Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Signs Frank Missed

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1

I am watched. I have to hurry.

I have written these things down at least six times, twice for each son. Frank says I'm not allowed to say their names out loud anymore, so I carve them into my heart, etch them into my skull. The scratches on my thigh have healed. I have learned now that these things work against me.

The baby stirs in her sleep. She is so pretty, like a picture of a baby in a baby magazine. I dress her in pink and yellow. I keep her clean and fed. I smile. I don't think she has any idea.

How can I make you believe? I've given up on those closest to me. I kept telling them when it first happened: It's me. Me! I wouldn't say these things if they weren't true. My father-in-law, the English professor, said I was gripped by a phantasm, which was much closer to the truth than my later diagnosis.

I'm making it worse again. This isn't the way to tell the story. She is stirring from her nap. I'll have to put this away.

2

I remember this: Four-year-old Mason, my oldest, dripping in Mardi Gras beads, standing on my pillow imitating Elvis Presley. Clay, straddled on my legs and pulling at my belt loops with his sticky fingers saying, "Come on, horsey." And tucked against my body, my rounded back sheltering his: Sam. We were lounging on the bed. We'd had cheese sandwiches, bought new crayons and plastic pots of bubbles at the drug store earlier that afternoon. Mason, Clay, and Sam. Our last good day.

3

I slipped. Not eating. Not getting enough rest. Later, tests revealed that my thyroid was out of whack. But back then, I couldn't have even told you where my thyroid was located.

I should have had Frank get up more. Help more. He always would if I asked, but he never offered. My husband brought me flowers when what I needed was rest. I asked him to take the kids for just one day, one Saturday. They were home by 11:30 a.m. Three babies in five years; I got so tired.

I started locking all the doors, putting in videos, and going to sleep. In the middle of the floor, on top of coloring books and saltine crackers, I would lie down. Mason would rouse me when the tape was over. I gave him permission to change the tape himself. He wasn't allowed to touch the VCR before that. Before that, he wasn't allowed to watch more than one tape in a row.

When Sam was awake, he was nursing, nursing, nursing. Five months old. He caught a cold and couldn't nurse right, couldn't breathe right. Clay, just two, started throwing fits because I was taking too long with the baby. He'd roll on the ground in front of me and kick the couch over and over again. Mason got bored with the days of videos. Wanted to go to the park, McDonald's, anywhere. He cried, too, and shouted, "It's not fair." Like bowling pins, we knocked each other over. Then the arm came down and swept us away.

4

Where was Frank? I've asked him, but since he is deaf to me, he can neither hear nor understand my question. In my world, Frank was there. If I ever get back to my world, I will be more open with Frank, more frank. There. The old me. Humor. Desperation kills humor. But if you can glimpse who I was, then maybe you'll . . . Maybe.

Frank ignored the signs.

"Signs Frank Missed"

  • House: Torn apart, no clean laundry.
  • Dinner: None.
  • Kids: Dirty, diapers worn too long.
  • My face: Puffy from crying, like I was on a steroid. But I wasn't. I wasn't on anything then.
  • My voice: I couldn't recognize it so how could he?
  • My sadness: So big and hard to miss.

 

That night what I said to him was this: "Frank, I hear the humming of the refrigerator more clearly than I hear anyone's voice." I’ll give you his reply, but first:

"Points in His Defense"

  • Worked overtime (money tight since I stayed home with the boys).
  • Under pressure.
  • Got home late, after finishing a 12-hour shift—must have been tired.
  • Sad? Maybe.

 

Me: Refrigerator louder than human voices.

Him: Opens and closes freezer door three times and says, "The fridge is running fine."

It's not safe to have this out for so long.

5

I took her to the park today. Just pushed her in the stroller along the path that winds the play yard. I avoid looking at the yellow, ride-on duck with the peeling red saddle. It has the loosest spring, the biggest sway. Naturally, the boys loved it best. Now how would I know that about the spring? How would I know about that and a hundred other things?

I can't write today.

6

Our last night. Refrigerator LOUD. Words said by me: "I hate my life. Do you understand? I hate my life. I wish these kids would disappear."

Wish. Kids. Disappear. I said them, words that must have made a quantum leap, their velocity greater than the speed of light until time moved backward, until those words entered the realm of negative time.

Who would have thought that the distance from my mouth to God's ear could only be measured on the subatomic scale? Who would have thought?

In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.

7

Then I lie down on the bed and went to sleep. I didn't even wake to nurse.

8

Time can roll backwards. Like with the tide. The moon's pull—directed by the bony hand of God—stripped me of years. Six years. Three children. I used to scream, "FUCK YOU GOD. I HATE YOU." But nowadays, I'm trying to work with Him. Trying to get Him on my side.

9

Imagine the possibilities of moving through time at a rate different than one day per day? Scientists do. Stephen Hawking believes that when one time travels, a new quantum universe—in essence a parallel universe—is born: a universe where my children never existed. But the key thing is, the original universe still remains. Somewhere. So I either have to get back there or pray that I can create the same circumstances that brought my boys into the original universe in the first place.

10

I used to clip all the articles out that I could find on the subject of time travel and put them on the refrigerator so that Frank could see I'm not making this up.

"That’s impossible," he'd say.

"One hundred and fifty years ago, common sense told us that people would never fly," I'd argue.

But the practice of clipping articles, of arguing and quoting Stephen Hawking, ultimately fell under the category of "Things I Was Doing To Make Matters Worse."

11

I would never in a million years have hurt my children. I might have barked at them, put their jackets on roughly when hurrying to get them to the car, but I never ever hit them, never hurt them in any way. Sometimes at night I worry that disappearing hurts, that the fact of their vanishment might have caused them physical pain.

12

The first morning I woke up in a world without them, I—

I can't write about the first morning.

13

Have you ever had a dream that was so awful you cried out loud? Your grief transferred to your waking life and the sounds of your pain woke you up? Someone you love hates you. Someone you love is dead. Then the relief washes over you like a thousand river baptisms, like stains on your soul are erased and gaping wounds healed. Relief when you realize it's a dream. Blessed, sweet, cleansing relief.

I keep waiting.

14

About the first morning, I can say this: I knew something was wrong right away. I could see in the corner of the bedroom a white wicker chair that Frank and I had gotten rid of before the kids were ever born. It was rickety and peeling. Our cat had peed on it, and we couldn't get the smell out. Six years earlier, we had disposed of that chair, truly, in a dump along with our rusted barbecue grill and three boxes of moldy National Geographics. I couldn't understand how or why the chair could be there, then I saw clothes draped across the arm, among them, a pair of overalls. A pair I ruined painting the nursery. And there they were: paint-less.

Picture your life six years ago. Where you lived, your job, the color of your bath towels. Imagine waking up to it now. Imagine erasing everything that came after, even people. That's what happened.

15

Every day for the first three months, I tried to sleep as much as possible. I had so much hope that upon waking I'd find them: Mason, Clay, and Sam.

I thought that the key was in the details. If I knew so much about them, they could not be denied. I wrote down everything, what they liked, what they disliked, every place we had ever taken them, every book read, every song sung. "How could I know this?" I kept asking Frank. I combed the house for evidence.

"Physical Evidence Found"

  • Teeth marks: Wooden porch railing, arm of rocking chair. Clay had been a ferocious teether.
  • Hole: In the yard, Mason must have dug it with his blue plastic shovel. You could see the square outline where his shovel carved the earth.
  • Our bed: Sometimes I could still smell Sam.

 

I can't write this anymore.

16

I started going to church regularly. I stopped talking about the boys. I'll show Him, I decided.

17

It came to me that maybe I was getting a fresh start. Maybe they just needed to be born again. I tried to turn over a new leaf to earn points with Frank and the rest of my family. I started gardening again and didn't get all shaky when I had to be around other people's children. I didn't disagree when Frank continued to maintain that we'd only been married two years and had yet to have any children. I tried to stop being so angry with him. This Frank hadn't done anything, had he?

Kissing him was physically painful, not like before when his smell reminded me of gingerbread and kissing him was like coming home. I did kiss him though, more and more as the months wore on.

Frank started to refer to the whole matter as an "episode."

18

You have never seen a happier woman than me when I found out that I was pregnant again.

19

"It’s a girl."

I gave birth to the loudest, longest "No" you’ve ever heard. I waited for the earth to quake, the butterfly to pump its wings, the tsunami to roll across Iowa. Nothing. "Fuck you, God," I yelled in front of the doctor and the two blonde nurses.

"It must be the medication," one of the nurses said to Frank.

"I hope it's not another episode," said Frank.

20

What's not to love? I keep asking myself. She is so pretty, her mouth like a small pink shell. I wonder if some other woman is waiting for this baby, utterly bewildered by my son Mason in her arms?

21

This universe is full of all kinds of things you cannot understand. You know that from looking up at the stars and wondering what happens to you when you die. But there are even greater mysteries you can't imagine. There are scarier things than dying. I prefer to believe that God made a mistake that He will soon rectify. Otherwise we cannot be on speaking terms.

22

Mason, Clay, and Sam.


Kate Anger’s fiction and nonfiction has appeared in journals such as Faultline, Inlandia, and Mosaic. A playwright with more than a dozen produced works, she teaches playwriting at the University of California, Riverside. Currently Kate is at work on her first novel, The Shinnery, set in West Texas in the 1890s about a young girl, an unplanned pregnancy, and a killing.


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Please write more! This is enthralling. I must know what happens.
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