by Linda Barber
Matthew had a sore on his penis. It was just this small watery blister on the tip. He was seven days old, and we’d only gotten out of the hospital a few days before that. My mother, who had driven eight hours from middle Tennessee to help me with the new baby, stood over him at the changing table eyeing his penis over the top of her bifocals. I was in the next room calling the doctor.
I was nervous because it was John’s first day back at work, and Mother and I were alone with the baby. Now he had this awful growth on his penis, and I didn’t know what to do.
Perhaps it was something I had done during my pregnancy that had caused Matt’s penis to contract some sort of strange disease. Perhaps it would get gangrene and his penis would disintegrate and then he would be sexually confused and end up having a sex change operation at the age of 21. The 10 they gave him on the Apgar Scale was a fluke. How could our baby come out healthy, especially since I knew that we’d been drinking and riding bikes through the streets of Key West, the night “it” happened? Didn’t we smoke a joint with Lee Hallman and her hunky new boyfriend at their house in Key West? Did people know what marijuana might do? Maybe the moment sperm met egg things got terribly confused – a laid back sperm and a laid back egg uniting didn’t paint a pretty picture. Perhaps Matthew, in addition to having no penis, would be developmentally delayed. I would later discover in Matthew’s teens that he was, indeed, laid back.
But after Key West, I was extra careful. I read every baby magazine article that I could find. I wouldn’t allow any ultrasounds of the baby because I was afraid they’d find out thirty years down the road that any baby exposed to an ultrasound would have a 99% chance of developing some sort of cancer – pancreatic or liver or brain cancer – some horrific cancer with a 99% chance of death. I wouldn’t eat raw meat or change the cat’s litter box or drink liquor or take hot baths or listen to acid rock. Finally, John banned all women’s magazines from the house.
The penis sore wasn’t our first scare. Before Matthew was born, there was the night we thought we found our fetus in the bed with us. We were reading in bed when I found something that looked like a dried up piece of pizza under my pillow. In fifteen minutes, I had convinced myself that it was the unborn “fetus” of Matthew. Could you have a bloodless miscarriage? Could the fetus just pop out like a piece of dried toast? John and I huddled in the middle of the bed analyzing the blob, and I showed him what I thought might be an eye or maybe it was bit of pepperoni. I wasn’t sure. John, who was usually dismissive of my fears, decided we should operate. His rationale was that if it was the baby, it was dead anyway. If it wasn’t, we’d feel a lot better. It took a CSI examination in the kitchen under the dull edge of a butter knife to determine that it was a piece of pizza and not the fetus of Matthew. At least, John was sure. I wasn’t 100% sure, so I put the “fetus” in my jewelry box for a few months until I felt Matthew move.
Now, Matthew had developed the bump on his penis. Mother and I had a long discussion about his penis and what we should do about it.
“Honey, I just don’t know. Your brother, Joey, never had anything on his pe . . ,” she stuttered. “ . . . never had anything like that.”
That did it. I called the nurse, and of course, since this was a newborn, she suggested that we bring him into the office. This was the first time I’d taken him outside the house since we came home from the hospital in January. It was terribly cold so it took an hour for us to get ourselves and Matthew dressed. Now, I had to corral our psychotic Spitz. He was damn hard to handle, but I managed to get him out of the garage and into the back yard. I started the car, our 1968 Dodge Coronet. I had to install the car seat in the front seat in its recommended backward facing position.
Before I could do that, I had to get the car door open, and I was still sore from the delivery. My Lamaze doctor was trying to be so “natural” that he opted not to perform an episiotomy. I tore. The front driver side door was permanently jammed shut and could not be opened from the outside. Usually, I just got in the passenger side and slid over, but I suppose I was too nervous to think straight. I decided that I was going to open the driver side door from the outside. So, I opened the door on the passenger side, lay down on my back in the bench seat and kicked the driver side door open. I felt a jab of pain in my vagina. I looked up and saw Mother through the picture window with a pained expression on her face, Matthew bundled in her arms. She comes outside onto the front porch. I knew what she was going to say.
“Honey, it’s so hard to get that car seat in. Can’t I just hold him this one time? We’ll never do it again. Just this once.”
“No, Mother. It won’t take a minute.”
“But honey, I know you are sore. I just hate to see you go through all this. Maybe we should call John.”
“No, Mother.” More firmly this time. “No. We’re fine. I can do this. Just take Matthew back in the house until I get this thing in there, ok?”
I walked to the passenger side and tried to find the cold stiff lap belt that was “lost” in the crack in the seat. I tried to flatten and contort my hand in the shape of a worm so that I could feel for the metal buckle. I finally had enough of it to pull it out. Then I wrestled the car seat into place, sat on top of it, and buckled it in. I’m sweating. By the time I got back in the house, the baby was shrieking. I took off my heavy coat, pulled my sweater over my head, took my blouse out of my pants, reached under and unhooked my nursing bra and sat down on the couch to feed him. My mother was bundled up like we lived in Alaska, and she looked inflated. I finished nursing him. I bundled us both up. I put Matthew in his rear facing car seat as Mother got in the back seat. We were on our way.
I had no business taking Carden Hollow Road. It was even curvier than most other roads in East Tennessee, but I was late, and it was the shortcut to the doctor’s office. I don’t remember the wreck, but I’ve been told about it so many times that I now have an image of what happened. Mother was in the back seat, and Matthew and I were in the front. A lot of people in Tennessee were still transporting kids in the bed of a pick-up truck, and some considered it “cruel” to strap a baby in a car seat. Mother was one of these people.
We rounded the ninety degree curve when a fast car weaved over the center line and hit us head on. I was knocked unconscious. My mother managed to get out of the car so she could get Matthew out of the car. Mother was hurt, so the woman who had been driving behind us held the baby until the lifesaving crew got there and took us all to the hospital. Matthew was unharmed. My mother later swore that it was because she was holding his head at the time of impact. She was not wearing a seat belt, and she broke her sternum. She didn’t want to give the car seat the credit for saving Matthew’s life.
The police called John and told him that his wife and mother-in-law had been in a wreck, so he didn’t know whether we were dead or alive until he got to the hospital. I was awake, but I was still addled. Mother and I were on gurneys, and John was holding Matthew while he scurried between the two of us.
“What happened, John?”
“You were in a car wreck. A guy came over the center line and hit you head on.”
“Why the fuck did he do that?” This is happening in the Bible belt and my Church of Christ mother is lying on a stretcher in the emergency room not 15 feet away from me. She didn’t know that I even knew that word. The emergency room is packed with people.
In a few minutes, I asked again, “What happened?”
“You were in a wreck. A guy came over the center line and hit your car head on.”
“Well, why the fuck did he do that?”
“He was going too fast, honey.”
“Well, why the fuck did he do that?” John said that I asked the same question about fifteen times, and I responded the same way fifteen times. Every time I said it, my mother would act like she didn’t know me; half the people in the emergency room laughed, and the other half looked at me like I was a tramp.
“Honey, he just wasn’t being careful, OK? But the baby is fine.”
“What baby?” Now he was really starting to worry. The nurse led me into the x-ray room. In a few minutes, an x-ray technician came back outside and briskly made her way to John.
“Is your wife pregnant, Mr. Bingham? We asked her if it was safe to do the x-ray, if she was pregnant. She said she didn’t know.”
“No. She just had a baby seven days ago!” People laughed. After a few minutes, they brought me back. The baby was crying.
“Honey, I think the baby’s hungry,” John said. I was silent and looked at the baby like that just wasn’t my problem. “You need to feed him, ok?” John said.
“What?” He put him in my lap, and I mechanically reached under my blouse and unhooked my nursing bra flap. “Sure. What happened, John?”
As they began to stitch up my lip, I woke up. The doctor looked at Matthew’s penis and gave us some antibiotic ointment to put on it, and the sore disappeared in a few days.
In the days after the accident, Mother and John would tell me the story. The last thing I remembered before the accident was strapping Matthew into his car seat, and the first thing I remember after the accident was the doctor stitching up my chin. I never told anyone that my mother pleaded with me to let her hold the baby because she couldn’t stand to watch me struggling to get the car seat in the car.
Although she gave the seat belt some credit for saving Matthew’s life, she still insisted that she had saved Matthew by holding his head. I felt sure that on impact she wouldn’t have been able to hold his head especially since she had not worn a seat belt and ended up with a broken sternum. It was enough for me to know that she would give up her life for his.
Linda Barber is a writer and a former English teacher who lives in the mountains of East Tennessee.
Photo Credit: stationwagon.com