THE OAK TREE

JOWITA BYDLOWSKA

We waited for her to wake up inside me half the night, but she wasn’t moving so we got in the car first thing and drove to the hospital where they couldn’t hear her heartbeat and that was that. It wasn’t that at all. The that was that I had to birth her. It was macabre but we didn’t think of it, we just did what we were told and in the beginning, Henryk held my hand as I started to go through labour. They didn’t want to cut me open to get her out, it was a major surgery they said and doctors and equipment was scarce (communism, Poland, 1985) so obviously they knew more than we did and we were probably in shock, no, we were in shock, who wouldn’t be, and didn’t argue and I had to do it natural way.   

After some more hand-holding and the doctors coming and going, it was suggested I walk around with my single-occupancy cemetery in my womb but I was past walking at that time and instead I demanded to stand in a hot shower. I read about showers and birth. I didn’t know what else to do. 

I spent hours in that shower stall with my spine stretching and breaking, my bones going through an earthquake. Nobody minded me crying and screaming and Henryk kept saying, “cicho, cicho,” but what else could he say, he was not inside my body, he had no idea how to help so he just shushed me but then gave up and just held my hand, then held me up and tried to help me stand, but not for long; I was heavy like the planet collapsing in on itself. After a while, he left to get a drink and a sandwich and didn’t come back after it was all over. 

There were no nurses around because they were attending to live births so I was alone in that shower stall for a while, crying and occasionally still screaming. Eventually something started to happen, there was water and blood, I pressed the red emergency button, and the nurses came back and some doctors and I was loaded back on to the birthing bed and told to push and I pushed and my spine broke and my hips became flattened-out like some grotesque wings of a dead butterfly and then there she was. 

Did I want her on my stomach? I looked at Henryk but he was looking away from her, from me. He had breadcrumbs in the corners of his mouth. What a thing to notice, considering. 

I wanted her on my stomach. I had a dumb thought that maybe I’d bring her to life by holding her but she was just cold and very dead and she was my daughter and her name was Agnieszka. 

Spend some time with her, a nurse said and I held onto the dead baby Agnieszka until I passed out.  When I woke up Agnieszka was gone and my breasts were engorged ready to feed her.

You can pump for other babies or we can give you some medication to stop lactating. 

Where is Henryk?

Your husband went home.

He went home. I don’t know if he held Agnieszka, I couldn’t remember, they gave me so many drugs I couldn’t remember. 

When I got home the next day, Agnieszka’s room was Henryk’s office again, save it for a picture of a fairy that eventually was covered up by a framed painting of some relative with a big moustache. We found the picture in one of the boxes Henryk’s mother left to us after she died. Maybe he wasn’t anybody’s relative, who knows, but he looked distinguished and funny at the same time.

I agreed to pump for other babies. There were preemies who needed milk and there were mothers who had no milk. I was given two noisy pumps, like mini-generators that for the next three months would be a constant buzz reminding my body of its appalling failure. 

Henryk would take the dogs out for a walk when I pumped. After three months I asked for the medication to stop me from lactating. 

Did Henryk and I talk about the baby? No. What was there to say? 

There wasn’t a lot of television to watch back then and I had trouble sleeping so I read books whose words made no sense, and once, in a magazine, I read about people holding onto their stillborns for days, spending time with them, talking about their rotting treasures as if they were live children. I didn’t get it but everyone grieves in their own way. 

Henrky and I did it too, grieving, by never mentioning what had happened. 

After some time we adopted more animals. Cats and more dogs and even a guinea pig that ran away after a week before we even had a chance to name her. 

Agnieszka didn’t have a grave. Henryk planted an oak tree in our backyard after we conceived her, so it was Agnieszka’s tree, but it was winter when she was born and the tree gave no indication of being dead or alive and I didn’t like to look at it so I didn’t look at it.

What else do you want to know? We got older. We always kept to ourselves and had regular routines, uninterrupted by children that we didn’t have. As communism ended and television began, we’ve spent time watching a lot of shows. 

In the summer, we went to the same Baltic sea resort as every year, where we read all the novels we didn’t get a chance to read because of our jobs. 

Our jobs were demanding, we both worked with numbers and we brought those numbers home, often. I made dinner, left it hot on the stove if Henryk was late and I was tired and going to bed. 

It was one summer where it seemed both of us suddenly came out of grieving, or something changed—enough time has passed. We started talking to each other again without the television screen buffering our feelings and somehow it came out that we both wanted to be parents still but how? We were in our late 40s, we could no longer create a baby. 

Because we were older, the boy who came to live with us was older as well. He was 11, his name was Rajek but he said we could call him whatever we wanted; he preferred “Loco.” 

Well, Loco is not a name, Henryk said. But the boy said that no, Loco was very much a name so Loco it was. 

I took a few days off work, it was a slow season, right after all the taxes were filed, and I went shopping with Loco. Henryk did not take any time off. He took on more hours but not right away, just gradually, as Loco revealed himself. 

He started revealing himself on that first shopping trip. He stole two t-shirts and a pair of shoes. I bought him a pair of shoes but he stole the ones he really wanted, which were twice as expensive. He called me “pizda” when I went into his room, pointing at the stolen shoes and telling him he had to return them. He said I was just like his last foster mum who was also a cunt. 

I didn’t want to be like his cunt foster mother; no one has ever called me that before, but that was fine—after Agnieszka I became an animal with a shell, a word like that could not penetrate me. 

Henryk was the opposite. Agnieszka’s birth skinned him; I suspect he was only surviving. He did make small efforts to make this work—Loco and me and Loco and us, the family. For example, we took pictures and exchanged presents for Christmas—Henryk and I exchanged presents. We gave Loco his presents. He glared at Henryk and said his shoulder hurt. He was gloomy and quiet, he skipped the Christmas dinner, and he locked himself in his room with his presents, a videogame system and a cellular phone. 

I frequently told Loco I loved him and told him Henryk loved him. I was unsure I loved Loco but I hoped I would. I had no idea how Henryk felt; he was just  disappearing more and more into his stacks of papers. He would come home late and take one of the two dogs we had left for a walk and come home after I’d be in bed. Neither of us would check on Loco to see if he was in bed because Loco asked for a lock and his door was always locked. 

Loco went to school until he got expelled, then I had to take a few weeks off to watch him but I couldn’t watch him as he’d always run away. I’d follow him and he would jump into an upcoming bus, or run down the stairs to the metro. He was a prisoner and I was his incompetent guard. 

He’s spirited, I just think of him as spirited, I told a friend who asked me how the fostering was going. He loves you, even if he doesn’t say it. Hasn’t he told you he loves you?

No.

Eventually we stopped pretending. Loco would get expelled again and I would go to work. What was the point of watching him? Neither of us was thrilled about that. One day the TV went missing, another day, it was my mother’s engagement sapphire ring. Henryk replaced the TV. 

I told Loco I would tell the social worker about what happened and Loco said he would tell them we were beating him. But look at us! Henryk was a small man with a small belly and I was a small woman with a small belly. The animals were small, with small bellies. We were not the beating kind but you never know about people, right, so it scared me Loco would say terrible things about us. 

It was when Loco hit me that I understood this was not a mother-son relationship, this was no family, this was no child who wanted to be loved. Or who could be loved. I knew some of Loco’s history and it was that history that kept me wanting to try with him but it wasn’t enough. Foster home to foster home to foster home and a drunk mother who left him on the steps of a church like in the movies except she was caught, went to jail but never came back to claim her boy, just went back to drinking. I didn’t know what happened in the other foster homes but I’m sure nothing good—actually, not entirely sure, maybe Loco was just always Loco, nature nurture. What was the point of figuring it out? 

The social worker said it was up to us. We could do family therapy. 

We did family therapy. Loco stayed quiet but played with a stress ball for an hour until he broke it and the white sticky powder exploded all over the room and the young therapist with too many names, one of them Marlene, said not to worry. 

The next four sessions Loco stayed quiet and Henryk stayed quiet and I answered the therapist’s strange questions about our eating rituals and have I noticed any triggers that make Loco act out.

Then Loco hit me again. And the third time it happened, Henryk told him to pack his bags and he called the social worker. She came and took Loco with her and Loco didn’t even turn around to say good-bye but I yelled after him, Good luck, lovey, good luck!

I’ve never called him kochanie before and after he left I wondered if it would make any difference had I called him that: would it open him up, break him, change him back to Rajek, the 11-year-old boy who he was supposed to be.

But you tried hard, you were nice to him. You were loving to him. You made his breakfasts and his lunches and you bought him that videogame thing and—Henryk’s voice droned on as I sat in the kitchen and cried.

The dogs waved in and between our legs, their tails waggling. They were relieved. They no longer had to hide in Henry’s office, Sunia’s tail was healing well after having been slammed in the door and shattered a few months back when Loco was asked to turn his music down. 

Some time went by and we were back to our fortresses of papers and TV and passing each other politely as if on a full, slow-moving tram. We skipped the summer resort and moved into the fall in a daze. And I don’t know if it was an anniversary—like our wedding anniversary or the anniversary of Agnieszka’s death or Loco’s arrival or departure—but what happened seemed like it should’ve happened on an anniversary. What happened is that Henryk took Reksio, our other dog, for a walk one evening and never came back.

I knew right away that he was not returning that night when I woke up to the sound of nothing in the dark apartment. Nobody came back, no dog, no man. The absence woke me up. 

I took some time off work to distribute posters with Henryk’s picture on them and a phone number; I plastered them onto poles and boards all over the city—our neighbourhood and further. I posted on craigslist in the “Missing” section, and I called the police. They looked for him. They didn’t find him. I didn’t find him. I made more posters—those ones were more desperate where I called Henryk “the love of my life.”

But was he? I don’t know. He was not in the shower stall with me when my spine was breaking. But he was always there. There was nobody else. I photocopied more posters with my declaration of love, and kept posting them until one day I stopped because why.

The planet rotated around the Sun a few more times.  

One evening I had a sighting. This was a week after I retired and I had a lot of time to myself so I spent evenings wandering around. Sometimes I went to a museum, or a coffee shop where I would sit and read books I never read during our summers in the sea resort.

I was on the subway and as the train started to pull out of the station I saw Henryk. He was standing with what I thought was a baby carriage but on looking closer, it turned out to be a shopping cart filled with garbage bags. I banged on the window screaming his name. He looked at me but he looked through me, past me. I screamed his name. He didn’t move. The train moved. Then we were in the tunnel and I got off the next station and took a taxi back to where I saw him but he was gone.

I looked for him again, put up more posters.

But I never found him.

The oak tree that he planted in our garden when I was pregnant with Agnieszka had a few bad incidents. Loco tried to set it on fire one particular year when the tree seemed to have died completely. Henryk cuffed him in the ear for that. He didn’t hit Loco that much, never gave him more than a black eye.

Anyway, after Loco left, it was as if the tree knew because it finally made a decision to live and then it became a tree and now it’s a tree, a small oak, with smooth dark gray bark, acorns and juicy green leaves with deep indentations, its sharp tips making me think of fingers of hands reaching out.

It’s a quite nice little tree. I suppose it’s profound that it’s grown—that it continues to grow—making a go of it despite everything, same as me. 

My name is Jowita Bydlowska and I was born in Warsaw, Poland. I moved to Canada as a teenager. Currently, I live in Toronto. I wrote a bestselling memoir called Drunk Mom  published by Doubleday Canada and HarperCollins Australia (2013) & Penguin USA (2014). (The book is also self-published in the U.K.) My novel GUY (Buckrider Books) came out in October, 2016 and people liked it.
I also publish short stories.

TINY SPILLS
  • If you had to brag about yourself:
    I gave birth to the kindest, funniest, smartest, astonishing boy ever

  • Your writer crush:
    I think the (so-called) trashy romance writers are some of the most creative, impressive, and devoted (to their audience) authors out there.

  • Any place in the world:
    Kraków, Zakopane, Bocian, Sopot, Warsaw (Poland), Tangier, Montreal, Fernie (Canada), and wherever we’ve those beaches with white sand, leaning palm trees and sea turtles that you see in screensaver options

  • Best breakfast:
    In a luxury hotel

  • Guilty literary pleasure:
    Omegaverse

  • Best book nobody talks about:
    Cloak of Illusion by Stanisław Dygat, Girl Crazy by Russell Smith