Lemon Drops

To Connie Poss, cuddler extraordinaire,
and to BR.
I didn’t know.

I spent a year lost in the lemon drops away above the chimney tops. I remember very little about that year, packaging my cello up and sending it to my sister, giving Clyde the dog away and finally cutting a little. There’s cutting to let the pressure out and there are failed suicide attempts. I could not tell you which I did or why, only when. It was on Bluebird’s first birthday.

I remember Bob’s terrified face when he found me. I remember trying to tell him, don’t pick me up, you’ll throw out your bad shoulder, the right one, but I couldn’t make real words so I just moaned and thrashed. Then nothing for more months. My troubles did not melt. I hid again among the lemon drops.

When she was in me, I thought of her as Lemon Drop, and I sang the over the rainbow song to her every morning when we got up. I pictured her as a towhead, which was possible with our genetics. But when she was born, pink and squalling with a full head of dark hair, waving both arms like little bird wings, she immediately became Bluebird. It was Bluebird the minute she was born. Happy little bluebirds fly, right? And she had the bluest eyes, light light blue with a tinge of green, my Bluebird, gone after her first full week, or rather two Sundays and one of every other day.

Her first year was mostly chill fog. I could never get warm enough, and the only things that came through the fog were images of pregnant women on the big TV in our bedroom, babies crying outside on the sidewalk, that one shade of blue and the lemon drop color. Very occasionally, I clearly saw Bob, tentative and nervous, with a vertical worry line now settled between his eyebrows, always asking me for permission or a decision. I had a vague memory of having loved him, but now he was just tiring, always pulling at me while trying to give me choices, coaxing me to eat.

Did I want this delicacy or that one, Belgian chocolate or fresh shrimp? He stopped after he thoughtlessly brought home blood oranges, formerly a favorite, and I snapped at him why not blood pudding too? Blood diamonds for her headstone? Her eyes were Tiffany blue, light blue with a hint of green, and she should have had diamonds, my beautiful Bluebird. I remembered wanting to insist on a bird for her headstone, but I don’t remember if I did or not. I was in the lemon drops when it was ordered, I assume. I haven’t seen it and don’t know what it looks like.

I was careful after the blood oranges to force down enough food to stay out of the tube- feeding zone, and Bob and I began eating separately on trays in different rooms, served by the blessedly silent Maria, who made food that was easy to tolerate, invalid food recipes found in her grandmother’s cookbook. Jellied bullion, oatmeal, stewed apricots, as close to baby food as she dared. Aspic, soft crouquettes, many kinds of mashed potatoes. I actually looked forward a little to the chocolate chip version, steamy hot with butter and salt and cream. There is such a thing as comfort food, even when there is no comfort to be had. If I’d had a self then, it would have been grateful.

I could not breathe without sighing, it seemed, and could never take a full breath all the way down to the bottom of my lungs. It wasn’t quite panting, but didn’t bring in much air I don’t think. I do remember thinking that if I kept breathing like that, I’d never sing again but I didn’t care. My vocal cords dried and I stopped talking. I still occasionally saw Bob’s big white face, bobbing like a balloon in my field of fuzzy vision. I wanted to reassure him but the effort was too much. Everything was too much. I developed fine fuzzy hair on my forearms, languno I think the doctor called it, which sounded like crayfish but wasn’t.

Only once during that year was I fully present below the chimney tops. Maria had left the TV on in my bedroom. We had reached a compromise, she and I. She would let me stay in bed as late as possible while she did her morning clearup and straightenup. She would make me get up only at the last minute so I could shower and dress for Bob when he came home to lunch, which he had started doing to check up on me. I wanted to tell him to use the monitors in the nursery, but by then he had cleared Bluebird’s room out and turned it back into a second study for himself, where his finished projects went to live in tall metal filing cabinets and his patents were framed and hung on the walls and his reference books were lined up neatly on floor-to- ceiling shelves. He worked in his real office or in his basement workshop. It was ok. We had enough rooms.

That day with the TV on, for some reason I watched an interview with Barbara Bush, who was telling a tall bland man that she felt guilty about her pregnancy with George W., since she had drunk way too much and smoked way too much while he was in her. I hated her. She still had him, and her so much older than me.

The year passed and my troubles melted by degrees. One day I woke up humming the rainbow song, gently like the ukulele version. The passionate longing version was too much for me then, as it remains today. I started functioning, in a way, just before I would have been locked up. I live in America. Even grief, maybe especially grief, has benchmarks and landmarks. If you stray too far from the marks you will be corrected, with electricity if necessary. I was lucky.

Bob was still too nice, too tentative. He asked for permission all the time, very tiring. Did I want him to do this, could he do that? I didn’t think I could make one more decision, ever, since even the littlest decision had such major consequences. Someone could die. It was why I had given Clyde the dog away, when I was first in the lemon drops. He so clearly wanted to help and I couldn’t face breaking his heart daily, poor mutt. I had to decide what to do about that, his minute by minute heartbreak, no doggy-past, no doggy-future. I gave him back to his breeder, who was happy to take him in. It was harder with Bob, who had same expression on his big white face but was harder to give away, having no breeder or even an ex-wife. We had been each others’ firsts. I shouldn’t criticize him, but you asked.

The first real conversation I had after my Bluebird flew away was with Selina. One day soon after I woke up humming I had an urge to return to the hospital and visit the nursery. I’d never been there when I had my Bluebird, but had seen a group of people in scrubs staring into a picture window on my way in to the labor deck. I’d asked about it and was told that when hospital workers were having a hard day they came to the nursery and watched the babies. So I knew where it was.

Selina was sitting in a gliding rocking chair in the middle of the nursery, gliding slowly back and forth and sewing something, something bright white against her dark gnarled knuckles, in out in out with the needle, precise tiny stitches, no fewer than ten to the inch. She looked up. Can she help me was on her face but she said nothing. I washed my hands and entered, and she pushed me gently into an empty rocker next to her, a back and forth kind. She looked at me again and motioned with her hand to rock. I rocked and spewed, telling her everything about my Bluebird and about retreating to the land of lemon drops. She listened, saying mmmh-hm once in a while, but offering no real words. I was pleased about that, being tired of others’ words and having been silent so long myself. When I finished we rocked for a while in companionable silence. Finally she said, “Sounds to me like you’d make a good cuddler.”

I was doubtful I’d make a good anything but asked what a cuddler was. She said, “Well, it’s what I’m doing, right here. You sit with the babies, and when one needs cuddling you take them out of their plastic box and you cuddle them. Easy enough, once you get the rhythm right. I won’t say there isn’t a knack to it, but I believe you’d pick it up quick. You can sing to them too, some of them need it to get back to sleep, and you hold them against your heart and they’re asleep before you know it. Then you put them back. That’s all there is to it.”

I asked what she was sewing. “Oh, it’s a teddy bear. Not for the ones in here, for the parents of the littlest ones who die. I get their parents to bring in a couple of outfits and I make them into a teddy bear for to remember them by. See here, here’s the child’s name and her dates.”

She flipped the piece around so I could see a name, Morgan Barlow, embroidered in perfect closed chain stitch, and two dates, heartbreakingly close together, three days apart. Selina resumed, “Usually the clothes, they get put in a box and get put away or lost or given away or thrown away, but this little guy nobody throws away, then when they’re ready they can hold him and set him on top of a chiffarobe or a vanity and pat him as they go by. It’s a comfort, I think.” She peered up at me from under long bangs. “I could make you one. A bluebird, if you have a blue outfit.”

I hesitated.

“No charge, it gives me something to do while I cuddle, and I cuddle three days a week so I have plenty of time to make them.”

“I’m not sure.”

“I am. You need something to hold, child, in the worst way. I’ll make you a pretty bluebird, you just bring me a dress maybe, did you know her sex ahead of time?”

I nodded, tearing up.

“Well then, a dress and a onesie, maybe a blue dress and a yellow onesie and I’ll make you a pretty bird to hold until you don’t need to hold it anymore.”

I shook my head. I’m a grownup, I don’t need a stuffie. I stood up.

Selina smiled gently. She set the sewing down on the floor by her side, and tugged me over by my wrist until I stumbled into her lap. She was surprisingly strong for someone who must have been in her seventies. I found out later that she was a retired surgical nurse but had always favored the babies, having had none of her own.

We glided for a while, me comfortable on her lap. Finally, she said, “You come back Friday, I’m on again then, and you bring a couple of outfits. I will make you your bluebird and teach you to cuddle. I think you have talent and we need the help. It’s hard to sleep in here with all the buzzing and the lights and all and that, so they need a lot of cuddling.

“When I was a girl at home, and somebody died, we paid for something called a sin eater. She’s a woman, usually an old woman, a wise woman who knows the world and makes herself available for funerals. You call her and she comes with a loaf of bread she bakes herself, sometimes still warm from the oven. It’s a small loaf, and it’s wrapped in a white cloth. The sin eater holds the loaf and stands at the middle of the dead person, then passes the loaf across the dead person to the oldest kin in the house, who is standing on the other side of the dead person. The dead person’s sins pass into the loaf of bread, see? The oldest kin passes the bread back to the sin eater, who sits with the relatives and friends. Then she eats the loaf of bread, one chunk at a time, with honey from the dead one’s bees if any is available. She eats that loaf a chunk at a time and moves the sin into herself. Then she keeps the dead one company in the night so their spirit is well-cared for and can leave by morning.”

I liked how she said dead. I was sick of euphemisms.

“I will make you a bluebird and it will be your loaf of bread.”

I objected, “She had no sin, my Bluebird, she didn’t even have a name.”

“Maybe not, but you think you have a sin, don’t you? It was the sudden infant death, the SIDS, wasn’t it? You know it’s nothing you did?”

“They said that, yes, but I think it was something I did or didn’t do or did wrong when she was in me though I tried so hard.”

“Then there is sin that needs taking care of. Doesn’t really matter if it’s real, you know. No need to eat it, the bluebird I make for you will take it from you and then you can fly again yourself. You’re a singer, aren’t you? I can feel it but you have not sung for a long time. If you take up cuddling you can get back to singing and only the babes will know how rusty you are. You should not ignore a gift, and the voice will go away on its own soon enough, no need to waste time. It ain’t yours to throw away.

“You should do what I say because I am usually right about these things. No guarantees, but I am close enough to the veil that it’s a little easier for me to see what needs doing. Not so many distractions, I think.”

She pulled my head down to her bony chest and resumed rocking, humming something, a hymn I think. I slept, deeply, for the first time in a year. In that room, not in the lemon drops.

Selina did a beautiful job on Bluebird’s bluebird. She stitched a tiny quilted vest, like one for a WalMart greeter, out of the lemon yellow onesie and added a pocket just big enough for my wedding ring when I took it off at night. Somehow she found a brass music box that played the rainbow song and put it in the bluebird’s belly so I could play it every night when I took my rings and glasses off. The little stuffed bluebird’s back was just right to hold my glasses and she roosted on my bed table to the left of the alarm clock, cradled between the wall and the lamp. Selina had made her trapunto wings out of a blue and white striped church dress, coming out of the arm holes in the vest, cleverly pleating the stripes into feathers and topstitching them to a deep blue lining.

The stuffed bird was the right size to cradle in two hands, its round blue eye somehow looking placidly at me regardless of what angle her head was at or where in the room I was. Selina had remembered what I told her about the blue moons on Bluebird’s fingernails when I saw her for the last time at the funeral home and had embroidered blue rims around each of the tiny embroidered claws. I tied the St. Anne’s medal from my own infancy around the stuffed bird’s neck with a blue ribbon and felt a little better, like I could at least do something for my Bluebird, something for her, this one thing.

So I started going regularly to the hospital to learn to cuddle, and found to my surprise that I was quite good at it. My voice is naturally high, in the best range for singing lullabies, and once Selina showed me how to match the time to my heartbeat, it went easily. We only needed to train together a few times before I was on my own. She told me she had been waiting for me to appear, and knew I would, because her real babies needed her, the babies in the Rock Garden, a dark extra warm quiet room in the basement where they take the newborns who cannot live and let them die peacefully rocked by and sung to by Selina, the best cuddler. There is no moral dilemma with these babies. These are babies born breathing but without a brain, the ones whose organs had been replaced with calcium so they looked like they were made of stone, the babies with no bones at all. Some have hours, some have days. Before they are taken to the Rock Garden, their pain is taken care of. Some are silent, some mewl like kittens, but all deserve a peaceful end with a human, even if, as was often the case, the parents can’t bear it. Selina was their guide and cuddler, and she needed to return to them.

The last time I was with Selina in the nursery, she asked me to sing the rainbow song, pulling me down into her lap as she had done the first time we met. I sang, shaky at first but then tender, the ukulele version not the passionate version.

I liked it that she didn’t ask, she didn’t require me to please be better, she didn’t ask, just pulled me into her generous lap, she didn’t ask but rocked and hummed harmony with me through my whole song. As “Why oh why can’t I?” faded away, Selina shoved me gently to my feet, saying, “You can get the dog back now.”

Three times a week now, I get up, take my rings out of the bluebird’s pocket, put my glasses on, wind the music box, get dressed in my cuddler smock with the deep pockets and go to the hospital.

Did I say I got Clyde the dog back? He took it matter of factly, slotting neatly back into his old, our old, routines without complaint.

And what happened with Bob you ask? I let him find me.

Anne Vinsel spent 16 years at the University of Utah Hospital doing medical writing and surgical photography. She holds a MS in psychology and an MFA in painting. She loves reading and writing fiction and playing with her friends, including her adorable and wiggly pit bull/great Dane/basset rescue dog, Dr. Miranda Bailey.

Rubor Participation:
2019: Poems, "Waiting: 10 Poems Begun at a Bus Stop," web edition
2019 Prose, "In Time of Famine, the Devil Dines on Fries," web edition
2019 Poem, "Lemon Drops," web edition
2019 Poem, "Triplets"
2015 Essay, "Pas Seul"
2014 Photograph, "Irrigation"
2014 Photograph, "Ghost Surgeon"
2014 Essay, "Listen, meine Kinder"
2014 Oil Painting, "Chemo Pond"