the inbetweens

This entry is part 18 of 19 in the series Memoir

For the last two years of my mother’s life, she got into the habit of disappearing. She’d go off and we wouldn’t hear from her for days, sometimes weeks. Then one day she’d come up the stairs and walk in the door, matter of fact. Somewhat sober. For a long time I didn’t know, and I didn’t care to know, where she went or why.

I thought of these periods as the inbetweens. Three or five or ten days of peace. We went to school, we came home, dad came home from the restaurant and fed us, I read or watched television for the next couple hours, and off to bed. For that period of time I should have been at ease, but in fact I could hardly focus on anything beyond the question of when she’d come back. I didn’t allow myself to believe that she wouldn’t, that it could over so easily. Sooner or later, when she couldn’t find anybody to buy her drinks or put her up, she’d be home. Dark rings under her eyes, hollow cheeked. So thin, I could pick her up. Or, I told myself many times, knock her down.

I never touched her. I felt the need sometimes like an itch deep in the bone, but I couldn’t touch her. I turned away, walked away, sometimes I ran.

In addition to the inbetweens, there were two or maybe three hospitalizations. I can’t remember if my father had her committed as a direct result of a suicide attempt — of which there were three or four — or if something else that tripped the wire that landed her in a psychiatric ward.

It’s hard to imagine, but alcoholism wasn’t even recognized as a disease until the mid-sixties. The American Medical Association adopted the concept in 1967, just three years before my mother’s death. There were few if any treatment facilities for alcoholism, because there were few or no treatments. Big cities might have a few halfway houses, but that’s as close as it came.

People like my mother were sent to jail, if they had caused enough damage, or to psychiatric hospitals because they had no idea what else to do with them. Apparently they hoped that alcoholism would respond to basket weaving and meditation.

The facility I remember best was a good hour’s bus ride away. It wasn’t uncommon to be sent on errands half way across the city on a bus. The instructions went like this: Get on the Irving Park, number 32, be sure to get a transfer. You don’t get a transfer, you won’t have enough money to get home. You hear me? So you get off Irving Park and Western, and then you get on the 133, goes all the way down to Stony Island. Get off at Oakley. You know your way from there, right?

So for four or five Sundays in a row, while our father was at work, we got on a bus and got off an hour later in an unfamiliar neighborhood, walked six blocks to a psychiatric hospital and signed ourselves in for a visit. I have absolutely no memory of talking to my mother during these visits. I remember the chair that I sat in, the nubby texture of the upholstery, the maroon and evergreen color scheme, the nurses’ station. I remember some of the patients. A boy of maybe eighteen who would pound his head against window glass until a nurse stopped him, an old lady who would burst into tears at regular intervals and then just go quiet for five minutes before she started again.

I enclosed myself in a bubble during those visits, and I refused to be drawn out. My sister went around dutifully and saw the art therapy room, the music room, my mother’s little room, but I stayed where I was.

Then they called us in for a family therapy session. A windowless conference room, doctors, social workers. The adults sat across from each other. My father was brusque, exasperated, desperate. My mother, perfectly sober, sat straight in her chair. Her answers to their questions were calm, agreeable in tone. Yes, she said, she could remain sober this time. She was sincere; she had got over the worst of it, and she would never drink again.

Eventually the doctor seemed to remember us at the far end of the table. He looked right at me and asked me how I felt about my mother’s drinking. And I laughed.

Sitting there listening to my mother lie — because I knew she was lying, and that she’d be drinking within an hour of getting out — I had to wonder that they were so unable to see what I could see. These were supposed to be intelligent people but they couldn’t hear what she was really saying. Let me out of here. Let me out of here right now. Let me go. I’ll say whatever you want to hear, just let me go.

So the doctor’s question caught me off guard and in that awkward moment, I laughed. I saw my mother jerk as if I had slapped her, but the doctor was already turning to her. He said, your kids seem to be doing okay.

Beside me my little sister sat utterly still, her eyes fixed on our mother.

Your children kids daughters little girls seem to be doing okay.

That afternoon she was released, and within a few days she was gone again. That time it was almost two weeks. I came home from school and she was sitting at the kitchen table, smoking, with a glass of orange juice and vodka in her hand.

After a long moment of silence she got up, straightened her clothes as if she were about to make a presentation, and announced that I had to come with her to run an errand.

I was twelve years old, a fifth grader in Sister Peter Joseph’s class. A diligent student, I volunteered for anything that would keep me at school for as long as possible. I adored the sisters for their calm certainty, their absolute confidence in the goodness that came of routine and organization, their kindness. From the sisters I learned about working toward a goal, about moderation and restraint, about modesty and obedience. From my father I learned to never be late, to never turn a bum away without something to eat, to ask questions, to be respectful. But no one had taught me how to say no to my mother. I didn’t know how to make the word come out of my mouth.

We took the bus to a seedy neighborhood, and then climbed a flight of stairs to an apartment over a corner tavern. The room was very light, bars of sunlight coming through the venetian shades to made patterns on the floor. There was an unmade bed that smelled of sweat and booze from across the room. The floor and every surface was crowded with newspapers, empty bottles, filled ashtrays, clothing, take-out boxes.

My mother haded me a paper bag, and I started sorting through the mess. When I found something of hers — a blouse, a pair of nylons, a hairbrush I recognized, I put it in the bag. I did not touch the men’s clothes, but I remember still what was there. A few shirts, some underwear, a pair of corduroy pants. My mother stood at the window and watched the traffic, her own paperbag tucked under one arm.

On the way home she sat looking straight ahead, her hands folded in her lap, the paper bags at her feet. Not a word was spoke on the whole long bus ride.

Over the years I have thought of that ride home far more often than I wanted to. The memory rises up sometimes when I am very tired or weighed down with worry. The same questions always come with those images: Why she chose that particular way to punish me, what she meant to happen next, if she counted on my fear of my father’s temper to keep me from telling him about that outing, those were the questions that occupied me, and still occupy me today.

On a spring day with the remnants of winter snow like lumps of coal on the curbs and a chill in the air, my mother had declared open war. Why, I will never really know, and I hope never to understand.

25 years ago just before Halloween

This entry is part 19 of 19 in the series Memoir

There’s a story on the Huffington Post today focusing on miscarriage: Six Women Remember the Babies They Lost. The timing on this story is particularly relevant to me, and the topic is personal.

Twenty-five years ago this weekend I had the first of four miscarriages. At that time there was even less support than there is today for women suffering such losses. I remember trying to talk to people — friends, family members — and being gently told to put it behind me. You’ll have another baby. Focus on the positive. The most common response I got was awkward silence.  I needed to tell someone what had happened, but no one wanted to hear. There were no support groups. There was very little in print. There was no internet and no way to find women who were as isolated as I was in my anger and sorrow.

It seems that finally this may be changing a little, and so I’m taking this chance. Here’s the story I didn’t get to tell.

This was my second pregnancy, planned so that the new baby would come just about the time our daughter turned three in the spring of 1992. I got pregnant as soon as we started trying, and I remember thinking that maybe this time it wouldn’t be so traumatic. My first pregnancy was complicated when I went into labor at twenty six weeks and spent the next two and a half months on bed rest, rousing every three hours to take a medication to keep my contractions down to one every half hour, and shuttling back and forth between home and triage at the labor and delivery unit of the University of Michigan’s Women’s Hospital. In the end we went home with a healthy baby. Going into my second pregnancy I told myself I could handle it if it happened again.

At eleven weeks I got out of the shower and noticed an odd rash on my side. I drew a picture of it because it made me anxious.  

At twelve weeks the rash had almost faded away, and I began spotting. Two days later an ultrasound confirmed that the baby’s heart had stopped beating. They sent me home to wait, because they believed medical intervention was not strictly necessary. The standard line was something like your body will take care of it.

I asked about the rash, and showed them the drawing. They shrugged. No way to know, they said.  Nobody seemed to think it was relevant to the miscarriage. 

Halloween, age two
Halloween, age two

I did as I was told. This was right before Halloween, so for two days I waited and tried to function normally. A  two year old who was excited about her costume and trick-or-treating was a pretty good distraction, but not good enough. We went on a hayride and got a pumpkin. It was very cold in Michigan, so when I got teary I could put my gloves to good use and get rid of the evidence. At night I worked on an elf costume because I couldn’t sleep anyway. She came to sit on my lap in the morning and patted my face. She said, “Kiss it better?” 

hannah-hatI said, “Yes please,” and she kissed my cheek and went away to admire her costume. There was a Hannah Andersen cap — too costly, really, but I got it and added pointy felt ears and a pompom and bells. Very solemnly she considered this thing I had labored over for so long, and then politely declined to wear it. I remember thinking, I should be disappointed. But I couldn’t figure out how to feel anyway about it at all.  

Two days after Halloween I was still spotting, heavily.  I called my midwife and said I couldn’t stand it anymore, I wanted a D&C.  She promised she would talk to the doctor on call at the hospital.

A short while later that doctor called me back. She said, It would be better to let your body take care of it. I was hardly coherent at that point but I was beyond caring what kind of impression I made. Finally  she said, Oh, I get it. You want a D&C for your mind.  They scheduled a D&C for two days later. No, they couldn’t get me in any sooner. Did I want some medication to help me sleep in the meantime? I did not.

Then the next day, very suddenly, my body did in fact take care of it, and left us with a small being curled into itself, maybe two inches long, that I managed to catch before it landed in the toilet. I sat there for a long time considering. Then I went out and showed my husband, and he cried, and I cried, and in the end we buried that would-be child in the back yard of the house we were renting and I remember thinking, how will we ever move away? 

Six months later I had another miscarriage, this time at nine weeks.  I started treatment with a reproductive endocrinologist who specialized in secondary infertility. He looked at my drawing of the rash and shrugged. 

I had four miscarriages in all, and then I stopped trying. There were other treatments that might have worked, but I couldn’t face any more losses.  At home I sat down with a very serious four year old and told her that I couldn’t have any more children. She was very angry, and insisted I go back to the doctor and tell him he was wrong. As much as we tried to protect her from the trauma of the miscarriages and infertility treatment, she absorbed a great deal of it with repercussions that are still felt today. 

roseaOnce the internet became more user friendly for medical research, I started searching dermatology websites and databases for photos of my rash. It wasn’t until 2008 that I found what I was looking for in a medical journal article that came out that year:

Drago, F. et al. Pregnancy outcome in patients with pityriasis rosea. J Am Acad Dermatol 2008 May; 58:S78.

I had an outbreak of Pityriasis Rosea very early in my second pregnancy. The 2008 study:

demonstrates a high risk for fetal loss and for neonatal weakness and hypotonia in pregnancies affected by PR during the early weeks of gestation. Clinicians should alert women who develop PR in pregnancy about the potential risks of this presumed viral infection, although there is no known effective intervention to prevent these complications. Nor is there a clear way to avoid this illness. The detailed study of the miscarried fetus suggested reactivation of HHV-6, rather than primary infection, based on observation in the mother of specific serum IgG antibody but no IgM antibody.

For weeks after I found this — and similar articles — I told my husband, but otherwise kept it to myself. I wasn’t in therapy at the time, but I doubt I would have brought it up to a therapist even if I had been seeing one.  Nobody wanted to talk to me about the miscarriages when they happened, I told myself. They probably forgot all about them. So why raise this subject? 

I’m interpreting the article in the Huffington Post as a cosmic push to record my experience for myself, for my daughter, and for other women who have been or will be in this situation. There’s no way to predict or prevent Pityriasis Rosea, but at least now a woman who loses her child because of it will not be left with questions nobody want to hear, and nobody can answer. I’m telling the story because while other people forget, I remember every one of my losses. I remember the day the bleeding started, the day the heartbeat stopped, and the empty birthday. I remember the look on the ultrasound technician’s face when she didn’t find what she was looking for. I remember my husband saying, what are we looking at? I remember thinking, nothing. We are looking at nothing. The absence of a heartbeat.

I remember that on the due date for that first loss, the most traumatic of them all, my sister-in-law called to say that she was pregnant.  I remember that I started spotting for the fourth and last loss on my daughter’s fourth birthday.  Every Halloween I remember that elf costume and the red cap that I bought, and how I planned to put it aside and use it for the next baby. 

Tomorrow is Halloween. We are out in the county on a dead-end road and never see any trick-or-treaters. And that’s a relief.