Saturday, May 9, 2015

Mom and Christopher

This is a very personal post about my mother, who died almost ten years ago.

A little over a year after the above picture was taken in the summer of 1951 (which shows my mom on the left and her mother on the right holding Mom's firstborn, my brother Mike) my mother gave birth to a microcephalic baby who was named Christopher. This means that he was born with an underdeveloped brain. 

In Christopher's case, his brain and head were extremely underdeveloped and he had other severe deformities. They knew he wouldn't live long, but there was no way of telling how long. Chris never left the hospital, dying there seven months later. My mother never saw him. I don't know why.

I thought of Christopher and Mom recently while reading Kate Mulgrew's memoir, Born With Teeth. She had a teenage sister who died of cancer, and her description of both her sister and her mother reminded me of Chris and Mom. I wrote the following journal entry the other day while we were en route to Maui. It seems fitting to publish it the day before Mothers' Day.

Christopher's burial was recorded in the records of St. Theresa's Church in Salem.

Christopher. Had there been any signs of trouble in the pregnancy? Was Mom conscious when Chris was delivered? If so, what did she hear being said when the baby slipped out and was so obviously deformed? Were there gasps or groans? Were there cries of shock and confusion? Did she sense that something had gone horribly wrong? Was she feeling afraid and alone, Dad being in the waiting room somewhere down the hall? Did the doctor walk up to him after the baby was removed (or was Mom?) and tell him? How did he react? 

How would I react? I used to be so anxious before the births of each of our children, hoping that everything would go well and wondering what would happen if it didn't. Christopher's shadow, as well as that of my younger stillborn brother, Phillip, hung over each of my children's births. 

Christopher and Phillip. The two lost boys. I grew up being told about them. When there was lightning and thunder, I was told that the thunder was caused by my brothers bowling in heaven. Later, when I was in first grade, I told my teacher about my brother (Phillip) who had been "lost." (I was the youngest child in my family at the time; he would have been my younger brother.) We had all gone on a family picnic, I explained, and Phillip had wandered away and was never found again. He was lost, never to return.

But back to Christopher. How was the decision made for Mom never to see him? Did she participate in that decision? Or did she make it herself? Did she want to see him? How did she feel? How does a mother feel who gives birth to a "monster" or a "monstrosity"? These terms were actually used at one time. I recall doing research in some birth and death records and coming across a birth/death record that used these terms.

Indeed, how does a mother feel? How did Mom feel? What did she think? Did she feel a sense of guilt, that it was somehow her fault? Was God punishing her for something? Something that may have happened a long time ago but wasn't her fault?* Was God a righteous judge? Was he able to be fooled? 
Surely, He knew the Truth, but did I? 
Am I a failure as a mother? Will I be able to have other children? Will they be like he was? Did we really know he was a he? I never saw him. I had to rely on what others told me. Were they telling the truth? Was my next child, a daughter so perfect and beautiful, recompense for Christopher? She came on Christmas Day. Was she a special gift from God who realized He had made a mistake in punishing me for something, that, upon further examination, found me blameless?
Mom would never understand this, of course. She would continue to be tormented. He couldn't do anything about the addiction she would later suffer; but he could give her beautiful children, and so He did. Later, He wondered if he had made a mistake when he saw the pain that followed. But, God bears no blame, by definition. Otherwise, who would ever accept the job?

Summer of 1956: My sister Karen, Mom holding Danny, Mike

What were Mom and Dad told? Was it a waiting game, waiting for Christopher to die? He lived seven months in a tiny hospital in a little town in Southern Illinois. What finally enabled him to leave? Was it painful for him? Did his tiny brain allow him to understand anything? The nurse who tended him told Dad what an angelic spirit he was.

Where was Nell [my maternal grandmother]? Did she take the bus over from East St. Louis when she could? How had she reacted? What about Grandpa and Grandma Broom? Did this awful set of circumstances remind them of the pain they had experienced some 30 years before when their long-awaited girl, Martha, was thrown from her mother's lap while riding in an open automobile and killed when only a few months old? What had they done to ease the pain?

Grandpa and Grandma were Methodists. It was painful for them when Dad converted to Catholicism. But the nuns at St. Theresa's were so kind and good to the family. Grandpa changed his mind about Catholics; he understood love and he understood loss - especially loss. Each fall for years after Christopher's death, he brought some of his freshly harvested peaches and apples to the convent for the sisters to share.

But, but, but, what was happening with Mom? How did she react when he finally died. Denied a lot chance to gaze upon her child, did she attend the funeral? How did she survive? At what cost? How had this experience changed her? What was she like before?

Sadly, I don't know the answers to any of these questions. I never talked to my mother about them. Dad told me a few things. Life had happened. There is so much I will never know about my parents. But I hope to write about them, or rather a work of fiction based upon them, hoping that in this way I will come to understand them and appreciate them more as the human beings they both were.

Meanwhile, Mom, Happy Mothers' Day.

* It is strongly suspected that Mom was sexually abused when she was a child.

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