Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Silence and Shut Down

 Bob picked me up at the hospital and took me to Hamilton, where I would spend a few weeks with my brother and sister-in-law.  I never knew whether he peeked in the nursery to see my baby or not, but he told me that day that he “couldn't do that,” nodding in the direction of the nursery.  Some birth mothers have no memory of the birth or the days immediately before and after.  One response to trauma is to "dissociate," to check out, go numb, freeze over, become emotionally paralyzed, and that's exactly what happened to me.  I was in the world but not of it.  I do remember the birth and the days in the hospital, and I now realize what incredible effort it took for me to take my feelings of panic, grief, and loss and set them aside.  It was like holding my breath and still managing to breathe at the same time.  I felt the numbness in my stomach, which is an oxymoron but true nevertheless.  My veins seemed full of ginger ale and my head full of cotton.  I was on auto-pilot, trying with all my strength not to crash.  

I pulled it off.  After three weeks, Bob returned to Hamilton and drove me down to Ithaca to sign the adoption papers.  Here my memory becomes hazy.  Some moments are as vivid as crystals, the rest are gone.  I remember a small room with a tiny crib.  In it was my son.  Mrs. P. told me I could pick him up, and I held him against my shoulder, his soft hair against my cheek.  I was dead inside, and the part of me that died that day will never come back.  I lost not only my son; I lost part of my soul.  I went down a swirling drain, and the years that followed circled that drain and held me in a repetitive pattern I couldn't break.  I was taken to another office, where the papers awaited my signature.  I sat down.  I signed.  I walked out of the building, and I remember nothing after that.

Bob lived in a single room in a rundown building that housed dance studios and other artist's work spaces.  It wasn't a residential building, though a few old impoverished dancers lived on the top floor.  It was no place for a baby.  Bob had no job, having left Colgate to pursue a career as a painter full time.  It had taken everything I had to leave my son.  I had stopped thinking rationally and moving in with Bob took no effort at all.  All the emotion I was choking down got transmuted into an unreflective connection to him.  The pipeline to my baby was closed off, and the love that should have gone to him went to Bob instead.  

I moved to New York on Valentine's day.  This is where my memory returns.  The city was bitterly cold and dark came early.  The noise, the lights, the looming buildings all pressed in on me, and I clung to Bob's arm whenever we went out.  He had furnished his studio with two cots and an armoir he'd picked up off the sidewalk.  The table was a huge wooden  spool that had once held telephone wire.  There was a single unit in the corner containing a small fridge, a two-ring hotplate, and a small sink.  We used the sink for bathing, and since the only bathroom was down the hall on the other side of the building, we even used it as a toilet, flushing it with boiling water.   

It wasn't long before my brother called me to implore me to call my parents.  I didn't.  Later, once Tanner was born and things returned to the "new normal," I picked up with my parents and went on with life, but those first several weeks after David's birth I simply couldn't do one single more thing that would require any sort of emotion.  My feelings about my parents were so bound up with my loss of my baby that it was impossible for me to talk with them, so I left them to their own anguish.  I'm sure they needed help, but it couldn't come from me.
The secrecy began almost immediately.  Bob explained that he wasn't about to marry anyone.  “I wouldn't marry the Queen of Sheba,” he said.  I never knew the name of his first wife, and anytime I mentioned his getting his divorce finalized, he'd get angry and refuse to discuss it.  He needed $400, he said, for the divorce to go through, and he didn't have the money.  Neither did I, and it was over three years before he filed the required papers to complete the business.  By that time my  son Tanner was born, just two and a half years after I had lost David.   I learned quickly never to mention the baby I had given up, because if I did I'd get a tongue lashing from Bob.  My parents didn't drink, and I had no idea what an alcoholic was like, so I didn't recognize the signs that Bob was out of control.  He'd get drunk and turn nasty, heaping contempt on me for “being a whore,” for hurting him.  When I'd gotten pregnant with David, I hadn't even met Bob.  How could what I had done have anything to do with him?  

When he wasn't drinking, Bob was kind and loving towards me, but when he drank too  much  he could turn vicious.  This usually happened at night, and he would keep me awake, berating and belittling me, impervious to my tears.  The first time this happened, I was so shocked I froze.  No one had ever spoken to me as he did, and I had no idea how to respond.  A more worldly young woman might have given as good as she got and put an end to the ugliness right there, but I simply couldn't believe that someone who professed to love me could behave in such a fashion.  I had already taken a vow of silence regarding my son; it seemed natural at this point to do the same with Bob's rages.  Sylvia Plath wrote that dying was an art she did exceptionally well.  I had the same attitude about suffering.  If life rained blows upon me, I would absorb them and go on.  I had already shown how much I could endure.  I would wait for Bob to wake up to what he was doing.  Perhaps at some unconscious level I felt I deserved the punishment.  After all,  I had shamed my parents, and, according to my family, ruined my life.  I couldn't go back to Indiana, my brother's wife was now expecting another baby herself, and I had no money to fall back on.  At least with Bob I didn't have to face my predicament alone. 

 Living in New York was exciting.  In the late 'sixties abstract expressionism was at its height, and the art scene was an exhilarating thing to be part of.  We attended gallery openings and met some of the greatest artists of the day--Barnett Newman, Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Motherwell.  It was all a bit overwhelming for a girl from the midwest, but I felt as if I had moved to the center of the world.  Yes, it was exhausting, and the city was a dangerous place.  That was the year of the Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy assassinations, there was a fear of riots, and crime was rampant, but I felt I was living where history was being made.   Bob got some teaching at Hunter College, painted and sold a few paintings.  I got a job as an editorial assistant at Good Housekeeping magazine that gave us a small, steady income.  We still could barely make rent, but we managed by living in our single room in a bad neighborhood.  

Among our friends were an older Indian painter and his American girlfriend.  He had a wife and children back in India, and he and his lady weren't married either.  In fact, most of our friends were living together without the shelter of a marriage license, so Bob and I were in no way unusual.  One evening after a gallery opening, we went out to dinner with this couple and a group of artists, art dealers, and their various wives and girlfriends.  I was seated next to our Indian friend, who had known me during the last months of my pregnancy.  This was soon after David's birth, and he was being solicitous when he asked me how I was doing.  “You're going to stay in touch with him, right?” he asked.  Bob was seated on my other side and heard what our friend said.  I could feel him stiffen and my face burned.  I said, No, I wouldn't be seeing the baby again.  If I could have sunk into the floor at that moment, I would have been grateful.  I knew the evening would not end well, and I was right.  Bob got drunk and as soon as we got back to his studio he lit into me.    

“How could you do it?  How could you?  You bitch.  You're nothing but a whore, and you're killing me.”  The insults seemed to go on for hours.  Even after I went to bed and pretended to be asleep, he kept muttering accusations.       
I had many years of similar nights to get through before I would be free.

No comments:

Post a Comment