"Are you Christian Scientist?"
"You're having a contraction right now," the doctor replied.
Strange. Unheard of. A painless delivery! He had followed us to the hospital early that morning. He thanked me for letting him make his eight o'clock meeting. Was this a boon to spare me what lay ahead?
It had not been an unusual pregnancy, my third. Morning, noon, and nighttime nausea was normal for me. The migraine headaches were new. At the first sign, I would put my youngest in the crib, and my son would bring Mommy the bucket. Jagged lightning streaks in my eyes for an hour or so, and then the throbbing pain and nausea for hours. If you took the ergotamine early on you might or might not head it off. These ended after the birth.
Looking for causes later, we determined that the ergotamine played no part in the scenario. That afternoon the doctor spelled it all out. Multiple birth defects. The skull was the most obvious being malformed on one side. There was a heart shaped protusion on the back of the skull where the bones had not knitted together properly. A "hypospadias" factor wherein the opening for the penis was at the base. It was three hours before I could find my voice to phone my husband.
My doctor had agreed to tie my tubes. In the fifties, one needed three doctors to sign off. It never happened. My doctor couldn't get them to approve even though I was twenty-five and had other children. Intimacy was never the same. Counting days and creating ways to have a meaningful experience was the best we could do. Having one abnormal child was allowed--two was not only unthinkable but unforgivable.
We could not take him home. My other children had eagerly awaited a little brother to play with and to pull in their wagon. It was not to be. We visited, and then one morning, six weeks later, the phone call came. Don't even change your clothes. Come immediately to sign off on surgery for a strangulated hernia. That was followed by pneumonia. Miraculously he survived, and two months later, he joined our family.
Six months found him convulsing. To the hospital for a shot and observation. Dilantin was the drug called for at the time. It helped for a short time. I would awaken to find him thrashing about only to wonder how long it had been going on. The spells lasted for hours or until a trip to the emergency room for his shot.
There developed a difficulty with swallowing. He strangled on liquids. I would drape myself with a towel to protect my clothes from the food spatters. I was the only one in my family who would dare to feed him. I would fatten him up and then after a hospital stay, when he lost all the weight, I would start all over again.
Our little one was named Bardie. We called him by his middle name because his father didn't want his son to use his given name of Joseph, Jr. I said nothing, but I felt wounded. We went through the guessing game. "It must be in his/her family. There's nothing wrong in mine." He grew, but slowly. He never dat up. He never cried. He never spoke. The petty squabbles we indulged in from time to time ceased having something bigger than ourselves to deal with.
One day I had tolerated my hair no longer, and it was off to the beauty parlor, the first and only time I ever left him. His father tried to give him a bottle. The little guy swung his arm. The bottle went up and came down clunking him on the head. Nothing serious! Then Dad, who had an aversion to feces, tried to change him, and "tossed his cookies" over the poor babe.
We rented a second floor apartment from an old Polish couple. They were kind but unsophisticated. "Go to the cemetery before the cock crows and take some soil from a grave. Place it on Bardie's finger to stop the convulsing. If that doesn't work, try milk from a gray horse." They meant well, and I was not offended by their naïveté. My mother-in-law offered us money to take him to a "good doctor." Another need to explain that there was no such thing as a "good doctor" for our little one.
During this time my husband was employed in a mill. When we had returned to Pittsburgh from his job in Chile, we had a fair sum of money to tide us over until he could find a job in industrial sales. The bulk of it went to pay off three people whose cars had been damaged by Joe's drunken older brother. One week later they found his brother sashaying down the avenue drunk as a skunk and our money gone. Joe had to take any job and quickly.
Then the mill cut back, and no job and no health insurance. The pediatrician said, "Come to my office when I call, and I will teach you how to give him his shot for the convulsion." We practiced on an orange. Thankfully I never had to perform.
Industrial sales jobs were never offered to Poles, Italians, Jews, or blacks. That was the time of the "Polish joke." The manager in Cleveland was a Slovak and took Joe on. Joe had found his place in the sun at last and covered that town like a blanket—power actuated tools, diamond cutting wheels, etc.
I and the children stayed with my mother until Joe found us an apartment. We borrowed $90.00, rented a truck, which my brother drove, and we were on our way. Our landlord occupied the first floor and would get "loaded" and shut down the power. After the second time that stopped. Joe had backed him up to the porch railing! We moved.
We had taken Bardie to the famous Cleveland Clinic for evaluation. The letter stated that he would need special care for the rest of his life. We already realized that.
Another second floor apartment which was located six blocks from the hospital. By now Bardie could take no liquids save the small amount I mixed with cereal or bananas. We tried to keep him out of the sun if we had to leave the house. The heat would trigger a convulsion, and he was always bordering on dehydration. With each convulsion, he would remain several days in the hospital. Twice a day I walked there to feed him as the personnel never did. I knew that when the day came that he would not eat for me, it would be over. I was a fairly "collected" mother, and ER folks allowed me to observe them while they treated him. One time the doctor said, "I can't give him any more medication. It will kill him. We had to hope it would subside, and it did. I faltered once during a session when he was biting his cheeks. The blood was seeping from his mouth, and not a normal red but brown. I casually left the room, found a chair, and put my head between my knees so I would not faint dead away.
A Friday night found Bardie refusing his food. I wept as I walked home. I knew. Life goes on, and the children needed new shoes. After the shopping trip that Saturday morning, the call came. My mother came to help. She had said many times that we should pray that God would take him. I never did. I prayed for strength, and I got it. No fancy "mountain top" experience. My prayers came in more mundane ways, washing dishes, doing the laundry. I told my children that God had only loaned him to us. My faith had sustained me. Bardie finally looked his three-and-a-half years in his little boy suit.
It was autumn, October, in the cemetery, and the leaves had transformed themselves into a mass of color. It was overcast, and then magically the sun shone upon us. A peace like no other descended upon me. I knew that his soul was with the Lord, and I have never been so certain of anything in my life before or since.
What makes it so hard to let go of our tiny children and pets? Innocence. Only adult humankind is capable of the unspeakable things we do to one another, not our "angels."
That day I shed my last tear. Many, many years passed. The movie was called "Lorenzo's Oil." The parents were struggling to find an answer for their son's condition, researching every conceivable source, and every possibility seeking aid. My cheeks were wet when I heard their doctor say, "We can't give him any more medication." Déjà vu.