Falling toward Heaven
by John Bennion
[p.291] Howard told Allison that God must have a specific purpose in mind for the new woman soon to emerge from her belly. “Why else would she be preserved through all these crises?”
“We’re not out of danger yet,” said Allison.
The night before they went to the hospital, her pains waxed and waned, not the definite contractions she had anticipated. She rolled on the bed, unable either to sink fully into sleep or to rouse herself enough to read or take a bath. She felt her belly; the baby seemed to be sleeping. An undertow of terror pulled at her, and she wished Emily had stayed.
Late the next morning she called the hospital and told them to get a room ready, even though the pains weren’t progressing to regular intervals.
“Finally,” said Howard, “we’re going to get this done.” He knelt on the floor in front of her and prayed. “Bless child and mother to pass through this unscathed, whole and well.” As he spoke to his invisible God, he looked so much like a little boy that she had to stroke his hair.
As they drove from Eagle River toward Anchorage, the sun rose a hand’s breadth above the south horizon. Thinking about the prayer, she panicked, certain that her narrow pelvis would hinder her child’s already difficult passage. “The valley of the shadow of death,” she said.
“Don’t think it,” he said. “Don’t talk about that possibility.”
[p.292] “So talking about it might change something—might tempt fate or God?”
“No,” he said. “I succumbed, for a moment, to weak-headed superstition. Nothing will go wrong.”
“Anyway, I was talking about my pelvis, narrow valley.” Her voice rose and she felt panic as another contraction clenched her body with pain. “My mother and aunt both had trouble.”
“Breathe,” he said. “Don’t lose control.”
“Go to hell,” she said. “I’m controlling by speaking my fear.”
After Allison was admitted, the nurse, a heavy Innuit woman, examined her and took her pulse. She then lifted Allison’s gown and spread gel across her belly. With an instrument shaped like a cordless hair clipper, she took the pulse of the baby. Howard heard a heavy thrub, thrub; he heard a gurgling moan, something like the amplified sound of an underwater animal—liquids and gas moving in the system inside her. The nurse frowned, shifting the microphone across Allison’s round belly. Suddenly she left, returning quickly with another nurse. They tried the same procedure, both frowning. The same slow thrub, thrub sounded, the same occasional gurgling growl— nothing else.
“What the hell is going on?” said Allison. “I have ears, dammit. Tell me!”
“We can’t find the baby’s heartbeat.”
The doctor on duty came in, also frowning. He repeated the nurse’s motions, holding the microphone at one location, listening intently, then shifting it quickly to another. “There was something,” he said to the head nurse, “get a team together. We’re going to take it.”
“Howard!” she called. She thought about going into the darkness of anesthesia, while someone cut her belly open. She might never wake again. She felt him take her hand; his face hovered near, but she couldn’t focus on either sensation. “Howard, I can’t do this! Dammit I can’t.”
Before she called out for him, while the doctor was still frowning over Allison’s belly, Howard had stood in the doorway. I’m a sinner, he [p.293] prayed, I’ll be a sinner my whole life, but please don’t take this child from us. I’ll give you my soul, my agency. He was flooded with peace, so when the doctor heard something, an echo of a heartbeat, he whispered, “Yes. Thank you, God.” A nurse ran past in the hallway. Howard bent over Allison, almost afraid to touch her.
Before he could think of anything to say to her anguish, Dr. Perry walked up with a clipboard. His face was haggard as he led Howard by his elbow into another room, one with a couch and a low table but no hospital bed. “We’re going to try a C-section,” he said. “If there was no hint of a heartbeat, we’d deliver it naturally in order to prevent trauma to Allison. But since there’s a chance, we’ll take the baby as quickly as we can. If you agree, sign the papers.”
“A C-section is more risky for Allison?” Dr. Perry nodded. Nurses and doctors ran past in the hall. Howard felt unreal, as if he were only watching a hospital drama. Soon he could walk away from the screen.
He took the clipboard and stepped into the hallway, just as a nurse wheeled Allison toward the operating room. He quickly explained the situation to her. “Sign, dammit!” she said. “I don’t want to lose this baby after all we’ve gone through.”
Howard turned back to Dr. Perry. “I want to be close,” he said as he scrawled his signature. He thought that, if he could watch, God wouldn’t dare go back on his promise, the peace Howard had felt.
A nurse helped him into some sterile clothing, green suit, pullover shoes, white mask; she showed him where they had taken Allison. The anesthesiologist put the mask over Allison’s face. She ripped it off, her face distorted by terror. Then she lay back, waving for him to put it on again. From the doorway where he stood, Howard could hardly see her face under the equipment. A nurse swabbed Allison’s belly. Someone else unfolded a green cloth which covered her everywhere except for her head and the swabbed area. The doctors bent low, and the arms and shoulders of the operating doctor were still in the way. Her voice was the only voice, speaking low to the nurse who handed her tools off a tray. Then she lifted the baby out, clipped the cord, and handed the baby to another doctor. Howard saw that the baby was so small and wrinkled it hardly seemed human. The skin was dark violet, the color [p.294] of a bruise. Past the doctor he saw Allison’s open flesh, as wide as the rib cage of a slaughtered animal. She will not survive, he thought. God, don’t let her die.
The pediatric doctor and a nurse brought the child to an incubator near where Howard stood. He was certain they would revive the child. The Holy Ghost had spoken peace to his heart, but he had no such assurance for Allison, who might whirl off into darkness without him. They began resuscitation with a mask. Allison’s doctor moved her hand rhythmically, stitching Allison together. When Howard turned back, the child had become pink. He said, “She’s going to be all right.”
“It’s just the oxygen,” said the nurse. “We still don’t have any pulse or heartbeat.” With his fingertips on the center of the baby’s chest, the pediatric doctor gently pressed and pressed again.
By the time Allison was stitched together, the team had given up on the child. They left her lying in the incubator, and Howard watched as the pink flesh faded to purple again, as if from cold. He felt only a great weariness. He followed the gurney as they wheeled Allison to another room. She was still out, but when he bent over her, he was comforted by the sound of her breathing.
Around three in the afternoon, Allison woke. “Where is she?” she asked. Her words were slurred, as if she was drunk.
“Not alive,” said Howard.
“I knew it,” she said, blinking slowly. “I heard them saying there was no heartbeat.”
“When she dropped, her skull compressed the umbilical cord against your pelvis.”
Then she wept, great heaving sobs. Howard sat on the edge of the bed and held her shoulders and head. He worried that her spasms of grief were tearing out the layers of stitches in her belly and that she would bleed to death.
“They’ve stolen her,” she said. “They’ll give her to someone else.”
“I saw her dead,” said Howard. “Two doctors tried to revive her.”
“You’re lying. You always were a son-of-a-bitching liar.” She lifted the sheet off herself and tried to swing her legs around. Howard [p.295] held her down and buzzed for the nurse. The nurse attached a different sack to Allison’s IV. Allison glared at him and the nurse. Howard wondered what he would do if she never returned from anger and isolation. Finally her eyes blinked, blinked again, and she slept.
Howard told God how angry he was at him for doing nothing to stop the child’s death. “You told me it would be all right.” Then he doubted himself, believed that he had felt nothing but relief that the troubled pregnancy was over.
When Allison woke, still slow from drugs, he called his mother and told her the child was born dead. The phone was silent. “This is too much,” his mother muttered finally, “too much.”
Where are the drugs for me? Howard thought. “They started artificial breathing, and the baby turned normal color. I thought she was all right.” He sobbed once. “She almost died.”
“All through the winter,” he said. “She was going to die and then she didn’t.”
“Howard,” she said. “Howard.”
“Oh,” he said. “I almost asked you to drive out and tell Dad.”
“Can you bear it?” she said.
“But he already knows.”
He handed the phone to Allison, who started weeping as soon as she heard Emily’s voice.
“Oooooogh, dammit,” she said. “I didn’t want to lose her.”
“This wasn’t what you planned,” Emily said.
“I thought they’d stolen her. I called Howard a son of a bitch.”
“He is one, ” said Emily. “So was Walter. We just have to put up with it.”
Allison laughed and then caught her breath. “I don’t know if I can stand it.”
“You just have to live,” said Emily. “You just have to survive until your body learns how to deal with it. Like arthritis. Your body learns to live with it.”
“Don’t hang up,” she said. “Talk to me.”
[p.296] Emily told Allison about the thaw in Rockwood; water stood in the streets and on the fields everywhere because the weather had turned warm so suddenly. The desert was covered with a sheen of yellow-green cheat grass. The bishop had helped her find a contractor who would repair the house according to state codes. She was going to save money by stripping the wallpaper in both halves of the old polygamous house.
Late that evening a nurse brought the child and laid her, wrapped in a receiving blanket, across Allison’s chest. The baby’s head was covered with profuse, silky black hair. Allison folded the covering back. The baby’s arms and legs were heavy, substantial. The hands were wide for a child, the fingers strong. “Look at her,” Allison said. “What a powerful creature.”
Howard wanted to ask if she knew the child was dead. She still was so groggy and unstable that she might think any range of the impossible. When it was his turn, Howard lifted the child, which was cold and stiff even through the blanket. He placed his hand flat against the inert face. He held her as he’d seen his sister hold a new child, supporting her head with the crook of his elbow.
When the nurse took the child away, Allison sobbed and then wailed. She swung her head back and forth like a wild creature, someone foreign to him. He tried to touch her, but she thrust his hands back. The nurse came in and turned a knob on the IV. He thought about the drugs which muted Allison’s sorrow. He moved to the edge of the bed and told her that the soul of the child still lived, that she had simply slipped into another dimension, and that during the Millennium they would have the chance to raise the child.
“Don’t,” she said. “You have no idea.”
Soon she slept again, and Howard considered her anger. Belief in the resurrection took away the sting of death, people said. The resurrection was as real as his own breath, but how did that knowledge lessen the pain? Allison had keened like a primitive woman, realizing and releasing sorrow, passing through a fog of sorrow. He had said to her, Your child still lives, but elsewhere, where you can never see her, never touch or hold her, except in some impossible future.
[p.297] He imagined the child, not as an infant, but as a girl of three or four, running across a meadow. Grandmother God sat on a boulder with Howard’s father; they both watched the running child. “Walter,” she said. “This one is for your care. Teach her as they would.” Impossible vision, prompted by his longing to know the baby existed somewhere. Then he imagined Grandmother God smiling, despite Howard’s despair at his daughter’s death. Suddenly Grandmother God and Grandfather God both seemed creatures strange as aliens, creatures undisturbed by death, horrid, dispassionate creatures.
In the evening Allison woke up alone. Her body felt heavy with loss; a part of her body, a part that would have lived outside her, had been hacked away—no longer lived. Deep pain grew and faded in her belly, rhythmic as if someone had beaten her first with the blade and then with the head of an axe, destroying her nerves and cutting her muscle. Howard and the cold child seemed figures in a story that had nothing to do with her. The child had stopped existing—leaving Allison the biological urge to curl her arms around—nothing. At that physical register of loss, tears ran down her face, entered her ears. She shook her head. Impossible that the child had not lived, was not now in her arms. Not in her arms against her belly, mouth not like a bud against her swollen breasts, which didn’t know the child was dead. Was not.
She imagined her own wrists slashed from palm to elbow, blood blossoming against the white sheets. Easy as breathing to slip into not. Easy as weeping. Water ran from her eyes and nose onto the sheet. She imagined a small being, tear-shaped, falling through space as dark as the water in the burial pool. Falling toward God’s open arms. An impossible fiction. She knew that, even if the child had a soul that remained after death, she was lost still in the immensity of the universe, and Allison had no way of finding her.
She phoned her parents. “It didn’t work,” she said.
Her mother said, “He’s gone back to the ranch?”
“No,” said Allison. “The baby.”
[p.298] “Allison,” she said. “You were almost full term. How could you do that?”
“You’re not listening. It was full term. It was born dead.”
“Why didn’t they take it Caesarean?”
“They did take her Caesarean!” Allison shouted. “The doctor heard an echo. But it was our damn narrow pelvis. The umbilical cord was caught between her head and my pelvis.” Then she lost it, sobbing into the receiver.
“Oh, Ali.” Allison heard someone talking in the background—her father. “Stillborn,” her mother said. “Allison, is he with you, Allison?”
“Yes.” She looked at Howard, who sat, head down, in the chair next to her bed.
“Are they giving you something so you can sleep? Get off it soon, not now, but soon.”
“Allison?”—her father on the other line. “Why are you so far away?”
“I’ll be up as planned,” her mother said. “I’ll be there in three days.”
“I’m coming too,” her father said.
Her mother wanted to talk to Howard.
“Yes,” he said, watching Allison stare at the ceiling.
“Don’t leave her alone,” said Lois. “Did she tell you I had a stillbirth—my first child.”
“No,” he said. “She didn’t tell me.”
“I would have hurt myself if I could. I didn’t want to live.”
“She’s all right.”
“You know nothing about it, so listen. She’ll never get over it. I had Michael and Allison, but I’ve never stopped missing the first one, never stopped wondering what he would have been like.”
“No,” Allison sobbed after hanging up. “No, no, no. I can’t.” Then she became quiet, her eyes closed. Talking on the phone, she had seemed herself, then her face had dissolved into someone he didn’t know.
He wondered if the stillbirth was God’s way of breaking down her rationality, humbling her so that she would be open to matters of the spirit. “I hate you,” he said to God.
[p.299] “Howard,” she said. “You think this was something I wanted? Something I did?”
“No,” he said. “I wasn’t talking to you.” Grandmother God had not prevented the child from dying. Even Jesus, who was supposed to intercede, had done nothing. Perhaps Jesus’ bargaining grace only concerned spiritual matters. Matters of the flesh were left to caprice. Then he wondered why his impulse was to debate matters of doctrine which were meaningless—the child was gone.
“Who?” she said.
“Nobody,” he said. “I hate myself.”
“Don’t hate me, Howard. Don’t say it or think it.”
He couldn’t open his mouth to say, couldn’t think the first word.
It had been dark for three days, it seemed. The sun wouldn’t rise for hours. By the faint light from the hallway, Allison watched Howard doze on the chair, which he had unfolded into a bed. She wished he’d leave, go home to sleep. Clearly now their only bond was sorrow. He’d felt angry too, had spoken out against her. Why didn’t he just leave? Then she reached across and touched his face. He opened his eyes in the dark, she could barely see his lashes—shadows that twitched over his eyes.
The next morning Howard’s sister-in-law Sherrie called. “Some spirits are given another chance if they didn’t really get a first chance. That little girl could come back as your next child.” Allison hung up. She gave the hospital operator a short list of people who could phone her.
Howard went home to gather his school books. When he returned, he had a large potted plant in each arm. One from Mark and one from the Relief Society in Howard’s ward. Apparently he had called everyone he knew. He told her that someone had left dinner in a covered dish on their doorstep, even though he wouldn’t be there to eat it. “There’s more,” he said. In several trips he carried flowers, all potted, up to her room. They caused the room to smell like a hothouse jungle, verdant and artificial. That afternoon Brother Yamamoto visited. He left Allison a tape of Japanese koto music, and sat while they [p.300] listened. The odd harmonies soothed her greatly. His mouth was a thin line of sorrow. She was moved that he didn’t try to say anything to her.
The bishop and his two counselors came to the hospital room— the short-haired man she’d met earlier, and two others, large as giants. She almost laughed—they looked like a comedy team—but then she saw their faces. They asked her if she wanted a blessing. “I’d like that,” she said. Howard raised his eyebrows, but she did want one, couldn’t explain it even to herself. They laid their hands on her head and promised her the knowledge that the child was hers beyond time and space, and that her despair wouldn’t overwhelm her.
After the prayer they sat without talking for a few minutes. Then the bishop asked, “Do you want a small service?” Howard had told her that the Mormon church had an ambiguous attitude toward stillbirth. Life came with the first breath; had this child experienced life or had it never gotten that chance? They would be happy to organize a small meeting, which would give Howard and Allison the chance to voice their love to the child and to express farewell, although a temporary farewell, from their child. Allison’s head started aching.
“No,” said Howard, “we’ll take care of it.”
Then they asked about burial.
“Not here,” Howard said, watching her face. Allison thought about the child laid in ground which would be frozen most of the year—small, stiff, and cold. She nodded. She knew that eventually she and Howard would leave Anchorage.
“Not Houston,” she said. She felt no emotional attachment to the city she’d lived in most of her life. She hadn’t thought it would matter where a body was buried, but she did care. She pictured a small grave in the salty mud next to the mineral pool, and she imagined coyotes streaming down the black ridge. Her body clenched with anguish. But it pleased her to imagine the small child in the Rockwood cemetery, where Emily would watch over it. “Rockwood. We’ll bury her in Rockwood.”
They talked with Howard in low voices, and finally stood to leave. “Thank you,” Howard said. “I couldn’t even start to think about those things.”
[p.301] In the end they decided simply to send the casket on the plane for Emily to receive. The mortuary would only keep it for a week and Allison was in no shape to travel. The day Allison was released from the hospital, they drove to the mortuary, where the mortician left them alone in a room with the casket. Howard said a long prayer in which he detailed what knowledge he wanted the child to gain. He reminded God that his servant the bishop had made a specific promise that the child would be theirs, that she would not be lost to them.
Allison thought the promise just raised a false hope, but then she started talking to the body, as if someone could hear. She told the child her dream of the three of them fierce as wolves; she told the child that she hadn’t wanted to abandon her.
A week after the mortuary had sent the small casket to Utah, they received pictures in the mail: Emily, Belinda, Bishop and Sister Hansen and their children, Willey, and even Vernon Todd, stood around a small grave. The bright flowers looked strange against the dry ground.
For days Allison sat cross-legged on her bed and watched the clouds sweep across the inlet toward their cabin. The city was out of sight around the shoulder of a mountain. Even though below her spread the scattered lights of Eagle River, the cabin seemed as lonely as if it squatted on the moon.
She wept at odd hours. Howard held her in bed as her body was racked with sobbing. He felt that her sorrow was so immense that it overwhelmed his, made his insignificant. Howard vowed that like Job, he would face God at the judgment bar and ask him some hard questions. He imagined the child daily, still felt a load of sorrow that he couldn’t release. They walked down the lane to Eagle River, up through the snow to where Emily had built the fire. Allison bled for three weeks. Several times he skipped classes, studying downstairs, listening for the sound of her breathing in the loft. Finally Dr. Perry said she should go back to work.
Nearly a month after the stillbirth, she suggested they drive to Wasilla to watch the start of the Iditarod. She wanted to take her skis along. She was still sore, and he said she was a fool to try it. She said he [p.302] could stay home while she went. They drove north for forty-five minutes and then strapped on their skis. She skied slow and steady, knees bent as she moved down through the trees. They waited for half an hour, skiing back and forth to keep warm, stamping in place like deformed ducks. He watched her move, leaning into her skis as she stepped up hill or crouching on her skis as she swooped down. He thought, she is alive. The doctors had laid her on the table, used drugs to bury her consciousness so deep that she could drift, soundless, away (she had lived); they sliced nerve, vessel, and muscle, opened her belly; they drew the dead child from her body. She lived. He leaned against the tree and wept, watching her walk carefully on her toes up a hill, flicker back down through the trees.
Soon the first team of eager dogs passed, then another and another. The mushers leaned into the curve below Allison and Howard. The dogs were barely civilized wolves, running with their jaws wide as if they were carnivores of air.