Near the end of the 1970s, my parents drove across the state of Idaho for Parents’ Weekend at the university where I was a sophomore. They picked me up at my house and we headed toward campus. There would be a picnic and music on the expansive lawn. The sun was shining, and the brown snow heaped by the side of the roads during the winter had finally melted into pale grass. As we drove, my mother asked me about my classes, my father wondered when I’d start looking for a summer job. They discussed where to park. Chatter like that, with none of us mentioning the five days I’d spent in the hospital some months earlier after a botched abortion.
As we got ready to leave the car, I felt I had to bring it up. I hadn’t seen them since before the hospital stay; they hadn’t asked me once how I was faring and I was bothered by that. And yet the words I managed to get out as we drove were innocuous. Something like: ‘now that I feel better’. I don’t recall the context exactly. ‘I can stay up later now that I feel better’, a sentence just that mundane which caused my mother to stiffen in her seat, the ropy muscle in her neck taut, her hands stacked in her lap so that her narrow gold wedding band popped from the surface of her finger. My father tapped the turn signal and looked elsewhere, anywhere. That was the end of it.
Too bad, because I had questions for them. I have questions for them now, forty years later. Such as: what my mother, who answered the phone, was told about their eldest child’s predicament. I wonder if they were troubled to hear I’d been admitted to a hospital in another state. As for me, I remember little. A white hallway, a crackling voice over a speaker calling for physicians, a nurse fiddling with the IV in my arm and, once, my own doctor standing at the edge of the bed. He’d been there other days, no doubt, but this is my single recollection of him, the way he kept his hands in his white coat and told me that he’d approved a call to my parents to settle insurance matters. I remember that.
I also remember leaving the hospital. Sitting in a wheelchair at the glass sliding doors in the wrinkled clothes I’d had on when I was brought to the emergency room, the dried blood in my underwear, my pants itchy against my thighs and, oddly, the soles of my feet itching too. I waited for my boyfriend to pull up in his blue truck and get me back to college, an hour’s drive through rolling pea and lentil farmland and curves of lodgepole pine. I thought I could still be the girl I’d been before all of this. I still believed that was possible.
A nurse waited with me for my boyfriend’s arrival. Maybe I recognized her as one of those who’d thumped on the IV line and stuck a thermometer in my mouth before disappearing again into the long white hallway. She said how surprised she was that I’d had no visitors over the week, a pretty girl like me, a pretty blond college girl like me. But I hadn’t expected friends, or boyfriend, nor did I believe I’d wake up to find either parent in my room, even after they’d been told where I was.
I did manage to convince myself, back then when I was nineteen, that I’d been put at the end of the hallway at my parents’ bidding. They preferred I stay hidden away. Mine was the last door before the exit that led outside and in my memory no one except nurses walked by or peeked in. These nurses turned knobs on the blinking machine and stuck needles into junctures of tube, and maybe around the second day I began to imagine that, oh yes, right, my father had arranged something else, too. My drug-addled mind was certain my mother had urged him on – a single shot into the IV bag, just toxic enough that it would enter my system a drop at a time and I’d soon fall asleep and drift away. My parents could then tell their friends a sad story about a wildfire infection through my body, cause unknown and caught too late. I lay in bed and waited for that final drip to begin.
About seven years before, my grandmother had died – a death caused by an abscessed tooth that actually had spread like fire through her blood – her broken mind tumbled her into silence. She moved into a space without language that I believe in some ways she’d aimed for most of her life – she no longer had to keep explaining, even to herself, why she had forged on for so long. But before she stopped speaking completely, my grandmother hung on to a few last statements, platitudes that were reminders to herself and to us of who she’d been. One sentence she often repeated near the end was this: Into every life some rain must fall.
I was the eldest of my parents’ four children. Then I was the mother of four girls, and one day, when those children were little, a woman named Ella asked me to meet her at the airport in our town. She was my mother’s closest childhood friend and she said her layover would give us a chance to catch up. Ella watched me with my daughters that afternoon, the oldest two running around the waiting area, the younger two in my lap. ‘I wonder when,’ she said, reaching over to touch my arm as if to wake me up, ‘you’ll all stop trying to replace your grandmother’s babies.’
My grandmother’s four babies, she meant: three boys and a girl, each of whom died at birth, or shortly after.
As a girl I knew the rule, even though it was unspoken: never talk about the babies around our grandmother; do not ask about her children buried under a headstone with its epitaph, budded on earth to bloom in heaven. I understood that in my family it was a failure to speak of procreative failure. The making of babies was a complicated matter, often ill-timed, ill-executed, as easily the cause of sorrow as joy, and words about these ruined events would weaken us, rob us of fortitude. Best for you, if you were a woman, to keep such troubles to yourself.
My mother kept her troubles to herself, though she did say to me a few times, in fits of anger, that she’d fought a whole town so that I could live. I was a child when I first heard her proclamation, and I pictured my mother at the end of Main Street, there at the turnoff to Highway 20, using a stick in her hand to wave off the people chasing her down. Were my grandmothers in that crowd? My great-aunts? My cousins? The girl who served milk and donuts at Wally’s Cafe or Ikey, who cut our hair?
Later I realized, of course, that few people in town were concerned about whether or not I’d survive. My mother’s fight back then was not about if I’d live, but about where. I understood, too, that it wasn’t all that unusual for teenage girls in rural Idaho to show up pregnant: no big deal. My grandparents had hired an attorney to draw up adoption papers so that I could be taken away to a ranching family or handed off to a barren couple in Boise. That was the plan. My seventeen-year-old mother and sixteen-year-old father could get back to things, return to school, and never again speak of their accident.
They didn’t speak of it again. To this day, what I know about my beginnings I’ve pieced together myself: how my father picked up my mother one day to drive her to the courthouse, less than a hundred yards from my grandparents’ front door. The justice of the peace married them with (I’m imagining here) the smell of my grandmother’s fried elk steaks wafting in the window. A month later I was born.
While my mother’s mother lay dying, I held her paper-thin hand and thought about apologizing for spoiling her daughter’s future. I could tell her I was sorry that my grandparents’ one surviving child had gone wrong by bearing a child of her own too soon, but I said nothing. Instead, my sister came in the room and we crawled into bed with our grandmother, one on each side. We sang ‘You Are My Sunshine’, because that’s the song she’d sung to us. I said, ‘Into every life some rain must fall,’ into her ear, thinking she might hear that sentence over the hum and clang in the room and accept it as a release. Then my sister whispered into our grandmother’s cloud of white hair, ‘You can go now. Your babies are waiting for you.’ Even at the very end those words rattled me – I sat up and stared at my sister. ‘Don’t you know we are never to speak about the dead children?’