HER NAME ISN’T CHAMBERLAIN ANYMORE. That decision was a struggle for her since her baby bears that name, one that belongs to her ex-husband. Taking back her maiden name was an effort to establish her identity again, something she lost along the way to the cemetery shortly after she lost her baby. What was for an instant three in her family was now reduced to her, the woman who every Friday brings a new windmill and tends the grass growing around the lamb headstone and marker that bears the name Katie Chamberlain.
Six years into her marriage Karen conceived after fertility treatments. She started with an anti-estrogen drug to increase her likelihood of ovulation. She got pregnant shortly after, but miscarried after four weeks. Another round of Clomiphene produced no results so she was injected with a gonadotropin to trigger her ovaries to produce and release her eggs.
It seemed that her drug therapies were contradicted by events happening outside her body, namely stress induced by her husband at the time and their extended family, the previous generation of mothers specifically. Karen and her husband, Mike, were the products of a patriarchal culture where status and worth were garnered through virility and fertility, which isn’t a new or even uncommon cultural measurement, and yet, not without its price. Karen learned and believed since a tender age that her value as a person would be ameliorated as a mother. She married early under the auspices of love and when the couple’s attempts at procreation proved fruitless, certain aspersions were cast on the two, and then when issues with his virility were ruled out, Karen became the target. She lived in a faith much like Ian where there were certain irrevocable laws in cause and effect, that obedience and clean living result in blessings.
It was also assumed that the inverse of that was true, so for Karen being unable to bear children there must be something wrong with her, a breach of faith, an undisclosed transgression, or something as simple and as disdained as doubt. At the very least, her childlessness was a disappointment to her mother and mother-in-law and was an incorrect indication of her husband’s virility, something which he held against her. The longer these expectations remained unfulfilled, the more self-sacrificing Karen became in trying to circumvent their inability to have children, and the more turgid became her husband’s regret in marrying her. His regret turned into resentment, the black mold of their marriage where it had already done its damage long before it was ever discovered.
Her struggle to get pregnant was the first, the miscarriage the second, and the death of their baby the terminal blow to their marriage. For Karen, though, it was her saving grace. Having been liberated from the perpetual oppression of her husband and subjugation of her family and their beliefs, Karen eventually found herself on quiet Friday mornings sitting next to her infant daughter’s grave where she realized that through the passing of her sweet baby – alive for only minutes after she was delivered – Karen could shed the unrealistic expectations of her life and release the weighty displacement her husband bore on her esteem that made her living almost impossible.
NOW KAREN’S FRIDAY VISITS to the cemetery have two purposes, one to express her gratitude to a child that had no chance of living outside her womb, and the second to create herself anew in that gratitude, her identity, a habit she’d extend throughout the week. On Tuesdays that meant being creative. On this Tuesday morning, Karen was staining an old ash wash basin table – a relic that came across the plains with her great grandmother – when she heard the knock at her door. Karen reached it before the second knock was necessary and opened it to find Ian McDaniel. The only indication of Ian’s anxiety induced by Karen’s presence was his slightly turned-in right foot.
“Are you Karen Chamberlain?”
She’s neither off-putting nor warmly receptive. She didn’t care much for door-knocking types, especially in pairs, which was something Ian had going for him. Her face and slight head nod indicated the that she was Karen, if not Chamberlain.
“My name is Ian McDaniel, I’m a professor at the university, doing a bit of a survey.”
“I don’t go by Chamberlain. It’s Pierce now.”
Ian checks his notes and makes a correction.
“What is it you’re doing?” She looks at him, hard, studying him carefully, something kicking around in her memory.
“I’m doing research on infant mortality in our area and with all due respect and my sincere condolences, I found you through the Chronicle’s archived obituaries, the one about your baby, Katie.” he says. Karen is taken aback. Since her departure from all things oppressive, Katie is a name she hasn’t heard in conversation for months now.
“I have a few questions about your prenatal care up to Katie’s delivery. Would it be okay if we talked?” Ian has since corrected his pigeon toe.
“Please, come in,” she says. She steps back with the widening door and allows Ian entry to her home. It’s a small Craftsman bungalow with a habitable attic, bright and spartan in the repopulating of her decor. A small couch with an adjacent rocking chair anchor the space and Ian lights on the sofa knowing full well the pad on the seat and the quilts slung on the back of the rocker are intended for only one person, and there she sits. Now it’s Ian’s turn to look at her closely.
“Would you mind signing a form? It’s a stipulation of this kind of research, lets the university off the hook of any liability. It’s just a formality.” Ian hands Karen a clipboard with a document on it and a pen. She signs. He looks around quickly while she does, getting a sense of her context, the most noticeable aspect of which is the absence of photographs. There is artwork, but nothing indicative of any relationships.
“And what is this for?” she asks. The noise from this man’s presence obscured her understanding at the door. There’s something very familiar about him, but she has yet to nail it.
“It’s for my dissertation. I’m working on my Ph.D and part of my research-”
“A Ph.D in what?”
Ian checks his next lie against the facts of the institution where he teaches, and decides to stay general.
“I’m researching the biological anthropology of this area in terms of birthrates and infant mortality, specifically the practice of inducing labor with the use of oxytocin or pitocin.”
He has hit a nerve with her. She sits back into the reception of the quilts and draws her knees up to her chest and wraps her arms around them. The rocking chair leans back in her new center of gravity.
“What did you same your name was?” she asks.
“Okay, Ian. What do you want to know?”
Her shift in both her tone and her body elicits his question. “Are you okay in talking about your pregnancy and the delivery of your baby?”
“I’m fine. Go on.”
Ian checks his notes again. The only note there is the intake form from the Chamberlain file.
“It’s been a little over a year?” he asks.
“Tell me about your pregnancy. Regular prenatal visits?”
She was a prenatal stickler. Visits, diet, exercise, everything by the book. It was nine months of risk-reducing vigilance.
“I made regular visits, yes,” she says.
“And you went full term.”
“To the day.”
She hugs her knees tighter. She has put this all away and is trying to move on, putting space in between like her hesitancy in responding.
“To the day? What does that mean?” asks Ian.
“Katie was a full-term pregnancy. She was seven pounds, four ounces. I had regular prenatal care, no complications right up to her birth.”
“To the day. Was your labor induced?”
“My husband was going to be out of town around the time so we scheduled the delivery.”
“Scheduled?” he says, as if it were a new concept to him.
“We were to go in at a given time, they’d strip my membranes and start labor.”
“And you were at term at this point?”
“To the day,” she says.
Ian writes to the day on the intake form.
“You said, ‘Right up to her birth.’ What happened after you delivered?”
“She was blue and wasn’t breathing. They worked on her for a few minutes but couldn’t get her heart going again.”
“Did they do anything else to induce labor?”
“Stripping my membranes and breaking my water didn’t start my contractions so they gave me oxytocin.”
Ian is on his haunches, his hands now clasped in front of him. “And your labor started then?”
“It took awhile to start, but after the second injection my contractions kicked in.”
“And how long was your labor?”
“It lasted three hours and then Katie’s heart rate started to climb, and that’s when I delivered.”
Ian knows this. He has read through her chart thoroughly, so Karen’s account is curious to him. She did not mention the oxytocin until he pressed.
“It’s my fault,” she says.
Ian has heard this before, those words that germinate in the sacrifice of one’s self. He wants to intervene with something, a string of words to crush the crazy notion of blame and the shame that accompanies it, but he knows there is nothing that could be said that can penetrate that aching place of psychological self-cutting. It would have to be something tangible, something logical, evidence of forces beyond her control that terminated her baby’s life.
“Who was the delivering physician?” asks Ian.
“Doctor Reagan. Doctor Gray Reagan, not the other one.”
“What if I were to tell you that in my research I’ve discovered evidence of Doctor Reagan’s mistakes in delivering your baby?”
And then Karen lights up, something resonates within her, a recognition she knew she’d come around to, obscuring any value Ian’s question may have held for her.
“I saw you at the cemetery!” she says.
“I’m sorry?” he says on the cusp of this ruse going awry.
“It was, it was you. Everyone had left and there you were all by yourself by that open grave.”
Ian is stunned by her narrative.
“Oh God, you looked so painful,” she continues as her arms release from around her legs, her compassion drives her hand, palm down, reaching for him. “I felt so bad for you there.”
She finds his hand, his left, wedding band still in place, and carefully caresses over the top of his. Ian’s self-control is his only way out of there, what energy he has left is usurped in his departure.
“I’m sorry, you must be mistaken,” Ian says, the only thing that comes to mind. He hadn’t planned an exit strategy here, too confident in his newfound purpose of bringing Doctor Reagan’s mortality rates into question.
“It was just last week. I watched you at that funeral,” she says.
He rises from the sofa and heads to the door.
“I’m, sorry, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he asserts and he leaves Karen Pierce’s home.