Usually when I tell stories about my father, they aren’t pleasant. He was a physically and verbally abusive man for as long as I could remember. And I’ve often talked about the contrast between the man in whose home I grew up and stories that various relatives would tell about what he was like “before the bad times.” This is going to be one of those stories. While it is a story that was told with great warmth and fondness by more than one member of the family, I do feel obligated to offer a warning that the tale will include some discussion of near-fatal medical complications associated with childbirth, as well as the hunting and killing of animals many regard as cute, and related subjects.
The most entertaining version of this story was told by my maternal grandmother (aka Nice Grandma), who was Dad’s mother-in-law. The most disturbing version I ever heard was from my Dad. This retelling will adhere mostly to Grandma’s version, but a few details from all the versions contribute. Buckle up, mind the content warnings, and let’s begin…
My parents were only 16 years old when they married. I was born 6 days before Dad’s 18th birthday. So in the picture included above, Dad was either 17 or 18 years old. Mom was 17 years old when I was born. Mom has always been a small person. As an adult she is 4’11” tall, and for most of her adult life, she seldom weighed more than 85 pounds. But she didn’t reach her full height until she was 20 years old, so at the time she gave birth to me, she was even smaller.
On the day Mom went into labor, she was visiting her older sister (my Aunt Silly) at Grandma’s house, because Aunt Silly had just given birth a week before to my Almost Twin cousin. Grandma drove Mom to the hospital while Aunt Silly called Dad’s workplace to tell him the news, and then called several other relatives.
This was back in the day when husbands were definitely not allowed or expected to be in the delivery room. Grandma was in there for part of the proceedings only because she was a nurse at that hospital, and her shift started midway through the labor, and well, there wasn’t a lot of staff at the tiny town hospital. Things seemed to be proceeding normally for several hours. Dad was anxiously pacing out in the hallway, while other relatives occasionally tried to distract him.
Then the screams started. Mom was moved from the delivery room to a surgical room. Another nurse switched out for Grandma, and she wound up being one of the people keeping Dad from bursting into the operating room as the screams got worse. One of the things that went wrong in the birth was Mom’s abdominal wall started tearing while her body was trying to get me out. In Dad’s version of the story, he swore that he heard a tearing sound the moment that her screams went from being merely disturbing to blood-curdlingly frightening. There were other problems, most of which weren’t diagnosed until later.
Eventually I was delivered and whisked off to the nursery. Mom was stitched back together. Then Mom was moved to a recovery room and Dad was let in to see her. Mom was conscious, but also on very strong painkillers. A nurse brought me in for my parents to hold for the first time. Mom and Dad decided on a name (they chose poorly, but I legally fixed that many years later). Dad asked Mom if there was anything he could get her. Mom said, “I’m really craving rabbit.” Dad kissed her and left.
Other family members were allowed in to see Mom. For about another 45 minutes, everything seemed fine. Then, in the middle of sleepily talking to Grandma about something, Mom had a seizure. Mom had never had a seizure before. Family members was shooed out as medical personnel swarmed in, then Mom was again whisked off to an operating room.
No one could find Dad.
No one else had been in the recovery room when Mom told Dad she wanted to eat some rabbit. Dad didn’t tell anyone where he was going.
For a while, the prognosis did not look good for Mom’s survival. Among the other complications was renal toxicity that had not proceeded far enough for its symptoms to be noticeable over other pains and such of being in late term pregnancy. She also was bleeding internally.
And still, no one could find Dad.
My paternal grandfather drove first to the house where my parents lived, then to Dad’s workplace, and to the homes of various friends. People were calling around to everyone they could think of to find out where Dad was.
Once the doctors moved Mom back into a recovery room and decided she was no longer in critical condition (but she would remain unconscious for at least two more days), Nice Grandma finally left the hospital. Even though she’d been awake more than 24 hours, she decided to take a long route home, to check for herself a couple of places where Dad might be.
She saw his car in the driveway of the house he and Mom were renting from my paternal grandparents. She found him in the garage. He had two enormous tin washtubs and, in Grandma’s words, “At least four dozen rabbits.” One washtub was full of the skinned bodies of about half the rabbits, the other was full of rabbit pelts and viscera. In between Dad was sitting cross-legged with the rest of the rabbits, gleefully skinning one.
Before Grandma got a word out, Dad looked up with the biggest grin Grandma had ever seen on his face and said, “She wants rabbit! Do you think I got enough?”
Before I move on, I should mention that rabbit hunting season did not begin for another week. So not only was he way over the limit… well…
Once Grandma told him what happened, Dad rushed back to the hospital. Not that there was much he could do. Dad refused to leave Mom’s side until after she woke up.
My paternal grandfather rounded up a couple of guys to go to the garage, finish skinning the rabbits, package them up, and put them all in a chest freezer.
One of the first meals Mom had once she was released from the hospital was a rabbit that Dad fried up for her.
A couple years later Mom nearly died again in childbirth. The child was stillborn. Three years after that, when Mom was pregnant with my sister (and we were living in another town), because of her past history, the doctors performed a C-section before Mom went into labor. It was done early enough that my sister was considered a premature baby. The doctors said after that that Mom shouldn’t try to have any more kids, because even doing the C-section early, there had been problems. Her doctor had assumed the problems when I was born were because of Mom’s size and age at that time. After the C-section and her recovery, he felt differently.
It was four years after that that both my parents learned (because of a chance meeting with one of the nurses who had assisted with my birth, but had herself moved away before Mom’s second pregnancy) that while almost all of the family was looking for Dad right after I was born, the surgeon who worked on Mom had told Evil Grandma that Mom should never try to give birth again. No one knows why that doctor didn’t also tell the news to Dad once Dad had been found, nor why the doctor didn’t tell Mom. When Evil Grandma was confronted about this news, she claimed that she figured the doctor was just overreacting. It was a couple of decades later when, in an angry rant about Mom, Evil Grandma let it slip that she thought it would have been better if Mom had died after giving birth to me (and now you know another reason I call her Evil Grandma).
Nice Grandma always told The Rabbit Story as an illustration of how much Dad had loved Mom, and how excited and happy he was to become a father. Aunt Silly and my paternal aunt usually told the story to illustrate how Dad would go overboard when it came to giving things to people he cared about. My paternal grandfather told the story with both a chuckle and a bit of wistfulness. My paternal grandmother (aka Evil Grandma) never told the story, and never seemed happy if she was in the room when someone else told it.
Dad usually looked embarrassed if he was there when someone was telling it, and would either try to change the subject, or just leave the room. So far as I know, Dad only told the story once. To me, some years after he had divorced Mom to go marry the woman he’d been having an affair with for years.
I was in my early 20s. Mom had remarried and had moved off to Arizona. I had stayed in the town where I’d graduated from high school, living with my maternal grandparents while attending community college. We had only recently received the news that Mom was pregnant again. Which had a few of us worried.
Dad didn’t call me right away after hearing about it (from my sister, who was living in the same town as he at the time). He waited until he was out of state for work so he could call me without the possibility of my stepmother overhearing. He was sitting in his pickup truck on a hill somewhere in North Dakota, somehow getting one of the two-way radios in the pickup patched into the telephone network. It was a thing, back before cellphones were common.
And that’s how he chose to tell me, for the first and only time, his version of the story of the day I was born. The rabbits are barely mentioned. Most of the story concerns what it was like standing in the hospital hallway hearing Mom scream as if she was being brutally murdered. He couldn’t understand why, after learning what they had learned after my sister was born, Mom would even think about having another kid. “It nearly killed her! How can this guy think it would be a good idea to knock her up?”
This was one of the weirdest conversations I ever had. Trying to explain to my Dad that Mom was an adult. That Mom had told me they hadn’t been trying to get pregnant. That Mom had also told me that her doctor said that medical science has come a long way in that time. That the doctor thought Mom, at 38, seemed to be healthy enough to carry a baby to term. And above all else, trying to find a diplomatic way to point out that given how he had divorced her explicitly to marry someone else, he didn’t have any place to comment.
“You don’t understand. Every time she was pregnant, it nearly killed her…”
I have to admit, that even though I had always laughed at the funny parts when Nice Grandma told the story, that moment when he repeated “It nearly killed her,” his voice cracking, was the first time I understood why Nice Grandma had always spoke so fondly of the way Dad was “before the bad times.”
Mom didn’t carry that baby to term. She had a miscarriage. There were other complications.
When Nice Grandma told The Rabbit Story, she always ended it with Dad frying up one of those rabbits for Mom when she came home from the hospital. Ending it there, the story is mostly a comedy, despite the hair-raising middle. Grandpa usually ended it at him insisting on driving Mom, Dad, and me home from the hospital himself for fear that Dad would take it into his head to take Mom and me hunting for fresh rabbit. My Aunts would each end by asking Mom how long it was before they’d finally eaten all the rabbits and did she ever get tired of rabbit (the answers were “Not long enough! We were out before the next year’s rabbit season” and “Oh no! I will never so ‘no’ to rabbit!”). To all of them, The Rabbit Story was a comedy.
When Dad told it, he ended it with the doctor telling them, after my sister’s birth, that Mom was lucky to have survived each birth and they should absolutely never try to have more kids. Dad’s version is a tragedy. And really, a double tragedy, because it was clear when he told me that, in his own way, he still loved Mom.
I’ve said before that my only regret about Dad was that he was never the kind of father that deserved love and respect. I should probably revise that to say that he was never, during any time that I could remember, the kind of father who deserved love and respect. He could have been. And therein lies the third tragedy.