When babies are not all the way formed, or if they are all the way formed, they can be kind of gross, or so the nineteen-year-old version of me had once thought. I don’t mean live babies. I am thinking more along the lines of dead ones. Dead ones that, for some reason or other, did not form the way their parents imagined they would. Two cells fuse together to make high cheek bones from XY and brown looming eyes from XX—a perfect little meshing of the best attributes—with the aid of God in the case of my mother, or god in the case of my agnostic step-father who spoke in scientific formalities to keep anyone from figuring him out.
The baby was passed around before us in the funeral home—Marjorie—the almost sister who I didn’t quite know how to feel about. Feel in the ”touch” way—because it (she?) was cold and firm the way a piece of thawing chicken might be without the skin—the firmness could be felt below the layers of her dress. Because she was only five months in the catacomb, she was partially formed and much too small to be embalmed.
My brother didn’t know how to feel about it either. He showed up to the funeral home baked. He kept saying how small she was. Others called her beautiful. He and I both knew that there was nothing beautiful about that bruise-colored baby. She was frail like she was fashioned together out of bird bones tossed about in a cold, leather casing. Her eyes were not wholly formed, had never opened; her nose was as tiny as a Barbie doll’s with fingers the thickness of the protection ring I wore. She could fit in the palm of my hand.
She was wearing a doll dress that Mom had bought at a toy store. The lady at the register had complimented her on the choice. Mom had made up something about it being for a friend’s baby—which is what she told us about that christening outfit we found hanging in her closet that was actually for the baby that would have been our brother, had Dad not killed him when he beat her that one time.
Mom held Marjorie and cried, and Mamow cried, and fanned the tears from her face—mother and daughter and granddaughter with the look of hard times lining their skin. Bitterness drilled through the center of the open eyes. The hushed sanitary smell of the funeral home made me queasy, like sticking a nauseated face into a trashcan lined with a lemon-scented bag. It was too much, that formality—that sudden amount of warm feeling on display. I looked over and could see tears on my dad’s face which struck something in me and I wasn’t quite sure what, back then. I had never seen him cry before.
I didn’t cry and my brother didn’t either.
My sister did.
My dad paced the room and I thought that if there was some sort of leveling force in the world—be it god or God or Karma or something else—then the death of the only born child his penis had ever produced was wiping his slate clean. Square with the world. Tabula rasa. Marjorie’s death struck something in him. My father—who I feared on many levels—was going soft.
His distance was part and parcel with his existence in our lives. He was like a cloud: present, shifting, intangible, thunderclap. He adopted us and gave us his name when our biological sperm donor had left. He was a hard man to figure out. Mom had him put in jail a bunch of times for doing the bad things that he did. But then, pink lilies and a chance at love and working one job instead of two was enough to take him back every time. She did love him and he did love her, he was just bad at it. One night, he made a special dinner for all of us—mini cheeseburgers that we called “flingers” because of the way he put them on the plates.
He always hugged us like we might refuse him.
The day after Marjorie’s wake, I was sitting in the car with my sister and brother, awaiting the caravan drive to the cemetery. Mom and Dad were in the car ahead of us, directly behind the hearse. My sister was saying that Dad was a piece of shit—he did a lot of wrong and he deserved all those horrible things that happened to him as a child. He was the reason that she had moved out so young, why Mamow moved out so late.
I looked at the car ahead of us and said that Dad wouldn’t hit Mom when Mamow was around, and she was always getting up and leaving the room like a fucking coward. She looked at me like she looked at Dad and began to cry.
I tightened the grip around the steering wheel. You have a weak constitution, I told her.
My brother was quiet. I thought of the time he got a baseball bat to defend Mom.
My sister ran inside the funeral home, streaming lines of wet black down her cheeks, bumping into my 6th grade teacher on the way in. Mrs. Coleman had called my mom to tell on me once, for hitting a kid at school. My mom hung up the phone and broke my nose.
Mom got out of the car and ran after my sister and then came back to my car and said I had to go in and apologize. And then I said, no she’s a coward. And then Mom was like—get a move on—Marjorie’s in the back of the hearse thawing and we’re not leaving until you go get your sister.
I went back into the funeral home and said to my sister through the bathroom door—hey—I’m sorry that you’re weak, why don’t you come on out anyway? She told me that I sounded just like Dad. Then I said that there are other people coming in for the next service and they have their own dead body to sit before and wail—to hurry up and finish feeling bad for herself so we could go bury our dead sister.
We drove in silence to the grave site which was aptly named “Babyland.” We walked through the gauntlet of wind-torn flowers and dirtied teddy bears lying several gravestones away from their owners. I flicked a cigarette and jumped over a headstone marked ‘Infant Boy, 1895’ and wondered if Marjorie was an abortion instead of a still birth, if she would have been carted out in one of those toxic human waste bags.
When they began to lower her shoebox casket into the ground, I wanted to hug my sister but I thought she might refuse.
Many years later, the day I married, my dad walked me down the aisle. He didn’t know how to tell me that he thought I was beautiful or that he was proud of the woman I had become. I didn’t know how to tell him thank you for being my father by choice. We didn’t know how to hold each other for the father-daughter dance—both of us trying to be better than what we had been in the past—clunkily attempting to know how to love with softer hands.
Now that I’m older, I know that who we have become has to do with Marjorie’s death.
The day before her funeral, before she was closed up in her casket, I was alone in the room with her.
I touched her hand to know what something once alive becomes.
I took the protection ring from my finger and tucked it under her pillow—so in case this baby who was never quite alive on her own and never quite dead because she died inside of a seemingly protective force—in case Marjorie who never was but might have been, had brought us all something, the least I could give was a piece of protection from life—something not all together understood by the living—much less someone who on the very base level was nothing more than cold thawing flesh.