An excerpt from Sing You Home
One sunny, crisp Saturday in September when I was seven years old, I watched my father drop dead. I was playing with my favorite doll on the stone wall that bordered our driveway while he mowed the lawn. One minute he was mowing, and the next, he was face-first in the grass as the mower propelled itself in slow-motion down the hill of our backyard.
I thought at first he was sleeping, or playing a game. But when I crouched beside him on the lawn, his eyes were still open. Damp cut grass stuck to his forehead.
I don’t remember calling for my mother, but I must have.
When I think about that day, it is in slow motion. The mower, walking alone. The carton of milk my mother was carrying when she ran outside, which dropped to the tarred driveway. The sound of round vowels as my mother screamed into the phone to give our address to the ambulance.
My mother left me at the neighbor’s house while she went to the hospital. The neighbor was an old woman whose couch smelled like pee. She offered me chocolate-covered peppermints that were so old the chocolate had turned white at the edges. When her telephone rang I wandered into the backyard and crawled behind a row of hedges. In the soft mulch, I buried my doll and walked away.
My mother never noticed that it was gone – but then, it barely seemed that she acknowledged my father being gone, either. She never cried. She stood stiff-backed through my father’s funeral. She sat across from me at the kitchen table that I still sometimes set with a third place for my father, as we gradually ate our way through chipped beef casserole and mac-and-cheese-and franks, sympathy platters from my father’s colleagues and neighbors who thought food could make up for the fact that they didn’t know what to say. When a robustly healthy 42-year-old dies of a massive heart attack, the grieving family is suddenly contagious. Come too close, and you might catch our bad luck.
Six months after my father died, my mother – still stoic - took his suits and shirts out of the closet they shared and brought them to Goodwill. She asked the liquor store for boxes and she packed away the biography that he had been reading, which had been on the nightstand all this time; and his pipe, and his coin collection. She did not pack away his Abbott and Costello videos, although she always had told my father that she never really understood what made them funny.
My mother carried these boxes to the attic, a place that seemed to trap cluster flies and heat. On her third trip up, she didn’t come back. Instead, what floated downstairs was a silly, fizzy refrain piped through the speakers of an old record player. I could not understand all the words, but it had something to do with a witch doctor telling someone how to win the heart of a girl.
Ooo eee ooh ahh ahh, ting tang walla walla bing bang, I heard. It made a laugh bubble up in my chest, and since I hadn’t laughed all that much lately, I hurried to the source.
When I stepped into the attic, I found my mother weeping. “This record,” she said, playing it over again. “It made him so happy.”
I knew better than to ask why, then, she was sobbing. Instead, I curled up beside her and listened to the song that had finally given my mother permission to cry.
Every life has a soundtrack.
There is a tune that makes me think of the summer I spent rubbing baby oil on my stomach in pursuit of the perfect tan. There’s another that reminds me of tagging along with my father on Sunday mornings to pick up the New York Times. There’s the song that reminds me of using fake ID to get into a nightclub; and the one that brings back my cousin Isobel’s sweet sixteen, where I played Seven Minutes in Heaven with a boy whose breath smelled like tomato soup.
If you ask me, music is the language of memory.
Wanda, the shift nurse at Shady Grove Assisted Living, hands me a visitor pass, although I’ve been coming to the nursing home for the past year to work with various clients. “How is he today?” I ask.
“The usual,” Wanda says. “Swinging from the chandelier and entertaining the masses with a combination of tap dancing and shadow puppets.”
I laugh. In the twelve months I’ve been Mr. Docker’s music therapist, he’s interacted with me twice. Most of the time, he sits in his bed or a wheelchair, staring through me, completely unresponsive.
When I tell people I am a music therapist, they think it means I play guitar for people who are in the hospital – that I’m a performer. Actually, I’m more like a physical therapist, except instead of using treadmills and grab bars as tools, I use music. When I tell people that, they usually dismiss my job as some New Age BS.
In fact, it’s very scientific. In brain scans, music lights up the medial pre-frontal cortex and jump starts a memory that starts playing in your mind. All of a sudden you can see a place, a person, an incident. The strongest responses to music – the ones that elicit vivid memories – cause the greatest activity on brain scans. It’s for this reason that stroke patients can access lyrics before they remember language; why Alzheimer’s patients can still remember songs from their youth.
And why I haven’t given up on Mr. Docker yet.
“Thanks for the warning,” I tell Wanda, and I pick up my duffel, my guitar and my djembe.
“Put those down,” she insists. “You’re not supposed to be carrying anything heavy.”
“Then I’d better get rid of this,” I say, touching my belly. In my twenty-eighth week, I’m enormous – and I’m also completely lying. I worked way too hard to have this baby to feel like any part of the pregnancy is a burden. I give Wanda a wave, and head down the hall to start today’s session.
Usually my nursing home clients meet in a group setting, but Mr. Docker is a special case. A former CEO of a Fortune 500 company, he now lives in this very chic eldercare facility, and his daughter Mim contracts my services for weekly sessions. He’s just shy of eighty, has a lion’s mane of white hair, and gnarled hands that apparently used to play a mean jazz piano.
The last time Mr. Docker gave any indication that he was aware I shared the same physical space as him was two months ago. I’d been playing my guitar, and he smacked his fist against the handle of his wheelchair twice. I am not sure if he wanted to chime in for good measure or was trying to tell me to stop -- but he was in rhythm.
I knock and open the door. “Mr. Docker?” I say. “It’s Zoe. Zoe Baxter. You feel like playing a little music?”
Someone on staff has moved him to an armchair, where he sits looking out the window. Or maybe just through it – he’s not focusing on anything. His hands are curled in his lap like lobster claws.
“Right!” I say briskly, trying to maneuver myself around the bed and the television stand and the table with his untouched breakfast still intact. “What should we sing today?” I wait a beat, but am not really expecting an answer. “You Are My Sunshine?” I ask. “Tennessee Waltz?” I try to extract my guitar from its case in a small space beside the bed, which is not really big enough for my instrument and my pregnancy. Settling the guitar awkwardly on top of my belly, I start to strum a few chords. Then, on second thought, I put it down.
I rummage through the duffel bag for a maraca – I have all sorts of small instruments in there, for opportunities just like this. I gently wedge it into the curl of his hand. “Just in case you want to join in.” Then I start singing softly. “Take me out to the ballgame; take me out with the…”
The end, I leave hanging. There’s a need in all of us to finish a phrase we know, and so I’m hoping to get him to mutter that final “crowd.” I glance at Mr. Docker, but the maraca remains clenched in his hand, silent.
“Buy me some peanuts and cracker jack; I don’t care if I never get back.”
I keep singing as I step in front of him, strumming gently. “Let me root, root, root for the home team; if they don’t win it’s a shame. For it’s one, two, three –“
Suddenly Mr. Docker’s hand comes flying up and the maraca clips me in the mouth. I’m so surprised I stagger backward, and tears spring to my eyes. I can taste blood. I press my sleeve to my cut lip, trying to keep him from seeing that he’s hurt me. “Did I do something to upset you?”
Mr. Docker doesn’t respond.
The maraca has landed on the pillow of his bed. “I’m just going to reach behind you, here, and get the instrument,” I say carefully, and as I do, he takes another swing at me. This time, I stumble backward, crashing into the table and overturning his breakfast tray.
“What is going on in here,” Wanda cries, bursting through the door. She looks at me, at the mess on the floor, and then at Mr. Docker.
“We’re okay,” I tell her. “Everything’s okay.”
Wanda takes a long, pointed look at my belly. “You sure?”
I nod, and she backs out of the room. This time, I sit gingerly on the edge of the radiator in front of the window. “Mr. Docker,” I ask softly, “what’s wrong?”
When he faces me, his eyes are bright with tears. He lets his gaze roam the room – from its institutional curtains to the emergency medical equipment in the cabinet behind the bed to the plastic pitcher of water on the nightstand. “Everything,” he says tightly.
I think about this man, who once was written up in Money and Fortune. Who used to command thousands of employees and whose days were spent in a richly paneled corner office with a plush carpet and a leather swivel chair. For a moment, I want to apologize for taking out my guitar, for unlocking his blocked mind with music.
Because there are some things we’d rather forget.
The doll that I buried at a neighbor’s house on the day my father died was called Sweet Cindy. I had begged for her the previous Christmas, completely suckered by the television ads that ran on Saturday mornings between Wonderama and The Patchwork Family. Sweet Cindy could eat and drink and poop and tell you that she loved you. “Can she fix a carburetor?” my father had joked, when I showed him my Christmas list. “Can she clean the bathroom?”
I had a history of treating dolls badly. I cut off my Barbie dolls’ hair with fingernail scissors. I decapitated Ken, although in my defense that had been an accident involving a fall from a bicycle basket. But Sweet Cindy I treated like my own baby. I tucked her into a crib each night that was set beside my own bed. I bathed her every day. I pushed her up and down the driveway in a stroller we’d bought at a garage sale.
On the day of my father’s death, he’d wanted to go for a bike ride. It was beautiful out; I had just gotten my training wheels removed. But I told my father that I was playing with Cindy, and maybe we could go later. “Sounds like a plan, Zo,” he had said, and he started to mow the back lawn, and of course there was no later.
If I had never gotten Sweet Cindy for Christmas.
If I’d said yes to my father when he asked.
If I’d been watching him, instead of playing with the doll.
There were a thousand permutations of behavior that, in my mind, could have saved my father’s life – and so although it was too late and I knew that, I told myself I’d never wanted that stupid doll in the first place; that she was the reason my father wasn’t here anymore.
The first time it snowed after my father died, I had a dream that Sweet Cindy was sitting on my bed. Crows had pecked out her blue-marble eyes. She was shivering.
The next day I took a garden spade from the garage and walked to the neighbor’s house where I’d buried her. I dug up the snow and the mulch from half of the hedge row, but the doll was gone. Carried away by a dog, maybe, or a little girl who knew better.
I know it’s stupid for a 38 year old woman to connect a foolish act of grief with four unsuccessful cycles of IVF, two miscarriages, and enough infertility issues to bring down a civilization – but I cannot tell you how many times I’ve wondered if this is some kind of karmic punishment.
If I hadn’t so recklessly abandoned the first baby I ever loved, would I have a real one by now?
By the time my session with Mr. Docker ends, his daughter Mim has rushed from her ladies’ auxiliary meeting to Shady Grove. “Are you sure you didn’t get hurt?” she says, looking me over for the hundredth time.
“Yes,” I tell her, although I suspect her concern has more to do with a fear of being sued than genuine concern for my well-being.
She rummages in her purse and pulls out a fistful of cash. “Here,” Mim says.
“But you’ve already paid me for this month –“
“This is a bonus,” she says. “I’m sure, with the baby and everything, there are expenses.”
It’s hush money, I know that, but she’s right. Except that the expenses surrounding my baby have less to do with car seats and strollers than with Lupron and Follistim injections. After five IVF cycles – both fresh and frozen – we have depleted all of our savings and maxed out our credit cards. I take the money and tuck it into the pocket of my jeans. “Thank you,” I say, and then I meet her gaze. “What your father did? I know you don’t see it this way, but it’s a huge step forward for him. He connected with me.”
“Yeah, right on your jaw,” Wanda mutters.
“He interacted,” I correct. “Maybe in a less-than-socially-appropriate way…but still. For a minute, the music got to him. For a minute, he was here.”
I can tell she doesn’t buy this, but that’s all right. I have been bitten by an autistic child; I have sobbed beside a little girl dying of brain cancer; I have played in tune with the screams of a child who has been burned over 80% of his body. This job…if it hurts me, I know I am doing it well.
“I’d better go,” I say, picking up my guitar case.
Wanda nods. “See you next week.”
“Actually, you’ll see me in about two hours at the baby shower.”
“What baby shower?”
I grin. “The one I’m not supposed to know about.”
Mim reaches out her hand toward my protruding belly. “May I?” I nod. I know some pregnant women think it’s an invasion of privacy to have strangers reaching to pat or touch you or offer parenting advice, I don’t mind in the least. I can barely keep myself from rubbing my hands over the baby myself, from being magnetically drawn to the proof that this time, it is going to work.
“It’s a boy,” she announces.
I have been thoroughly convinced that I’m carrying a girl. I dream in pink. I wake up with fairytales caught on my tongue. “We’ll see,” I say.
I’ve always found it ironic that someone who has trouble getting pregnant begins in vitro fertilization by taking birth control pills. It is all about regulating an irregular cycle, in order to begin an endless alphabet soup of medications: three ampoules each of FSH and hMG - Follistim and Repronex- injected into my backside twice a day by Max – a man who used to faint at the sight of a needle and who now, after six years, can give me a shot with one hand and pour coffee with the other. Six days after starting the injections a transvaginal ultrasound measured the size of my ovarian follicles, and a blood test clocked my estradiol levels. That led to Antagon, a new medication meant to keep the eggs in the follicles until they were ready. Three days later: another ultrasound and blood test. The amount of Follistim and Repronex were reduced – one ampoule of each at morning and night – and then two days later, another ultrasound and blood test.
One of my follicles measured 21mm. One measured 20mm. And one was 19mm.
At precisely 8:30 PM Max injected 10,000 units of hCG into me. Exactly 36 hours later, those eggs were retrieved.
Then ICSI – intracytoplasmic sperm injection – was used to fertilize the egg with Max’s sperm. And three days later, with Max holding my hand, a vaginal catheter was inserted into me and we watched the embryo transfer on a blinking computer monitor. There, the lining of my uterus looked like sea grass swaying in the current. A little white spark, a star, shot out of the syringe and fell between two blades of grass. Another. A third. We celebrated our potential pregnancy with a shot of progesterone in my butt.
And to think, some people who want to have a baby only need to make love.
There are games. Estimate-Zoe’s-Belly-Size; a purse scavenger hunt (who would have guessed that my mother had an overdue utility bill in her bag?), a baby sock matching relay, and, now, a particularly disgusting foray where baby diapers filled with melted chocolate are passed around for identification by candy bar brand.
Even though this isn’t really my cup of tea, I play along. My part-time bookkeeper, Alexa, has organized the whole event – and has even gone to the trouble of rounding up guests: my mother, my cousin Isobel, Wanda from Shady Groves and another nurse from the burn unit of the hospital where I work, and a guidance counselor named Vanessa who contracted me to do music therapy earlier this year with a profoundly autistic ninth grader.
It’s sort of depressing that these women, acquaintances at best, are being substituted for close friends – but then, if I’m not working, I’m with Max. And Max would rather be run over by his own lawn mowing machines than identify chocolate feces in a diaper. I try not to focus on how depressing it is to be 38 and not have any close female friends, and instead watch Wanda peer into the Pampers. “Snickers?” she guesses incorrectly.
Vanessa gets the diaper next. She’s tall, with a short black bob and piercingly blue eyes. The first time I met her she invited me into her office and gave me a blistering lecture on how the SATs were a conspiracy by the College Board to take over the world $80 at a time. Well? she said when she finally stopped for a breath. What do you have to say for yourself?
I’m the new music therapist, I told her.
She had blinked at me, and then looked down at her calendar, and flipped the page backward. Ah, she said. Guess the rep from Kaplan is coming tomorrow.
Vanessa doesn’t even glance down at the diaper. “I’m going to say Mounds. Two, to be exact.”
I burst out laughing, but I’m the only one. Alexa looks like she’s going to cry. My mother intervenes, collecting the diaper from Vanessa’s placemat. “What about Name That Baby?” she suggests.
I feel a twinge in my side and absently rub my hand over the spot.
My mother reads from a paper Alexa has printed off the internet. “A baby lion is a…”
My cousin’s hand shoots up. “Cub!” she yells out.
“Right! A baby fish is a….?”
“Caviar?” Vanessa suggests.
“Fry,” Wanda says.
“That’s a verb,” Isobel argues.
“I’m telling you, I saw it on Who Wants to Be a Millionnaire –“
Suddenly I am seized by a cramp so intense that all the breath rushes out of my body and I jackknife forward.
“Zoe?” My mother’s voice seems far away. I struggle to my feet.
Twenty-eight weeks, I think. Too soon.
Another current rips through me. As I fall against my mother, I feel a warm gush between my legs. “My water,” I whisper. “I think it just broke.”
But when I glance down, I am standing in a pool of blood.