Monday, December 22, 2014

12/22: Maggie Messitt on the Divide that Separates a Family


My mother wanted eight babies. She gave birth to seven.

Despite this, I lived inside a household that pretended the process of making babies was magical, action-less, divine. And, yet, menstruation, menopause, hot flashes, cervical cancer, hysterectomies, and pregnancy were all a guaranteed dinner conversation. My father was an Ob/Gyn. The first in the county when he began practicing 50 years ago. In the back room of the house, my father's den was lined with custom-made, floor-to-ceiling, oak shelving and filled with leather-bound books. That's where he answered the baby line. The door was always closed, and you'd have to wind your way through the stacks of medical journals, a thin path, to reach his worn leather armchair and the heavy, cream-colored 2500 phone.

The baby phone now sits in my office. It serves as a bookend to whatever I'm obsessed with at the moment. It cradles the books I'm reading now and the notebooks I fill with stories and details of other peoples' lives, the details of other peoples' children.

It still works, but I don't have a landline. It only rings if I place it down too hard. A cry out, a memory of late night deliveries. It brings me back to that leather chair where I used to sneak when dad wasn't around, which felt like most of the time, and to the arm in which we used to poke holes with the tip of a ball point pen. 

Whenever I’d run in to answer the baby phone, duck inside to call one of my siblings, or seek the privacy it often provided, I’d pull from one of his cityscape stacks of journals and flip through its pages. This is where I learned about sex, STDs, reproductive organs, ambiguous genitalia, and so many things I looked at but never knew what exactly it was. They were usually black and white with a circus grotesque feel to them, a clinical, disrespectful feel to them. They lacked story. They felt like lab rats. And yet, I always wanted to know more, wondered if the blacked out eyes had a name, or the hidden face was holding a story inside while someone snapped their circus freak picture. 


When I was eighteen, I bled for 90 days. I didn't tell anyone. I figured it would stop. Eventually. Instead, my not talking turned into not breathing while at track practice one day. Black out. Flat out. On the track.

I had never been to the gynecologist. And we’d never talked about our bodies, not directly. So, when I had gotten my period as an early teen, I called my already-married-sister. A few days later, I came home from school and there was a box with a red ribbon on my bed. A graphite pencil had been knotted in a bow. There wasn’t a note. And my mother never said a word. I pulled it open to discover the rolling ruler I had been eyeing at the art store. Years later, I sat, alone, in Boston, far from the streets of Chicago, waiting for the doctor to see me.

“You’re a mess,” she said, drawing a chart of my hormones on wide butcher paper across her desk. “This is normal. And this is you.”

Apparently normal looks like the Rocky Mountains. Normal, but out of balance, looks like Kilimanjaro paired with a rolling hill. I simply looked like the foothills leading to somewhere, but never getting there.

She spent the rest of our visit wooing me towards hormone therapy. After years of dinner table conversation detailing complex diagnostics and surgical procedures and my childhood of medical journal flipping, I wasn’t interested in hormones like the hermaphrodites that crossed through my father’s office. I wasn’t interested in being pumped with estrogen like my mother's menopausal friends. I didn’t want to jab myself like the women my father tried to get pregnant. I wasn’t interested.

“No, thank you,” I said and went back to my dorm.

I knew already, I wasn’t going to have a baby. I’d never envisioned cells multiplying and splitting, multiplying and splitting, again and again, inside of my belly. I always thought the idea of something inside forcing my body to shape-shift, stretch, pull, contort was amazingly beautiful and kind of alien-like at the same time, but it was never going to happen for me. By then, I already had two nieces, and two nephews. Eventually, there would be a total of thirteen. And while my sisters were baking babies from scratch and buying books fully formed, I could only envision writing books and adopting children fully formed. And so, while the butcher paper’s geological formations were bothersome to the doctor, I was un-moved by the discovery.

“I can get you pregnant one day if you’d like,” my father said -- a line you should never hear unless your father has spent his life helping women start families.

Sure, I said.

Or maybe I didn’t say anything.

Or maybe I said what I’ve always thought, If my body doesn’t figure it out, then why should I force it to do something it can’t do on its own.

Or maybe I said, I don’t think I want a baby, anyway.


My mother used to bring me to sewing group once a week. She doesn't sew. But she does talk and drink tea. Amongst the quilters and needle-pointers and tea-cup-fillers, were several women with gaggles of school-aged children. But, my mother, like her mother, gave birth much later in life than her peers. I looked like an oops, an addendum. I was a Hail Mary pass that she caught.

My grandmother gave birth to her fourth child at 46. My mother was seventeen years old when the youngest was born. My uncle was nineteen. And my other uncle was seven. Catholic, refusing to use birth control, she was pregnant beyond her mid-life. Only five years before my mother’s first, and one year before the first grandchild.

She cried the entire pregnancy.


When I was a little girl, I had a recurring dream that I kept secret. I don't really know when or how it came to light. When my mother finally heard its details, she was worried enough to send me off to a child psychologist.

“She's worried about death.”

I wasn't really worried about death; I was worried about being left alone. People were disappearing, one after another.

My oldest sister Kathy, fourteen years my senior, left when I was five. Patty left when I was six. Jenny when I was eight. John when I was ten. Annette when I was twelve. Soon after the fifth departure, my maternal grandfather passed away in his sleep and cancer took my paternal grandmother days later. Somewhere in those deaths, Snowball, my hamster with red eyes, escaped from his cage, and died in the air-ducts of the sparsely occupied five-bedroom house. I always thought he was lonely.

My family tried to hide his death. Better to think he disappeared than to think he was dead, that he had been fished out of the dusty, tin ducts that ran through the house. Death by air. Death by search-for-something-better. I knew it.


“We're going to visit Michael today,” my mother would tell me.

We visited Michael often for a very long time. Until one day, it seemed like we didn't. My mother and I would drive the two miles to Warrenville Road, a long sloping drive alongside which stood dense woods and a patchwork of church cemeteries inside the gates of one, large, historic cemetery. We would enter through the wrought-iron gates of Saint Michael's, dwarfed by the others, and passed a white statue of its namesake with his sword and his dragon, the archangel.

According to my mother, Michael was my guardian angel.

I remember her tending to a grave, although I don't think that ever happened. Knowing her now, my guess is that she sat and talked and told stories. And expressed her worries, her love, her hopes. My guess is that she would list off the people she needed help praying for and the concerns that needed tending, like the grave.

In some ways, I know my mother needed that grave. She needed a place to go and think, to connect and hold on. We did not discuss Michael at home and for years I thought we were visiting the archangel and not my first sibling to disappear.

My sister Annette, number five, was born with a duodenal web. They built her a bypass, an intestinal highway detour. She had multiple surgeries, several complications, abdominal tears. She was a preemie. Her scars so huge, they cover her abdomen like a violent signature, jagged, unexpected, a topographical map. She was a stunning baby. 

Three years later, Michael was born with hypoplastic left ventricle syndrome. With only three chambers to his heart, he fought for ten days. My mother was with him, tended to him, alongside him, every night. Eventually, he gave up the fight, let go. He died the first evening my mother returned home for a good night's rest.

Michael passed away 574 days before I took my first breath. Only adults attended his funeral.

Like the Christian calendar, my mother's life is split in two. Before Death and After Death. This divide separates my family. I came after. Everyone else lived before.

An independent narrative and immersion journalist, MAGGIE MESSITT has spent the last decade reporting from inside underserved communities in southern Africa and middle America. Messitt currently resides in southeast Ohio, where she’s completing her doctorate and working on her next book, a hybrid of investigation and memoir, the story of her aunt, an artist, missing since 2009. Forthcoming this April, The Rainy Season: Three Lives in the New South Africa is her first book.

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