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Hamilton Stone Review #35 Fall 2016
Meredith Sue Willis, Nonfiction Editor
Ingrid Blaufarb Hughes
Losing Aaron: How It Began
My daughter took the call. It was a Saturday in April of 1999, and I was just getting out of the shower, looking forward to a quiet day to myself and then a quiet week with no classes or student papers to read. As I reaching for my clothes, I heard footsteps pelting down the stairs. Stasha was crying, yelling.
“Mom, Mom, Mom.”
Why is she so histrionic? I thought, striding through the bedroom to throw open the door.
“A woman from the embassy in Paris called. They found Aaron’s body hanging from a tree.”
Stasha is so irritating, I thought, and at the same time, No, it can’t be, we’ll talk to him and explain he doesn’t have to do this. I tried to picture Aaron in a tree. But I couldn’t.
Taking up the telephone to call Paris, I was half-aware of a familiar tension in my spine, a burden of fear and anxiety. Stasha and I sat on the bed as I punched out the long number she had written down.
“This is Ingrid Hughes. Someone called me about my son.”
“One moment, please. I’ll patch you through.”
Holding the phone to one ear, I sat on the edge of the bed, my arm around Stasha, crying a little, staring at the brick hearth of the defunct fireplace a few feet away. The bricks had black scorch marks from long ago, but they were scraped naked now, the fireplace barren and empty.
The duty officer came on. “Mrs. Hughes?”
“Your daughter told you?”
“The police found your son hanging from a big tree in a park about noon.” Now I could see it. The big tree. Aaron’s long, narrow body hanging.
“His body is at the city morgue.”
“At the morgue,” I repeated stupidly.
“I’m sorry it took so long to let you know,” she said. So long? It was still Saturday morning, I thought, forgetting the time difference.
“If you want to get him back, you’ll have to wait a few days to get hold of an undertaker. Easter Monday is a holiday here, nothing will be open till Tuesday.” What does she mean, get him back? Isn’t he dead? I wondered vaguely.
“Are you sure it was Aaron?” I asked.
“The police were sure. He had his passport with him. They wanted to know if he was depressed.”
“He had a mental illness,” I said. “What’s the name of the park where they found him?”
“Parc des Buttes-Chaumont.” Automatically, I wrote down the unfamiliar words to look up later.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I’m so very sorry.”
Stasha and I sat on the bed for another moment in the quiet of the large white room, its tall windows looking out on the skeletal ailanthus trees. Two days earlier Aaron had been with us. Active and functioning in his own way: tall, handsome, hostile, competent, articulate, nasty at times, convinced he was being poisoned and lied to, but in the last few days calmer. I held on to my sense of his warm body, his living, breathing presence. It would fade, I thought. But for now I had it. He had been here. He had been with us.
Then he had set off for Paris in a blaze of fury, making what I thought was another of his many round-trips across the ocean or across the continent since his illness struck.
Now he had hanged himself. Even years later those words shake me. He was gone. Gone irrevocably. Gone by his own choice. He lay in the Paris morgue—a body, no longer a person.
Yet I had seen daily the pain he lived with, the disappointment, his continual anger, bitterness, anguish, the effects of an illness that had battered us all. I knew why he had taken his life.
My first understanding that Aaron had lost his mind came in the spring of 1992, seven years earlier. I was living then in Brooklyn in the studio I had taken when I left Arthur—left him despite love and respect, despite our long history together, going back to our time at boarding school in Colorado. Our youthful marriage had been the ground we grew up on; our familial foursome had been the greatest satisfaction of my life. But Stasha and Aaron were grown now. My love for Arthur felt like one of those rivers of the canyon lands, a river that had worn away rock over the ages and flowed in a narrow channel through layers of ancient history. The passion that carried me away from Arthur was a spring flood, a deluge of water and snow melt, dislocating ruthlessly anything in its path.
A flood does not provide an easy transition. I often felt insecurely rooted in my new life, though my plan was clear. Days I was tutoring at the Reading and Writing Lab of Baruch College, my first job since college. Evenings I was pursuing a degree in teaching English as a second language at Hunter College.
Aaron was in his first year of a doctoral program at MIT. Physics had been his pleasure, his preference since high school. He enjoyed it and excelled at it with an ease that was characteristic. In high school and college he had been remarkable for his striking competence, his even keel, his humor and good sense. But on a recent visit he had dissolved into tears, crying inconsolably as he sat across from me at the tiny table where I had served our breakfast. The trigger for his outburst was a mention of an embarrassing episode in his first year at Swarthmore, four years earlier. But his misery was so great I thought there must be more to it.
He agreed to see a family therapist with me, Ellen Wachtel, the person Arthur and I had talked with during our last months together. Stasha and Aaron had met her too.
“Ingrid and Arthur didn’t prepare me for what I want to do,” Aaron told Ellen. Though Stasha called us Mom and Dad, Aaron had always called us by our first names.
“They were never successful.” This hurt. How could it not? It also puzzled me. His education had been excellent, first at private schools where he had the freedom to study math and science in his own omnivorous way, and then at one of New York’s special high schools for science. He had graduated with distinction from Swarthmore and been accepted by every doctoral program he applied to. With his friends and his teachers, he assumed the same attitude of respectful equality as he did with us. Yet now he felt we hadn’t provided what he needed. Though I could see his distress, I couldn’t make sense of it.
Later, I saw Ellen again on my own. She made it clear she considered Aaron shaky. “Help him hold himself together,” she said.
On the phone one Sunday evening early in April, he seemed particularly disturbed and discouraged.
“You sound upset,” I said.
“I am upset.”
“I’d like to help.”
“You want to help,” he said dubiously.
“Yes, I do.”
But he didn’t see how I could. We said good-bye.
Despite his obvious unhappiness, despite his recent outburst of tears, despite Ellen’s assessment, I was unprepared for what came next. A few minutes after we had hung up, he called me back.
“Maybe you do want to help,” he said. “And maybe you know that when I walk on the street people are making fun of me—in an organized and systematic way.”
I was so frightened by his words. So shocked. With that one sentence I knew he had crossed the line into madness—into a world of his imaginings, a world far from ours. What was real to him was plainly impossible to me.
“Aaron, it seems that way to you. These perceptions aren’t accurate. That’s not happening,” I said. “We’ll get help.” I don’t remember what else I said, just the deep fear that landed on me, the pressure along my spine.
I called Arthur and was glad he was at home in the apartment on East 9th Street. His companion, Lanie, was an old friend, but I didn’t want to call him at her place right now. I repeated Aaron’s words to him. He was upset, of course. But he left it to me what to do next. That had been the pattern of our marriage, and especially of the decisions we made as parents.
In the morning I called Ellen Wachtel. She gave me the name of a psychiatrist in Boston and encouraged me to go to Aaron for a few days.
“What if he won’t let me? He’s been so distant and angry.”
“Tell him firmly you’re coming,” she said. Her support helped. I needed to be with him. When I told him I was coming, he made no objection.
During the days till I could leave for Boston I walked around in an odd state of shocked languor, as if I’d been gutted and lost my core. My spectacular son had been struck by mental illness—my generous, confident, brilliantly-able son.
At work I coasted along on empty. The other tutors were talking about some news they found disturbing.
“I just expected more,” a young Trinidadian woman said, as we sat together during our break.
“Uh huh,” I said. Finally I realized that the verdict had come down in the Rodney King case, and the ensuing outbreak in Los Angeles was part of the background of the next few days, a headline in a paper on a newsstand, a radio report I caught in passing, or a scrap of conversation.
Tuesday evening I had a visit from Jay, who was the reason I had left Arthur. As I told him about Aaron, his brown eyes were serious, his large forehead furrowed. Meeting his gaze I was conscious of my fear and a sense of inadequacy in the face of Aaron’s illness. Through the lens of my anxiety, I saw Jay too as lacking. He knew how proud I was of Aaron. He had a sense of him from me. But he had met Aaron only once, very much in passing. How could he understand what I was feeling?
“So you’re leaving Thursday morning?”
“Yes. I’ll be back Sunday.”
“I’ll give you Jan’s number. Maybe you can stay with her.” Jay had friends in Boston, where he had lived until our relationship pulled him to New York.
Before I left I called Stasha at her apartment in Brooklyn. “I’m going to Boston. Aaron has had a breakdown,” I told her. At twenty-six she was two years older than Aaron, but it wasn’t her job to deal with his illness—it was mine and Arthur’s.
As my train pulled into Boston’s South Station, I reminded myself of Ellen Wachtel’s advice to be matter-of-fact, not to probe or make it harder for Aaron by acting upset. I stepped onto the platform, my daypack on my back. Aaron stood at the front of the train, tall and straight in a tweed jacket and dark jeans. He turned away, rather than watch me approach him, rather than meet my gaze. I reached up to embrace him, and he gave me a wisp of a hug. His jaw bulged because he was clenching it, changing the shape of his face, and he was so thin the muscles of his shoulders and neck had shrunk.
From the station we walked to Boston Common along sunny streets crowded with lunchtime strollers.
“I’ve been to this place,” he said, and leaned against the wall of a restaurant, while I gradually realized he was suggesting we eat there. So we did. As we sat at the table, his features were often contorted, angry, uncomfortable, even crafty-looking. When he wasn’t grimacing, tension lines on his face made him look older than his twenty-four years. He had been remarkable for his relaxed poise. It was entirely erased now.
The visible signs of his illness disturbed me, and I was glad he didn’t bring up his delusions. They scared me, and I had no idea what to say about them.
“I got the name of a psychiatrist who’s supposed to be very good,” I told him.
“Arthur gave me a name too. Do you think it matters which one I call?”
“I’m sure they’re both good.”
After lunch we wandered around the Common, watching the people in paddleboats on the pond, and sat on a bench under the newly-leafed trees.
“How is your teaching?” I asked. His fellowship required him to teach a lab section.
“It’s okay. The students are very worried about their grades. They’re always bringing their quizzes to me to complain when I take points off for mistakes.”
“They say, ‘but it’s just a little mistake.’”
“What do you say?”
“I just took off a few points.”
When a child ran over and asked Aaron to return a ball that had rolled under our bench, he reached down for it and handed it over without a friendly word. This although he had liked small children and been good with them.
Next morning, after a night at Jay’s friend’s house in Cambridge, I was happy to pass a deli where I could get good bread and curried chicken salad to bring Aaron in his apartment on Beacon Hill. It was sweet to have time with him. He let me put my hand on his warm head, now and then, or his thin back. “What are you thinking? You look sad,” he said. This was the Aaron I had been missing, the dear, caring son I had brought up.
Riding back to New York on the train, I felt better. Being with Aaron for two days had restored some of my strength. Talking with him and touching him meant so much after the months when he had kept us at a distance, telling us not to call, barely responding to our questions on the rare occasions when he was willing to talk. He had agreed to see a psychiatrist, so I was a little optimistic. Yet I knew the crisis was far from over. His words on the phone—”making fun of me systematically and in an organized way”—were etched into me. His bulging jaw, his contorted face, his loss of flesh and muscle, all indicated he was seriously ill. But maybe not permanently. I had little knowledge of mental illness, but I knew some young people recovered.
The First Date
My eighth grade homeroom class was abuzz with anticipation about Karen’s upcoming party. This was one of the earliest boy/girl parties, and the absolute first party where there would be non–Jewish boys. Karen was the only Christian girl in our little Jewish circle of friends. There wasn’t a lot of intermingling of the religions, not to mention the races, in suburbia in the late fifties.
With my girlfriends, I was excited, although secretly I was anxious. After all, I was thirteen, agonizingly longing for my little bud breasts to get moving and make something of themselves. Would I ever catch up with the rest of these girls? Would I ever get a boyfriend?
And then, miracle upon miracle, a classmate from Karen’s church choir, Robert Bruce Warren, had come up to me at my brown locker in the hall just before seventh period and talked to me. Even more, he actually offered me a ride to the party and I accepted. Still, I fretted secretly, is this a date? Or just a ride? He likes me, he likes me not. He was not quite the Tab Hunter dreamboat, but he was blond, blue eyed, and, most importantly, a boy who asked me out. Or did he?
When I told my mother about the party, her first response was, “Oh, Karen, she’s your little non-Jewish friend, right? Do we need to drive you?”
“No, “ I answered, “One of the boys from school, Robert Bruce Warren, asked me. His parents are giving me a ride.”
“Robert Bruce Warren? What kind of Jew has three first names? He isn’t Jewish, is he?”
“So what if he’s not Jewish,” I said, trying to sound matter-of-fact, and yet knowing that this reverberated for my mother as tantamount to a betrayal of the clan.
I should have known that my mother would pounce on this aspect of my big night. Being Jewish was important to my mother, not because she was all that pious, but more out of fears which blended the holocaust with the Great Depression, mixed with restrictive covenants and a general fear of differences.
My mother had inexplicably developed three key rules of conduct for us as Jews which seemed to permeate her relationship to the outside world. “Jews don’t ski…. Jews don’t go to Disneyland…. and Jews don’t point at their neighbors’ houses.” So, instead of donning cute bunny suits on the winter slopes, we trundled off to Jones Beach, bundled up like refugees in babushkas, in search of doubloons, mystical gold coins that my mother hoped would make our fortune. The Disneyland prohibition resulted from her belief in Walt’s involvement with nefarious Anti-Semitic activities. The third and oddest rule, about not pointing at the neighbors’ houses, surfaced soon after we moved to the suburban town that was the center of the Catholic diocese, where we were the only Jews on the block. On our first Halloween morning, which followed a long neighborhood tradition called chalk night, we woke to find our sidewalks chalked with, “Go back to Brooklyn, or wherever you came from, you dirty kikes.”
My mother believed it was the neighbor Corrigan boys, rough and tumble teenage bullies, and henceforth forbade us from pointing at houses, although the knowing nod was the acceptable shorthand for the house of the perpetrators. It seemed as if my mother feared that pointing would have a direct correlation to being rounded up by the Gestapo and turned into lampshades.
I remember her harping on this for weeks before the party, that he wasn’t Jewish, how I needed to be wary, and on guard. Finally, during the hurried TV dinner just before the party, I reared in exasperation at her incessant worrying, “But, mom, I’m not going to marry the boy. I’m only in seventh grade.” And then I stormed dramatically upstairs to my room for the real challenge of deciding what to wear.
Finally the anointed hour of the pick-up arrived. Robert Bruce’s parents pulled up to the house in their suburban wood-paneled station wagon – his dad driving, his mother in the front, Robert Bruce in the back seat, and their female dog Missy in the way back. I imagined my mother thinking, as she peered out the front window, “Jews definitely do not drive station wagons.”
A well-mannered boy, Robert Bruce came to the door to get me. As I opened it, our dog Blackie, a fat old spayed female, raced out of the house, and began, quite shamelessly, to bark and flirt with their dog Missy. After much wrangling, we got Blackie back in the house and said goodbye to my mother, who had appeared as if out of nowhere, to give me her secret admonishment of looming danger – the nod.
Once we settled into the station wagon and introductions had been made, Robert Bruce’s father, said, if only to make conversation, “Your dog seems to like our dog, and Missy seems interested as well. They would have cute puppies together.” And then, swerving around in the driver’s seat toward me, he declared, “Yes, our dogs should mate.”
Perhaps it was my first date fluttering heart, or my mother’s fears that welled up inside me, taking precedence over the obvious fact that both dogs were female, that led me to exclaim, in all sincerity, “Oh no, our dogs can’t mate. My dog’s Jewish!”
A palpable silence enveloped the car. No one spoke for the rest of the ride. I spent the entire party hiding in the bathroom. Even to this day, as I tell this story, I feel the mortification, like devouring crickets gone wild, thrumming in my ears. Perhaps, I am my mother’s daughter after all, fears and all. Robert Bruce and I never skied together, never went to Disneyland, and certainly we were never pointed in the same direction again.
Nechama Sammet Moring, CPM, MA
A Lot of Us Midwives Hate Babies
A few years ago, someone declared May 5th as the International Day of the Midwife, and now, every April I start bracing myself for the inevitable onslaught of memes and articles depicting us as gentle, mousy Rainbow Brite dolls who just want to CUDDLE YOUR BABY ALL THE TIME. This bothers me, because no one has ever described me as anything but an outspoken hell-raiser and also because I really dislike babies. A lot of the midwives I know do. We tell you they're beautiful because you asked and we're being polite, not because your kid is actually beautiful and we’re in love with their peeling skin and their prehistoric pterodactyl noises and smells. Your baby is actually a lot more like a pterodactyl than I would ever admit out loud to a paying client who loves that funny-looking little dinosaur beyond reason. Frankly, I say your baby is adorable because I want to remain employed in a field I love, not because I love babies and consider it my lifework to coo at them. Cuddling babies is just not as delicious and satisfying as your hormones have evolved over millennia to make you think it is when the kid is yours. Your hormones are just that, your hormones, not mine, and I am just being polite.
And let’s not even talk about the idea that fetuses exert any control at all over their circumstances. If your midwife tells you that though you wanted a homebirth, your baby wants to be born in the hospital, or even that your baby wishes you would eat more protein, she is lying to you. I’ve never believed in fetal personhood, and, to be totally honest, I’m not sure I believe in infant personhood, either. As a culture, we attribute so much power to fetuses, and so alarmingly little power to women. Newborns scare themselves when they fart, and, from an embryological perspective, they had a tail until very, very recently. I don’t believe in looking to babies or fetuses for anything. Women, though, I’ve always looked to women for everything. Women hold so much and survive so much and I have ultimate faith in the people I serve. Except of course when I’m too busy losing my shit and my feminist principles to smelly little pterodactyls who also scare themselves when their own hand makes contact with their face.
Hyperbolic baby-love aside, midwives are badass women who live on the front lines of life. And I think that all this painting us as cute, earthy, baby-loving hippies is really just a knee-jerk rape culture response to the historical reality of midwives as community leaders who led revolutions. Emma Goldman, Rigoberta Menchu, Loretta Ross, Byllye Avery, Katsi Cook, Margaret Charles Smith and so many other fierce midwives stopped cuddling babies long enough to fight, and fight hard, for the kind of world where the most marginalized people matter and the babies we deliver are less likely to get shot dead during a traffic stop that was always about racism, never about the supposedly broken tail light, and really, that was why I became a midwife.
When I applied to midwifery school, I had survived only about a third of the sexual violence that has shaped my life, and Korryn Gaines had not yet been gunned down at close range with her child in her arms and Sandra Bland’s murder inside a jail cell had not yet been tagged a suicide and Purvi Patel had not yet faced life in prison for the crime of seizing control of her reproductive destiny in a world that rapes us into subservience. But I went to midwifery school in the borderlands of El Paso, where thousands of women had disappeared into a desert lined with maquilas and the gendered violence of U.S. imperialism. And every morning on my way to school when I walked past the memorial carved in the sidewalk to honor a six year old boy killed when the border patrol aimed their guns at his undocumented father, I was reminded that Korryn and Sandra and Purvi and all the other midwives of the world needed to keep fighting for a less subservient world. Reproductive justice drives me, not the pitter-patter of wrinkly baby feet, and honestly newborn baby feet look a little bit too much like newborn baby testicles for comfort.
Being a midwife means waking up each day to fight the good fight, to persist against injustice, to be the only source of health care on the plantation where you are enslaved, to say fuck you to Jim Crow and traverse the back roads of segregated communities affirming that, try as it might, our racist social order cannot rob parents of their humanity and their children will flourish and rise up. Being a midwife means fighting the police brutality, incarceration and child welfare system surveillance that picked up where Jim Crow laws left off; means deftly organizing women, parents, communities, movements, and straight up revolutions, from the sidelines or the center stage, wherever you are most needed, with a midwife’s flexibility and eye for strategy. Being a midwife means building a union; means harnessing science to show that racism and environmental injustice poisons breastmilk and 500 years after Columbus landed, blankets full of smallpox, trails of tears across the desert, forced removal of all the community’s children and hundred of broken treaties, it is time to SHUT.IT.DOWN.
But sure, diminish midwives as cute, baby-obsessed little poufs, because heavens forbid we have a historically accurate narrative of women looking out for each other and stirring shit up and smashing racist social orders to the goddamn ground. That's threatening as fuck. Let's leave revolution aside and portray us take no shit warriors as just girls who LOOOVVVEEEE baby cuddles.
Speaking for my myself and my comrades, we would never cuddle a baby again if it would bring more justice to the world. There would be significantly less poop on our arms and we would be a single step closer to the more just, more equitable, less racist, more badass future we were hoping to usher in when we became midwives.
Living with Sunshine and Shadows
"You gotta walk that lonesome valley/You gotta walk it by yourself."
Long before time jerked me toward middle age with such haste it snatched my breath away, I looked forward to balmy evenings on our front porch. Sitting on weathered benches, my family and I faced the dirt road running past our house. Beyond the road where the heavens met a faraway hill, the setting sun fired the western sky with red and gold, intermingled with a veil of lavender-gray. We humans don't get all bright days; we must take the gray, too, and we did.
We gathered on that concrete porch where morning glories wound themselves around twine my grandfather had strung from the bottom banister to the upper porch. Light and shadow danced at our feet until the sun sank behind the hill and the morning glories went to sleep by closing their petals like pulling down a blind for the night. During that magical time between the last of daylight and the first of darkness, we often sang hymns, and sometimes the adults told stories. I listened and began to understand the art of narrative. Now, as a woman with a shorter future than past, I find the sight of a country road or morning glories climbing on a rusted fence can transport me back to childhood. The sounds of someone singing a hymn or telling a tall tale can once more place me on a weathered bench with the ghosts of loved ones who have been gone for a lifetime.
Despite my bruise-tender youth, one song affected me deeply. I still remember the words. I knew neither the songwriter nor the singer; it didn't matter. The lyrics had a message for all humans. We sang in unison, "You gotta walk that lonesome valley/You gotta walk it by yourself." Little did I know then that when I would approach the end of my own journey, those words would echo once more in my writing.
You see we humans are a tough lot. We live with the knowledge that we were born to die. That's a lot to have thrown at us, a lot to cope with, but we cope. We do it partly by avoiding the grim-gray subject of death. Instead of facing death in this country, we shove the subject back into a dim corner. After all, death is a heartbreaking, dreary business, and we don't do it well. Subsequently, most people in their final hours bid the world goodbye in a cold hospital environment where they are hooked up to IV's. The last sounds they hear are the beeps of technology.
On August 24, 2015, when I went to bed, I had a book and two dogs to keep me company. Lying in another bed in another place, Bill, my husband, was surrounded by kind hospice workers. In his room were Risa, our loving daughter, and her husband, Don, who like Bill was a former Marine. As such, he remained by Bill's side because that's what Marines do when one of their comrades are in trouble. Still, Bill was more alone than he had ever been. He was in a deep coma, a word from Greek koma, meaning a deep sleep. What he still knew, if anything, no one could say. As he lay there, totally unresponsive, with his eyes open, he stared into a place that forever remains a mystery to the entire human race.
When I turned out the bedside lamp on that Monday night, I was a married woman, and I offered up a silent prayer for my husband, as well as for our son and daughter. Being a weak, fumbling human, I asked for help, too. Dealing with death as a topic is one thing; dealing with death itself is quite another.
The following morning, I saw Pam, our daughter-in-law, approach the kitchen door. I was ready to leave, for we were going to see Bill at Hospice Hubbard House. When she walked into the kitchen, she hugged me. I knew my husband was gone. A hospice worker had called and told her that if I wanted to see Bill before he was transported to Marshall Medical School she would be sure he was still there.
I said, "No, he has already left." "Woody" Guthrie had it right. Bill had to walk that lonesome valley of death all alone.
My husband had said, "I just want this to be over. I want it to end." He was ready.
Years earlier, a philosophy professor stood in front of the classroom where he displayed his narrow knowledge and hid his wide ignorance as all professors must do. He said something that has stuck in my mind like a thumbtack in cork. He said we don't die until our mind tells us it's time. Bill knew it was time. I take some comfort in knowing that.
Remembering when I sang Guthrie's song in the mellow light of evening and remembering when Bill began his lonesome walk, I think time is cyclical. Like reading a worthwhile novel, we end at the beginning.