Photo: Sammy Tunis
By Amanda Miller
Every morning I pray that Saul will write to me, just so I know he is alive. The not knowing is tearing me apart. Nurse Lacy keeps saying stress is bad for the baby. When she says this, I want to throw my breakfast tray at her, thinking how easy it must be for someone to say that who’s been in America the entire war. I don’t hold it against her, though. I know stress is bad for the baby. She’s just trying to be helpful.
It’s been six months since Saul and I parted. I have replayed so many times the conversation we had in Stockholm the night before I left that it has become as regular as my heartbeat. I can see Saul’s face even now as I lie back in bed with my eyes closed and it’s like he’s right here beside me, saying it all over again:“I promise, I will follow soon and we will marry and start a new life. I will find electrician work in Sweden and save up enough money to find a place for us to live in America.”We made love by the port that night, right out in the open, something I never would have done before the war. It felt like a statement: We had survived and had not forgotten how to love. The next morning, my sister Hannah and I boarded the ship to New York City and waved to Saul from the deck.I have not heard from him since.
I discovered that I was pregnant two months after Hannah and I moved into the tiny tenement apartment that Cousin Rose shares with her husband, Daniel, on the Lower East Side. I was quite ill and afraid that, after everything, I was now having symptoms of a disease that I’d picked up in Auschwitz. I thought: What a cruel irony to die like this after making it through that. But Cousin Rose took me to a clinic and it was confirmed that I was two months pregnant. Unwed Mother: my new yellow star. Daniel wanted me out immediately, but Rose and Hannah fought for me to stay, at least until I showed. I wrote to Saul at the address of the family he was staying with in Sundbyberg, telling him about our baby and that it was urgent he arrive soon.
Daniel, Rose, and Hannah all worked together at the textile mill, but I couldn’t; I was dreadfully ill. They couldn’t afford medical care for me, and they worked long hours at the factory, so I was alone most of the time. Finally Rose sat me down and told me they were bringing me to a state-funded maternity residence on Staten Island, which is where I’ve been for the last five months. It’s called “New Life: Prenatal Care for Unwed Jewish Mothers.”
Hannah visits often and the nurses and caseworkers have been kind. The women here are all sad, scared immigrants, probably many of them also Jews. We mostly speak different languages, though when we pass one another we do forced smiles. I read somewhere that if you make yourself smile, it tells your brain you are happy. I have forced many smiles over the last six months, but have not felt happy since that night in Stockholm.
I have written to Saul once a week without fail since I moved to New Life. My first letters were about my excitement for our baby, lists of names, ideas about where we could live, and what our home would look like. After a couple of months without a reply, my letters became more about what to do with the baby if Saul did not join me, followed by pleas for him to assure me that he was alive and well. It’s funny. I survived the Lodz Ghetto, I survived the camps, I lost my father, my mother, and my brothers, yet the grief I feel right now eclipses all the rest. This is the place where I cannot stop crying — this place where I have food and shelter, vitamins and care. Because I thought I had been redeemed. And now, for all I know, Saul is dead.
I am looking out the window by my bed. It’s a gorgeous morning: sun and a light snow. It makes me homesick for Poland, for Lodz before the Nazi occupation. I remember snowball fights with my brothers between the buildings, with the sun setting and the train rolling past, Matka calling us in for dinner. A hand on my shoulder startles me— Nurse Lacy.
“How are you feeling today, Esther?”
Thank goodness she speaks Polish.
“You haven’t touched your breakfast.”
“I’m not really hungry.”
Lacy sits on the bed by my side. I slide over to accommodate her.
“I know it’s hard right now, but you must think of the baby.”
“Yes, of course.”
She interlaces her fingers with mine.
“Will it help if I sit with you while you eat?”
“Yes, I think so.”
I eat my oatmeal in small bits, placing the oats and cinnamon delicately on my tongue and pressing them to the roof of my mouth until they dissolve. One minute it’s a whole substance; the next it is gone. No, not gone; transformed. So rare that we think about how an oat becomes our blood becomes our child.
Lacy sits with me until I finish the bowl, just as she promised. I feel a great kick within my belly, like the baby is angry with me, and I clutch my stomach, afraid the oatmeal might come back up. Maybe the baby doesn’t like oatmeal. To be honest, I don’t like it much myself.
“Are you all right?” asks Lacy. “Do you need some water? An extra pillow?”
“No, I’m fine. Lacy… What do I do if… if I don’t want to keep the baby?”
This is the first time I have uttered it, though I have been thinking it for months now. I’ve had this recurring dream where my baby is crawling on the dusty basement floor of some government building with the rest of the unwanted children, who are wailing as their teeth are charging through their gums, with nothing to chew on and no one to dry their tears or wipe their noses. I’ve heard that if infants don’t receive physical affection, they can die. I don’t want my child to die.
“Well, there are adoption services, of course, and you can talk it over with the caseworkers. They will make sure your child is safe, if that’s what you decide you really want to do.”
I lean back against the headboard and look out the window again. The snow has turned to rain, and clouds eclipse the sun. Of course that is not what I want. I want Saul to appear in this ward this instant, and then I want him to take me home to our new apartment, where there’s a nursery all ready with stuffed animals and powder blue walls. If it’s a girl, I want to name her after our mothers, and if it’s a boy, after our fathers. And then I want to have at least three more to name after the siblings we’ve lost.
“It’s not what I really want, but I don’t know how I could raise it alone. Lacy, how could I raise it alone? Never mind that I have no skills, no money, and nowhere to live, but the shame. I don’t think I can handle more shame in this lifetime. Survival is so exhausting. I want to thrive. I deserve that, don’t I? Does that make me selfish?”
My tears are hot and thick, and they sting my eyes and cheeks like tattoo needles. I am sure I look ugly, and I am so tired of feeling ugly. No one ever made me feel as beautiful as Saul did.
Lacy says nothing, just shines her sweet smile and keeps hold of my hand. Her hands are cool. I think of Saul’s hands and how they were always warm. I think of all the things that hands make possible, and how my hands have never been as pink and healthy as they are now, and how this body is mine and it’s all I’ll ever own.
Nurse Eleanor rushes in suddenly and speaks to Lacy in rushed English. Lacy nods her head and her hand slips out of mine.
“There’s a resident in labor,” she explains. “I have to go help. You rest. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
I nod. She walks out and I feel a chill, alone again. The baby kicks. I place my hands on my belly, thinking life is about change, and how we never see it coming.