Have I told you about the time the doctor said I had syphilis? I can’t believe I left out that story.
My lips purse in a grin and my eyes cloud with a daydreamy memory.
I had Addy in January of 1997. We got married in April of the same year. Tuck arrived the following April, 14 months after Addy. Tuck was the loveliest of lovely surprises. I was breastfeeding and on the pill when he started growing. At one of my midwife appointments for Tucky, who was growing inside me, a lab came back with an unexpected result. I tested positive for syphilis. Yep, me.
It isn’t what you might think. Walt’s lab results can back clean. He did not have syphilis. The nurses and midwives came and went in the office at St. Thomas Hospital and I saw their whispering glances. She has syphilis. I explained how impossible it was for me to have contracted a sexually transmitted infection. The bacteria would have been sexually injected inside me between the time I had labs with baby Addy and the labs for baby Sailor.
(I thoroughly believed Tuck was a girl and we would name her Sailor. I said that if he was a boy, we would name him Sailor, also. On the day of his birth, I changed my mind.)
It was completely clear to me that my body had only had sex with Walt and that if he did not have syphilis then I could not have syphilis. I was sure there was a mistake. The midwife assured me there was no mistake. How would I have had time. Between pregnancy, birth, recovery, breastfeeding, a wedding to Walt, a honeymoon and a surprise pregnancy to have sex with some man who has syphilis? It had to be a mistake at the lab- some anomaly. there was no way and yet there was no way to dispute science.
She insisted that I have a round of penicillin shots to protect the baby from blindness or possibly stillbirth. I agreed. I did not want the baby to be hurt by my having syphilis. All the while knowing in my heart that I could not possibly have syphilis. I agreed to the treatment. I couldn’t be the pregnant little 25 year old mama and hussy with syphilis being whispered about. The only thing worse would be the pregnant 25 year old mama and hussy with syphilis refusing treatment and endangering her unborn child.
I unhooked my velvet overalls and leaned on the examination table. Addy was the Gerber baby. She sat on the examination table with her little ankles crisscrossed. A tiny whip of hair curled up and over on the crown. Her blue eyes. I mean blue blue. Framed with black eyelashes with a sprinkling of golden eyelashes. Her left eye still had a clogged duct. I prayed my daily intercession it would heal before her first birthday so she could avoid surgery. It was a tiny thing that only her mama would noticed. She sat on that table free of worry. She wasn’t even old enough to associate doctors offices with pain. She wore her blue snappy suit. Navy and light blue color blocked fleece from the Big Dog company in Santa Barbara, her birth place. She sat like a royal doll, back straight smile wide. I was incredibly proud. Her finger nails were trim and clean. I kept them that way because I had hidden anxiety a stranger might see me as unfit. I was brown haired and young. Baby Addy was blonde and I had hormonally induced fear that someone would say I wasn’t a good mother. I dressed her in blue non gender conforming clothing so people would know that she could be anything she wanted to be. No one would stop my magic girl from breaking glass ceilings before her first birthday or ever. I had watched 9 to 5 and Tootsie.
We had just moved from Santa Barbara back to Nashville. Walt wanted to get his PhD and Vanderbilt had excellent programs. Peabody College, the education school of Vanderbilt, was where Walt and I met while we both got our masters in special education. In California, my gender neutral clothing and her name being gender neutral- Addison, were hallmarks of my excellent parenting. And now as I saw my girl in the early morning squeaky window light of this high rise hospital, I wished I had put her in a smocked dress. I called her by her double name Addy Mae to appease the Southerners judging my syphilis filled body not to mention- my lab induced shame mingling with my postpartum/pregnant anxiety. In 1997, Nashville favored smocking and sweet baby girls: Santa Barbara favored gender neutral. I could not explain this difference to the nurses so that they could see my worth despite my syphilis riddled womb and dressed in blue little girl. The guilty speak the loudest. I could not hang my head in sorrow or shame, my baby girl was watching me.
I unhooked my velvet overalls and slid the back down while I leaned on my elbows against the examination table where my messianic Addy Mae sat. She was prettier than a cherub. More revered than angels. And finally, I was the Virgin Mary. Feeling the shame of the world while bearing a savior. The shot was hard and too long in the top of my ass not in the fatty part but right in the muscle. I didn’t flinch. Addison smiled and I smiled back.
You have heard of walks of shame. The people of Jerusalem saw a young unmarried girl pregnant without even a room to give birth. I grew up in Nashville. I went to St. Henry’s Catholic School. I coveted the part of Mary in the Christmas pageant. I knew full well that my sinless soul would never trump my brown hair. At the age of seven, I knew the laws of the land. Second grade is when Catholic children are taught to examine their conscience and confess their sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I had to lie to the priest to come up with sins to confess. I do not know if I was wise before my years or too big for my britches. Over the years of St. Henry’s and then St. Cecilia for high school, the nuns taught me the error of my ways. I learned humility and guilt like a champ. I came to see all my imperfections through a magnifying glass.
As I grow older and at 50, I see the faults. I magnify them myself without need for the handled circular glass. I see my fat and I see my tired. I am able to see my unworthiness through the eyes of Walt. And in the ways of this world of contradictions, I see my likeness to Mary.
I collect her statues. I recollect her prayers.
I fear you thinking I am sacrilegious. I do not believe Mary is God. I think Mary may bring me back to some of my lost belief in God. She is a comfort. I do not believe I am the Mother of God or Jesus. I see myself as a mother in communion with Mary- in her community. And that feels holy and good in a world of unholy and ungood.
Fly’s right by me and leaves a kiss upon my face. While the angels are singing his praises in a blaze of glory, Mary stays behind and starts cleaning up the place.—– I feel this so deeply. The husband, the friend, the grown child, the boss, flies past me with a wave or a half shouldered hug. The crowd, the population, the Them talk up the success and free wheeling fun of the one walking away. I stay behind and clean up the mess they left. More often than not, the mess is Mim in a heap of feelings. The leaving for bigger better lives or the growing up of older siblings or her same age peers conversations and invitations leaving her out. And I am the mother picking up her pieces. I am the comfort for my weeping child when no one could make it another day longer. Lots of the time, I am weeping myself while giving all my mercy to Mim. Monitoring my affect. Squeezing the love out of my endless tube of love toothpaste. Like the baby Addison on the examining table needing my peace and soothing voice to reassure that mama is fine.
I am not dumb to your whisperings. I am not a fool. I know I should have put Addy Mae in the smocked dress. I know that I shouldn’t have tested positive for syphilis. I know I should do hot yoga and diet. I know I should not write the sins of my ex-husband because it just reflects poorly on me. I know I shouldn’t post a video of myself singing on Instagram- hell I couldn’t even get into glee club in elementary school. I know the rules. I know Mim shouldn’t yell fuck at the neighbors when Linus barks at them. I know that you would have seen Addy’s anorexia and gotten her a modeling agent. I know Mim is too old to sleep in my bed, our bed. I shouldn’t wear comfortable shoes and limp from plantar fascitis. Naps should be replaced with cleaning sessions. I should not believe my story is worth sharing. I know the rules of society unfortunately. I imagined I could live without facing those obligations and expectations. Long ago when we adopted, I imagined Mim wouldn’t have enough smarts to figure out the naysayers. that she could live beautifully unaware of the criticisms. Meanness would not be in her limited vocabulary. But she out smarted all of us and grew more socially aware and desiring of friends and academically aware that she can’t keep up with her peers. And we craved her growth and still do yet it leads to pain to be smart enough to see her own disabilities not being acceptable.
But- I’m like Bonnie Raitt or the Virgin Mary. “Love has no pride.” I love my life. I love what makes me different. Weird. Sometimes uninvitable to parties. I chose these shouldn’ts. I know that I’m not fitting. I love patting Mim on the bleachers of a football game when the noise and fury gets to be too much. There are consequences of my life choices. Teachers do not make much money. Single moms are overwhelmed. Moms of kids with disabilities are lonely without ever being alone. Driving to see Addy and her new baby leaves me weary and frazzled without lesson plans and clean sheets. I accept the need to advocate for Mim’s happiness and future. I accept my chubbiness. I accept the home that is a condo (which one of my relatives called “that little place.”)
This is me. Knowing who I am. Knowing I don’t have syphilis. Knowing I don’t have it all together. And channelling Mary. Giving comfort while my hair isn’t brushed with calloused heels dressed in dog fur and bad shoes. I am leaning on that examination table with my heinie hanging out getting a shot of penicillin for a disease I don’t have, while smiling at my sweet sweet baby chile.
I bowed to the insistence of the midwife that day and I bow, too often, still 25 years later. One bow is too many. I am a very slow learner. Heck- it took me seven years to learn that my then husband was cheating on me.
(When I say then husband I do not mean there will be another. I have trouble labeling him.)
But in the stillness of patting Mim or the stillness of walking my grandbaby in the balcony sunshine or the stillness of my own roadtrip radio concert, I see myself being Mary with beatific pink cheeks and a pastel cape standing on a snake. I breathe deep and feel my shoulders retreat from their downtrodden position. I meet my child with a solid smile unwavering unconditional love for this life I have chosen with a few parts thrust upon me. I will start cleaning up the place.
B T dubs which for those who need a translation is text talk for By the Way or BTW— I did not have syphilis. I did not have sex with a strange hunk in the 8 months after Addy’s birth and this appointment. I have an immune deficiency called Common Variable Immune Deficiency which is such a non specific and anti-climactic diagnosis. The immune system glitch showed up as my having syphilis on the test. This was found after I had the first shot of penicillin but before further humiliation.
You have kept so many secrets from us. That by itself is a massive burden, but on top of everything else? Let us in.
I love love this, I felt every word. I’m wanting to read about me now like you wrote about Dorothy, don’t worry about me getting my feeling hurt I have a need for honesty and love fixes all.