Phoenix

In September, I sent away for some medical records. Did you know you can order autopsy results over the phone? All you need is a direct claim on the person who died, a mailbox, and some courage. The information is free.

The records arrived in October, but I didn’t open the envelope right away. It was so small (regular business size) with my name and address handwritten. I expected something bigger (perhaps a brown 9×12) and more official looking. The answers couldn’t be in something that thin; there were only a few pages inside — I could feel them.

It was the next morning, about fifteen minutes before work. I parked farther away than usual and nowhere near anyone I knew. I opened the envelope, took a deep breath, and read my name.

This is not a ghost story — not a fiction told in first person. My name is on the autopsy because I am his mother; he died inside of me just a few days before he was supposed to be born. He had a name, but only I remember it. It means resurrection — rebirth. The month before he was due, I chose to name my baby to honor my dead father.

You could almost say I wanted him to die, giving him such a loaded name like that.

I don’t talk about him anymore — no one cares to hear, Hugo cries for his baby brother, and I can’t bear to say his name out loud — so I just think of him as Phoenix. The meaning is the same, but I don’t break down when I say or hear it.

A couple of years ago, I saw a little boy who would have been born about the same time. His mother called his name — my baby’s name — and I felt myself die all over again. I was back in that hospital room holding him, unable to let go. The feel of his cold body in my arms is burned into my memory. His ashes are sealed in an urn no bigger than a pack of cigarettes. And his true name is etched on my skin: his only memorial is an unfinished tattoo.

The pages I read in October — the ones that used my name instead of his — the ones that called him “infant” and “fetus” — those pages changed nothing. They dissected him and found no reason. He’s gone, still with no apparent cause. The only thing I know for certain is he was dead for several days, and I didn’t notice. I didn’t save him.

My name belongs on that autopsy. 

Merely Lingual

Spanish or French?

That was the question every kid in my middle school had to answer by the end of sixth grade. Most of us just shrugged and picked Spanish. Some of the more ambitious students (girls mostly) chose French.

At eleven, my life wasn’t set to fall apart for another few months; I couldn’t see ten years into the future and know if I was going to study abroad or meet some foreign hottie (I couldn’t even catch the attention of a the one cute boy whose voice already changed), so I shrugged into seventh grade Spanish along with most of my classmates.

It was a disaster. Even in that calm month before the impending three year storm, I sucked at Spanish. Turns out, I would have been just as horrible at French. Or German. Or Japanese. Or any other non-English language. This was in the nineties of course; so while there were tests for learning disabilities, they weren’t widely used at my school, and my mother probably wouldn’t have let me be tested anyway. She was a teacher, and she believed: once labeled, always labeled.

Three weeks before I turned twelve, my struggles with language became trivial. My dad had written me a letter, and, after more than a year of silence, I agreed to see him.

Unlike most of my family, I love my dad. It took me a long time to understand his shortcomings as a parent, but I think I love him even more now because of it. The only thing I will never understand is why he chose to marry his fourth and final wife. She is the most ridiculous human. No one cries that much and means it!

My grandpa drove but didn’t go inside. He stayed in his car chain-smoking and reading. The evil new wife was there with my dad. I wasn’t there to see her, yet she dominated the visit as usual. Worse, she was all bubbly and weepy about it – like seeing me after so long was so wonderful – like she hadn’t thrown something at my face the last time I was there – like she was still trying to be my mom even though I had a perfectly good one back home. And at least my mom didn’t use crocodile tears to get attention and sympathy! My mom hated when people felt sorry for her.

This other woman needed to get the hell out of my space. She needed to not hug me (cringe). She needed to leave the room (or the country), so I could find out why my dad didn’t stand up to hug me and why there was a cane propped against the couch where he was sitting.

I found out what was going on. But I found out from the woman I hated. She loaded me up with so much medical information that I went home believing that I was going to die of the same disease. Lou Gehrig’s used to be rare – the hereditary cases even rarer. By the end of an hour listening to the Crocodile, I was so stuffed with genetic information that I wanted to die quickly before something much more horrible happened.

Even if I didn’t develop the disease, my children (especially my sons) might. From that moment on, I didn’t want to be a mother; I didn’t want to fall in love just to watch that love die. The fact that I am a mom now is astounding, but don’t give me too much credit. I didn’t overcome anything, and I’m still terrified that I’ll live long enough to watch…

I’m just terrified. Let’s leave it at that and get back to the original purpose of this ramble.

Postmortem: I was messed up emotionally. I didn’t care about school, so my grades dropped. If I learned any Spanish, it was quickly forgotten. I switched from public to private school, held myself back a grade, and somehow skipped out on the language requirement until college.

Would you believe I tried to learn Latin my first semester? Latin! It is the coolest language ever, but I flunked it. A couple years later, I went back to Spanish and somehow scraped an A for the semester, thus fulfilling my bilingual obligation to society.

I can’t prove it, but I’m fairly certain that A was a gift given out of pity by a native Spanish speaker; my professor saw how much I struggled and how much harder than everyone else I had to work. I can’t even remember seeing anything over a B on my tests! Today, if you asked me to conjugate a verb, I could probably do it. Past that, I’m useless.

It’s a good thing I’m never getting married because I would want to go to Spain. More specifically: Valencia in mid-March for the burning festival. Traveling to other countries without learning the language is perfectly acceptable, but I’m not sure I could do it. Just moving to another region of the US was a challenge for me.