Published on January 4th, 2016 | by Mary Rowen2
THIRTEEN: Mary Rowen on Growing Up with Loss
Like so many other bad things, it started with blood. My mother’s and a bit of my own, too.
But when I left the house that breezy Saturday in May of 1977—practically galloping up the street in a new white jumpsuit from Sears—blood was the farthest thing from my mind. Three months shy of thirteen, I was tall, leggy, and immature for my age. I recall thinking I looked a bit like a model in a magazine, and fantasized about a photographer from Seventeen happening along, snapping a photo of me, maybe even putting me on the cover.
The only thing bothering me at all was the fact that I was alone. Every year since I’d started Catholic school, my entire family had attended the annual parish fair together. It wasn’t much of a fair—more like a big yard sale in the school parking lot—but there was a dunk tank, where, for a quarter, you could throw a ball and possibly send one of your teachers into a cold-water bath.
It was a fundraiser for the school, so almost everyone went. The previous year, I’d felt like a celebrity pushing my baby brother Steve through the festivities in his stroller. But since he’d since grown into a toddler, I’d been looking forward to holding his hand and walking him around. Talking to boys my own age was difficult, and I found it much easier when I had my adorable little brother in tow.
But that morning, my mom had woken up saying she was sick and needed to spend the day in bed. Which was odd. As a child, my Mom had lost a brother in a car crash, and that tragic, bloody incident had changed her life in numerous ways too terrible to detail here. Therefore, I was accustomed to her feeling sad, but she rarely got physically ill. She’d had stomach flu once, and had picked up a serious case of poison ivy in the garden another time. Otherwise, though, she was pretty much always up and about, even if she wasn’t in the best mood. And she had no obvious symptoms that day either; she just said she needed to rest. I actually wondered if she was faking sick to avoid the fair. Then, shockingly, my dad said he was planning to stay home with Mom, and they were going to keep Steve home too.
“Why, Dad?” I asked. I couldn’t believe it. “Stevie’s two now. I can handle him.”
But Dad shook his head in a way that let me know he wasn’t going to change his mind. “No. Not today, honey. You go on, though. You can tell us all about it tonight.”
Nothing was as much fun as I’d remembered it being in the past, but still, I managed to have a decent time playing games like horseshoes and ring toss on the asphalt with some friends from school. It wasn’t until I slipped inside to use the bathroom—with its perma-smoky smell—that I saw my first blood of the day. I’d gotten my period a couple of times before, but it was erratic, and had come on pretty strong. My underwear was drenched, and there was some bleeding through onto my new white jumpsuit. Horror flooded me like a rogue wave floods a beach, and the only thing I could think to do was run. Out of the bathroom, across the parking lot, all the way home. I didn’t want my family to know what’d happened; I just wanted to sneak upstairs and wash the blood out before it stained.
But no one was there. The house was empty. And more blood was waiting for me inside: a trail of dark red led from my parents’ room and down the orange-carpeted stairs. On the kitchen table, a hastily scribbled note stated that my brothers were at a neighbor’s house and my parents were at the local emergency room.
Not sure what to do, I got out the phone book and called the hospital’s main number. And somehow, after about ten minutes, my mom’s voice came over the line.
“Mom!” I cried. “What’s wrong with you?”
She tried to downplay it, saying she was having some “little problems,” but I’d seen the blood and needed to know the truth. “Well,” she finally said, tears choking her, “I’m pregnant, but I don’t think the baby will survive.” Then my father took the phone from her. He said they were waiting to see a doctor, and would be in touch soon.
It was hours later when their car pulled into the driveway. My brothers were back from the neighbor’s house by then, and my mom wasn’t wearing her jeans. She had on some sort of hospital gown, and when I asked why, she just shook her head.
“Is the baby…?” I asked.
“Still alive for now,” said my dad. “But the doctor doesn’t have much hope.”
No one asked how the fair had gone. Upstairs, my jumpsuit hung over a chair, drying.
Mom was sick several more times that spring and summer. Dad would take her to the doctor when the bleeding got really bad, and my chest would seize with apprehension. Then, when she was six months along, Dad rushed her to the hospital in the middle of the night, and I was put in charge of my brothers and instructed to stay in the house until further notice. In the morning, the phone rang, and I learned I had a new brother. A tiny one—weighing just three pounds—and connected to about a million tubes, but he was holding his own.
Later on that day, my dad took me to see Mom and little Danny. His ridiculously small arms and legs were jaundiced and leathery looking, and my mother was in terrible pain after an emergency C-section. When she saw the baby, she cried and cried.
Then things got worse. The next day, Danny was taken to Boston by ambulance, and Dad brought us kids into the city to visit him. On Friday, his fifth day of life, he died. Once again, I was at home with my brothers—I have a memory of Donny and Marie being on the TV—when my parents straggled through the door.
I could go into more detail about those dark days, but what I recall most was the disbelief I felt. Up until the day of the school fair, I’d been a carefree and optimistic seventh grader. But by September of eighth grade, I was a thirteen-year-old with a dead brother. I couldn’t help feeling that history was repeating itself. Was I trapped in a cycle of loss? Was this just the way it was in my family?
The sadness and strangeness of the situation overwhelmed me. My parents were devastated, and I never knew when I might find one or both of them in tears. On Sundays, we’d often visit the cemetery, where I’d stare at the patch of dirt where the grass hadn’t yet begun to grow, and think about the little white coffin that’d looked so much like a shoebox. And I’d think how could someone so small make such a huge difference in our lives? It seemed as though my family—always a bastion of stability—could fall apart at any moment.
People at school didn’t know what to say, and I didn’t know how to answer them either. Every time someone said they were sorry, I’d mutter, “It’s OK” or “I’m fine.” Pithy comments like “He’s probably happier now,” made no sense. Happier than what? He never had a chance to feel anything.
So I did my best to act normal. I was anxious; I was depressed. By the time I was a high-school sophomore, I was barely eating; the following year, I became bulimic and stayed that way for two more decades.
Eventually, though, when I was in my late twenties, I fell in love with the man I wanted to marry and eventually found a good therapist. I became a mother to two strong, healthy kids. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to thinking quite a lot about the summer of 1977 throughout both of my pregnancies.
Nowadays, I look at my children—both young teens—with so much optimism for their futures. I want nothing more than for them to be happy and live fulfilling lives. Perhaps because I’m acutely aware of the ways my mother and I were both affected by loss at an early age, I cling steadfastly to the belief that if my children’s youth can stay bright and unmarred by blood and pain, they’ll break the cycle and be more carefree, less anxious adults than their mother and grandmother.
But what do I know? Fate is powerful, and all I’ve got to combat it are love, devotion, and a will to listen. So I’ll just keep doing my best, and hope they grow up with some good stories to tell.
Feature photo “13” by Alexander Makarov, flickr creative commons.
All images not by author are sourced on flickr, reprinted via creative commons license