When I was born, my grandmother told everyone she knew I had died—two months early, so jaundiced, lungs that couldn’t pump enough air even to cry. She shook her head in the church parking lot and told friends and neighbors and whoever would stop for a second to listen, “Oh, it’s awful about the baby,” and wait for someone to ask what baby, what’s awful, what can we do for you, and she dined out for days on the sad story of my early demise.
Sympathy reached the house before I did, spilling out of the mailbox while I stayed behind at the hospital’s maternity ward in a hard bubble of sterilized plastic, swaddled in blankets and transparent tubes because I really was two months early and I really was in rough shape: shriveled and small as a deflated football. But there was no real threat of my dying, not then, whatever she wanted the world to believe.
Family and friends became too shy to call, unsure what to tell an expectant mother who has become no mother at all, so they called upon card-writers to say what they couldn’t: We’re sorry, We’re with you, Take comfort that God has a plan. My mother lined those cards up on the mantle, then took them all down, then lined them back up again and again. It was misplaced emotion, but still genuine, and she told my father that even inappropriate sentiments deserved better than being discarded.
My twin brothers stacked all that sympathy up into towers, like playing with a deck of Aces and Eights, only better because there were more cards to work with and the stiff, folded paper gave more support and let them build taller than they ever had. And when they kicked out the low levels, those skyscrapers tumbled and fluttered and filled the whole room with ruins to rebuild and topple again.
More than the cards, they still pine for the casseroles sent to our house by so many strangers and how well they ate while they waited for me to come home, reheated for them by my father between visits to my mother and me. For weeks, they ate other mothers’ lasagnas and pot pies, macaroni and cheese, and chicken cacciatore with crisped, fatty skin left on the meat, the way our own mother refused to do it. The feast lasted as long as the world thought I’d died, and my brothers said the lasagna was better than Mom’s, though they only had it that once and have never said so in the hundreds of times she’s served her own flawed recipe.
Mom won Dad over with her lasagna, is what she’s always said. She stacked layer upon layer of noodles and sauce until she’d climbed up to his heart from his stomach, so for one of us to tell her it’s other than perfect would be a slap in the face to them both and to all the years they’ve spent together and to the three of us, too. After they agreed to be married, she invited her future mother-in-law over to dinner and made lasagna again; my grandmother choked on the very first bite and coughed wine like a tubercular patient, spraying dark spots across the white tablecloth Mom had saved to buy for the occasion.
She gave up tablecloths after that—with three boys and a man in the house, she soon had no space to keep sterile—but she kept inviting grandmother to dinner though the offers were never accepted. Grandmother stayed home with a pellet rifle by the door to shoot birds and cats in her garden, and the waterless toilets she had hauled from the dump to gape in her yard like great porcelain mouths spilling over with lilacs and mums.
Tumbling cascades like those filling our house while I incubated in my plastic bubble. Not the wide blooms of joy my parents expected, even for their third child, but somber white lilies and sprays of soft sympathy colors. My father left them to rot in trashcans by the curb, and a foul cloud of dead blossoms hung in the air when I came home for the first time. It was the hottest weekend anyone could remember, and our neighbors stood in their yards with pained noses pinched against the green air, looking around for the source of the smell as I passed. No one could open their windows, no one’s air was conditioned in those primitive days, so we sat and we sweated inside our hot homes with the foul stink all around us.
My father wrangled my two older brothers while my mother recovered and tended to me, and the house shrank around them and filled up with new flowers and cards. Dad called his mother and, without a hello, he asked her point blank, “Why are you telling everyone our baby died? He’s fine, he’s right here, he kept me awake with his crying all night.”
She denied telling anyone anything, and, since I’ve never met her myself, I can only imagine the way it was said, the strong drawl in her voice almost faded away in my father’s, and I can only imagine the way she then told him, “A finger dipped in bourbon will quiet that crying.”