Published on September 14th, 2021 | by Karissa Welch T.0
A Portrait of the Mother as Love on Fire: Death, Forgiveness, and Abolition (part I)
This is the first in a three-part series.
I. Descent Into Hell
The first time I met Victoria*, she was eight and I was eighteen. I remember walking through the front door of her parents’ house and her running up to me and gasping, “you are so beautiful!” Such a surprising, sweet first impression. Victoria is my husband’s younger sister. I always referred to Victoria as “our sister” when I felt benevolent, and “my husband’s sister” when I did not. Now I almost never talk about her at all.
In the decade following our introduction, Victoria often complimented me, but it quickly became evident that trivial aspects of appearance were one of the only things she talked about. Her comments were hollow and far away and became something I disdained.
I married my husband Jon when I was twenty. I was unexpectedly pregnant a month after the wedding, and I wept. I was not ready, and I stayed unready long after my first son was born. I’ve grown into motherhood imperfectly, and I saw that from the beginning. I used to have perfect breasts and I never got a picture. I knew breastfeeding was supposed to be bonding, but I only felt bound. I felt angry and hopeless when my son would cry in the night. Doctors’ offices began screening every patient for postpartum depression several months after my last check-up in 2012.
In my culture every child is a gift from the moment of conception. And mothers are blessed to receive them. I was the lunatic for being unsure.
Those early years were dark, and I don’t remember much. But I was determined to love my ten-pound infant. He could hold his head up from the day he was born, and we’ve been locked in a battle of wills for nine years now. I worry all the time that my tortured love formed his nature in my womb. But we’re still here, and he knows unequivocally that I love him and care for him.
When my little family would visit Jon’s family, Victoria wanted nothing to do with my son. I don’t know if she ever held him or played with him. But she was full of strange and inflated compliments about me and my motherhood and my baby. I didn’t begrudge her hesitancy about children because I shared it, but what she did manage to communicate sounded like the rehearsed niceties of a life-size doll. Maybe I feared her.
Victoria had this quality that was both charismatic and off-putting. She was creatively brilliant, but inauthentic. Jon’s family is full of artists, and they all recognized her talents. Jon’s mother Joan kept Victoria stocked with craft supplies for every hobby that took her fancy. Meanwhile, the youngest sister, Iris, was interested and even gifted in athletics, something Jon’s family cares nothing for. Iris’s interests were not encouraged or facilitated, and when it became clear that Iris wasn’t an especially talented artist, Joan would discuss in front of her daughters how Iris paled in comparison to Victoria.
One of Jon’s older brothers discovered that Victoria was routinely beating, choking, and threatening to kill Iris behind closed doors. The elder siblings and respective partners convened and confronted their parents, urging them to address Victoria’s mental health and Iris’ abuse immediately. All of us had known since forever that Victoria’s birth mother had such debilitating schizophrenia that the birth certificate read only, “baby girl.”
In the end, my sister-in-law gave Iris a soccer ball, the sisters got their own rooms, and Victoria began medication for ADHD. I get a lump in my throat when I think about it—half tears, half hysterical laughter. It was like addressing a severed limb with the tiny round band aids made for finger pricks.
In those years, I focused mainly on my two young sons. We didn’t spend very much time with Jon’s parents or sisters because it was about as safe as taking a dip in a lava flow. But we showed kindness to the sisters when we could, recognizing the pain they were struggling to grow up in.
As we grew up ourselves, Jon and I became increasingly aware of the wounds hidden in Jon’s own childhood. He and his brothers felt responsible for much of the early formation of Victoria and Iris because there were years during which Joan and my father-in-law were so wrapped up in their personal addictions that they neglected all six of their children, leaving the elder boys to raise their young sisters. Jon remembers eating bugs and dog food out of curiosity, but his older brothers say it was because they were hungry. Jon and his brothers still carry guilt over various aspects of their sisters’ lives, although the boys were victims too. Joan denies everything.
We rarely saw Victoria by the time she was a teenager. It was too painful, too confusing, too helpless. The police would bring her home from unlit corners of town in the middle of the night. She was often suicidal. She numbed herself indiscriminately with sex and substances. Once, CPS visited their house because Victoria said her father was hitting her. It is possible. It would also be consistent with Victoria’s history if she fabricated it. Victoria saw a counselor several times, but Joan maintained that Victoria was suffering from ADHD.
At seventeen, Victoria was pregnant by her 28-year-old boyfriend, Charlie. Charlie had a heartbreaking history of his own but verged on innocent when he was on his medication. He was dangerous when he wasn’t on medication. He threatened to kill Victoria and her family if she left him. Joan reported that to the police, and I heard the police were on their way to arrest him. Later that week, I asked Joan to babysit my sons for lack of other options. Walking in the door when I returned, I found Charlie sitting on the ground playing with them. When I pulled Joan aside, she said she’d decided to forgive Charlie and that I shouldn’t worry because “she’d protect them if anything happened.” When I recall it, I find that I’m holding my breath.
When the holidays rolled around, Jon’s oldest brother was hosting and said that Victoria could be in his home, but Charlie was not allowed. Victoria was offended and neither of them attended.
Days after Victoria turned eighteen and five months into her pregnancy, she married Charlie. They invited us to their wedding thirty minutes before it started, but my boys were napping and I declined to wake them, confounded by the whole thing. The newlyweds drove from California to North Dakota that same day. Victoria left behind a dead hamster she’d rolled over on in the night and a free-ranging snake in her parents’ home.
Charlie and Victoria wintered in a storage container after being evicted from an apartment for constantly fighting at high volume and killing one of the puppies they brought from California. That was the winter of one of the polar vortexes. People froze to death in their cars.
During the months of Victoria’s pregnancy, I tortured myself with whether we should try and adopt Victoria’s baby. Would it be right to take a child knowing I didn’t have extra reserves of love to give? Would this baby be unloved and uncared for if I didn’t give it my broken reserves? We dreamt of an open adoption where some unrelated and more wholesome family could take this baby and give it all their saved-up love, and we could be the aunts and uncles in orbit. That way, the baby could be assured that he or she had not been abandoned but would also receive the top-shelf love every baby needs and deserves. I don’t know how to characterize what Victoria wanted or didn’t want, but she decided not to place the baby for adoption, and there was nothing we could do but wait.
The following spring, Victoria gave birth to her son, Ryan. Her small family was living in a hotel at the time. Joan was able to visit them soon after Ryan was born and reported that things were going better than she had expected. Several weeks later, Joan asked me to speak with Victoria, who was displaying signs of postpartum depression. Ever after I’d identified my own postpartum depression, Jon’s parents took to explaining every ounce of my discomfort with their family as a symptom of my depression. Maybe it was.
I did not have a relationship with Victoria, and I told Joan right away that what Victoria needed was to see a doctor and to have people around her to help her. Knowing Victoria’s history and third-hand hearing that she’d made remarks that amounted to threatening her baby’s life, I called Child Protection Services in North Dakota and asked them to do a well-check on Victoria, Charlie, and Ryan. The police called me back to report that the hotel room was messy, but nothing was obviously amiss.
I never schedule time for bad news.
It comes from familiar lips, in a voice you know. It grows into a story you never wanted to hear.
I need to sleep, but my body and blood refuse. Voices flit around in my head, which feels so small. Like mockingbirds in the night, they chirp incessantly:
Victoria and Charlie were arrested for the death of their infant son Ryan. It was not accidental, according to medical personnel and the eventual autopsy. The details are buried in my skull and I can’t repeat them without making that horrible grimace-smile that humans do when they can’t give in to the full horror of the truth. If I tried to say it with a straight face, I envision my head splitting in half and becoming a portal to hell.
Since I had been the one who called CPS, I was the only family member the police had contact information for. I returned the detective’s call, sitting in my car after I got off work. I told her how little I really knew Victoria. I didn’t cry until I asked her what would happen to Ryan’s body now.
When Joan found out that I talked to detectives, she said I owed her an apology for not telling her first. I knew she was speaking out of her own grief and fear and shame, and in the grand scheme of everything that came before and everything that’s happened since, it was almost a throwaway episode. But it was the end of what little relationship we had.
What did happen to Ryan’s body is the most suburban gothic thing. He was cremated and the ashes divided between Charlie’s parents and Victoria’s parents. Joan keeps them in a USPS Priority box in her closet, eternally unresolved.
What consumed me with horror a month ago is now a memory of the death of someone I did not know. The thought is like a gnat in my periphery.
*All names have been changed.
**Dated areas correspond to journal entries I made over the past years, but are interwoven with recent reflection and/or backstory.