Maternity Cave by Michele Leavitt

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Fish and Game folks were hauling lights and bins out of their trucks when we arrived for the Jonesville, Florida, bat count of 2006. My lover Stephen, who was a scientist, brought me and my niece Candi, who was about to turn fifteen, to see the spectacle. One of his colleagues, a chiropterologist who’d intentionally built his family’s home near an underground cave sheltering thousands of little brown bats, hosted a cocktail hour before the event. The bat-man’s ranch-style home lolled like a placid cow under the live oaks. Beyond it lay a savannah. The atmosphere was expansive, but once we were invited inside the home, its stifling air of long and calm occupation made me wheeze.

Candi had lived with me since she was thirteen, and before that with another aunt, and before that, a Catholic orphanage.  Her parents, my brother and his wife, were still alive, but mired in drug and alcohol addiction.  She longed for them both, especially her mother, and I respected that. Our family’s tradition of longing and of mothers giving up their children ran deep. Although I was a grown woman in the stifling home that evening, I was once again an infant given up by a mother–Candi’s grandmother.

Inside, Candi observed each detail of the bat-family’s living room, shooting me looks meant to draw my attention to the brick-red throw pillows on the couch, and then casting her eyes down to the brick-red stripes in an area rug spread out in front of the stone fireplace. I knew what she was thinking: She admired the matching colors and how they echoed one another to create a sense of order and unity. We were planning a makeover for her room, and brick-red was one of the colors she was considering because she’d outgrown her princess-pink palette.

She sat up straight, as if trying to keep from sinking into the couch. It was easy for anything to swallow her; she was just over five feet tall and not quite one hundred pounds, a tiny thing with the plump hands and feet of a much younger child. She arranged her long, blonde hair carefully over one shoulder and directed her gaze at me, then at individual items in the room. I followed her gaze. The Mission-style furniture matched. The windows were draped with fabric that subtly coordinated with the wall-to-wall carpet. The silverware Mrs. Bat laid out for our snacks was all from the same set. I coughed at a little phlegm rising into my throat. Too much order made me feel confined.

Next, Candi scanned the mantel above the fireplace and shot me another look. Images of mother, father, and children crescendoed across the mantel, and, while the people in the photographs grew up or aged, they were always the same people.

“Your daughter?” asked the bat-man’s wife as she set a cheeseboard down in front of me.

“This is Candi, my niece,” I said. “She lives with us and goes to GHS.”

I’d learned that mentioning Candi’s school often re-directed strangers from questions about why she lived with me to questions about how she liked school. It worked again.

“How do you like GHS?” asked the wife.

“It’s great,” Candi said, and then she switched the subject herself. “I love your house. Everything goes together so good.”

Mrs. Bat smiled. Candi resented intact, middle-class families and their inevitable curiosity about her circumstances, but she was adept at keeping that to herself. She adored their homes.

On the other side of the glass doors that slid open to the back yard, the sun’s angle lowered, humidity prismed it, and the air at the edges of the family’s fields turned a pale, rosy gold. It was time to go; everyone put down their plates and walked out onto the lawn behind the house. The bat-man, whose legs were cramped by disease, made his way on crutches to a golf cart, and then motored on ahead of us through a small thicket. Candi, Stephen, and I followed him to a clearing. Surrounded by networks of smilax and turkey oak saplings, the cave’s mouth lay there like an open secret.

Fish and Game had set up their recording devices, fluorescent lights, batteries, and nets. Candi and I stood in ferns at the edge of the cave. In the shade of oak and dusk, it was too dark to see very far down the throat. Moss and epiphytes clung to the limestone below the lips; the occasional bare spots gleamed in bleached-bone-white. Ammonia fumes wafted up from the cave.

We waited. When the sunlight dimmed to a hint of itself, the first bat spiraled up from the cave’s maw, a circling flurry, an exhale of shadow.  Candi shrieked and grabbed my wrist. Another bat circled up, and another. The Fish and Game folks began to net bats, placing them in bassinets made of translucent cloth hanging between metal poles.

A Fish and Game man held a captured bat out to us.  “Here,” he said. “Do you want to know what they feel like?” His gloved hands stretched the bat’s wings out from its body, which was the size of a plump dried apricot. Candi backed away, still holding on to me. I was stretched between her and the bat, reaching out to stroke the kittenish belly-fur, then one filmy wing with my forefinger. She held onto my wrist as if I was hanging off the edge of a cliff.

“This one is pregnant,” said Fish and Game. “You’ll see some flying out with babies, too.  It’s a maternity cave.” Behind him, more bats circled up.

Candi gasped. “How do they carry the babies?”

“The mothers don’t carry them. The babies hold on,” said Fish and Game, “for dear life.”

The number of bats leaving the cave escalated exponentially, and the horde formed a vortex sucking the reek of their lair up into the twilight. Soon, we were standing beside a funnel of fur and wing and fecal stench. It didn’t seem to bother Stephen, who was discussing the erosion of bat habitat with the other scientists. Candi and I couldn’t stand it any longer, and we both ran back to the open lawn behind the house squealing.

Further from the cave, the stench dissipated and the horde diminished as each bat flew away from all the others. From the ground, we couldn’t tell which ones were pregnant, but we pointed to ones we thought had newborns clinging to their fur, the mothers who issued calls in a timbre far above our range, their wings outstretched like raw, taut silk.

*  *  *

Candi’s mother Alicia sometimes raged at me, calling me a barren woman who’d stolen her daughter. It was true I’d never been pregnant. By the time Candi came to live with me, I was in my late forties and happily child-free. Fifteen years before that, though, before Candi was born, and before I’d reunited with my birth-family, I had a brief flirtation with infertility treatments.

My first husband Don married me knowing I probably couldn’t have kids, but after six years of marriage, he wanted a baby. Having been a bad, ungrateful adoptive daughter, I wanted to be a good wife even though I wondered, who will watch a baby if I have one? Was I hard-hearted because I’d been separated from my mother at birth and had never met anyone who was my own flesh and blood? Was I afraid of a connection from which I couldn’t walk away? Or was I afraid I could walk away, even from my own child? I was a trial attorney back then and had a thriving practice. Maybe after my years as a hard-drinking, hard-drugging slum dweller, I just wanted to keep my professional identity.

Everyone I knew was having babies – Don’s siblings, my girlfriends, my colleagues. A specialist advised a laparoscopy to determine whether my fallopian tubes were clear. In some cases, she said, this procedure was enough to clear the tubes. But it wasn’t enough in my case, and neither was the surgery that followed it.

The next time Don and I talked about babies, I told him I’d had the surgery and I was done. We talked about adoption, but we were at odds because I wanted to consider school-age children, which seemed wise; I could drop them off at school and go to work. They could go to afterschool programs. Maybe, like me in first grade, they could get up and make their own breakfast and their own lunch and walk to school on their own.

I’d represented some children, and some parents, in custody proceedings. I knew there were many older children in need of permanent homes. Maybe a sibling group? In the tragedy of children being removed from their parents, wouldn’t it be best for kids to stay together? Even though they’d lost their parents, at least they’d have their flesh-and-blood siblings.

But my husband, who’d graduated law school by then and had been in practice for a few years, knew that school-age children were only removed after repeated trauma or neglect. Any school-age child we might adopt would have a past. Don wanted the blank slate of a fresh baby.

* * *

And then I was reunited with my birth-family. My mother had died young, but I had a sister and five brothers. My weak and flickering desire to mother an imaginary child was snuffed out by my very real nieces and nephews, nine of them in all. I loved each one of them instantly, from the youngest, baby Candi, to the oldest, teenaged Justin. I’d be a part of their lives forever. But no one would expect me to give up my life for them.  I was their aunt, and I knew how to do that while keeping my career and my independence.

My family lived in the South, and I lived in the North. When I got back to my home and my law practice, I longed for the children I’d met, but with some distance, I also thought about what I’d seen. My sister’s children were well-fed and well-cared for, but most of my brothers’ children had already experienced the deprivations of poverty: having a parent incarcerated, moving from one place to another to another, and even brief foster placements. Abuse? No. But neglect? Certainly, for some of them. I knew what empty refrigerators and mattresses on the floor meant. I knew what moving from place to place every few months meant. I knew what it meant when children were pulled from one school in the middle of a year, and no one worried about getting them enrolled in another school right away. It was addiction’s power over my brothers. Even then I knew how much it would hurt me to love them and their children, and how I would have no choice but to love them.

In bed one weekend morning, I told Don I didn’t want to be a mother. I had a family now, and, as fucked up as they were, they were all I needed. Maybe he should be married to someone who wanted kids.

I was thirty-seven, still young enough to make another life for myself. What did I need a marriage or a home for, when I could just walk down the hallway, run down the stairs, and get outside? Maybe even move South.

*  *  *

On the lawn at the bat-man’s house, we heard the clatter of the Fish and Game people packing up outside of the cave. Candi and I rejoined Stephen. I slipped my hand into his to let him know I was ready to go.

Driving home, pregnancy and babies were still on my mind. I twisted around to look at Candi in the back seat. “Remember that pregnancy scare when you were thirteen?”

Candi flipped her hair and said “Duh” at me. She’d been on The Pill for a couple of years at that point, but when she first came to live with me in July of 2004, I stupidly backed off the idea of putting her on birth control in the face of her thirteen-year-old assertion that she wanted to stay a virgin.

Later that year, when Stephen and I picked her up from a week-long Christmas visit with her parents, a morose white boy sitting on a couch wouldn’t meet my gaze. When we got in the car, I asked Candi if she’d had sex with that kid, but she denied it.

The next morning, she cried in my lap at our apartment in Jacksonville, afraid she might be pregnant. Later that afternoon, Stephen and I sat with her in the Planned Parenthood office, waiting on the morning after pill. In the evening, after Stephen went home to Gainesville, Candi and I sat around the kitchen table with a banana and a pile of condoms as I made her practice opening a condom package, putting the hat on the banana, and then rolling it down the fruit over and over again.

“Here comes Mr. Banana,” I said, as I danced the third banana across the table to her.

“Ewww!”

She was a kid who’d been bounced around from placement to placement for most of her life while her father (my brother) had either been in prison, or hustling, or drunk. He’d never had it together long enough to put himself on her birth certificate. Nothing was going to stop her from craving attention and affection, especially from men. I was ready to give her every available tool to prevent unwanted consequences of her teenage search for love.

Candi and I had moved into the apartment in Jacksonville together. She’d helped me move furniture and unpack boxes. We’d decorated with shades of blue in the living room, and pink in her bedroom. We made curtains for her room out of flowered sheets, and we raised her bed frame up on cinder blocks so that it looked like a princess-and-the-pea bed.  I started a new job teaching at University of North Florida, and Candi enrolled in middle school. And there I was, smack-dab in the middle of a life that had barely occurred to me: parenting one of my nieces. Candi’s mother was only half right. I was a barren woman, but I hadn’t stolen her baby. I’d only made a home with and for my teenaged niece, but it was a home both of us saw as temporary.

My own experience of being an adopted person made me uneasy about anything that put me in the position of being Candi’s mother. I didn’t want to alienate Candi from her parents or block her access to them. When I stood at the counter at the clerk’s office in Georgia with my brother and his wife to sign the guardianship papers, I promised them I’d bring Candi up to Georgia to see them about once a month. It was a two- or three-hour drive, depending on where Rudy and Alicia were staying. And, of course, they were welcome to visit us anytime in Jacksonville.

After a couple of months, I started to re-think that promise. At the clerk’s office both of them had been had been resigned to the arrangement, but neither one of them seemed particularly upset. I knew depression could mask deep feelings, but both Rudy and Alicia were planning to break up at that time and seemed focused only on getting away from each other, from me, and from Candi.

I got Candi a cell phone partly for my own convenience in being able to reach her if needed, but partly so she could have unsupervised phone access to her parents.  That turned out to be less than the good idea I thought it was. Rudy and Alicia sometimes disappeared for weeks at a time. In the periods when her parents dropped off the radar, I watched Candi’s plump thumbs pressing buttons on her flip phone and getting nowhere. I watched her heart break from worry.

But we had fun, too. We went to the beach in the evenings when the days had been hot and on the weekends. I taught her how to body surf and then how to catch a wave using a boogie board. She was small and blond, and I was small and dark, but because of the gap in our ages, people often assumed I was her mother. Once, when we came out of the warm, foamy breakers near the pier, a woman about my age stopped me and said, “You both looked so beautiful out there. Mother and daughter.” It confused me. I wasn’t her mother. I didn’t want to be her mother, but I did feel a sense of pride about how well we worked and played together.

Candi struggled mightily with what our relationship really was. Was I her loving aunt? Or her social worker? Or her friend? Or her jailor? She sometimes confided her fears about her parents. Like me, she was afraid they’d turn up dead. The bars, the crack-houses, the hustling, the prostitution – it was all so dangerous.

Looking at a box of Cheerios on our shelf, she told me how her mother had saved empty boxes of cereal and other staples, so that their cupboards would look full when the social worker came to visit, and how disappointing it was to grab for a box of Sugar Frosted Flakes and find it was empty. Driving by a Budget Inn once, she told me how she, her sister, and brother had been left in a motel room for days, and had run out of food.

“I shouldn’t have told you that,” she’d say sometimes after one of these revelations. I was careful not to ask too many questions, remembering the children I’d met who were in state care when I was a lawyer, and how protective some of them had been of their parents. I also remembered my aversion to the smugness of some of the social workers, who were so sure that a particular child was better off in foster care than with his family.

During our second year together, we moved to Gainesville, where’d Stephen and I’d bought a house together. She started high school. Stephen helped her with her science homework, and I helped her with writing. When we talked about planning for college, Candi sometimes told me she was afraid of how that might separate her from her mother. I knew her mother and sister had planted the seed of that dangerous idea: that by getting an education, Candi would feel superior. She’d become a smug bitch like me.

I told her the main reasons I ended up with an education were that I didn’t get pregnant, and I didn’t get addicted, and I was raised in a middle class home where I was expected to go to college, even though that home fell apart before I got to high school. It was luck, not some feeling of being superior to others, that gave me an education. Luck could do the same thing for her. She was on birth control, she was not using drugs, and she was living with two college professors who wanted to help her.

*  *  *

The following spring, in 2007, Alicia got word that the inheritance for which she’d waited all of her life would soon be distributed. This was the miracle Candi and her brother had looked forward to through foster placements, and orphanages, and me. Their parents would have enough money to keep the family together, to buy some land in the country and live the good life. So she put aside the shame of continuing to love people who’d hurt her. She was ready to give them another chance.

It wouldn’t be the first time I’d seen addicts come into money, and I feared the worst. But how could I have stopped her? Why didn’t I stop her? The biggest miracle of my life had been my reunion with my family – finding people who looked like me, who thought like me, who loved like me. How could I keep Candi from her mother, when her mother had the means to support her? I told myself I wasn’t able to predict what would happen.

But soon after Candi returned to Georgia, she dropped out of high school, and then she and her older sister and her mother were all arrested together on drug charges. Her little brother, who’d left his home with my cousin, ended up in foster care, and then in juvenile detention.

Candi tried, and I believe Alicia did, too, but the patterns were hard to escape. For Candi, that meant a lot of drugs and a couple of DUI arrests. She gave birth to her first child at nineteen, a beautiful boy named Clay with a sweet disposition like hers. Now she has a daughter, too.

She wanted to be a good mother. She attended church and sought counseling and medication for depression, but family patterns had their hold on her. Her father, my brother Rudy, died of lung cancer, and soon after she brought her children with her on a visit to a homeless camp where some of our other relatives were staying. It was a dangerous place, full of the festering shames of many people, and alcohol, and drugs, and sometimes violence. The State of Georgia intervened. She entered a residential program for drug-addicted mothers.

Sometimes people remarked on what an ungrateful person Candi was for throwing away her chance to go to college and have a good life. They’d ask me if I’d made that mistake clear to her or if she acknowledged it to me. Some people shook their heads and sighed about how hard it was to escape a family history.

“Candi’s doing the best she can. I’m very proud of her,” I’d say in these situations. “I’m lucky to be her aunt.” Internally, though, I reacted with rage and shame. Rage at the other person’s judgment. Shame that I’d failed Candi, that my modeling of a healthy home life, of valuing education and sobriety, didn’t stick. At least not immediately.

What did stick to her was love and only love. Everything that’s happened to both of us has made us the women we are today. If things had been any different at all, she wouldn’t have her two wonderful children. And if I feel resentful or remorseful, I remind myself that the past is a combination I should memorize. It unlocks every present moment.

In the spring of 2016, after Candi completed rehab, I organized a small family picnic at a state park in Georgia. Candi came with her two children. Stephen sat with her and they talked about her recovery for a while. A scientist, he knows a great deal about the neurobiology of addiction. It was good to see them talking together; I knew how much Candi loved and admired Stephen, who had always been patient and gentle with her. I walked toward the river with Candi’s son Clay, who was almost six years old.

“So,” I said, “Here comes that boring question old people always ask. What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Clay thought for a minute, and turned to look back at his mother and Stephen, who were still deep in conversation. “A scientist,” he said.

Why not? That sort of thing is part of his family’s history.

Michele Leavitt Michele Leavitt, a poet and essayist, is also a high school dropout, hepatitis C survivor, and former trial attorney. Recent work can be found in Guernica, Catapult, Narratively, and North American Review. She’s the author of the memoir Walk Away, and she loves chatting with readers on Twitter at @Michele_Leavitt or at her website.

 

 

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
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  • Wonderful work, Michele. I have enjoyed learning about your journey and connecting to your willingness to expose your humanity.

    • Michele Leavitt

      Thank you so much, Pamela!

  • Autumn

    This essay breaks my heart. You have so much love in you.

    • Michele Leavitt

      Thank you for reading, Autumn!