Bernadine Lortis


"Here, give her to me. I'll take her." A nurse snatches my baby at the threshold as though I'm a delivering a bundle of laundry. Her statement, brusque, devoid of emotion, and her manner, business-like. This woman is obviously in charge.

"Her name?" She quizzes but doesn't look up. "Her name, Mrs. Bloom?"

"E-liz-a-beth." My voice has a hard time finding a range. Each quiet syllable hits a different tinny note.

I watch competent fingers turn back the hood of her pink quilted snowsuit. It covers dark mahogany curls that cling to her scalp in wet ringlets like swirls on designer hand-dipped chocolate, unique to her. "She's beautiful!" The nurse voices surprise. "You call her_____?"

"What?" I'm baffled. "What do you mean?"

"Some have, well," she hesitates, "something, some sound or other they might respond to."

Elizabeth does have nicknames, terms of endearment—"Little Bit', we call her sometimes, for Lizabeth, but I can't tell this person. It is a private thing. We have so little that is just our own. I can't share everything today.

The year is 1968. I have just struggled across the parking lot into this ranch-style, long, red-brick building I'd visited only once before. Acrid leaves singe my nostrils while overhead flocks of geese honk, soaring south in formation, confident of their way. The sun is shining, a sharp betrayal of what is happening, but it threw my shadow across the asphalt blacktop and gave me something to follow to get to the porch steps. Arms weighted down, I knew could not free a hand to ring the bell, but suddenly as I approached, the door swung open and there stood this woman waiting to relieve me of my most cherished possession.

Now Elizabeth starts to whimper. I rescue her from the starched, white uniform and immediately the crying stops as she settles into the curve between my neck and shoulder where she has nestled every day for the past four years—many days, most days, the entire twenty-four hours. The nurse stands by, an indulgent smile on her face, her body firmly planted, blocking my way to the lobby. Does she expect me to just hand Elizabeth over and leave?

Beyond the nurse sits Danish, modern-looking furniture upholstered with large orange and gold poppies that overlap haphazardly. The couches are wrapped in plastic, muting the colors of their fabric. Two narrow lamp shades anchor the corners of the room, stretching yard-stick tall from behind bleached end tables. At the windows, floor-to-ceiling draperies are drawn back and pleated, latched to Ionic columns the color of sand. Everything seems out of proportion, a bland elongated Modigliani scene that tips sideways.

"I'll take off her snowsuit," I say. "Can't you show me her room?"

Reluctantly she picks up my dropped suitcase. We move down a short, dim-lit hallway, passing doorways through which sunlight leaks. Everything is antiseptic-clean, smelling overwhelmingly like the chlorine of an indoor swimming pool. I hear murmurings, whimperings—soft, muffled bawling, like sounds of newborn calves. The nurse stops at the last room, stands aside the door and waits for me to pass. She points to an empty bed, the last in a row of three identical small hospital cribs. The children are down for naps, she tells me. Naps? Naps, and it is only nine in the morning? What time must they wake all these children to be fed and bathed and ready for naps this early?

I carry Elizabeth past the occupied cribs without so much as a glance. I can't make myself face these members of her new family. My God, I think, she doesn't belong here. Here, where she'll be a number, get a label, enter an 'other' population, lose her identity. What in the world am I doing?

Last fall, on a fundraising committee for parents of newly diagnosed children with cerebral palsy, I designed a card, a black and white etching of a little girl in a wheelchair parked under the protective canopy of willow tree branches. Wind played with strands of her hair, whispering words I lifted from Desiderata. 'You are a child of the Universe', I quoted, 'no less than the stars and the trees. You have a right to be here.' Here in this world, my world, I meant, not here. What are we doing here?

"She'll have the best spot, dear" the nurse says, "Always nice and sunny by the window."

"But is it warm here? Will she stay warm?" It feels drafty though the temperature outside is unseasonably mild for November. "Please, she must stay warm. Promise me...."

"She'll be fine, just fine." She pats my arm. Her touch is like wind-chill, magnifying the cold drilling through me. I could crush every bone in her polished hand.

I hold Elizabeth tighter, her thin body squirming close inside my coat collar. I want to run, escape with my child to a place where just the two of us can live out our lives. However long that will be, it doesn't matter. Nothing matters except that we stay together. That's all I have ever asked—in the beginning in my prayers, and now in my silent rages and threats and bribes and demands against Whoever or Whatever fated us with this. I should crash through these windows, leave shattered glass and ripped clothing, hunks of skin and blood in my wake, at the very least. Tangible evidence that puts physical shape to my protest, something to prove this surrender comes not simply by signing some form.

But I remain. My shoes are glued to the floor, unable, unwilling, to fly. I understand. I do. This is a show of resolution and self restraint, not treason. These sturdy oxfords have kept me grounded these three long years while I've fought this decision. Hauling me from one end of the state to another, they trekked to small private group homes and huge state institutions while I pretended to look for the best home in which to place Elizabeth, all the while having no intention of ever doing what I'm about to do. I was aghast at the very thought. What kind of species could forsake their offspring, I asked myself as I traveled to see places explicitly built for this abandonment. Now these tough, well-worn soles hold me steadfast, acknowledging that today, finally, I must succumb. But they will continue to keep me standing, restraining, yet offering support to the very end.

Elizabeth had arrived over two months earlier than my obstetrician expected. I was celebrating the Fourth of July at my in-law's lake cabin, a hundred miles from home, when she followed her stillborn identical twin into the delivery room of a strange hospital. No one was prepared for a second baby. There was no oxygen ready, no special lights, no equipment. The world did not applaud her debut.

When they brought her to me, swaddled tightly in a blue-striped flannel wrapper, I nearly tossed her in the air. Light as eiderdown, this fragile, bird-like creature, her head smaller than the smallest orange, I looked at her and whispered—as this nurse had just observed—"She's beautiful." But I wasn't surprised; I was in awe, and overcome with the fierce, almost savage, rush that came bursting through my chest. I had read about Nature establishing bonds, yet this frightened me on a level so profound, so overpowering, I lost my breath. Tiny fingers clenched my heart, gripping like tendrils of an ever-blooming vine, and I was captured.

She couldn't suck, so I used an eye dropper to give her liquids. She couldn't chew, so I chewed her food and fed her from my mouth like mama birds do for their babies. She couldn't sleep, so I walked and rocked her. She cried and cried. But when, at our monthly appointments, I asked her pediatrician what could be wrong, he assured me, "She was early and she was a twin; you have to let her catch up." So we bided our time. But when she was nearly nine months and still couldn't bear weight, couldn't hold onto objects, showed no interest in toys, we started a round of second opinions.

"Find a place for her, she won't know the difference," they—the specialists—said on her first birthday, "Besides, we estimate her life span to be only five years."

"Then why would we place her?" I asked them. "Surely, we can care for her that long."

So what did her father, my husband, do? He left. Permanently. His world view held a far different meaning of love than the one we would live in. We couldn't fit into his life and he wouldn't fit into ours.

On her second birthday, experts wondered if I had found a home for her. "She has a home!" I screamed at them and quickly changed doctors. She spent her third birthday in the hospital hooked up to a tangle of tubes, needles, and monitors. I was forbidden to lift her, but I could croon to her, smooth her covers, rub her skin, and I wouldn't leave her bedside. More evaluations followed: Projected mentality: six months; life expectancy: increased from five years to twelve; recommendation: immediate placement. "Placement for whom?" the hospital staff had asked among themselves, and then to my sister. "For the child, or this wild woman from which we can't rid ourselves? The woman who can't sleep and won't eat; who hasn't shampooed or changed clothes for days."

Strange that I could accept their diagnosis, even their prognosis, without argument. Only their conclusions—that I would not be able to care for her, that one person alone could not continue providing round-the-clock care, that it was becoming increasingly apparent that I was unable to care for myself while caring for my daughter—these, I could not reconcile.

"Mrs. Bloom, Mrs. Bloom." The stern nurse is repeating my name. "Let me help. She must be getting heavy for you."

Though Elizabeth weighs only twenty-two pounds, I have too little strength to hold her if I stand too long, but I refuse assistance and lay her on the blanketed mattress of her future bed. Pulled, zipper teeth crisscrossing from left collarbone to right toe, slowly give way as snowsuit flaps open like pale pink petals, releasing her fragrance. By now, her whole body is sweating and drops of moisture, like sprinkled dewdrops, gather on her forehead. I want to kiss her all over her perfect little body, as I had on the day she was born. I feel dizzy and lurch forward, grabbing onto cold steel bedrails, the thin jail bars that will confine her.

For the moment, Elizabeth lies content in the sunlight, listening carefully as she always does. Her hearing is acute, causing her muscles to jump when someone flicks a light switch. The slightest noise awakens her. Her pediatrician had first diagnosed it as a startle reflex, saying it should disappear at about six months.

"Her clothing? Where does it go? I'll put it away."

"There's no need for you to do that. That's what the aides get paid for."

But I want to do it, it is important that I do it. I must. Stubbornly, my eyes search for a chest, a closet, some place for storage. Where? My face questions her.

"The bottom one should be empty." She motions with impatient hands to the doorway where three built-in drawers climb steadily up from the floor behind the door.

I make sure the clasps on the suitcase make no sound when they snap back as I begin unpacking her one-piece coveralls. Pastel aqua, yellow, white, and pink—these are velvety, stretch terry suits and plush knits, usually reserved for newborn layettes or sleepers. By four years, most children would have graduated to sturdy overalls and play clothing. This passing thought shames me completely. Of course, most four year olds would have turned over by now, too, would be sitting up, would have progressed from crawling to standing to walking to running to climbing, would be talking, feeding themselves and....

Yes, yes, I know all that—and I don't care. I don't care what others can do. I only care that these things will keep me from caring for her. It seems so unfair, that I haven't been able to strike this most fundamental bargain: a healthy child. One others call 'normal'. Of course, I would have no other child, but that extra bit of time, just a little, only enough to care properly for her. Time. That's all I asked for, all I wanted.

Somehow I can't get the right leverage. Either the bottom drawer is stuck or I am too weak to pull it open.

"Well, honestly! Try the middle one then," says the nurse.

Inside are other tiny tops and bottoms—undershirts with tie-cord sashes, plastic panties, an eyelet sunbonnet. I push them aside and stack Elizabeth's suits into neat piles, color by color, as if displaying them on a store shelf. It seems a monumental job.

I bring the other articles—merely a handful, but peculiarly heavy to me—across the room and present them to the nurse.

"Oh, I'm sorry," she says, stammering, and for an instant loosing her professional composure. "I-am-so-sorry. They belonged to Annie. That drawer should have been cleared out when she ..."

Elizabeth begins to fuss. Our four hands reach toward her.

"Mrs. Bloom," the nurse says, positioning her body between mine and the crib, "You're just going to have to get used to, I mean, she's just going to have to get used—"

I dart around the nurse and dare her to stop me as I pick up Elizabeth. We leave the woman there in the sunlight, holding onto the dead little girl's clothes. We walk the halls together, my precious daughter and I. If I can just keep moving, I think, if I can just keep on moving, I'll buy a few moments. I won't have to leave her. This nightmare won't really come true.

All my tears, all the tears in the world, have already been shed. Over the past few years, whenever they have been replenished, sometimes by nothing more than a sympathetic word or a compassionate nod, I use them up immediately—days and nights of sobbing—until I'm once again bereft. Then, I had no sense of frugality where tears were concerned. But now, there is no reason for more. They do no good. I'm as dry and crumbling as the leaves piling up on the pathways outside. Rain, like tears, cannot revive at this season's stage.

There was a day not long ago when, once again, I used up my quota. We were visiting Elizabeth's aunts. I had just returned from the bathroom and overheard them as I approached the kitchen where the four had gathered. They were discussing the 'Why' of Elizabeth, and children like her, who do not develop 'normally'.

"They're put here for a reason." A sensible aunt was speaking. "That's for sure."

Another one cuddled Elizabeth in rounded arms, swaying to and fro. "They're special. Gifts from God, these darlings," she said, "But reasons? We will never know."

"I think they are put here to teach us a lesson," a third said. "What's really important. I think it's to show us what real love is."

They all seemed to agree with one another. "God's little angels."

I could listen no longer. Completely disregarding how supportive they had been, how unconditionally they had accepted us, how beholden I was to them for all they had done. I stormed into the room and attacked like a cornered animal, eyes blazing, face contorted.

"What kind of God could do this to my child?" I shrieked. "If there is a God at work here, He already took one baby. Shouldn't one be enough? Tell me, what kind of God would do this? Just so you could learn a lesson? You can keep Him." I seized my baby from those kind, warm arms and fled, wailing, both my baby and I wailing, while we tried to escape from the hurt in their eyes. We nearly fell down the steps in my haste to get away from the immediate humiliation that overcame me.

Now, as then, Elizabeth senses distress and won't be comforted. I hush her with soft lullabies until she is quieted, until our heart beats synchronize. A lone rocker sits at the end of the hallway, a blue shawl protecting its arm. We make it there, collapsing onto the seat, and fade into the soothing motion, back and forth, back and forth, in a rhythm as familiar to us as our breathing.

And I go back to another time in my rocking, about two years earlier. It was toward evening on a hot, humid spring day, and because the tail of a tornado had been observed on an adjacent lake, we were under a severe tornado warning. "Take shelter," the radio announcer advised. "Go to the basement, secure yourself in a central hallway or under a heavy object—this is urgent; We are in eminent danger."

Slowly, slowly, I rocked Elizabeth and waited. I looked out the window at the greenish, blackened sky as it descended over the landscape like a huge plastic lawn bag, trapping air in its eerie stillness, remnants of molding leaves stuck in its crevices. I waited calmly for what I believed might be our rightful end. I had long ago given up on a merciful God, a God of love and compassion, but this could be our answer. This Goddess of destruction, Kali, could be our last resort. Carried away, embracing in the whirling devastation, we could become a part of the larger universe, become again an integral part of Nature. Perfect timing.

On a nearby table, a heavy stem of glass grapes were splayed atop a copper compote, glistening purplish-red and flawless in the lamplight. When the lights went out and the terrible sound of a locomotive whooshed through, a feeling of peace and serenity enveloped me. I tucked Elizabeth into the crook of my arm and sat on the edge of our seat, ready for lift-off. The house shook, windows rattled for an instant, the grapes exploded around my feet, nicking my ankles and legs—and that was that. It had left us behind.

Holding Elizabeth to my breast, I walked to the kitchen for a broom, swept up the small broken globules and decided I would have to put my faith in something far less dramatic. Real grapes that bled juice and didn't drop until harvest when we could magically dance again,

mashing them in splendid stupor at festivals with witch doctors in attendance, consultations with healing shamans. Oh, think of the options we thought we had back then.

Now, faraway, I hear unfamiliar voices. I must be dreaming. But if so, I want a different dream—one filled with music, and fresh daisies, and kittens tumbling through the grass, with Elizabeth scrambling after them, squealing with laughter. Instead, someone is tugging at my coat, shaking my shoulder.

Where am I? Where is Elizabeth? Who are these people?

"The little girl, she's in her bed," says one of two sturdy-looking women, smiling broadly. They are dressed alike, in harsh tan. There is a gray-haired one with a tightly curled permanent and another, taller, sporting a pony tail. "She's still asleep. We picked her up from the floor," says the one with the up-do.

I look in their eyes. Can I trust them? Are they real?

"She must have slipped off your lap, Mrs. Bloom. She was sleeping at your feet. Come now, my dear," the other one says. "You had better go on home."

Their slippery nylon uniforms reek of perspiration, but the expressions behind their monotone voices are kind. They bring me upright, one under each of my arms, and drag me—limp as a wilted leaf—steering me toward the door while humming something. I watch our parade from afar, paralyzed.

From down the hallway, I hear Elizabeth crying. I know she is calling for me. I need to remind them what happens when she gets upset, that she gets into patterns that are hard to refocus. There are so many things I must tell them, but no words break through. My tongue, a thick, immobile gag, is frozen in place.

"Don't worry," voices echo and bounce from a distance, "Don't worry, don't wor-ry, d-o-n't w-o-r-r-y."

"It's a natural reaction," the older woman says. "They all go through this, this period of adjustment. It usually doesn't last long."

"It's best if you don't come back for a while, though," she adds, as the younger one bobs her pony tail in agreement. "Best to stay away—four weeks at least, as a rule."

"A month?" I ask, incredulously, "A whole month?" I am beaten down, groveling. I am a slave whose only riches have been confiscated, haggling with one last hope for momentary treasure. "Then, can I take her out overnight?" I plead, "A home visit, for Christmas?"

"We wouldn't advise it," they answer in unison.

"Don't make it so hard on the both of you," the gray-haired woman says, more gently, rubbing the back of my coat, "She's in good hands."

Back in the lobby, my suitcase rests on a table. Lamps are lit, although no one is sitting there. Streaks of bleached light stream up walls, more ghastly than cornered shadows. I can't bear it. Panic sets in; a blizzard of shrapnel explodes through my head. I must break her free.

I jerk from their clutches, howling like the deranged woman I am. Underneath, I may not have resigned myself to this at all. I do not know; I am certain of nothing. All morning I have been deceiving, both them and myself. I am a two-headed monster, I can't be trusted when Elizabeth is at stake. One moment, I resign; the next, I sabotage, lurking through corridors in calculated ambush. They may as well know who they are dealing with. They must be on the lookout when I am around, ever vigilant. I may play this role forever, haunting this building, scheming kidnap.

Before they realize what is happening, I flee down the hall to Elizabeth's room, Elizabeth's voice. Her cries vibrate on my eardrums; the pain, excruciating. Everything closes in—walls narrow and squeeze together, ceiling tiles cave in, the floor floats upward—my old shoes can't judge where to place my feet. I lose my balance as the aides overpower me.

"No," I argue, feebly, "not yet. No, I can't. Wait. Please, she needs me. Oh no, please." Incoherent sounds stream from my mouth as my babbling continues. They slide me back down the hall. My attempt is futile. They are so strong.

One lifts the suitcase and each grab a coat sleeve so I can't break away. As the older woman opens the door, the other steps out sideways, hauling me along, shoving my suitcase forward with the side of her foot. They let go of my coat at the same time and rush back inside. I fall back against the door. Behind me, a latch clicks. I am sure there is a key turning, somewhere a bolt sliding through a chamber with a final thud. My life is trapped inside.

I stumble from the wide concrete steps. In my arms, the empty suitcase is clutched to my chest like a pitiful anchor. The sun is so bright my eyes can see nothing. Black spots spread like bat's wings, dragging me down, down. My torso spirals through a deserted shaft, barreling into an alien, barren landscape. The journey before me is as foreign as walking on the moon, but I have no fear, no concern. I have no feeling. There is nothing to care about, to care for. The future is as meaningless, as pointless as the past. I plunge blindly, without dread, without hope, without purpose. Nothing matters.


Elizabeth will be fifty-two years old on the 4th of July and, of course, she matters—as much now as ever. Not a week has passed during this time that I have not been with her. She has lived in three different group homes since this experience and I am now searching for an appropriate fourth because her physical and medical needs have changed. Commitment and advocacy for all disabled individuals has become the focus of my life. It has been challenging but rewarding, a loving, lovely, and often lonely journey.

Bernadine Lortis is an avid reader, gardener, and dappler in watercolor. She has written secretly and sporadically for years, occasionally encouraged by friends to submit pieces that have never published before now. Her B.S. and M.A. degrees in Science, Art and Education were occupationally driven and while she's enrolled in only two short writing workshops after her retirement, Lortis does continue to find inspiration and subject matter everywhere around her. Lortis has lived with her husband in St. Paul, MN in the same house for 45 years, very near her daughter, Elizabeth.

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