Covenant


The alarm crowed. Six a.m. Monday morning. The start of a new workweek, it insisted. I muddled into the bathroom. Deep breath. Get ready for the day, items from a to-do list floating up from the cottony haze, memories of dancing Saturday night shoved aside. Game face on, I told myself. Prepare for squirrely teenagers jostling in and out of the classroom five periods a day, kids wild and wily clamoring for attention five days a week. Have to keep control of the class, keep the students focused on lesson plans laid out for the week, the grading period, the year. Every high school art teacher knows what to expect, what energy and stamina are required to keep track of the supplies, equipment, and 125 kids.

Stephanie’s birthday today, I remembered and curled my toes into the soft plush of the bathmat. My best friend of a dozen years, my maid of honor, was turning twenty-six. And in another three weeks, I would, too. Two boomers born smack in the middle of the twentieth century were growing up. I chuckled. Call her tonight, I told myself and smiled, then flinched.

There was another spot in my panties, a dime-sized splotch of blood. I had spotted all weekend. When had the drops – each one a red flag –  first appeared? The previous Thursday? I tried hard to remember the nurse’s words at the three-month checkup on Friday afternoon. “Normal for twelve weeks, first trimester.” Everything was still on track, still due in late April, perfectly planned. I would be able to take full advantage of the maternity leave, its 40 school days taking me to the end of the school year. And with summer off, the baby would be about four months old when I returned to school in September. Perfect.

I got in the shower, panties soaking in the sink. I didn’t feel well, I realized. Not sick, exactly. Just not quite right. The spotting didn’t help, but for the first time, I sensed a pressure. Was it gas? Bloating? Constipation? More like a tightness that made me feel too full. “You need to go, that’ll do the trick,” the streams of fragrant bubbles seemed to say. “Clear it all out.” The warm water, the lathering shampoo made me relax enough to believe it. “Not enough time to try before my ride comes, though. Have to go at school. I’ll be okay.”

I had an easy schedule this year. Teach two periods, then off for lunch. Teach one more, then off for planning, which meant hanging out in the faculty lounge with friends and colleagues. Then teach two more, clean up the studio, scrub the stainless steel sinks, water the plants, then home. No lectures, no demos scheduled for the day, kids were in the middle of their assigned projects. Piece of cake, anyone could do this. No need to call a sub. I grimaced.

Never call a sub.  Art teachers could not afford to miss school. It wasn’t worth it. Drag yourself through the day, if that’s what it took. Better than returning to a furious maelstrom of materials, supplies, equipment destroyed, the studio in ruins. The kids always took advantage of substitutes, and in the art room there was more at stake. I had seen it in art rooms across the way, had to intervene, stop kids zinging pieces of colored chalk at each other, painting rubber cement on table tops, huffing its benzine fumes, then rolling the dried patches into little balls and chucking them around the room. Dirty paintbrushes were always left to dry, permanently hardened by acrylic paint and white glue. Tops were left off every container and tube in the room, scissors missing altogether. All the chemistry in the darkroom contaminated. The sinks stopped up. The art teacher’s nightmare. No, I was going to school. I would do my easy schedule and find the time and place to go.

I put on my cranberry cords, as planned, and a double-breasted, belted jacket made of Ethiopian cotton, its thick, nubby fibers streaked with cranberry and flecked with white and green, a gift from my mother-in-law recently returned from Addis Ababa. Regular clothes. I wasn’t showing yet. Jammed on platform shoes and got in the car.

 

Seven forty-five, homeroom. So far, so good. I focused on the morning’s announcements, got the attendance done and carried to the office. “Have a great day,” the student announcer finished. I would try, keep going, I told myself. Did I have enough time to go before my first class? No. Eight o’clock and students were drifting in. The sleepy first period. They were quiet, didn’t usually wake up until 8:40 or so. Who could blame them? It was still murky outside, the classroom windows not yet lit by the pale sun of mid-October.

Maybe I would feel better if I paced around the room. Art teachers did that. I was never one to sit at my desk anyway. I would roam among the four large tables, talk with students about their work, check their progress, keep my mind off the dampness in my crotch.

Maybe I would feel better if I sat down. I looked at the clock. How long before I called for clean up? God, I was as bad as the kids, ready to bolt with the bell. Would I have time to get to the bathroom between first and second period? No. Students were already marching in. Animated kids, some bright-eyed, eager to get their projects out and get started. They would take my mind off the pain building in my lower back. I strode around the room, but felt more and more nervous. Was the jacket long enough to cover my crotch? Were there stains? Maybe they weren’t noticeable, blending with the cranberry color of my slacks, I told myself. Maybe the jacket hid most of the wetness.

Sit back down, stand back up. Try again. Find a comfortable position. Are you okay, some of the kids asked. They could see I wasn’t myself. I was antsy, anxious. Nothing satisfied my lower back, so much pressure pushing down and down. How long ’til the bell? God, my back hurt.

At last, a break for me. I locked myself in one of the two stalls in the women’s restroom off the faculty lounge. There, a little success. But did it count in the face of so much blood filling my panties, leaking out, trickling down my legs? Swallow the panic, I told myself. Force it down. “You have fifty minutes off. Put your feet up. Relax on one of the couches.” I searched my purse for any pads left from my pre-pregnancy days. One at the bottom, and a tampon, too. Was it safe to use a tampon during pregnancy? I didn’t think so, but another voice, a screechy, desperate voice said “Just do it. Clean yourself up. Put the tampon in, slap the pad on, get back to class.” “But … but,” another voice whispered, “What about those clots, those bloody pieces of …?” “Just do it,” I hissed.

I put the key in the door to let my fourth-period class in, not at all convinced that I could manage yet another hour in this room with these kids. I gritted my teeth, and watched the students get their supplies, get organized, get settled without realizing they were watching me. Maybe I was rubbing my back, maybe I was back to my new routine of sitting down, standing up, sitting, standing. They seemed wary, some nervous, and shifted their stools, as if trying to find their own comfortable position.

If only they could have heard the voices, felt the grip of the heart’s wisdom and the head’s denial. I could no longer tell which was which. It didn’t matter. The two fought, bickered, screamed louder and louder. “Stay strong. A teacher does not walk out on a class,” the one kept repeating. “You need to get help,” the other said, not with compassion but with the scratch of an accusation, a command that also said, “Fool. What’s wrong with you?”

“A teacher is responsible for the students, you can’t leave them,” said the other. Teachers had to be tough. In control. It was true: there was no one else, no adult to step in for me, no way to call for help. Phones, cellular or otherwise, were not available in the classroom in 1976.

Panic won and I was running. Hurtling down long, empty corridors past a thousand lockers to the nurse’s office at the front of the school. The young thing at the desk stared, looked concerned, confused. “I’m losing my baby,” I blurted. Now the panic was hers. She screamed, stood up, eyes wild. How many other teachers had ever come racing into her office on the verge of hysteria? How many had ever announced “Miscarriage”?

 

Another bell. Change of classes, crowded corridors. What period was it? Students looked gaunt, upset as they watched my husband taking me out in a wheelchair. My obstetrician’s partner could see me immediately, he said. I said nothing, numbness freezing all of me. The nurses in the office were prepared, helped me get my clothes off. “You poor thing,” said one when she saw the dried blood streaked down my legs. She draped the sheet over me, helped me put my feet in the stirrups, and went out to let the doctor know I was ready. But I was not ready. Not ready for the ravages of the unforeseen, the unscripted, the uncontrollable … for this. I jumped off the table and rushed to put the forgotten tampon in the trash.

“Cramping?” the doctor asked, placing his hand on my abdomen. No ultrasound back then, not in my doctor’s office. I couldn’t look at him, just nodded to the side, hot tears wetting the paper covering the exam table.

“Any clots? Tissue fragments?” he asked, palpating now. I nodded again, too afraid to see the truth in his eyes. I didn’t tell him what I had seen. I couldn’t. I couldn’t tell him what I found stuck to the top of the tampon. It looked ghostly, a bluish-white shrimp, curled, bigheaded. I only had a second or two. Was it an embryo, a fetus? Could it be true? Could I trust my eyes? Did it really look like the Life magazine photos, those miraculous portraits capturing the tiniest beings that didn’t look fully human yet? I did not say that the ghost, so present, so absent, lay buried in the trash can. Not a baby exactly, but not medical waste either. I couldn’t talk about the haunting thing in between and how it had rejected its first home, rejected me, the unsatisfactory shelter now filled only with shame and humiliation.

“Maybe a blighted ovum,” he mused. Then he was ordering bed rest for me, come back on Wednesday. There was a chance that this pregnancy could be saved, he had seen worse. But my uterus was smaller than it should be. “Eight weeks,” he said. Not twelve, not the end of the trimester, not ready for the second.

My husband let the school know that I would need a sub. The day of bed rest chanted with me over and over, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.” Hope against hope, such a mantra.

 

On Wednesday, my doctor was gentle, anticipated the one word question I could not choke out. “Very common,” he said. “We’ll never know why. Just wasn’t meant to be. Wait a month, make sure your cycle returns to normal … try again.”

I had held myself together long enough, no tears in the doctor’s office. But when we got in the car, shame burned away the numbness. My cheeks fired red as my husband mentioned something about letting his parents know. They lived near the doctor’s office, and we both knew his mom would be home this time of day. He was right; we would have to tell her, let everyone know. The car circled around the cul-de-sac and parked in front of their house. I couldn’t get out. I felt so heavy, my feet blocks of cement. I had no strength left, couldn’t drag myself across the front yard, a gulf between me and the front door where my husband had gone in bearing the sadness alone. I had disappointed them, the matriarch and patriarch of a big family who loved welcoming new additions. The daughter-in-law, wife of the oldest son, had not kept the covenant. The plan was off track.

Nothing to be ashamed of, I told myself again and again. You didn’t do anything wrong. But what about the dancing Saturday night? It wasn’t your fault. Or the yard work on Sunday? It wasn’t your fault. Over and over, I tried to talk myself out of the car. Why couldn’t I face my mother-in-law? She was no ogre. I visualized myself in the foyer, pictured her in her favorite chair. My face, my sobs would say it all, I wouldn’t need any words. She would have opened her arms, held me, told me to cry it out. I just couldn’t get out of the car.

 

“Congratulations,” my doctor smiled in late January.

“Due in September,” I told my husband in the waiting room, then added, “not exactly ideal for a teacher trying to start the school year off right.”

My husband took me by the shoulders, looked straight into my eyes. “Any time a baby comes is the right time.”

In early spring, my husband and I spent time with Stephanie in Chicago, a visit during Easter break. Our late-night flight circled O’Hare and I looked out the window at the city lights below – so beautiful, the grid pattern they formed. I leaned forward to get a better angle, and that’s when I felt the tiny bubbling, first signs of life – the “quickening” they called it in old novels – it was beautiful.

Stephanie and her husband took us to the Museum of Science and Industry where we were drawn into the reverence, the intimacy of the Prenatal Development exhibit. Its 24 jars of human embryos and fetuses, 28 days to 38 weeks, shone in the dimly lit room. My husband and I studied the carefully labeled jars; at Week 12 we paused and offered a silent memorial.

We stopped again at Week 14, where we stood in awe, holding on to each other for a long time. This is what our baby, the one meant to be, looked like, and she was beautiful.

 

 

Author’s comment: I was by far the oldest member of a recent writing class and, unlike my younger counterparts, believed a painful memory of my youth no longer haunted me. But I was wrong. Reading their stories of trauma affected me deeply, but it was only after the course ended that I found my own trauma, still painful and vivid, pouring out almost fully formed in “Covenant.” Forty-two years on, I had the benefit of a broader perspective, the honesty of an objective truth that urged me to write about the pain, the shame and guilt I still carried. It wasn’t time healing my wounds, but a deeper sense of self and personal identity that guided my writing process.

 

Carol Jeffers is an Emeritus Professor of Art Education who began her career as a high school art teacher. She blends narrative nonfiction and fiction to explore the human condition. Her book, The Question of Empathy: Searching for the Essence of Humanity, has just been published by Koehler Books. She has published several shorter works in a variety of literary journals. More at www.CarolJeffersWriter.com

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