WRAPPING THINGS UP RIGHT
by Susan Swanson
A little more than a week after surgery I brought Ma home. She was still “Ma” even though Bill, roommate at Yale, had pulled me aside and said I’d be a laughingstock if I used that word around campus. So I didn’t. But, I’m afraid, as soon as I got home I reverted.
As far as Ma’s surgery, it had all gone well, the doctor said. He’d taken out the lower lobe of the right lung and some lymph nodes where he found cancer. The chest tube had been what bothered her most, it seemed, and that was removed the day before she came home. A “real lift” in her words. But she was still on pain pills. “It hurts a little where he cut in” was how she described it. The way she moved, though, gave the impression that her right side was crammed with razor blades. Even so, she was a good patient, serious about coughing and breathing exercises and elevating the arm that was starting to swell because of what the doctor called lymphedema.
One day in particular was hard to forget. It was a while after she’d gotten home. The three of us were in the living room. Rusty lying in a shaft of light coming through the screen door, red coat shimmering, every once in a while twitching and snapping at a house fly that buzzed and even landed on his nose. Ma sitting, half asleep and still in pajamas, in the easy chair, head resting on the pillow I’d brought from her bed, feet on the ragged footstool. And me on the couch.
“You’re looking good,” I told her. “You’ll soon be back to normal.”
“You really think so?” She looked doubtful.
“Oh I do.” Nodding vigorously.
“Even with cancer in the limp nodes?”
“Lymph,” I said gently. “But the doctor got it all.”
“He don’t know.”
“Ma, you’re just feeling down today. That’s the way it is when you have major surgery. Ups and downs. Tomorrow you’ll feel better.”
“Might be. Might not. Could be I’m gettin’ near the end. I been thinkin’ about it. Thinkin’ that in case that’s so, I better wrap things up right.”
“Ma—” I raised a hand in protest.
“No, really. I ain’t been fair to you, always puttin’ you off about your pa. If I drop dead, there’s no one to tell you a thing. And there’s stuff you should know.”
One thing to be said for the pain killers she was taking, she wasn’t blinking as much. But her mouth was so dry, she said. Which was why I kept a glass of water on the old flat-topped trunk on the other side of her chair. Whenever she started licking her lips I’d get up, reach over, and hand it to her. And that’s what I did now. Then waited as she took her time sipping. Meanwhile, heart skipping, I was thinking, stuff I should know? And that’s what I said: “Stuff I should know?”
“I mean before I pass.”
“But you’re not going to pass.” I hissed it. “Ridiculous word if you ask me. And whatever it means, you’re not going to do it anytime soon.”
“Well then, even if I’m not about to—” A hint of a smile. “—kick the bucket, it’s time I cleaned the deck.”
She pinched the corners of her eyes between thumb and forefinger.
“Headache?” I said.
“No, thinkin’ where to start.”
I was thinking too. My heart bumping now. Finally. At last some explanation as to why itpp had always been just Ma and me.
Wincing, she pulled herself up a bit. Ruby, on the other side of the screen door clucking away, caught her eye and she focused on her for a minute. Then, wagging her head hopelessly, said, “I jus’ never could tell you. That part o’ my life was so mixed up. And dark.”
Rusty moaned in his sleep.
“The dog knows how I feel.” A little smirk before looking around as though searching for escape. “Well,” giving up, “you remember when I tol’ you my pa and ma come from Denmark?”
“It weren’t true. It were just Pa. Ma was a Blackfoot.” She nodded affirmation, meeting my eyes.
“You mean Blackfoot Indian.”
“Yeah.” She took what looked to be a painful breath. “There was so much prejudicial against Blackfoot. Drunks, they called ‘em. Stupid, lazy, worse. That’s why I never tol’ you. Jus’ pretended I was a Dane like Pa. And for some reason I looked more like a Dane than an Indian, so it went fine. Except for learnin’ language. I never been real good at that. Pa and Ma weren’t neither.”
“Then I was right about our background. Those Indian books are your ma’s?”
“Uh-huh. Pa bought ‘em for her.”
“First things first. Are they still living?”
“Ma and Pa? Uh-uh. There was a fire a few years after you was born. Pa’s sister in Denmark wrote that Ma and Pa died in a bedroom up top.”
“So they were living in Denmark?”
“Yeah. Moved there. Pa always wantin’ to go back. That was when Ma left me the books you was always askin’ about. She didn’t have room for ‘em and me bein’ their only kid . . . .”
“Strange — a Dane and an Indian.” I tapped my lips, stared toward Rusty, turned back. “How’d they meet?”
“Ma come to work for some minin’ family near Butte.”
“You know — Montana. Pa, come from the old country, was already workin’ in the mines and livin’ with this family when Ma got a job with ‘em. I guess Ma and Pa just made friends and, well . . . .” She shrugged, sucked in, held her chest.
It hurt to watch. “Slow down,” I said.
But she carried on. “Pa ended up a supervisor. He were smart. Even taught Ma to read. And once she got goin’, well –” She cleared her throat. Or to be blunt, brought up some of the mess from her lungs, coughing it into a tissue from the box on her lap and throwing it in the paper bag on the floor next to her.
“You okay?” I said. I knew I should offer a breather, even tell her to stop for a while, but I didn’t want to take the chance she’d change her mind and clam up again. “Anything I can get you?”
She shook her head.
“Here, let me fix the pillow.” I stood up and braced her back with one hand, pulling the pillow up with the other. “Better?” She nodded and I sat down, reaching over and touching her arm. “May I ask something?”
She again nodded.
“Why’d you keep the books if you didn’t want me to know about your ma?”
She shrugged. “I jus’ couldn’t give ‘em up. I guess I needed . . . uhh . . . somethin’ solid? Or whatever you’d call it. And they was so special I didn’t want to keep ‘em in the attic where pests would get at ‘em.” A shrewd look. “I didn’t plan on human pests.”
She was quiet for a while. Half asleep, it seemed. Pale, breathing loud, a sort of grimace on her face. And a son waiting for whatever else she had to say, hoping she’d get on with it before she really fell asleep. And suddenly feeling guilty. “I’ll let you rest now,” I said. “We can finish later.”
“Uh-uh. I wanna get this over. I want it behind. It ain’t pretty. There’s things you won’t like. Things . . . criminal. But you should know.”
“You? Criminal? You’ve never done anything bad in your life.”
“How’s this then?” Her puffy, dark eyes met mine. “I bought you.”
“Bought me what?”
“I paid for you.”
“For sure,” I said, blinking after a shocked pause; then going on as though I didn’t grasp what she was saying. “No doubt. Raising kids is expensive. But I’ll make it up.”
“Freddie. Listen. I bought you from a midwife. Right after you was born. I’m not your real ma.”
It hadn’t been easy being around her after the surgery. There’d been those days in intensive care, with the IVs pumping meds in and the drainage tubes flushing stuff out. Nasty stuff. And then the terrible pain I knew she was going through. Maybe, I thought, when she came home I’d feel better about it. But, no, it was even worse, because now I was in charge. Worst was keeping the incision clean, worrying that in washing it I’d rubbed too hard and loosened the stitches. Or that I hadn’t dried it well enough and it’d get infected. Or the fresh bandage would come off, letting germs in. Even wondering how she’d gotten so skinny. And worrying that, because she was little more than this bag of bones, the prescribed pain pills might be too strong.
And it was those pain pills I was thinking about now. How they were affecting her mind. “Maybe we should put this off,” I said. “You’re tired. I can tell.”
“No.” She licked her cracked lips. “It’s what you always wanted. No backin’ out now. Besides, for all you know, it could be the best news in a long time.”
“Why would you say that?”
Her eyes fluttered a little, like they’d always done. It was kind of reassuring. She was acting normally, medicated or not.
“I say it because this midwife who brought you into the world was . . . how’d you say . . . well connected?”
Wow. The tale was getting better. At the same time, I was trying to pretend it was as conceivable as the first one, about the Dane marrying the Blackfoot. That one I could believe. It fit. Indians in Montana, mines, immigrants seeking work. It made sense. But this — buying a baby and not getting caught? There were laws.
She had to be delusional. Medications too potent for that scrawny frame. Even so, I wasn’t about to cut her off. When I was a kid telling her my fantasies about that family in the sky that I sometimes paid a visit to, she never cut me off. She humored me. Listened. Showed real interest. And who did it hurt?
“So, who were the midwife’s connections?” I asked.
“Business people, politicians. This midwife took care o’ their dirty jobs. When they got someone in trouble, they went to her and she helped ‘em out. Aborting, deliverance, findin’ a home, collectin’. I paid a hundred for you.” She coughed a long, sticky cough and reached for a tissue. After she’d spit into and tossed it, she sat for a moment. “Could be you’re the son of a gov’nor or minin’ bigwig.”
The story was getting so weird, so bizarre, it made me uncomfortable. What to say?
“So this midwife, was she a doctor?” I finally got out.
“Chiroproctor, my friend said.”
“And this friend, where’s she now?”
“Left town even before me.”
“But you must know her name.”
“Myrtle. That’s all. Besides, she never got really into it. She jus’ let the midwife know when someone was on the market.”
“A sort of middleman.”
“I guess.” Ma winced, held her chest, went on in a froggy voice, “She cooked for the same family I cleaned for. She knew I was lonely after Ma and Pa moved to Denmark, and said a baby might jus’ do the trick and that she knew o’ this lady, this midwife, who could get me one.
“And the midwife’s name?”
“Where’d she do her work?”
“Brick building on a corner in Butte.”
“You think you could find it?”
“So you actually met her?”
“If met means her sayin’ ‘It’s a boy’ and me handin’ over the money and takin’ you and—” She shook her head, squeezed her eyes. “—the bag of afterbirth.”
“It’s what comes out after the baby. It was real heavy, and in a bloody towel that she dropped in a shoppin’ bag. ‘Throw it out on the way home,’ she told me. And I did. Pullin’ to the side, openin’ the window, leanin’ over you — puny, wet and cold, prob’ly no more than an hour old, squirmin’ and whimperin’ under the blanket I’d brought — and throwin’ the mess in the woods.”
Could Ma make all this up? Could she have dreamed it? If she were under the influence of pills wouldn’t she sound doped, drowsy? What was going on?
“How about this woman — my mother?” I asked. I couldn’t call her my real mother. And Ma was reserved for this person who’d raised and loved me all these years. (Why was I even thinking these thoughts? Why considering the existence of someone new? Okay, I’d admit — Ma’s story was sinking in.)
“I never knew your real ma,” she was saying now. “I jus’ saw her a couple seconds, lyin’ in a bed behind a drape, eyes like yours, big and black. An’ so young. She couldn’t a’ been more than sixteen, seventeen.” Ma was staring out the screen door, barely nodding, seeming to absorb her own words. “It was the quickest thing I ever done. The best too. At least for me.”
“For me as well,” I said, voice a little trembly as I finally admitted to myself that what she was telling me was more than fantasy.
“But at the time, it were pretty scary. Leavin’ the car runnin’, sneakin’ to the side of the building with the baby blanket — a pink one, me thinkin’ you’d probly be a girl — tappin’ on a door that opened just a crack before this big mama in glasses lets me in. I think the door even squealed. And then inside, I realize she’s cradlin’ you in one arm. You, soon to be mine, before my very eyes, all wrapped up in a little white sheet. And, o’ course, in her other hand, the bulgin’, bloody towel of afterbirth that she tosses in the shoppin’ bag sittin’ wide open on the floor. By then, I’m sneakin’ a peek through a gap in the curtain, catchin’ a look at your ma, who’s pale as the sheet you’re wrapped in, starin’ at me with eyes that make me think I should give you back.
“‘What’s your name? Spell it,’” the big one says, lookin’ at me through those thick glasses. So I do. Then she asks for the money and I hold out the wad I been savin’ for months and she wipes her free hand on her dress and takes it. I’m thinkin’ all the while ‘bout my friend and how she should get some part of it. What she did meant a lot. That she helped me, I mean.”
“Do you remember anything more about the location? The building or street?”
“It was plain ol’ brick, kinda tall, maybe three stories. There was one streetlight, dim, that made me really creepy. But I was glad it was dark. I knew what I was doin’ was wrong. But I din’t think it was that bad. I was givin’ this baby a home where there’d be a lotta love. I knew that. And if I din’t take him home, somebody else would. And then I’d jus’ be lonesome again. No one to talk to. You know what I mean?” A pause, her eyes to mine. “No, you couldn’t. You never been lonesome.”
Little did she know.
She looked at me long and hard. “So that’s it. Now you know. And if it changes things between you an’ me, I understand.”
Now I knew? But what? Plain and simple, nothing more than that I was a black market baby. Birth parents? Not a clue. Blueblood, bigwig, vagrant, prostitute — any was possible. And why they did what they did? No idea. My only hope would be finding them or blood relatives — aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters — who knew the truth, who might even be looking for me.
And someday maybe I’d do that. Not now, though. For now it had to be enough to just tell Ma it was all very interesting and I appreciated her honesty, but that it really didn’t change anything. She’d always be my ma. And all I cared about was getting her well. Which may have sounded stilted, wooden. But I meant it.
About the Author:
I am new to the idea of publishing in a literary journal but, having read recent stories from Adelaide, have decided it may be a good fit for my story, Wrapping Things Up Right.
At eighty-one, I’m not the youngest starry-eyed dreamer you’ve met up with, I’m sure, and I have no publishing credits. But having spent many of the past twenty-five years writing the sort of thing I like to read, I feel like it’s time to share.
I hold a bachelor’s degree with major in English and minor in journalism from the University of Minnesota. A while back I was chosen to study with Marilynne Robinson, Pulitzer Prize winner, at the Iowa Writers Workshop Summer Session.