by Karen Beaumont
Dedicated to Pierre Lioni Ullman with gratitude for our seven Septembers.
Ruth’s alarm went off well before dawn. She got up to stretch and say her prayers. At breakfast, she read the Bible. She braided her hair and pinned the braids up across her head, making a little crown of dark brown hair. She packed her lunch and supper into her backpack along with her Bible and prayer book and a small orthodox icon tryptic depicting Jesus, Mary, and the Trinity. Her two cats were lying in front of an open window, enjoying the morning breeze.
By the time she left the house, there was enough light to feel safe walking. She looked back for a moment at her little house and then turned towards the hospital. There were only so many stories she could think about at one time. There were only so many feelings she could sift through at any one time.
The direct route to the hospital took twenty minutes, but in the morning, she preferred a longer route that took her along the shore of Lake Michigan. The sunrise was different each day. Today it was the kind of warm she dreamt about in January – friendly, healthy. It was Labor Day. The population of geese was increasing in preparation for their flight south.
There were joggers and bikers and others out for walks, but the early morning crowd, especially on a holiday, was quiet and not as likely to articulate an enthusiastic American “Hi!”
She smiled at her own contradiction and the irony of this thought. She was an American, and she had never left the country. But Slavomir introduced her to a different ethos.
With this thought, she began her daily ritual of, “what was I doing eight years ago today? Seven years ago today?” There is never really a beginning to any story: what happened to her was because of what happened to her parents (who she never knew) and whatever happened to them.
To keep things from becoming too complicated, she usually began with eight years ago.
Eight years ago, she was a nanny for a wealthy couple who were co-pastors at a large, evangelical Christian church. They had two natural born sons but couldn’t conceive any more. After ten years of trying, they decided to adopt two girls from China. Ruth was a live-in nanny, helping with homework, getting the girls ready for piano lessons, taking them to the library.
She was eighteen when she started with them, fresh out of the foster care system. When she turned eighteen, her social worker said, “What are you going to do with your life.”
“I want to be a mother.”
“You will need a husband for that. What will you do in the meantime?”
Ruth sat in the chair across from the social worker. “I don’t know. All I want to do is be a mother.”
The social worker had the idea of a nanny. This gave Ruth experience with children and a place to live.
The couple invited her to their church. Ruth was thrilled. The music swept her away. The large crowd singing enveloped her. The husband and wife she worked for preached powerful sermons about goodness and hope and Jesus. Ruth was baptized and received from them a Bible which she read every night before bed.
The couple’s two older sons still lived at home. The oldest son was in trade school to become a plumber. The second son enrolled in a local Christian college. His dream was to follow in his father’s footsteps. “Heir Apparent” was the term people at their church used.
Fourth of July weekend of 2010 found the couple leading a conference in a nearby city. After Ruth put the girls to bed, she went to her own room to read the Bible. John, the younger son, knocked on her door.
“Ruth, can I come in?”
“Sure,” she said without any forethought.
He came in and stood by her bed. “Ruth, you are so kind and beautiful. Can I hug you?”
Ruth had never known her parents, had grown up in foster homes, some of which were not good, others of which were utilitarian: she was clean and fed and clothed and sent to school. Sometimes people hugged her at church, and it was so foreign that she could barely reciprocate and often stood staring and silent after.
He laid down next to her and hugged her and whispered flattering things until her whole self melted into the moment.
Within a month, she was sure she was pregnant and approached the wife who immediately called her husband and then the family doctor. Their wealth afforded them a “concierge” doctor who moved things along so quickly that, in less than twenty four hours, Ruth found herself sitting in their study, being served an ultimatum.
“We will arrange for you to have an abortion immediately.”
“I don’t want an abortion. I want to be a mother. I don’t understand; you always preach against abortion.”
“Yes, but this is different.”
“Yes, because this will ruin our son’s future as the minister for our church.”
“We can get married.”
“He doesn’t want to marry you, and you aren’t the right person to be his wife.”
Ruth understood many things about them and her place in their life, about her place in life, and about the situation she was in. She sat quietly.
“I am not getting an abortion.”
The husband and wife dismissed her from their study.
The next day, they drove her to their lawyer’s office. Via a charitable fund set up by their church for “girls in an unfortunate situation”, Ruth would be given a room in a rooming house, money for food and basic expenses. The lawyer would find her a social worker who would help her access government health benefits. She was to leave their home immediately, was not allowed to call their home, and was not allowed back in their church.
The man and woman left the lawyer’s office on their own. Ruth sat across the desk from the lawyer.
“I just lost my home and my church.”
“We are going to set you up with a home. You will be taken care of and so will your baby.”
“I still don’t have a church.”
The lawyer sat with the statement for a minute and then offered a solution.
“I go to a very different sort of church. It is called Orthodox. The service is very different, but you might be taken by the beauty of our church and the art work called icons.”
“How do I get there?”
“There is a couple from our church not too far from your new home. Would you be willing to ride with them?”
“What will they think of my situation?”
“They will be kind.”
So, she was set up in a rooming house: a small room with a bed and dresser and desk. There was a kitchen on the first floor with shared refrigerator space and carboard signs displaying rules about how to use the kitchen. She only had some clothes, a phone, and her Bible. She was given an allowance for groceries. The house had quiet times, which helped her to sleep, but during the day, there was the constant noise of televisions and people talking on their phones.
It was the first trimester of her pregnancy, and the bottom had just fallen out of her life. She slept a lot, walked to the corner store each morning for food, walked each afternoon to the library to check out books on babies and child rearing. At night she read those books and her Bible. The social worker and lawyer checked in with her every day.
The couple from her lawyer’s church drove her to the Orthodox Cathedral for a Sunday morning service. Ruth’s only experience at church had been the evangelic Christian church of her employers, and all she knew about this one was that it would be different.
And it was: the room was huge, with a dome that housed a giant mosaic of Christ. Every inch of the walls was mosaics portraying Bible stories and what she later learned were saints. They stood the whole service. Everything was sung by the choir. There was incense.
At the end of the service, she needed to sit down, and the couple found her a chair where she sat while they greeted friends. She really couldn’t follow the service, but sitting in that beautiful room, surrounded by lively and colorful depictions of the Bible and other obviously worthy stories was enough for her. The building enveloped her in the goodness that it stood for.
Her pregnancy progressed on schedule, and soon the social worker was taking her to weekly childbirth classes and began looking for a housing situation that would allow her to have an infant.
She was due the beginning of April, the date of the Orthodox Easter that year. The couple smiled and said maybe she’d have an Easter Bunny. By then she already knew it was a girl.
“What will you name her?” they asked.
“She was the first girl in paradise. She is my paradise already.”
Ruth’s contractions began, however, six weeks before her due date. The baby came very fast, began to come even before she got to the hospital. The umbilical cord was wrapped around the baby’s neck, and, because of when she arrived at the hospital, it was too late. Eve was a still birth.
Ruth’s baby had died. The funds that the family had set aside for her were only for her as she cared for her baby. The social worker was brought in. The lawyer was brought in. The two of them were talking and making calls on their cell phones while Ruth sat in the hospital bed having learned that her chance of being a mother had died inside her own body.
She spent a night in the hospital. The social worker picked her up the next day and drove her home.
“I can get you on government assistance for a while, but only if you’re showing an effort.”
“To get off assistance.”
“How do I do that?”
“You could get a job. You could go to school. What do you want?”
“I wanted to be a mother.”
They two of them sat in the tiny room in the rooming house amidst the sounds of doors shutting, cell phone conversations, daytime television shows.
“What about being a nurse? “
“Could I be a nurse for babies?”
“I think that’s possible. How were your high school grades?”
“Let me see what do.”
And that’s how the next chapter started. The social worker was able to procure funding for Ruth to begin nursing school with an emphasis on neo natal nursing. As long as she was in school, she could stay in the rooming house and also on public assistance.
Summer school wouldn’t begin until late May. She filled her time reading books from the library on nursing, babies, pregnancy, anatomy – anything that might help her get a head start on her learning.
Ruth continued to attend the Orthodox Cathedral. One Sunday on the way home she said, ”I want to be a member. How can I do this?”
The couple put her in touch with the office at the church, and she signed up for formation classes beginning that September.
Ruth’s life took on a focus the well compensated for the lack of family or, for that matter, any sort of human community. She took the maximum number of courses allowed in any given semester, walked to and from the college each day, studied in the evenings, attended church on Sunday morning, and, now, on Saturdays, began classes to become an official member.
These began in September, and it marked the first of seven very notable Septembers because this is where she met Slavomir.
The classes were on Saturday mornings. She told herself that having to take a long bus ride so early in the morning was good practice for when she would be a nurse. She wore her usual outfit: a solid colored jumper with a top underneath appropriate for the season and her straight, long brown hair tucked behind her ears. The classes were interesting to her, and the home work gave her another thing to study which kept her company in her room in the rooming house.
Busses did not run as frequently on the weekend, so her wait at the bus stop could last up to twenty minutes. One of her classmates waited at the same stop.
“You were in the class,” he said, “What is your name?”
“Ruth. And you?”
She nodded and stared at him until he offered, “I’m from Croatia.”
“Why are you here?”
“At the bus stop or in this country.”
“In this country.”
“Because of the war.” The bus came, and they got on.
“Can I sit with you?” he asked.
“Sure. You can tell me more.”
She learned that he was also 21, that his parents had been killed in the war, that he was a refugee who made it to this country and was being helped by the Church.
“Why didn’t you take these classes in Croatia?”
“My parents had been raised communists. A lot of people had forgotten about religion.”
“Why do you want to be religious now?”
“If you see what I survived, you’d believe in God, too.”
“You’ve never been in a war.”
Ruth told him her story, the foster homes, the ministers' home, the pregnancy, how she was “put away”, the death of Eve.
It was time for Slavomir to get off the bus.
“So, we’re both orphans and both lived through war,” he said as he stood.
She looked up at him without saying anything.
“I’ll see you next week in class, Ruth. Maybe we can ride the bus again?”
Ruth nodded and watched him exit the bus.
This is how it started, and it was a natural as breathing. Soon, they coordinated their schedules to ride the bus to and from Saturday morning classes. Orphans who had been through wars of sorts, both adopting orthodoxy, both without a “home” culture. She was studying to be a nurse, he an x-ray technician.
“Eventually, I want to teach English as a Second Language. I want to help others like myself, like you.”
“What do you mean?”
“You want to take care of babies to give them the love you never had.”
“I never thought of it that way.” At this, she began to cry.
“I didn’t mean to make you cry.”
“I didn’t know I would cry. It isn’t your fault.”
Slavomir looked at her and with his index finger, moved some stray hairs off her face and behind her ear. She looked at him and smiled a small smile, still crying.
This one gesture was the key that opened the door between them. First, they sat a little closer on the bus. Then when it was slippery on the sidewalk, he took her hand, and so on. Each step felt as natural as exhaling, but Ruth’s last experience gave her good reason for caution.
“I have to finish school and find the kind of job I want,” she explained, “so we have to be very careful.” She went to the school clinic to get whatever they needed, and in January of the next year, they became lovers.
It was the happiest she had ever been: she was studying to do something that filled her whole being with purpose; she had a church and a religion that gave her life a place, and she had the tender, consistent love of a man who was also passionate for life and God and for her.
On Labor Day weekend of that year, they celebrated one year of knowing each other by walking to the end of the break water into Lake Michigan. They stood with their arms around each other, looking out at the water. They began their second September.
Their lives were lived in the present moment. She had no family, no connections with the foster homes that raised her. Slavomir had lost his immediate family in the war and was now living in a culture that was, for the most part, completely different from his upbringing. Though he would comment on things that he thought were particularly American, he never talked about Croatia.
Ruth had asked him once, “What was it like? “
“Life’s too short, Ruth. Let’s just pay attention to today.” Because she loved him, which meant that she respected him, she never questioned this nor did she ever ask him again.
Slavomir's two-year program to become an x-ray technician was coming to an end, and being, young, strong, and bi-lingual made him an attractive candidate. He was offered a position in December of that year.
“Ruth, now that I have a job, I think we should get married and buy a house.”
She looked at him and ran her hand over his cheek.
“Which one should we do first?”
“I saw a house for sale that is within walking distance of the hospital. It is very small....”
“Slavomir, I don’t care about that. I live in a single room right now.”
“I have been saving money ever since I got to this country. I think I could make a down payment. “
“I don’t have a job, so I can’t contribute anything yet.”
“We’ll be married, Ruth. That means we will share.”
“How did you get to be so good, Slavomir?”
“Your goodness inspires me, Ruth. There is something pure about you.”
“Pure? A woman who became pregnant from a chance encounter? A woman with no family to claim her? I feel more like, I don’t know, something you’d find in the trash.”
“I’m the one who should feel that way, Ruth.”
She looked at him and didn’t contradict him. She was aware most of the time that darkness haunted his mind, that he was trying very hard for both of their sakes to live in the light, to keep the darkness at bay.
They moved into the tiny house on Labor Day weekend and that week went to the courthouse to get married.
“I’m sorry I can’t give you a church wedding. Well, not now but....”
Ruth cut in before he could finish the sentence. “My wonderful Slavomir, you have given me more than I could dream of.”
“What did you dream of, Ruth?”
“Nothing, really. I wanted to be a mother, but I didn’t dream about it. I didn’t dream about anything.”
“Now I am living a dream.”
The house was small, so furnishing it was not a complicated task. They found things at resale shops. The couple that once drove Ruth to church helped transport the items. Other people from church brought them houseplants with promises for outdoor plants in the Spring.
Their life together was full with work and school and setting up a home and weekly bus trips to their Orthodox church.
One day when Ruth came home from school, she found papers that Slavomir had left on the table with a note for her to look through them and sign. She waited until he got home.
“Slavomir, I want to do this, but I’d like to understand first. “
“It's for a life insurance policy. If anything would happen to me, I want you to be taken care of.”
Tears sprang to her eyes, ‘Slavomir, you are young!”
“I know too well, Ruth, that life can change quickly.”
Life did change, though it was not quickly. She tried to think back to when she first started noticing what were, for lack of a better description, Slavomir’s wounds, as she would come to think of them.
Night, she thought. The first year they were lovers, they never slept together. Her rooming house had a curfew and did not allow overnight guests, so his nighttime issues were a new discovery. She would wake up to find herself alone in the bed. She would call out for him, and he would shout, “leave me alone!”
Sometimes, she’d make herself go back to sleep, so she could do a good job at school the next day, but, if it was a weekend, she’d go to find him.
“Slavomir, my love, please come back to bed.”
His face would be tense and angry. Sometimes he wouldn’t even look up at her. She would reach out her hand, and he wouldn’t lift his to meet hers.
“What’s the matter?”
“You don’t know? You say you love me, and you don’t know?”
Ruth would cry then, quietly, streams of tears coming out of her eyes. Eventually he would come back to bed, lying on his back. Ruth would lie with her body close to his.
“Slavomir, my heart hurts so much when you talk to me that way.”
“Guess you didn’t know you married a jerk.”
“I didn’t marry a jerk. There’s something the matter that makes you talk this way.”
He would reach out his hand and rest it on her hip. “Let’s just try to sleep.”
The cool winds and shorter days of the third September brought a cool wind and a darkness into their lives that neither of them could name.
When the darkness overtook him, it was sudden. Ruth watched, tried to figure out what might trigger him. She was well-versed in the art of observation, having lived in so many foster homes growing up.
But there were no rules to this. And she never asked. When the darkness came, managing and surviving were her first priorities. When the good days came, they were precious and fragile. She would soak in the peace, soak in the beauty of Slavomir and their pure love of each other and of life.
Fall turned into winter and winter to spring, and Ruth finished her program and found a job at a hospital that was close to their home. There were no openings in the neonatal unit at that time, but they put her on the list for when a position would become available. Ruth used the time to establish a good reputation and gain competency as a nurse.
She hoped that getting a job might help Slavomir because he was no longer the sole provider in their household. This was not the case.
There were good days and bad days, quiet nights and tense, restless nights. Clues began to emerge: loud sounds, unexpected events of any sort, news stories containing violence, even the sight of her menstrual blood. Ruth wondered what things in his work in the radiology department aggravated his darkness that he bottled up and brought home.
She often used her breaks at work to learn of the effects of war on children and surmised that Slavomir’s behavior was a common result of living in a society overrun with violence. What to do to help him was a more difficult challenge. He was fragile and their home life a minefield of hidden explosives. Selfishly, she didn’t want to lose him. When he was his best self, he was a wonder and their life together a miraculous gift far beyond anything she could have dreamt of.
The fourth September began, and Ruth had an idea: maybe now was the time to begin a family. He knew she wanted to be a mother. They both had employment.
One night, as they were going to bed, she said, “Slavomir, maybe we should make a baby.”
He was silent. She reached out to tough him, and he slapped her hand away.
“So, that’s what this is all about, isn’t it? I’m just a stud to give you a baby.”
Everything in Ruth froze. She was silent, completely still.
“I’m sorry, Slavomir. No, you are you, the man I married, the man I make a life with. You are a miracle. I am sorry to have brought this up like this. Let’s just go to sleep.”
There were no bad days after that for almost a week. They made love with all the precautions that they always used.
After a week, the bad days returned.
Ruth went about her days at work and at home with the same diligence that she always applied. Internally, she went about the task of incorporating these two significant and unexpected elements into her landscape: Slavomir’s now obvious post-traumatic stress issues and his adamance about not having children. She didn’t know of the later was a permanent stance or not, but she knew it was unwise to bring it up when peace was such a precious and fragile commodity. She also contemplated the relationship between these two challenges.
Because she had lived in limbo most of her growing up years, she knew how to wait.
They entered their fifth September working at the same hospital, taking care of their home and yard, going to church each week, and tacitly negotiating the cycles of Slavomir’s dark times and the grief of delayed motherhood for Ruth that they were both aware of.
The winter was hard: snowstorms alternating with brutal cold. Taking care of the house and living a modern life without a car added to their stress. Life at the hospital also became more challenging with staff delayed because of snow and the extreme conditions adding to the hospital’s workload.
In early March, a hospital staff person who knew both Ruth and Slavomir approached Ruth, concerned about Slavomir, saying he looked tired and had begun snapping at co-workers.
Ruth listened, paused, and then said, “He has a lot on his mind.”
Ruth had hoped that the coming of Spring would help, but it was a slow spring. When summer came, she hoped again, but not only did Slavomir not improve, he seemed to be worsening.
One day, when her shift was over, she went to the radiology department, as she always did, to meet Slavomir for their walk home.
She was told he had been dismissed to the day and was suspended until he received some help. When she asked what had happened, they told her to ask him.
When Ruth arrived home, Slavomir was on his hands and knees, washing the kitchen floor.
He looked up with the darkness she had seen before, though his eyes had a wilder look, partially frightened, partially calculating a defensive attack.
“Slavomir, can you tell me what happened?”
He slid across the floor and lunged at her ankles, pulling her onto the floor. Ruth hit her head on the counter, cutting her forehead.
She reached up to feel the wound and then looked at the blood on her hand.
“Slavomir, you need help.”
The fifth September began with the search for help. First, they tried a counselor touted for his ability to help people with trauma, but the appointments stirred up more than Slavomir could handle. Instead of finding peace, Slavomir’s nighttime rages become more intense. She asked the counselor about medication, and his reply was, “Slavomir needs meditation, not medication.”
They tried meditation, but the same thing occurred: his mind would return to whatever overwhelmed him, and he was stuck in the same cycle.
She called their physician who prescribed an antidepressant. This helped for a few weeks until the initial relief and hope wore off, and then the rages were even more intense. Futility was a powerful incendiary.
This was the cycle for a year and a half: talk therapy and experiments with medications. Slavomir’s energy level was emptied by the effects of the medication and the effort in keeping his mind and behavior from ruining both of their lives.
His boss asked that he take a leave of absence from his job, a necessary move but one that further demoralized him.
“I can’t give you a baby, and I can’t even contribute to our household.”
“You are contributing, my dear Slavomir, in different ways.”
“You,” Ruth answered and held him in her arms.
The time away from work ended up being a useful move: at least now one source of stress and one source of situations which triggered his painful past was removed. They had less money but more energy and time to pursue treatment.
Slavomir began seeing the psychologist twice a week, and their priest visited once a week, too.
Springtime came in the form of flowers and longer, warmer days. Springtime came to their life together, too.
The intimate life, which had begun to suffer after Slavomir’s outburst about childbearing and worsened after the violent incident in the kitchen, began to heal. It never recovered the ease of the first years, but it improved and provided them each with comfort.
One night before sleeping, as he held her, Ruth said, “I’ve missed you.”
“I missed you, too. It’s good to be back.”
One Sunday in September, a couple they knew had returned to church, after being absent for two months after the birth of their first child. People gathered around the new family, including Slavomir and Ruth.
The young mother said to Ruth, “We are so glad to be back. This is our new daughter. Would you like to hold her?”
Ruth said yes and held the baby for a few minutes.
The next day, Ruth got ready for work and packed an umbrella in her backpack. They had a routine: when Ruth was finished with her shift, she’d call Slavomir who would either walk towards the hospital, so they could meet halfway and walk back together or, if the weather was bad, she’d take the bus, and he would meet her at the bus stop.
“It is supposed to storm, Slavomir, so, if it seems too bad, just wait for me at home. I’ll call as usual.”
The storms were bad that day, and Ruth called as usual to let him know that she was taking the bus but not to meet her. He didn’t answer, so she left a message.
She arrived home and called out for him, but there was no answer. His phone was on the kitchen table. She went to their bedroom to change and saw his wallet on the dresser.
Two hours later, with the storms still raging, she called the police and gave his description, informing them of his mental health history.
An hour later, the police called and asked her to come identify a body found by the lake that matched Slavomir’s description. The deceased person had been hit by lightning.
Ruth broke her reverie as she entered the hospital for her shift in the neo natal ward. Taking the long route allowed her to remember all seven Septembers.
She went to the nursery and stopped first at an infant who had been assigned to her two days earlier. The mother, a single woman in her forties who was pregnant via invitro fertilization, had bled to death during the delivery. There was no immediate family, and the emergency contact was a lawyer away for the holiday weekend.
Ruth picked up the baby and held it against her chest. Closing her eyes, she breathed in the sweet-sour scent of a baby.
“Oh, little girl, I will tell you the things that only tears can express. I pray that they will carry you through like they’ve carried me.”