Failure to Thrive
Updated: Mar 27
Abandoned. As I reach far back into the recesses of my brain, it’s the first thought and emotion I can drum up. I can feel that deep cavernous ache inside my chest. Like I have fallen off a cliff in the dark, holding my breath as I fall through the air not knowing where I am or where I am going. I can see my mom outside the room sitting in the hallway with her back to me. Her curled hair is the only glimpse I have of her. She always got her hair done on Saturday mornings. She would come home with big tight curls smelling of hairspray that also reminded me of the smell of rubbing alcohol. She protected her hairdo every night with some bag she put over her head to make sure she didn’t mess up her hair. When I would hug her I wasn’t allowed to touch her hair but I could always smell the hairspray. From my crib in the hospital I can smell the rubbing alcohol as I strain to see her face, but all I get is the back of her head and her tight curls.
It’s so cold in the room and the crib has nothing but one very tight sheet over the mattress. Apparently the staff is worried about blankets touching my skin and making my condition worse. Even touching me could tear my skin and bring on more bleeding, so here I lay in a cold empty crib feeling more and more withdrawn with every passing hour. It’s so cold I feel like my bones are made of ice and nothing will melt them. To this day I hate being cold. Sometimes I get so cold the only way I can warm up is to sit in a hot bathtub until my bones melt.
I pound on the glass next to my crib. It’s cold and reinforces the fact that I too am cold and alone. I know there’s someone on the other side of this glass because I’ve seen them before. Pound. Pound. Pound. Please pay attention to me! I see wires in the glass and try to pick at it to get them free. I need more texture than the tight sheet and cold glass to feel. No blankie, no soft doll, no warm embrace, only the feeling of cold emptiness.
Pound. Pound. Pound. There she is. Mrs. Jones! I pound on the glass and she pounds back on the glass and my heart soars. Mrs. Jones is our housekeeper and nanny. I know she loves me. I feel nothing but absolute love when I think about her. She would sit in a rocking chair in my bedroom at home and wait until I fell asleep. She would come running to me when I woke up screaming from a nightmare. She would somehow hold me and change the sheets at the same time when I had an accident in the middle of the night. She always prayed some dramatic prayers over me I didn’t understand but knew they were calling angles on my behalf. I feel only deep acceptance and complete care and protection at the thought of Mrs. Jones.
Mrs. Jones was African-American. As the story goes I would pound on the glass to play with the little girl in the crib next to mine. The little girl was African-American just like my beloved Mrs. Jones so I called the little girl Mrs. Jones. That’s the only story that is passed down about my stay in the hospital. That and the fact that even though they thought I was going to die, my mom could only visit for 15 minutes a day. No one was allowed to touch me for fear of tearing my skin and making me bleed. The story my family tells is about the African-American little girl next to me, my bleeding to death, and mom visiting for 15 minutes but I remember more to the story than is told to me.
I remember pounding the glass. I remember trying to get the wires out of that glass. I remember seeing the little Mrs. Jones on the other side of the glass and feeling like comfort was so close. I wanted her to hold me and rock me. I remember smelling rubbing alcohol as I looked at the back of my mother’s head. I remember the absence of men. I never saw my father, brothers, or grandfather. But what I remember the most is the cage they put on top of my crib to prevent me from climbing out. It was a maze of grey-knotted rope on top of me preventing me from surviving. No more pounding, no more crying for mom in the hallway, no more trying to escape. A barrier so thick and big on top of me I resigned myself to lying still and not trying anymore. I was done fighting; done with pounding for attention, done with hoping someone would love me. I just lay on the cold tight sheets on my back and looked up at the maze of grey-knotted rope over my head and gave up.
Three weeks later they sent me home to die, to die in that same caged crib.