The brother I never knew.
He was buried in an unmarked grave with other dead babies. 1960.
I am now the age my mother died. She was 64 years old: colon cancer.
She was a vacant, negligent mother.
During one of my psychology classes in nursing school, we learned about the baby monkey experiment (the Harlow experiment), where a baby monkey was laid against a mother made of wires. It was an inanimate object void of heart and warmth and touch and love.
That was a lot like my mother.
It’s interesting how I seem to have flashbacks of when I was five years old. It was 1960.
It wasn’t “nap time,” but I noticed my mother spent a lot of time in bed. I knew she was sad, and that made me sad. How I loved my mother! I snuggled up next to her to give her comfort and love. The only thing I knew was how to be next to her and maybe take away some of her sadness.
Mom came from a strong Italian family. Her father was from Italy and crossed over to America, landing on Ellis Island. America: the promised land. And to have a son in the family was the ultimate blessing.
Mom was hoping this time for a son. After having twin daughters with stark black hair and then me with vibrant red hair (dad was Irish!), this third pregnancy had to be a boy.
The golden son.
Before the age of ultrasounds or NICUs (newborn ICUs) or surfactant, modern medicine in newborns had not yet developed at the time.
After eight months of pregnancy, mom started to have contractions and vaginal bleeding — all of the wrong signs for a healthy baby. Eight months gestation was too premature.
Dad rushed her to the hospital. And after several hours of labor, mom delivered a baby boy. The Italian “prize.”
They heavily sedated mothers back then during labor. She remembers being drowsy and weak with blurry visioned. She remembers seeing the back of Terrence’s head — the name given to him. His grandfather from Ireland’s name.
But this was her redemption.
Finally, she could please her parents! A boy with olive-colored skin and black hair.
And he was whisked away. My mother would never hold and bond and kiss the baby boy.
Within one hour of delivery, he was dead.
It was called “hyaline membrane disease” — now known as Infant respiratory distress syndrome or neonatal respiratory distress syndrome. It is more common in premature infants born six weeks or more before the due date. This is a condition in newborn babies in which the lungs are deficient in surfactant, preventing their proper expansion and causing the formation of hyaline material in the lung spaces.
And my mother came home to us three girls without that bundle of joy.
A dead baby.
There was no therapy sessions or grieving. Everything came to an abrupt halt.
Baby Terrence was buried in a cemetery along with other dead babies in a large unmarked grave with multiple crosses everywhere.
One hour on this earth left my mother in total devastation for her lifetime.
And she withdrew from the joys her daughters eagerly wanted to give her.
My sisters and I somehow raised ourselves. We survived.
Dad climbed the corporate ladder with IBM. Dad bought the big house, the lake house, and the matching boat. He had several infidelities, and his drinking eventually surpassed “social drinking.”
What made mom miserable and vacant was all of the above.
But grieving the death of a baby or child is considered the ultimate tragedy.
There was no “hotline.” There was no bereavement support group. Psychotherapy was looked down upon.
And so she existed day after day, year after year, mentally bypassing our growth and development, our proms, our high school graduations, and college graduations and marriages and grandbabies.
She housed herself in until her death.
On my mother’s death bed as she was dying some of her last words to my father were, “Joe, do you have the baby? Where’s the baby?”
I cried at my mother’s funeral.
I cried for the mother I never had.
As John Lennon once sang: “Mother, you had me, but I never had you.”
Debbie Moore-Black is a nurse who blogs at Do Not Resuscitate.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com