(This, my entry for Blogging for Books, is not a fun read. If you just read the first paragraph you might think it’s a weird little religious bit. It’s not. It’s also not witty and it’s not warm or fuzzy. I took care to make sure it is not a breach. It IS what I thought about when I read this month’s topics: fornication, lies and going home.)
When I was a child, we moved so many times that no place felt like home. We also moved from church to church with no real conviction, and by the time I was an adult, religion was a muddle to me and my faith was in some distant, inaccessible place. My children were christened and I took them to Sunday School until they fussed too much and then I opted out of another morning tangle. I still had no church to call home, and the vision of my faith was childlike, defined by a haunting coIor illustration of Jesus surrounded by children and lambs that was in the Bible of my youth. The sound of my faith was the hymn, “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know”
At the time in my life that I was looking for a home for my faith, searching for a place to organize and safe keep and feed and sleep my childlike faith, I met a man who was a liar and a fornicator. He may also have been Satan, up for a brief walk-about. He was married to a woman who came to me for help after I had been in practice for many years.
She was a bright, successful, professional woman with a degree in economics and a MBA. She was formidable in her career, but she came from a family shot through with alcoholism and mood disorders, and she was also troubled, desperately lonely, and she drank far too much. A year before she came to me she had been arrested for driving drunk.
Out of shame and self-preservation, she sought the services of a Yellow-Pages defense lawyer rather than use one of her own corporate lawyers. The man she chose to represent her was a liar and a fornicator. He was also handsome, clever, and seductive. He took her case and made arrangements for her to be free to work, but she was tethered to a random phone-call Breathalyzer: at any time, her probation officer could call and ask her to blow into a machine that transmitted the results to the police. She was ordered to get treatment and remain sober. Instead, because she was so lonely and her lawyer was what he was, she thought she fell in love with him, and they married. She bought them a lovely home. Together, they stayed in the house and drank.
Quickly she became pregnant and felt happy for the first time that she could remember. She very much wanted a baby and she wanted to stop drinking for this baby. Because she was an alcoholic, and because her husband/lawyer drank constantly, the best she could do was stop for a while and then binge. During her pregnancy the husband grew bored and hostile and she grew anxious and lonely. He would stay away nights. She would feel more lonely and anxious, and she would drink. Toward the end of the pregnancy, he began to fornicate with his secretary and lie about it.
She remained competent at work right up until she went on maternity leave. When she delivered her son, he was small. His low birth weight, combined with her history, suggested that he was at risk for fetal alcohol syndrome. Her pediatrician referred her to me. When she finished telling me this story she asked if I would look at her baby with her and watch his growth and development. She was terrified that she had harmed him through her drinking.
Although her problem with alcohol seemed to me as hopeless as that of the drunk in the story of Le Petit Prince, her sincerity and her beautiful tiny baby made me want to help her. We entered into an agreement where she would get treatment for alcoholism and I would meet with her and watch over her baby’s milestones. I believe we both worked at this as hard as either of us has ever worked at anything.
The husband/father/lawyer moved in and out of the home intermittently. When he was home for a few days he would harangue and verbally abuse her and then go stay with his secretary. Although the situation called for action on many fronts, including in-patient treatment for her and a restraining order against him, it was all she could do to maintain her sobriety and care for her baby, hour-by-hour, day-by-day. A good week was when this man would stay away. In a bad week, he would come back to visit, find her doing well and do all he could to undermine her progress. When the baby was almost two months old he just drifted away and I was thankful.
After about 6 weeks she had been walking every day and she was looking healthy and happy. She was sober. She was madly, wildly and completely in love with her son and he was doing well, gaining weight through nursing, smiling and responsive. He was right on target in his development, holding his head up well and inching forward on his tummy. He was an incredibly lovely child. I looked forward to her appointments and on days when we didn’t meet she would check in by phone, sounding enthusiastic about the warming weather and the possibility of getting a jogging stroller. She resumed work part-time from home.
Maybe he had a fight with his secretary. I never knew. But one night he came back. He brought vodka with him. He taunted her, called her a “fat sow with dripping teats,” and said she would never be more than a slovenly drunk, unfit to be a mother. She cried and he raged. And after three black hours he went away, leaving her with the vodka. And after about four more hours had elapsed, a drunk knowing a drunk, he called her probation officer and reported that she was intoxicated. The probation officer called her. She blew positive on the Breathalyzer test and she was ordered to report to court by 8 a.m. to be arraigned.
When she appeared before the judge the next morning her husband lied about the conflict of the night before. It didn’t matter because the terms of her probation, as he had proposed them, were such that if she was found drunk she had to go directly to jail or inpatient treatment. I believe that at this time the court had inklings about the duplicity on the part of her husband but those concerns were not addressed. I held the baby while she frantically dialed the phone. We found treatment programs that would take her, but not her baby. He would have to go stay with his father.
The next day, he appeared at her intake interview as her advocate and compassionate husband and he promised to bring the baby every day to visit. I thought he was a demon.
She completed the month of inpatient treatment. During this time her husband brought the baby for three 20-minute visits. He moved yet another woman into an apartment with him and the baby. When she was released he promised repeatedly to return the child to her care, but he didn’t. She found good legal representation and gathered the strength to take him to family court. The hearing was scheduled for a Monday morning. She was heading into it with resolve and determination and the support of those would had been involved with her: therapists, sponsor, pediatrician, parish priest, and even her probation officer.
The Sunday before the hearing, a beautiful Spring day, I was working in the garden when I heard the phone ringing persistently. While she was at church, a detective had called “about the baby,” leaving a message for her to call immediately. I said I would come as fast as possible so I would be with her. As I arrived, the detective called again.
Her son was dead and his body was at the coroner’s office. He spoke with me and he said he strongly advised that she not speak with her husband until they were able to determine the cause of death. He explained that the husband had found the baby in his crib at 5 am, gray and not breathing. Rather than call 911 he drove the baby to the emergency room,and while the hospital staff worked with the child, he left and went home where the police found him.
A blood alcohol was drawn because he had been drinking. He told police that the pillow in the crib was used to prop the baby on his side to sleep because he was starting to roll and wake himself. He told the police he had been asleep, alone with the baby, in the apartment and he heard nothing. He told the police there was no way he knew of to contact the mother. He told the police the baby’s mother was out of state, still in inpatient treatment for alcoholism, and the baby had a known diagnosis of fetal alcohol syndrome. The baby was autopsied before the mother was ever even notified.
She folded herself into nothing in a corner of the sofa and I called her family and her priest.
There was a funeral. There was an inquest at which the pediatrician and I testified that a month earlier, when we saw him, the baby had no symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome. He was thriving. He could raise and turn his head. He was not at risk for SIDS. The death certificate said “unknown causes” and no charges were brought. She went home to her parents.
The night after the baby’s funeral I was beyond despair. I went inside myself to search for any possible source of comfort or understanding, and there was none. I believed that I could never work again in my profession, that I could never help others and that there was no help for me. I could not find evidence of mercy or love. I had seen evil triumph over good.
That night, I had been sitting on the floor of my office for hours, tucked up against the heat register, rocking like a child. On my bookshelf, between The Magic Years and The Elements of Fly Fishing was my dusty Bible. In reaching for it I remembered Anne Lamott’s notion in Traveling Mercies that all her prayers boiled down to, at root: “Thank You, Thank You, Thank You,” and “help me, help me, help me.” I thought fall open and help me. And this is the exact place I found myself:
Yea, the sparrow hath found a house,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young,
even thine altars, O LORD of hosts,
my King, and my God.
Blessed are they that dwell in thy house
I don’t think of this as any sort of divine intervention or visitation at a time when I certainly could have used one. I think of it as a configuration of events and a state of mind and feeling that brought me to a new home when I needed one. I did begin to read my Bible. I found a floor plan for my faith.
A year later, I remarried after 15 years as a single mother. I chose, as a reading for our service, Psalm 139, which I loosely interpret to mean: ‘No matter where you go, even if you try to play hide and seek with me, I’ve got your back covered. I’ve known you forever, when you were “curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth” and I know all of your days ahead. And I’ve got you covered.’ This helps me. The man I married has a long and organized history surrounding both his faith and his religion. I am still getting settled in my house and it’s hard to imagine a time when I’ll be done with that. But the walls are up and the roof is on.