Saturday October 10, 1987 at 6:00 PM.
I remember primarily two things about my first time in the hospital. First and foremost, I recall the insistent, albeit well-meaning nurse who was trying to shove a dead baby into my arms. She smiled forcefully while attempting to push her agenda, “Go on sweetheart, hold her, look at her. It’s the only chance you’ll have and if you don’t you’ll regret it.”
What did she know of my regret? Was she the one that had just given birth to a dead baby twenty-seven weeks into her pregnancy? Had she been forced to name it; the mandate of some California state law that made me curse the lawmakers, all of whom I imagined, in a rare fit of feminism, were men?
Second, I remember the agonizing realization that I wasn’t going to be a mother after all. I went in pregnant, and I was going to leave empty-handed in maternity jeans. My miserably bloated body had expelled her as easily as a splinter. I felt uncharacteristically small perched in the sterile bed enveloped in an ugly gown with ducklings and baby chicks on it, knees knocking together with the shivers. A pale yellow and white crocheted blanket from the Orange County Women’s League, meant to be a celebratory keepsake, hung limply across my now barren stomach. Just a few minutes before, Madelyn had been wrapped in it. I regarded it with the welcome I would reserve for a rabid dog. Picking up the blanket between my thumb and pointer finger as if it contained a deadly virus, I flung it into the trashcan next to me. Turning my head, I whispered to my equally dazed husband, “Let’s get out of here.”
“Sue, you have to sign your release paperwork first.”
“I want to go home.” And with that I stood up, wobbled slightly, grabbed my pants and pulled them on as tears streamed down my face.
My sons Max and Jake were ten and eleven when they found out they’d had a sister. Truthfully it had never crossed my mind to tell them. Shortly after losing her I got pregnant again. I went from coping with the loss of my daughter by shoving Oreos in my mouth and bursting into tears every time I spied a child under four years of age, to being an exhausted mother of two young sons born a year and a day apart from each other. I was taken aback while on the way home from seeing the movie My Dog Skip, Jake asked out of nowhere, “Dad told me we had a sister. Her name was Madelyn. Is that true?”
Of course, Madelyn mattered, but I could sooner recite The Gettysburg Address from memory before I could recall the date of that heart-wrenching hospital visit. This was the way we operated in my family. There wasn’t a situation in the world that new shoes or Brach’s chocolate double-dipped peanuts couldn’t solve.
When I was five I lived in Canoga Park, California. We had a little ranch house with a swing set in the back and a Cocker Spaniel named Cookie. My prized possessions included pink genie slippers and a pink polyester quilted robe. I am fairly certain the garment was made from the most flammable material on earth, and would have spontaneously combusted had I strolled outside in the Southern California sunshine in anything above sixty-degree temperatures. I attended Oakdale Avenue School, where Mrs. Gonzales taught our class the alphabet and how to mix paste for papier-mache. The boys outnumbered the girls, all of whom looked like extras from the set of Gidget, thirteen to six. Mrs. Gonzales and I were the token diversities.
The highlight of my day occurred when my older sister, Chelle, walked me to the donut shop before the first bell. I always picked the same pastry – a fluffy glazed donut. The sugar was barely set at that time of the morning; it pooled on the cool wax paper the baker used to remove the confection from the display case. My favorite subject was reading. I devoured Fun with Dick and Jane books and was endlessly fascinated with the simple stories, quickly learning the words being formed when strung together from the letters of the alphabet. Soon enough I moved on to Ramona, Little Women, and finally Margaret talking to God.
One afternoon in March, Chelle and I returned home from school. The screen door slammed behind us as we entered the house. “Moooommm, Sue bit the fingers off my Barbie and my Skipper,” she called out.
We found her seated in the living room, four huge boxes piled at her feet. “I don’t want to hear it now, Rochelle.” She accompanied this statement with “the look” and my sister knew better than to pursue my impending punishment any further. Then she forced her face to brighten. “Look what I have for you, girls. New snow boots! Tomorrow night, we’re going next door to Ronnie’s for a pool party. Then early in the morning, we’re going to Minneapolis on an airplane.” Mom’s voice trailed off. She took a deep breath.
“You know that’s where Auntie Butsie and Uncle Ted live. And Ade, Jason and Dyan, too. Remember when Ade did your hair in Shirley Temple curls, Sue?” She reached over and grabbed a box, handing me a gleaming brown boot with furry insides. It fit perfectly. “You’re going to go to school there. Won’t that be fun?” she continued.
“Is Margi coming?” I asked, not sure if I wanted my younger sister to accompany us or not.
“Of course, Margi’s coming. She’ll be going with me to the nursery school at the Jewish Community Center. They’ve hired me to be a teacher.”
The divorce of my mother and biological father, whom I would neither see nor hear from again for eleven years, was boiled down to a party, plane ride, pretty hair, and beautiful boots.
It isn’t typical to become agoraphobic in your 50s. When first I noticed small cracks of anxiety seeping into my daily life, not surprisingly, I brushed them off. When agoraphobia came to me, it smacked me right in the face. I lost my eyesight for four years because I was too afraid to have a cataract removed. I missed Jake’s graduation from college. Anxiety, now a constant, buzzing companion, will never completely vanish. Like an addict, it renders me in a perpetual state of recovery. It is always lying in wait. But, it can be managed.
Agoraphobia woke me up. No longer am I content to sit on the sidelines and do what is expected of me. Agoraphobia protected me. It taught me that I could trust myself. It schooled me; I started to pay attention to what is truly, deeply important in life. It lets me celebrate my victories. There was a day not long ago I drove the freeway for the first time in four years, all the way across town. I cried hysterically at the bigness of it all. The tears turned into guffaws. If a police officer had been around, I'm sure I would have been pulled over on a 5150. He'd lock me up and throw away that key.
I grew up in a household of bashert. While Nike says, Just Do It, I was taught to just get through it. That, mixed with the optimism of what would be, would be. Doris Day style. I’ve carried contrary sides in equal measure my whole life: oak on one hand, glass on the other, hiding from the truth here, completely authentic there. One thing is certain; I always figure it out for the best. Not only do I come out the other side, I come out the other side better.
I'd never thought I'd want to get married. Then when I did, I never thought I'd want children. Then when I did, I knew I wanted only two. And so, it is with absolute certainty that I answered Jake that day long ago, “Yep, it’s true Jakey, I lost a little girl before I had you and Max. Guess she just wasn’t meant to be.”