Sunday Morningby Rochelle Ratner
(Originally published in First Intensity, #7, Summer 1996)
It’s six A.M. in the hospital’s seventh floor gynecology unit. The time when nothing much happens. A few nurses are moving quietly in the halls. IV bottles are being checked and changed now that it’s light enough to see without a flashlight (Cyn remembers those flashlights from her own intravenous days. Two days ago. It seems like a month or more now). Six A.M.: dead time. Not enough action to hold one’s interest, but you can’t really get back to sleep, either. That’s the way it’s been the four days she’s been here, never more than two or three hours of sleep before something or someone wakes you. The night before last a woman across the hall screamed in pain and she’d woken up swearing she’d heard some colicky newborn.
Fat chance of that here.
When IVs being dragged through the halls start to sound like baby carriages, you know you’ve got a problem.
The real babies are probably waking up hungry and howling three or four floors below, being carried to their groggy, jittery mothers. If nothing else, she’s glad to be away from that racket. Glad as hell her own kids are grown by now. No more sleepless nights once she gets home. No more toddlers getting back at her for having deserted them. Terri, the youngest, went off to college two weeks ago. Perfect timing for this hysterectomy. Tying up loose ends.
She subconsciously reaches for her left hand. Ever since her first son was born she’s developed a nervous habit of twisting her wedding ring when she’s lost in thought. Except the ring’s all but hidden under hospital-white adhesive tape. The only piece of jewelry they’d allow in surgery, and they taped it down. Probably afraid it would get lost or stolen. It feels more like they’ve locked her into this marriage.
It seems ridiculous to have been so terrified of the operation. She’s doped up with Percocet, in some pain but nothing like the pain she expected. Hell, her last period was worse than this. Not only was the blood flow heavy, but those were cramps she’s not likely to forget. Even her toes ached.
She feels as if she’s been through some long, dark tunnel and finally come out on the other side.
The other side of WHAT?
The other side of her life, if you will.
Her greatest fear was that she’d wake up to find something missing. Being without the uterus and whatever else they took out. The ovaries. One cyst the size of a grapefruit. But she sure as hell can’t feel anything missing, at least nothing she cares about.
One fell swoop and she’s all done with motherhood.
Her roommate went home yesterday, and not many patients are admitted to this unit on Saturdays, so she has the room to herself. Such as it is. Last night there were six people visiting, some in chairs, some leaning against tables, Bob perched on the air conditioning unit. Someone commented on how quiet the floor was, it seemed more of a hotel than a hospital. No, she corrected them, it’s like a dorm room: bare bones, and people.
They’d just driven Terri down to Johns Hopkins.
Cyn flicks on the television. Cartoons. A rerun of some sitcom from the Fifties. On one channel there’s a fifteen minute program demonstrating some new kitchen appliance, and for the first time Cyn understands what it means when she reads “paid programming” in the TV listings.
This remote clicks through each channel then flicks the set off at the end of its cycle. It’s almost as bad as the manual channel selector on the old Zenith they had when they were first married.
She stops on channel 7. Opening shot of a man consoling a woman. Are you sure you’ll be alright, Nancy? Nancy nods. If this meeting weren’t so damn important, I’d cancel the trip. You know that. I hate leaving you at a time like this. But Maria’s here if you need anything.
I hate her. I wish you’d send her away.
Not until I get back. I don’t want you here by yourself. But I promise, as soon as I’m home, we’ll get rid of her.
Nancy hugs the man, holds on for dear life. Cameras pan the rest of the apartment, pause on an empty crib with a mobile of blue, pink, and yellow ducks hanging over it.
Cyn presses the button to lift her head up a bit. This show might be interesting, after all. It looks like a rebroadcast of one of those daytime soap operas her neighbors have been following for years. But what with cooking, cleaning, and picking up after three unbearably sloppy kids, she’s never so much as flicked the TV on during the day. She hasn’t watched a soap opera since she was an adolescent and watched “The Edge of Night” with her grandmother.
The Edge of Night. It was taken off TV a year or two ago, but Cyn remembers an article about it being the nation’s longest-running soap opera. Though she couldn’t begin to fathom why. Before Grandma came to stay at their house, she’d turned on Bandstand at four o’clock every day. But there was only one TV, and what Grandma wanted took precedence. Not that she’d minded overmuch. At least it was time she and Grandma could spend alone together. They’d curl up on the sofa and watch The Edge of Night, while her mother got dinner started and her older sister was over some friend’s or other.
After Grandma went home she’d gone back to Bandstand. But she remembers, two or three times, sleeping over at Grandma’s on a Saturday night and the two of them lying in bed while Grandma caught her up on all the things that had transpired in the characters’ lives. They were both rooting for Mike to get off of the murder rap, certain he couldn’t have done it.
She focuses on the small, high screen again. This acting’s much better than she remembers.
The man goes out the door, pauses, then returns. Are you sure you’ll be alright, Nancy? He asks again. Then, reluctantly, he leaves.
Cyn laughs as the door closes, already envisioning the scene of the guy and his mistress.
Wrong. The next scene is of Nancy tearing the mobile down. She shoves the crib and all the baby things into the back of a closet, then looks full face into the camera, tears in her eyes.
The doorbell rings. A very pregnant woman arrives, cake in hand. She eases herself onto the couch. Nancy sits down beside her. You can still have other children, the woman says. You can get pregnant again soon, and our kids can still grow up together and be good friends, just like we planned.
Ha! Cyn laughs. Tell that to Ritchie. We planned for our eldest to be a lawyer. Made sure he got on the debate team all through high school. We pictured Harvard, maybe Yale. Or Princeton. But the best he could do was Berkeley. Then after two years he decides he wants to study forestry, and runs off to Reed College. Five years of college and where is he? Out there in the wind and rain tarring roads and mowing grass along the highway. His father still thinks there’s hope, but not her.
Nancy jumps up. She stomps around the room, slamming a wall, a chair, a table. Way to go, Cyn calls at the flickering box.
Nancy sits down again, subdued. Do you think that God’s angry with me? That He’s punishing me for having sinned?
What a program to have stumbled onto in the middle of the gynecology unit! Cyn wants to tear open that screen and tell Nancy… Tell Nancy what? How lucky she is that she lost that baby? That sounds so cruel. It was a life, after all, or it almost was.
She at least wouldn’t be like that sappy neighbor, immediately talking about getting pregnant again. No, she’d caution Nancy to take better care of herself. Get some birth control, and wait at least another year before having children. Another year of freedom. Another year of her own life. Two or three years if she’s lucky.
Cyn presses her hands against her stomach. The swelling’s going down a bit, but the subtle ache is still there. The other day the doctor put his stethoscope to her stomach, trying to hear what the bowels were doing, she supposed. She jokingly asked if he could hear the baby’s heartbeat.
She listens as Nancy reiterates the fact that she was pregnant before they married. It was his choice, damn it. He’s the one who wanted to go ahead and have the child. If anyone should be punished, it should be him!
Cyn wishes she could have stood up to Neil like that. Or at least said okay, you wanted kids, you take care of them. Then gone straight from the hospital to her secretarial job which didn’t pay very well but at least made her feel important.
As the TV dialogue continues, Cyn finds out this wasn’t a miscarriage after all. The baby was carried to term, and born dead. Nancy insists she could never go through that again. The neighbor tries to calm her down, and is all but shoved out the door, cake and all.
Cut to the scene in the bedroom, or nursery. Maria has dragged the cradle out of the closet. She stands there rocking it.
Wow, Cyn thinks. No wonder Nancy doesn’t want that woman around. They’d talked about getting someone in to help her after Terri was born, but just couldn’t hack it financially. And she’d thought, if they’d just had the money, everything would have been perfect.
Nancy runs over, pushes Maria to the floor, stuffs the paraphernalia back in the closet. You don’t understand! The baby’s dead!
Flash to Maria’s blank face. No Misses, she says, lifting herself off the floor.You’re the one who doesn’t understand. I was sent here to help you.
This program’s getting better and better. One of the best depiction’s of madness Cyn has ever seen. Far too good for a daytime soap opera. Thirty Something? The ages would be right, and she’s heard people rave about that program. She caught it once or twice herself, and recalled something about a pregnancy. Or maybe Mary Hartman; the setting seems a bit too modern, but she’s not as up to date on fashions as she used to be. Raising three children took so much time, she has a thousand things to catch up on now.
Wait a second. Is Maria a housekeeper or a midwife? Cyn must not have been paying attention for a moment there, but she catches something about the baby being born at home. She’s probably a midwife.
A midwife and a mother. Now she stands beside Nancy and takes out those typical pictures women carry in their wallets. Her son. Her husband. Somewhere in El Salvador. Her son might be still alive, but she has no way of finding out. He was eighteen months old when they took him from her. God looks after all the children, she says. The living and the dead.
Cyn raises the bed higher, turns up the volume as loud as she can (the speaker’s in the remote, and she has to put it right beside her ear to hear it well). No wonder Maria’s verging on insanity. So few programs have touched on the realities of the political struggles in Latin America.
Nancy gives up, lets the cradle stay where it is, calls the neighbor and apologizes for the way she acted.
Oh Christ, Cyn thinks, don’t tell me she’s going to talk about getting pregnant again! The last thing she needs right now is to hear some TV character spouting off about the joys of childbirth. That’s why she gave up watching television in the first place — it was all so superficial. Just look.
Cut to the husband’s return, holding his wife in his arms. It’s all okay now, I’m back. Maria’s room’s cleaned out. She’s vanished. But it’s funny: I called the agency, and they’ve never heard of her. Claimed they never hired anyone from El Salvador.
Nancy looks up at him; their eyes meet in a shock of recognition. Exit music begins.
Cyn lifts her head off the pillow as the credits roll. Unrecognizable names — actors, directors, editors, etc. Then the final line, “Paulist Productions for the Christian Family.”
She lies back in shock through the commercial. The screen flickers on to the next program, some gospel service.