By Courtney Miller Santo
WHEN IT BECAME known how close her son had come to dying, Janie’s friends brought food. The believers looked up and told her how blessed her family had been. Looking sideways, the nonbelievers invoked luck. Her friend Sarah was among the last to come. Sarah had caught Janie as she was backing out of the driveway to return to the hospital and, as they talked, Sarah held her eighteen-month-old grandchild on her hip. Because they’d been friends for a long time, Sarah teased Janie, saying she ought to put any bit of fortune she had left to good use and slip down to Tunica to see what money she could wrestle from the slot machines. Even as Janie mimicked pulling the lever on such a machine, she thought she’d never again go anywhere but to the hospital. For the past week, she’d spent twenty hours a day at LeBonhuer with her son. The other hours she spent on her other children—making them breakfast and seeing them off to school.
“Honey, I tell you,” Sarah said, trying to find the words for Sarah’s situation. Finally, she shook her head as if too tired to continue and her grandchild arched his back in an effort to get down. Sarah tightened her grasp on him and then sighed, holding out a basket. “I made cinnamon rolls. They’re warm and you ought to eat at least two before you have to walk in that hospital and put your Mom face on.”
They were the type of women who had inside jokes. Somewhere in the early years of friendship when their children had been small, they’d heard their husbands talking about game faces and appropriated the term to explain how women became moms when they needed to. They’d never spoken of putting on the grandmother face. The fact was, Sarah was too young to have a grandchild, but two years earlier, her oldest had come home from college pregnant and now for all intents and purposes, Sarah had a toddler in the house again.
“I should go,” Janie said, easing off the brake.
“You should go,” Sarah said, stepping back and waving, the toddler still pulling at her shoulder in an attempt to be let loose. How had time moved so quickly? Janie’s own children were teenagers now and had little need of mothering. They had lives that extended beyond her lap and even, when they did need her, they didn’t want her. In the week that her son had been prostrate in a hospital bed with a white plastic tube snaking down his throat and into his lungs pushing air in and out of his body, he’d not once reached for her.
She checked her watch as she pulled into the hospital parking lot. In a few hours, her husband, Tim, would finally be home. He flew planes for FedEx and had literally been halfway to China when Austin’s pneumonia had turned serious. As was typical, by the time he got back he’d have missed all the hard parts. She walked straight at LeBonheur’s double glass doors, knowing from having been through them dozens of times in the last few days that they’d open without her slowing. Everything about LeBonheur screamed children’s hospital, from its primary colored interior to the large red heart stitched to the side of the building. At seventeen, her son had a week’s worth of stubble, making him appear more man than child.
She’d hoped to find him asleep, unaware of her absence, but as she entered the room, he glanced at her and then turned his eyes toward the television. She’d disappointed him by not being his father. That’s who he had wanted to walk through the door. A nurse entered the room and changed his bedpan with brisk efficiency. Austin’s face colored as she poured the piss into the bathroom toilet.
“It’s just awful,” said the nurse nodding at the television. On the local news a tragedy unfolded. A mother had locked her two children inside a duplex she shared with her cousin and gone to the corner store for a pack of cigarettes. When she returned, the house was crumbling and the streets were choked with fire trucks, police cars, and satellite vans. “I seen enough on the news and in here to know that some folks just shouldn’t be havin’ kids.”
Janie nodded, but then she wanted the nurse to understand that she agreed about the tragedy, not about who should and who shouldn’t be a parent. “Still. I feel awful for the mother.”
“She’ll have a lot of guilt. It’ll eat her up,” the nurse said, moving closer to Janie, but keeping her eyes on the television where the mother moaned. “That’s a woman in need of a good pastor.”
The nurse replaced the cleaned bedpan and then paused behind Janie’s chair. They watched a balding reporter try to get a coherent sentence out of the mother, who scratched at her own face and pulled on her shirt until a sleeve ripped away. “My babies,” the mother wailed before collapsing into a fireman’s arms. “My babies was sleeping.” The fireman didn’t speak, but in the footage that followed, Janie spotted the man, soot blackening his red moustache, sitting on the curb in front of the duplex, weeping.
Janie wiped tears from her eyes and bowed her head in prayer for the woman. To the nurse, she said, “Even with faith, losing children must be an impossible grief.”
Austin groped for the remote and turned the television down, his thumb stabbing impatiently at the volume button.
“You’re out of danger with this one,” the nurse said, pointing to Austin. “Doctor says the tube may come out today.”
“Thank God,” Janie said, walking the nurse to the door and offering her one of Sarah’s cinnamon rolls. “Homemade.”
The nurse nodded, taking the roll and walking down the hallway. Janie wondered what her son would’ve said about the story. Teenagers tended to be callous about other people’s grief. She hadn’t heard him speak in more than a week, not since they put in the breathing tube. The click and hum of the respirator seemed louder with the television quieted. Her son turned his head and looked toward the door. She shouldn’t have told him his father was coming in today. The children knew their father sometimes caught earlier flights, or made better time and they tended to expect him before they should.
Janie rubbed her ears and moved to Austin’s bedside. She reached to take his hand, wanting to hold her son’s attention until the very moment Tim walked in. She mindlessly finger spelled the alphabet into his hand, wishing that she’d taught her children to sign. If Austin knew even a handful of words, she could break through the isolation that left her feeling unmoored from her family.
Her mind returned to the mother from the television. She wondered what had happened after she rent her clothing. The camera had cut away, turned its eye away from her grief. G R I E F, she spelled the word into her son’s hand. Austin shook his hand free of hers. He was the child who looked the most like his father, with Tim’s blonde hair and thin, sharp nose. Her other son, Phoenix, was a perfect mix with Janie’s dark hair and her husband’s blue eyes. Her youngest, Savannah, could be Janie’s double, but she didn’t yet carry any of the weight of the adult world. She didn’t know how many sins a mother could commit. Janie stared at the muted television flashing sports scores from high school games. Austin turned the volume up. This was what he’d been waiting for, what he cared about.
His pneumonia had started as the flu. They all had it. They sneezed, coughed, rubbed their noses raw with tissues, and threw their covers off when the fever burned so hot it felt like the sheets might burst into flame. It took a week, but they all returned to their lives. The only remainder of their illness was a persistent, heavy cough that lingered with Austin and Janie. Some nights when the coughing woke her, she’d roll over and place her hand against the wall, which was shared with Austin’s room. She heard him coughing, and it worried her, made her want to rush into his room with menthol rub and a humidifier, but he’d let her know that he was too old for such ministrations.
Ignoring her mother’s intuition, Janie had let him go back to school. “I got tests and stuff,” he’d said. She looked up at her son and blinked away tears. It amazed her to see the shape of men on her boys. They were skinny, but taller than their father. She stood on her tiptoes to reach his forehead, which was clammy, but cool to the touch and nodded her assent. She knew that this desire to return had more to do with the girlfriend than with tests. But how could she forbid him from going?
The next day, with the family on the mend, Tim picked up the China flight. He’d taken the previous week off, battling the same illness, and had been anxious to get back to work. Before he left, he gave each of the children a father’s blessing. And yet, that night, Austin’s fever came back, alternating with chills so strong his teeth shook. In her mind, she repeated what she’d remembered of the blessing—that Austin would fully heal, that he would find strength, that it all be done if it be God’s will.
Janie called Sarah, seeking advice, mother-to-mother, about his symptoms. She didn’t tell her about the blessing. As close as they were, Janie had always felt strange sharing her faith with Sarah, who’d been raised Baptist, but swore off religion in college. Instead, she told her friend how much she hated to waste a doctor’s time. She knew from years of taking Phoenix in for his asthma, or Savannah in for her allergies, that physicians barely tolerated worried mothers, pushing them out the door without prescriptions but with a cursory, “Call us if it gets worse.” What is worse?, she was asking Sarah when Savannah wrenched the phone from her to call an ambulance.
“He’s not breathing,” Savannah said, her eyes wide.
Janie didn’t know if she was speaking to her or the 911 operator. She rushed into her sons’ room to find Phoenix performing CPR on his brother. In a whir, Savannah rushed passed her and knelt beside her brother, praying out loud in pleading, sobbing words that were nearly impossible to make out. Nobody touched Janie. She felt as if they’d found her out. She was a mother who neglected her children. That had always been her sin.
WHEN HER THREE children were small, but not helpless, Janie slipped away from them for short, quick walks around the block. The escapes had started the year they moved from Salt Lake to Memphis. Austin had been five, Savannah, four and Phoenix, two. The urge for freedom would strike her when the clamor of the washing machine, the vacuum, the dog, the children asking for milk, for shoes to be tied, for toys to be found, for books to be read, left her ears ringing and her head spinning. Each time she placed her hand on the back door’s glass doorknob, the tension drained from her shoulders and her spine straightened.
She’d grown up in a small, dusty town in Oklahoma, the oldest of eight children who’d been born to a father who worked days as an engineer at the small coal mine and nights and weekends as branch president to the few dozen Mormons spread across the county. Her mother was deaf. It fell to Janie to translate her mother’s signs into words and, as happens, by speaking for her mother, she became her mother. At the time, she had some inkling that she was losing her adolescence, but she didn’t realize the other loss and, even when she was grown, she had trouble putting it into words. How to explain the déjà vu that overcame her the year her escapes began? Motherhood had not been new to her when her children came along. It held no wonders, no secrets. The potty training, the sticky jam hugs, the tantrums, the hot sweaty heads asleep on her shoulder, it had all been done before. She was haunted by suffocating thoughts that this was the only job she’d ever done, and it was all she’d ever do.
But each time she stepped out the door and onto her front porch, she found peace. Manners be damned. Motherhood be damned. Without Savannah and Austin clutching at her skirt and Phoenix clamped tight around her torso, she was weightless. She was eighteen again and in New York where she’d bumped into strangers in the thick holiday crowds and never once stopped to apologize.
Janie had always tried desperately to control her urges. Sitting in the family room one day while Savannah tied ribbons in her doll’s hair and the boys rammed Matchbox cars into the baseboards, she’d try to squelch the need to run by reliving the first escape in her memory. Taking up the book that Phoenix urged into her hands, she’d breathed deeply and remembered how the shock of November air had pierced her lungs during that first desperate dash. He had always been a good little monkey and very curious.
She’d turn the page and let the children study the illustration of a chimp wearing a yellow straw hat, but inwardly, she let the rush of what she’d felt that first day wash over her. She relived the euphoria of seeing the Victorian on the corner, and knowing that she was only a mile from the Greyhound station, where she could hop a bus to a place small enough to make her life in Memphis seem big. Turn the page, Mama. In her mind, she walked down Union, passing over the freeway and trailing her hand along the walls of Sun Studio. She’d never actually gotten that far, not on any of her escapes. That first day, as she stepped onto Union, sirens wailed on the street, and the thought that something could be wrong sent her scurrying back to her brick foursquare.
Back then, Tim had just begun flying for FedEx and Janie was not used to being alone with the children for such long stretches of time. She might have stopped wandering away if she’d felt some sense of remorse, but as it was, the nagging worry of what might happen to the children wasn’t enough to keep her home. As the escapes continued, she became more cautious—going through each room of their house to make sure dangerous items were put up and unplugged. She turned on the base to the baby monitor, which she’d dug out of the hall closet after that first walk, and took the receiver and an extra set of batteries from the junk drawer before carefully locking the door behind her. She slipped away more often in winter than in summer because she could carry the monitor’s receiver in her coat pocket without the neighbors knowing.
She stayed within a block of her house, walking around and around until she heard through the static the voice of her oldest, Savannah, calling, “Momma? Momma?” as she looked in different rooms of the house. Then, no matter how little time had passed since Janie had slipped out of the house, she would sprint as fast as she could, cutting through the alley or her neighbors’ yards trying to head off that moment when her daughter’s voice rose in pitch and started to tremble.
Janie always made it home before her daughter started to cry and usually she had enough time to slip in the back gate and busy herself with the garbage cans or the flower bed before her little girl opened the back door and ran out to tell her to stop getting lost. If her daughter ever noticed that her mother was out of breath, she never said. Sometimes one of the boys would notice that she was missing, and Janie would hear them through the crackle and hiss of the receiver as they asked Savannah to find Momma.
Because nothing bad ever happened to the kids on these walks, Janie soon came to feel that God had put a bubble around her children to keep them from getting hurt. She never said this aloud, but as Savannah, Austin, and Phoenix grew older, and as she watched other children break their arms learning to ride their bikes, or fall into a nest of wasps while hunting ducks with their fathers, she said small prayers of thanks. When she thinks of these prayers now, she is ashamed at their smugness, at their selfishness. Her world had been too small back then; she had no notion of the larger suffering that happens every day.
Sometimes she wondered if Sarah knew she slipped away. About a year after she’d started escaping, she’d sat with her best friend at the park, watching their children hoist themselves up slides and into swings. She was in awe of Sarah, who shared clothing with her teenage daughter and unabashedly dyed her hair an unnatural shade of red. Janie knew she looked like a dried up twig. Her dark brown hair was so brittle that she couldn’t pull it into a ponytail without strands of it breaking off. If her mother were here, she would bring her hand to her mouth to sign that Janie needed to eat more.
That day, Sarah had leaned over to whisper into Janie’s ear, “You ever think about just leaving them? Getting up and walking to the Mapco for a soda and a pack of grape Bubblicious? That’s what I used to do when I came to the park as a teenager. I’d sit on those swings in my uniform and blow bubbles as big as my face.”
Janie shook her head.
“The kids would probably never even notice we’re gone.”
They never do, Janie had wanted to say. She looked toward the swings where Phoenix pushed Savannah and noticed that Austin was walking up the path some teenagers had carved into the gentle slope leading up to the trestle, just above the park. Janie had seen them on her walks furtively smoking in the small clearing next to the train tracks. “It’s not that they’ll miss us, it’s that they need us,” she’d said finally and then dashed from the bench to grab her son before he reached the tracks. She lost her footing after she’d ushered him back to the swings and fell into the brush.
She came back to the bench holding her bleeding elbow and, after assuring her friend that she was fine, listened as Sarah told her that when she had the urge to leave, she locked herself in the bathroom. “They still pound on the door and demand that I stop peeing this instant and come watch them play. My children don’t know how to be alone. I’m pretty sure it’ll catch up with them when they’re older.”
Listening to her friend talk, Janie wished that her own children craved her presence in that way—needed her like oxygen. “Savannah won’t let me watch her play,” she’d said to Sarah. “She wants to save everything to show her dad and if I try to see what they’re doing, she tells the boys to hide. Afraid I’ll spoil the surprise and tell Tim their secrets.”
“That’s all your husband’s doing. He’s a man who knows how to play with children. I betcha wish he was home more.”
“Tim’s spoiled them. He’s always trying to make up for me—tells me with all the practice I had growing up in my enormous family that play ought to come more naturally for me. I haven’t the heart to tell him I used it all up on my siblings.”
“I’m telling you, the cure is Bubblicious. And none of that strawberry-flavored crap. Grape. That’s the good stuff.”
They laughed and continued talking, moving onto stories about other people.
That night, as Janie scrubbed Austin in the bath, she noticed red splotches along her scraped arm. About the time she finished toweling off her youngest, the rash began to tingle. She’d never before had poison ivy and what followed was one of the worst weeks of Janie’s life. The itching got so bad that she resorted to taping oven mitts to her hands to keep from scratching and taught the children how to order take out and make hot dogs in the microwave. The Relief Society showed up with meals until Tim managed to trade flights and come home early. He dropped his bags by the door, gathered his children, their knight and princess outfits, and took them to the park until the sun set. They came home with stories of valor, jars full of fireflies, and chanting a rhyme their father had taught them, “Leaves of three let them be.”
HOLDING HER SON’S hand in the hospital, Janie wondered if she’d let her children be alone too often. She picked up her heavy triple combination and leafed through the pages, looking for words about faith, about healing. Surely this episode of pneumonia, so unusually dangerous, was punishment for her sins of neglect. A week ago, when they’d admitted him, the doctor had been grim and reluctant to give the family a prognosis. In Tim’s absence, she’d called a few of the men in the ward and had them offer a blessing. Watching from the edge of the bed, Janie longed to stand with the men in the circle, to put her hands on her son’s head, to be a conductor for the Holy Spirit. It wasn’t that she wanted the priesthood, but that she needed to find an active way to help heal her son. Standing by, arms folded, head bowed, wasn’t enough. It felt like one more exclusion, and she’d stopped caring if they were of her own doing or someone else’s.
She put her head on the side of her son’s bed. She slept and dreamed of billboards with letters tall enough to read from miles away. Clear signs directing her actions, letting her know where to go, where to stop. A door opened in the middle of the street and then a rush of cool air at the back of her neck told her the door to their room had opened. Austin blinked and she knew from the tears that sprang to his eyes that his father had arrived. He pulled his hand free and reached out to his Dad, working his hand into some long-ago secret handshake that Tim had taught the children.
This rejection made Janie want to scream, to throw her scriptures across the room, but instead she stood on her tiptoes and kissed her husband on the cheek. She backed away, leaving them to the intimacy of being in breathing distance of each other. Janie picked up her scriptures and idly flipped through the thin paper pages, stopping to puzzle over why she’d highlighted certain passages over the years. Despite Austin’s muteness, Tim spoke as if their son could respond—taking blinks and nods as answers to his questions. Janie didn’t want to listen. She concentrated on the sounds of the hospital. When Austin closed his eyes, Tim put his arm around Janie and whispered that she ought to slip out of there while she could.
“I know you’ve been holding up both ends of our lives,” he said.
“I’m not going anywhere,” she said quickly.
“You just need to get out of here take a shower, get some perspective,” said Tim as he squeezed her shoulder. “There’s your mother to think about and I’d like to see Savannah and Phoenix.”
“I won’t leave him.”
Tim lowered his voice. “I’m not trying to get you to leave him. I j—”
“You always get me to leave them. Then you swoop in and turn loving them into some sort of Olympic feat. And it’s worked. It’s always worked. They love you more. You’re like the goddamn air to them.”
“That’s not true,” said Tim taking her elbow and maneuvering them away from Austin’s bed.
They stood inches from each other, underneath the television. The respirator grew louder. “You’re never here for the hard stuff. Things go wrong when I’m with them because I’m here. I’m here for every little thing. I go to all the practices and you show up at the games.”
“I’m not having this argument again,” Tim said, nodding in the direction of their son. “Now isn’t the time to have this conversation.”
“It’s too late anyhow,” Janie said. She was crying. “They love you more.”
Last month, Sarah had expressed a similar inadequacy. They’d been talking about this new notion of being present. Sarah said all the parenting magazines stressed that it was the most important gift. Janie had heard exhaustion in her friend’s voice.
As Janie and Tim were arguing, the doctor came into Austin’s room to tell them that he was taking the tube out. Tim asked if they could stay and then pressed the doctor when he saw his hesitation. She loved him for that. For his ability to get people to go against the rules. Janie wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her shirt and grabbed her husband’s hand. Austin gagged and choked as they pulled the plastic tube from his throat and when Janie looked up at Tim to share the excitement of the moment, she saw that he wasn’t looking at his son, his eyes were fixed on the window, which was textured in such a way that the outside just looked like an unfocused picture, a blur of the real world.
“Honey,” she said squeezing his hand. “It’s out.”
Tim rushed to his son’s bed as the doctor and the nurses cleared away. Austin made small mewing sounds.
“Are you in pain? Do you need something?” asked Janie, looking back and forth between her son and the doctor. She grabbed the doctor’s sleeve and talked to him, trying to understand what to expect now that the tube was out. He walked to the door and she followed.
Behind her, Austin spoke. “Dad.”
Janie turned from the doctor to see her husband’s head bent low toward his son’s, trying to hear what he was saying. The tube had made his voice scratchy. Tim tried not to draw attention to this and dropped his voice until Janie couldn’t make out what they were saying. She stood in the doorway watching them. She thought about the bubble of protection placed around her family and realized that what God had given her wasn’t a spiritual safeguard, but Tim. There was a quality about her husband—how he carried himself and what he expected out of life—that kept them all safe.
Her heart quickened and an old panic began to overtake Janie. The room felt smaller and louder. She decided that she’d do what Tim had asked of her. She’d bring him his other children and now that her son wasn’t going to die, she’d find a way to talk to her mother. It was the right action. Savannah and Phoenix needed to converse with their brother, to hear that the world was right, that it was safe. She grabbed her purse from the back of a chair and waved to her husband, mouthing that she was off to collect their other children.
The children were surprised and disoriented to be pulled from their classes in the middle of the day. She assured them that their brother was fine, more than fine, and then explained that they had one more stop to make before going to the hospital.
“We’re going to pick up Grandma,” Janie said as her daughter slid into the van. When her father had died, they moved Janie’s mother to a facility around the corner from their house.
She had watched her mother bloom at the rest home, where finally it didn’t seem to matter if she couldn’t hear.
Her daughter nodded and Phoenix, who was draped across the back seat groaned. “I’m not going in. That place smells old.”
They drove in silence for a bit. Janie liked the quiet of the car—more often than not if she held her tongue, one of her children would fill the air with the information she couldn’t pull out of them with questions like, how was your day or what happened at school?
Janie steered the minivan into the turn lane and Savannah’s words, when they came, were a rush: “I dreamed about Austin last night. He kept asking me to find momma, like he used to when we were little. The house seemed so big back then and it was so easy to lose you.”
“I remember that feeling,” said Phoenix from the backseat. “I used to think our house must have secret passageways because you’d be in the living room and then you’d be in the backyard and I could never understand how you moved.”
Janie held her tongue as they talked back and forth about their childhood. She parked the car at the visitor’s spot right on the curb and motioned that she was heading inside. She practiced signing in the elevator up to her mother’s room and struggled to find the right way to sign that Austin’s tube had been removed.
“How is he?” her mother signed when she entered.
Janie signed that he was fine and that she would bring her to the hospital to see him. She started to apologize for not getting her sooner, but dropped her hands and instead said all the words she couldn’t to those who had ears to hear. When she was done, her mother raised her finger and pointed as if there were an audience watching them. She signed with finality: They love you. You’re a good mother. You’re their mother.
THE NEXT AFTERNOON, Janie walked to Sarah’s house and knocked on the door. It was quiet, but she knew Sarah’s grandson, a toddler, would be playing with his wooden blocks or mashing the toy trains together. The bright autumn day had begun to darken as the edges of night crept in. She knocked again, harder. Sarah, when she opened the door, looked exhausted.
“You need to go for a walk,” she told her friend. “You need to slip out, take time away.”
“He’s fine. We can talk when you get back. There’s not enough daylight left to dawdle.”
“I’ll just go tell the baby I’m—”
“No, don’t. Just leave. I’m here. If he looks for you, I’ll tell him you’re gone.”
Mutely, Sarah took her coat off the rack, which hung inside her door, and hugged Janie, who, as an afterthought, told her to pick up a pack of gum.
Sarah’s eyes brightened. “Grape,” she said before stepping onto the porch. Janie watched her friend maneuver down the front walk, which was strewn with the playthings of a toddler. When Sarah reached the sidewalk, she pulled her shoulders back and started to tap a rhythm on her leg with her hand. Janie firmly closed the door and went to find the boy, who handed her a toy train.
“Pay wif me. You be boo. I red.” He knelt on the floor and pushed his red train in front of him, making train sounds.
“Choo, choo,” said Janie as she knelt beside him and chugged her train along the rug painted to look like a train yard.
As she played, she felt the bubble settle around her once more. The hospital and her family felt as far away as New York City.