The walls around me look like puke.
I wonder why anyone would choose stomach-acid yellow paint for an ER, as if bile were a calming hue. The exam room is so cramped that my elbow turns on the faucet when I sit down, and since it’s at the end of an out-of-the-way corridor, the hospital staff has piled extra furniture beside the doorway. Instead of a real bed, my son perches on the edge of a thin gurney. He looks uncomfortable. My husband squats against the wall like a catcher, trying to make himself small.
A social worker comes into the room, and I give her my seat, the only seat. She gets out her clipboard and looks at our son.
“Now we’ll talk about what happens next,” she tells him, and I know they’re going to take him away. He’s twelve years old, and he’s just tried to kill himself.
We talk, and then a security guard arrives in the exam room with a wand and asks him to spread his legs and arms for a weapons check. The guard leads us through the winding hallways, past orderlies who glance away so they don’t accidentally make eye contact. My son shuffles along, and I turn my face towards the wall as we pass the nurses’ station. Outside, a driver and a nurse in blue scrubs are waiting beside a white van. The engine is running, and the doors are open, like a mouth that intends to swallow him.
He climbs in and tries to sit in the rear, as kids do, but the driver says, “No, son. Sit on the first bench.”
He’s not your son, I hiss in my head. He’s mine.
The guard turns to us and says, “You can meet us at the facility across the street.” We watch as the van pulls away with our child inside. It doesn’t matter that he’s only traveling one block; he has to do it in that van, with the guard and the nurse and the driver. He has to do it without his shoelaces or the drawstrings on his hoodie. He has to do it without us.
The youth facility is fewer than 500 yards from the emergency room. But we get into our car as they’ve told us to. My husband starts the engine. I lean over my knees, press my abdomen into my thighs, and dry-heave into the footwell. By the time we pull out of the lot, make a left and a right and re-park, our son is disappearing through a new set of doors, with the guard and nurse at his sides.
We find him in the lice room. Another nurse pores over his head, pulling back the short brown strands above his ears, running her blue gloves against the soft crown of his skull, the same way I do when I’m trying to comfort him on days when a ruffle of his hair is all I can give. When the lice check is complete, a nurse leads us through two more sets of locked doors, past offices and people with key cards around their necks. The hallways are taupe. The nurses call it The Tan Place.
My bones melt into a form no firmer than a jellyfish. The fluid in my body seems not to fill the space of my skin; I’m caving in on myself. Video monitoring. Group therapy. I take the words in, but they come back out in armpit sweat and ooze from my tear ducts when he’s not looking at me. He’s staring at the nurse as she checks him in with a mouse that clicks audibly enough to indicate an accumulation of her skin cells between the buttons. She’s admitted hundreds of children with that mouse. She knows which boxes to check and which abbreviation means “patient denies” and which means “parents report.” He sits across from me, nodding and trembling and trying to prove he doesn’t need what’s going to happen to him. Outside, a five-year-old with anger issues screams for her mother. But it’s not the anguish of a lonely child; it’s the rage of a misplaced human. She wants her mother, and she wants to kill her mother, and my own kid rolls his eyes because he’s not old enough to empathize; he knows only that we’ll be leaving him, soon, in The Tan Place.
* * *
When I gave birth to my first son, the nurses offered me a chance to rest.
“It’s the last time you’ll sleep,” they said. And they encouraged me to send my baby away, to give him to the nursery overnight. Let us handle him, they said. It’s our job. They wheeled him away in his plastic bassinet, and I couldn’t follow. My legs were still paralyzed from the epidural, and I wondered what happens when a hospital catches fire. How do the new mothers escape?
My abdomen wore a crimson scar. Though the uterine wall had been stitched, and the abdominal muscles reconnected in a similar fashion, the outermost layers of skin, above and below the wound, were stapled shut. My upper pubic region grinned at me—a bloody maw, newly crowned with steel braces to pull its smile back together. When I gave birth to my second son four years later, they wove a catheter through the incision to deliver pain medication directly into the site of trauma over several days, easing me through recovery. But when my first was born, I had to bear the pain on my own.
His arrival wasn’t smooth. I tried hard to bring him into the world. I labored but never progressed, and they canceled his birth after the first day. They turned off the Pitocin, shut my body down like a car engine, and it acquiesced, having never wanted to deliver him in the first place. For weeks it had tried to tell me in its own way: no early dilation, no effacement, no contractions. I can’t do this, it screamed.
“We’ll try again tomorrow,” the nurses told me. “Get some rest.” I lay in the birthing bed alone all night, beside the baby warmer where he would have met the world, shrieking in protest, if he’d been born that day. My contractions, no longer stimulated by the medicine, died a slow death as they continued through the night, each one just a fraction weaker than the last.
On the second day, they put me in labor again, but the baby unexpectedly went into distress, and in an instant, my part of the work was over. Labor failed. My body wasn’t meant for delivery, they said, and they took him out of me, underweight and oversensitive, and in truth, I was relieved that someone else had done the hardest part.
“If you were one of those women in the 1700s, you’d be dead now,” one nurse told me. “It’s not your fault, sweetie. Some women just can’t give birth.”
Before he was born, I read What to Expect When You’re Expecting. It said I’d feel sudden urges to clean the house in frantic preparation for the baby, a kind of last-minute settling in the mother’s brain. It’s nature’s way of making sure she’s ready for the new responsibility, the book said.
I never felt the urge to clean. But at 36 weeks pregnant, I realized my baby had nothing to cover his feet. Panic overtook me. The tiny drawer at the top of his dresser had no socks in it, so I went on a sock hunt. I drove to Target and Walmart and Macy’s and Sears and dollar stores. I drove to TJ Maxx and Marshalls and Old Navy and Babies R Us. For a week I traveled around, sometimes driving forty-five minutes to get to a store that might have baby socks. I bought them all. I took them off the shelf a half-dozen at a time. How had I come this far without realizing what he needed?
He was born during the hottest July in years. For the first month, we ran the air conditioner on full-blast to keep ourselves from overheating. The highs climbed to 96. In the evening, thunderheads built and erupted, but the reprieve from the humidity and temperature lasted only until morning. My newborn wore the lightest of onesies or sometimes nothing but a diaper. The sock drawer barely closed around its own fullness, but he outgrew them before I ever put them on his feet.
In the hospital, the nurses kept my baby while I rested. He didn’t cry or tell me when he was uncomfortable, and they said he was one of the quietest babies they’d ever seen.
“You’re lucky,” they said as took him away in his bassinet for the night. I slept until 2 a.m., when I dreamed a man had stolen him from me. I woke in terror and pushed the call button.
“I need my baby!” I blurted when the nurse answered. “Can I have my baby?” The wait for him was agonizing, and when he arrived, I tried to feed him, but we weren’t good at breastfeeding. A lactation consultant even came to the house, but we were never good at it. He screamed until he vomited, and I screamed until I vomited, and at three months I started to think about hanging myself in the basement. The nurses were terribly wrong: He wasn’t an unusually calm baby. He was a miserable one, in constant pain and plagued by extreme sensitivity to a world he could not adjust to. We both deteriorated as he grew. My doctor prescribed an antidepressant and told me to stop nursing cold-turkey so I didn’t pass medication into the baby. I complied because I wanted to die, and I needed to want to live.
* * *
When the mental health facility director tells us it’s time to leave, we tell our son goodbye. He doesn’t seem upset. He hugs us for only a few extra seconds and then goes into the common room to wait for the psychiatrist and the social worker. He has a team, now. A little girl colors at the table nearby. I look back to see our son’s head leaning against the viewing window as he stares at something, or perhaps nothing, and waits for his first day to begin in The Tan Place. When all three sets of doors have closed between us, the man with the key card tells us to “have a good one” as we step out into the coldest November day the region has seen in years. It’s 37 degrees, and we’re underdressed. I don’t know how many layers are appropriate for a suicide attempt.
We call to check on our youngest at school. They say he’s frightened and won’t talk about the belt he pulled off his big brother’s neck, won’t talk about the purple cheeks or the bulging eyes. They let him do what he wants, in a space by himself, with a teacher nearby for comfort. We drive home. I’m still wearing yesterday’s underwear. My husband and I stare at each other, pick at bits of food in the fridge. We never ate breakfast.
They keep the temperature low in the facility. No hoodies allowed. No hardbound books he might use to pummel another patient. No hard-soled shoes for the same reason. He needs warm clothing. He needs fleece pants, long-sleeved t-shirts. We wander through Target, through Old Navy, through the bookstore. Around us, parents and grandparents pick out Christmas gifts for their children. The displays are splashed with green and red and silver. Snowflakes. Bells. Dog statues wearing knit scarves. I buy him a sweatshirt. I buy pants. New pajamas. I can’t remember if he even wears pajamas or what book series he’s reading.
Make sure it’s paperback, my husband reminds me. I forget the rules at the next store and buy a pair of hard-soled slippers that the nurses will never give him. I meant to buy him sheepskin slippers for his birthday last summer—soft, fleecy ones—but I never got around to it. He reminded me in August, September, October. I said I’d do it but kept putting it off. He asked for a weighted blanket to help with his anxiety, too. On Dad’s next paycheck, I told him, week after week.
I swipe the credit card again and again, but we have no idea how much we’re spending. I pull things off shelves and they fall into the cart. What else does he need while he’s away, I ask my husband, over and over. What can I give him to keep him alive in there?
“It’s their job to keep him alive,” my husband says. “That’s why he’s in there.”
It was my job to keep him alive out here.
I realize our son has no socks in the hospital. And I remember the weeks before his birth, and it brings me no comfort to recognize that I’m doing it all again, that I’m waiting for him with no idea when he’ll come back to me. My legs aren’t paralyzed, this time, but I still can’t reach him. They’re working on him, getting him fit to come home. My job is to rest and recuperate, let someone else do the hard work for a while. In truth, I should be relieved—some women just can’t do it without help.
“He needs socks,” I say out loud.
“They’ll give him hospital socks,” my husband says. “The kind with grippy bottoms that keep him from slipping.”
I buy a pack of socks and put it in his suitcase anyway, but he never opens it. He wears the hospital socks day after day—the same pair—and they get dirtier every time we visit. He complains about the ham sandwiches on stale white bread when he calls the first night at 8 p.m. He says the cord on the phone is only six inches long and it’s difficult to talk to us.
“Why would they make it so short?” he asks me.
I wander through my days without him. His bedroom light is on, but I can’t seem to lift my hand to the switch and darken his space. I see his pants crumpled on the floor, his unzipped backpack on the chair, and the cell phone he begged for so desperately, as though he would truly die if he didn’t get one. Its battery percentage drops as time passes without him until it’s nearly empty and begins to send out a warning chime.
We visit every other day. We play Bananagrams, listen to him laugh, and say he’s getting better. His hair smells like antiseptic. I stare at his hospital socks. They’re sagging off his feet. I resist the urge to ask the staff for a clean pair.
My friends tell me I’m strong. They see my dry eyes and mistake them for bravery, for acceptance. Really, my eyes are dry because I feel nothing. No agony, no defeat, no sorrow. These feelings surface on the first day but die back quickly, and, by day three, their absence is replaced only by a background hum, a dull, vibrating tension. My heart beats normally. I can do this, I tell myself and others. They don’t know that I cannot cry. I eat nothing. My body shuts down without my child; it withers like a tomato in the heat, rotting in place, shriveling and pulling its own flesh back from its stem. Yet there is nowhere to go but forward, to ride out his time in confinement. He can never know that I couldn’t cry for him. Or for myself.
On the fifth night, my husband turns the bedroom light off, absentmindedly. That’s when tears come, swift and messy, and then they dry up, as though they can’t bear to stick around longer than they have to.
The hospital releases our son just before Thanksgiving. His socks are grimy, but his eyes are clear.
“I don’t want to hurt myself any longer,” he says. “I’ve been so lonely. I hate the other kids. The girl throws chairs and screams. Can we order pizza tonight?”
I walk out of the hospital with him, behind him, carrying his pillow and the comforter we sent from home, and the softback books, and the hard-soled slippers he never got because stupid me bought hard-soled slippers. I’ve got him in my arms, but he doesn’t fit like he used to. He’s grown during his time in there. He should have shrunk, I think—he never saw sunlight or felt the earth, and how can anyone breathe without those things—but somehow, he rose up into the space just beneath my chin, when before there were more inches between my face and his. And then suddenly he’s in the car and there’s sky above his head and he’s changing into his former self, but I already know he can never be the person who woke up the morning before the belt went around his neck, before I said, “Son, we need to take you to the hospital.” And then my chest cracks open, because when he came home from his very first hospital, he did so without a bruise on his perfect baby neck.
* * *
After the attempt, as I now call it, he begins to settle into his rebirth, but I struggle to adjust to the new-old way of doing things. I get confused. Time and perspective play tricks on my mind, and I start to ask myself if it was really so bad after all. There are moments of terror: when he doesn’t answer my call to come down to the kitchen, I race up the stairs two at a time to find him with his headphones on, baffled by my hysteria. Mom, I’m fine. Why are you freaking out? In those moments, I know exactly why I’m panicked, but in the moments between, my memories of his hospitalization shift and lose their form. Sharp corners round out, the way river rocks become polished stones. The rush of water erases jagged edges; now, the rush of daily life inundates and smooths the bloody parts, and in the insidious way that it does, time erodes the intensity of that day. Our separation grows hazy in my head.
I’ve learned to forget before. Years ago, when he came home from the hospital, I came home too, in those same socks, with a bloody smile stapled across my sagging torso. They pulled him out of me and left me jagged and raw, but after his homecoming I forgot the way I screamed when they made me get out of bed and walk off the pain. I forgot how hard it was to poop and how the pain pills raised allergic hives on my flesh. I forgot because he was home, and his life got started, while mine was so gratefully halved. I grew him inside of me, gifting him part of the life that was gifted to me. The seed money I gave him was my own life force; it’s the currency he still deals in.
Over Christmas, I second-guess myself. I wonder if I let him rot in The Tan Place when he might have just needed more love from his mother. I retrace my missteps, consider the fights over my disappointment with his choices. He didn’t turn in his math homework. He didn’t remember his saxophone. And I didn’t hug him; I only ruffled his hair. It was all I had to give, and it wasn’t enough.
But he did tie a belt around his neck. It’s been done, and I know now that it can be done again, in a second. There are no guarantees of safety, no promise for a better future. We’re a broken family—patched up, for now, but not healed. We limp back onto shaky ground, trying to steady ourselves and one another with our old routine. We talk about what happens next, but the conversations end the same way every time: Keep him safe. Keep him alive.
We keep him safe. We keep him alive. His hard-soled slippers that I bought by accident become worn and smelly over Christmas, and I replace them with sheepskin ones. The plastic tub they gave him to store his toiletries becomes a barf bucket for his brother when the stomach flu hits. His hospital socks shrink in the wash and get lost, and I don’t look for them.
February. March. He’s moody and dark in the way that a pre-teen can be. He begs his father to turn off the radio in the car so his friends don’t hear the heavy metal and think he’s a weirdo. He sulks and punches pillows when he’s angry at us. But his joy returns, too. Not every day, but sometimes. And so our lives are ruled by his moods, by his smile or scowl, and by the angle of his bedroom door, which never reaches 90, and hovers mostly around eight. Eight degrees of openness.
“He’s an unusually mature young man,” the nurses at the hospital said. “Very sweet. He’ll be okay.” I hope they’re right, this time.
I’m different now, in ways I can’t pinpoint. I feel thinner on the inside, like the human representation of a dull ache. How can I be the same after my child has tried to end his life, the thing I’ve given him from my own body, the thing that he tried to throw in the garbage? I can’t. I’m not. When the medical bill for seven thousand dollars arrives, I wonder at the price of sanity. Our insurance covers the treatment; it pays for doctors and pills and socks and assurances that he’s okay. I sit on my bed each afternoon and listen to him moving about in his room, and I ask myself when I’ll feel un-insane again.
I can’t do this, my heart screams. But I need to want to live.
At night, I go back to the beginning, again and again. I go back to his beginning and our beginning, when my most important task was just to keep him alive. I start over, learning to forget the agony. I go back to the moment of his birth, when he drew a breath and took from me what I offered. And I wonder what else I can give him and what else he might dare to take.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Kevin Beerman