Starting Life Without Her
May 13, 1944
It’s hard, you know? I look down at my newborn son, this beautiful baby. I expect to feel nothing short of joy, but I don’t. Two days ago, I was in Nova Scotia serving as a guard when I got a call that my wife had given birth, but shortly after she – she was gone. So here I was, staring at my three-day-old son, feeling conflicted with emotions of joy and resentment. Resentment, anger: they make me feel like a monster. Maybe I am a monster. I didn’t want to be there, but where would I go? I couldn’t go home. How could I face my other children? Eight kids left without a mother. Nine. This boy – my son, Billy – probably my last child. He has no concept of the pain his family is feeling. They say ignorance is bliss, but I never believed I’d envy a baby as much as I do Billy. He had no part in all of this. He never asked to be born or for her… her death. He didn’t take away my Pearl.
“Would you like to go in and see him?” said a feminine voice behind me, startling me back to reality. I turned to see a nurse. No one else would be going in to see him. He had no one, no one but me.
I replied aggressively, “Of course I would.” I realized the harshness of my voice and took a breath. Clearing my throat, I corrected myself, “Best I do. The boy needs someone to take care of him.” With a smile, she led me into the nursery. She picked up the boy and passed him to me. He gurgled, and with that small sound he changed everything. This wasn’t some boy – this was my boy.
As I stared down at my beautiful child, almost forgetting my loss, I heard the door to the nursery open, bringing me back to reality. I looked and saw my mother, no emotion on her face. “I came as soon as I heard. Is this him?” she said, holding her arms out, silently requesting the baby. I passed Billy to her. “Oh, well, isn’t he a cute child. It’s so hard losing a spouse, but at least we got this wonderful thing out of it.” Her words were somewhat sweet, but I could still hear a chill in her tone. “It won’t be difficult for him to find a new home. The older children, on the other hand, might not be so easy. Not many adopting parents want eight and nine-year-olds.”
“What?” I responded. I hoped to God she wasn’t suggesting what I thought she was. “What do you mean, ‘new home’?” I asked.
She tried to change her tone to match her sweet as sugar words, and replied, “Oh, William, nine children all on your own? That’s just far too much for you.”
“I’m not abandoning him, Mom,” I argued. I could feel my temper rising with every word. “I’m not abandoning any of my kids!”
“Please, William, you are making a scene,” she said, pleading with me as if I were a child.
“I’m making a scene? You’re the one talking about giving away my kids.” My voice was getting louder, and I could hear my heart thumping in my ears over the words I was saying.
“Not all of them. Mary and Thelma are practically young ladies now. I’m only thinking about the young ones, Dolly, Breta, maybe Margie, and, of course…” she lifted my son slightly, using him as a prop in her argument, “… this one here.”
“What?” she asked.
“His name is Billy!” I yelled, pulling the newborn back into my arms. “I’m taking him home to the rest of our family, and you can’t stop me, Mom.” With that, I walked back over to Billy’s nursery bed and set him down. He had his mother’s eyes.
I walked into my house on Grafton Street, followed by my mother-in-law who was holding Billy. I was greeted by my three-year-old daughter, Dolly, jumping into my arms. “Daddy!” she screeched. She was happy to see me after such a long absence. Too happy. Had no one told her? She squirmed in my arms to see her grandmother.
“Hi, Nanny!” she gasped, “Is that my baby brother?”
I walked into the kitchen to see the rest of the children, the girls all red-eyed from crying. In the corner of the room sat my only other son, Ernie. His face was scrunched up in a scowl as he tried to hold back his tears. He was trying to stay strong for the girls. I stood in the doorway as the children’s eyes looked up at me. We all stood still for a moment, no one wanting to move. Sitting at the table was Thelma, the second oldest, feeding Breta, the youngest next to Billy. Joining them at the table were the three middle girls, Lois, Pearl and Margie; the three of them were playing some card game. Standing by the counter was the eldest, Mary, buttering toast. She was the first to move as she walked the plate of toast over to me.
“You beg me to make you toast and then run away before it’s done?” Mary teased, passing a piece of toast to Dolly, who giggled in response and took too big of a bite out of it.
I put Dolly down and said, “Mary, can you meet me in the living room?” she listened and walked out of the room. I looked over at my second child and called, “Thelma?” She looked over, and I motioned for her to follow me. She stood up and followed me to the living room. I sat on the chesterfield as the girls stood in front of me.
“Do they all know? You know, with your mother –”
“About her death?” Mary stopped me. This girl had too much of my mother in her.
I cleared my throat uncomfortably. “Yes. About that.”
“Yeah, Grandma was by… she said something about the girls going to a new…” Thelma said with a look of concern on her face.
“Don’t listen to a thing that woman says. No one is raising my children, except me,” I reassured them. “Good, so everyone knows.”
Thelma shuffled nervously and muttered, “Well…”
“Well?” I asked.
The girls shared an uneasy look, and Mary replied, “We tried… Dad. Dolly didn’t quite get it, and it was just…”
“Too hard?” I asked.
“Exactly,” Thelma said.
“The rest understood,” Mary stated.
“You got your seventeen-year-old brother to understand? Great, I’m so proud of you,” I said, sarcastically putting my head in my hands.
“Well, you try explaining the concept of death to a three-year-old!” Mary snapped back.
“I’m gonna have to now, aren’t I?” I yelled back at her. She looked hurt for a moment before her face transformed into a look of pure venom. She turned and made her way to the front door, grabbing her coat off of the rack beside it. With a slam, she was gone.
Thelma turned back to me as a look of anger and confusion twisted on her face, “Dad, I know you’re going through a lot, but so are the rest of us. Don’t act like you’re the only one hurting.” She spun around and walked back to the kitchen in a huff. I knew this could break Dolly’s heart if I messed this up. All the kids adored their mother. Pearl always knew exactly what to say when it came to the kids. Did she ever feel this lost?
My mother-in-law popped her head in the room as she asked with genuine sweetness, “Willie, dear, I’m putting something on for the kids to eat. Do you want anything?”
I gave her an exhausted smile and replied, “No, Maisie, I’m fine.”
“Fine? You know, grief isn’t a substitute for a warm meal,” she stated as she made her way over to the chesterfield and sat beside me.
I looked over at her. She was so strong. “I don’t know how you do it. If I lost one of my kids, I don’t know what I’d do.”
She placed her hand on mine, “Oh, Willie, since I found out about Pearl, I’ve been on the edge of falling to pieces, but I can’t.” She pointed towards the kitchen, “These kids need someone. They need their nanny, and they need their father. Now, I’m not going to judge you for how you just spoke to Mary and Thelma, but when that girl gets home, you owe her an apology. If you can’t do that, maybe Margaret is right about you not being able to take care of these kids. I’m rooting for you, Willie, I really am. So please, for God’s sake, do not make me agree with that woman.”
I laughed. I loved my mother, but she was a hard woman to get along with. I took a long breath in, “You’re right, you’re right. I just don’t know how to tell Dolly. She’s just a little girl; she hasn’t even started school yet. How do I tell her that her mother isn’t coming home…?” I trailed off.
“You be direct and clear. We don’t want to give her hope where there isn’t any.” And with that, she stood up. “I better get that supper on. Don’t want these children to starve.” She started towards the kitchen.
“Maisie?” She stopped and turned back to face me. “Could you tell Dolly to meet me up in my bedroom?” I asked. She gave me a smile and a nod.
Our room was a mess. It hadn’t been touched since the girls helped Pearl put her hospital bag together when she went into labour. I went around and picked up her clothes that were carelessly thrown about and closed the drawers that had been left open. I went over to a picture hanging on the wall farthest from the door; it was of her. I took it down and stared at it.
“Daddy?” said a small voice. I looked over to see my three-year-old daughter.
I went over to the bed and sat down. “Come over here, Dolly, I need to talk to you.” I patted the place beside me on the bed. She slowly made her way over and climbed up next to me.
“Am I in trouble, Daddy?” she asked, on the verge of tears.
“No, not at all, sweetheart.” She quickly relaxed upon hearing this. “So, what did your sisters tell you about your mother?”
“They said Mommy had to go away and I won’t see her for a while, but Daddy? When is Mommy coming home?” she innocently asked.
I took several breaths, not wanting to answer. I wasn’t ready for this. “Dolly, Mommy can’t come home, she’s gone to heaven. Do you know what heaven is?”
“Thelma said it’s where people move when they get old but… but Mommy’s not old,” tears began streaming down her face.
I pulled her into a hug and replied, holding back tears of my own, “I know, but people who are really sick sometimes go there too, and your mother… she was really sick, and God took her to heaven.”
“So, I’ll never see Mommy again?” Her tears soaked through my shirt.
“You will, just not for a long time. You’ll see her in heaven,” I said, squeezing her tightly.
She pulled away, satisfied with this answer, and sniffed, looking up at me, “Okie dokie, Daddy, but you promise I’ll see her when I’m old?”
“I promise,” I said, pulling her in for another hug.
“I love you, Daddy.”
“I love you too, sweetheart.” With that, she jumped off the bed and ran out of the room, leaving me alone. I looked at Pearl’s photo again. Would you have handled that the same way?
At two in the morning, I made my way into the kitchen. I had given up the notion of getting any sleep. As I grabbed a glass out of the cupboard, I saw the porch light on from the corner of my eye. I ran over and threw the door open, hoping and praying that it was Mary. She hadn’t come home since our fight earlier in the day. To my surprise, it wasn’t my daughter, but Ernie taking a long drag from a cigarette. As I walked out, he looked up at me and held out a cigarette to me. I took it and lit it with a match Ernie had beside him on a table. “You heard anything from Mary?” I asked, inhaling.
“Not a peep,” he answered, gazing out into the street.
“This isn’t like her. She wouldn’t just up and leave without saying anything,” I said, flicking the ash from my cigarette.
“Maybe she’s taking this harder than we thought.”
I looked over at him, “How are you doing?”
For the first time since I came out, he looked at me, clearly still trying to hold back tears. He looked tired. He sighed and replied, “It’s hard, you know. I think about how Dolly, Breta, and Billy won’t remember her. She won’t be here for the big things. She won’t be here to see you walk Pearl down the aisle, or meet Margie’s kids, or to tell you to go easy on us if Billy and me do anything stupid.”
“You could always just not do anything stupid. I know I’d prefer that option,” I said, trying to lighten the mood a little.
“It just makes me not want to see or do any of that stuff because I know she won’t be there to smile and weep with tears of joy,” he took another drag.
“She won’t be, but we will. We all have to be here for each other, and she’ll see the big things. She’ll always be watching.” I put my arm around the boy and sighed. “Besides, with Pearl’s temper, you’re liable to lose all your teeth if you skip out on her wedding.” This earned a full belly laugh from Ernie. When the laughing came to an end, we just sat in silence and looked out onto Grafton Street.
“Dad?” Ernie mumbled.
“Mom’s dead…” he said, as if the realization just hit him.
I took a deep breath, “Yup, but we still have our memories. No one’s taking those away.”