February 21, 1970. Six weeks pregnant, I bleed out my baby on a mattress, on the floor of my little apartment in Birmingham, Alabama.
October 9, 1980: I drive through crisp leaves of a Michigan autumn to the hospital, to give birth to a son.
May 13, 2009. In the mountains of Central Arizona, I receive a healing. The healer sings a sweet song that sounds like joy, not sorrow. She releases sad spirits from my body.
At the end of the healing, my friend asks, “Was there a baby?”
January 1970. I was young, just a year out of college. I was married three years and already restless and bored. My father had died just two years before, plagued with depression, memories of war, and alcohol. I had fallen in love with my favorite college English professor. Jim was older, a slender, handsome, athletic man. Who cared if he drank? And what did it matter that he is married?
It was the Age of Aquarius, the beginning of a decade of hope, change, and possibility. At a party I approached Jim standing on the other side of the room smoking a pipe and drinking Scotch-on-the-rocks. For the occasion I had donned my red velvet mini dress and black boots
“I love you, Jim.”
“I love you too, Nancy.”
His voice was soft and low beneath the Fifth Dimension lyrics–“Harmony and understanding, sympathy and trust, abounding. . .” I was tired of being a good girl. I loved this intellectual man who had taught me about the carpe diem poets. I wanted to seize the day. Carpe Diem.
Growing up, I did everything right. I kept my virginity during my teens. When I married my first husband, I had only experienced tingling in the roof of my mouth when he caressed my nipples.
This would be the first time I strayed from the code of my church and my family.
Tantalized with images of sex with Jim, I waited one cold January morning for him to arrive at the little house I shared with my husband. It was easy. He came in, took off his coat, and we lay down on the living room couch.
There were no words. There was only touching.
Later that week I told my husband I wanted a divorce.
Soon I moved into my newly renovated apartment, on my own for the first time–no parents, no husband. This apartment, spare as it was, was mine. I could do what I wanted here. Jim visited me. I entertained friends from church. On the stereo I played, again and again, Simon and Garfunkel’s latest release, “Bridge over Troubled Waters.” I longed for a friend, a bridge like the one in the song—“When you’re weary, feeling small,/ When tears are in your eyes, I will comfort you.” I waited for my secretive, passionate trysts with Jim.
One February afternoon I lay on the mattress and box springs on my bedroom floor and stared at the ceiling. I had just learned that I was pregnant, due in October.
In the Bible Belt of Alabama in 1970, bearing an illegitimate child equaled shame and mortal sin. I hoped that Jim might leave his wife. I was determined to have the baby. I would not think of an abortion. After all, the growing life inside of my body was a human being. But my body struggled. I dropped to 106 pounds. I was pale and gaunt. I would have this baby. My dad was gone, and I’d left my marriage. I wanted a part of Jim in my life. Without the baby, I had nothing and no one.
The cramps and spotting began one morning in my apartment before I was to leave for my job at a local library. I called my high school friend Pam, who drove over immediately to help me, bringing extra towels to catch the bleeding. While I waited for her, I called the doctor.
“Catch the fetus in tissue and bring it into the office tomorrow.” Catch “it”? To him my baby was a thing, something to be discarded in the waste can.
Now I was alone in my apartment, my shoes clicking on newly waxed, wooden floors.
I left town for a few days to visit my sisters in Texas. My life seemed futile. In despair, I sat on the hall floor at my sister’s house.
I sang some lines from Robert Frost’s poem “The Pasture”:
I’m going out to clean the pasture spring,
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away,
And wait to watch the water clear, I may.
. . . . .
You come too. . . . .
I had sung the poem during voice lessons. Now, the poem became a lamentation to my child.
In summer, I applied for graduate school at several universities and was offered a scholarship and teaching fellowships. I chose a university away from my home town. I couldn’t abide the silence when I passed by people, the muffled, judgmental voices that would surround me.
I did not see or hear from Jim for two years. When I did visit my college, I met him on a pathway, walking up a steep hillside. We spoke briefly. Our conversation was the talk of strangers, cold, like the world’s end in T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men”–“not with a bang but a whimper.”
October, 1970—My son would have been born in October. I awakened in my graduate apartment with a poem in my head, to my lost child.
This silence only magnifies the echo
Of all my love, and fear, and shame,
And of the little life which was to be
on this our day.
I turned on a light to write down these lines before I forgot them.
A few nights later, as I stirred in my sleep, my father came to me. He entered the room and stood next to my bed. He looked much like he did in later life—his head balding, wearing khaki pants and shirt. But he stood erect, as if he was renewed, healed from his sorrow.
He turned and left the bedroom. I heard no footsteps.
He was making sure I was safe.
October, 1980: Ten years later, I had a son. Against a backdrop of marital violence, I wanted to be a good mother. I nursed my baby. Within the year, I left the marriage and took a job at a college near Detroit.
Over the next two decades I tried marriage several times, leaving my fourth husband after his addictions took over.
In the 1990s, I wrote to Jim. He responded quickly, a long letter talking about what he’d reading, how he enjoyed his family and some women, how all of his affairs with women had been “frauds.” His wife, who had died in a car accident, was his true love.
Frauds. Did that include me? Can a baby be a fraud?
I had lost a child, not fully formed at six or seven weeks, but planted in my body, in my heart. Not a fraud to me.
2009. I had been married to my fifth husband for thirteen years. We moved to Arizona, where I taught and concentrated on my writing. My son had married, and I was a grandmother.
I had everything I needed, I thought. But something was missing. I was plagued by dreams of my father, of his sadness, and of my fourth husband, an addicted man.
On a May morning I visited my friend, a healer. We sat on the floor of her ceremony room and talked quietly for a few minutes. I told her about my father, about my fourth husband, how he cut his wrists and bled to death two years after our divorce.
My healer said she would sing my father and my addictive husband to the light. “A sweet death song,” she said. I took off my shoes and socks. She covered me with a thin sheet, and her cat Ash sat on my chest, kneading me and nibbling on my blouse buttons. I closed my eyes and she shook a rattle toward each direction, sang songs of blessing and peace.
Then, “Go to the light.” I let my body sink deeper onto the table and my arms lie loose beside my body. I stroked Ash as he nibbled on my fingers.
I imagined a lighted gate that draws troubled spirits toward rest.
The song stopped. My feet, my body, were suddenly cold, as if someone had opened a window.
“How do you feel?” the healer asked in a whisper.
“I felt a cold draft when you stopped singing.”
“That’s when they left, your father and your husband.”
Tears gathered under my closed eyelids.
“Was there a baby?” she asked.
How could she know? I’d told her nothing about Jim, nothing about a day almost forty years ago, when I bled out the life of a small child I knew in my heart was a boy.
“I saw a baby, a boy. His name was Eric.”