Losing Malcolm: A Mother's Journey Through Grief

Losing Malcolm: A Mother's Journey Through Grief

by Carol Henderson


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780996098403
Publisher: Willowdell Books
Publication date: 11/20/2014
Pages: 242
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.51(d)

About the Author

Carol Henderson has published widely in the U.S. and Canada and led nonfiction writing workshops at home and in Europe and the Middle East. In conjunction with The Inavale Foundation, she offers restorative writing workshops, for both professionals and lay persons, in medical centers, faith communities, and schools across the US. The workshops are based on the principles she lays out in her most recent book, Farther Along: The Writing Journey of Thirteen Bereaved Mothers (2012). She is currently under contract with Heartland Hospice, training support services staff all over the country to integrate restorative writing into the hospice environment.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Torn Hearts

Weeks go by.
Slowly night comes

Tomas Transtromer, "Lamento"


That morning will be etched in my mind forever. It was when my world, the one I had so vigilantly constructed, began to unravel.

    "How's everything going?" the pediatrician asked, peering first at the newborn in my arms and then at my face. He hadn't seen us since Malcolm's birth by cesarean three days earlier, when he had declared my son "perfect." Now, in my postpartum daze, I barely recognized this stocky man with his outdoorsman's complexion and hair the color of sand.

    "We're doing all right," I said, in a whisper. I didn't want to disturb Malcolm, who seemed deep in sleep. His small chest heaved irregularly, like the flank of a dreaming dog when it's hot on the chase.

    Having heard through the nurses' grapevine that my doctor was back from his fishing trip and making morning rounds, I had brushed my hair and raised the angle of the uncomfortable motorized bed, trying to pretend it was a chaise longue and not a modern-day Marat-Sade torture machine.

    "The nurses tell me you've been up and around quite a bit," the doctor said.

    I was proud of my swift convalescence, after forty sleepless hours of back labor that never progressed beyond the "she's-still-two-centimeters-dilated" stage. The morning after the cesarean, one of the nurses had catapulted me out of bed and ordered me to walk, if I wanted asuccessfulrecovery. Since then, I had made countless tummy-clutching shuffles up and down the hall, pushing Malcolm in his rolling steel crib.

    "We've already taken a walk this morning," I said.

    "Well, don't overdo it on the exercise," the doctor said, wagging his index finger at me. "There's no need to be a supermom!"

    I could feel my cheeks redden at the scolding, but not being one to stick up for myself, I tried to think of something neutral, even amiable, to say in response. After all, this guy was going to be our pediatrician, probably for years. But my brain seemed empty, mindless. I had heard that this happened, that once a woman starting having babies her IQ seeped out in the breast milk.

    I had an important question about something, but I couldn't remember what it was. Lab-coat-induced amnesia is what I called my condition. A drop of sweat rolled down my rib cage. I knew people who were phobic about heights or tunnels or snakes. For me, it was doctors. No amount of small talk or deep breathing had ever helped me over this fear of "the medicine man," this powerful icon capable of foreseeing the future. Already, my tongue was as dry as sandpaper, my palms moist, and my underarms leaking.

    My mind froze as I gazed down at Malcolm. His lips were pinched together and making a cute sucking motion in his sleep. That was it, that was my question! Breast feeding.

    "We're having a little trouble with feedings," I said.

    "What kind of trouble?" The doctor rubbed the flat part of his stethoscope against his lab coat and pulled a plastic chair close to the bed.

    "He can't seem to keep much food down."

    I waited for a comment. Instead, the doctor rummaged through the big white pocket of his coat and produced swabs, wooden tongue depressors, cellophane bags. He didn't speak, so I kept talking.

    "The nurses say he's lazy at the breast and I should flick him on his heel to wake him up." The doctor didn't look at me. "Or else change his diaper. He wakes up, but as soon as he starts sucking he falls asleep again. Or spits up."

    Still no response. My lower lip cracked and I could taste blood. Why was the doctor so silent? Because I was talking about breast feeding and the tricks of nurses? Did he think this was all beneath concern or just plain idiotic?

    He placed the ends of the stethoscope in his ears, gently unwrapped the cotton swaddling blanket, the way you do tissue paper in a box to find the gift inside, and placed the business end on Malcolm's chest. At least he wasn't the rough type. I could smell the natural oils in the man's hair, just beneath the Old Spice or whatever cologne he wore. He listened intently, then moved the scope to another spot.

    Malcolm opened his eyes and looked at the man's face. Instantly, his small brow knitted and his lips pushed out in a pout. Apparently he didn't like doctors either. At three days old, he was already such a pensive boy and so quiet. My husband Bill and I had agreed that, so far anyway, having a baby was no problem. Malcolm seemed only to want to lie in his isolette or in my arms, motionless and soundless, except for the little grunting noises he made as he breathed.

    The doctor moved the stethoscope several times, as though inching a checker across a tiny game board. He turned Malcolm over in my arms and listened to his back, first on the left side, then on the right.

    I recalled how my OB-GYN had monitored Malcolm's heart when it was still hidden under layers of my own flesh. I had heard it too, a steady, fast, whooshing, like a wild bird's pulse. I couldn't hold my son in my arms then, look at his full cheeks, or stroke his strawberry blond hair, but on some primordial level I already knew him. I savored his hiccups and kicks and the calm in my womb when he rested. I sensed that he listened to me when I talked and sang to him. Now that Malcolm was on the outside, I still felt we were tethered by a sturdy cord, like the umbilical, only now it was invisible.

    "Your baby has a heart murmur," the doctor said, pulling the tips of the stethoscope out of his ears and, for the first time, looking me in the eye. He took Malcolm out of my arms, wrapped him in his blanket, and lay him on his side in his rolling crib, as though he were damaged goods, not to be handled.

    "He needs to be seen by a specialist immediately. I've got to try to catch the cardiologist before she leaves home."

    And he vanished.

    I motored myself upward in the bed, picked up the phone receiver on the tray table, and dialed home. My own heartbeat thundered in my ear.

    After several rings, Bill picked up. "Malcolm has a heart murmur," I said, my throat as stiff as taffy. I could barely push the words out. "A specialist is coming."

    "I'll be right there," Bill said after a pause and hung up. I put the receiver down and stared at the phone. It was unlike him to be so abrupt. Usually, when I was upset, I could count on Bill for something soothing like, "Don't worry, honey, I'm sure it's nothing serious." Almost immediately, I would feel the beginning of relief. He hadn't done that this time.

    I looked out the window. The sunny dawn had been blotted out by one of those swiftly unfurling coastal fogs common to this part of New England, turning my hospital view from dappled Impressionism into a solid gray rectangle. There was a buzzing in the electric clock on the opposite wall and I wondered how I could have spent so many fitful hours in this room without hearing it until now. I watched the second hand progress around the circle of numbers. For nine long months, I had marked the passage of time—checking off days, weeks, trimesters, and seasons on my calendar. When the doctor had finally held up the blood-streaked bundle of folded arms and legs and declared my son perfect, I felt unutterably relieved. My baby might have reminded me of the bag of innards you pull out of a raw chicken, but he was okay! Not only okay, he was perfect. And his eyes—little azure almonds—were open! The breathless waiting and worrying was over.

    But now I wanted to smash that noisy clock. The counting, it dawned on me, would never stop. I would count the time between feedings and wet diapers, the hours of sleep I wasn't getting, steps taken, words spoken, teeth lost, and finally the days until my child left home. A mother, I realized, counted until she died.

    "Dr Romph will be here as soon as she can make it," the pediatrician said, reappearing in my room the way rabbits do from magicians' hats. He peered at Malcolm in his isolette. "I was lucky to reach her."

    He glanced at me and then away, as though wondering if he should say something more.

    "The color on this baby is definitely off," he said, and crossed his arms at the chest, reminding me of Mr. Clean. I shrugged, not knowing what he was talking about.

    "Usually," he added, "when I tell mothers their babies have heart murmurs, they cry." He fixed his eyes on a spot of wall above my head.

    Dry-eyed, I stared at his face. Having always been one to expect bad news, the worst news, I now refused to believe I was hearing it. This couldn't be happening; there must be some mistake.

    "It's most unusual for a new mother not to cry," he went on, still focusing on the blank space beyond me.

    Was this his idea of a bedside manner? How dare he say something was wrong with my baby and then top it off by implying I was somehow an inadequate mother for not crying in front of him. Was it supermomish of me not to weep? I wanted to scream at him to go away and never come back, but being at heart an obliging (or at least suggestible) patient, I felt tears spring to my eyes.

    "That's better," the doctor said, as though he were talking to a little girl who had finally stopped poking at her peas and taken a bite. The doctor lingered for a moment and then disappeared. Once he was gone, my tears came in a flood.

    Since Malcolm's birth, my body had sprung leaks everywhere. First the mucous plug had plopped out, followed by a rush of amniotic fluid and loose bowels. Then came a sudden full-bodied sweat, the kind that breaks out all over you in the sauna. Next, my breasts had dribbled a yellowish, premilk liquid. Now, my lip was bleeding, and my nose and eyes were flowing. Even during labor, when they had given me petocin to speed me up and each contraction had been an escalating bolt of searing pain, I hadn't lost control like this. Other women on the ward had bellowed and moaned, but I had been stoical. Now I felt murderously hormonal, like a vengeful goddess from Greek mythology.

    There was something familiar about this scene. Had it happened before, in a dream? Hadn't I been dreading this moment all my life? I had always known it would come, always felt that a major catastrophe was stalking me, waiting to erupt. Was that why I feared doctors so much? Eventually, one of them was going to wallop me with a fateful blow. And this guy just had.

    Someone else popped in the door. It was Bill, dressed in paint-speckled work pants and a torn T-shirt. He sat down on the bed and draped his slim arms around me, the pull of his body yanking at my fresh abdominal wound. He reeked of turpentine.

    "Sorry I didn't clean myself up properly," he said. "I was painting the kitchen. But I wanted to get right over here."

    My breaths came in hard, ragged stabs.

    "I just saw the doctor in the hall," he said, his voice as comforting as a cup of hot tea with honey. "Everything's going to be fine."

    There it was, my husband's eternal calm and optimism, two qualities I lacked the genes for.

    Bill reached over and picked up Malcolm. A thin layer of sweat had appeared above his tiny lips. His breathing seemed faster and more labored. His baby cheeks, brushed with pink at birth, had faded to the color of skim milk.

    We sat like stones, waiting. I stared at the clock, hoping the doctor would arrive before Bill had to leave to meet his mother's train. She was on her way up from New York City to see her new grandson.

    "If the doctor comes while I'm gone, try to find out exactly what's wrong," Bill said. "Write it down."

    We both knew I was the worst person for this task. Even when I went in fortified with a list of questions and asked every one of them, I would promptly forget the doctor's replies. To combat my selective memory lapses, I had begun recreating the conversations in my journal, which worked well enough on my monthly visits to the OB-GYN, the only time in my life I'd seen a doctor for anything more serious than poison ivy.

    Bill wiped my face with a damp washcloth, smoothed back my hair for me, and left for the train station. Waiting, I listened to the shrieking clock. The walls and window began to vibrate, like a Van Gogh painting I could barely breathe. The nurses were whispering out in the hall, but no one came in. So much for the jocundity of the past days. Now they were avoiding me. Who would dare make jokes anymore about Malcolm's being "a lazy little man at the breast?" He wasn't lazy, he was sick! And they hadn't even noticed.

    The ringing phone startled me. For days people had been calling to congratulate us on Malcolm's birth. We had told everyone we were disappointed about the cesarean, "But hey, we had a healthy baby boy!" What would I say now? I glared at the phone, willing it to stop. Finally it stopped, then started again. I picked up the receiver. It was Bill, calling to tell me his mother's train would be an hour late. I would have to face the cardiologist alone.

    Fear swirled through my guts, like the wet colors in a child's finger painting. What exactly was a cardiologist, anyway? I had always made a point of knowing as little as possible about medicine and doctors, figuring that what I didn't know wouldn't hurt me. I couldn't comprehend those girls from high school who had volunteered as candy stripers in the hospital, delivering mail and reading magazines to sick people. The idea spooked me. Until I signed in to deliver Malcolm, I had not spent a night in a hospital. Nor had I been exposed to illness in others, my parents having carefully shielded me from the health problems of friends and family members.

    Growing up, I had been the child with the runaway imagination, the emotional kid. Certain adults told me I exaggerated everything, made mountains out of molehills, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.

    "You're always getting yourself into a fret over nothing," Auntie Em told her. "Why don't you go find yourself a place where there isn't any trouble!"

    I knew exactly how Dorothy felt.

    Now, as I looked down at Malcolm, I thought I could see my son shriveling before my eyes. I didn't care who called me a Cassandra Malcolm was turning into a wizened old man, on his way to death.

    And I was terrified of him.

Dog Woman

Patty Romph looked at me and smiled. Her eyes reminded me of a Labrador retriever's—sad, with puffy, down-turning brows. As she came toward me, I could smell the out-of-doors on her, a loamy and slightly salty odor. I realized that, for the first time in my life, I hadn't breathed any fresh air for three whole days.

    She held out a large, red, chapped hand, one that had obviously worked a spade, hauled rocks, and pulled weeds. "Sorry it took me so long to get here I came as fast as I could."

    She was a tall, almost gawky woman, with long, wavy brown hair flecked with gray, some of it had been pulled back, sloppily, into a barrette. She wore no make up. I guessed she was in her mid-forties. Under her buttoned lab coat, I could see corduroy pants, and she was wearing muddy, lace-up leather boots with rubber bottoms, like the kind advertised in the L L Bean catalog.

    "One of my dogs got caught in a trap this morning," she explained. That was why she was muddy—and late.

    "May I?" she asked, reaching for Malcolm. She gathered him into her arms, as though he were rare Chinese porcelain, and laid him carefully in his isolette. She swept her hair back and hunched over him, her stethoscope searching his tiny chest for clues.

    There had been absolutely no reason to suspect anything would be wrong with my baby. At twenty-nine, I was robust, with sinewy muscles. I had recently quit dancing, but my ten-year career as a modern dancer had kept my body trim and flexible. Always a tomboy, I still relished an impromptu game of touch football and a good climbing tree. People said my stride was like my father's, and he had been a track star in college. I had inherited my dad's iron constitution. He never got sick, and neither did I. I had the boundless energy of an adolescent dog. Bill was healthy too. He suffered from occasional headaches, but they were never so severe that a few crushed aspirin in water wouldn't cure them.

    Dr. Romph turned Malcolm onto his stomach and listened to his back. She shook her head slightly and held back a moment before she spoke. "I'm afraid Malcolm's a very sick baby," she said finally, straightening up and slipping her stethoscope into her lab-coat pocket. She picked him up and held him in her arms. "I can't tell from listening what's wrong with his heart, but it's definitely not pumping efficiently." She looked down at him with a tender, almost forlorn expression. "We need to get him on some medications right away and try to stabilize him, see how he responds. And we'll have to transfer him to a bigger hospital. Today."

    I couldn't speak.

    She handed Malcolm back to me and sat down in a chair next to my bed. How different she was from the last doctor, from any doctor I had ever encountered.

    "I know this is very hard for you," she said. "And I'm so sorry."

    I felt the corners of my mouth pull down, and a lump, like a pressing thumb, in my throat. But no tears came.

    She asked if there was heart disease in my family or Bill's. Normally, I wouldn't even consider illness and my family in the same breath. We were healthy people. On my side, they seemed almost to disapprove of illness, scorning infirmities as though they were moral weaknesses or signs of a lack of will. Being ill was like being fat or lazy, a condition one should be able to control. Illnesses happened to other people in other families—not to industrious, sturdy types like us.

    I shook my head.

    "Do you remember being sick any time during your pregnancy?"

    "No." I said. "Wait. I think I had some kind of flu early on."

    "Really? How early?"

    "I'm not sure right now." My head was throbbing and I felt panicky.

    Dr. Romph pressed my arm gently. She told me she had to make a few phone calls, but that she'd be right back. "Will you be all right while I'm gone?"

    I nodded. Before leaving the room, she gently pushed the box of tissues on my tray table closer to me.

   "Try not to think about it," my mother had always advised me, whenever something unpleasant threatened to happen or, God forbid, did happen. We were the prototypical American family of the 1950s. We didn't discuss scary and painful feelings in our household. Denial was our modus operandi.

    And I did try hard not to think about bad things. But any scary TV movie, glimpsed surreptitiously at my friend Tracey's house, could disturb my sleep patterns for months with horrific dreams that haunted my waking hours. No one suspected my torment because I had learned to keep it to myself. Unspoken, my fears thrived.

    Being a dancer and an athlete, I knew and trusted my body, on the outside. But I worried constantly about its hidden, intracellular workings and about the possibility of illness or grief or death bursting into my life. Now, all my dread fulfilled, how was I supposed to think about anything other than the fact that my beautiful pale son, lying there in my arms, was critically ill?

    I put Malcolm down on the bed beside me and reached for my journal. Although "journal" hadn't been on the Lamaze teacher's list of items to take to the hospital (along with toothbrush, nightie, etc.), I had brought mine with me. I took it almost everywhere, even sometimes to movies so I could scribble down the good dialogue. Early on, I had learned that just to record a slice of my life—a snatch of overheard conversation, a fear, a dream—created a helpful distance between me and my immediate experience. Once an image had been written down, it didn't wield quite so much power over me.

    I turned to the first blank page of my journal and wrote,

"I'm afraid Malcolm's a very sick baby," Dr Romph said.

    I stared at the page. Before writing more, I realized I would have to locate an earlier entry.

    Thumbing through the dog-eared pages, I found what I was looking for. It was a conversation with my first OB-GYN, Dr. Harper, in New York, hastily scrawled while I was supposed to be getting dressed after the exam:

    "One last thing!" He's leaving the room. It is now or never.


    "I was sick in the first few weeks."

    "Morning sickness?"

    "No. I think I had the flu or something."

    "Your symptoms?"

    "I was achy and had chills and bad swollen glands."

    "Any fever?"


    "How high?"

    "It got up there. Once it was 103."

    "Did you take anything?"

    "No, but I soaked in tepid baths."

    "Don't worry," he says. "Lots of women catch colds during pregnancy and deliver healthy babies. You're healthy and strong. I'm sure you'll do just fine." And then he's gone.

    I'm giddy with relief and proud of myself for telling him about the high fever. For once, I didn't downplay my concern, make light of a situation I secretly took most seriously. The trouble is, I'm afraid of facts. If they aren't delivered in just the right way, I can put my own twisted spin on them, skew them to ignite my paranoia.

    The buzzing clock roared in my ears. I wondered what Dr Romph was saying now to the people at Rhode Island Hospital. I didn't want to think about it. I turned back several pages and read more journal entries:

    Dream. In my seventh month, I give birth prematurely to a golden retriever or maybe it's an Irish setter. The dog, named Dawn, is amazingly smart. When she's one day old, she already knows commands, like sit, lie down, roll over. She's big, almost full-grown, in only a few weeks. I feel guilty for wishing she were a baby and not a dog.

    Do other pregnant women have such idiotic dreams?

    Dream. Twelve little boys have been sliced down the middle of their chests. A man arrives who can mend the dead infants. We are struggling against a horrific queen who rules the land, but she is taking her daily swim in the dark lake now so we must make sure the man works fast to cure the little boys, before she returns.

    Was it possible these dreams had been trying to tell me something was wrong with my child? Dr Romph came back into the room. I closed my journal, slid it under the covers, and picked Malcolm up again. He felt like a damp rag doll, except that he was breathing very quickly.

    I told her about the flu and my talk with Dr. Harper. She told me she too thought warm baths were curative. I marveled at this—a doctor saying she believed in something as folksy as soaking in lukewarm water. My mother, who swore by the healing powers of witch hazel, Epsom salts, vitamin C, and spirits of ammonia, would love this woman.

    Dr Romph asked me where I lived and somehow our new puppy, Molly, came up in the conversation. She seemed interested in everything about my dog, even wanting to know the colors of the other pups in the litter and how we had housebroken Molly.

    "I have Samoyeds," she said. "And they keep me busy."

    She had a soft, almost muted voice. Maybe it was her hushed quality that made me think she had a melancholic streak. I sensed that she didn't have children, that her dogs were her children. I wondered if she was married, but didn't ask.

    Bill walked in with his mother, straight from the railroad station. They both looked pale and slit-lipped.

    As Dr. Romph introduced herself, Bill's shoulders relaxed a notch and his jaw bones loosened their clamp on his teeth. I could see her quiet manner reassured him. She stood back while Bill's mom, Nancy, admired Malcolm.

    "He looks just like Bill did as a baby," she said, her voice tentative. I could tell my mother-in-law was shocked. Clearly, this wasn't the joyous meeting she had so eagerly anticipated.

    Malcolm would need to ride in an ambulance to Rhode Island Hospital. They would start him on an IV and medicines before he left. At the hospital there were places where we could sleep. Patty Romph removed my cesarean stitches, so we wouldn't have to think about them later, and arranged to have me discharged immediately.

    How could I have complained, earlier in the morning, about the dismal hospital bed? Now I wanted nothing more than to stay in it, with my baby in my arms.

Keeping Vigil

I couldn't believe how far away my son was. The distance between Malcolm and me felt boundless, like a continent. Days earlier, we had been connected by living tissue; now thirty miles of black asphalt separated us. As Bill, Nancy, and I drove past row houses, factories, and green exit signs, I was appalled by the fact that Malcolm had already made this trip by himself. New babies weren't supposed to go places, miles away, without their mothers.

    The hospital loomed before us, an imposing nineteenth-century brick structure with turrets and towers that reminded me of a Victorian orphanage. Staring up at our destination, this huge ugly building, I couldn't fathom the harsh fact that my son, fresh from the warm waters of my womb, was somewhere inside it.

    The first glimpse of Malcolm sent my heart rushing up into my throat and made my swollen breasts ache. He was one of several naked infants, all lying on their backs in a row, on what I would later learn were called "light tables." These were waist-high steel platforms on wheels, each with its bank of suspended lights that shone down on the bare-bottomed babies, warming them like slabs of roast beef in a cafeteria line. Malcolm's body was propped up at an angle, his head higher than his feet. His arms and legs were restrained by cuffs of gauze pinned to the white sheet beneath him. He lay spread-eagle, as though poised to make a snow angel. There was an IV line taped to his inner wrist and a monitor of some sort attached to his chest. A rectangle of blond hair had been shaved from the side of his head and the area pierced by another needle. A plastic tube protruded from his penis.

    Malcolm's eyes were open, his head turned to the side. He seemed to be intently observing the other babies down the line, all of them screaming. Over all their heads, jagged lines rushed across small green screens, peaking and falling like measurements on a seismograph. Numbers flashed Machines gurgled and beeped.

    Behind me, a square-jawed doctor, with a clipboard under his arm, was talking to Bill and Nancy. He told them the staff was trying to stabilize Malcolm with "meds," so they could perform an angiography to find out what exactly was wrong.

    I was relieved Nancy had insisted on coming with us to the hospital. Unlike me, she was tough and pragmatic, a strong presence. Doctors didn't scare her.

    "When he's strong enough," the doctor said, "we'll shoot dye into his bloodstream, through an incision in the groin, and thread wires up into his heart." The dye would illuminate the pumping action of the heart and help show trouble spots. It was dangerous, but necessary for an accurate diagnosis.

    "Right now," he added, "the baby is too sick for the procedure."

    I stopped listening. All I wanted was to unshackle my son, swaddle him in my arms, and escape from that glaring inferno.

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