For as long as I could remember, a cigarette was as much a part of Papa’s profile as his nose.
That is, until the fateful day my brother Matthew was born.
Momma was standing beside me and the sink full of dishes I was washing. She was there to watch; to guide; and to ensure I thoroughly cleaned each flower-rimmed plate. Since she had schooled me well in the fine art of domestic chores, her supervision was unwarranted. I really think she wanted to feel needed or to keep her mind off her rather extended belly.
Truth be known, I had never seen any woman, let alone my Momma, in such a state of abundant pregnancy. Folks are always saying how a woman with child glows and Momma was beatific. Her eyes sparkled in the tiniest ray of sunlight; her soft voice was like a hug; and, her touch was as light as a monarch butterfly on milkweed.
All at once, Momma bent to her right and leaned forward.
“Momma?” I cried as she listed, her face taut, her eyes squinting closed.
Hearing my alarm, Papa looked up from his newspaper. “Liv? What is it?” He could no more disguise his concern than I.
“Might be time, Cy.”
“Really? The baby?” I said, trying to contain my giddy excitement.
“Take it easy Katie. Might jus’ be false labor,” Momma said, tempering my
What’s false about labor? I thought.
“Better call Doctor Crayton,” Momma told Papa.
The Glendora Hospital occupied a two-story brick building on Lohngerman Street, just south of Main. Although the Infirmary up in Charleston had a new maternity ward, Momma’s uncomplicated delivery with me influenced Doc Crayton’s decision to stay in Glendora. “Livie’s a healthy sort,” Doc told Papa over the telephone, “no need to subject her to that ride all the way to Charleston when we have all she needs right here.”
He and I shared the top step of the hospital front entrance; me with my ever-present notepad; and, Papa with his ever-present Lucky Strikes. As vividly as I can tell you what I’m wearing right now, I can see Papa light a cigarette and then send a cloud of blue white smoke into the thick afternoon air. As folks came and went, I jotted down things like who I thought they might be or my musings on what my baby sister would look like. Papa studied the baseball box scores.
A loud moan escaped a second floor window. But, since it didn’t sound like Momma, we didn’t panic.
“Sit here Katie, I’m going to check on your Momma.”
In those days, folks were more trusting with their children, especially in a small town like Glendora where people knew just about everyone else. And, a good many had a shotgun stashed in the trunk of their car or behind the seat of their pickup. Bird shot at twenty yards was far too painful to risk doing anything stupid.
Papa returned to read another score; have another cigarette; and, tell me that Momma was doing fine, but the baby wasn’t ready yet. “Maybe an hour or so,” Papa sighed.
I looked down at the step below the one on which Papa rested his foot and counted eleven crushed stubs, small flattened pancakes of burnt paper, gray ash, and brown strands of tobacco.
“Mr. Ciboulette?” echoed from the entrance.
“Could you come with me please?”
I spun to Papa, who in turn looked to the nurse. Her stoic face signaled neither good news nor bad.
“Be right back,” Papa said, as he exhaled a lungful of blue smoke.
I spent the next thirty minutes recording my emotions on this anxious and soon-to-be auspicious afternoon. The anticipation, the concern, and the unknown conspired to fill my head as well as the pages of my writing tablet.
“Katie?” a familiar voice beckoned.
“Papa!” With that I leapt off the step. “How’s Momma?”
“Fine, just fine and…”
Before he could finish his sentence, I shouted, “I have a little sister, right?”
“No. Your Momma had a boy.”
Papa’s eyes glowed while mine dimmed. Visions of gingham bibs edged with rickrack and lacy layettes evaporated; replaced by bamboo fishing poles, baseball caps and torn dungarees.
Despite my disappointment, I wanted to be happy for Momma and Papa. “Can we see her?” I begged.
Once inside, Papa led me up a narrow staircase and then down a cavernous hallway that echoed our every step. The smells of the place were far more pungent than any found down at Doc Crayton’s or even at the back counter of Branard’s Drug Store. A nurse stood with arms folded across her rather ample bosom and watched me as I trailed Papa. Though I avoided eye contact, I could still feel her cold scrutiny.
We rounded the corner and came to an abrupt stop as Papa spun to face me. “Katie, your Momma’s resting right now, but you need to know something.” He looked worried.
“The boy’s having a problem breathing. Doc says they need to keep an eye on him for the next few hours.”
“What’s wrong?” Had my initial negative reaction been a signal I didn’t want him? Did God happen to listen at the very moment of my disappointment? I prayed it wasn’t so.
“Not really sure, child. Doc says it can go either way.”
“Either way?” I repeated.
Papa pivoted, but the wetness around his eyes told me what his words did not. This new baby, about whom Momma and Papa were so overjoyed and the one I had been looking forward to dressing in my old outfits, might be in peril. I squeezed Papa’s hand. “I wanna see Momma.”
“Come on,” Papa whispered. “Don’t say anything about this to your Momma.”
“She doesn’t know?”
“She does. But no sense addin’ to her worry.”
It took all my resolve to peer around the drawn curtain surrounding Momma’s bed where I expected to see her in some pallid, weakened state. Instead, she looked to be sleeping peacefully. The click of Papa’s heels on the linoleum tiles woke her and she turned to us, smiling; a lone tear lined her rosy cheek. My own eyes filled and my breath vanished, leaving my lungs little more than empty vessels devoid of purpose. Her arms welcomed me and I all but fell into her embrace. My tears ran down her neck; hers soaked my blouse.
Always the caregiver, Momma comforted me. “Don’t worry, Katie. God will take care of everything.”
“Momma, I’m truly sorry.”
“I wanted a sister so bad that when Papa told me I had a brother I wasn’t happy.”
“You’re happiness had nothing to do with the baby.”
Papa added, “Katie, you listen to your Momma.”
She took my face in her hands; wiped the tears from my cheeks with her thumbs; and whispered, “Your Papa and me want to know what we should name our little boy?”
“You want me to name the baby?”
I thought parents had decided such things long in advance. Besides, how does one come up with a suitable name on such short notice? What would be my source? All I could think of was the Bible. But, Old Testament names like Ezekiel, Amnon, or Nehemiah were far too odd. No brother of mine would be stuck with one of those. It must be the New Testament. The Gospels.
I awaited their reaction. They looked to one another and smiled. Momma blessed my choice with another hug.
“Matthew,” Papa chimed. “I like that.”
“Matthew it is. Matthew Cyrus Ciboulette,” Momma said through tears.
Wow! My baby brother would go through life being called exactly what I wanted. That boy didn’t know how lucky he was considering the troublesome names I could have hung on him.
The three of us sat for several minutes, sometimes silent, sometimes in prayer.
“Yes?” Momma replied to the same dour nurse who stood guard in the hallway.
“Doctor would like to speak with you and your husband privately. Your daughter can come with me.”
I spent the better part of an hour sitting on a chair within sight of that nurse. She told me about her family, including her own younger brother, a boy named Walter. She finagled two bowls of Jell-O for me. Scraping the last spoonful, I heard the harsh ring of the black telephone on the desk near my new nurse friend. She responded in a string of, “Un-huhs,” then a final, “I’ll be right there,” before saying, “Katie, I can take you back to your folks now.”
“Thank you.” I clearly meant for the Jell-O, the pleasant conversation, and for returning me to my folks. I believed she somehow understood all of that.
Expecting to see baby Matthew, I was surprised to find only my parents, their eyes red.
“Katie, come here child.” Momma held out her hand. Papa encircled me with his arm as I neared the bed on which he sat and Momma lay. “Katie,” Momma continued, “your Papa and me have something to tell you.” From her tone, I felt as if I were about to be sent away again.
“What?” I repeated, anxious for a reply.
Finally, Papa said, “Boy’s lungs aren’t working like they should. He’s in an oxygen tent.”
“Is he going to die?”
“That’s in God’s hands,” Momma sighed. “All we can do is pray and wait.”
“Can’t the doctor do something?” I argued.
“He’s doing everything he can.” Papa said softly; trying to maintain what little composure he had left.
We cried openly in a circle of hugs that shielded us from the outside world. I wished Matthew were there too. After some time, Papa patted my back. “Come on Katie, let’s take a walk.”
“It’s okay, child. Go with your Papa.”
Out in the hallway Papa held me tight. I didn’t know if he was providing comfort or seeking it for himself. Didn’t matter.
We found the nursery down a dark corridor that stung with antiseptic. A heavy clear plastic curtain enclosed the crib in the far corner near a window. My baby brother lay inside, looking like a porcelain doll, a doll I wanted to cradle; to comfort; to save.
“Papa, I want him to live.”
“So do we,” he said in a broken voice.
We stood vigil at that window until a nurse came by asking us to wait in the vestibule. I don’t recall who was more reluctant to leave or who looked back more often.
Instead of finding a seat in the main waiting room, Papa took me outside to our spot on the front steps. The sky was beginning to pale and shadows stretched across Lohngerman Street then up Monroe. Another hour or so and the sky would be ablaze in orange. During our time there, neither of us spoke, for words had failed us. I couldn’t even think clearly enough to record my feelings in my journal. We sat there in silence until I asked, “Papa?”
“Yes,” came back a distracted reply.
“Don’t you have any more cigarettes?”
“Then, how come you’re not smoking?”
“Don’t want to.”
Papa not wanting a cigarette was about as odd as a hungry dog not wanting a bone.
“Papa? Are we going to stay here all night?”
“No, I’ll be bringing you over to Mrs. Glouchester in a bit. I’ll probably stay with your Momma.”
“Can’t I stay too?”
“No. Don’t know how long it’s going to be and you need your sleep.”
“Papa, before you take me to Mrs. Glouchester’s can I see Matthew and Momma again? Please.”
We passed the nursery looking for Matthew, but that shiny tent was empty.
Believing the worst had happened, I swallowed hard. We quickened our pace to Momma’s room. But there he was; baby Matthew cradled in Momma’s arms.
I approached the bed and then reached out to caress the crown of his tiny head. It felt cool. Momma sobbed as Papa heaved deeply and let out a horrific shudder.
Matthew was gone.
Momma kissed the baby’s lifeless cheek; Papa did the same. Though neither asked me to repeat their heartbreaking gesture, a voice deep inside said I should. I kissed the soft patch of downy hair. “I love you, Matthew. Say hello to God for me.”
We buried Matthew on the small rise at the western edge of the Congregational Cemetery, which we would visit on Saturday afternoons and pray over the tiny headstone that read, “Matthew Cyrus Ciboulette. A son, a brother, a child of God. July 9, 1951.”
Papa never touched another cigarette after that day.
The following September while doing homework on the front porch I heard muffled sobs that were not Momma’s. A humid evening breeze carried whispered words out to me.
“He was here for a purpose, Cy,” Momma consoled Papa. “I may not understand what it was, but, sure as I’m sittin’ here, there was one.”
With the tangerine sun slipping behind the western horizon, a final shaft of sunlight burst over the purple hills and splashed the front of our house in a gold so brilliant that I had to squint my eyes. In that moment, I knew my baby brother’s purpose.
MICHAEL ANTHONY is a writer and artist living in New Jersey. He has published fiction, poetry and illustrations in multiple literary journals and commercial magazines. Most recently these include The Birch Gang Review, Jonah Magazine, The Indiana Voice Journal, The Copperfield Review, Cowboy Jamboree, The Visitant, Ink in Thirds, and Twisted Sister Litmag. The American Labor Museum exhibited Michael’s photojournalism essay on the waning of Paterson New Jersey’s textile industry.