He was born in San Bernardino, California, two months early. We were visiting Ezra’s grandparents and he was securely nestled in the womb, growing and thriving. It was February 18th, the orange blossoms had taken over the air and the warmth of the sun mingled with the fresh coolness to create a distinct “California in February” intoxication. My grandmother was alive and well, and with her came our whole Greek culture. Many members of the family had happily migrated from Toledo, Ohio to the ease and airy existence of southern California. Pancho and I and our little son Ty were just visiting from Massachusetts. As I climbed into the car at dusk, heading for a big family dinner, I felt something warm and gushing, hot red blood underneath me. I looked down on the seat of the car and saw the dark red stain on the cloth. “Oh no, oh no,” I heard my grandmother exclaim as she caught sight of the dark red seat. “Take her to the hospital!”
We found ourselves in a new home for the next two months. We found ourselves in a foreign land. Beeps, repetitive beeps, neon blue lights, nurses and doctors, hushed conversations. It was a cesarean. The bleeding was caused by a “placenta previa” (placenta blocking the way for birth), something my midwife had not detected, so I was bound to my bed with stitches that needed healing. My only longing was to have Matthias, my firstborn son, in my arms. Where was he? At my mother’s house…wrapped in the protective shroud of strong, take-charge women: my mom, my sister, my grandmother. They all circled the wagons and took charge at the home front while I lay in pieces an hour and a half away at San Bernardino Hospital.
It dawned on me that in all of my 33 years, I had never stayed in a hospital. “He is a big strong boy, but his lungs are not developed,” a nurse’s aide said in a hopeful voice. “The healthier they are, the longer they take to mature.” Thus began the oxygen game: 99% today, 100%, 89%…(the amount of oxygen needed to assist Ezra’s breathing). “Well, he’s coming along…” For five days, he was normal and everything else was very odd. Then our lives were ripped into “before” and “after” in ways we could scarcely grasp.
Very early in the morning of the sixth day, at 2am, I lay asleep in my hospital bed. I had a dream. The fluorescent lights of my room blared in a flash from zero to 100%, shocking me into awareness. In front of me stood a very small Indian woman, the doctor who seemed to be in charge. She stood tensely, piercing my consciousness. “Something has happened. You must come.” I fumbled around in my mind, a hazy reality check. This was a dream. Oh, what a relief. I sank back into my bed, descending again into deep sleep. Then within what seemed like minutes, the nauseating bluish light snapped on for real, and I was jerked into the room and the urgency of the small Indian doctor’s voice telling me something had happened.
They had been doing CAT scans all along, daily. But Pancho and I hadn’t been aware of that. The last CAT scan had shown a massive dark spot where some blood vessels had burst and had bled, destroying some of the brain matter. From that moment on, I can say I have tasted tragedy. The baby with the dark straight hair and a sweet elf-like diminutive face, with eyes closed, looked the same. But I overheard one nurse say to another, “That one is a ‘bad’ baby. The ones that have brain bleeds are kind of spoiled, not worth it anymore.” So began the fierce battle to resurrect hope for my son, to find out what “worth it” meant in his life and ours.
Ezra’s big burly Greek grandfather came in for a visit after two days. He gave Ezra his pinky finger. Papou said on his way out, “Don’t worry about a thing, Stella. He gave me a squeeze. He squeezed my finger. He’s going to be just fine.” His deep bass voice at that moment softened into a tender whisper. He had soothed and comforted himself entirely after this one tiny act.
“Just fine.” It was ultimately true, in a much deeper sense then I could have ever imagined. But we had miles to go to reach “just fine,” miles that led us off the map we thought we were using. That stay in the hospital in San Bernadino was suspended; a surreal island floating in the midst of real life.
Full breasts taut with milk were pumped awkwardly, painfully. That was my single daily mission – something I could do – give the “good antibodies.” Ezra’s sucking was of primary concern. He was taking in milk in a tiny bottle. All eyes were on his sucking. So I pumped. I pumped and I prayed. The thin sweet milk that was coming from me was charged with my hopes and all of my prayers. I thought the more fiercely I prayed the more effective those prayers would be, so I prayed with the same sense of mission – to make all of this fit into the world view ‘just fine.’ Desperate, beseeching prayers to my God.
Was that the Greek Orthodox God who peered down at me from icons amid incense on those many Sundays of my childhood? Yes, I believe it was. After our crash into the valley of ‘damaged baby’ that iconic image of the Greek Theos turned into a bitter traitor. Hadn’t he heard and understood my devoted, humble longings for a healthy baby?
It seemed he hadn’t.
Only now, as Ezra has been gone for seven years, can I say that the Benevolent Being (including the image of “O Theos” on the yellowed, darkened icon in the Byzantine Church of my youth) AND the Buddha AND Allah – all of them – the Good Great Gods together held me with care in one hand and gave me the greatest gift of love and transformation in the other hand – in the form of this so-called damaged babe, in spite of the terrible wrenching pain. Only, back then, I didn’t know.
My powerful maternal instincts continued to churn, turning into a pack of lions and burning up everything in their path with ferocious roars and crushing heartbreak for this little man who so easily got lost in his baby blue flannel blanket.
Fiercely protected, loved and mourned, this all came mostly after the fifth day of Ezra’s life with the startling news of “a massive bleeding in the brain.” A large, dark spot…White and clinical, leaning back in his office chair, the doctor trimmed his statements with blurry borders. “We cannot ever really say what will be – but this looks pretty serious.” In the crush of emotion, hormones, confusion, I don’t know what I felt for the messenger at that time. But now: You poor man, what a job.
Through all of this, Pancho offered the most extreme solidity: silent, strong, ultimate comfort, a tenderness I had not yet seen, nor witnessed since. But it was just what was called for, when it was most desperately needed. Upright and strong, yet ever so soft without even a remote chance of caving in. I’m sure that Pancho was unaware of his radiating strength and certainty that all is well and will be well. It seemed effortless.
Days later in the hospital some interns from the Social Services department asked to sit in on a follow-up conversation with the doctor. After witnessing the meeting they came towards us – asking, “How do you explain your strength and ability to handle this devastating news?” It felt as if they were peering into a petri dish and stirring up the contents. I felt nothing but disgust towards them, even though I usually cheer “research.” I don’t have a clue what I said, but I can ‘taste’ what I experienced at that moment and must just spit it on the floor…Too vulnerable to be addressed as a petri dish just then.
But all right. Time has softened even this. I see now that it was a genuine inquiry, fueled by a drive to be more helpful to others. “Give us your tools so we can help others to better endure this kind of tragedy,” they might have said.
How can I now attempt to squeeze into words the answer to their question? The answer would bulge and drip over the small containers that words provide. But that’s our job, here…to try the impossible. So. It is a little answer, really. Love. The love that Pancho provided when he quietly stood by my side. The love that burned in my soul for that vulnerable brave boy who was the legacy of our union. And just love (and passion) for life. To want it sweet. To make it sweet.
note from Suzi: Without a proper bio of Stella here, I offer you these words by our beloved Matt Tannenbaum of The Bookstore in Lenox, about Stella and a reading she did last December.
EZRA: A Mother’s Portrait
If you know the painter Stella Elliston then you probably know the mother Stella Elliston. Now meet the author Stella Elliston who has taken up the memoir brush to paint a portrait of her son Ezra.
Bottom’s Dream from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is as close as I can come to tell you about this book, this story, this family here amongst us in Berkshire County, late 20th century, early 21st.
“…The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was. . . “
In other words, don’t listen to me try to describe this most rare volume, a mother’s portrait of her lost son. Come and hear her read from and talk about her first published literary work this coming Thursday evening, Dec 15 at 5:30 pm right here at The Bookstore.
If the first and last word about writing is ‘write what you know’, Stella Elliston gets an A+. she’s turned a life into art, and in so doing has recreated that life again. “Ezra: A Mother’s Portrait” is as head-on a literary experience as you are likely to get in your lifetime.