Amy is born a fighter, six weeks early and a wispy five pounds. Her blood is incompatible with Mom's, so the doctors replace it, draining out the old while infusing the new. Her heart stops anyway. So they pump her tiny baby chest and blow air into her tiny baby lungs until she squalls, and then send her home to round out our family of seven.
The year is 1965, and it is my parents' third go-round with babies and death. The first had come in 1960, when I woke my mother before dawn, crying for a bottle. At four months and four days old, I was a blue-eyed Gerber baby, the spitting image of my father. Across the room slept my exact replica, my twin sister, Janette. A few weeks earlier our picture had made the front page of the local paper when a smiling mayoral candidate held us up for the cameras. He later complained about the fuzz our blanket left on his black suit coat.
My mother put her hand on Janette's back to feel her breathing. Then she yelled for Dad, who came running. He blew air into her mouth and pressed on her chest, but it was too late. Janette was dead. An errant air bubble or an electrical glitch stopped her heart. Crib death. Cause unknown.
Mom gave birth to Pat barely a year later. Pat was a month early and on the light side at five and a quarter pounds, but within days the local paper announced that mother and daughter were at home and doing fine. Ten days later, though, Mom was in the kitchen warming up a bottle when blood started pouring down her legs. It soaked through her clothes and puddled on the floor. An ambulance came, siren wailing, and rushed her to the hospital. Doctors elevated the foot of her bed and covered her head with an oxygen tent. Through the muffling of the plastic tent she could hear my father and the doctors and nurses, but she couldn't respond.
She heard, too, the eerie chant of the priest giving her last rites. "God, the father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of His Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the church may God give you pardon and peace."
Still she bled, until she was drained, until her heart had nothing left to pump, until it stopped.
"I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father, and the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Through the holy mysteries of our redemption, may almighty God release you from all punishments in this life and in the life to come. May He open to you the gates of paradise and welcome you to everlasting joy."
Long moments passed as doctors scrambled to get it to pump again. Then they rushed her, bed and all, into the operating room. They scraped out the inside of her uterus and gave her half a dozen blood transfusions. When she finally came home, she had to stay in bed for three months, her children pestering for attention.
As an adult I ask my father why he kept getting her pregnant if it was so hard on Mom.
Do you and your husband have sex? he asks.
I hesitate, trying to decide what and whether to answer.
Of course, I say finally.
Then you know, he answers. Men...have...needs.
By the time Amy is a toddler we live in Kalamazoo, in a two-story box of a house on a double lot, the yard framed by a pair of the huge maple trees that give the street its name. There is a screened-in front porch and a fire escape to one of the girls' bedrooms that scares us all, so we push our bunk beds against it to protect against the boogeyman.
Steve is the eldest and most responsible. He cemented his reputation in the family one Easter when he was about seven by saying, "If we don't get organized, we won't have any fun." I worship him, usually from afar, but sometimes on Saturdays my sisters and I leap onto him as he's stretched out on the floor watching sports, secure that he will be careful even then to throw us off onto cushions or soft rugs, avoiding as much as possible the hard edges of tables and bookcases.
Copyright © by Janine Latus
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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