Saturday Morning short: Mortality (non-fiction story)

April 28, 2012
Today’s story is not fiction.

With all the exchange of ideas from this last week, I have been slammed in the heart with the full significance of these issues. Today’s story is non-fiction. I can’t much think of anything but this, just now.

The Bench Babies

We three mothers sat on a bench outside the Wolford Elementary gym. It was the last day of school and we had come for an awards assembly.  We chatted while our kids went back to class to collect their last bits of end-of-year flotsam.

There was nothing in our conversation that had particular significance to us, other than the fact that we approached the summer with mixed feelings. Let’s face it, summer is quite work intensive for mothers of grade school kids. We might have said something about looking forward to the time when our youngest children were in school, (Janet’s already was).  It seems to me that we talked about life after preschoolers. But I don’t remember exactly what was said as we three friends sat on a bench on the last day of school.

Except for the fact that we all were certain that we were done with childbearing. It had been a quandary for me, since I always wanted eight and only had six. But my youngest was three and my husband felt that it was time to be done. He was soon to celebrate his 39th birthday. He’d be too old, he reasoned, to do for another child what dads need to do. I admitted the considerations and thoughts regarding it to those two trusted friends.
Pam was already in her forties and said with a laugh, “Well, I know I’m done. I’m older than Jeff!” Janet assured us that she was also sure of being done. She was in a rocky marriage, (though at the time, neither Pam nor I knew how rocky.)  That was the gist. We don’t write down casual conversations with friends, do we?
Fast forward about five months.  I was having strange symptoms that seemed oddly like pregnancy. But I also had a few menopausal signs, too. My hair was getting some stray grays and I had PMS like never before.  I was only 35, but nobody can predict the changes in life. But I took a pregnancy test, just in case. Positive. Positive! 
I was sorry for about fifteen minutes. I had planned to go to school when my next youngest went to kindergarten. I had begun to wonder what it would it be to grocery shop alone. But it was not to be.  But then the wonder and the joy and hope and sense of honor settled on me and everything was all right.
Jeff’s response was much the same as mine. He quickly calculated how old he’d be when our baby graduated from high school. “I’ll be an old man!” he said. “I’ll be retiring right after the baby finishes school!”
That very night, my husband went to a church meeting that my friend Pam was conducting. At the end of the meeting, she announced that she was almost five months pregnant. She told me later when she saw the look on Jeff’s face, she knew that I was, too. We had told nobody, not even our children, but Pam marched up to him right afterward and asked him. Our news was still bouncing in his brain, looking for a place to settle. He denied it.
Pam called me the next day.  “Are you pregnant?” I was tempted to deny it, too, but with Pam’s super nose for news, I recognized that lies would not avail. 
About two weeks later, Pam called me again. “Janet’s pregnant, too. It was that bench!”  Pam herself had three older children. I thought it was a little naïve to blame a bench outside the school gym for three pregnant women.  But then again, it was rather miraculous that 42-year-old Pam, 38-year-old Janet and I, at 36, could all suddenly, unexpectedly be having babies.  But Pam called them Bench Babies. She threatened to take up a collection to put a warning sign on the school bench.
Pregnancy for older women is difficult. You might say, “It ain’t no picnic for young ones either,” and that’s true. But it seemed to be hard much earlier. I remember the last five months being ponderously waddley, achiley exhausting and tiresomely conspicuous.  But my two bench sisters had it just as bad. In fact, Janet, whose marriage had not been helped by the situation, undoubtedly had it worse.
Never the less, when I was about four months along, I got a card in the mail from Janet. It was an official membership card for the O.P.L. club. In tiny letters that I needed to polish my bifocals to see I saw that O.P.L. Stood for Old Pregnant Ladies. It gave me the right to mood swings, eating anything any time, and all the moaning and groaning that I needed.  I think there was something about sleeping late and bon bons on there too.
  By the end of the following school year, Pam had a new baby boy she named “Spencer.”  Janet and I were due within two weeks of each other and in to the full blown misery stage, complete with swollen ankles and puffy everything . . .then again, at our ages, it might not have been the pregnancies’  fault.
Janet jumped ahead of me and had Jeffrey almost a month early. Jeffrey had a traumatic time of it with his airway impeded and the doctors worked frantically to revive the darkening infant.  And they succeeded!
By the end of the summer, little Spencer, Jeffrey and Thomas were the dotage of our ward. Two more members had joined our club, and they also had boys. But they hadn’t been on the bench. So it makes far more sense that there was something in the drinking fountain at church.
But Jeffrey’s rough start had left an imprint on him. Janet took him to therapies and treatments throughout his preschool years.  He seemed fine to me.  I remember asking Janet if she was certain that his pace wasn’t just his natural development patterns. She patiently explained that he showed unique signs of birth trauma and that the therapies were helping.  
Before long, the boys’ personalities began to emerge. Spencer was a daredevil in the frightening extreme. “If this boy lives, it will be a miracle!” his mother said.  He was still preschool age (if I remember right) when he broke a bone swinging off a vacuum hose from the balcony in their home. He was rather vague about the details.  I hope Pam doesn’t know about the part my own children MIGHT have played in some of his legendary antics.
Jeffrey always reminded me of Curious George.  At church, when he went to the children’s meeting, (called Primary in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,) he would sit on his chair with his heels hooked on the rung so his knees stuck up. He looked like a grasshopper ready to spring. He would hold onto the sides of his chair sometimes. I think that was mostly to delay the inevitable leap. Jeffrey tried to be good, but sometimes his exuberance got the best of him.
He was tender-hearted, too. I remember once when I was in his school classroom as room mother. I had the children making some sort of Christmas ornament and Jeffrey came and just stood close to me. “Do you need something, Jeffrey?” I asked.
“No,” he answered. “I’m just looking.”
You might think I’m easily flattered, but I was. He seemed to be proving to the other students that he and I were friends. There was something extra between us that the other students didn’t have.
  He was so curious and engaged that he wanted to be in the middle of everything. He wanted to touch and feel and see and hear.
Thomas was a cheerful, obedient, little boy with some tendency to fearfulness. It was important to Thomas to “be good,” and he was sometimes troubled by his buddies’ naughtiness. At least that’s the way I heard it. With Spencer’s daredevil and Jeffrey’s curiosity, we three mothers thought of them like gunpowder and fire. Thomas might have been a bit of a cooling agent in the mix, but he liked to spend time with both of them. Vibrant personalities like theirs are just FUN!
But in the course of Jeffrey’s young childhood, his parent’s marriage fell apart. His older siblings were either teens or early twenties, so Jeffrey became a sticking point. I cannot comment publicly on such a private matter as those years, but Janet and I became deeper friends. We confided to each other more often.
  We had both gone back to school to finish our degrees through the BYU BGS (distance learning) program.  Janet anticipated going to work to support herself, and I felt I needed the degree to be ready for the next phase, whatever it held. We took many of the same classes, though not simultaneously, and commiserated together on the difficulties of the process. We discussed our families together and analyzed Jeffrey’s responses to the struggles he was being subjected to.
Maybe it was that final bonding before Janet moved to another state, but we have kept good contact through the years. Not too much later, we also moved away from Colorado. But the miracles of email and facebook allowed us to “keep track” of each other quite consistently.
  Despite Janet’s desperate attempts to keep Jeffrey with her, she ended up with a shared custody with Jeffrey staying in his Colorado home.  His father had remarried and his stepmother had a boy his age.

In recent years, I’ve read Janet’s posts as she counted down the days to visits with Jeffrey. What a relief it was to read that when Janet remarried, Jeffrey and his stepfather developed a good relationship.  He seemed to be getting along okay. But he had it tough. 
Janet sent a note yesterday. “Our three little boys are down to two.” Jeffrey died last Tuesday. As I write this now, fresh tears start. How can that be? Our children do NOT precede us in death!

I picked up Thomas from school and gave him the news. “My Jeffrey Meacham?” he asked.

“Yes. Your Colorado friend.”

He asked some questions and I told him all I knew. He wept softly, his head turned away. At fifteen, Thomas has  the body of a man but for a moment he was a little boy, weeping for his boyhood friend.  When his emotion subsided, he asked, “Can we go?”

“We’ll see.”  It’s a ten hour drive. But I wanted to go, too. There’s nothing to say or do that will ease the dreadful pain for my friend. I want to go and let the angels carry up the message to Jeffrey that there are many, many people that love and care about him. I want his family to know that we mourn with them and blend our tears with theirs over the harshness of mortality. Jesus wept at the death of his friend, Lazarus, even knowing that he would immediately restore him to life. He wept over Mary and Martha’s pain. He weeps for us as we suffer. But his hands are stretched out still. He holds the balm and soothing ointment. I hope that I can help to pour it in.

This is for Janet.

Mother pain

I forget an instant,
My present pain:

A moment from
The sad refrain,
But in the next,
descends again.

My universe
Is ever changed

Just as it was
When he first came.

Father? Receive my son
Into the power
Of Thy love.
You sent me your
 Beloved One,

Thou who art merciful to save,
Have rescued from a hopeless grave!

Jeffrey’s obituary can be read at dignitymemorial.com
Jeffrey Meacham and the state is Colorado.

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4 Comments

  • Reply B May 1, 2012 at 7:53 pm

    Thanks for this story, Beth. I sat just a couple of rows behind you on Monday. I would have liked to share a hug, but I will have to send a verbal hug instead: You have a lovely talent for expressing thoughts and feelings that matter. Thank you for sharing that talent. Love, Bev

  • Reply Bryan May 1, 2012 at 7:53 pm

    Thank you for sharing this. Joe (Russ) Meacham is my Dad's younger brother and I am Kip's older brother. Please accept our condolences and extend them to Janet and her family when you talk again.

    God bless,

    Bryan and Merilee Meacham
    Frederick, MD

  • Reply Lezlie Bibeau May 1, 2012 at 7:53 pm

    I thought I didn't have any more tears left after leaving the funeral this morning . . . I was wrong. Thank you for sharing this post.

  • Reply Rob and Marseille May 1, 2012 at 7:53 pm

    i love the bench babies story! but I am so sorry for your friend and what she is going through. That is sweet that they are using donations as a scholarship for his graduating class.

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