Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
The Eastern Wall

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I am standing at my child's crib, trying to follow someone's instructions—was it in a magazine? Did a woman on the Metro tell me? Or was it my mother, who is 3,000 miles away, on the West Coast? I don't remember. I just remember that his screams are "behaviors." "Behaviors" are all babies have until they learn how to talk.

My baby seldom sleeps through the night. If I knew everything I was supposed to know, he would sleep. But I don't. I just know that his face is red, wet with tears and snot. He's standing up, holding the crib bars. He opens his mouth to wail and I think I see my own bloody heart in his throat.

I am supposed to pat him on the back, tell him this is sleeping time, and leave the room. But I think I must be forgetting something. Can this be right? It's hard to know what to do when you're so tired and your breasts hurt because you can't figure out how to stop nursing (though your mother thinks it's getting a bit silly).

You're supposed to leave the light off. You're supposed to let the baby sleep, or make him sleep. It's sleeping time. But my husband, who hasn't read the magazines at the pediatrician's office, or leafed through the books on the back shelf at Kramer's, steps around me. He picks up our son.

I say, "You're supposed to let him cry."

"He's hot," my husband says.

"Hot?"

My child's eyeballs look like globs of melting black chocolate. My husband's eyes must have looked like that when he was a baby wailing at night in the room where they all slept: parents, brothers, sisters. I picture my mother-in-law's small hand rocking the hammock. I hear her cooing, "Behob." Sleep, a word I know. But first she would have touched his head, checked for fever.

He hands him to me. "He need his mother."

My face turns warm. My eyes water. I swallow something that tastes like shame.

I don't remind him that three of his siblings died as babies. My mother-in-law relied on elders who relied on incense and prayer to cure everything from fever to diarrhea. No Tylenol. No doctor with a special nighttime number. No phone to call her.

 

I am sitting on the sofa nursing the baby. My husband dials the pediatrician's on-call number. She calls back. My husband apologizes for waking her. He says "Pardon? U-huh...U-huh...no, no, okay." Then he listens for a minute and says, "Thank you, Doctor," and hangs up.

"What do we do?" I ask.

"She say give him Tylenol. She say to keep him cool, but not cold, and bring him tomorrow."

My husband says we should call his mother, or better yet, he can go pick her up. She has more experience with babies than anyone we know.

I say, "No. Let's do what the doctor said."

I don't remind him that three of his siblings died as babies. My mother-in-law relied on elders who relied on incense and prayer to cure everything from fever to diarrhea. No Tylenol. No doctor with a special nighttime number. No phone to call her.

Primitive. I think it. But I don't say it.

My husband leads me back to bed and we lie with our son between us. We kiss his small fingers and dab his head with a washcloth dipped in a bowl of lukewarm water on the bedside table. My husband gets up and refills the bowl of water whenever it gets too cool. I can't get up to help. I'm nursing. My son will stay latched to my breast until morning.

~

Years later I will read in the Washington Post that we had done something dangerous. We could have smothered our baby. A study proves it. We didn't know. I will express alarm and relief.

My husband will say he's known of many babies who died, but none from being smothered while nursing. It's all nonsense. I will think, "Is it?"

~

My husband, who works for an Italian caterer, leaves early the next morning. I take the baby to the doctor by myself, in the stroller. We live in the city. Walking there takes less time than finding a place to park.

On the way, people smile. I look younger than I am. I'm sure some people think I am a child with a child. I feel, sometimes, like they're right.

I try to make as little eye contact as possible. My son is ill—with what I can't imagine. But I do imagine. Emaciation, purpling skin, bulging eyes, sacrificed limbs, horrible, disfiguring, unstoppable afflictions. They are, of course, due to a mistake I made—but innocently. If only I'd subscribed to that magazine I read at the doctor's office. But I hardly ever read anymore. And now, this has happened.

"This," as it turns out, is an ear infection.

In a couple of hours it will be time for his evening dose of Amoxicillin. I'm glad my husband wasn't here to see me struggle with the morning or afternoon doses. I am amazed that an eyedropper full of pink liquid can spatter so far, like a can of paint spun without its top.

 

I wobble my way to Peoples Drug. I'm told it will be a 20-minute wait. My son starts crying. I jiggle the stroller. A few people in line smile at me. They feel sorry for me, I can tell. His cries get louder. He was so quiet at the doctor's office. Other babies were crying, but not mine. The nurse who led me to the examination room said he was "such a brave, handsome little boy."

"Guapo," she said, probably assuming from his coloring that his father is Hispanic.

His screams are piercing.

No one in line is smiling anymore.

It's dinner time. I eat a bowl of cereal. My husband is still at work, but I pray, not too much later. I hope that he will pick up Chinese carryout on the way home. I'm hungry, feeling better because the baby is feeling better.

In a couple of hours it will be time for his evening dose of Amoxicillin. I'm glad my husband wasn't here to see me struggle with the morning or afternoon doses. I am amazed that an eyedropper full of pink liquid can spatter so far, like a can of paint spun without its top.

The first dose went everywhere but his mouth. I refilled the dropper and for some reason he took most of it. The second dose, in the afternoon, he knew. He was on to me. It wound up all over his chin and neck. But some did go in. I worried that I would overdose him if I refilled the dropper. What to do? I pulled out by breast and ran my nipple over his chin and into the creases of his neck until my nipple turned an entirely different pink. Then I nursed him.

I decide I will wait eighteen years to tell my husband about this. It will be funny by our twentieth anniversary. Then I decide I will never tell him.

~

My husband calls. He needs to stay at work a bit later than he'd hoped. He knows not to storm in and start venting about his day, no matter what he's been through. Sometimes he apologizes when he leaves in the morning. The first few times he did this, I asked, "For what?" Now I say, "Thanks."

It's almost eight o'clock, time for the evening dose. I fill the dropper. The buzzer rings. I wonder if my husband is so laden with Chinese food that he can't get to his keys. For some reason the thought of this makes me laugh. My husband, an Iranian Jew on his way home from his Italian catering job with an armload of Chinese food for his American wife, unable to find his keys in his pocket.

I set the eyedropper on the counter and run to the intercom.

"Yes?" I say.

I hear two voices — one of them a man's, but he's not my husband and he's not talking to me. He's saying, "Here ma'am, you push this button. Never mind. I'll hold it for you. You go ahead and talk."

The second voice is my mother-in-law's. She speaking Farsi, fast and high, like a cage of monkeys at mealtime. The man can't understand her. I can't understand her. I buzz her in. She says, "Sankoo" to the man.

I worry that my husband will be upset with me for screaming at his mother. But he smiles at me. I sense that he and his mother both see me as a minor obstacle, easy enough to work around.

 

He asks her if she'll need help with elevator. She will.

She is at the door.

Where is my husband?

I let her in. As we walk past the galley kitchen she sets her purse, a black triangular affair with a nasty metal snap, down on the counter next to the eyedropper. I am not pleased. This purse has sat on the ground, no doubt. Perhaps on the floor of a public bathroom. Now it is next to my son's medicine.

I smile and say things in English like, "I wish you could understand me," and "Why are you here?" and "Sayeed will be home soon, I hope." She says things to me at the same time. I want to weep. She is smiling at me with all her dentures.

My son, who I've left in his playpen, babbles. The medicine is already helping.

My mother-in-law strides past me on her tiny spindle legs. She speaks to my baby. He says things back to her. It may as well be Farsi.

And then she reaches into the playpen and picks him up.

My heart is racing like it would if she were a stranger. I tell her in English that he's sick. Please put him down. He's got an ear infection. I point to my ear. She's holding him face out, his body draped over her arm like a coat. Oddly, he doesn't seem to mind.

I mind.

She is too comfortable holding a child, too at ease with a child, my child—more at ease than I am. Fearless. I am all fear, short of breath. Where is my husband?

My mother-in-law points to my child's ear and asks me things. I can tell by her intonation that she has questions. Long, complicated questions. I point to his ear, the infected one.

"Eenay? Een?" she asks, which I understand. It means "this one?"

My husband has taught me a smattering of words, repeating them again and again until I can't help but learn them.

"Baleh," I say. Yes.

My mother-in-law props my child up in her arms—at least he's no longer like a raincoat—and blows into his ear.

He lets out a single shriek.

I scream, "No!"

My husband walks in the door and announces, "I bring Chinese food!"

I worry that my husband will be upset with me for screaming at his mother. But he smiles at me. I sense that he and his mother both see me as a minor obstacle, easy enough to work around.

My mother-in-law puts the baby down on the floor and is telling my husband something. I catch a note of seriousness in her voice. When she's done, my husband tells me what she's said, which is that we may be dealing with a case of the bad eye. Someone, she says, maybe family, maybe a stranger, must be jealous that we have a healthy baby – a boy no less. Either way, best to nip it in the bud. We can eat later, we being my husband and I. She won't touch our food. It's not Kosher.

~

My mother-in-law was betrothed at age six to a man 18 years her senior. The marriage was consummated when she was 12 or 13. She will describe that night if you ask her about it, tug at her son's arm and make him translate into English. She will tell you how she curled up in a ball and refused to speak to her husband for two days afterword. She will tell you she almost bled to death. She's a tiny woman. She was an even tinier girl.

My husband was her tenth birth. By the time she had him, she'd lost a two-year-old daughter and a three-month-old son. A year and half after my husband's birth, she lost a baby in his first week. She will tell you that these three deaths are her deepest regrets — along with having been poor and never having learned to read.

~

My mother-in-law goes to fetch her purse. She notices the dropper full of pink medicine and calls over to my husband, wondering if it is for the baby. I tell my husband yes, it's the baby's evening dose. My mother-in-law comes back, purse in one hand, dropper in the other. She sits down on the floor with our baby. My husband joins them. I watch from the sofa, and listen. They are all talking to each other. I can't understand any of them. I only know that they are absorbed in this problem they're trying to solve.

My mother-in-law gently pushes our baby onto his back (though not very gently). She sticks the dropper in his mouth. She pinches his nose. He sputters. I stop breathing, choking with him. A second later, he's forgotten his distress. My mother-in-law is laughing, making funny gurgling noises at him. He smiles, tries to get up to sitting again. She presses him back down to the floor and pulls him closer, like he's a floor mat. He seems content, calm. I notice that my body, too, has softened.

She opens her hand, letting the baby find his balance against her chest—and she spits (not real spit, just ptuh) into her hand onto the white clump. She holds her hand out to my husband. He pretends to spit on the white clump. She extends her hand toward me. I get up from the couch and pretend to spit too. My mother-in-law smiles and nods.

 

My mother-in-law opens her purse. Her gold bangles clink on her arm. The baby looks up at them like they are stars on a mobile, follows the gold shine with his eyes as she reaches into her purse and pulls out a worn-looking, plastic produce bag tied closed with a knot. She unties it and takes out a white clump of something that looks like chewed, vanilla toffee. I ask my husband what it is. He searches for the English word but can't find it. He thinks maybe there is no English word for it.

His mother begins rubbing the clump in long sweeps over our son's body. She reaches up into his shirt, yanks down his pants and addresses his fleshy little legs, his knees, the bottoms of his feet. She sticks her hand under the rim of his diaper. She turns him over and repeats all of the motions along his back. She picks him up, sits him in her lap and whizzes her hand in circles over his head. Her eyes are closed. She is speaking softly, quickly. The baby looks up, watches her bangles sparkling around and around. I look at my husband, ask with my eyes, "What is all this?"

"Praying," he whispers, with a slight shrug, like praying is ordinary, as ordinary as saying, "A teaspoon of salt," or "Sure, sometime tomorrow."

My mother-in-law has finished.

She opens her hand, letting the baby find his balance against her chest—and she spits (not real spit, just ptuh) into her hand onto the white clump. She holds her hand out to my husband. He pretends to spit on the white clump. She extends her hand toward me. I get up from the couch and pretend to spit too. My mother-in-law smiles and nods.

Now she plunks our baby back onto the floor like a bundle of laundry and says something to my husband. The two of them go to the kitchen. I wait a moment, then pick up my son and follow them. My mother-in-law is standing at the kitchen sink holding an egg. She is asking my husband questions, but she is looking at me.

My husband says, "This way is east, right?" and points to the refrigerator. He's sure.

"No, that's west," I say.

"Really?" he asks.

"I'm sure," I say.

He ponders my answer for a moment, realizes I'm right, and admits his mistake to his mother. She turns to me, smiles, and smashes the egg against the back wall of the sink, the Eastern wall.

"Sankoo," she says.

She knows I know my East from my West.

She leaves us in the kitchen, goes to the living room and busies herself repacking her purse.

The baby squirms in my arms, starts babbling, bats at the refrigerator.

"He's hungry," I say. "He's got his appetite back."

"All better now?" my husband coos, sidling up to us, rubbing his face against our baby's chest and eliciting a chain of giggles.

My mother-in-law calls out from the living room, words I partly understand, something about no more worries, or maybe it's no more fear.

"No more worries," my husband says. He looks into my face. "Right?"

I nod yes.

I don't say, "It's the Amoxicillin."

But I think it.


Karen Askarinam is a writer and mother living in Maryland. She is currently working on a novel set in the Jewish quarter of Shiraz on the eve of the Iranian revolution. “The Eastern Wall” is her first published story.


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