Steve and Maria
1980 - 1990
It was a very hot August, especially for so far north. Steve Winthrop had only been in Poughkeepsie, New York for three weeks. He’d come up from Saint Petersburg, Florida with a friend, on a small motorcycle, a Honda 350. At least, he’d thought Bill Dupree had been a friend. But when the older man had reunited with his family, Steve found himself put out, his meager funds used up,with nowhere to stay.
That’s what I get for trusting people, he thought.
It was his twenty-fifth birthday as well as his first day on his new job. Great birthday present from God. At least it’s work. He was now the dishwasher and sandwich maker in the Old Coat Cabaret on Market Street. This was a bar and restaurant that featured live bands on weekends, and on Wednesdays they had open mic amateur nights.
It was a Friday night, the band was loud and the crowd was louder. It would be fair to say the place was packed. But the kitchen was slow. The big drinkers were eating the peanuts and chicken wings laid out on the bar, while those on the other side of the divider wall, sitting at tables and watching the band, munched on chips and breadsticks dipped in fondues kept warm and soft by lit cans of Sterno.
With nothing to do in the kitchen, he decided to play one of the arcade games near the door for a bit. He got permission from the bartender, just in case a food order came in, then started to thread his way through the bar crowd. He was halfway down the narrow aisle between the bar and the tables when he almost bumped into a thin figure that had just come sliding out from one of the booths. He stopped just in time, backed up a step, and said, “Excuse me, I didn’t mean to scare you.”
The person looked up through the thickest glasses he’d ever seen on someone so young, and said, “You didn’t scare me.”
He introduced himself and asked her name.
“Maria,” she replied.
They talked a bit, and he invited her to join him in a game. She had a slight limp, and he asked about it.
“It’s nothing,” she answered in a way that he took to mean she didn’t want to talk about it.
By the end of the night, although he didn’t realize it until later, he’d already fallen in love with her.
The job only lasted a couple months. The company went bankrupt; as it turned out, one of the owners was tapping the till to feed his cocaine habit. In that time, Steve got to know Maria more, and his love for her deepened. She was a little spitfire, five feet three inches tall (she insisted it was five-two-and-three-quarters), ninety-nine pounds soaking wet fully dressed. She was Puerto Rican, born and raised, mostly, in New York City.
When she was fourteen, she told him, she’d become too much trouble for her adopted parents. She’d found out that she was adopted, that her mother and father weren’t her real parents. And she rebelled. She went to counseling, not quite kicking and screaming; she was tested for drugs, sent for psychiatric tests and psychological evaluations. No amount of counseling had any effect other than to further alienate her from those who said they loved her. So they’d sent her to a facility for troubled teens near Milbrook, New York.
“Finding a birth certificate will do that, I guess,” Steve said to her. “I had the same reaction at that age when I found my birth certificate and learned that my mother was really my stepmother.”
But he didn’t know all of Maria’s story when, after three weeks of seeing her, she invited him to her apartment after the bar closed and he got off work. That was when he found out why she limped. She was epileptic, had scoliosis, and an open sciatic nerve. She’d had a plate in her hip to keep her bones from separating as she grew; she had one leg and one arm shorter than the other.
None of her physical differences mattered to him, nor detracted at all from her femaleness; she was all woman, and she knew it. She didn’t let it go to her head. But there was a basic insecurity about her, expressed as something related to being shy, that tended to both overshadow and enhance her feminine side, at least until she became comfortable with a new person. She unconsciously used her innate sexuality to not only cover up that half-unconscious self-doubt, but also to prove to herself that her disabilities didn’t stop her from being a woman. And she was unaware of these contradictions within herself.
Had he known in advance what was in store over the years, he might have run as fast and as far as he could. Then again, maybe not. he was young, not totally naive, and was not yet disabused of the notion that he was invincible. He knew, in the deepest part of his being, that she was destined for him, and he for her, even though it took him four years to convince her of that truth. There were times when she’d come around to accept him as hers; but then she would back away, afraid of losing her freedom, or even of losing herself.
Steve found that, for him, jobs were hard to find, and even harder to hold on to. All he’d been able to get were temporary positions during the holidays for the most part. And Maria was proving to be harder still to hang on to. She was so used to being on her own that she was not only reluctant to give up her independence, she even fought against it. She would agree to marriage, then back out as the date they’d set approached. He couldn’t understand her reluctance, yet at the same time, he did, having learned about her childhood. She felt she’d been lied to, and Steve understood that. But where he had learned to trust in spite of that, at least a little, she never had.
They had arguments occasionally, as almost any couple did. They’d even split up a couple times, only to get back together later. One of their friends told them that theirs might be called a love-hate relationship, and they both thought within their own heads that this might be true. But neither of them ever said it aloud.
Finally he got a job through the state unemployment office that lasted. A local bakery needed a dishwasher and food prep helper for the holiday season. And he did so well that they kept him on after the New Year.
One day in September of ‘84, they got caught in a rainstorm on the way home from a show at the Bardavon 1869 Opera House on Market Street. The wind was so strong when it came up that, on top of driving the rain, it also destroyed their umbrellas. By the time they got home, they were drenched and shivering. They stripped and dried themselves off, drying one anothers’ backs, joking around and laughing at themselves and each other.
When they were dry, Maria reached into the closet for a pair of bathrobes and handed one to Steve. But Steve caught her arm and, looking into her eyes, pulled her to him and kissed her, first gently, then with a building urgency that they both felt. By the time she broke the kiss, they were both breathing hard. The robes had fallen out of her hands and as she picked them up Steve lifted her, one arm behind her back and the other at the back of her knees, and carried her into the bedroom.
He laid her on the bed, then eased in next to her, never breaking contact with her skin. Her fingers clutched his hair as he moved his tongue slowly, teasingly down and around her body...
It turned out to be the most intense night either of them had ever had with each other, or in any previous relationship. It all seemed to happen so fast that neither of them even thought about taking precautions.
Three weeks later, Maria missed her monthly cycle. Four weeks after that, she had another miss. She went to her ob-gyn, who told her that she was, indeed, pregnant. After four years of accepting marriage proposals and then backing off, she then asked Steve to marry her.
Steve was ecstatic, if somewhat bemused by this sudden change of heart, and accepted the proposal. They began making plans, first for their wedding and then for their future and the future of their child. The wedding would be simple; Judge Elliot agreed to perform a civil ceremony in his law office on the Main Mall. And Father Paul Cantor would be the witness, although he wasn’t happy that they didn’t want a religious wedding, he accepted their decision and agreed to their request.
The marriage took place on eighth of October. Maria’s neurologist increased her epilepsy medication, phenobarbital and Dilantin a week later when she started having more grand mal seizures. The seizures stopped for almost the rest of her pregnancy.
About half-way through the pregnancy, Maria had what can only be described as a psychotic break. They’d just finished making love when she started speaking gruffly about getting an abortion. This would be her third since she’d been raped by her uncle at age twelve. She kept telling Steve that she wasn’t ready to have a baby, that she was afraid that she would treat it badly, as she had been treated as a child. Steve tried to calm her down, telling her she and the baby would make it all right. She opened her eyes as wide as she could, shook her head, silently mouthed the word NO, put her hands on his neck and squeezed.
He could see the fear … no, the terror, absolute terror in her eyes, and figured, correctly as it turned out, that it was fear of losing control due to the way she was abused as a child. He was glad she didn’t have much in the way of physical strength, though he’d heard about what was called crazy strength and thought that maybe, just maybe, there was some of that in her now.
He took hold of her hands as gently as he could, eased them off his neck. He held them as she tried to pull away, talking to her as quietly as he could until she calmed down and realized what she’d just tried to do.
She panicked then, tried to grab her robe and run out the door. He grabbed her, held her long enough to get the message across that she wasn’t going anywhere in her current state of mind. When she stopped struggling, he let her loose, and they talked, her trying to be coherent, he staying as calm as he could.
A few hours later, they both slept; she fitfully, he just lightly enough to awaken quickly if needed. Steve was relieved in the morning when Maria seemed to be back to her normal, almost cheerful self. But he vowed silently to keep an eye on her just in case, and to ask people he trusted to check on her while he was at work.
The rest of Maria’s pregnancy went smoothly, until a few days before the due date of June 5. On May 30, she had the first seizure she’d had since her October. The next day, she had another at bedtime. And the day after, June 1, she had another one.
Steve shook her awake around 7:30. She looked at him, not quite alert, asked, “What’s the matter?”
He looked into her eyes, gently watching for something, he didn’t really know what. “You had a seizure early this morning. I just want to make sure you’re all right before I go to work. If you’re not, I’ll call in.”
“No, you go in,” she responded, then got out of bed, went into the kitchen for some coffee. Steve pulled out a chair at the table for her, then sat across from her.
“You sure you’re okay, babe?”
As always, she was embarrassed by his solicitousness, something she felt she’d never get used to. The men she’d know before she’d met him hadn’t given a damn about how she felt, and she wondered, not for the first time, why this man was so different. But she knew she couldn’t complain; he’d proven time and again that he really cared, that he really loved her. Still, although she’d never say it, she felt she didn’t deserve it. The closest she’d ever come to actually saying those words was the first time he’d proposed to her; she’d told him that he could find someone better, that she had problems. And he’d simply said, “I love you; there’s nothing better than that.”
She smiled. “Yeah, I’m okay, mi corazon. Go to work; I’ll be fine.”
He got home around 3 in the afternoon. Maria was in bed, apparently asleep. She was dressed in jeans and a faded purple pullover top, and her shoes. She was sprawled across the bed, which was unusual. He could see the rise and fall of her chest as she breathed in and out. He took her hand, then saw the wet spot on the sheet; he got close and took a whiff; it didn’t smell like urine. That could only mean, as far as he understood it anyway, that her water had broken.
As he dialed the phone, she woke up, groggy. “What’s happening?”
“Well, it looks like you had another seizure while I was at work. And it looks like your water broke, too. The bed’s a bit wet, but it doesn’t smell like pee. I’m calling the hospital, see what they say.”
When the call went through the switchboard to the maternity ward, he quickly explained what had happened, answered a few questions, then said, “Okay,” and hung up. He watched Maria while on the phone, and she watched him.
“Go get a quick shower, babe. They said we should walk down there so you get some exercise, especially since you haven’t ridden the bike for a few months.”
She looked lethal as she replied, “That’s because you locked it up, cabron.”
“Well, if you hadn’t hit that car door, I wouldn’t have locked it up. I’m looking out for you and the baby, sweetheart.”
She softened her gaze a bit. “I know. That’s why I’m not really mad at you.”
He smiled. “Make sure you phenobarb and Dilantin are in you pocketbook. We better get moving.”
They arrived at Vassar Brothers Hospital around 5:30 and checked in, then took the elevator to the second floor, where the sign said, “MATERNITY”. The nurses asked Steve to have a seat in the waiting room, sort of angled off across the hall from the nurses’ station, while they took Maria into an examining room.
A short time later, Steve was called into the room, where Maria was lying on a table watching the ultrasound image of their baby. She was smiling but trying not to show it. All Steve could do was look on in wonder, thinking, That’s our baby!
The senior nurse said jovially, “Well, Mr. and Mrs. Winthrop, you have a very healthy baby here. He has the normal motions that coincide with Mrs. Winthrops’ contractions...”
Maria interrupted. “What contractions?”
The nurse smiled. You’re having semi-regular contractions, and every time you do, the baby moves.”
“I don’t feel anything. They said in the prenatal class that I would definitely feel the contractions. There’s nothing.”
The nurse’s smile wavered slightly as she digested this. Then she said, “Well, then, it’s probably Braxton-Hicks contractions, what we call false labor. A lot of times, the mother doesn’t feel those, or doesn’t recognize them as anything more than a minor tummy rumble, like when she’s had a bit too much to eat. Nothing at all to worry about. The important thing is that your baby is fine! Those seizures haven’t caused any problems that we can detect.”
She looked from one prospective parent to the other. “I’ll leave you two alone now. There’s the call button there on the side of the table if you need anything.”
Steve and Maria talked for a while, excited and nervous at the same time. They went over their mental lists of baby names, which they hadn’t quite agreed on yet; they were set that if it was a girl, her name would be Corina. But they disagreed on a boy’s name. Steve wanted to name a boy after him, which would make it Stephen Martin Winthrop the Third. Maria was dead set against that, complaining that it was too old-fashioned and only done these days by people who were filthy rich.
After this, which they agreed would be the last discussion, they agreed on Steve’s middle name: a boy would be named Martin, and his middle name would be Edward, the Anglicized version of her adoptive father’s name. It didn’t matter that they no longer talked; he and his wife has raised her, or tried to, as their own, and therefore deserved that consideration.
After a while, they both caught each other stifling yawns. Steve said he was okay staying in the room on a roll-in daybed, but Maria insisted he go home and get some sleep, then come back to get her in the morning.
But later that evening, the senior shift nurse on the ward called him. She’d said that the hospital neurologist had just checked her out, and that he wanted to keep her until Monday until her own doctor could come and see her. It seemed, reading between the lines, that there was some kind of rivalry between hospitals; Maria’s neurologist worked at Saint Francis, on the north side of town, and he wouldn’t be available until after the weekend to come into Vassar unless it was an emergency.
As a result, Steve went to work Saturday morning, finished around one o’clock, then went directly to the hospital. He stopped off in the gift shop and picked up a circle-a-word puzzle magazine for Maria, then headed up to spend some time with her.
They talked and joked some more. Steve went to the cafeteria when the nurse announced that it was time for dinner; he knew he wouldn’t be served patient food with his wife, so he brought a sandwich and soda with him back to the labor room where she had been moved. But Maria only picked at her food, saying she was hungry but couldn’t eat much. He recalled that the prenatal class nurse/teacher had said that this would happen when birth was getting close.
One of the nurses came in around seven o’clock to tell them that visiting hours were nearly over. They said their goodbyes, then kissed briefly. On the way out, Steve stopped at the nurse’s station and left instructions to call him if there was any change at all, and was told that was their basic procedure anyway and not to worry, Mrs. Winthrop was in good hands.
Around four in the morning, the phone rang. Steve answered, not as groggy as he normally would have been on any other morning. “Hello.”
“Mr. Winthrop, this is Nurse Garland at Vassar Brothers Hospital. You need to come down here. Your wife has gone into labor, and she’s having problems with her breathing exercises. But you don’t have to hurry. She’s only dilated one centimeter; she’s going to be a while since this is her first pregnancy carried to term.”
Steve thanked the nurse, then hung up. He took a quick shower, then called a cab before he got dressed. As a result, he got down the stairs and out the front door of the apartment building just as the taxi pulled up.
At the hospital, he ran through the emergency room waiting area, waving at the E.R. Nurses’ station on the way to the elevator. He was glad that the nurses knew him from previous visits, so they understood when he yelled to them, “It’s time!”
He pushed the button next to the elevator, but it seemed to be taking too long, so he ran the ten yards or so to the stairwell and took the steps two at a time in rapid order. He pushed open the door, stepped out into the maternity ward, and headed for Maria’s room. A nurse called to him, “She’s in the labor room, number three just across from the nurse’s station, Mr. Winthrop!”
He acknowledge her with a wave and a quick turn around the station, spotted the indicated door, and knocked. Another nurse opened the door and let him. He went right to his wife’s side and took her hand, said softly, “Breathe, Maria, just like we learned in the class. You can do it, just like this.” He took four rapid in-and-out breaths, coaching her to do the same, which she started doing, just as one of the nurses said, “She’s crowning!” The other nurse grabbed a mirror and held it so Steve and Maria could both see. The first nurse said, “Now, Maria, you have to stop pushing; we have to wait for the doctor to get here.”
Maria’s eyes widened as another contraction came. She yelled, “Ay, Dios mio, noooo!” as she gave one last, big push, and the baby almost popped out of her and into the hands of the head nurse, who had gotten them in place just in time.
The nurse quickly cut the umbilical cord and tied it off, then took a sterile cloth and carefully cleaned most of the blood from the child’s face. Then she brought the new arrival over for them both to see. “It’s a boy,” she said as she handed him to Maria, making sure that the new mother’s arms and hands were in the correct positions. Then she looked at the wall clock and said, “Live birth occurred at 4:50 A.M.”
Maria put the baby to her breast, carefully guiding her nipple to his mouth. She fed him until she felt him stop sucking, then just looked at him as she’d been doing since she first took him from the nurse. After a couple minutes, she handed him to Steve. He held the child tenderly yet cautiously, afraid of dropping or hurting him.
The nurse came back in. She asked them both, “Have you decided on a name for him?”
The two new parents looked at each other, agreeing silently. Steve said, “His name will be Martin Steven.” The nurse looked at Maria, who simply nodded her head.
Then the nurse gently removed Martin from Maria’s arms, explaining that they had to do a few tests to be sure he was all right, and that they could see him later in the nursery, after she rested.
Twenty minutes later, Dr. Wynn arrived, checked Maria’s chart, then proceeded to deliver the placenta. Maria kept talking on the phone, describing to her mother, well, her adoptive mother, how it all felt and how happy she was that it was over. She was speaking in Spanish; Steve, knowing only a few words and phrases, had no idea what she was saying. But it was good to hear her sounding so pleased.
Over the next few years, things didn’t really change much except that they had a child to raise. No matter what either of them did, no matter how they tried to keep things on an even keel, they still had some rather serious ups and downs in their relationship. They even separated a time or two, for their own sanity.
In the meantime, Martin was enrolled at six months old in the Poughkeepsie Day Care Center on Mill Street, just east of Market. The staff there were good people, Steve and Maria agreed. The old man who ran the place was a friendly sort, easy-going and sociable; he seemed like he might have come off the set of The Andy Griffith Show.
They’d gotten into the center because of a disagreement about Maria’s part-time job at the Sizzler on South Road. She’d brought Martin to the bakery to tell Steve he had to take care of the baby so she could go to work. She was upset that Steve didn’t seem to want to go along with that; he’d tried to explain that her job was only part time while his, especially at that time of year, was full time and therefore more important because that’s what kept the bills paid.
Maria slapped Steve in full view of the staff and customers in the store, then shoved Martin into his arms and left him standing there.
One of their acquaintances called the Child Protection Services. After a woman from CPS interviewed both parents, a subsidized day care enrollment had been set up for Martin.
Six months later, Maria attempted suicide. She’d taken most of her phenobarb, then come into the living room. Steve had been playing with Martin, who was not quite a year old. She threw the plastic pill container on the floor and said, “There! I’ve done what you wanted! Goodbye!”
He saw that there were some tablets scattered around him and the baby. But Maria was headed down the hall for the door. He headed Maria off, picked her up in a bear hug, arms pinned to her sides so she couldn’t fight him off, and brought her back to the living room. Martin was crying. Maria was struggling to get away. And the pills were on the floor, around the baby. Steve quickly swept them away from Martin, then grabbed the phone and dialed 9-1-1 for an ambulance.
They were taken to Saint Francis Hospital. Steve told the triage nurse what had happened, and that he didn’t know if Martin had eaten any of the tablets. So they asked him to hold the boy while they gave him some syrup of ipecac to make him throw up. He was relieved when none of the tiny tablets showed up in the vomit. In another cubicle, Maria was having her stomach pumped, after which she was force-fed activated charcoal powder to prevent whatever might be left of the drug from being absorbed in her digestive tract.
A year later, when Martin was approaching two years old, the old guy retired, and new people took over. The older staff stayed on a bit, but Maria and Steve both noticed a growing sense of dissatisfaction as new rules were implemented and CPS got more involved in the Center. They seemed to be there for more and longer periods of time, and the parents they were dealing with were, like Steve and Maria, subsidized in one or more ways. Day care, food stamps, Section 8 housing, medicaid, or some other form of governmental assistance. It wasn’t long before none of the oldsters worked there any more. The only holdovers were a nurse who took care of minor injuries and a teacher in the toddler class, both of whom were younger than the ones who had left.
A few months after that, Maria told Steve that one of the teachers at the Center,
a husky blonde-haired woman named Doreen Claremont, had made a pass at her. She’d invited her for drinks at the Congress, a restaurant and bar on Main Street, just east of Hamilton, known for its’ German cuisine during the day and its’ gay and lesbian clientele at night.
Steve wanted to switch day care centers, but there wasn’t really another they could afford. So he suggested that Maria quit her job and become a full-time mother. They argued for a most of the night, straining to keep it quiet so they wouldn’t wake Martin up. Maria insisted it would be okay because she had no interest in another woman and if Doreen kept it up, she would tell her to keep her proclivities to herself. Besides which, she said, she’d already told the woman she wasn’t interested.
Maria wasn’t going to quit her part time job, and Steve wasn’t interested in any more involvement with CPS. They were so intrusive, practically wanting to know when they’d last changed underwear. What kind of food did they eat? Do they go to restaurants? Who babysits when they go out? Do they always pay their bills on time? Who is their pediatrician? How long has Maria been epileptic? What medications does she use? Do they buy any clothes at thrift stores? On and on until Steve wanted to yell, “Enough!” But they couldn’t afford to lose the subsidy to keep Martin in the Center, so he kept it to himself when he was in the presence of either the day care staff or the social workers.
Before they’d married, Maria had gone back to school, enrolling in an adult education course at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, a few miles north of Poughkeepsie. The course she took was food preparation, which taught not only the prep, but also the presentation of a variety of dishes to the public. It was designed to provide entry into the world of food service for the discerning diner.
But because of her disabilities, she couldn’t get hired at the good places in the area. She wound up working first at McDonald’s, then at Rustler Steak House as a salad prep person. She stayed on in the same position when the chain was bought out by Sizzler. But there was no chance for advancement, again because of her disability and ethnicity. But we couldn’t prove that. So she started looking for a better job, one with at least a chance for advancement.
She got hired by a company that ran the cafeterias at the local IBM facility on South Road. She was a salad person again. After a few months, a new manager assigned her to wash the pots and pans, and put someone else on salads. She had asked why the change, and the new manager replied, “Because I said so.” But Maria overheard the woman talking to the newly-assigned salad person. What she heard made her blood boil, but she held her temper until she got home.
The manager had said, “I don’t like that little spic nigger. I want her washing the pots and pans like her kind should be doing. Christ, what if she has a fit out here where the customers can see her rolling on the floor and biting her tongue?”
She told Steve about it in fits and starts, fighting her anger, frustration and tears. When the whole story was out, Steve took her into the bathroom and drew a hot bath. He added a little bit of scented bubble bath and quietly told her to strip and get in. Then he made her just sit there while he washed her gently, massaging her as he did so, working out the tension. She almost went to sleep in the tub, and probably would have if she hadn’t gotten turned on once the stress of the day had subsided.
Maria was still upset the next morning, so Steve convinced her to call in sick. He took her out shopping, bought her flowers, took her to lunch. And that night, he took her to a movie at the Juliet Theater on the corner of Raymond Avenue and Montgomery Street. Afterward, they went across Raymond to an old-fashioned soda counter called Sweet Blondie’s, where they shared a banana split that was so big one person would have a hard time finishing it, especially after eating all the popcorn and candy they’d had at the theater.
That night, before going to bed, Steve suggested that Maria start going up the chain of command at her job. He reminded her that the manager who’d hired her had been impressed with her scores at the Culinary. He also said that he was sure IBM would support her too, because they wouldn’t want to be associated with a company that was so quick to discriminate. Maria wasn’t so sure about putting herself out like that, but said she’d think about it.
About a week later, she’d gotten a different job, as a book clerk in the Readers’ Market department of the K-Mart out on South Road. So she didn’t have to deal with the discrimination issue at the IBM cafeteria. And it turned out that she did enjoy working with books. Plus, her new boss was a relaxed, easy-going guy who wasn’t concerned about her multiple disabilities and had no racial issues either.
Steve was already working in the same store, having left the bakery for what he’d hoped would be a better-paying job with full-time hours all year round and a few benefits.
There were several people, over the years since they’d met, who were supposed to be friends, telling them, separately and together, that they should go their separate ways. But even with all of the discord between them at times, Steve still loved her, and she loved him, and nothing anyone said mattered. There was no way he was going to leave his wife or son, and her attitude was the same. They each recognized that their occasional separations were temporary, just a matter of giving each other a bit of breathing room.
This well-meaning (and sometimes not so well-meaning) advice tapered off and then disappeared altogether after Maria changed jobs for the last time. And along with that change, the Winthrops’ relationship smoothed out as well. They rarely, if ever, argued any more, and they spent more quality time with each other; they had less need to spend time apart. It seemed that all was going well.
One day Maria didn’t show up for work. Her boss came to Steve’s department to ask if she was all right, but Steve was at a loss; she’d been asleep when he’d left that morning.
When he got home, Maria was asleep on the couch. He could tell she’d had a seizure; there was a little dried blood on the corner of her mouth; her teeth had scraped the inside of her cheek. But most of Maria’s seizures were nocturnal; she rarely had them during the day.
Martin wasn’t there; he shook Maria gently until her eyes opened and he could see she was okay. Then he asked, “Where’s Martin?”
“Wha...?” She looked around her. “He’s at the day care. Where else would he be?”
“I knew you didn’t go to work today. So when I came home, I saw you and no Martin. Are you okay, babe?”
“Yeah, jus’ gimme a minute to clear my head, then we’ll go get him.”
“Okay. What happened, Mare?”
“ I took him to the center and started to go to the bus stop. But I felt a seizure coming. I fought it off long enough to get home. The last thing I recall is sitting down on the couch. From the way I feel, I must have had a few seizures.”
“Maybe you should stay home and rest, and I’ll go get Martin.”
She shook her head, then winced as she felt a twinge of pain from a headache. “No, I need to go out for fresh air; you know that helps me recover.”
He looked at her carefully once more. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure! Oy, Dios mio! Just let me get a quick shower. And no, you can’t join me, or we’ll be late picking Martin up! Vamos!”
Maria was fine, more or less, on the way to and from the day care. When they got home, she sat down again, exhausted, while Steve settled Martin on the carpet with some toys. He then went to the kitchen to fix dinner for the three of them. Martin, going on four years old, was putting together a little twenty-five-piece puzzle. He gave every appearance of enjoying such things; even when he got frustrated, he refused to give up, trying as many different combinations as his little brain could figure out. And he was getting better at it, maybe (‘probably,’ Steve thought) remembering where pieces went from the last time he’d assembled it.
For her part, Maria just watched Martin, giving him encouragement when he seemed to need it, but never showing him where a piece went. She and Steve had agreed some time ago that they would let him try to figure out things like that as much as possible.
Steve made a simple dinner of Salisbury steak, mashed potatoes and creamed corn, with chocolate pudding for desert. They ate their fill, with Martin not quite finishing his plate for a change. He’d been told he wouldn’t get desert if he didn’t finish dinner.
Later that night, Maria had another seizure and slept through it. The next day was Sunday, so neither of them had to work. She had three seizures, a few hours apart, and two more during the night, which she again slept through.
On Monday, Steve called in sick for both of them, briefly explaining what was happening to each of their supervisors and asking them to tell the store manager. Then he called the HMO they belonged to through their jobs, and left a message for her new neurologist, a tall, thin man who always wore a bow tie. Two hours later, the doctor returned the call, apologizing for taking so long.
Steve explained again about Maria’s multiple seizures. Dr. Hansen asked, “Has she changed her diet recently?”
“No, not that I’m aware of.”
“Is she taking any medications, like ibuprofen or something for nausea?”
“Bear with me a minute, Mr. Winthrop. Ask her if she’s changed anything in the past couple weeks, please.”
Steve reluctantly asked Maria if there was anything she was eating, drinking or taking that was different than normal. The answer surprised him; she’d bought an over-the-counter weight-gain supplement. When he asked why, she said that she was tired of being so skinny; she used the Spanish word, ‘flaca’.
Steve repeated this to the doctor, who then asked him to get it and read the list of ingredients to him. Steve asked Maria where it was. “In the refrigerator, on one of the door shelves,” she replied. He went to the kitchen to retrieve it, then came back to the living room, glad for the long telephone cord allowing him to carry the handset with him.
It was a long list, and some of the items were difficult to pronounce. But about half-way through, Dr. Hansen said, “Stop. That’s enough. Mr. Winthrop, there are a few items in that supplement that can counteract anti-convulsants. When taken together, this is much more likely to happen. I strongly recommend that she stop using this product. It may take a week or more to get it completely out of her system. The seizures should slow down during this period, as the blood serum levels of her medications return to normal. But you’ll need to keep an eye on her until the seizures stop. Also, I need you to keep a record of her seizures; how many, how often, times of occurrence, and what she eats and drinks. Can you do that?”
Steve didn’t hesitate. “Yes, I can do that. My job will just have to understand the situation. But it shouldn’t be a problem.”
“I can fit her in this afternoon, if you can bring her around, say, 2:30? I have
about ten minutes then. That’s plenty of time to take a blood sample to see what her current levels are.”
“No problem, Doc. Thank you!”
The seizures slowed down to about once a week after that first week without the weight-gain supplement. And they returned to almost all nocturnal as well. But they never got back down to the once-a-month frequency they’d been before, which had usually been just before the onset of Maria’s monthly cycle.
Then came the day that would be forever a fixture in Steve’s brain. September 24, 1989. Steve got off work, picked up Martin, and gone home. He fixed a quick dinner of macaroni and cheese and fed Martin. By 7:30, and Maria wasn’t home yet. He called the job, only to find that she’d left two hours ago. He called a few friends that they sometimes hung out with; none had seen her. By 8:30, he was getting worried.
Just before 9:30, she came in the door. She smelled of liquor, and struggled to stay upright as she stood in the doorway looking ready to pass out. Thank God Martin’s asleep, Steve thought.
Maria looked at him. “I need to lie down; I don’t think I can eat right now.” And she staggered into their bedroom.
He followed, asking, “Where were you, Maria? I was worried about you. And Martin wanted to kiss you goodnight.”
She looked up at him, unable to focus after having taken off her glasses. “I was at the Congress, having a drink and a talk with Doreen. She tried to pick me up again, but I told her no fucking way, that I had no interest in her. But I didn’t know how strong those drinks were. I think she was trying to get me drunk.”
Steve sat down beside her on the bed. “It looks like she succeeded in that. Did she do anything to you?”
“No. She said she’d give me a ride home, but Robby was there, and he gave me a ride. You know he’s like a big brother to me, even if he is gay. He wouldn’t let Doreen do anything I didn’t want to do. So everything is okay, and she won’t be bothering me again.”
She turned her body to Steve and put her arms around him. She kissed him, and in spite of the smell and taste of liquor on her breath, he kissed her back. During that kiss, she passed out.
He laid her down, took off her shoes, pulled off her sweater, and covered her with the bedspread. Then he went to the kitchen to put the leftover food away. He sat watching TV for a bit, then took a shower and went to bed himself.
In the morning, he awoke to find that the alarm hadn’t gone off; he’d forgotten to set it. The clock read 8:04. He reached reached over and shook his wife; she didn’t move. In fact, she seemed stiff, almost like a mannequin. He turned on the light on the nightstand.
She was laying on her side; he pushed her onto her back, and saw that her face was two-toned where the blood had settled. That’s when he knew she was dead.
His military training took over. He left the room and closed the door. He got Martin out of bed, grabbed some clothes and shoes for him, then took him across the hall to the neighbors’ apartment. He knocked on the door.
Sadie Ball was an older woman, semi-retired and happy to be that way. Steve told her about Maria and asked if she would watch Martin while he called 9-1-1.
Mrs. Ball agreed, and Steve handed her Martin’s clothes and shoes while she took the boy’s hand. “Come on and get some breakfast, little man,” she said. “Then we can get you dressed and you can watch some cartoons on the tee-vee. How’s that sound?” She closed the door with a worried look at Steve.
He went back into his apartment and picked up the phone. When he was done with the emergency operator, he then called his friend, Father Paul, who promised to be right over.
He found Maria’s address book; and began going through it, looking for phone numbers of her family in New York City. He knew they lived in Spanish Harlem; if he recalled, her mother -- “stepmother,” he corrected himself automatically -- lived in a tall apartment building on East 106th Street. But he couldn’t be certain, as he had never lived in NYC and didn’t know the geography or boundaries. And he didn’t recall her people’s names, except that her stepfather’s name was Eduardo and her stepmother’s name was Francisca.
He was still looking when the knock came on the door. He opened it, and saw two police officers.
One of the cops, presumable the senior one (he looked older to Steve anyway) asked, “Mr. Winthrop? You called 9-1-1? Something about your wife being dead?”
“Yeah.” He stepped aside. “Come on in. She’s in the bedroom, around that corner, the door on the right.”
The older officer went to the indicated door and looked in, then came back to the living room. “Looks like a natural cause to me, but we have to wait for the coroner now.” He took out a notebook and pen. “Can you tell us what happened, Mr. Winthrop?”
Steve looked from one to the other. “Do you mind if I sit down?”
“It’s your apartment, sir. Sit if you need to.”
Steve sat on in the middle of the couch. He began to talk. He spoke in broken sentences, unable to stay coherent for very long. But he got it out, between sobs and gasps for air like a drowning man. He answered their questions the same way. While he talked, the medical examiner arrived and was shown by the younger cop into the bedroom where Maria’s body still lay on the bed.
A minute later, Father Paul came in, wearing his priests’ collar. He saw Steve still talking to the officers. “I’ll go make some coffee, Steve.” He went into the kitchen.
The coroner came back out, taking off his surgical gloves, just as the older cop closed his notebook. He asked if he could sit down; Steve moved to the far side of the couch and indicated that the doctor could sit on other end. He sat down; the two officers remained standing.
He spoke calmly and quietly, in a practiced tone, to minimize the possibility of precipitating further upset. “Mr. Winthrop, could you tell me if your wife was on any medications?”
Steve looked at the man blankly for a moment, then said, “Yes, she was on two prescription medications, Phenobarbital and Dilantin. And a couple weeks ago, I found out she was taking an over-the-counter weight-gain supplement that caused her to have a lot of seizures.”
“How do you know that?”
“She started having a bunch of them, and when I called her doctor, he had me read the list of ingredients. He told me that a few of those on that list were known to counteract her meds.”
“Can you get those for me? All three of them. I’ll need them for my autopsy report. And since she’s not alive, it’s illegal for you to keep the phenobarb; it’s a controlled substance. And there’s no reason for you to keep the other drugs.”
“Sure, no problem. But can I ask a question?”
“Why are you gonna do an autopsy?”
“Well, since your wife died in the home rather than in a care facility, New York law requires a full autopsy. But there’s no cause for concern; with the information you’ve given me, an autopsy is just a formality at this point. And it will be done soon, so you can make the funeral arrangements. Just let us know which home to send the body to.”
“Okay, thank you.” He got up, went into the bathroom, got the meds out of the cabinet, then to the kitchen. He opened the refrigerator, got the supplement out. When he handed them to the coroner, he remarked, “You know, it’s funny. Her doctor told us to get rid of this stuff, to throw it out. But Maria insisted on keeping it. I know she wasn’t taking it any more, because her seizures decreased. Not all the way back to their normal number, but she stopped having them back to back.”
He took a ragged breath, then said, “Something else is bothering me.”
The doc and the cops perked up at that statement. “What is it, Mr. Winthrop?”
“Well, ever since we’ve been together, I always woke up just before she had her seizures. Kinda like a radar warning or something, ya know? But not this time; I didn’t wake up for this one. And I don’t know why, and that bothers me.”
The two cops, the doc, and the priest considered the statement. Then the doctor said, “Maybe it’s a good thing you didn’t wake up. There’s nothing you could have done to help her get the vomit out. Not without the medical knowledge of how to break a jaw without doing major damage, anyway. I’m sorry to be so blunt, but there’s really no other way to say it.”
A pair of ambulance attendants came in and removed the body while everyone present watched. Steve went to the picture window and watched them load Maria into the ambulance. He saw that his neighbors were also watching from doorways and those windows he could see more or less clearly.
The medical examiner left, followed by the cops. Father Paul stayed, sipping a cup of black coffee and watching Steve. Then he asked, “Where’s Martin at?”
Steve answered in a monotone. “Across the hall with Mrs. Ball. I should go see how he’s doing.”
“No, you stay here. I’ll go check.” He came back a minute later. “He’s okay; he ate breakfast and is watching cartoons now.”
The neighbors were a a godsend, in Steve’s opinion. Charlotte Little, the husky woman in the next building, helped him arrange the funeral, introducing him to the owner-operator of a mortuary on Mansion Street. A few of the women cleaned the apartment, changed the bedclothes and did the laundry for him. And everyone helped with Martin. It seemed like almost everyone in that section of the project was coming together to help out.
Several of his and Maria’s co-workers from the K-Mart they both worked at were at the funeral, including managers from three departments. Notably absent was Maria’s boss; there was nobody else on staff who could run the Readers’ Market because there were no other employees in that department. And his old boss form the bakery was there, too, as well as a handful of his neighbors and some other friends and acquaintances.
After the funeral, he arrived back home with the priest. Father Paul had turned down his request to officiate, so the pastor of a local church had done so, arranged by the owner of the funeral home and approved by Steve.
The next few hours were taken up by friends and neighbors coming by to offer condolences. Nearly all of them brought some type of food. Included was a large bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken with all the trimmings that chain offered. One person brought a few dozen Dunkin’ donuts. Those were the only items not made from scratch. There was also a big pan of baked macaroni and cheese, a home-made peach cobbler, an apple pie, a sweet potato pie, and various meat and veggie dishes, mostly in aluminum roasting pans, and large packages of Chinette plates and plastic flatware. He and Martin would eat well with no real effort for the next few days.
On Monday, he had to go back to work. That meant he had to keep Martin in day care. And he had to go to the Social Security office on Main Street to apply for survivor’s benefits for his son. In doing so, he found that he would also receive a representative payee’s benefit equal to the amount provided for Martin. Every little bit helps, he thought bitterly.
And back at work, he discovered that Maria’s job-provided insurance went, not to him, but to Martin as sole beneficiary. He couldn’t touch it unless he got a court order, and that would only be possible for an emergency. Martin would be eligible to receive it when he turned eighteen in a little under fourteen more years. On the bright side, it would collect interest until then, so the ten thousand dollar policy would end up being closer to sixteen thousand in all likelihood.
But it saddened him that Maria had done that with the insurance.
Over the next several months, life settled back to something resembling normal for father and son. It was harder, of course, with only one breadwinner; the Social Security checks helped, but they didn’t really come close to making up for Maria’s
lost income. Yet they managed. And a couple of the neighbors helped, along with Father Paul.
As Martin’s fifth birthday approached, Steve made plans for a little party. The children in that part of Tubman were invited, of course, as were the adults who had helped out when Maria died, even if it was just a hug when he broke down, as he did several times in that first few months of being a widower.
But on the day before the party, both of their lives went to hell in a handbasket. Child Protective Services came calling...