I’d Rather Die By Ice Than By Fire
Hidden in the countryside, a teenager keeps her secret.
Originally published in Literary Mama
Sarah fostered another unwed mother before me, and that girl left a box of things in the closet. There are letters, a diary, and a few pictures, and at night I sit on the foot of the bed underneath the ceiling light, and look through them. I sit and read in my mint green nylon nightgown, while the sweat trickles down my back and drips from the round of my belly.
The heat is intolerable at Sarah’s house. It’s humid here, with fields of corn and soybeans drinking up the rain and sweating it back into the long July days. The only air conditioning is in the living room. My room is upstairs, and it’s sweltering. There’s one window and a fan, but the fan doesn’t do much because the ceiling is low and slanted. It holds the heat over my bed like a tent.
I like Sarah and Bud and their kids, but it’s lonesome here. Not like it might have been at a home for unwed mothers where I could have lain in the dark talking to the girls in the beds next to mine. Here all I have for company at night are the things in that box. I feel guilty looking through someone’s private belongings, but I want to get to know this girl.
She was older. It sounds as if before she got pregnant, she’d been to a couple of years of college at one of the big universities, like Iowa City or maybe Ames. In my book, she would have been old enough to keep her baby, but her boyfriend was black, and a mixed-race marriage wasn’t much of a possibility in Iowa in 1970. Her boyfriend went off to Vietnam while she was expecting, which makes me think her situation was worse than mine. It was bad enough for her to have to give up her baby, but I wonder if her boyfriend came home safe. I can’t help thinking of that anti-war song where the guy comes back in a box.
The world is a terrible place. Boyfriends going off to war, babies and mothers split apart, couples unable to have their own babies, and me hustled off to the countryside to keep the shame of my predicament from ruining my family, while I worry that I’ll go to hell anyway even if my secret stays kept.
I’ve already requested that my baby be placed with a Catholic family. It’s all I really know, and it’s the one thing I can do for my child. A baby who hasn’t been baptized into the Church makes me think of the pagan babies in Africa that I gave up my milk money for in grade school. We put a lot of thought into those babies. After we collected enough money, we’d vote on a name that they’d be baptized with. We came up with names like Christine or Jennifer Mary, and certificates came back from Africa, or somewhere, with the babies’ names on them. Sister put them up on our bulletin board, and congratulated us. “Babies who die without being baptized end up in limbo,” she explained, and no grade-schooler could stand the thought of an innocent baby being turned away from heaven.
Even though I want my baby to be baptized, I’ve never quite believed what the Catholic Church says about original sin. They say we’re all born tainted since Eve tempted Adam with the apple, but it doesn’t make sense to put a stain on the soul of every baby because of one piece of forbidden fruit. My soul may be tarred with sin from the things I’ve done, but I can feel that my baby has a soul without a mark on it, like the handsome face of my friend Tom, who broke his neck and died in a car wreck just down the road from his house last year. My boyfriend and I had double dated with Tom and his girlfriend to our junior prom the weekend before he died. Later, I would see Tom’s girlfriend whenever I went into the A&P where she had a summer job working as a checker. I thought of her as a widow who wasn’t really a widow, not knowing that this summer I would be a mother who wasn’t really a mother.
Lots of people I know have died in car accidents. They were burned in flaming wrecks, or broke their necks by rolling their cars over into ditches on an icy curve. If I had to choose, I know I’d rather die by ice than by fire and leave this world, as people in my town had said about Tom, without a mark on me. A girl’s looks are an important thing — along with her reputation. A girl can become a secretary, or a nurse, or a teacher, but some fathers tell their daughters that college is a waste of time and money. “You’ll just get married,” they say, eyeing her prettiness, satisfied. But my father wants me to go to college.
My father is gruff on the outside, but marshmallow sweet on the inside. He’s been lending my boyfriend a car so he can come visit me, and now we’re sitting in Sarah and Bud’s driveway talking. It’s past my due date, and I feel like the baby is pressing on my lungs from the inside, and that the air on the outside is just too thick to take in. There’s lightning in the distance, and electricity under my skin, too. I feel mean and anxious, but still, I surprise myself when I punch him.
It’s a miscommunication. One tiny word is what sets me off. I think he says he can’t believe he’s the father. He claims he said he couldn’t believe he was a father. There’s a world of difference between those two little words, “a” and “the”, and before I even think of asking any questions, my hand just closes up into a fist and aims itself at his face. I guess all those Friday Night at the Fights boxing matches I watched on TV with my dad, while sitting on the big curved arm of his easy chair, filed themselves away somewhere in the back of my brain. I have no trouble at all figuring out what to do. I’m no Cassius Clay, and he dodges a little, but I hit him hard enough smack in the jaw to make my knuckles ache.
He doesn’t talk for a minute, so I have a chance to yell at him, “What do you mean you can’t believe you’re the father?” He tries to explain then, but I know what a smooth talker he is. All that smoothness, and the way his eyes glimmer when he smiles is what made me fall for him in the first place. I’m only 17, but I know when someone’s lying to me. I’m sure he said what I thought he said. He’s just like that, I tell myself. He’s said a lot of things, and I doubt he’s about to stop just because I’m pregnant with his baby.
I’m wearing a hand-me-down maternity shirt that Sarah gave me. It’s brown with white pin stripes, and it makes me look like a businessman with a paunch. I’m tired of feeling fat and swollen all the way to my ankles. I’m tired of wearing someone else’s clothes. I’m tired of my boyfriend, but I tell him I think I might be having a contraction as I feel all the irritation in my being gather around my middle. We talk for a while about how this might be it, the baby might be coming, and I can feel myself forgiving him. But still we know he can’t stay. It’s 10 or 11 at night, and he has to drive home whether the baby is coming or not. He’ll call my mom tomorrow to find out what’s going on, he says, and then we kiss. I get out of the car and go in the back door. I pass through the kitchen and waddle into the living room where I can watch the taillights of his car glow down the long narrow driveway until he turns onto the gravel road.
I’m alone at the window when Sarah comes into the living room to say goodnight, and I tell her that maybe I’ve had some contractions, but she doesn’t seem worried.
“Wake me if you need me,” she says, “or if they get real regular.”
I know I won’t be able to sleep, so I watch Johnny Carson, but nothing is funny or interesting. I just want to know if the pains I’m having are the real thing, and if my baby is a boy or a girl. I want to know how much giving birth will hurt, and if giving up the baby will hurt even more. I watch TV until it goes off the air, and then I just stay in Bud’s big Naugahyde recliner listening to the TV play “The Star Spangled Banner” while I watch the lightning through the picture window. Just my damn luck to have this baby while the world is blowing down. I’m scared, but I time my contractions just like Sarah taught me.
The next morning is so hot it shimmers, and Sarah and I have given her kids breakfast and gotten the neighbor lady from down the road over to watch them. Now Sarah is driving me to the hospital. In town large, well-tended lawns surround big, old two-story houses or newer, tidy split-levels on shady streets. It’s already humid and my clothes have been sticking to me since I dried off from my morning shower. By midday everyone’s scalp will have lost the perfume of Breck or Prell, and radiate pure sweat. For some reason, I want to look good when I get to the delivery room, or at least respectable, but I know I can give up on having my hair look decent until maybe sometime in September. At least the frosty pink polish on my fingernails is perfect.
There are so many branches and big tree limbs in the streets on the way to the hospital that we have to keep taking detours. I think I’m going to be in real trouble if we get lost and can’t get to the hospital in time. I imagine it all on the TV news. “A young mother gave birth today on a busy city street littered with tree limbs from last night’s big storm!” Great, I think, I keep my pregnancy a secret from everyone, and then I have the baby on television.
Sarah looks over at me while she drives, and I worry that she can see me worrying. At least it wasn’t a tornado. Tornadoes have it in for my family. My dad lost one of his younger brothers during an awful one when he was a boy on his parents’ farm down in southern Illinois. And another time when a tornado went through there, it blew down the county courthouse, and most of the records were destroyed including my dad’s birth certificate, which is how he was able to shave a few years off his age.
Disappearing birth certificates might be good in my case. My baby’s birth certificate will say Baby Boy or Baby Girl MacDonald, which is my last name, not the name of the baby’s father. My mother is worried that the birth will be published in the Stork Sightings column of the local newspaper in the city near where I’m hiding out. I am 60 miles from home, but still it’s possible that someone from my hometown might read this paper since it’s a big daily one, and the newspaper in my town only comes out once a week, and its staff actually calls people up looking for news. The hospital swears they don’t release information about illegitimate births, but there aren’t many MacDonalds around, thanks to my dad who, unlike any of his brothers, decided to use the Scottish spelling instead of the more common McDonald. If the hospital goofs up, and someone from my town sees our name in the paper, they just might put two and two together, my mother says.
My abdomen is contracting under my seatbelt. My body’s getting ready to reveal the baby I’ve been hiding, and I’m already fantasizing about finding my child someday. There’ll be a trail of clues like in Nancy Drew mystery, I tell myself. I’ll find this baby, and let him or her know there just wasn’t any way to make things come out different.
My social worker and Sarah have told me that some mothers name their children, but that it doesn’t provide any way of tracing the child since adoptive parents never keep that name. A new birth certificate with the new name will be issued, and the original birth certificate will be placed in a file that is sealed forever. But still, I think the new parents might get a glance at the original birth certificate, remember the name, and maybe someday tell the child what his or her name might have been. Some birthmothers try to give their babies a token of some sort like a religious medal or a crucifix, but the social worker says that the agency doesn’t encourage that. “Things get lost,” he says, and I’m pretty sure I know what he means.
My brain comes back to the present when Sarah parks the car. I can see the double glass doors of the hospital, and know that in a minute I’ll be walking through them. Sarah takes my suitcase and we walk together across the parking lot. Admitting, the sign in the lobby says, which makes me think of how the truth is about to be unveiled.
I follow Sarah in the direction of the arrow. We stand together at the desk, and after telling the person checking people in who I am and why I’m there, she leaves me.
I’m not sure how long I’ve been at the hospital, but I’ve been lying alone in a little room with only a TV for company since morning. Though Sarah has called my mother, it’s too risky to have her here. She could run into someone who knows her — a nurse, a patient, some distant relative.
After a couple of hours, Sarah comes back to see how I’m doing, and has brought me a little white vase with artificial violets. “I can’t do this,” I tell her, and then I get out of bed, nauseated from the pain and vomit in the toilet while she stands in the doorway behind me.
“We all feel that way,” she says, and gives me a roll of Lifesavers from her purse.
“They can’t give you anything to eat or drink, but these will help you,” she says. Sarah has to get back home then, and I glue my eyes to the TV, making myself watch it.
Nurses come in every once in a while all day long, put their hands inside of me, hurting me. It’s the only time I cry, and they offer no comfort, but speak to me in numbers that have no meaning. The minutes go by, and seem like days or hours depending on what my body is doing. I entertain a romantic notion that my boyfriend will appear in the doorway. I imagine he will tell me he loves me, and bring me real flowers the way my father did for my mother when I was born. I’ve seen my baby book with its padded pink cover in a dresser drawer in our attic, a single red rose pressed between its pages.
It might be 2:30 or 2:00 or maybe 3:00 when two nurses come in together.
There are hands again, and one nurse says to the other, “Doctor O. has a dinner party to go to at 7:30.” They ignore me for second, and then one nurse gives me a shot while the other takes something long and plastic out of a cellophane wrapper. It looks like an extra-large crochet hook. I feel a rush of wetness between my legs then, warm and urgent like floodwaters spilling over a riverbank.
There’s not much lying around or TV watching after that. The nurses shift me to a gurney, and time seems like it’s got somewhere important to go, too. I’m surprised in the delivery room when I see the clock says 4:00. Sarah knew what she was talking about when she said that first babies just don’t pop out that easily. She told me that a lot of babies are born after a storm. She said a big storm like that just shakes things loose. This is what I’m thinking when I know the birth is almost over. I am terrified and miserable from all the pushing, and nurses and doctors telling me what to do. “Almost there,” a nurse says and then suddenly the baby is out, and the doctor tells me that it’s a healthy boy. For a moment, I’m relieved.
Just a few nights ago, I dreamed I had twins. My mother is a twin, and I have a great aunt and uncle who are twins, and a set of twin cousins. I worried it would be even harder to give up a set of twins. Maybe I would keep the babies after all if there were two of them, I’d told myself after the dream. But this baby has come into the world alone, and now the relief disappears because I know what is expected of me.
The delivery room is cold and bright, and I’m shaking. The baby is in the hands of one of the doctors. The doctor is young and cute, and I’m embarrassed to be so exposed. I watch as he hands the baby to the nurse. “Is this your first?” asks the young doctor, smiling. I don’t know how to answer. He doesn’t know what’s going on, I think.
The old doctor says to him in a low voice, “She’s an unwed mother.” The eyes of the doctors and the nurse flash at one another over their green surgical masks. Everyone is dressed in green, and the baby is covered in green blanket. I’m surprised by how much I want to hold him. He screams in tiny staccato bursts as they take him from the room.
My body is burning, and I’m being stitched up. No one explained exactly how I would be cut, and I’m worried my body is maimed, disfigured, that something went terribly wrong with the delivery. I feel like I might faint, though I’m not really in any pain. I wonder if they’ve given me some kind of shot like Novocain at the dentist. The room is emptying, someone is sliding me onto a gurney, and I’m being wheeled out the door. The hallway has a shiny floor, and my eyes are closing.
I wake up in a hospital bed and it takes my brain a few seconds to catch up with my body. There is a raw ache between my legs, and my breasts are tingling. My cotton underwear, stuffed with a sanitary pad, chafes against the fresh stubble of my shaved pubic hair. There’s a lot I didn’t know about having a baby.
I am on the top floor of the hospital, and although the room is huge, there are no new mothers with babies up here. The nurse comes in with my breakfast tray, and as she sets it on the bedside table, she clucks her tongue. “You can’t have any milk,” she says, her voice full of reproach, as she plucks the red and white carton from my tray. “No milk for anyone in this ward.” I have a vague understanding this has to do with not breastfeeding, but refusing to give someone milk is a serious affront in Iowa. To Iowans, a day without three glasses of milk means tooth decay and bones that can snap at the slightest provocation. The nurse’s eyes settle on my chest and there’s a prickly feeling in my breasts though I remember being given a shot to dry up my milk when I was barely awake this morning. But I know nothing about breastfeeding. For all I know, the mere sight of milk will cause my breasts to flow like faucets.
The only other patient, a woman across the room, begins to sob after the nurse’s words. I’ve heard her crying on and off throughout the night. The curtains are drawn around her bed, and I know from the whispers I heard while drifting off to sleep last evening that she’s had a miscarriage. The crying woman and I both have lost our babies; only mine is alive, a couple of floors below in the nursery. I wonder if the woman knows whether her baby was a boy or a girl. I wonder too, which is worse — miscarriage or adoption. Neither of us will see our children again, though I, at least, saw mine for an instant in the delivery room before the doctor had the nurse whisk the baby away. Remembering the older doctor, I feel the shame rising until my cheeks are red hot. A memory I’ve tried to erase. During the hard part of the delivery, when I’d felt as though my body was splitting in two, I’d begun to moan. “No sounds,” he had said to me roughly. “I don’t want to hear any sounds from you.” The nurse had fastened my arms then, to straps at the sides of the delivery table.
My breakfast still sits on its tray. The sun blazes through the window. Maybe it will ignite the blue and white miniature cardboard box of Rice Krispies nestled in the cafeteria bowl waiting for milk. I’m not hungry.
My social worker, with his heavy black briefcase, is scheduled to arrive in an hour. He called to tell me he’ll be bringing some preliminary papers for me to sign, so the baby can be released from the hospital into the custody of the state. The baby will then go home to a foster family, and within a few days, be placed with his permanent adoptive parents. The signing of the papers finalizing the adoption will occur in two weeks, but I know now that I will tell the social worker I won’t be signing any papers until I have held my son.
The days in the hospital move as slowly as the things that must be happening outside in the heat of these midsummer days. My bed is next to the window in my enormous room. There’s one, or there might be two, other beds in the same row as mine, but there’s no one in them. Across the room, there are still more empty beds, and on the second or third morning when I awake, the woman who had the miscarriage is gone. The curtain she’d kept closed is open, and now I’m alone in the ward for disappointed mothers.
The nurses don’t come by very often, and it seems the doctor has forgotten about me altogether. I get up occasionally and hobble to the bathroom in the corner at the end of my row beds. Sarah comes once to bring me a filmy powder-blue bed jacket that she wore in the hospital after her babies. I put it on over my hospital gown, especially glad to have it the day my boyfriend comes to visit. Mostly, I lie in my bed dozing and listening to the radio I can hear playing below my window. There’s construction work going on outside and the music is always on loud, easy to hear over the steady growl of some piece of equipment. I’ve never in my life lain in bed without a book, but I read nothing during these days.
I fill my time by picturing the nursery, and thinking how I’ll take my dress from the wooden wardrobe against the far wall, put it on and go down there to look at my baby. The dress is one of my favorites, and will look great on me now that my stomach is almost flat again. I imagine how I’ll brush out the tangled mess my long hair has become, and how none of the nurses will recognize me. I see myself standing in front of the nursery window. There are two or three rows of babies propped up at an angle. My baby is at the back, and while I stand at the glass, his eyes blink open and his gaze latches onto mine. I stand there for several minutes, then give him a wave, and walk back to the elevator.
I think of doing this so many times that when I finally leave the hospital, wheeled to the curb in a wheelchair according to hospital rules, I’m unsure if I finally worked up the nerve to do it, or if it only happened in my mind.
For the rest of July and on into August, until it’s time to pack my belongings into my father’s car for the drive to my new life at college, heat lightning flashes night after night in the restless sky. Love seems to me to be like the Iowa weather — stickiness and heat, and then thunderstorms washing it all away. But it’s hail I crave this summer. A backyard piled high with ice so I can gather it up and hold it against my heart.