Text copyright © 2013 Juli Townsend
All Rights Reserved
Cover Art – Christa Markly
To all the wonderful parents who taught me so much when I cared for them as a midwife, but also to my own parents who loved me so well;
Len and Merna Rule.
It takes a village to write a book; at least I think it does. So many have helped me create my dream, beginning with my very first writing group who gave me honest feedback, supported my efforts, and became my friends: Maria Ambach, Gloria Brand, Patti Posner Daboosh and Suzanne Lunsford.
The skills, expertise, and advice of the author Prudy Taylor Board, taught me invaluable lessons and encouraged me to keep going.
Since those early days, there have been many others, who have advised, critiqued, and supported me throughout this process; Suzanne Egerton, Hilda deFilice, Mavis Henderson, the members of the Authonomy Women’s Fiction Critique Group, especially Ann Warner, and finally, my editor, Pam Berehulke.
However, above all, it was the faith and belief in me that I received from my sister Helen Kennedy, and my husband Tony Townsend, that kept me afloat through this long process.
Heartfelt thanks to you all.
Every birth is special, no matter how or where it happens.
This novel is set in Australia where the word “midwife” has a broader meaning than it does in other countries. For example, when a mother labors in an American hospital, she will most likely be cared for by a team of obstetric nurses, obstetricians, and pediatricians. In Australia, midwives will be the caregivers during labor, and often, they will continue to care for the mother and her baby both during and after she gives birth. In both countries, the option of a home birth attended by a midwife is available, although not widely practiced.
Absent Children is a fictional story of one couple’s experiences with birth. It does not recommend any particular birthing practice, nor does it seek to judge any choices a mother may make when she gives birth to her baby. The characters are the products of my imagination, but the events depicted are drawn from my experiences as a midwife.
I’ve thought about suicide a lot lately. I’ve never taken it to the next step, never done anything about it, but I’ve spent hours pondering the hows. I think I’d like to leap from a tall building.
The hospital where I work is undergoing renovations and the eleventh floor is closed while the work is in progress. A week ago, during my dinner break, I rode the elevator up there to see the changes. The workmen were finished for the day, leaving the entire ward eerily deserted and dark. I turned on the lights, illuminating the ladders and drop sheets scattered throughout the private section. Making my way into one of the empty single rooms, I inspected the bathroom and then walked out the door leading to the balcony. The cool air felt refreshing as I stepped to the concrete half wall.
Peering over the edge, the thought of jumping seized me. I was seduced by the idea of those few seconds of flying, the utter freedom of moving through the air without any support.
Ten minutes later, remembering my patients in the Coronary Care Unit were due for their six o’clock medications, I pulled myself away and returned to work.
Since then, I often imagine myself balanced there, my feet under the metal railing that runs across the top of that concrete wall. I stare into the infinity of a pale blue sky. Then, like an Olympic diver, I step up onto the railing, stretch my arms over my head, bend my knees, and push off into the air.
As I fall, my body is straight, taut, and my arms spread like wings. Sometimes I imagine gliding over the road and above the homes on the other side, enjoying the patchwork view of the backyards as I gradually draw closer to the ground. Other times, I waft down, first to the right, then the left, like a leaf fluttering from a tree.
I read a book once about a guy who climbed to the rooftop of a tall building with the intention of jumping, but someone else beat him to it. He heard the other man scream, “Noooo,” the cry growing fainter as the seconds passed. Then a thump followed by silence.
That’s disturbing. There’s no changing your mind once you take a leap like that.
Today I have housework to do before I start work at the hospital at two this afternoon. Our bedroom is small so it’s difficult to mess it up, but my husband, Luke, manages to spread his paperwork and books everywhere. I stack the papers into a neat pile on the floor near his side of the bed.
This is my life, housework before work, or if I work a morning shift, housework after work.
Luke’s a teacher and when he returns home today, I’ll be working at the hospital until ten. He’ll cook himself a bite to eat and then sit in front of the television. It doesn’t seem fair. So much doesn’t seem fair these days.
I make the bed, pull the sheet tight, smooth every wrinkle, and brush it clean. I straighten the top sheet, fold it over neatly, and tuck it in with hospital-mitered corners. I fluff the duvet and spread it evenly on the bed, admiring it as I do so. My sister, Emily, gave the cover to us for a wedding present and it’s one of my favorite things. It has a striking Asian design in purple and gray with gold motifs.
I’ve also thought of offing myself with sleeping pills. They’d work if they simply put me to sleep, but knowing me, I’d get violently ill and throw up all over the place. I wouldn’t want to leave vomit for others to clean up. That’s another problem with jumping.
I could gas myself in the car, but I’m sure that would make me ill as well.
Drowning is supposed to be a pleasant death, but I have no idea how I would possibly keep myself underwater. I’m a great swimmer. I suppose I could swim far out in the sea, on and on until I became tired, but the sea is cold at this time of year and I don’t like the cold.
I bundle up our dirty clothes and head toward the laundry at the back of the apartment. I peek in the nursery as I pass, but there’s no baby there. I try not to go in there these days.
Dumping the clothes on the counter next to the washer, I sort the darks from the lights. I throw the lights in the hamper and examine each dark before tossing it in the machine. I have to be sure there are no stains needing a pre-wash, the socks must be inside out, and all the pockets checked. Luke can’t seem to grasp the need to empty his pockets before a wash.
I’m often angry with him lately, and yet, it should be the other way around. He should be angry with me. I’m the one who failed, who messed up our life so totally that it can never be right again.
I shut the washer door, measure the laundry liquid, and press On. I like my front loader washing machine and my duvet cover, but nothing else pleases me these days.
My beagle, Claude, comes to the door and looks up at me with his doleful brown eyes, clearly saying, Time for a walk?
He communicates with me by thought.
I first noticed it when he was about six months old. I’d be thinking about something unrelated to him when this voice would pop into my head with an opinion that wasn’t mine. I was frightened I was becoming schizophrenic. Each time it happened, I’d notice Claude staring at me. I figured he was also concerned about me going nuts. It took me three months to finally accept that perhaps he was transmitting thoughts to me even though I’d been hearing the same voice saying things like, I need to go outside for a pee, or Isn’t it time for my dinner?
Claude’s six now. I’m still not convinced of my sanity, but I don’t worry about it anymore.
I press the washer’s Fabric button until it lights up Cottons and the green digital numerals display above the Start button. When I press Start, the machine quietly whirs into action.
Looking at Claude, I shake my head. You know I have to do the breakfast dishes before our walk.
You take too long.
As he stares at me, I feel a twinge of guilt. I left him off my things-I-love list, so I amend it: my duvet cover, my front loader, and Claude.
He scratches himself behind his left ear and then moves out of my way to let me pass as I head into the kitchen.
He follows me, his toenails tapping on the wooden floor. You have to let go of this need to be perfect. A walk would do you more good than clean dishes.
I frown at him. Why do you always interrupt me when I’m wallowing in self-pity?
Because I love you. He sits and watches me fill the sink with soapy water.
Tears sting my eyes. I stare out the window at the small grassy patch between our apartment and the next. He’s right; I do like to do things well. Why couldn’t I give birth well? Something women have done since time began. I read all the right books, went to the classes, meditated, and exercised. I was determined to have a natural birth.
I stayed home until the contractions were strong, regular, and close together, and what happened? I went to the hospital and the doctor told me I was still in early labor. He suggested an epidural, but I chose an analgesic injection, thinking it the lesser of the two evils. So much for a drug-free birth. After the injection, I threw up before falling into a deep sleep that left me feeling out of control when each contraction startled me awake. Everything snowballed from that point.
Please don’t cry, Jess.
I finish the few breakfast dishes, dry my hands, fold the towel, and squat next to Claude, caressing his silky ears. What would I do without you?
Straightening, I pull a tissue from my pocket, wipe my eyes, and walk toward the front door. I grab the leash from the hook on the wall, glancing at the calendar hanging beside it. I’m not working this coming weekend and two football tickets are pinned into the box marking Sunday. I like going to the football games. At least there’s no housework to do there.
“C’mon, let’s go for a walk,” I say, but Claude’s at the door before me, his tail wagging so hard his whole backside sways from side to side. I open the door and he darts outside, his nose dropping to the ground in typical beagle fashion as he delights in the smells of a new dog day.
The sun feels warm and pleasant on my face. Plucking a leaf from the gum tree that graces the grassy area in front of our apartment, I scrunch it between my fingers, hold it to my nose, and inhale deeply. The powerful scent of eucalyptus brightens my spirits.
But only for a moment.
I wake up, look at the clock, and see it’s eight. No problem. It’s Sunday and even Jess doesn’t have to work. She only gets one weekend a month off, so those days are extra special. We’re going to see the Geelong Cats play the Port Adelaide team. The Cats are my football team; always have been.
Jess sleeps beside me. She’s beautiful. My hand aches to caress her. It amazes me that I won this prize. I married the perfect woman.
I put on my trousers and sneak out of the bedroom. She’d be shitty if I woke her. She’s always cranky lately.
Claude stirs in his bed by the heater as I pass the living room on my way to the kitchen. I flick the switch on the kettle before heading back to give him a back rub and turn on the heater.
“Hey, buddy, how’re you doing?”
His tail thumps. Then he stretches, rises, and follows me outside. We have a routine. I fetch the paper from the lawn, he relieves himself, and I shiver at the door while waiting for him.
Back inside, I pour my coffee, glancing at Jess’s list on the counter.
Marg’s my mum. I forget to call her for weeks, but Jess is good at remembering things like that.
Call Kylie – Set up a lunch date.
Good. She lived with Kylie before we married. They’d planned to go on safari together. Then Jess intended to work in England for a year. The pregnancy messed up those plans, but I was happy about it. Right from the start, I knew Jess was the one for me.
Claude’s asleep again when I sit by the heater with my coffee and newspaper. I read the forecast: windy this afternoon. That should make for an interesting game. Wind can affect the scoring and Port have played good defensive games this season.
Making myself comfortable, I flip the paper over and lose myself in the sports section.
An hour later, I hear Jess turn on the shower. I walk into the bathroom, strip down, slide the shower door open, and step in to join her.
“How’re you feeling, sweetheart?” I slip my arms around her glistening waist and pull her close, pressing hard against her cute bottom.
Her body tenses and she twists away from me.
“I’m trying to shower here.” She scowls.
“Sorry.” My arms drop to my side, my hands weighing me down like lead.
She pushes past me. “Let me get out.”
Alone in the shower, I let the water wash over my face.
We never have sex anymore. I want her to be happy again. I try to do the right things—bring her flowers, wash the dishes—but nothing works. She barely talks to me.
We listen to the radio on the drive to the game. It softens the silence between us. The Waifs are thumping out “Bridal Train” as if in competition with the rain pelting down on the car. The windshield wipers swish frantically, sweeping the water from side to side. Jess stares at them as if mesmerized. We used to sing along with the radio whenever we drove anywhere.
The Beatles come up next, singing “Get Back.” The rain stops. Jess finds her cell phone in her bag and calls my mum.
“Hi, Marg, how are you?” She sounds like the Jess I married. She talks to other people like that, but never to me anymore.
She listens, interjecting now and then.
My mum knows how to talk.
Eventually Jess speaks again.
“I’m off this weekend. We’re on our way to the football match.”
I can’t make out what Mum is saying.
“Well, we’ll look out for him,” Jess says. “I thought he might be going.”
Dad must be going. Great. Jess will be better company with him there. She says she comes to the games with me because she likes the atmosphere. She doesn’t follow any team or care who wins.
“How long have you been putting up with that?” she says.
What are they talking about? Mum yaps on and on.
“Marg, I’m shocked. You should have it checked out straight away.”
Pulling up at a stoplight, I look at Jess, trying to analyze her expression. She’s frowning and her mouth is pressed into a thin line.
“I’m sure it’s nothing too,” she says. “But you know better than to ignore pain. Please make a doctor’s appointment first thing tomorrow.”
Pain? My heart lurches.
Next, Jess says, “Good. I’m working an afternoon shift. I’ll call you during my dinner break.”
The lights change to green and I drive on. Jess hangs up.
I glance at her.
“What was that about?”
“She’s had pain in her right side for a couple of weeks, says it’s getting worse. She thinks she might have pulled a muscle but can’t remember when or how.”
“What’s your take on that?”
“I don’t know, but with her history, pain shouldn’t be ignored.”
My mouth is dry. I can’t speak. Mum had breast cancer over three years ago. I knew it could come back one day.
“She’s not worried about it,” Jess adds.
She’s trying to reassure me, but these days, I know too well that bad things happen. I’m not ready for my mum to die.
No point thinking like that. She’ll be fine.
“Did she say Dad will be in the members’ stand?” I ask.
“Yeah, we should be able to find him okay.” Jess presses the numbers on her phone again and holds it to her ear.
“Hi, Kylie, it’s Jess. How are you?”
I don’t listen. I think about Mum again. When she was in pain after the mastectomy, her eyes would dull, her face would fade to a sallow white, and her mouth would twist in a weird way. I always knew when it was bad, but she’d brush away my concern. “It’s nothing, just a niggle,” she’d say.
It’ll be good to get Dad’s take on the situation this afternoon.
At six thirty, I leave the Coronary Care Unit for my dinner break. My mind is on the conversation I had with my co-worker, Lisa. I told her about Marg’s cancer history and the pain she’s having. Lisa agrees with me; it sounds ominous.
Reaching the ground floor, I stride down the short corridor that leads to the staff dining room. At the self-serve bar, I spy a ham and salad roll, grab it, and proceed to the checkout. While waiting to pay, I scan the room. Small groups of nurses are sitting around the scattered tables. There’s no one I know so I sit at an empty table, take my cell phone out of my bag, and call Marg.
She answers instantly.
“Jess,” she says. “How are you? You’re at work, aren’t you?”
I don’t get a chance to reply.
“Luke just called. Are you looking for him? He’s on his way home to pick up Claude. He’s coming here for dinner. I wasn’t feeling good when he called, but I’ve taken something for the pain and I’m much better now. I’m putting on the veggies for our roast.”
“Marg, don’t wear yourself out if you’re not well.”
“No, no, I’m fine now. How’s work?”
“It’s been good, thanks. Busy, but that’s fine.” I smile. “I hope you’re not trying to evade the reason I’m calling.”
“Ha! No, you can rest assured. I’ve made the appointment. I wouldn’t dare disobey my nurse! I see Dr. Mendel at three fifteen on Wednesday.”
“Good girl. Thanks for doing that.”
Marg agrees to let me know the outcome of her Wednesday appointment and we say good-bye.
I eat my roll, thinking about what I need to do when I return to the ward. Lisa hasn’t had her break yet, so there will be her three patients to care for as well as mine. She has the men on her side of the ward tonight and I have the women: Pat, Elsie, and June.
I notice Gina, one of the nurses from the medical ward, walk into the dining room. She was pregnant when I last saw her. I’d heard she had a baby boy in March. She’s back at work already. I wouldn’t have returned to work so soon if I…
I banish those thoughts from my mind and finish my roll.
Gina looks my way when I get up to make a cup of coffee. The instant our eyes lock, she averts her gaze to stare at the glass cake cabinet in front of her.
I’m learning to deal with other people’s discomfort. To save her further embarrassment, I take my coffee to the sitting area outside the cafeteria.
When I return to the ward, Lisa leaves for her break. I check on each of the patients. Old Jock is dozing in the corner bed by the window, Mike has his wife and kids visiting, and Pat’s husband, Arthur, is waving at me. I met him when I admitted Pat last Friday evening. I walk over to say hi.
“She’s looking a lot better, isn’t she?” I say to him.
He beams at me, nodding.
“Did you tell him about your promotion to the step-down ward tomorrow?” I say to Pat.
“Hey, that’s what I called it,” Arthur says. “But she tells me she wants to stay here with you girls.” He looks at her, nodding his head. “I’m glad about the move. It means there are only four more days and she’ll be home again.”
“You know what he’s been doing, Jess?” Pat says. “He’s been practicing cooking so he can look after me.”
Arthur’s eyes open wide. “I’m very proud of myself. Yesterday, I made a delicious tuna casserole. I was telling Pat before, we must eat more fish now to look after her heart.”
“Ah, I envy you, Pat, having a man willing to cook for you. I wish mine would cook for me.”
Pat laughs. “It’s taken him forty-five years to get around to it. Can you wait that long?”
“Forty-five years, that’s impressive.”
“It’s been wonderful,” Arthur says. “I wouldn’t trade a day of it.”
Pat caresses her husband’s cheek with the back of her hand and says, “I can think of some days you’d trade.” They smile at each other, a smile suggesting familiarity, shared secrets.
Pat looks back to me. “What about you, Jess. How long have you been married?”
“A year last March.”
“Oh, how sweet, the whole adventure awaits you.”
That’s not how I see it, but I don’t say so. Elsie’s intravenous pump beeps and I excuse myself to attend to it.
The rest of the evening passes swiftly. I write up my patient notes, give out their medications, and settle them for the night. I’m straightening Pat’s bedding and plumping her pillows when she asks if I’m working tomorrow.
“Yeah, I’ll be here bright and early, so I’ll see you before you leave us.”
“That’s good,” she says, relaxing back into her pillows.
“Would you like a warm drink, or a sleeping tablet?”
She shakes her head.
I say good night and turn to go but she beckons me back, whispering, “Jessamy.”
“Are you okay?” I ask.
“I just wanted to thank you for taking such good care of us. You’re an excellent nurse.”
“I mean it. You have great patience and you’re such a reassuring presence. That’s important in a ward like this. You’ll make a wonderful mother. I hope you plan to have children.”
My cheeks feel red and I know my smile has vanished as if someone had unexpectedly slapped my face. I focus on the cardiac monitor beside her bed with its green lines dancing across the screen in the regular rhythm of her heartbeat.
“Well, I ah…” I’m struggling to find the words to form a coherent sentence when I notice that she is absorbed in her own world, gazing at her wedding ring, twisting it around and around on her finger.
Without looking up, she says, “I loved being a mother. It was the most rewarding and pleasurable thing I did in my life.”
I tilt my head. “I didn’t know you had children.”
“We had a wonderful son, but he was killed in a car accident when he was only nineteen.”
I gasp and sit on the edge of her bed. “Pat, how awful.”
“It’s something a mother should never have to live through, but I’m thankful for the time we had with him.” She pats my arm. “And you know, there was a lesson for me to learn. It’s about giving to others. It took me a few years to get there, but slowly, slowly I recovered, and then things came my way that helped make my life better.”
I can’t detect even a hint of awkwardness in her demeanor. Maybe time makes talking about it easier.
“Not as good as it was with him, mind you,” she continues. “But the experience helped me to become a better person. I eventually became involved with Friends In Need, a support group for parents who have lost a child. I’m the president now and it keeps me very busy. I like it. I feel I’m helping other parents deal with that nightmare.”
“What kind of advice could you possibly give to someone in that situation?” I lean closer to her, wanting to catch every word.
“Oh, there’s no advice. We just listen, really listen. Let them talk and talk and talk. Tell us about their child, what he looked like, what he did, who his friends were.”
Cody’s long fawn eyelashes fill my mind, so beautiful against his perfect unblemished skin. His little button nose, puffy cheeks.
Pat is still talking. “Some speak about their guilt. I was wracked with guilt for so long.” She shakes her head slowly.
“Why? Why should you feel guilty if it was a car accident? How can that be your fault?”
“I wished we’d bought him one of those new safer cars.”
My chest feels tight and there’s an uncomfortable lump in my throat. I want to open up right now, right here. Tell her everything.
She concentrates on rearranging the sheet across her lap before looking up at me again.
“It happened over twenty years ago and I still feel bad about it, but I learned to accept and forgive myself. That’s how we help. Eventually when the parents open up, they begin to come to terms with it. Then we help them to focus on the good memories.”
“I can understand how precious someone like you would be for those parents.” I gaze at the shelf above her bed crammed with get-well cards. “And it shows in all the cards and flowers you’ve received. You’re obviously very important to a lot of people.”
Pat looks up at the cards and then back to me, her eyes glistening.
“I still think of him every day. Every day.” She sighs. “Arthur and I still talk about him. We’ll be watching television and one of us will say, ‘Ian would like this show.’ Things like that.” She chuckles. “You must think we’re crazy.”
“It sounds wonderful.” I reach out and stroke her fine gray hair. “I could sit here and talk to you all night, but you need sleep. I’ll see you in the morning, okay?”
“Thanks for listening. It’s still nice to tell people about him.”
I stand and pull the curtain a little further around her bed to shield her from the desk light. The night staff arrive and Lisa begins giving them her patient progress reports. I finish tidying up and then walk toward them, but my mind is not on my work. I’m thinking about a lost nineteen-year-old son. Would it be worse to deal with losing someone whose presence has been part of your daily life for so long? At least Pat saw her son grow into a man, hear him speak, laugh, and make memories. I didn’t even get to see a smile, hear a cry, or look into his eyes.
“Good timing, Jess.” Lisa startles me back to reality. “I’ve just finished handing over. It’s your turn.”
I greet the night staff and sit at the desk. Picking up my patients’ folders, I open June’s and tell them about the routine shift we’ve had.
Before leaving to go home, I peek around Pat’s curtain. She’s asleep. My heart yearns to talk to her some more. I want to tell her what I haven’t been able to tell anyone else.
I walk away, aware of a strange feeling. It’s as if something has been ignited in me.
I look forward to returning in the morning.
Absent Children is available on Amazon
You can find it here.