Etta was a reluctant mother. She had just gotten married and was applying for graduate school all December. She spent days at the Fed Ex Kinko’s, using their printers to make endless copies of applications and package them up, when she began to feel under the weather. And then the tell tale sign: a missed period. After a week she took a pregnancy test, positive, and she and her husband cried together, then went to see a movie, Spanglish. So that first winter of marriage was spent curled up on the mattress of a couch dealing with morning sickness, praying for a miscarriage but then hoping maybe not for a miscarriage, and getting rejection letter after rejection letter. Except for one school. University of South Florida. But they really couldn’t afford to give up their jobs and move to Tampa, especially with a baby due in September, when the program would begin.
So Etta and Eric moved to a tiny garden apartment in a cheap neighborhood outside of Chicago. She had the baby and continued to work, part time from home. One thing led to another, cursed be those conservative Catholic friends they had made after college and her mother telling her she was quite sure she was very fertile and her husband’s sister once wishing him a million daughters to teach him how to treat women better, and they had four daughters in a row. Over the decade, she reluctantly accepted her life. She found she loved caring for her babies and watching as they grew, and she discovered that she was good at it, very good. She enjoyed the mundane simplicity it required, the boring routines and predictable days, and she shed her previous dreams and aspirations, hoping they might return. She even got into a local graduate program in a more practical field and got her master’s degree with a patchwork of childcare from friends.
“Are you going to try for a boy?” bold friends asked.
“We’re going to try for another girl,” Eric would tell them with irritation, though Etta knew he was squelching his inner wish for a son. She, on the other hand, was not so sure. It was with reluctance, once again, that she discovered her fifth pregnancy, what seemed like a miracle biologically.
They had learned it was necessary to find out the baby’s sex beforehand to avoid any disappointment on the day of the birth, and this time, Etta lying on their couch in their cozy house, with a home visiting ultrasound technician, they learned the news. “Do you want to know?” he asked, the man with the computer in a suitcase.
“Yes.” Deep breaths.
“It’s a boy. You can see right here.” He pointed at something she was sure she had seen on the other ultrasounds.
There were strange signs, bizarre worries, in the months before he was born. They found their last urban hen mauled and dead, a beautiful snowy white creature, the others killed a couple weeks earlier by an opossum or raccoon, on the October day he arrived. Stephen Andrew they named him when he was born early that evening in an inflatable tub in the living room, after her husband’s father and his best friend, who had died in a car accident on the way home from their wedding.
And then there were more omens, bad dreams, strange stories, but she never imagined what would happen next. Christmas was coming. Stephen was two months old. She was making Christmas cookies with the oldest daughter in the kitchen while he napped. The orange standing mixer was stirring up some frosting. And then it stopped. Imagining there was all the time in the world, she called Kitchenaid. They told her she would need to find a local electrician. So she gave up and stirred the white creamy icing by hand, but a strange thought slipped through her mind. “What if I’m making cookies while my baby is dying?”
They had checked on him several times over the afternoon. She sent her daughter up, 10 years old, once again, at about 5:30 in the early winter darkness, after Eric was home. “Can you check on him again?”
And then a few minutes later: “Mom, Stephen’s face looks weird!” came the desperate cry from up the stairs. He had already stopped breathing. Eric called 911. Etta tried to resuscitate him, slamming the bedroom door closed so the girls couldn’t see. The police man with the kind face took him away, and they went downstairs. Eric vomited, heaving over and over. Etta fell on the floor, saying things that should not be said in front of children.
Policeman came, firemen and detectives too, searching the house for who knows what, needing them to reenact the sequence of events. “Will you take me to prison? I killed my baby,” Etta wailed, over and over. She didn’t care who heard her.
The Chicago detective was intimidating, big. “No, you didn’t kill him. You need to pull yourself together and take care of your children. My wife puts my son down for his naps every day just like this. You did nothing wrong.”
That night the six of them slept in the King sized bed, the very bed he had been sleeping, packed in a row. Etta thought they would need to move the house, the town, the city, immediately to escape the memories and judgement. She dreamed all night of putting him down for the nap differently, how the outcome could have been different. They woke the next day in a fog that would last a long time. The children did not go to school, but watched movies on the couch, listless all day. Eric waited for his father to arrive from New England before he went to the funeral home. Etta sat around, talking to visitors. She called the midwife to tell her, the pediatrician too. She welcomed the woman from child services into their home and reenacted the whole story again as the woman took photographs, answering endless questions about how she parented her children and if she abused them.
And then there were the questions. “How did he die?” asked a kind neighbor. “I never heard.”
“SIDS,” Etta said, though she believed that it was really her fault. “Have you heard of it?” The woman had not, so Etta explained to her the unbelievable concept that some babies supposedly die as they sleep. It sounded like a joke, and the woman was unconvinced.
A child came over, another neighbor. Etta sat listlessly while they played, until she overheard the girl say, “So Stephen died because his face was pressed into a pillow.” No, no, that’s not the story, Etta wanted to say. But how could she defend herself?
Still she kept on going, taking care of the children, ignoring the dream of crossing a street too early in front of a car, answering the innocent questions, reassuring them that they were not also going to die in their sleep. No, he could not come back in a package in the mail. No, they could not all shoot themselves with great grandpa’s rifle so they could go be with him. No, no, no.
Now it has been three years. Etta has another baby, another son. Is he a replacement? No. But he helps with the pain. He distracts them all. The hardest part, that part that requires courage, is forgiving herself, over and over again. And facing other mothers. And seeing the beauty of each day, the sun through the leaves or the bare winter black skeletons of trees or the geese flying south for the winter or the Maple in front of the house that turned orange during his short life, and not hating herself and the hand she was dealt. The hard part is being present, with the beauty and the pain and the delight of each moment with this new child, seeing in him the likeness of his brother,carrying the truth that he would not exist if the other did, and allowing him to sleep at all. The hard part is knowing that life goes on, more pain to come, and still opening her heart to the beauty of her children and still enjoying the stunning, epic beauty of a blue fall sky rimmed by the rainbow of trees.