These stories are dedicated to Pierre Lioni Ullman, with gratitude for his courage.
The morning my husband was to leave on a three-week tour with his orchestra, I whispered to him in bed that morning that I thought Mathias Stefan needed a brother or sister. My husband, Fritz, had been patient with me during the post delivery healing, and he, like I, was intent on trying to follow the Church’s teaching on family planning. I felt that I had grown into my role as a mother and was ready for another pregnancy and another life to love. Fritz kissed me and said that when he was home in three weeks we could certainly see about this.
I had learned during our courtship how to deal with Fritz’s times away: I would have a project. My project for this tour was to make myself ready for his return to our home and to my body. Oh, did I love enclosing my wonderful husband inside my body. It may seem like the man has all the power, but the woman has equal power because it is to the home of her body that he wants to go. I had regained much of my shape during the time of nursing, but I wanted to prepare myself in other ways, too. Fritz had been so patient, but I knew a part of him was not being attended to. I wanted to be open to him when he returned, open physically and also in my heart and mind.
On more than one occasion, Fritz has described me to others as being a generous person, and one day, I decided to talk to him about this because I don’t think I’m very generous at all. I don’t think poorly of myself, but I am under no delusion that I have great gifts to give the world.
“Your generosity is like this, Ingrid,” he said, forming his hands into the shape of a bowl, “You create a space where others can be.”
I was very honored by this compliment, and I wanted to live up to it in my married life.
The morning before Fritz left, he was in our main room practicing his violin, and young Mathias Stefan crawled in and sat near his father’s feet and began humming what he heard. In the past, we had thought that he might be trying to hum, but, then again, maybe he was just making the sounds babies make. I had never cared for a baby, since I was the baby in our family, so I didn’t know what to expect. The children I taught before I was married were already five years old – completely different creatures than an infant.
Fritz stopped playing, and Mathias Stefan stopped humming. He didn’t look up at his father for more, but, when Fritz began to play again, Mathias Stefan again began humming the quite intricate passages of what he heard his father playing.
Fritz called me into the room. I don’t have much of an ear at all, but I can hear enough to know that our son was humming the lines of the music my husband was practicing.
The morning after Fritz left, my mother arrived. How should I describe my mother? She is a no-nonsense mountain woman who bore nine children and worked side by side her husband on a tiny farm in the mountains of Southern Austria, just across the Italian border. Her beauty is in the surety of her movements. Her world, in many ways, has been narrow, but she has no need for anything more. This self-sufficiency adds to her beauty and her strength.
She made herself at home in the guest room of our apartment and deposited on my counter a loaf of rye bread that she had baked the day before and a round of cheese from the farmer whose sheep grazed on my parents’ land. Then she swooped Mathias Stefan out of his crib and walked around our apartment with him in her arms. After about fifteen minutes of holding him, she came in the kitchen.
“There is something the matter with this child.” My mother has lived a practical life, and tact isn’t practical to her.
“Does he have a fever? I didn’t notice anything.”
“You see him all the time, and you haven’t seen many babies.”
“Mama, what makes you say there is something the matter with Mathias Stefan?”
“He doesn’t look at me. He is not happy that a stranger is paying attention to him, and he is not afraid that a stranger is carrying him around. A dog would have more feelings than this boy.”
It was hard to hear that last sentence, but my mother does not exaggerate. I sat down and waited for her to say more. She continued to walk around with him, showing him windows and the snow falling outside. She showed him the yarn and needles in her bag. It was true, he didn’t seem happy or afraid or even curious at the new things like yarn and needles. Then she began to sing a children’s rhyme. When she finished, he hummed back the melody perfectly.
“Do you sing this to him, too?”
“No, Mama, you know I can barely sing.”
“There’s something the matter with this child. My sister had a boy who was like this…”
“The one who died in the war.” My mother was, like me, the youngest of many children, and she had nieces and nephews who were old enough to be her parent.
“You were too young to know him as a baby.”
“Yes, but my mother told me about him because she says this runs in families. She told me what to watch for.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“None of my children were a problem, so I just forgot about it.” It seems like my mother was being careless, but to her, this math made sense. I was in no position at the moment to argue with her, and, when I thought about it for a few moments, arguing wouldn’t take away the concern.
“Has your doctor said anything?”
“No, but we don’t go that often. Mathias Stefan is healthy; you see that he is strong and pink cheeked. He doesn’t fuss…”
“Let’s make an appointment with the doctor. I will come with.”
I was happy to take her up on the offer. I made an appointment for the next day, and then I sent a text to Fritz, “Mama is here. She thinks we should take Mathias Stefan to the doctor. I will write when we get back.”
The doctor Mathias Stefan and I saw was an older man, near retirement. I think I chose him because the younger doctors seemed modern and shrill. I liked the quiet of this man.
He listened to my mother respectfully and then held Mathias Stefan on his lap, placing his stethoscope in his ears and then listening to my son’s heart. Mathias Stefan sat calmly as he always did, neither interested nor frightened.
“Does he try to say words?”
“But does he talk?”
“We thought he was trying to talk, but now we realize he was just trying to hum. He’s become very good at it. He was humming along while my husband practiced this week.”
“I am not an expert in this area. There are conditions that are more prevalent now than when I began my training and practice. I will put you in touch with a group of doctors that can be more helpful.”
I sent a text to Fritz who wrote back, “Do what you need to do, Ingrid. I know that you will make the decisions that will be best for our son. I’ll be home in less than three weeks.”
My almost one-year old son and I found ourselves in a society that neither of us was prepared for. Though my mother, with all her earthiness and strength, was with us, I don’t think anything could counteract the effect of the loud, ugly waiting rooms, the long waits, the poking and prodding and counting of blood samples and lists of characteristics and hideous, impersonal questions being asked of me, about me, about my husband, about our son. Everyone had an opinion; no one had an answer.
My mother was only supposed to stay for two weeks, and I told her that she should go home because my father needed her help, too.
The last test was scheduled February 2, the day before Mathias Stefan’s first birthday and the day before his father was to arrive home. The test was a scan that involved enclosing my son in a tube to take detailed pictures of his brain.
They laid him on the metal and strapped him down. Then we all had to leave the room and watch through a window as the metal slid, with my son attached, into the tube.
“No!” I shrieked. “No! I mean it! Stop! Let me in there!”
They looked at me, not responding.
“No!” This time it was a command. “Stop this! I am taking my son out of here.”
The doctor patted my shoulder, “We can reschedule.”
I pushed his hand off my shoulder. I couldn’t stand his touch.
The door was opened to the room that held my son, lying completely still and strapped to a piece of metal. The attendant began undoing the strap.
“No!” I commanded and moved over to do it myself. Then I put my son’s jacket on him, adjusted my own outer clothes, and left the building.
The sky was gray like is so often is in February.
“Looks like it is going to snow,” I said to my son.
About halfway home, I stopped into a church. It was February 2, Feast of the Presentation, and the choir was rehearsing for a big service that evening. I sat in a pew with Mathias Stefan on my lap. When the choir was done rehearsing, Mathias Stefan began to hum. I thought about this feast day, Mary and Joseph taking their strangely conceived bundle named Jesus to the temple, encountering people who sang songs and made pronouncements when they encountered Jesus. I looked at Mathias Stefan. Should I have noticed something earlier? What difference would it have made? Was it his early delivery that caused this? Again, it didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was this life, fruit of my body, the fruit of our love, sitting on my lap, humming complicated phrases that he had just heard from the choir.
When we arrived into the quiet of our apartment, I shut the curtains and turned on one small light. I unbundled Mathias Stefan and took off my own coat.
“Are you hungry?” I asked him. Of course, he didn’t answer, so I brought him a teething cracker and made myself some tea.
I set him on the floor in the middle of our main room and sat down with him. I made myself an empty bowl and looked at my son. I knew he was given to me and I to him. I knew that he needed all of my attention. It was not yet the time for us to add another person to our family, and maybe it never would be. I decided the Church would have to understand that my husband and I needed to love each other in order to love this child.
I sat back and looked at him again.
Then I got out a recording of a performance my husband gave the spring before we married. It was a live recording he did in New York City with an accompanist that his father had known, but the final piece on the concert was for unaccompanied violin. The piece by Biber is nicknamed “The Guardian Angel”. For the cover of the recording, Fritz received permission to reproduce an illustration from the manuscript of the score that is held in a museum in our country. In the picture, the angel is leading a child by the hand.
I put on the recording, and Mathias Stefan hummed with the music.
“Mathias Stefan, you are going to have to guide me. Teach me how to be your mother. ”