Still Life. A story by Irena Karafilly

author's pic 4

STILL LIFE

The obstetrician looked menacing. He looked like a shark, with his small eyes and wide mouth, and all those teeth when he opened his mouth to speak. He had given up trying to breathe life into her child, and was now leaning over her under the blinding lights. For a moment, nothing came out of his mouth but a puff of stale breath. And when at last he told her, muttering a word she didn’t understand, Lydia’s own lips felt stiff, as if numbed by novocaine. She had become aware of silence, abrupt and furtive, and a sudden scuttling through the haze surrounding the delivery table.

Dr. Minnaar had left the room, followed by his colleagues. Except for a very young nurse, the room was suddenly empty, like a deserted theater following a bomb threat. The nurse approached, and, her mouth twitching, asked whether she wished to hold her baby. Lydia was still grappling for coherence. Only a short while earlier, gazing at herself in the overhead mirror, she — a theatrical agent — had the feeling of participating in some odd stage production: elaborate costumes and scenery, herself at center stage, supine, obedient to the director, while a part of her kept struggling to wrest itself free of her possessive flesh.

She had been good, had been wonderful. They had all said so, urging her to push, push, push. And she wanted to go on being good; she dreaded being abandoned in this vast, antiseptic chamber. And so at last she accepted the stillborn child, but her hands on his head registered no sensation. She held him stiffly in her arms, gazing into the bloodless face with dream-like detachment. Mine? The room was spinning around her. The child bore a striking resemblance to her husband.

But where was her husband? Someone had tried to call him after her admission, but John was a surgeon at another hospital, unreachable when they’d wheeled her to the birthing centre. He had been summoned for a weekend emergency, but was now on his way, the nurse assured Lydia. “He’ll be here as soon as he possibly can.”

Lydia’s heart was a wild bird, trapped inside a chimney. She held the inert infant for another chaotic moment, then, all at once, thrust him back at the nurse, who looked doomed, having failed to escape along with the others.

“Do something!” Lydia heard herself shout, her body shuddering, as though subjected to electric shock. “Do something, please!”

“You’re still young, Mrs. Gabriel, you—“

She was thirty-three going on thirty-four, but did not argue. All she managed to spit out was, “No!” The word reverberated in the empty room. “No! No! No!”

Another nurse came in, checked her pulse, took her blood pressure. Then, murmuring words of comfort, shot a sedative into her vein. By the time her husband arrived, Lydia had been moved out of the birthing centre and into the bustling maternity ward, where she slept for several merciful hours. It was early afternoon when John entered her room on that rainy Labour Day weekend. They had been married exactly eleven years.

“Help!  Help!”

She had been awakened by a kicking sensation deep inside her womb. Slowly, Lydia rolled her head toward the window, groping for clarity. It was an overcast morning, with winds flapping at the windows. She was in an unfamiliar room, her right arm painfully lodged under her head. For some reason, she was unable to free it, feeling herself totter on the edge of a dream.

It was not until her eyes fell on the I.D. bracelet that full awareness struck. There was a moment of gouging pain, through which, dimly, she began to feel a rising perplexity. Her cries for help had come out of her dream, but she was no longer dreaming. She was certain of that, though increasingly bewildered by the persistent kicking in her womb. It was a familiar enough sensation that, right now, made no sense.

 Am I going mad?

She forced herself to review yesterday’s events — the rushed delivery, the first moment of slashing comprehension. Stillborn.

And yet, though she was now fully awake and lucid, the kicking in her womb remained as indisputable as the weather. For some reason, both her arms ached — as if, hypnotized, she had carried some burden only her muscles had a memory of. She found the other pain, the one between her legs, almost reassuring, for she remembered its origin well enough; she recalled the OBS resident’s balding head, bent over his patchwork like a weary tailor.

It was the kicking that finally made Lydia reach for the telephone: the kicking and the lurking fear that she might indeed be going mad. She had an aunt who had been briefly institutionalized, and a father whose behaviour had always been a little erratic.

The morning nurse came in and Lydia hung up, gasping in pain as she rolled over to face a diminutive Filipina with impossibly long eyelashes. Charmaine Syn, said the name tag. Lydia became acutely aware of her own odious body: swollen, slashed, malodorous, oozing blood and sweat. She wished she could summon the strength to fling open the door and holler into the hectic corridor:

My baby has died; he died and they won’t even tell me why!

 The room was spinning again.  She shut her eyes, letting her mind drift back to the last time she held her lifeless child in her arms. On a sudden impulse, she had begged John to have her son brought back after she awoke yesterday afternoon. He had rushed to oblige her, watching her caress the baby’s lifeless body, fingertips lingering on cheeks, white and still as wax, on tiny, translucent earlobes.

The child seemed to be sleeping. Lydia went on fondling the tiny toes, peering between buttocks, thumbing the spine, the skull.

“There’s no flaw on him anywhere,” she whispered to John. “I’ve checked.”

A nerve was beginning to pulse in John’s brow. “He has your beautiful lips,” he said.

They sat wrapped in silence then, alone with their dead child, while out in the corridor, a supply cart rattled by, and two men stopped to chat just outside Lydia’s door, braying with glee. At length, a bespectacled English nurse came in, flushed and breathless, trailing a faint, medicinal smell. She paused on the threshold briefly, then trotted toward Lydia’s bed, blinking behind her heavy lenses like a startled owl. A moment or two went by. The nurse extended her arms, eyebrows raised questioningly.

“No. Not yet, please.” Lydia levered herself on an elbow. “Is it all right if I snip off a bit of his hair?”

“Why not? He’s your baby.” The nurse achieved a smile. She pulled a pair of scissors from one of her pockets. “He looks an awful lot like his Daddy, doesn’t he?”

“He does.” Lydia glanced at her husband. On the street below, an ambulance siren wailed but did not quite drown out what the nurse said next.

“We could have a picture taken—if you’d like, Mrs. Gabriel.”

“Yes! Oh yes,” said Lydia. “Why didn’t think of that?”

She was still cradling her baby, vaguely aware of a cold draft seeping through the window. The child had been brought to her wrapped in a soft blanket, but he was naked now, and, instinctively, Lydia found herself casting an anxious glance toward the open window.

And John — her supremely rational husband, who thought all theatre people impetuous, often irrational — had seen her do it.

“I need a cup of coffee,” he suddenly said, rising. “I’ll be back soon.” 

*

“What are they going to do with him?” she asked without preamble. It was late morning, Lydia’s second day at St. Margaret’s. She was speaking to her husband on the telephone.

“Do with him?” John, who had stopped to see his parents, took a moment to answer. “Cremate him, I guess.”

“You’re not sure?” Lydia swallowed hard. “Didn’t you ask?”

“Yes,” he said. “I’ve signed release forms. I hope that’s all right with you.”

“What do you mean all right?”

He said, “I mean my taking care of…you know, all the formalities.” He cleared his throat. “They said it had to be done yesterday.”

A small, incoherent sound escaped Lydia. “So he’s going to be cremated today?”

“I believe so.  I hope that’s all right,” he repeated.

And again she asked, “What do you mean all right? Was there anything else we could have done?”

“Well.” She heard his heavy sigh. “We could’ve had a burial, I suppose.”

“Burial,” she echoed, like a foreigner practising a new word. “You mean a regular funeral, a gravestone?”

“I suppose,” he said. “Some people do choose this option but— ”

She broke in, breathless. “Would I be able to attend?”

“I don’t know. It would depend on your doctors.”

“He could’ve had a gravestone,” she said musingly. “I could’ve gone to visit.”

John said, “Oh, Lydia, please.” Then:  “It’s not as if —

But she broke in with sudden heat. “You could’ve asked me, couldn’t you? I’m his mother! The least you could’ve done was asked me!”

“I’m sorry, Darling,” he said, exhaling into the phone, “but…I wanted to spare you, I—” He paused, then went on more briskly, “I thought you weren’t ready…that it would be thoughtless of me. You understand, don’t you?”

“No. No, I don’t,” said Lydia. She hesitated, swallowed hard, then hit the OFF button without so much as goodbye.

Rain was pelting the window, sifting down from a bruised-looking sky. A stranger was standing at the foot of her bed: a middle-aged man in a white coat, studying a chart.

 A new doctor.

Lydia’s lips tasted salty. She had fallen asleep again at some point. Through the wall came a baby’s muffled cry. When she pulled the white sheet up to her chin, the doctor raised his gaze. He was very tall, with wiry hair and dark, melancholy eyes. 

“Hello. I’m Dr. Seager, Dr. Minnaar’s associate.” He smiled down at her, vaguely apologetic. “I’m very sorry.  Dr. Minnaar— ”

“Yes, I know,” Lydia broke in on his explanation. “He told me before he left.” Had said, that last time in his office, she would have to hurry if she wanted him to have the honour. She had been nine days overdue; he was scheduled to leave for South Africa.

“I’m sorry,” Dr. Seager repeated. He put the chart down. “I know it must suck, having to deal with a perfect stranger at a time like this.”

“Yes.” Lydia closed her eyes. In the sudden silence, the wind could be heard, flapping and moaning.

“How do you feel?” the doctor was asking. “A ridiculous question, I know, but I…I hoped you might like to tell me.” He sat down beside her, clutching his stethoscope but looking grave and patient, as if he had dropped in for nothing more than a friendly chat. “You must be angry,” he stated when she failed to answer.

“Yes.”

“Well,” he said, “you’ve got every right to feel cheated: nine months of waiting wiped out in one day.”

“Barely two hours,” she said, more or less to herself. “I don’t suppose you know anything…?” She had raised her eyes to him, only to fall abruptly silent. The smell of smoke—real or imaginary, she really couldn’t tell—was rising in her nostrils.

He shook his head in mute sympathy. “No, but — ”

Afraid she might lose her nerve, she did not let him finish. “There’s something wrong with me.” She spoke in an odd, mumbling voice, her heart wild.

“Tell me.” His gaze held her patiently, dark and sorrowful as a Basset Hound’s.

“I think I’m going mad.” She let the word slip out, then raised her hands and hid her face behind them. The wind rose and fell, whistling at the windows. She said, “I keep feeling the baby kick.”

“Well…it does sound kind of crazy, doesn’t it?” He sighed, raking his hand through his wiry hair. “Actually, though, it’s not at all unusual.” His dark eyes implored her to trust him. “Have you ever heard of phantom legs—amputees’?” he asked.

“I guess so.” 

“It’s the same sort of thing. You’re not going mad.” He looked at her closely for a moment. “Anything else you think I should know?”

“I don’t know…yes…I keep…smelling smoke.”

He let out a long, weary breath. “It happens sometimes. Listen: whatever you do, don’t be afraid to talk about it. It’s all…perfectly normal, believe me.”

Normal then: to feel that some part of you, some indispensable organ, like your heart or your liver, was suddenly extracted from your defeated body. Bitterly, she said, “I guess it’s also normal, even banal, to say that I want to die but…I really do.” Her voice cracked. “I — ”

“Mrs. Gabriel — Lydia — ” He touched her arm lightly. “Look, I don’t want to sound pompous, but there are actually times when it takes more courage to live than to die, you know. Please believe me, you’ll get over this. In time.” His glance fell on the empty tissue box next to her breakfast tray. He held out his own pack of tissues.

“Thank you.” Though she wore nothing but her hospital gown, Lydia’s body was perspiring profusely. Blowing her nose, she said, “The thing is, I can’t…I just can’t imagine picking up where I left off—can’t bear the thought of going home empty-handed.” A tiny sound, like a child’s hiccup, escaped her throat. Her eyelids fluttered. “When am I going home?”

“Well,” he stood up decisively, a dent between his eyebrows, “I’ll have to examine you.” The apologetic note was back in his voice.

“Right now?”

He smiled sadly, pulling out a pair of rubber gloves. “I’ll try to be gentle.”

“Okay.” She was swept with gratitude for his kindness. Dr. Minnaar had been so hasty, so arrogant! “I’m sorry,” she muttered vaguely. Her legs had begun to tremble. She fought the urge to sit up, to run, to hide the empty mountain of flesh rising beneath her breasts.

 But soon this moment, too, had passed. She felt herself grow resigned under his probing hands. Somewhere in the distance, a dog was barking; clouds drifted across the autumnal sky. She lay back, she rolled over; she followed his commands in silence. What if I hadn’t gone into labour yesterday, but waited until Minnaar had left and this kinder doctor took over. Would everything still be the same? She trembled under the stethoscope, his gloved fingers palpating her flesh. The tone of her bladder was impaired, Dr. Seager said; her urethra was swollen.

“Why?”

 He sighed, folding his stethoscope. “Big baby, quick delivery—nothing major.”

 He spoke soothingly. She would have to stay, though, till the problem cleared up. “I’ll put you on medication…hopefully by tomorrow — ”

She bowed her head, echoing bleakly. “Tomorrow.”

“Yes, but…one day at a time.” He stood regarding her with his mournful eyes. “I’ll drop in again sometime after lunch.”

“It could’ve been much worse, you know,” John was saying. “He might have been born with Down’s syndrome, or spina bifida, or—”

“But he wasn’t!” Lydia interjected. She regarded her husband with blurred eyes, bitterness clinging to the roof of her mouth. “It must have been something the doctors did!” she blurted. “Something went wrong — I’m sure of it! Why else would Minnaar look so evasive?” She began to weep noisily, talking through her tears. “We can have an official inquest though, can’t we? Maybe sue them…the hospital?”

“Lydia.” John stroked a stray lock away from her face. “I’m sure Minnaar…I’m sure they all did what they could, believe me.” He took her hand, looking tired but earnest. “It was probably lack of oxygen,” he said after a moment. “That’s what it is most often.”

“But why?” she insisted. “Why, when he was so perfect?”

“Oh, my dear,” he said.  “I wish I had the answer.”

She turned away then and hid her face in the pillow, shaking with unleashed grief.

“Lydia, darling,” he said. “Listen…please listen to me.” He paused. He licked his lower lip.  “We’re still young enough, you know.  We — ”

She jerked herself upright. “Oh — !” she let out, seeming to choke on the utterance. She meant to add something, but then, overcome by unbearable fatigue, fell back with a moan and resumed weeping. 

Soon, the P.A. system announced that visiting hours were over. Lydia raised her head.

“How will I tell my mother?” she suddenly asked. Her widowed mother was at home with a retired nurse, recovering from a varicose vein operation.

“I’m going to see her right now,” said John. He leaned in, planting a kiss on Lydia’s forehead. “Please try not to worry.  I’ll take care of everything.”

*

Dr. Seager arrived right after lunch, as promised, his arrival a small gift from some merciful deity. She told him about her abortion at the age of twenty, a miscarriage she had two years later, her failure to conceive in the years that followed. All this was probably in her chart, but last December, before finding out she was finally pregnant, she’d had too much to drink on at least two occasions.

“I mean, it was Christmas, it was New Year’s Eve. My period had always been kind of erratic, so — ” She paused. She raised both her hands and covered her eyes.

 “You’re not responsible,” Dr. Seager stated. There was nothing she could have done — or not done. But there was something they should look into: the possibility of a genetic factor. “We’ll do blood tests on both of you…you are still — ”

Lydia registered only fragments of what Seager was saying, for one word kept echoing in her head: genetic. So it could still be that; there could still be an explanation.

“We’ll try a new medication,” Dr. Seager said, gloved hand probing her battered flesh. He talked gently while she lay, passive, her breasts swollen with a superfluous substance. She told him about the painful lactation, surprised to learn that she had been given a suppressant.

“Why isn’t it working then?” she asked. “What’s the matter with me?”

 Seager spread his hands. “Nature can be stubborn. We’ll give you new tablets.”

“More tablets?”

“Might as well — they’re on special this week.” He grinned at her boyishly, then patted her hand. “Try to be kind to yourself,” he said. “And, please, go for a walk. Doctor’s orders!”

Dr. Seager had ordered exercise, so Lydia finally ventured out of her room, waddling down the corridor with her mangled bottom, her useless, engorged breasts. It was nearly visitors’ time. A woman in a quilted robe came out of the solarium, talking excitedly on her phone. She glanced up and smiled.  Lydia dropped her gaze. 

Outside the nursing station, half a dozen babies were laid out in tiny cots, waiting to be claimed by their mothers. Most of the infants were asleep, clad in blue or pink blankets, I.D. bracelets dangling from their tiny wrists. There was a small lounge next to the nursing station, and, as she went by, Lydia could see a circle of mothers dressed in street clothes, getting last-minute instructions before going home. In one of the cots, a newborn began to fret, his fists batting the air.

Something stirred in Lydia’s chest. She paused for a moment, undecided, pressing her hand to her chest in a gesture of distress she had picked up from her widowed mother. She glanced toward the head nurse, who was on the phone, writing something on a pad, then again, at the mothers huddled in the lounge. They were all intent on the bespectacled English nurse, who was busy demonstrating something. Lydia gestured toward the head nurse, but the woman only raised her hand like a traffic policeman, signalling her to wait.

Lydia waited. For one chaotic moment, she stood bent over the tiny cot, making soothing noises, filled with violent longing. The child went on wailing, but an inner voice was suddenly hissing in Lydia’s ear. “Don’t!  Don’t you dare touch him!”

The baby was growing frantic, his pink face quickly turning purple. And still Lydia wavered, casting a helpless glance toward the distracted nurse. The moment seemed interminable, but finally, anxiety having given way to panic, she found herself leaning into the cot, picking up the howling bundle. 

At once, the newborn stopped shrieking and gazed up at her, his face gaining a more natural color. Another moment, though, and his frantic mouth began to search the exposed skin around her neck, making small, greedy noises. 

Lydia rocked the baby, crooning in his ear. But the hungry infant, failing to find satisfaction, screwed up his face and resumed howling. She tried stroking between his eyes. It was a trick that often worked with kittens, but the baby went on protesting, shuddering from head to toe. 

A few moments went by. Lydia had stopped thinking; she had stopped trying to get the nurse’s attention, and was now shuffling toward the solarium, cradling the newborn child. There was laughter wafting from one of the rooms, music from another. Two youngish men had stepped off the elevator, chuckling, both of them bearing flowers.

The solarium was deserted; the only sound to be heard was that of cars speeding on the street below. The weather had been fickle all week. After days of rain and wind, the sun had emerged and the bright room seemed unbearably over-heated. Lydia could feel her armpits grow moist and her breasts start to leak. The baby in her arms was still screaming, still flailing, but no one came. No one thought to investigate.

 Lydia lowered herself into one of the lounge chairs. It was a vinyl recliner, standing in the corner, away from the entrance. Robbed of will and reason, she shifted her thighs and drew the baby closer. Out on the street, an impatient driver kept honking his horn. The P.A. system came on, drowning out both street traffic and the newborn’s frenzied cries. Lydia was fumbling with her pyjama buttons, grappling with her new maternity bra, her whole body quivering with anticipation. It seemed to take forever, but at last she was ready. The whole world had come to a standstill, resigned, while she shifted her weight, let her eyelids drop, and quietly, blissfully, surrendered.  

__________________________________________________

Every year, one in every 125 Canadian pregnancies ends in a stillbirth; in the UK, one in every 219; in the US, there are said to be nearly a million birth tragedies.

 

Irena Karafilly is an award-winning Montreal writer, poet, and aphorist. She is the author of several acclaimed books and of numerous stories, poems, and articles, published in both literary and mainstream magazines, as well as in various North American newspapers, including the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune.  Her short stories have been widely published, anthologized, and broadcast, winning literary prizes such as the National Magazine Award and the CBC Literary Award. She currently divides her time between Montreal and Athens and is at work on a new collection.

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Published by darcie friesen hossack

Darcie Friesen Hossack is a graduate of the Humber School for Writers. Her short story collection, Mennonites Don’t Dance, was a runner-up for the Danuta Gleed Award, shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Ontario Library Association's Forest of Reading Evergreen Award for Adult Fiction. Citing irreverence, the book was banned by the LaCrete Public Library in Northern Alberta. Having mentored with Giller finalists Sandra Birdsell (The Russlander) and Gail Anderson Dargatz (Spawning Grounds, The Cure for Death by Lightening), Darcie is now completing her first novel where, for a family with a Seventh-day Adventist father and a Mennonite mother, the End Times are just around the corner. Darcie is also a four time judge of the Whistler Independent Book Awards, and a career food writer. She lives in Northern Alberta, Canada, with her husband, international award-winning chef, Dean Hossack.

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