Prose Header


Sibling

by Silvia E. Hines

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
parts: 1, 2, 3

conclusion


Miriam is sketching in pencil at the dining room table, working from a photo of ferns and wildflowers she took while walking along the base and then the slope of Sleeping Giant State Park. She feels a pleasant sensation remembering this solo hike from several weeks earlier; a combination photo shoot, nature walk, and exercise for the muscles and bones, which she knows are growing older and in need of special attention. She’s learned that uphill walks, in particular, are recommended for strengthening the spine and hip bones, so she walked partway up the mountain before returning to her car.

She’s startled from her reverie when she hears someone banging on the front door, loudly and persistently enough to make her think it could be an emergency. She even thinks, half-seriously, that this is what a drug bust might sound like.

She sees through the living room window that it’s Jenny, who for some reason isn’t using the key she’s carried since childhood. Her white coat is a bit crumpled, but otherwise she looks intact. Miriam rushes to the door, dropping her sketchpad on the sofa as she goes, still expecting an emergency of some sort, most likely one that doesn’t require medical treatment.

When she opens the door, her daughter holds a photocopy of a newspaper clipping up to Miriam’s face, walks past her into the living room, and shouts, “Why didn’t you tell me?!”

“Tell you what?” Miriam asks, still thinking someone may be hurt in some way, although she is thinking clearly enough to say she’ll need to get her reading glasses. But a single glance at the clipping is all she needs. “Oh my God!” she says. “Where did you get that?”

“All this time and you never told me.” Jenny’s voice is only slightly subdued. “And I got it from the microfilm reader at the library downtown.” The two remain standing, face to face, like opponents in a martial arts class, not yet informed by their instructor which one will be the aggressor and which the defender, so not knowing what stance to take. What should they do with their arms, legs, head, torso?

“I didn’t want to hurt you. I couldn’t tell you, you were just a child.”

“I’m twenty-nine now. I haven’t been a child for many years.” Jenny is close to tears, her body like a spring waiting to be released, reminding Miriam of the jack-in-the-boxes children played with in her youth. Push the button and she’ll pop, which will be scary at first but followed by release.

“Then I guess it got to be too late. It was a long, long time ago. And it was entirely unnecessary for you to know.” Miriam sits on the sofa, moves her sketchpad to the floor.

“And now,” Jenny says, still standing and still tense, “it is entirely necessary. Tell me.”

“First, I want you to sit down.” It seems unnatural to Miriam to be giving Jenny an order, especially one regarding where she would like her to place her body. But Jenny capitulates, sitting on the arm of the recliner, across the room from her mother.

“Where should I start?” Miriam asks.

“So you called 911?”

“They didn’t actually have 911 back then, but, uh... okay, okay. Anyway, the paramedics came, examined the baby, and took him away. A police car arrived at the same time. The cop wouldn’t let me go with the ambulance. He wanted me to answer questions... about what happened.”

Miriam remembers the small, dark paramedic who walked with a slight limp, who took her baby in his thin arms, cradling him, avoiding looking in her direction. She recalls the weather, a picture-perfect early spring day. She’d heard the forecast and planned to take Ben for a long walk around the lake.

“Was Dad there?”

“The officer called him. He’d left early for a class. He got there pretty soon, maybe about half an hour later.”

“You must have been frantic.”

“I think I remember being both hysterical and numb, but how can you be hysterical and numb at the same time? I don’t think I was screaming or anything. Someone on the phone had instructed me in CPR, but it didn’t work. I knew the baby was dead.”

“How did you know?” Jenny asks. “You had no medical training.” Miriam begins to cry quietly. She perceives Jenny’s question to be irrelevant and annoying, maybe even condescending. Do you have to be a medical student to recognize death? But she answers anyway.

“From the color and texture of his skin, the stillness I guess, and I couldn’t find a pulse. He’d been alone for five or six hours, since I’d put him back to bed, pink and warm, after nursing him at maybe 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning.”

Miriam actually isn’t sure whether the baby woke that night; he’d begun to sleep through by then. But it seems unimportant, since she knew there was little chance this had happened in the last few minutes before she found him. Miriam peers through tears at Jenny, who smiles grimly through her own wet, blurry eyes.

“I never knew babies could just suddenly die like that, with no warning,” Miriam continues. “One minute gurgling and laughing, and the next...” She takes a breath. “Now they have those intercoms, and you can listen for your baby’s breathing all the time.”

Jenny flops off the edge and into the seat of the recliner. She leans back until her feet are on a level with her face. She flexes her feet displaying blue-trimmed sneakers.

Surely not the shoes she wears on the hospital floor, Miriam thinks. She must have changed her shoes but kept the white coat on.

“So a policeman talked to you, and then Daddy came home. You told them what happened.” She pauses and raises her voice. “How could anyone ever have thought that you, an obviously innocent twenty-two-year-old mother...?” She pauses. “And they arrested you!” she exclaims.

Miriam nods.

“Let’s go back. What happened when Dad came in?”

“When your father walked in, he was acting all supportive of me and furious at the cop for holding me there. There was anguish on his face. He loved Ben too, excruciatingly, just like I did. But there was this other thing on his face. I don’t know how I saw it, but I knew he doubted me. Maybe just for an instant, but I saw it.”

Miriam pauses. Her demeanor is changing, her body tense and her face contorted. “It was his fault!” she asserts loudly. “It really was his fault. Okay, you’ve insisted I tell you.”

“What was his fault? The arrest?”

“He still had that damn larger-than-life poster of Che Guevara hanging in the living room! You know, looking rebellious, wearing that beret? I’d asked him to take it down, now that we were settling down, we had a baby. And he was still smoking pot, he’d smoked a joint just the night before with his friend Lenny. I’d told him I was through with pot, we had Ben to think of. We could still work for change politically, maybe attend antiwar rallies with Ben in a carrier. But he couldn’t see how smoking a little with Lenny could hurt Ben, who wouldn’t be in the same room.”

“So the cops found the pot?”

“It wasn’t particularly well hidden.”

Jenny is surprised that her mother knows the word “joint,” that she’s finally admitting she smoked pot in her youth, but she stays with the story at hand. “You think the poster and the marijuana...?”

“It was the seventies, you know? Before long hair and pot smoking became mainstream. The hippies and the radicals hated the cops, called them the pigs, thought they were stupid Neanderthals who resisted change with violence. To the cops, the radicals were ruining America, with their long hair, drugs, and free love. In come the police....”

Jenny rises from her horizontal position on the recliner, joins her mother on the couch, takes her hand, and speaks in a low voice. “So you throw in the mix,” Jenny says, “a dead baby, died of a disease barely known back then and not well understood. It was like being in the wrong place at the wrong time?”

“I guess.”

Jenny points to the copy of the news article, which has fallen to the floor near her mother’s sketchpad. “It says here you were actually in jail. How long?”

“About a week. Six days to be exact,” Miriam says. “They set a high bond. We think it was because of the pot. We were broke; your father’s parents didn’t have enough money; mine were away on a road trip, and we didn’t know exactly where. No cell phones back then.”

Miriam wonders whether she would have interrupted her parents on their vacation, if she could have, to tell them their grandson had died and that, by the way, their daughter was in jail and needed money for bail. Aloud, she says, “They appointed a public defender. It took him that long to get us the bond.”

“Mom, I can’t imagine what you went through. In an instant you lose your baby and you’re sitting behind bars? How did you survive it?”

“You have no choice. Everyone says people in terrible circumstances are courageous, but really, what choice do you have other than to endure?”

Miriam’s face has been changing, in Jenny’s eyes, from the young hippie mother she had conjured a few minutes ago, probably wearing no makeup but whose bright features were enhanced by a colorful exotic garment, perhaps a large Mexican shawl, to that of a tired, older woman, whose thinning bones, pale lips, and faded color speak of a trauma that hasn’t been totally resolved.

“You could have fallen apart completely,” Jenny says. “People do.”

“Okay, so I didn’t have a nervous breakdown,” Miriam says. “They wanted me to sign something, a plea agreement I guess. They wanted me to make it simple for them, say I’d accidentally smothered the baby or dropped him or something, and they would give me probation, or minimal jail time, like a couple of weeks. How could I say I did that when I didn’t?”

“That was courageous,” Jenny said.

“A little longer and I would have signed it. We both thought we had to get me out of there. Actually, it was the bright fluorescent lights, I think, that would have done me in.” She laughs. “And the smells. You know how I am about smells. After a few days, your father suggested I consider signing it when he came to visit. So I could come home.”

“Idiot,” Jenny says.

Miriam doesn’t object. Both are relaxed now, Jenny no longer resembling a taut spring toy, Miriam’s face returning to that of a woman of almost sixty whose physical changes are notable but inoffensive. When the phone rings, neither gets up or even acknowledges the interruption.

“After a while, I started to think I did do something wrong. I imagined all kinds of things I could have done and had almost settled on one scenario that seemed plausible. I actually had a dream about it. I had left my baby in the bathtub and gone to answer the phone.”

“Ma—”

“I guess I did have a little break with reality, after all.”

“Was there a trial?”

“No, no. I guess you didn’t find the later article in the Register. My lawyer remembered something he’d read about crib death, not a new thing but not yet well-known, and consulted with the medical school at Yale to learn more. He presented the findings to the court, and the prosecutor dropped the charges. Lucky me.”

“Mom!” Jenny’s look is at first stricken, then stern, decrying what she sees as her mother’s tendency toward cheerful irony.

“In a way I was lucky. The loss of Ben was unbearable, but the prospect of being in prison for murder or negligent homicide? When that didn’t happen, there was some relief, at least for a little while.”

“Why didn’t you tell me all this before?”

“As I said, you were a child. Anyway, what good does it do you to know about it now?”

“A lot of good. Now I know the truth at last. I know the truth about your life.”

Miriam laughs, emitting what is almost a snort. “Ha. As if it were so easy to say you know the truth. The whole truth. And it might be better for you to stay with what you believed fifteen minutes ago than to know about this.”

“No, it isn’t. And don’t tell me you now believe truth is relative. I certainly don’t. Didn’t we hash that out when I was in high school?”

“Well, you can’t possibly know everything, even about this one episode.”

“What do you mean?” Jenny asks.

“Nothing,” Miriam replies, getting up from the sofa. “Let me check my voice mail. That call might have been Grandma.”

Jenny follows her mother to the kitchen and sits on a stool while her mother checks the phone message. When she finishes, Miriam sits at the table opposite Jenny.

“Mom, I haven’t forgotten what you just said, that what you’ve told me isn’t everything.”

“I don’t think I said that exactly—”

“You said you can’t possibly know everything. I don’t know what you mean by that.” Her large dark eyes peer deeply into Miriam’s. Miriam feels her own eyes receding from the pressure, her resolve diminishing. She wants to yell at Jenny to leave her alone, hasn’t she heard enough? But at the same time she feels an opportunity for something new, some kind of release. So she skips the emotional retreat or histrionics that would have been nothing but a delaying tactic.

“Okay, Jen,” she says, walking back to the living room and sitting on the couch. “Okay, you want to know more. The truth is, it was my fault. I am to blame.” Jenny sits by her mother, lowers her gaze, and listens.

“For two reasons. I’m pretty sure I heard him crying after I put him to bed that evening, just a little bit, and I didn’t go to him. I might have saved him if I’d gone into his room. When I thought about his cry later, I realized it wasn’t just a tired cry but a cry of distress. This is how I remember it now.”

“Mom, that’s Monday-morning quarterbacking. Everyone waits a few minutes to go to their baby when they hear just a whimper. It had nothing to do with what happened. How can you think it was your fault?”

“It was my fault, my dear, because I was a hypocrite. I had joined your father and Lenny in smoking pot that night. I’d told myself it would be just this one last time, then I’d convince your father to flush the rest of his stash and not buy anymore. So we were high, the three of us, laughing and pontificating, as we usually were, in our private world that included no babies.”

“Mom, listen to me. They have isolated viruses and, I think, bacteria in the respiratory tracts of babies who’ve died of SIDS. Real and deadly viruses.” She pauses, pats her mother’s hand, glances at her watch, and stands. “But, really, you know that already, don’t you?”

Miriam says nothing.

“I wish I didn’t have to leave you like this, Mom, but I have a seminar I can’t afford to miss. We can talk more later.” When she gets to the door, she turns around to face her mother. “I’m really sorry this happened to you, Mom.”

Miriam nods. She wants to reply that the viruses and bacteria they found just might be there all the time, in lots of babies, not making trouble or causing death. Instead, she sits on the sofa, staring out the front window as her daughter drives off in the aged, gray Volvo sedan she’d bought when she returned to New Haven.

Miriam would like to get back to her sketching or, in fact, to any activity that might speak of a normal Saturday afternoon in her present life, but her drawing pad remains on the rug by her feet, the amateurish black and white renditions of local flora of less interest to her than her memory of a sunny morning years ago.

A few minutes later, she finds herself wondering why, along with the sadness, she is smiling inwardly. She realizes she’s feeling happy because she has told Jenny her story — perhaps now it is their story — and it is clear that her daughter didn’t for a moment doubt her innocence.


Copyright © 2020 by Silvia E. Hines

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