*Feature* Bitter Medicine
by Bonnie Hennessy
While I was listening to my twenty-one month old daughter, Molly, sing "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star," my husband, Jimmy, was in the next room telling his mother that the doctor had just found a massive tumor in his chest. I was trying to feign enthusiasm over Molly's talent, since Jimmy and I had both agreed after the doctor's visit that we wouldn't tell her anything yet. So I smiled and hummed the tune with her to drown out the sound of his mother choking on her tears in the next room. My legs weakened and I slid down to the floor. Molly thought I was ready to play.
Later after my mother-in-law left in a daze, I heard Seamus, my six week old son, crying in his crib. He was a tough infant who seemed to dread sleep and cried most of the time when he was awake. I loved him, but like every mother of a newborn, I was exhausted. Today I did not have anything left to buffer my raw nerves from the grating sound of his screams. Apparently, neither did his daddy. Jimmy looked from my red eyes, to Molly, who was now tap dancing in her brand new plastic Cinderella shoes, and then to Seamus' bedroom door. Neither of us moved. When Seamus' screaming rose several decibels, we both shivered and he began to head for the door. He turned and walked back to me abruptly and said, "I need to take a walk." I nodded silently, grasping his fingertips.
I understood that he needed to walk, to think, to be somewhere he could feel what he was feeling, and right now that certainly was not in the house with a screaming newborn and a tap dancing toddler. But wait! I wanted to take that walk with him. I wanted to hold him tight. But wait… Seamus was wailing and Molly needed a diaper change ─ badly. Jimmy's hand slipped out of mine as he walked out the front door and I saw him pull the collar of his heavy wool coat up against the frigid January air.
My cousin and I had nicknamed Jimmy Superman because of the resemblance he bared to Christopher Reeve. He was strong, over six feet tall with piercing blue eyes and dark, wavy hair which had all earned him quite a bit of money as a model. But beyond his chiseled features, it was his energy and sense of humor that was infectious and brought life to everyone around him. His type A personality and desire to please me made him my own personal superman. All the same, he had never looked as vulnerable as he did leaning against the wind. Only when he was out of sight did I walk towards Seamus' bedroom door and the screeching that had even Molly covering her ears.
I fumbled with my shirt to release my breast and we sat down on the mint green rocker in his softly lit pastel room, which was supposed to create a sense of calm. Completely unaffected by the calm emanating from the colors around him, he persisted in his tears until the instant he latched onto me. Then, and only then, did his wailing stop. Molly sat at my feet humming something that I knew I should compliment, but I was still picturing Jimmy out alone in the cold January air. Life was literally unsure at best, yet he was alone.
What was to be done? There was no one else to take care of the kids, no one else to breastfeed Seamus. These babies who, like almost every mother, I would have sacrificed my own life for, suddenly felt like weights shackled around my ankles, keeping me from my husband and making it impossible for me to fall to the floor and cry. Something was hardening around my heart, making it difficult to breathe with them both so close.
As he suckled, the rawness of my nipple made me wince and I looked down at him and adjusted his mouth. I could not fight the resentment I felt towards them for what I knew they were going to do to me. I was going to have to go the park and library group while my husband's hair fluttered to the ground. I was going to have to squeeze play dough while merely feet away in the next room my husband fought for his life. I was going to have to play dress up and breastfeed and sing "The Itsy-Bitsy Spider" when all I wanted to do was lay down and cry.
Molly stood up and began her tap dancing routine again. Her blonde hair bobbed with each step and her China-white skin glowed with joy until she caught me staring at her. She must have seen some of the fear, resentment and self-loathing I was feeling because her tap dancing came to a halt. Her eyes penetrated more of the emotions brewing beneath my thin skin than I wanted her to and I saw in her intense gaze a flicker of the intuitive woman she would become one day. Her plastic shoes clicked across the wooden floor as she came to stand right beside me and peer deeper into the back of my soul. She leaned in and gave me one of her long kisses on the cheek and I knew it was my turn to smile and say I was okay, but I froze.
The depth of her gaze and the feel of her lips against my cheek released the tears I had been hoping would not spill in her presence yet. I dropped my own gaze as I blinked away the tears and saw the sparkle of a dozen sets of bright beads tinkling around her neck. Her bright blue tulle skirt and a glittery crown were enough to make anyone smile, but I couldn't right now. And if I could not do that for her now, how was I going to smile for her during the months to come?
She pouted her lips, dismayed that her kiss had not stopped my tears the way my kisses eased hers. Determined to fix my "boo boo," she began taking off her sparkly necklaces one at a time and ceremoniously placing them over my head. She added a feather boa and stepped backwards to survey her work. As dramatically as only a toddler can do, she waved her fairy wand and tapped my forehead several times. I tried to smile for her, but another tear ran my mascara further down my cheek. Undeterred, she pulled off her beloved crown and looked long and hard at it before shoving its comb a little too hard into my scalp. I had the distinct feeling that she had drawn blood.
She tapped me on the head with her wand again and I could not help but smile. Even though I still wanted to escape them and lay down and cry, I was grateful for the beads, the boa, the crown and the laughter. It was all stronger than any of the grueling medicines it was probably going to take to cure their Daddy. She giggled victoriously and continued tapping me lightly on the head, enjoying the laughter bubbling out of both of us.
Having emptied one breast, I moved Seamus to the other and felt the relief of my milk flowing. I had been quite engorged when I got home, but I had not really had time to even think about it. Tears were still dripping and my smile was tinged with the new world order of my life, but for now I eased back into my chair and let Seamus worked his magic.
The wind whipped hard against the window beside me and I thought of Jimmy's scarf and gloves still sitting by the front door. But Seamus was still nursing and the weather was near zero, much too cold for children. Although the thorny vines of resentment tightened around my heart, I forced myself to hum a lullaby and pulled Molly onto my lap with warm squeeze. Sometimes the best medicine is the kind we don't want to take.
Bonnie is a high school English teacher on maternity leave. Since trading in the red pen for the diaper cream, she's been penning everything from poetry and vignettes to two full scale novels for which she is currently seeking representation.
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