International Writers Magazine: Life Stories
was 1968, a summer of love, and so it was with Martha and Odell.
They had three girls, the youngest at sixteen months, and another
child on the way. Back then, you didn't know what you were going
to have until it popped out screaming at the world.
Martha was eight
months pregnant and as big as a Christmas ham. She was alone quite a
bit with Odell being out of town, his job in sales. It was a necessary
evil, someone had to make enough money to feed all those mouths. And
he was doing a pretty good job of it.
But Martha wasn't totally without help, there was Norma Lee, her sister-in-law,
whose husband was constantly gone on business, too. Norma and her husband
were trying to conceive at every possible chance also, after four years
of marriage they thought the time was right.
Norma Lee spent almost half her nights with Martha and the kids, helping
her with house chores and motherly duties. Having helped raise three
younger siblings herself, she was no stranger to what it took to run
a household. From laundry and cooking to cleaning and changing diapers,
Norma knew what needed to be done. She was present for both emotional
and physical support.
And she happened to be there that one night, when Martha told Odell
it was time. That time. A month premature, but she knew labor pains
when she felt them. And these were the real thing. Norma accompanied
Odell and Martha to the hospital, excited for the latest addition to
the family. Back then, kids weren't allowed at the hospital for births.
Odell had always wanted a boy but had been blessed with three lovely
girls. Sandra, Sharon and Kimberly. He hoped that this one would be
a boy, if anything, just to help even out the power in the household.
It was already four to one.
Back in 1968, men weren't allowed in the delivery room, and so Odell
camped in the waiting room with Norma. He paced and worried, but still
held his confidence because there'd never been any problems before.
But this time, they were here a month too early. This time was different.
When the doctor appeared, he braced himself.
"Mr. Greeson," he said. "Your girl looks just like your
Odell beamed, it was a girl, a beautiful healthy girl. His heart leapt.
And then the doctor continued, "But your boy looks just like you."
Boy? But that meant
Odell grabbed the back of a chair while the doctor grinned. Norma would
never forget that moment and the look on Odell's face. It was happiness
pure and simple, the kind where your surroundings cease to matter and
the only thing you experience is the loudness of silence.
Shannon and Steven were quite the pair, hardly bigger than Martha's
hands when she held them for their first picture, a polaroid Norma took.
The family was complete, Odell had gotten his wish but he'd also gotten
more than he bargained for. It was an even better deal than he could
have ever imagined. Love is a funny thing, the more the need for it,
the more there is to go around.
The whole family helped Martha out with the new additions. The girls
all wanted to take care of their little brother and sister. Sandy sang
them to sleep, humming the tunes to songs because she didn't know the
words, she wasn't even four yet. Sharon helped change diapers, barely
out of them herself. And little Kim, at sixteen months, brought their
bottles when her mother needed them. One blue one and one pink one.
She was so smart, she even knew which one went to Steven and which to
Shannon. They were one big happy family.
Shannon and Steven were only two months and twenty-three days old when
they got sick. They cried and cried. It was a cold, the doctor said
when Odell frantically called him. There was no reason to bring them
in, it sounded like just a cold, it would run its course like they always
The next morning, Odell woke to find that Shannon was no longer breathing.
Her frail little body was cool and clammy and she wasn't moving, still
wrapped up in her pink pajamas with the smiling duck embroidered on
the chest. She would never cry again.
Steve is thirty-eight
years old now and expecting his first child. My mom said his wife was
dialated something or another. What she was telling me in pregnancy
terms was that she was due any moment now.
© Ross Cavins
That was what triggered the memory of Shannon and her death, and she
told me the whole story for the first time. My mom is Norma Lee, she
was there for most of what happened and she's got a memory that would
make an elephant jealous.
I'd always known that Steve had a twin and that she had died, but no
one ever told me exactly what happened. I just assumed that she was
still-born. I guess the pain was too great for anyone to relive. I'm
not even sure I ever knew she had a name until today when my mom visited
me and recounted the tale.
My mom has a way with words, she uses a lot of them. Sometimes when
she tells a story, there's no real beginning and no real end. It just
wanders aimlessly from subject to subject until someone can wrest the
conversation away from her. We all kid her about it. But today, I said
nothing as I listened. I was stunned and speechless.
The morning Shannon passed, Odell called the doctor back. He said, "My
little girl is dead, will you see my boy now you son of a bitch or should
we wait till he's dead, too?" Or something like that, it's pretty
close. It sounds like something Odell would say.
My mom was devastated when everything happened, she said it was as if
it had been her child. She was that close to Martha and the kids. For
my mom, there's no other way to be with family, she's the most emotionally
invested person I've ever known. Her empathy can be quite overwhelming
at times, and in fact, I found it stifling more often than not when
I was growing up. Though now, I finally understand why, and I might
have reacted the same.
She was so scared, so frightened at the time, that her and my dad quit
trying to conceive. She couldn't live through an experience like that
again. A child two and a half weeks old, its life stolen away from it
as quickly as it came into the world. It was another three years before
they had me, and my sister followed four years later.
Little bits of Valium, my mom told me, holding her finger and thumb
apart as if to justify she didn't take entire pills. Little bits of
Valium is how she made it through my infant years, always afraid that
one day she'd awake to find my little body quiet and unmoving. Even
three years after Shannon's death, she could still feel the pain and
heartache from that morning like it were a fresh wound. It reached out
to her in the middle of the night and she'd panic, rush to my side,
and make sure I was still breathing. She'd watch my chest move up and
down through tired eyes, touch my face and feel my warmth, and then
settle back down for more restless sleep. It was the same with my little
sister, she told me, little bits of Valium. And a whole lot of love,
My mom told me the story about Steven and Shannon, the wetness gathering
in her eyes, her lips trembling as she spoke, reliving these memories
that were thirty-eight years old. Remembering them like they occurred
only yesterday. Experiencing the same pain and loss all over again,
like a Veteran might react to sharing his war stories. What got me the
most were the details she could still recall. Steven and Shannon were
so small they slept in the same crib, positioned sideways with a little
divider across the middle. I pictured them like that Anne Geddes picture,
the one of two peas in a pod.
I was dazed when she told me the story, one I'd never heard but thought
I already knew, so I don't remember many of the details now. I was laying
in bed, unable to sleep, and one detail kept replaying in my mind like
a broken movie reel. It haunted me and forced me to get up and try to
write the whole account down. My mom's tears threatened to burst forward
when she recalled that memory and I'll never forget the anguish in her
eyes as she sat not more than two feet from me and said the words. It
happened the morning after Shannon's death, when sweet little Kimberly,
all sixteen months of her, eagerly made her way to the kitchen and waddled
back to the twin's room with two bottles. She presented them to her
mother. A blue one and a pink one.
I was once on a reality TV show where the contestant who lost the most
weight won the prize money. I never saw so many fatties in one place making
fools of themselves
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