“We must pull ourselves up out of the chairs. We must find our coats. We must go.” – Virginia Woolf, The Waves
“Beating Their Breasts”
by Eva Lipton-Ormand
Closer to the sternal notch but in proximity of the xiphoid process, sits the thymus. They say it is only active through childhood and then shrinks in puberty. It is where T-cells are produced; it is an endocrine gland; it aids immunity. It does not aid the immunity to mental/emotional pain, but since time immemorial, women have wailed and beaten their breasts, unconsciously bolstering themselves from despair and disease by expressing their grief and activating their immune systems.
Ginny, stop, goddamnit, I can’t watch this another minute.
My mother grabs my fist, tries to pry open the fingers. She starts with the index finger but by the time she has reached the pinkie, all the fingers are clenched once more. Like a mallet, the hand rhythmically descends on my sternum. Pain is physical. Pain is emotional. Pain is mental. Pain hurts. It sears, burns, grinds, punctures, stings, penetrates, wrenches; its jagged pieces of glass rhythmically stab deeper into the heart.
Ginny, let me get you a cold washcloth for your eyes. They’re all puffy. Do you want something to drink? When’s the last time you ate? Ginny, Ginny look at me. I know this is hard but you have to take care of yourself now.
My girlfriend Doro means well. She’s replaced my mother on the chair next to mine and is touching my arm, my shoulder, leaning in to me, trying to catch my gaze. I don’t know exactly when she showed up here. I don’t know who told her to come. Actually, I called her. I don’t know what time it is. I only feel this gaping hole inside.
Earlier, at 11 a.m. my cell phone rang.
Mrs. Virginia DeAngelo?
Ms. DeAngelo? You’re Darien’s motha?
God, I hate that nasal drawl.
Ms. DeAngelo, this is officer Pete Graziano. We need you to come here to Montefiore Medical Center on East 210th. I’m sorry, ma’am, Darien’s been in an accident and we need you to come here as next of kin.
The phone is dancing around in my hand, I can’t hold it to my ear. I can’t hear anymore. I feel blood rushing through my head; like water gushing from a broken pipe. I want to ask something but my mouth has gone dry and I’ve got silk wrapped around my tongue, gagging me. Blue silk, cold and dry, and taking my breath away.
The cell phone’s gotten really small in my hand now; it’s jumping. My feet seem really far away as I look down to find my ballerinas to slip into. I have to go to the door, take a jacket, take my purse, don’t need my work backpack now. The guy, the cop, the officer, that man said Montefiore. The bus will be too crowded. I have to get there fast. I have to take a taxi.
Fumbling with keys, fumbling with my feet, trying to get down the three flights of stairs, fumbling with the door knob that always feels like somebody just ate a piece of greasy pizza and forgot to wipe off their hands. Fumbling down the street lined with fading brownstones. Trying to get to Amsterdam Ave so I can hail a cab. Falling into the back seat.
Montefiore Medical Center please.
Sorry, what you say?
Montefiore Medical Center please, East 210th…
Is the hospital, yes?
Yes, north, just keep going north, to the Bronx…
Yes, I put in GPS, yes.
Just hurry, go, go, please.
I take my phone out to call my mother, call Doro, call someone. It’s sliding in my hands. Why are they so sweaty; so cold? My mouth is dry. My body feels trapped in opposing climate zones; pushing me out of context with myself.
We pass the Cloisters. I imagine the Unicorn Tapestry — the maiden gently holding the animal’s head in her lap. I wish we could stop, enter this magical retreat of my childhood. Instead I see my nine-year-old Darien, a skateboard crash, running in with bloody knees and elbows. Pain in his eyes, refusing to cry.
The ringtone on my phone startles me, its insistent chromatic chord progression meant to invoke hope.
Ginny, you were trying to call? I got cut off or something. Girl, you OK?
Doro, oh, Doro…
Everything’s going hazy through the tears, snot’s building in my nostrils, ready to seep out, all over my upper lip and onto the phone. I grab a tissue from the back zippered pocket of my purse, try to wipe everything off. My gut gurgles.
Doro, I’m on my way to Montefiore; I just got a call that Darien’s there. I don’t know anything, they just said next of kin. I don’t know, I’m…
Ginny, OK, you hang in there. I’m going to see if I can get up there. I’ll call your momma, OK?
Thanks, yes, I’ll leave a message or text or something when I get there. Doro, I’m scared, I’m so scared.
Snot and tears mix. Won’t stop flowing.
OK, lady, we here. Which entrance you want?
It’s fine, just let me out, here. Yes.
I can barely get the wallet out of my purse and the cabbie paid because my hands won’t stop shaking. I exit the cab, slamming the door, running toward the revolving door that pulls me in and spits me out inside.
Yes, I’m looking for my son, Darien DeAngelo? I just got a call? It’s an emergency?
Ma’am, please fill out this form and we’ll get you set up with a visitor’s pass.
The vowels are so wide, they match the smile the receptionist flashes at me.
Elevators, corridors, hospital smell, white and pistachio scrubs. The pattern on the linoleum tiles alternates between Morse code and skid marks, depending on how fast I walk. I have to keep looking up to make sure I’m getting to the right hallway. I want to avert my gaze, just not have to see.
Ms. DeAngelo, they said you’re on your way. Here, come through these doors with me.
The nurse swipes his card, the automatic doors open. Rush of air. They close behind us. Metallic thud. Such efficiency. How can I be caught in this chaos while I’m surrounded by order; tables turned.
Calm, deep, mellow. My eyes move up along the silver Dansko’s, grey gabardine trousers, the red shimmer of silk radiating through the white of her doctor’s coat. I reach the nametag on her left breast pocket, Rachel Dupre, M.D.
Ms. DeAngelo. You’re Darien’s mother?
She takes my left arm, gently, steers me to a set of linked eraser-pink armchairs and places me in one of them, taking the seat next to mine.
Ms. DeAngelo, Darien was fatally wounded today. He was brought in about two hours ago bleeding heavily from stab wounds to his abdomen and chest. Your son is a social worker, yes?
I nod. I groan. I feel everything I’ve eaten and drunk today moving up my esophagus. There’s a burning. I want to retch.
Yes, yes, he told me he’d recently switched jobs and was doing some support work for rehab clients and their families. I haven’t seen him in a month or so. What do you mean by fatally? I want to see him. Where is he now?
Dr. Dupre is stroking my arm. But it feels like she’s going against the grain. I push her away from me. I can’t keep my thoughts straight. Strobe lights in my head are obliterating sense.
Yes, Ms. DeAngelo, you can see him. We just wanted you to be prepared. He is heavily sedated and bandaged; there’s not much we can do.
What the fuck do they mean, not much they can do, they just have to patch him up. Aren’t there transfusions, major miracle drugs, power bandages, the whole emergency medicine gamut? They just don’t want to waste the money.
We’re standing and walking, walking dead, my mind is disintegrating as my body pushes onward.
The white walls in the room are too bright, the lights are too bright, his body lies there, a grotesque Nana, I want to take pots of primary color and dump them on his oversized torso. My baby’s face is pale and puffy, there’s a little line of white powder reaching from the right corner of his mouth to his chin, dried spittle mixed with something, couldn’t they clean him? There is a very slow beeping that seeps into my consciousness: it’s the lifeline. It’s the devolution of the vital signs I felt when he kicked inside the womb. It’s the opposite of the frenetic, fast, bursting sound of neo-natal heartbeat that enthralled me the first time I heard it.
Ms. DeAngelo, you can sit here and hold his hand.
It’s frigid that hand. I hate hospitals. Always too cold.
And then everything accelerates, the beeping changes; flatlines. Coming out of my comatose fog, I gasp for air and scream. The nurse next to me grabs me in a bear hug, shushing, trying to get me to stop.
I come to.
It’s OK. It’s OK.
I blink. I try to find my composure. I look at my child. I feel he has left. My soul pours over and sends a surge of light to guide him on his way.
I will have to collect his bits of scattered energy in the rays of sunshine, surge of the surf, tiny moments of bliss found in spring, summer, fall, winter; look for him. Listen deeply.
I’ve been walked back to the waiting area where my mother and Doro hover, gathered to birth me into mourning. I sit down. Instinct takes over; I beat my breast. Like a mallet, my hand rhythmically descends on my sternum. Again and again and again.
by Noel Canin
You sang and hummed your spirit
into the house — steadfast, yourself.
It probably didn’t occur to you to be
anything else. Perhaps you simply
knew who you were.
They classified Blacks: Non-European—
a someone that isn’t. Like me, I thought.
to your humming. A high peaceful tone.
But were you peaceful?
I was a year old when you came to us
with your chocolate skin and Zulu hymns.
I loved to listen, lean into the curve of you,
my small body a sigh of wellbeing. You let me
lean. My mother did not – I still hear that irritated
click of her tongue if I tried to cuddle too close
or too long. You didn’t hug back, or stroke my head.
But you let me lean.
We’d go down the garden, past
the yesterday-today-and-tomorrow tree.
There — like huge, white wings in the sun —
sheets flapped on the washing line.
Your hands would smooth the white cotton
against your belly, as they smoothed the bath towel
around my body at night.
You hummed when you ironed. When
you checked the hard grains of white rice
for little black bits, flicking them aside.
You didn’t talk much. We were just together.
And down the years, there you were again
as I hummed to my babies.
One evening, when my small daughter jumped from her bath
into my arms, I wrapped her in laughter and a warm towel.
She nudged her wet face into my neck. We rocked together.
I listened to her breathe. Remembered your hands.
When my father died, the house filled with bitter cake
No scream was allowed. Not even the one
hooked in my throat.
Women have to know how to bear suffering, you said.
No hum to cradle sobbing nights.
No arms. My mother would pause
at my bedroom door. Walk away. Perhaps she thought
I was asleep. Perhaps if she held out her arms and our bodies met,
she wouldn’t – once again – know what to do with me.
You knew how to bear suffering.
You are everywhere in how I am.