms, illuminated by the bright light of the kitchen fixture above the white enamel table, the rigid jaw and bluish coloring of a corpse—I see it now if I allow myself to dwell on it, as distinctly and minutely drawn as Brueghel’s Triumph of Death. The details of such a moment, although unimportant, take on such a weight in one’s memory: the plastic glass of instant tea my mother had been drinking (the sticky teaspoon having dripped on the hard surface of the table next to the glass); the soft yellow of the blanket which held my lifeless daughter; the tiny disposable diaper she was wearing, one tab slightly unstuck and bent. I remember looking up and out the open door to the neighbor’s house to see if a light was on, if they had heard my mother’s scream: “She’s going to die right here in my arms!” My husband’s confusion and inability to speak, his only action to jump up and down and wave his arms. The disgust for him that welled inside me and remained from that moment on. The pale, cramped face of my daughter, her mouth clamped tightly shut. The small seconds that expanded as I witnessed it all.

We’ve heard stories of mothers driven by some unknown force and empowered by adrenaline lifting an overturned vehicle from their child. We marvel at the keen sense of purpose they must feel as they raise the metal and rubber from the wounded body of their loved one. I no longer marvel. I will never wonder again how I would react under extreme pressure. I know. I never want to be put to that test again. From some well of anger and sense of “not on my watch,” my own body and mind sick, the strength and resolve to my save my daughter filled me. I snatched the stiff body from my mother’s arms and held her up by her tiny feet.

“She’s not going to die now!” I cried, as I pressed my fingers between her locked jaws. The tiny tongue was firm and resistant as I pulled it from her throat and heard a small gasp as the breath was indrawn past my fingers and into her lungs. The color began returning to her grayish body, but the flesh beneath the fingernails was pale—the color of thin, skimmed milk.

On every other night of her brief life, the baby had been fed promptly at 10 p.m. and put back into her crib to sleep until 2 a.m. or earlier. My mother had been spending the nights with us, relieving me of this tiring chore, allowing me to sleep in an effort to speed my recovery from the bladder infection that I could not shake and could no longer take antibiotics to cure. This night, 10 p.m. had come and gone. The minute hand on the big kitchen clock was hovering near the half-hour when I had aroused the baby from a fitful sleep to feed her. Even before the ambulance that would take us first to a local hospital, then on to a major medical center 50 miles away, had arrived, I was aware that the scenes could have played out differently, although the players would have remained the same: my mother, my husband, me … and a baby found dead in her crib hours later.

“She won’t die today.” This, the only assurance given each morning for the first week. The gentle pediatrician and urologist who had become our allies in those weeks assured us that there was nothing we could have done to cause or prevent what had happened, although the real source of my daughter’s illness remained a mystery. The only known factor was that her ailments were related to kidney malfunction, both chronic and acute. The next weeks were those of despair, then hope, then despair once more. Two weeks after being admitted to the hospital, I was preparing to leave for my last trip to the hospital, this time to bring my baby home, but received a phone call that her temperature was again rising and she was, again, gravely ill. Resignation, rather than the fierce bravery I had felt on the night she nearly died, overcame me. It had been five weeks since my daughter was born. I was still sick from the infection I could not shake. I was still caring for a 2-year-old who I had to leave each day so that I could travel the 50 miles in hopes of catching the doctor on his morning rounds. I was exhausted, but I had not cried a single tear.

I still had not wept when, 10 days later, my baby, who had weighed seven pounds, two ounces at birth and was 19 inches long, was brought home for the second time. She had grown three inches, but weighed nearly a pound less than when she was born. I have seen photos of children in Ethiopia or Somalia. I have weighed that frailty in my arms—it is the lightness of bones without flesh. A bird-child—this was my daughter.

Just four days after bringing my precious child home, our family, now four of us again, moved to the new home we had purchased. Once the stress of the move was over, our daily life settled into a gentle rhythm like ocean tides, but with a dangerous, hidden undertow. The baby still woke every three hours and demanded a pacifier constantly, a habit she had developed while hospitalized and on intravenous feeding. The small scar on her ankle, where a tube had been inserted directly into her veins, was healing. The bare patch on her head, which had been shaved to provide an entry spot should the ankle cut not continue to hold the tubing, was growing back slowly. The scar that zigzagged halfway around her torso remained a shock each time I changed a diaper. A kidney biopsy, which on an adult would have been done with a needle, required an incision on an infant, but had revealed the cause of her illness: pyelonephritis, a treatable kidney disease of unknown origin. With medication and careful medical attention, she would survive and should thrive. We were again a family. I had not yet wept. I refused to realize that with each day my energy dwindled, my patience shortened, and I felt increasingly alone. Bereft.

When one takes a step off a cliff, it is a certainty that he or she will fall. The disquiet I had begun to feel after this child’s birth, the despair I had stoically endured, began to grow steadily, almost daily. I would fall asleep with the baby in my arms, dropping her bottle and not even waking to retrieve it until she cried out from hunger. My patience grew not only thin, it became riddled with holes, sheer as cheesecloth and less sturdy. I knew where I was going, but I didn’t know how to change direction, reverse or stop. I told no one of my fear, my pain, my terror. I refused to see a doctor, for fear of being torn from my family and locked in a gray room somewhere far away. I feared the cure more than the disease. My days were dread—the seconds ticked by in apprehension, the minutes moved in dragging dismay, the hours chilled by panic that some dark force was about to engulf us all.

Some days I would beg my husband not to go to school, to call in sick. Sobbing, I would hang on his arms to try and physically hold him from going out the door. What if I hurt one of the children? That question, never spoken aloud, was always in the back of my mind. What if I killed myself? The answer to that I knew. I am far too polite to cause such an onus to fall on my family. I simply could not do that to them. Hurting the children would be easier—it made sense in the deep, slowly filling pit that my mind had become. My husband never missed a day of work to protect me or our children. He needed his sleep for his job, so I continued to wake many times during the night, as mothers do. For we hear our child’s cries in the dark, even those times when the male animal has grown deaf with sleep. A 2 a.m. feeding, a lost pacifier, a wet diaper—I awoke for each and all. I did my duty, paying a higher and higher price each day. And so did my children.

I doubt that my daughters remember me standing in the doorway of their room, beating my head against the door frame until the pain would become blinding, screaming until they screamed with me, until we all would tire and I could sleep for a few precious minutes. I don’t remember the rest, or why or how I had even come to this. Perhaps it is just that memory is being kind, even though I don’t deserve that sort of generosity. The only image I have taken away from those weeks (or was it months?) is the body of my older daughter bouncing off the wall, back onto her mattress amid her favorite stuffed animals. I had thrown her. I can’t remember why. I turned and left the room, heedless of her wailing.

She was not hurt physically, but that little girl who had been so brave and independent became sullen and fearful. Understandable, but unforgivable for a mother to be the cause, rather than the cure. She grew into a confident young woman, strong and resilient, stronger than I, for she sought help to deal with the demons we encountered together, along with those she discovered alone. Her maturity and understanding of life have served her well in the roles of wife and mother. Her sister, also a wife and mother, grew from an infant at death’s door to a smart, beautiful woman. Her first child, a girl, has her mother’s strawberry-blonde hair, round cheeks, pouty Swedish lips, and her father’s gray Irish eyes and long legs. She is beautiful. Her baby brother is the vague image of his maternal grandfather, the husband and father who could not find the fortitude to help save his dying daughter’s life or his wife’s sinking sanity. I feel nothing for the man whose genes are evident in my first grandson, but remind me what was lost back then.

I did recover. The doctor I finally consulted prescribed Valium. I took one, slept it off on the sofa and threw the bottle of pills away. A month later, the same doctor prescribed amphetamines for the same symptoms. I never had that prescription filled. My pastor prayed for me, then offered some genuine help: a real live person to give me aid in ways that a desperate mother appreciates, but is hesitant to request: washing dishes, doing laundry, bringing meals, babysitting. I thank a God I no longer even trust to exist for His man, but I claim my recovery as my own. I was one of the fortunate ones; one of many who make it through the thick muck of some hormonal morass that for so long went unacknowledged by the medical community. They are the few who don’t emerge on the other side, on solid ground, for whom I weep now.

I can cry now for those who cannot cry—like I could not back then—whose tears have dried up under the searing heat of their psychoses, whose feet have become heavy with the increasing weight of what is their madness. My tears are for those who are so far removed from their own lives that they no longer recognize themselves or their children. The face of a once gentle mother from Texas haunts me, as she looks out from beneath lank, brown bangs, squinting against the glare of bright lights into the television camera. I am drawn to look deeply into those dark eyes. They are empty. And dry.

Christina Lovin is the author of What We Burned for Warmth, Little Fires and the forthcoming, A Stirring in the Dark. A multi-award-winning poet and two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, her work appears in numerous journals and anthologies and has been supported with funding from the Kentucky Arts Council, the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Elizabeth George Foundation.  


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