The baby was crying. The baby was always crying.
I don’t think she was ever quiet for more than a couple of minutes at a time, and then it was only because she needed to shut up to vomit or burp. My ears pricked up in those moments and the hair on the back of my neck stood up straight. I didn’t even know that happened in real life.
My heart jumped and my stomach did a somersault, and in that second, I thought maybe I was free. Maybe I’d gone back to my old life, the life I’d taken for granted before she was here. Before him, too. Well, maybe not before him. Just before the him that took my life, encroached on my space and my sanity and ripped my heart from my chest.
I lifted my bag-of-bricks body out of bed, struggling to hold my head up, much like the baby. My body felt like it weighed a thousand pounds and it was sore all the time. Every single part of it hurt constantly. My pinky toe ached. The muscles in my calves cramped up all the time, sending shooting pains down into my feet, making them involuntarily curl up. In those moments I would keel over, grab my foot in my hand and wail along with her as she demanded my attention.
I couldn’t even walk over there to help you if I wanted to!
I sat on the edge of the bed as her shrieks echoed through the tiny apartment. I felt like I really wasn’t going to be able to stand up. I thought about shoving earplugs deep into my eardrums, shutting the door, burying my head in pillows and blankets, and going back to sleep. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d tried that, but it didn’t matter how long I ignored her—she would just keep shrieking until one of the neighbours knocked on my door., sometimes on the verge of tears, begging me to shut her up.
If only I could. Can you try? Please, just take her.
I dragged my feet across the battered hardwood floors that at one time I’d maintained, to the tiny bedroom I’d decorated like crazy when I was pregnant. I did everything myself, as usual. I’d picked out the light grey paint—no one really thinks yellow is gender-neutral, anyway, and it tries too hard to be happy— and the birch crib and matching changing table.
That’s about all I’d been able to fit in the tiny room that was actually supposed to be a walk-in closet. When he and I lived together, it was packed with his instruments and music supplies. Now, the corner where his Strat lived is where I keep the diaper genie.
Sounds about right.
I started shushing her as I picked her up, but she only screamed louder.
Franny, please. Please…please stop.
I thought for a very brief moment of grabbing a knife and stabbing it deep into my ears, puncturing my ear drums. I was so desperate for quiet that I considered deafening myself for life if it meant I’d have one moment of peace. Would the pain be worth it?
I took Franny to the chair in the living room I used for breastfeeding. It had a good arm for me to prop my own on, resting her head in the crook of it so I didn’t get tired holding her. I tried to get her to latch on, but she wouldn’t. Of course. I opened her diaper while she wailed her tiny clenched fists around, her beet red face crumpled into that of a cartoonish old man.
You think you’re angry? You have no idea what angry is.
I pulled open her diaper and peeked in. Looked clean. Smelled clean. She refused to eat. So, what the fuck is the problem?
What the fuck is the problem!
I thought of my mom, as I often did in moments like these. I tried to imagine what she would do, how she would make herself stay calm. If she was here, she would have taken Franny from me, grabbed her stroller, bundled her up and taken her for a walk. She wouldn’t have said a word, she would have just taken her away and left me in the blessed silence. No matter what time it was, no matter how freezing outside. She would have gotten her out of here and let me sleep. She would not have brought her back until she’d stopped crying, no matter how long it took.
I thought that he would be that person for me, the helper that I know my mom would have been. But the first time I asked him for help was the first step he took out the door.
Please, please! I would get on my knees and beg you, but I physically can’t. This is me literally begging you to take her. Take her anywhere that’s not here.
He’d finally agreed, but came back 45 minutes later, fuming.
She cried the whole time.
Well, what did you try? Where did you take her? Fine, just give her to me. Wait, where are you going? You can’t leave me alone with her again!
He had some very important band meeting to get to, he’d just remembered. How could he forget?
He didn’t come back for two days.
The next time he left he was gone for three. Then a week. Then he was just gone. Franny was two months old. She wouldn’t remember her father.
I envied her for that.
I thought often about my mom and how she would be so much better at this than I am. She was the same age as me when she had my older brother, who she always said was the most colicky baby she’d ever met. I’m sure she’d say he’s been replaced if she’d met Franny though. She had been so excited to meet her.
She was the first person I told when I got pregnant. I’d gotten pregnant before by accident and had always miscarried. A blessing in disguise, I guess. But with Franny, I didn’t miscarry. And I thought maybe that was a sign for something. Now I wasn’t so sure.
My mom had gotten sick so fast. A week after I told her about Franny she was diagnosed. And then she didn’t tell me until months later, when she was basically already gone. One day she was helping me pick out furniture, telling me about her fool-proof swaddle technique, and the next she wasn’t. At first, I’d been angry.
Why did she keep this from me? Isn’t this shock so much worse?
I couldn’t believe she wasn’t going to be holding my hand while I gave birth, cheering me on in that moment just like she did every other moment of my life. Every time I imagined myself going into labour, it was her by my side, helping me breathe, bringing me ice chips, wiping the sweat from my forehead. It wasn’t him. It was always her.
The day she told me she was sick was the same day that he was escorted home by the cops in the middle of the night. I had been awake all night, sobbing so much that I couldn’t breathe, and my eyes were nearly swollen shut. I was in the final stage of my pregnancy, and all I could think about was how she wasn’t going to meet her grandchild.
My baby would have to grow up without a grandma, and how was I going to do this without her?
I was sitting on the edge of the bathtub, about to get in to try and relax. Every muscle in my body had been tensed since those words left my mom’s mouth, and I needed to untie the knots. It didn’t help that my distress was causing Franny to spin in circles inside of me. She kicked and punched and flipped, making it absolutely impossible to think about anything else. Each kick to my ribs a reminder of my mom, and how my time with her was limited. The anxiety of feeling up against the clock was overwhelming.
Maybe she’ll be born soon, and Mom will still be here. Maybe she will at least get to hold her once.
But, that’s not how it happened. She was late, of course. By almost two weeks. She was born one week to the day after my Mom died.
As I sat on the edge of the tub, my head foggy from lack of sleep, I held one hand on my giant belly, as the kicking slowed with my heart beat. I held the other hand in the warm water and trailed it around. It was quiet, and I wasn’t sure what time it was, but I knew it was the middle of the night because it had been dark for a very long time.
My head was starting to clear enough for me to actually think about something else, finally. My stomach rumbled, and my mind jumped to a mental map of the fridge and what food I could make, when the image was shattered by a rough bang on the door. Startled, I jumped up from the tub and smacked my arm on the sink.
Fuck! Ow, what the fuck…
Rubbing my arm, I waddled to the door. Another bang as I reached for the lock with my throbbing arm. I opened it to two policemen on either side of him, whose head was rolling around, his knees slack. I stared at the three men in front of me.
Sorry to wake you, but does this man live here?
Uh, yes, yeah, he does. What happened?
We found him wandering in the streets alone and he was obviously very intoxicated, so we wanted to make sure he got home safe before he hurt himself or anyone else.
Jesus, I’m sorry. I had no idea he would be getting this drunk. He doesn’t usually.
A lie. One of many I made for him.
It’s not your fault, ma’am. Will you be okay getting him to bed?
A glance to my belly.
Yeah, I can manage. Thanks for bringing him home.
The officers passed him to me and left, hesitating for a moment as I looped his arm around my neck and tried to support his weight. I closed the door, locked it and shuffled him along towards the bedroom.
Just please lift yourself a little bit.
He paused at the bathroom door, looked at me, looked at the ground and burped.
Oh no, please don’t puke. At least make it to the bathroom.
I started pushing him from behind towards the bathroom door, where my bath was waiting for me, getting cold. I shoved him as hard as I could, my socked feet sliding on the hardwood.
Go, get in there!
I finally managed to shove him into the bathroom and shut the door just seconds before the sound of him retching filled the apartment. I sighed and sat on the couch, pulling blankets and pillows from around the room for a make-shift bed.
When I got up in the morning, stiff from the old couch that was way too small for me and my belly, I waddled to the bathroom. I lifted the toilet seat to find it splattered with puke and wiped it off before sitting down. I sighed, rubbed my eyes and stared at the bathtub full of water. I decided in that moment not to tell him about my mom.
When she’d told me, I at first thought maybe it was a weird joke, even though that was not her sense of humour at all. We were standing in the Home Depot, looking at paint chips. I was holding a sheet of different shades of grey. My mother pointed to the top one, the lightest one.
I like that one. It would be very easy to add pink or blue to, once you know.
Yeah, grey seems kind of bland though, no?
Oh, no I don’t think so, honey. I think it’s a lovely neutral. Much better than yellow for a baby’s nursery.
Yeah, I’ve never really liked yellow.
I know, that’s because I painted your nursery yellow.
She looked at me for a few moments. I could feel her gaze on my cheek as I looked through more greys.
I also have some of your old baby things I’d like you to have, saves you the hassle of buying them, though they are a bit old now. But I’ll make sure to get them to you before I’m gone.
Gone, gone. I don’t think I have much time, I’m afraid. It seems the cancer has progressed quite aggressively.
My ears felt like I was underwater. I looked at her, but my vision was going white around the edges. My morning sickness was long gone, but I felt the familiar rise of nausea in my belly. It felt like the baby was about to come up along with the contents of my stomach.
The only word I could muster.
Don’t worry, dear. I’ll make sure to get you those boxes in plenty of time. I can even help you set up and decorate, if you’d like.
I stared at her, searching her face for signs of sickness that I must have overlooked as she went back to browsing paint chips. I was immediately furious at myself for not noticing, and for not spending every second of every day with her. I wasted so much time at home, trying to make someone love me who never would, when I could have been with her.
My eyes filled with tears; I was completely blinded. I opened my mouth to say something else, but instead I threw up all over the floor of the Home Depot. I stood up and looked at my mother who had nothing but concern for me in her shining brown eyes.
But you’re not even fifty.
Okay, baby girl. Come on.
I tried bouncing her up and down, swinging her from side to side. Laying her on her back, laying her on her front. Sitting her down facing me, sitting her down away from me. Cartoons on the TV, music on the stereo. A car ride, a walk down the street. Nothing made her stop. I’d taken her to the doctor several times.
There has to be something wrong with her. She must be in pain or something.
No, just colicky.
Well what do I do?
Nothing. Just keep doing what you’re doing. Something will work, some babies are just like this.
It was time for her checkup again, so maybe they would take me seriously this time when I said she never stops. I packed her up. I bundled her into her little snow suit, covering her tiny hands and feet with felt socks and mittens. She kicked her socks off twice, so I taped them on. I put the matching toque over her bald head and scrunched the hood up around her face. Having a newborn baby in January was exactly as bad as everyone said it would be. Leaving the house was a chore to say the least, and one that came with little reward, so I rarely did. It was just too much work, and I knew there was nothing for me out there, anyway.
In the doctors’ office, Franny was quiet. Go figure. She’d cried the whole way here, and then fell asleep as soon as we got into the stuffy office. Women were cooing over her, telling me how sweet she was, asking me questions I had to pretend to want to answer, even though I barely had enough energy to keep my eyes open.
Yes, she is, thank you.
Yes, she’s still very fresh.
She’s a little colicky.
Yes, I guess you’re right, all babies can be.
Franny’s silence was lulling me into a sense of security, and even though I was very much in public, I was fighting the most intense urge to lay down I’d ever experienced. I wanted to put my head on the lap of the lady sitting next to me, curl into the fetal position, and sleep forever. I snapped back to reality when I heard my name called and was shown into the room.
The doctor weighed her, looked in her ears and all the rest. I sat there, barely able to keep my eyes open.
Well, everything looks great, she’s exactly where she should be at this stage.
Except she doesn’t stop crying.
He looked at her, then back up at me, challenging this statement.
She’s asleep now.
Yes, I see.
But she never sleeps. Ever.
When was the last time she slept?
I don’t remember.
When was the last time you slept?
I don’t remember.
Well, that’s pretty typical for new mothers. It gets easier, I promise.
What if it doesn’t?
Franny stayed silent the whole way home. She slept. Finally, she slept. I felt giddy with the fantasy of sleep that could finally come true. I carried her into the apartment very carefully, trying not to jostle her too much and wake her up. I put her down in her crib and she stretched, making a small noise, but kept sleeping. I tiptoed out and into my room, dropping all my weight onto the bed. Thank god.
I drifted off into a strange dream state, where I knew I wasn’t awake, but I also didn’t feel like I was sleeping. I was in my mom’s house—where I spent most of my childhood years. The one I remembered, anyway. I was walking through the house, following the sound of my mom singing along to Hank Williams. She was in the kitchen, cooking something. I asked her what she was cooking. She said it was baby food.
Well, for Franny, dear.
Who is Franny?
She laughed, the girlish giggle that she’d had as long as I can remember.
Who is Franny?
I started feeling panic rising as my mother continued laughing and not answering me. She just started blending carrots, laughing. I reached out to touch her, ask why she was laughing, and the moment my finger touched her shoulder, I woke with a start.
A noise from the other room. My eyes snapped open. No.Another noise, an unmistakable cry. Tears filled my eyes. Please no.Shriek, gurgle, shriek. Before I knew what I was doing, I flew into the nursery, and shoved my face into the crib.
What the fuck do you want from me? What do you want?!
I was sobbing, the tears had stopped, and my eyes were dry, but heaving sobs were shaking my weak body. I closed my eyes.
I’m sorry, Mom. I’m sorry I can’t do this. I know you did it, but I can’t.
I gripped the crib and sunk to the ground, my bloated, tired body giving out beneath me, and I crumpled to the floor. I banged my fists on the ground, and Franny screeched louder. I screamed at her. I didn’t even know what words were coming out, but they were flying out like knives. I squeezed my eyes shut and for once was able to drown out the sound of her cries. I heard nothing. I felt nothing. The grey walls felt for once not like they were closing in, but like they were setting me free.
When I opened my eyes, I was still on the ground and there was a knock at the door. I had no idea how long I’d been laying there. I felt like I was still in a dream, unable to tell what was real and what I was imagining. Franny had stopped crying. Either that, or I really had gone deaf—which told me it must be a dream. But the feeling that I’d been hit by a truck had returned, which made me think maybe it was real. My head throbbed, a pain shooting through it, and I knew I was awake.
The knock was louder the second time and I pulled myself up, looking into the crib. She was awake, but not crying. I didn’t think I had ever seen her awake without her face scrunched up in a shriek. Her eyes were wide and glassy. They shone exactly like my mother’s. She shared more than a name with her, I realized.
Beautiful girl. I’m so sorry.
The third knock came with a voice asking to be let in. I turned away from the crib and went over to the front door, looking through the peephole. A middle-aged woman in a grey pantsuit stared right back at me.
Hi there, can you please let me in? I’m here to check on you and your baby.
Why, who are you?
I’m just here to help, I promise.Can I come in please?
Hesitantly, I opened the door. She let herself right in, taking off her shoes at the door. Her stockinged feet were surprisingly small, and she was a very petite woman. The way she had her hair done up in a professional, but slightly unruly bun with grey tendrils poking out at odd angles reminded me of my mother. I looked at her again. Had she really come to help? If so, who was this woman?
She told me the neighbours were concerned about me and the baby. They hear me yell at her.
Do they hear her yell at me?
They do, she says. And they think I might be hurting her. They know I’m young, they know the father left us. They know.
I’m not hurting my baby.
I wonder if she will take her away. I wonder if I will even try to stop her. I wonder if I can go back to the way things were before she was born, before I met him. She looked at me concerningly, but not condescendingly. She was trying to help.
I would just like to check on her, if you don’t mind and then ask you a few questions.
I looked at her and nodded, saying nothing, leading her to Franny’s room. I suddenly became aware of what a mess the apartment was. I hadn’t had a visitor for longer than I could even remember. There was laundry in piles all over, the garbage was overflowing, and I suddenly smelled something that could only be described as rancid. As the strange woman looked in on Franny, I looked around at my life. There were dishes piled in the sink from whenever I last made food, which I couldn’t even remember.
My stomach rumbled, reminding me again. I turned to the mirror in the hall. My hair was a disaster, and I looked physically dirty. I lifted my arm, sniffed, and gasped, trying to think of the last time I showered. When did I have time? Any spare second that Franny wasn’t screeching I immediately tried to sleep.
The lady came out of Franny’s room as I stood in my hallway, paralyzed with embarrassment.
She looks like she’s doing well at the moment. How are you?
I told her I don’t sleep. I told her Franny is never quiet for long enough for me to get sleep, trying to explain why I looked the way I did.
Do you have help?
The lady will come back, she said. For regular visits until she is confident I’m not hurting Franny. Sometimes I wish I could hurt her. I didn’t tell her that because I know it’s awful and completely fucked up, but I really think it sometimes. I think a lot of bad things sometimes. I truly scare myself with the bad things I think of. When I would think of those things I’d talk to my mom. I would ask her what to do, and even though she couldn’t answer, it made me feel a little better. I knew if she could answer me, she would.
When will your next visit be?
I can’t tell you.
What if I’m not home?
I’ll try again.
How many times?
As many as necessary.
For how long?
As long as necessary.
That could be forever.