by Vicki Huffman
“Youth fades; love droops; the leaves of friendship fall;
a mother’s secret hope outlives them all.”
Oliver Wendell Holmes
I don’t know why I dreamed of it again. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does I wake up in a cold sweat with the damp sheets pulled away from Kyle and twisted around my legs. He, in the deep sleep of construction-exhaustion, rarely wakens.
This time the dream wasn’t just the hospital-like room, the sudden feeling of loss, a nurse’s face that morphs from caring to ambivalent to a demonic clown’s face. And it didn’t end with me running down long corridors searching for something I can’t find. This morning’s dream had been distorted, as dreams often are, but with an ending so vivid that I clawed to the surface of reality, gasping for air as if I’d been drowning, trying to regain consciousness quickly so I could do something. I don’t know what.
The clock face showed 4:30, but I decided to get up anyway. International flights do strange things to sleep patterns, and I knew from experience that I wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep. Pushing my feet into slippers and grabbing my pile robe from the chair in the corner, I silently left the bedroom. Just in case. I didn’t want Kyle to know I’d had another nightmare because he’d ask what it was about. “Rachel, surely you remember—you woke up screaming!”
I didn’t want to lie to him again, to resort to the all-too-possible one about a plane crash. Despite many years as a flight attendant, I never had that dream. Maybe it was too close to home for my psyche to allow it. No, my dream—in its myriad of variations—was about something quite different. And upsetting as it was, the equally heinous part was that it reminded me that I’d never told my husband the truth about part of my life. It had been easier, I thought, to lie. And one lie begat another, as lies do, until I had created a rabbit hutch of lies.
Once downstairs I started the coffee pot and the gas fireplace in the den and flipped on the Christmas tree lights on the blue spruce in the corner. Chicago winters could be bitter, and this one had dumped four inches of snow on us the day before. Those who wanted a white Christmas might get it this year because the snow wasn’t likely to melt in the next week. Knowing what a mess snow made of flight schedules at O’Hare International Airport had long ago negated its charm for me. I was scheduled on the London flight twice in the next 10 days. Kyle and I would delay our Christmas celebration. With no children to have to explain the rescheduling of Santa to, we had long ago decided I should be part of the Christmas crew so others could be home with their children. It was a little thing I could do, but it always made me feel good.
I sat down in my favorite upholstered club chair with a steaming cup in my hand and watched the gas-fed flames alternating red, orange, and blue and the white tree lights twinkling through their cycles, the only other light in the room. After enjoying it for a few minutes, I brought my mind back to what I needed to do.
The dream usually only appeared at times I was highly stressed. Five years ago when the tragedy of September 11 happened, I had dreamed it every night for months. But why it was happening now, I couldn’t imagine. I didn’t feel stressed. Kyle and I were within two months of finishing the house we were rehabbing and had been living in for two years. Was I worried it wouldn’t sell fast? Yes, but I reminded myself that all the others had sold quickly. Kyle’s contracting business was thriving. My most tedious jobs helping on the house were almost behind me. What stress could be causing this?
I decided to stop asking why and deal with the problem at hand. I had discovered that I could push this dream back into my subconscious by acknowledging the truth behind it. Why rehashing all the details from start to finish could actually make me feel better was still a mystery, but it usually did. It was as if I had to straighten out the distorted version that had just played in my head before it would go away. So I began by letting my mind drift to another cold day many years ago:
On a Friday morning in mid-January I sat on the edge of my bed in the sorority house at Greenbriar College and said over and over, “It can’t be possible!” But the little sticks turned blue (two of them to make sure) that I held in my hand said it was. I had only one semester left to graduate from college with a business degree. I had a 4.0 average, was president of the student council—and I was pregnant. The only man who could be the father was married and had returned to his wife after their separation, during which our brief affair had happened. To say “it can’t be possible” was a gross exaggeration. Because, of course, it was more than possible—it was.
That afternoon I went to a crisis pregnancy clinic conveniently located on the edge of campus, hoping their test would give a different result from the drug-store variety. Their test confirmed that I was seven weeks pregnant, and a counselor immediately began talking to me about an abortion. She told me that what I carried was merely a blob of tissue that had become an inconvenience: a growing impediment to my education, the start of a career, and freedom. It was a blob—nothing more—she repeated several times. Then she brought in another counselor who repeated what the first had said and emphasized that for a mere $300 (all major credit cards accepted) they were ready to return me to a problem-free life that day.
I stopped mid-memory. What had a former president said about abortion? That he wanted it to be safe, legal … and rare? Because of the traffic going in and out of the clinic, it was obvious to me, even in my agitated state, that abortions were far from rare. And I had serious doubts about how safe they were.
At sorority hen parties we had discussed sex and abortion ad nauseum. We had even discussed old wives’ tale cures for if you were “late” and afraid that you might be pregnant. And I had already tried that. But the one that kept me in the bathroom in extreme pain for half a day was apparently not just an old wives’ tale but, as Shakespeare wrote, “a tale told by an idiot.” The prevailing line of thought in the sorority was almost unanimously pro-sex and pro-choice. Except for a redheaded pledge from Mississippi who always pointed out in a shaky little voice that it was, after all, a baby. How odd that it was her voice that I kept hearing in my mind while the counselor told me all the reasons I shouldn’t think of it that way. Sort of like that old adage: “try not to think of an elephant.”
The fetus (another word the counselor wasn’t using) was about the size of my thumbnail, but it definitely was the elephant in the room. That day I managed to put the tag-team counselors off long enough to leave the building—to think about it—even as they insisted on setting up an appointment for the procedure on Monday, three days later.
I pulled out of their parking lot and drove the 60 miles home to Asheville. At a time like this a girl needs her mother, but I wasn’t going home to her. Mom had announced a month before that she had found proof of my stepfather Frank’s infidelity and confronted him with it. Like a break in a dam he had confessed all—much more than she had suspected or proved. She might have been considering forgiveness when she thought it was one indiscretion. But the sheer magnitude of how long it had been going on and how many women it involved had unhinged my mother. She immediately ordered him out of the house and called a lawyer.
Mother had known a good but brief marriage with my father who died of a heart attack when I was 8. She was a strikingly beautiful young widow, and it wasn’t long before men started pursuing her. She had dated but, in a somewhat unusual display of restraint, waited until I was 12 to remarry. I had liked the charming and handsome Frank, but had never become attached. For a while I thought that said something about me. With maturity (was I there yet?) I decided he had to own part of that failure to bond. Now I knew that commitment—to anyone—obviously wasn’t his thing.
Over the Christmas break, which was anything but merry, my mother had unloaded the whole sordid tale. And in the way that stressed people have of repeating themselves, she kept saying, “Rachel, I’m on the edge. If ONE more thing goes wrong in my life, I won’t be able to take it. You’ll have to have me committed.”
My mother could exaggerate and be overly dramatic, but this time I believed her. Concerning what I’d just found out, she wasn’t on the list to be notified. In fact, there was no list. An abortion seemed the simplest solution because no one would ever have to know.
And yet, my heart kept telling me that I needed to talk to someone.
So I pointed the car in the direction of home to see a woman who in many ways had been more of a mother to me than my own mother. I was going to see Aunt May. In the true Southern tradition, I’d been taught to call her “Aunt” when I was too young to pronounce her last name and put a Mrs. with it. As I grew, I watched her grow—more and more crippled with rheumatoid arthritis.
I’ve often thought that if my mother gets any large rewards in heaven, they’ll come from her kindness to May over the years. She brought her countless dinners and goodies and sent our cleaning lady over to clean her house regularly. She drove her to appointments and shopping before May became unable to leave the house because the excruciating pain made no outing worth it. The cynical side of me wants to say that Mother probably found in her a listening ear that her country-club friends didn’t give her and a person she could rely on to pray for her as she poured out her troubles. But wouldn’t that be the pot calling the kettle black? Because there I was on my way to take advantage of May’s listening ear and her direct-line-to-heaven prayers. I apparently am my mother’s daughter after all.
As I drove through the foothills of the Smokies, the barren trees intermixed with stately pines were still majestic even in the starkness of winter. Huge icicles hung from the rock face of the hills through which the road was cut. But I only glanced at the scenery. I thought about May and how I would tell her what was bound to hurt her. The car clock showed that I would arrive about 3 pm. She would have had her short rest after lunch. That rest period came only after she had read her Bible and prayed for four or five hours that morning. May had so many people on her prayer list that her time with God was a full-time occupation. She didn’t take phone calls or visits during the morning, but after 2 p.m. she reached out to the world and its needs and the world reached back to her with many people calling to add requests to her lengthy list. We all recognized that years of intense pain had only served to draw her closer to God.
May’s spiritual life was so beautiful that everyone who knew her wanted what she had. But we were probably quite specific in asking that God not give it to us in the same way: through the path of suffering. It was like watching Olympic athletes winning gold medals every four years. Many people would love to excel like they did while at the same time being unwilling to take a walk around the block for exercise. Most of us who hung around—and on—May’s spiritual coattails must have given the Lord quite a chuckle. But there we were. And when we doubted our ability to reach God (and who hasn’t at times?), we knew May could. So we bombarded her with our needs.
Later I realized that my running to May proved that although the spark of divine life in me may have sputtered and faltered (by my own doing), it wasn’t completely gone. I knew May wouldn’t gloss over what I had done, but neither would she shame me. She was a safe person—the only one in my life who had never let me down by word or deed.
She didn’t knock people over the head with Bible verses. King James was her second language, her speech saturated with the thousands of verses she had memorized over seven decades. Even when she wasn’t quoting the Bible, her words dripped its principles. Out of the abundance of her heart her mouth spoke. Sitting by May’s knee was like going to seminary, and many had gone from one to the other.
Unlike many church people I’d known, who seemed to be shocked whenever something went wrong, May was never shocked by the evil in the world or the frailties of people. Instead, she believed what God said about us being like sheep (think dirty, smelly, wayward animals rather than snow-white lambs). She also often quoted Jeremiah 17:9: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” I could certainly say Amen to that. My heart had been deceitful and the man I had thought I loved was also deceitful—to his wife, to me, and possibly to himself.
I pulled into her narrow, gravel driveway and parked beside the wheelchair ramp. Because May’s helper left after lunch, her door was always unlocked. When I walked through the door of the simple white frame house, May was sitting upright in the vinyl recliner someone had given her (her hands didn’t have the strength to operate the reclining lever). A blue crocheted afghan covered her bony legs; a yellow wool shawl was draped over her shoulders. May’s fragility kept her constantly chilled. I bent over to kiss her cheek and took her hand gently. Her thin, frail fingers were drawn down toward the palms, fixed in a claw-like position so unlike the rest of her persona which was softness itself.
I sat down beside her chair on the old avocado green couch that I’d crawled on as a toddler. Then I poured out my heart to her. After she realized what I needed to confess, she took the phone off the hook. I was there almost three hours. When I left, much of my guilt had been washed away, not because May was able to grant any kind of absolution but because she reminded me that Jesus had already granted it. We dealt with my sin using that term for it and not calling it a “mistake” as I had until then. A mistake was an accident, but I had sinned. And there was a difference. All the excuses others might give me: I was young, the man was older and a powerful authority figure, etc. would not have swayed May. I knew better than to cite them. I had sinned like Bathsheba had with David. And in my case, too, there was going to be a baby.
May reminded me that, unlike David killing Bathsheba’s husband so that he could marry her and cover up his sin, in my case no one had to die. Least of all, the baby. During my time with her, May showed me verses where God said that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, that He knows us in the womb before we ever take that first gasp of air, and that He knew us and loved us even before we were conceived. Realizing that my child had that kind of heritage and that there were thousands of couples who longed for babies who weren’t being allowed to live, I knew what I had to do. When I returned to campus, I began contacting homes for unwed mothers (I hated that term—it was accurate but cold) that could help me have my baby and find suitable adoptive parents. I found a good one about 100 miles away, met with the director, and made arrangements to move in during my sixth month. It had been all about me for 21 years. Suddenly it wasn’t about me; it was about what I could do for my child.
Almost miraculously, my secret remained safe. I controlled my weight, wore loose clothing and successfully hid my pregnancy until after graduation in May. The loose-fitting graduation gown was especially effective at hiding my widening middle. That summer my mother was embroiled in her divorce woes and seemed satisfied if I called her occasionally. She had no idea where I was calling from. I had told her (the lies began here) that I had promised to stay on campus as a house mother for summer school because the sorority house was understaffed. During that time, I would be applying for jobs. She accepted that explanation and apparently never tried to call me on campus while I was living across the state line waiting for my baby to be born.
After three months in the unwed mother’s home, I gave birth in the clinic section of the home. I had elected natural childbirth under a somewhat loony delusion that it was supposed to hurt and should be experienced completely and consciously. In truth, maybe I thought it was another way to pay for what I’d done. I only regretted my decision those last few moments of delivery when I was swept into a vortex of the worst pain imaginable. Then I heard her cry. I forgot the pain the moment I held my little girl in my arms. She had a mop of black hair that made a cap around her tiny head. Her blue eyes looked up at me in a slightly unfocused, questioning sort of way. She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
The staff counselor had advised against holding or seeing the baby for obvious reasons. But I insisted that I would hold her once and then let her go. I guaranteed it by signing the papers that relinquished her before they let me hold her. A nurse stood in the corner of the room looking at me as if she hoped I would not create the kind of scene others had. I didn’t. They took her away. It was the pillow that received my tears with no one to watch or console me.
That was the only time I saw my baby. It was a closed adoption in which I knew nothing about who the adoptive family was or where they lived. I had chosen the type family I wanted for her, and the lawyer for the home assured me that this couple met and exceeded all my qualifications. They were an infertile couple who were financially secure, well-educated, and could give her everything I couldn’t. When he said that, I wanted to scream that I could have given her love. But I didn’t. I had given it to her by giving her a chance to live and then letting her go.
I knew that I had done the right thing. But there were numerous days when I threw a pity party for me, myself and I. And we all attended.
May was the only one who knew that a baby had grown in my womb and left a hole in my heart. I visited her whenever I was home but especially each year on August 22, my baby’s birthday. We wondered together where she was, what she looked like, and how she was doing. Each year I got a small bakery cake and ice cream and we had our own birthday party. It was far from the only time I thought of my child—that happened almost every day. But the little party gave a reality to it.
May died a week before my daughter would have been 7. There was no cake that year. I grieved for the woman I had known and loved and yet, I was glad her intense suffering was over. She had gone to meet face to face the One she had known heart to heart her whole life.
I also grieved for myself because now only I knew my secret. One of my friends recently said something I’ve thought a lot about. “Every family has secrets. And secrets destroy families.”
Now I wonder if it’s time for someone else to know. I’ve had a growing feeling that something is wrong. My early-morning dream contained a frightening new element. At the end as I was running down the corridor, I heard a young woman’s voice sobbing and pleading. I couldn’t make out the words, but the tone made me run until I felt as if my heart would jump out of my chest. My last thought as I woke up was that I knew my child, no longer a baby, was in distress or danger. She needs me. And I don’t know how to reach her.
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