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Unterberg Poetry Center

Before the wedding I took Bea to visit my family in Maine, and we all went to church. She hadn’t been in decades, which is probably why she loved every detail of it: the crackling of new hymnals as the congregation turned to the opening song; the chorus of restless legs shifting against creaky, wooden pews; the way morning light filtered through the stained glass window depicting Mary Magdalene at the cross and fell in fragmented sapphire, garnet, and topaz glory upon the enthusiastically hunched shoulders of Miss Marlie, our octogenarian organist--but above all, the sermon. The passage that day was Genesis, when God announced to Sarah that she would bear Abraham’s son. As the pastor that day told it, Sarah was well into her 80s and long past menopause, and old Sarah’s incredulous belly laughter at God’s decree was so contagious that Bea laughed loud enough for the young but stern couple in front of us to turn in disapproval.

“Well, if Sarah could do it...” she whispered to me, the first of many times. She’d make the same joke several times a week, up until we were barely one year married and already visiting a doctor for fertility treatments. He gave us some new pill, Clomid he called it, and within three months Bea was pregnant.

Pregnancy suited Bea. She’d stand naked in front of the mirror and marvel at the glow of her skin and the flush in her cheeks. She wanted sex more often even than I did, but I wasn’t about to complain. We’d lie sideways on the bed, and from behind her I’d cup her breasts, exploring the new heft there, and I’d skim my fingers over her taut, round belly. She didn’t have a single bout of morning sickness. She complained only about the ache in her back from the baby’s growing weight, and her solution to that was to start a garden. “Why fight gravity?” she’d say to me, on her hands and knees in the soil, the front of her overalls draped over a belly the size of a young melon. “It’s better here, closer to the earth.” She’d tighten the bandana holding back her hair and sit up on her heels, wiping her brow. Sometimes she’d finger a hard, green tomato, or a tightly curled bean leaf. “Everything around me and in me is growing,” she’d say. After the first ultrasound, we started calling the unborn baby Xiao Dou, Little Bean. Even the labor, which we’d worried about given Bea’s age, happened quickly and without complication.

We named her Sarah, of course, but even after she was born, we sometimes called her Xiao Dou. There was no happier, fatter baby than that little girl. She grew so quickly that her body seemed barely able to contain its own urgent growth, her thighs firm like warm sausages ready to burst in my hands. Bea would pat the small but stubborn mound of fat that had appeared on my belly sometime during her pregnancy and laugh: “Well, I guess she gets it from you.”

Sarah was an obliging baby, always ready to sleep, eat, or cuddle. She hardly ever fussed. I’d only grudgingly agreed to have children, but if this was what fatherhood was, I didn’t mind. I loved Sarah: she was my child, my firstborn. But I loved her first and foremost because she made Bea happy.

The first eighteen months went by so effortlessly, we’d already started trying for a second. Bea thought she should get a book out before the next baby came, so we started taking Sarah to a babysitter, just one or two days a week, so Bea could have some uninterrupted hours of writing.

The morning it happened, my alarm clock didn’t go off. I usually dropped the baby off at the sitter’s on my way to my morning lecture, but I was running late and I asked Bea to take me to class first: “Bea honey, could you drive today?”

“Hmm?” She was at her desk, typing. I walked up to the side of her chair and forced her to look at me. “I’m ten minutes late for lecture. Drive me to class, and then Sarah to the sitter’s.”

“Right now?” Her eyes rolled sideways and angled for the paper even as I held both her cheeks in the palms of my hands. She continued to type without seeing what she was writing.

“Right now.”

“All right.”

Bea dropped me off, and I ran up the stairs to the lecture hall. The rest of the day passed uneventfully until I walked to my usual place in the parking lot and realized the car wasn’t there. I returned to the office and called the house, but it took a couple tries before Bea finally picked up.

“Hello?” The distraction in her voice irritated me.

“I’m stuck at the office. Can you pick me up?”

“Oh, right, sure.”

“I called a few times.”

“Did you? I’m sorry, I was working.”

I sighed. “I know, just come and pick me up.”

I waited outside the school building, growing angrier as the sweat pooled under my shirt and trickled down my sides and back. It was September in northern California, which meant the first heatwave of the year had just arrived. But when Bea was writing, she lived in her own climate. She’d withdraw to her study and close up for hours, a dormant plant in a self-imposed winter--only Sarah could draw her out from such cold storage. A gleeful chuckle from this the fattest of babies was a sunny ray just warm enough to coax Bea momentarily into bloom. I’d gotten used to how things had been during the pregnancy and nursing, to the domestic bliss I’d assumed was now our lives. But Bea was in the middle of a book now, and why would I be surprised that she’d forgotten me? I wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d forgotten Sarah.

By then Bea had pulled up to the curb. I glanced at the back seat and noticed Sarah there with relief. The sun glinted off the window, but I could make out her little head tipped to the side, deep in sleep.

“Good, I almost thought you’d forgotten to pick her up,” I said as I opened the door.
Even now I can see Bea’s face transitioning in slow-motion replay from incomprehension to confusion, and finally to horror. “Oh my God!” In one swift movement she’d gotten out of the car and opened the rear door to claw at Sarah’s seat belt.

“What’s wrong?”

“Baby, wake up. Xiao Dou, wake up.”

Bea’s hunched back was blocking my view of Sarah. “What’s wrong?” I was shouting by now, and I shoved Bea aside. Sarah was in her seat, unmoving. Her hair was damp and plastered to her head, as were her clothes. Even her perfect eyelashes--long, dark, and curled--were clumped from sweat. Her skin was red and mottled, and when I touched her burning face, I jumped as though scalded.

“My God!” I quickly unbuckled her and got her out of the car. I was about to lay her on the ground, but even the concrete was hot. I lifted her small, sweaty, unmoving body and felt helpless, looking for a cool place to lay her down.

“I forgot.” Bea trailed me hysterically as I set Sarah down on a bench in the shade of the building. “I forgot to drop her off.”

“What do you mean, you forgot?” I screamed.

“I forgot to drop her off at the sitter’s.” A wet noise gurgled from the back of her throat. “She’s been in the car the whole day.”

She cringed, and I realized that I’d raised my hand to hit her. I tried to calm down, to shift into crisis management mode. “Watch her. I’ll call 911.”

The ambulance came quickly, and we rushed her to the hospital. But Sarah was dead on arrival.

I don’t know how Bea could’ve forgotten her own child for even a moment, much less long enough to let Sarah die slowly in a hot car, her blood boiling to the point her organs stopped working. I can’t imagine how I could have. I blamed Bea, I blamed her writing, I blamed myself. Why didn’t I just drop Sarah off? Another five minutes late for lecture wouldn’t have mattered. But mostly I blamed Bea, and she didn’t disagree.

Nowadays you hear about people leaving their children in cars all the time: mothers, fathers, bankers, waiters--even retired grandmothers. They have a name for it: Forgotten Baby Syndrome. This is the current medical consensus: not negligence, oh no, but a natural function of how the mind works--tragic but natural. It’s more apt to occur, as it did in our case, during a break in routine. Tethered by the normal cues of the day, the person forgets what has crucially changed--a baby in the backseat where there normally isn’t one--and moves on with the day, catastrophically but understandably, they say, leaving the baby behind.

But back then nobody had heard of such a thing as Forgotten Baby Syndrome. At the funeral we simply said that Sarah had died in a car accident. There was a police inquiry, but Bea had a well-connected lawyer, and we managed to keep things quiet.

At home--after the funeral, the police interviews, the lawyer consultations, the casserole- and grocery-laden visits from family and friends--we were left alone together for the first time in weeks. I tried to forgive Bea; I tried to move on. I thought that if I forced myself to act like a supportive, forgiving husband, I’d begin to feel like one and even become one. I suggested she finish her book; I even once suggested trying for another baby. I joked: “Well, if Sarah could do it...” That was the first time that either of us had spoken our child’s name aloud since her funeral. And it was the last time I suggested having another baby.

Eventually I did forgive Bea, if only because the alternative was intolerable. We had both been miserable for so long and I was ready to be happy again, ready enough for both of us. Bea, however, took longer. I don’t know if she ever forgave herself. But her life moved on. She started writing again, and I thought we’d achieved something close to normalcy. But one night we went to a party at her editor’s to celebrate some new award Bea had won. Sometime between the tiramisu and the celebratory champagne, she slipped upstairs and found the 9mm gun Ray kept in a box under his bed.

When the gun went off, I barely heard it over the Benny Goodman record Ray’s wife had put on in the hopes of inciting people to dance. The vibraphone in “After You’ve Gone” had just chimed its entrance when I heard what sounded like a car backfiring. I glanced outside the windows first, but then the screaming started from the floor above. I rushed up the stairs, knowing with a certainty that something had happened to Bea. She was lying on the bed, the covers seeped in blood around her head. I knelt over her in a desperate search for the wound and tried to staunch the bleeding first with my hands, and then with a towel someone threw at me. The warmth of her blood spread through my pants as I sat waiting for the ambulance. Bea’s hair lay plastered across her face, and as I tried to push the sticky mass back, I likewise struggled against a clinging, panicky despair. Even as I did so, I realized I wasn’t terribly surprised to be cradling Bea’s bloody head in my lap. It seemed, in retrospect, only a matter of time. If some part of me had foreseen this, I thought, then I should’ve been able to have saved Bea and stopped this day before it ever happened. I could’ve--if I’d wanted to badly enough.

They rushed Bea into surgery, and I was left with Ray behind the swinging doors. A nurse saw me covered in blood and gave me scrubs to change into. As I balled the bloody mess into my hands, I thought of the ruin of blood we must’ve left on Ray’s bedspread and carpet. In the waiting room I took out my wallet to try and pay for the damage, but Ray stared at me, his face first full of surprise and, just as quickly, such overwhelming pity that I grew ashamed and stuffed my wallet back into my pocket. But he sat next to me and brought drinks and candy bars from the vending machine the entire night, and I couldn’t stay angry at the man simply for witnessing my life fall apart for the second time in a year.

It was explained to me multiple times, both at the hospital and during the long months that followed at the rehab clinic, what must’ve happened. After Bea picked up the gun, she placed the muzzle at her right temple and pulled the trigger. Her aim, though, was at an extreme angle, and the bullet went through the skull and upward, just missing the temporal lobe and carving a path through the outer edge of the frontal lobe before exiting the top of the head, leaving a clean exit wound and a cylindrical hole now devoid of brain matter, a devastating injury that she miraculously, they said, not only survived, but recovered from enough to regain most functionality.

Functionality. A strange metric by which to quantify a person’s life, but not without its use. Most days seemed like that: functional, perfunctory, not too bad. This was our miracle: narrowly missing actual tragedy by a millimeter and waking up the next day--and the next--with function more or less intact. I was supposed to be grateful, and at first I was. When Bea woke and began moving and talking, and when she was strong enough to come home, I was overjoyed. Her speech came back in its entirety, and she even wrote a little sometimes. Usually she was the same person: intelligent, funny, affectionate. But her memory was never the same. And she’d have angry outbursts, sometimes prompted by the confusion caused when her memory cut out. Her episodes were unpredictable, and I couldn’t leave her alone: daily tasks were full of incipient peril, from driving the car to handling a kitchen knife. These sensible restrictions too would send her into a rage, or simply leave her defeated. She’d take a nap and wake up wondering why she was lying on a bare mattress, not remembering that an hour ago she’d ripped the sheets from the bed and strewn them in an inexplicable fit of anger, bewildered and hurt by my irritation when for all she knew she’d just woken up.

Gardening was safe as long as the tools were blunt enough, and Bea would spend every morning this way, increasingly by herself. That helped. We also had a trained aid for as long as the insurance lasted. Bea was well enough eventually to write another book. She even went on tour, but that ended so badly that she came back home and never wrote again. We went through a string of hired help until your mother replied to an ad I’d placed in the paper and, well, you know the story from there.

Kristina Tom is an award-winning journalist and was previously chief book critic of The Straits Times in Singapore, where she also teaches undergraduate writing. She has published fiction, poetry, criticism and memoir in How2, Ceriph, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore and elsewhere. She has lived in Asia for most of the last decade, but is currently based out of New York.