1938, Northern Michigan Insane Asylum Three hundred and seventeen souls took flight during the tuberculosis epidemic. Ama and the rest of the team of nurses and volunteers tended to them, cleaned their beds, soothed their coughs, and prepared bodies for burial. She worked endlessly, at all hours of the day, and took over for Nurse Kolenda when she developed the telltale rattle in her chest. Nurse Kolenda recovered; many others did not. And when the epidemic passed and the halls emptied and were washed and polished again, the hospital returned to its former state as an asylum. Patients were locked in their wards. Treatments for their mental ailments resumed. And a new doctor arrived on campus. He brought with him knowledge of a new technique that would cure the most violent of patients of the terrible spirit writhing within them. By drilling holes into a skull, the mean spirits were released and the patient returned to life quieter, simpler, and (Ama thought) without any personality left. Later, the surgery would be replaced with the simple use of an icepick through the eye and into the frontal lobes of the brain. This, though, would be a decade yet before coming.
Ama grew big with child and though everyone at the asylum knew she was pregnant, knew in fact that Doctor Kinney had placed it within her womb, the nurses and doctors responded with silence. They did not acknowledge the pregnancy and so it was as if it didn’t exist.
Mallie Lyn Peters returned to work at the asylum where she would take up duties as one of the cooks in the three cafeterias. She placed the food order with George who brought her baskets and baskets of meat, cheese, fruits and vegetables. And one day, he brought her a ring.
The moment he slipped the ring on her finger, far away, in the belly of the hospitals, Ama bit her lower lip and began to push.
Her daughter entered the world much as she did…in the shadows…but this time, there were hands to welcome her as several inmates had followed their favorite nurse down into the tunnels. They had not turned their backs to her pregnancy. In fact, they awaited it with anticipation and Ama’s daughter was greeted with laughter and joy.
Ama gave her new child her nipple to suckle. She pulled on it and her lips smacked. The pain that ran through her breast struck her as proof that her child was alive and fierce with longing. She would grow strong and healthy, but she would not grow up here.
On their wedding day, when George carried Mallie Lyn over the threshold and into the small dusty space that was their kitchen, a basket greeted them with a small child wrapped in hospital cloth. Mallie immediately heated some milk and soothed the screaming babe with milk dribbled from a cloth. The newlyweds did not discuss it. They looked at each other and simply nodded. They would call her Elizabeth. She was their daughter, for what does it matter where a person comes from or how they’re brought into the world as long as once they are in it, they are swaddled in love.
Now I know. I know the truth of my past, the place where I started, and how my parents came to raise and love me.
Am I better for knowing the truth? Yes. I think I am. I have always felt different from my family, and now I know why. I refuse, though, to believe that I am an abomination. I am not doomed to repeat the mistakes of Dr. Kinney, my biological father. Nor am I doomed to remain trapped in a place like my biological mother, Ama. She was trapped, I think. Or maybe not. Maybe giving me up was a choice that allowed her to do good work at the hospital. She stayed at the asylum until her own death twenty years ago.
To think, I missed knowing her by one year. Had I found this out last year, I might have tracked her down. We would have shared tea and…what? Conversation?
I cannot answer all the questions I have about my birth, but I can answer the ones my daughter will have about her own.
I will tell her that when she was but one month from being born, her grandmother (Mallie Lynn Peters) and I packed my belongings into two suitcases and I left that house on 2nd Street. I left to dishes crashing and my husband screaming and as Ama did so many years before, I heard the echo of my footsteps as I walked away from him.
We are not who our parents were. We are unique creatures and worthy of love.
Now, as I write this, my darling girl Ama Lynn naps next to me. I can here the soft puffs of breath from her. My mother works in the garden. And I think of what is to come next. I, too, am no longer trapped. I do not know what waits for me and my daughter, my daughter who represents the best parts of me and her father, the best things in life. My daughter represents hope. I will love her. I will tend to her. And when she grows up she will have choices before her, and she will not be afraid.
There is no reason to be afraid.
We will not hide in the tunnels anymore. We will be fiercely happy. We will move forward, into the light.