BY MIRA PTACIN
Nicole Carpenter used to go through my city like a walking middle finger. She fought, smoked, dipped, drank and skipped school, and by the time she finally reached her junior year of high school, she altogether dropped out. I met her some years ago in my hometown of Battle Creek, the Cereal Capitol of the world (think: Kellogg’s Cornflakes).
Nicole wore sandy blond cornrows that dropped to her waist and wrapped around her like seaweed. She’d sway her head side to side and fling those braids behind her shoulders, rake back the strays with two acrylic nails, then light up a Newport 100. Nicole was exceptionally petite, about four-feet-nine inches, and could’ve passed for an eleven –year old.
When Nicole found out she was pregnant (at age seventeen), she moved out of her parents’, picked up a job at Arby’s, and moved in to the guy she thought (“I mean, shoot, he prolly is, that muthafucker…he the only one who didn’t wear a jimmy cap.”) might be the father of her baby.
Dad was Nicole’s doctor and had been since she was a little baby. He was in maybe his eighteenth year practicing as family physician, performing everything from wart removal to severing umbilical cords, when Nicole resurfaced, dangling her legs over a paper-wrapped table when he walked into the exam room. That was the same year Dad stopped delivering babies for good, and Nicole was one of the last patients he worked with in the delivery room.
Dad claims he was forced to stop delivering babies because the cost of malpractice insurance had got so high. Mom says she fast-forwarded the decision after Dad got paged in the middle of Midnight Mass for the tenth Christmas Eve in a row, but I think that Nicole, specifically Nicole’s pregnancy, had an affect on the verdict, too. The whole thing just seemed to deflate him.
Being a doctor in such a small town, my dad was a bit of a celebrity. Folks had named their dogs after him (different variations of Phil, Philip and Ptacin) and there wasn’t a time he could zip in and out of Felpaush Grocery without getting impeded by folks for minor medical attention, which can be particularly embarrassing when you’re with him and your hands are balancing items like Pepto-Bismol, toilet paper, Tampons, or anything that revealed to the world that you, too, go to the bathroom. But my dad would take his time with people, put his hand on the shoulder of the ailing individual, lean in as if to whisper a secret and say, “How can I help?” I guess that’s how I learned about patience—by watching him exhibit this untamed (or untainted) compassion. Dad had a Paul Bunyon-sized heart, and my friends claimed he was the Jesus reincarnate.
Mom said he was just a big baby. You be the judge: late one night back when he was a medical student at Georgetown, Dad got mugged while jogging through campus. My father had no cash or money on him, to his name really, but invited the thief back to his “minimalist” apartment anyway, for some fruit and to write him a check. Dad said that if the guy was going to don a black mask and attempt a mugging, he needed the hundred bucks more than he did.
Growing up, my family’s dinner conversations revolved around Dad’s work stories. With our chins resting on our hands and our elbows framing our dinner plates, we’d listen to him talk about our town, about our time and our people. I remember chewing on a square piece of pork tenderloin when he told us the tale about the obese man with maggots that laid eggs in his belly button, or the one about the surgeon who stitched up a guy after a vasectomy and forgot to remove the gauze.
One night (I was about eighteen or nineteen years old) when we were shooting the shit around the dinner table, Nicole’s name came up. My Polish mother said, “Phil, tell de girls about Nicole, you patient with dying baby.” She shook her head. “Dis is such tragedy!”
“Who’s Nicole?” I asked.
Dad put down his silverware and blew out a long trail of breath. “Oh, Nicole,” he said without looking up. “She’s one of my patients.”
“And is driving you Daddy down de wall,” Mom added.
“It’s ‘up the wall’,” my sister Sabina chimed.
“Nicole’s been coming to my office since she was a little baby,” he said, “but I hadn’t seen her in years until she came in for a prenatal exam.”
Mom interjected, “She thinks she Mary, Mother of God.”
Dad sighed again. “Nicole’s a bit dramatic.”
He told us that Nicole’s pregnancy was a rare and complicated. She was born with something called Russell-Silver Syndrome, a rare chromosomal abnormality that caused someone to be very small and look much younger than they were. When she came into my dad’s office for her first prenatal checkup, all fresh-faced and pregnant, Dad sent her to a specialist for extra testing to see if Russell-Silver Syndrome would affect her fetus at all. Results proved that it would not, but something else blipped up in the tests. Nicole’s baby had Anencephaly, a totally unrelated birth defect.
Dad took the paper napkin off his lap, unfolded it and laid it out over the kitchen table. “Anencephaly refers to the incomplete development of a fetus’s brain and spinal cord, and their protective coverings.” He pulled a pen out of his pocket, one with a built-in laser pointer and the word Celebrex written up the side, and began sketching onto the cleaner side of the napkin: a line, a loop, a crescent. “It occurs when the neural tube—a narrow sheath that is supposed to fold and close during the third or fourth week of pregnancy…”—the pen doubled back; a tulip, a pea pod, a tunnel—“fails to close, resulting in failure of major portions of the brain, and failure of the skull and scalp to form.”
I leaned in for a closer look at Dad’s drawing. It looked like a roller coaster. “No brain? No shit?” I asked and Sabina kicked me from under the table.
“Infants born with Anencephaly are usually blind, deaf, and unconscious.”
“And what is ze fate to the babies?” Mom asked.
“When Nicole’s baby would be born it would have already suffered serious brain damage…wouldn’t be able to eat, not even breathe for long.”
“Holy wow,” I said. “Do they suffer, Dad?”
My father put down the pen and handed me the napkin. I folded it up four times and slid it under my plate. “It’s not a painful condition,” he said, “but it is inevitably fatal.”
“Poor baby. Poor her soul. It is very sad,” Mom said, then joined Sabina, who was clearing the table. Dad pushed out his chair, and as he began to stand up I stopped him.
“Wait, what happened next? To the girl?” I asked.
“The specialist explained all this to Nicole and recommended that she terminate the pregnancy.”
“Dad works at a Catholic hospital, Mira. They don’t do abortions,” Sabina said. She had recently denounced her Catholicism, claimed it was homophobic, sexist and past its prime. I envied that she got to sleep in during church.
“Nicole basically freaked out and drove straight back to my office.”
“Screaming and crying like child,” Mom called from the sink.
“Yes, screaming and crying and causing this huge commotion in the waiting room, demanding to see me.” He carried his plate to the sink. I followed him.
“So then I pulled her into an exam room and tried to calmed her down. Go get your dishes, please, Mira,” Dad said.
I went to the table and returned with my plate. “Then what? Then what did you say to her?”
“Well, we talked. I explained that it wasn’t her fault, that she didn’t cause this and couldn’t have prevented it. I just looked at her and said, ‘Nicole, there is just nothing you or me or anyone can do about this. There’s no surgery to do in the womb, no medicine you can take.’ I just told her, ‘Nicole, your baby just ain’t going to survive.’”
Dad dropped a big spoon into the coffee beans, leveled off a scoop of decaf and tipped it into the coffee maker. He walked over to Mom, who was loading bowls into the dishwasher, put his hands on her shoulders, kissed her forehead and gently pushed her out of the kitchen. He handed Sabina a towel, rolled up his sleeves and plunged a big pot into the kitchen sink.
“I told Nicole that she could transfer medical facilities if she’d prefer to abort the fetus.”
“So did she get, you know, what Beanie said?”
Sabina threw a towel at me and told me to make myself useful.
“She panicked and became frightened by the thought of an abortion,” Dad said. He folded his arms and leaned back onto the ivory refrigerator door, which was checkered with magnets of our old school photos and Mom’s kitchen wisdom quotes. One magnet framed an old family photo: our family wearing matching St. Philip Elementary School sweatshirts, rosy cheeks, huddled in a tripod. One magnet had a cartoon of two makizushi rolls on it. Wake up, little sushi, it read.
“I remember Nicole sitting on the exam table, weeping. She said to me ‘This was a spark that had no chance at life without my help, so if my child was meant to live for five minutes, it is going to live for five minutes.’”
There was a moment of silence, which was quickly interrupted by the buzzing and scraping sound of Mom sliding the electric broom across the tile floor.
“I agreed to ride it out with her,” Dad said in what sounded like a whisper, even over the vacuum.
“Tell the girls about the board, Phil,” Mom said, plowing the vacuum past us.
“What board? What happened?”
“So we continued giving Nicole care—a lot of care—during her pregnancy. She came into the office several times unannounced, saying she felt movement and thought she was having a miscarriage. We were there for her around the clock. But at the same time, the hospital was struggling with the technicalities of the delivery,” he said. “It was like this: the baby would die outside the womb, and in a purely medical sense whether Nicole delivered at twelve weeks or forty weeks, the question was moot. But because of the Silver Syndrome, because Nicole was such a tiny person, she wouldn’t be able to deliver a normal sized baby because it wouldn’t fit through the bones of her pelvis.”
“So what could she do? What were her choices?”
“She would have to have a Caesarian delivery, and for a woman of her size, this was dangerous procedure.” The vacuuming stopped.
“Daddy and Catholic bishop met during de week, during time we had dance class,” Mom said.
“We formed an Ethics Committee. The director of hospital, a lawyer, Al Skipper, the hospital chaplain, and other doctors to determine how early Nicole could be induced without it being considered a termination of—or an unnatural—pregnancy. We finally decided on a time, up to the very minute, of what was considered ‘natural.’”
“Yeah…God’s way,” Sabina sighed.
“So what happened?” I asked again.
“The baby inside Nicole grew. She felt it kicking.”
“What did she do?”
“She dug in her heels and carried the baby through the pregnancy. She learned the sex of the baby. She bought maternity clothes and pink baby clothes. She named the baby. Even the nurses at the hospital knitted booties and made a baby quilt. She hired Reverend Skipper from the Ethics Committee to facilitate the funeral of the baby.”
“And then we induced her when it was the right time.”
“And then Nicole delivered her baby, vaginally.”
“And then after five hours, the baby girl died in Nicole’s arms.”
“Poor her soul, indeed,” I agreed.
A few weeks later I met Nicole. I’m not sure why I did it, but I wanted to meet this person, this girl, this woman. I just had to get her story. It was as if she carried some kind of answer my younger self had been looking for. I found her in a booth at Home Spun Family Restaurant, and as I sat down across from her, a shudder of recognition passed between us. I ordered a coffee while she smoked feverishly.
“Do you wanna see a picture of my little girl?” she asked.
She slid the photo across the table, a 4 x 6 glossy with edges that were beginning to coil and curl towards the center, like a dried leaf. I continued to look at Nicole, afraid at what I might see.
“That’s my lil’ girl Elizabeth,” Nicole said, and I looked at the photo in front of me, which was upside down. Nicole leaned over and rotated it counter-clockwise with her left hand, the hand holding a cigarette, to face me.
The baby in the photo was dead. She was tiny, had a pink cap over her head and looked like an old man. Not much different than any newborn—closed eyes and a pink complexion—but this baby was dead, and I could tell.
Nicole pulled a frilly scrapbook out of her purse and narrated a few more photos: baby Elizabeth in a long white lace dress, Nicole’s parents embracing Nicole on the hospital bed, a cluster of smiling nurses, and a print of a tiny white casket.
“You should be proud of yourself,” I told her.
She said she was. She said, “I’m talkin’ to my parents again, and I may be movin’ back home. This was a blessin’ in disguise I guess.” And while she was talking and smoking, I was thinking to myself Yeah but how does someone move on? Moving on…isn’t that what your baby was doing? Isn’t it your job to try to remember?
A year after that, Nicole came back to my dad’s office to announce she had gotten pregnant again, and that she had given birth to a healthy baby. Mom thought it’d be nice to round up a roomful of baby goods—diapers, a stroller, a crib and a bunch of barely-used onesies from the Salvation Army—and throw Nicole a belated baby shower. She invited nurses, Al Skipper, Dad’s office manager, and some of her own friends (a couple of doctors’ wives who happened to be immigrants, too) to celebrate Nicole’s new life. See look, I thought, there is a reason for everything. God knows what he’s doing. He will always make you happy again. But when the day came and they were all in the waiting room, ready to shower Nicole with their streamers and white frosting baby cake, ten minutes passed, then twenty, then Nicole never showed up. Dad tried to call her and got a droning signal at the other end of the line, a recorded robot voice saying the phone number was no longer in service and had been disconnected. He checked the hospital records, which revealed she had had a baby boy, and that’s it.
With wet eyes, Mom re-donated all the baby goods back to the Salvation Army, took the stroller to Kids R Us and brought me along for the ride. In the car I tried to be the optimist and come up with excuses for Nicole’s absence, but it didn’t fly with her; she’s impenetrable to all types of sugarcoating. Maybe her baby got sick, I said. Mom ignored me. I’m sure Nicole is being a good mommy, Mom, really, she probably just had to work.
Give me break, Mom said. That girl was hussy and we both know it. She probably dump her baby wit de parents and is out tail chasing dis minute.
Mom, maybe she had amnesia, I said, and that’s when I started doubting my sense of the truth. I looked out the windshield of our family’s Chrysler minivan. I felt myself begin to warp into something I had been afraid of—a nihilist, a cynic, a misanthrope, the kind of person who deliberately tore small limbs off trees minding their own business, the kind of person who cursed under her breath rather than smile at someone passing by on the sidewalk, a person who added gray layers to their skin to make it thicker. Impenetrable. I looked up at the stupid face of Jeffrey the Giraffe towering over the doors to Toys R Us and I thought: What if that girl wasn’t the Buddha reincarnate after all? What if I was just not seeing the world for what it really was? Maybe she really wasn’t carrying that nugget of truth I needed so badly. Maybe she was just a girl from Cereal City, U.S.A., who worked at the Arby’s drive-thru on Capitol Avenue, and maybe I really was just a misanthrope after all. A misanthrope living with her parents.