Joody is not a good mom to her three kids. She’s not dangerous, she’s careless; she self-medicates with pot and beer; she’s allergic to responsibility. Life is a big mirror with her in the center. Her all-perfect sister Janet with the good job and the nice car and the big house can certainly afford to share with her and the kids. It is the fourth pregnancy that convinces Janet that it might be time to take the kids away from her sister. If it was time, she wasn’t ready.
Four narrators tell their side of the story, this is a family in crisis with sisters in conflict.
Joody (A Case Study in Post-Dramatic Stress Disorder
“You were pregnant?”
“I didn’t know. Until it was too late, I just didn’t know.”
“How could you not know? Joody… what is going on with you?”
“I knew you’d be mad.”
“Mad? You think this is about me being mad at you? What have you done?”
“I figured it out, that I was pregnant, so I got some girdles.”
“You were wearing girdles to hide the baby? Is that why I didn’t see what was happening?”
“It wasn’t just girdles, I had to squish my boobs flat until they about burst, my clothes looked terrible, lucky for me you’re blind to fashion. Like that sweater, Janet, really.”
“Focus, Joody. The baby… what about the baby?”
“It came too early or something, I mean, it just kind of slipped out. It never cried or anything.”
“When? When did this happen?”
“You had the baby Wednesday night and went to work yesterday? And today?”
“I’m fine. I have given birth a few times before, you know. I did what I had to do. It’s over and I’m telling you I’m fine.”
“If there is a dead baby in this house then you are not fine.”
It seemed horrible that my plea to Joody to be careful and avoid getting pregnant again was interpreted as not letting me know when she did get pregnant. I suspect I was her test case because if she could fool me, she could fool everybody. She was fooling us for our own good, according to her, so we wouldn’t get all worked up and blah-blah-blah in her face. By the time she faced facts about being pregnant, one of those facts was it was too late to “do” anything about it. I have no experience making this decision, having made an earlier decision to avoid the risk or be prepared to face the natural consequences. Only child-bearing women ever live through this issue and I don’t qualify (yet) to judge any woman’s choice even if I have a strong opinion. This thinking brought me back to the dead baby, the poor little soul who wasn’t celebrated in the womb, wasn’t spoken of with anticipation; didn’t have a cute nickname like Fetal Attraction.
Joody confessed she hadn’t seen a doctor or midwife, she bound her belly and crossed her fingers. She thought the baby would come at the end of the summer but it was only June so that’s why she wasn’t prepared. Why did we have to tell people now when she’d done such a good job of hiding it? We could take care of this on our own, just the two of us, right? I insisted my sister get some medical attention, more importantly I wanted the baby treated like a human being. I knew CPS would get involved, maybe the police… it was a nightmare. It was Joody’s nightmare. I knew she wasn’t looking that far ahead: she thought going to the emergency room was a complication ruining her Friday night. I knew it was the floodgates opening. Some part of me wished it wasn’t so but, really, she’d been adrift in dangerous waters, not understanding her kids were real live people, they were her burdens, they were her joys, they were hers. She did the best she felt like doing and then expected others to lend her a hand for the sake of her kids.
Down deep, I knew that the lifeless baby was a human being no matter how inconvenient it seemed to uproot all of us over a death that couldn’t be changed now. Joody had bound her body and kept her weight down in denial of her responsibilities to see beyond herself. I didn’t know where Juniata found the baby: my toddler niece had been left alone in the house, poking around the kitchen cupboards like little kids do, probably banging the doors. I was glad Bryce hadn’t seen the bundle, and that Suzanne hadn’t understood it. I intended to transport the remains in a valise I knew was in the front hall closet. Even wrapping the swaddled bundle in the table cloth left my hands feeling stained with death. Some part of me understood Joody had actually handled the slippery baby, had waited for the afterbirth, cut the cord then discarded the placenta in her trash can the next day on her way to work. She went to work to smile at the restaurant staff and customers like any other day in the melodrama of her mind.
I have a reverse guilt of knowing I have enabled Joody to avoid the most severe consequences of her choices. She is weak; she lacks a sense of perspective. Her pregnancies were all complete surprises to her, as if she had caught the Martian Flu here on Earth ‑‑ astounding. It was true I had grown more exasperated with her as the years went along and she didn’t pass out of her party-phase. Now Bryce didn’t like it when she came home drunk and even Suzanne didn’t laugh at her stumbling around anymore. Juniata had been the ‘it isn’t just me’ flag on whether Joody was as bad as I thought. The sailor-daddy felt his child was safer with his aged grandmother taking point for his interested family so he made legal arrangements before the baby was even born.
Joody had tolerated that pregnancy knowing the long-haul work of raising the baby would be passing her by for the immediate future (she has a short horizon). In her fuzzy-thinking dream-world she would reunite with Juniata sometime after the girl was potty-trained, or maybe when the kid was old enough to run errands.
You can look back at my river of tears tracking scars that she made, and see how the gravity of the situation has determined the course of my life. These children are real, and they are now, and they are precious in and of themselves beyond any blood relation to me. In that sense I cry for all children… because I constantly consider the kids I know best in juxtaposition to the circumstances of little brains worldwide convoluting with their own experiences. There are starving children and battered children, militarized and sexualized children. Just being born in the USA improves the odds you’ll survive infancy (although not as high as Sweden’s). Just as importantly, I know most kids grow to productive adulthood. Part of loving children is to know their world, and help them through it by celebrating their contribution to it. Joody and her kids live in an urban environment, lucky to have good schools, affordable housing and public transportation, with a vigorous economy. And me.
I’m so appreciative of our advantages that it makes it hard for me to forgive anybody wasting opportunity, opting out. Joody is guilty of consistently choosing herself above her children. Joody chooses herself above all. The degree of her self-absorption makes it impossible to communicate with her about anything but her. She can be goaded to at least look like a good mother at times… motivated to improve her own image rather than act on behalf of another. Bone-deep, Joody believes she is special. If she thinks she’s doing her best, then that is good enough. No matter if the results are inadequate, that’s not her problem. She did what she did and it’s done.
How was I to know what was truly in her heart? I can only look at the thirty years I’ve known her and use that to predict her most probable reactions. All of this anchored my thinking as I ran through a dizzying recalibration of what I knew about Joody with the dead baby between us.
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