Within Arm's Reach

My grandmother gave birth often, which I suppose increased her odds for tragedy.  Her first born, a sweet, chatty daughter, died when she was three years old from dehydration and the flu.  My mother had become the oldest McLaughlin child by default, and three more of my five aunts and uncles were already walking or crawling, climbing over furniture and driving my grandfather, whose heart had broken with the death of his first baby, crazy when my grandmother became pregnant with twins.

Today twins are considered a high-risk pregnancy.  I’m sure they were then too, but my grandmother had four kids under the age of six to clean, dress, feed and teach manners to with the help of Willie, the live-in black maid.  My grandfather was a lawyer and on the weekends he played golf and in the evenings he drank scotch.  This was long before the days of co-parenting, long before it was even a word.

My grandmother had to get my mother and Pat into neatly pressed uniforms and off to single sex catholic schools every morning.  She had to keep the two youngest home with her while she and Willie split the cleaning, laundry and cooking.  She had to write letters to her mother and her husband’s mother each week, updating them on the family’s life.  On Sundays, out of respect for the Lord, she met the challenge of keeping all of the children quiet and prayerful in their bedrooms without toys or any books other than the bible.

Pregnancy, even of twins, did not get in the way of the daily routines.  It couldn’t, really, since my grandmother was, for the first eleven years of her marriage, more often pregnant than not.  So, she picked up toys and assigned the children chores and shushed them around their father and kept an eagle eye on their manners at the dinner table and supervised prayers before bedtime as her five foot two, petite body swelled.  She occasionally allowed herself a small nap while she sat upright at the kitchen table, a bowl of peas waiting to be shelled under her fingertips.  But that was it.  Birthing children, making a big family, raising it up right was her main job.  She ignored all sharp pains, any warning signs that something might be wrong.  She was never one to complain.  Even now, at the age of seventy-eight, she refuses novocaine at the dentist’s office.  She lies perfectly still, hands folded on her waist, while the dentist, shaking his head in amazement, drills into her teeth.

My grandmother went into labor very suddenly one night after she and Willie had finished serving the evening meal.  She set down a bowl of broccoli and pressed the heels of her hands hard against the edge of the table.  Children, she said.  Meggy, elbows off the table.  Your father and I will be eating later tonight.  Kelly – her sharp blue eyes on my mother, the oldest now that the true oldest was gone – You’re in charge here, understood?

She walked carefully out of the dining room, aware of the children’s eyes on her, turned the corner, and collapsed.  The doctor didn’t make it in time.  Willie boiled water and carried a stack of clean towels to the bedroom and wept while my grandfather, scared and therefore annoyed, stood by the head of my grandmother’s single bed and told her to keep it down.  He cursed the doctor for his slowness.  He cursed Willie for moaning under her breath at the sight of blood.  He cursed his pipe for not lighting on the first try.  He cursed the children in the other room for their existence.  He cursed his first child, his sweet baby girl, for dying on him and leaving him here like this.  Shipwrecked and lonely.  Useless.

The doctor, his pockets filled with lollipops for the McLaughlin children, showed up just as the twins were born.  Still born.  My grandmother must have felt it.  After the long last shudder of labor she turned her head to the wall, shut her eyes and began to wail.  My grandfather and the doctor were shaken by the noise.  The doctor bent over the babies, one boy and one girl, making sure that there was nothing he could do.  There was nothing he could do.

My grandmother’s cries got louder.

Now Catharine, my grandfather said, looking from the still, purplish babies to this woman whose contorted face he did not know.

The doctor gathered the infants in his arms.  Get them out of here, he said to my grandfather.  She can’t take the sight of them.

My grandfather grabbed the babies and, glad to have something to do, an answer to the misery in that room, an order to follow, rushed through the house.  He stumbled two steps at a time down the stairs.  He strode through the living room where Kelly, Pat, Meggy and Theresa sat on the couch and on the floor where Willie had told them to Keep Quiet and Pray.  The children watched, frozen in their places as their father moved past them, blood covering his crisp white work shirt, two purple babies held against his shoulder.  He was in their sight for only a few seconds, but that was long enough.

Then my grandfather was in the kitchen, where Willie had gone to hide after the doctor arrived.  He yanked open the door to the garage and rounded the corner to where the huge metal garbage cans were kept.  He lifted off one of the metal lids, and dropped the babies inside.  They fell one after another onto a cushion of broken eggshells and milk gone bad and a few potatoes that had sprouted knobs and spuds too unsightly to just cut off and ignore.

The story of the twins’ birth is a strange comfort to me.  I recognize myself in the story; I recognize the people I come from and am surrounded by.  It proves that even when the worst thing imaginable happens, the individuals involved still survive.  The McLaughlins were able to limp away from the death of those babies.  They remained a family.  Daily routines, petty arguments, and relationships continued.  I run this story over and over in my head because I need the convincing right now.  I need to know that my world is not about to explode, in spite of any surprise or botched plan I throw at it.

The twins’ stillbirth is just one of the refracted images that has made its way down through the communal memory of my family, breaking over each of us like a wave.  My mother witnessed that day with her own eyes, and then twenty years later those same eyes saw my birth.  She never spoke of the twins – because my mother, like her own mother, never speaks of anything important.  But still I was aware of what she had seen from her seat on my grandparents’ living room floor long before I was able to put words to it.

That has become my obsession, and sometimes livelihood, putting words to sensations, inklings, feelings.  Looking for the back-story.  I write a daily advice column for the Bergen Record.  I used to date the editor of the paper, and Grayson both came up with the perfect job for me and let me keep it after we broke up.  He is probably my favorite ex-boyfriend.  I love to come up with the right phrase, and to pinpoint the stories that have made people who they are.  I enjoy working out other people’s problems.  I like to come up with the final word, the right answer, and to see that printed indelibly in black and white.

No one in my mother’s family ever talks about anything that can be categorized as unpleasant or having to do with emotions, and, as a result, they no longer have anything to say.  My mother has no idea how to carry on a normal conversation; my Aunt Meggy never stops talking and yet never says anything constructive; and getting more than four words out of my Uncle Pat is a major feat.  For them it’s not a matter of keeping secrets; it’s a matter of being polite, mannerly, and tough.  The McLaughlins couldn’t spill their woes or ask for help even if they wanted to, because they don’t have the vocabulary.  They are stranded within themselves; convinced that the only way is to silently persevere.

My last name is Leary, but I have a lot of McLaughlin in me.  It’s like looking at a reflection in a broken mirror; I can see the sharp corners and growing cracks of my family.  I see pride fix my thin lips shut.  I see the irony of my profession where I ask everyone to come to me with their heart on their sleeves, while not allowing anyone a good look at who I am.  I spend my nights at the Green Trolley, laughing, drinking, making eye contact with some man I’ve never met before and feeling that lightness spread through me, but I know this is not – was not ever – a step towards revealing myself.  I tell lies in that bar.  I sometimes give a false name.  I tell men whatever I think they want to hear, and once the words are out of my mouth I half believe them.  I never tell anything close to a whole truth, to anyone.

Unfortunately, I now have a secret that I won’t be able to hide for much longer.  There’s no lie, fib or narrative that will keep people from knowing this truth.  Everyone will take one glance in my direction and know my story.  My belly will give me away.  Twenty-nine year old woman, not enough steady income, no husband, pregnant.

Tonight I picture my dead grandfather hugging his dead infants to his shoulder, ruining his fine white shirt forever.  Breathing steadily, in and out, aware of the muscles in his calves as he pumps down the stairs, aware of the throbbing at his temples, the dryness in the back of his throat which means he will have a drink at the first chance he gets.  He clutches the babies and feels all these things and thinks, At least I am alive.  Then he thinks it as a question, as he rushes past the living children sitting tight as balls on the floor and on the couch.

Am I alive?  Is this my life?

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