By Pam Munter
Even now, all these years later, I have a recurring dream about driving alone around Madison, lost and trying to find my way home. I am driving around hills, the lake always on one side. It all looks so familiar but I am not sure I am heading in the right direction.
When he was nine, my son and I flew to Madison, the coincidental location for a family reunion with people I had not seen since I was his age. Aaron was eager to see where he had been born so I took a photo of him by the Madison General Hospital sign, his arms cradled as if holding a baby. For me, his sweet spontaneous pantomime brought the backstory roaring back as if it had happened yesterday.
By 1972, I had been married for two years, living in Madison, Wisconsin, where I was doing a post-doctoral year in clinical psychology at Mendota Mental Health Institute. The husband had found a job as a social worker in a government agency. We agreed we wanted to have a child, hoping to time it to coincide with the end of my internship. There’s nothing like good planning and perseverance. By Christmas that year, I was pregnant.
We had met four years earlier, in the uber free decade of sex, drugs and rock and roll. I was a 25-year-old, mini-skirted instructor in the political science department at Valley State College. My classes were always full with long waiting lists. One semester, a tall, bearded man came to the front of the class the first day, asking to be added to the waiting list. I informed him there was probably not much chance of getting in, pointing to all the people standing against the wall who signed the list ahead of him. He dropped to his knees and pleaded his cause with dramatic flair in mock Shakespearean language, causing all of us to convulse with laughter. I was immediately won over and agreed to let him in, whereby the other 20 people standing in the aisles fell to their knees almost as one. It was a very large class that semester.
He was handsome, warm and charming, and showed up nearly every day during my office hours just to chat. He found out where I lived and left poetry, cards and little gifts inside the screen door. During those years, it was common for students and teachers to enjoy liaisons with each other of one sort or another. Before long, we had the conversation about separating the teacher/student relationship from what was about to happen and soon, we were living together. He was funny, tender and sensitive and we were wildly in lust and soon, in love. Among his other talents, he was a wonderful cook, introducing me to the decadent joys of hollandaise. Life with him could be unpredictable due to his spontaneity and lack of adherence to convention. While I sometimes found that endearing and even freeing, it didn’t take long for issues to arise because of our differences, inevitably discussed and debated. He was only two years younger, but our lifestyles and values were a generation apart. I had been raised in a suburban middle class family while he had been bounced around between his dysfunctional divorced parents, even living for a while in an orphanage and then on the street with his younger brother. Our relationship was volatile and rocky but we always came back together, seemingly unable to stay apart for long. After a year and a half, we were separated by still another angry breakup, seemingly to be terminally cemented by my move to Nebraska for graduate school. But at the end of my first year after lots of letters and phone calls, he flew to Lincoln to surprise me after my finals. That summer, he proposed on the beach in Santa Monica and we got married in our hometown of Los Angeles.
We had gone to see a performance of the current hit musical, “Promises, Promises” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. As we drove to the beach, we sang the last stanza from the show’s hit song.
What do you get when you fall in love?
You only get lies and pain and sorrow.
So for at least until tomorrow
I’ll Never Fall in Love Again
Even on the day of my wedding, I knew it wouldn’t be forever. I had been so preoccupied with a busy summer internship, in fact, that I hadn’t even selected the music. As I stood at the top of the aisle, I heard the organist play, “If Ever I Would Leave You” and laughed aloud. I know the meaning of the lyric is intended to be eternal bonding but thinking about leaving the relationship on the day of my wedding seemed ironically prophetic.
We rented a house in Lincoln so I could finish my Ph.D. and he quickly found a job. When I was done with the degree, I accepted the post doc in Madison, after discussing all the options. My first choice had been a clinic in New England, but he wanted to follow the money. After his relocation to Nebraska, I felt I owed him that.
Much of the Madison internship involved traveling around the state in a car, consulting with smaller agencies and schools to help them plan treatment for children and adolescents. There were lots of day trips and also overnighters. We traveled in a single car, all five of us. I enjoyed the team members, especially the clinical psychologist who was my primary supervisor. It was easy and uncomplicated – until I started experiencing morning sickness.
My daily routine now included a stop at the local farmer’s stall on the way to work to pick up a fruit pie. Cherry was my favorite. It was heavy, full of fat and effectively quelled the nausea. In fact, it was about the only thing that helped. I came home at lunch hour and reinforced the batting with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich followed by a dish of coffee ice cream. So long as I did these infusions, there were no unfortunate events.
When we were on the road it was much more problematic. I didn’t have access to my peculiar brand of junk food medicine. As I rode along in the moving car, I hoped everything would stay where it belonged while I tried to make polite conversation and share clinical observations. The social worker loved going to Kenosha and eagerly anticipated having a sausage sandwich, often described in nauseating detail. The psychiatrist liked to brag about his winning the football pool three times in a row. The nurse wondered if we’d visit with Rosemary Kennedy, the handicapped daughter of the famous family when we consulted at her school, St. Coletta’s. It was cold outside, but I kept cracking the window, trying to get some air. “You don’t want to freeze that baby of yours, do you?” the social worker teased. But they tolerated my occasionally long silences, as I tried to nap during the long drives and intermittently chomped on crackers.
Around the fourth month when I was starting to look like I was smuggling a melon, the OB saw something on a scan. He gleefully announced I was likely having twins. It was a shock at first but, after all, there were twins on both sides of the family. It wasn’t how I wanted it to go, but we would accommodate Mother Nature. An amniocentesis a week later revealed that the baby’s twin was, instead, a uterine tumor the size of a softball.
“I’m sorry, but it could be very serious,” the OB told us. “You need to have surgery within the next week.”
The husband and I exchanged looks. “Can’t it wait?” he asked.
“No. If you postpone removing the tumor, the fetus might not survive for much longer and your wife’s health could be at risk, too.”
I immediately felt my stomach clench, then forcefully relaxed myself. We set a date for my admission.
It’s really not a minor aside here to mention that the marriage was not one made in heaven. I was acutely aware that he and I lived on separate planets. He had remained an unrepentant hippie, still doing drugs and likely having affairs (a suspicion later confirmed). He was not exactly a hard worker, either, but seemed to spend a lot of time at his office for reasons not yet clear to me. I was your card-carrying drudge, a hard-working, law-abiding person with plans, goals and hopes for a solid future. I was under the belief that everything could be worked out through honest communication and dialogue. I had hoped he would come to see the advantages to living life on the up-and-up. He liked to tout his preference for spontaneity – which I came to see as impulsiveness – citing his personal motto, “Change for the sake of change.” The moment always took precedence over the big picture. I felt like his mother, repeatedly explaining how life worked when lived that way.
Many times by now I thought about ending the marriage, the first being less than a month after we were wed. I chalked it up to my own impatience and judgmentalness. Besides, I wanted a child – and more than one. I was nearly 30 and running out of time. I thought he might shape up and be a good father, if not the best husband.
When the OB told us about the likely benign tumor, he said I’d have to have a tubal ligation during the surgery to forestall any future pregnancies. They would have been doomed, due to the post-surgical instability of the uterine wall. He was just hoping the embryo would make it through to the end.
“No more children,” he decreed without much affect.
We got in the car and slowly made our way home in the rush hour traffic, through the slushy streets. He turned on the radio and started singing along with some rock tune. As I turned away and looked out the side window, I felt devastated, close to tears as I realized my dream of having children, and maybe even this one, was off the table. I felt very alone. I looked down at my blue maternity blouse and wondered if I would be wearing it much longer. He started to make flippant comments about it all, typical of him.
“Well, I hope this one comes through so we can get at least one tax deduction.”
I think it was at that moment, during his not uncharacteristic insensitivity to me, that I truly accepted that this marriage would come to an end soon. And I hoped that the child I was carrying would make it because it would be the best product of this troubled and increasingly painful union.
The major surgery at the end of my fourth month of pregnancy took me out of work for a little over a week. Every day, one of my coworkers was there to cheer me up, telling me what was going on with the football pool or to relate the latest gossip. My psychologist mentor spent lots of time in my room and we talked for hours, offering the comforting I needed.
“You’ll sail through this and move on to motherhood with ease,” she told me. The husband came and went at seemingly random intervals.
Because of the surgery, the birth would arrive by appointment via Caesarean section. Labor would significantly increase the risk of mortality for both of us. Fortunately, the OB’s hospital in Madison was among the few in Wisconsin that had a high-risk neonatal care unit.
Just weeks before the due date, the landlord who owned the house we were renting told us he had sold the house and we’d have to move out very soon. After interviewing at several colleges and universities, I had already accepted a job in Portland, Oregon, teaching at Portland State University. It would start three weeks after delivery. But what would we do in the interim before we left?
The stress of it all was nearly overwhelming and the husband was nowhere to be found. He didn’t seem especially concerned that we’d be homeless, offering neither help nor solutions. At the last hour, my psychologist mentor offered her house. Fortuitously, she was going on a long-planned vacation for exactly the amount of time we would need to be there. That problem, at least, was handled.
To add to the complexity, my mother decided she wanted to be there for the birth. My relationship with her had been a complicated one since my rebellious and contentious adolescence so I was surprised and not all that pleased she wanted to be involved. No one asked my opinion about any of this, of course. She arrived from Los Angeles a week before the baby was due.
When we picked her up at the airport, she asked, “Do you notice anything different about me?” I said she looked rested. “I had a facelift. Don’t I look good?” I thought it unsurprising that only as an afterthought was there any reference to my obvious physical changes, as well.
So there I was, big as a semi, tired and anxious, trying to manage the situation, still working every day while struggling with all this unfinished emotional business. And, oh yeah, adjusting to becoming a mother for the first and only time. I had a lot to think about.
I checked into the hospital the day before the delivery, which had been scheduled early in the morning. The husband and the mother left, returning to the mentor’s house. The next morning, I was awakened by the hospital staff, ready to prep me for the surgery. Where was everyone, I wondered? The mother showed up at the very last minute, but without the husband. Where was he? She didn’t know.
“I had to take a cab to the hospital. Not cheap, either.” She smiled as I was wheeled out. “Good luck, honey.”
When I came back from the recovery room, the husband was still not there but the mother was leaning over me while I was gasping for air and in acute pain, unctuously cooing, “You have a beautiful, healthy baby boy!” It was news I would have rather heard from the husband. But in fact, she was only partly right. It was a boy, all right, but he wasn’t healthy. He was a month premature – for reasons never quite explained by the OB – and had a case of bilirubin and moist lung syndrome. He was in an incubator, with severe breathing problems.
For eight days, we were both in the ICU. I was recovering from my second major abdominal surgery in four months. At various intervals I would be wheeled in to see this teeny little being who looked so very fragile and in obvious distress. I watched his rapid breathing and wondered how he could possibly survive this. Each time I saw him, I was preparing myself for losing him. I was still sedated because of my own surgical recovery and felt grateful for that, at least. I didn’t want to feel the depth of pain I knew was in there. I reached inside the box and held his little pink hand, wondering if I would ever get to know who he might become. His scrunched up eyes thankfully did not reveal any pain. I remembered reading that an infant was incapable of formulating memories this early and I sorely hoped that was true. When I was wheeled back to my bed, I tried to erase the images from my brain. All I wanted to do was push the morphine pump for another few hours of relief.
The husband showed up later in that day and began taking pictures of me and of our frail little baby in this uniquely dramatic setting. I was afraid I’d have to remember the baby this way, living in this little plastic box with tubes emanating from all his orifices. But for the husband, it was all for show, all theatrics, all the time. He would eventually show the photos to his friends who would sympathize with all he had gone through.
We did move to Oregon a few weeks later and I made it through another five years with the husband. There was the expected escalation of violations and conflict. When I finally and quietly declared it was over, I had a palpable sense of relief, though I knew I would always be both the primary parent and provider for our extraordinary son.
Aaron is now married and owns his own international computer software consulting business. He has had no contact with his father in decades.
When I have the recurring dream now, I inevitably awaken in a cold sweat but then I remember. We all somehow survived it with our individual lives taking us in sometimes unexpected directions. I take a few deep breaths, get out of bed and start another day.
Pam Munter has authored several books including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram. She’s a retired clinical psychologist and former performer. Her essays and short stories have appeared in Manifest-Station, The Coachella Review, Lady Literary Review, NoiseMedium, The Creative Truth, Adelaide, Litro, Angels Flight—Literary West, TreeHouse Arts, Persephone’s Daughters, Better After 50, Canyon Voices, Open Thought Vortex, Fourth and Sycamore, Cold Creek Review and others. Her play, “Life Without,” opened the staged reading season at Script2Stage2Screen in Rancho Mirage, California and was a semi-finalist in the Ebell of Los Angeles Playwriting Competition. Pam will finish her MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts this June at the University of California at Riverside/Palm Desert. Website: www.pammunter.com
Wow. I am blown away by your story.
You are so strong. Thank you for sharing your story.