AN AMERICAN BABY by Jaime Martinez-Tolentino
When my parents brought him home from the hospital, everyone loved our little baby brother. Even I, who upon learning that Mami was pregnant had thought to myself “another unnecessary complication.” Actually, I loved him immensely from the moment that I saw him.
Before my brother José and I had a chance to ask “What’re we going to call him?” as if referring to a puppy that we had just bought, Papi proudly announced, Muchachos, this is Dionisio!
José and I knew that the baby had been named for our paternal grandfather who died before we were born. And, we also knew that the name would not go over terribly well in English-speaking New York City. But, we both knew how to handle that. I knew what my brother José was thinking when we heard the baby’s name for the first time. And he knew that I knew. So, it was only a matter of time before one of us verbalized it. Mom, can I hold… Dionny? José blurted out.
José with Dionny
My parents very willingly cradled our baby brother in José’s arms, while hovering close by and ready to intervene to avoid any mishaps. I, too, then held him in my arms. Such a sweet, angelic face! The name Dionny fit him to a tee. From that moment on, he was Dionny to everyone, including to my parents.
For the next couple of weeks, we enjoyed our baby, we stared lovingly at him, and we observed how he grew even handsomer with each passing day. Our first sibling born in the continental U.S. had very light skin, comparable, perhaps, only to my father’s, but even lighter. And he had big, light chestnut-colored eyes. No one in our living family had that color eyes.
Most interesting of all, our baby had blond hair! We knew, of course, that given the racial mixture possessed by most Puerto Ricans, that was always a distinct possibility, but still, it added to the mystique of this most beautiful baby. I looked up the name “Dionysus” at the school library, and I learned that the Greek god of wine and song was always portrayed as a beautiful young man with delicate features. It also occurred to me that our baby’s name might also have been based on that of the god Adonis. Either one, Dionysus or Adonis, was befitting: our new baby with the name of a Greek god was just as beautiful.
José, Leo and Jaime
As the months wore on, my little brothers and I noticed an uncommon sadness come over both of our parents. Somehow, we knew that their sadness had something to do with Dionny. Before drifting off to sleep, on several occasions, I had heard worried, hushed, night-time whispering coming from my parents’ room, and on more than one occasion, I had heard my mother crying.
One day, I went into the baby’s room and I stared down at him just lying there, in his crib. I looked at him lovingly for a long time. He had grown physically quite a bit. His long spindly limbs were active, and he was even more beautiful than before. I don’t know why, but that disturbed me profoundly. Something wasn’t right.
My hunch, which I’m sure my brother José shared, gained further support when, seven or eight months after coming home from the hospital, Dionny still did not crawl or sit up in his crib. He just lay there, looking more beautiful and more innocent all the time. José and I both also definitely noticed that our baby brother constantly flailed his arms and his legs in the air. And he turned his head to one side and then to the other, uncontrollably.
No one ever sat Leo, José or myself down and explained to us what had happened. We found out indirectly, by putting together bits and pieces of conversations that we overheard, and through comments by my paternal grandmother or my aunts —comments not meant for the little ears of Dionny’s brothers. No one ever told us that German measles during the early months of a woman’s pregnancy could lead to birth defects. That when the doctors first suspected something of the sort, they did tests on Mami. That in a mother and father conference with the obstetricians and gynecologists at the hospital, the physicians informed our parents that if the pregnancy was allowed to continue to term, it was almost one hundred per cent certain that the baby would be born with severe retardation and other possible birth defects.
No; no one told us that my parents had refused to have an abortion, knowing full-well what to expect. And, of course, what the doctors warned our parents about did, indeed, occur.
The baby’s first birthday came and went, and little Dionny grew physically… but in no other way. He had never crawled, he had never tried to sit up in his crib, and he had never uttered a single word. We all knew that he would never do any of those things; that he would be a baby for the rest of his life.
I did some more research at the school library, and I learned that severely retarded children often had the same angelic beauty that everyone saw on Dionny’s face.
For some reason, I remembered what must have been a very old saying that my none-too-religious father often quoted to his equally irreligious sons. Roughly translated it meant “God doesn’t give anyone a load they can’t bear.” I knew exactly what that saying meant, but for some reason, I always automatically also identified it with the phrase “The Lord Giveth, and The Lord Taketh.” However, I always transposed the clauses in that saying, and I substituted the conjunction “but” for “and.” I understood my father’s saying to mean that whenever God took something away from you, he always felt sorry and gave you more of something else. That would explain my little brother’s extraordinary beauty. It didn’t make his condition any better, but it showed some pity on God’s part.
God’s feeling sorry for visiting terrible illnesses on innocent children and giving them more of something else also applied to me. My intelligence, my artistic talent and my tenacity were all consolation prizes for all the children’s games that I never played, for all the years of feeling somehow inferior to other children, and for having to go about feeling ashamed of my withered, match-stick legs. It sort of explained what had happened to my little brother and to me —but not really. In a way, I only felt somewhat vindicated with destiny much later on, in 1963, when at the college library, I picked up Robert Frost’s most recent book of poems and I read the book’s dedication. I was shocked that a sensitive poet capable of writing beautiful poems about walks in the winter woods and about taking the road less traveled could preface his book In The Clearing with the words: Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee, and I’ll forgive Thy great big joke on me. I knew exactly how he must have felt when he wrote those words.
Posted on February 5, 2013, in Words to Inspire. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.