Smile patronizingly at my naming her
Angel, but remember I was
only eighteen and my child was born with wings. Well, the
doctor didn’t call them wings. He called them a congenital anomaly
and recommended they be surgically removed before we left the
I had never heard the word anomaly before, and I only
recognized three syllables of congenital, the three that had gotten
me in trouble nine months earlier when two other twelfth-grade girls
and I had crashed a fraternity party where I downed about a dozen
drinks that must have been ninety-nine percent wine and only one
The drugs they gave me during the birth—more to shut me up than
to ease any pain, I suspect—impaired my ability to detect reactions
from either doctor or nurses that would have indicated I had just
expelled a freak. The words penetrating my mushy consciousness gave
no clue there was a problem: girl, umbilical, Apgar, turkey
sub. One of the nurses may have been placing her lunch order.
Three hours later I was stitched up, cleaned up, and sitting up
when a nurse brought me a pink wrappy thing with a tiny head
sticking out one end. Immediately upon off-loading the bundle to
me, she gave a tight smile and left. I had just enough time to
register the features of the squinched little face before the doctor
approached my bed, his own face fixed in a squinch. It looked
better on the baby.
Once he had pulled the curtain around my ward bed—broke
teenagers who can’t even come up with a baby-daddy name for the
birth certificate don’t rate the premium accommodations—the doc
began a rambling tale about how some babies are born with webbing
between their fingers or toes, and that it was customary to do the
simple surgical repairs before they left the hospital.
“So what are you saying? She has duck feet?”
“No, no, no.” He seemed panicked by my question. “Her fingers
and toes are fine. It’s just that she has two very small membranous
flaps on her back that we’d like to remove.”
“I want to see them.”
“I have to discourage that, Miss Fitzgerald. These congenital
anomalies are routine for medical personnel, but for a new mother,
especially one as young as...”
He might have said more, but I was already freeing my child
from the pastel cotton burrito into which she had been stuffed.
Once unswaddled, her little arms and legs did a bit of slow-motion
waving, and her mouth opened in a gummy yawn, while the doctor held
out a clipboard and asked me to sign the consent form.
I gently turned her over to place her on her stomach on my
stomach and saw them for the first time: wings.
It wasn’t much of an argument. I had only turned eighteen two
months earlier, but I knew I was an adult in the eyes—if not the
common sense—of the law, and that I had the right to say no to the
mutilation of my child. Frustrated, the doctor left and I was
finally alone with her.
Still facedown and sleeping on me, her tiny form rode the rise
and fall of my belly as I breathed. One arm curved alongside her
head, fist extended, and the rhythmic movement combined with the
facedown, arm-out position made me think of Superman flying.
I wish I could say I had some warm and maternal feeling for
that little stranger, but I didn’t. There was a vague sense of
obligation to handle her carefully, but no more than when I had held
a puppy or a kitten as a child. No, the only feeling I had was a
curiosity about her, an interest in this creature created solely by
me. Well, by me and some unknown Sigma Tau Gamma.
The doc had been accurate in calling them membranous flaps.
Though they matched the cream and pink mottle of her back, they
looked more reptilian than human: two tiny triangles of skin which
emerged from either side of the small knobs of her upper spine, then
curved and hugged her shoulder blades. I gently stroked one with
the tip of my index finger, Brailling the info to my brain. Not as
soft as I thought they would be, and with the slightest of ridges
along the sides, like piping under the skin. When I slipped my
fingernail under the edge and lifted the flap, there was a small
amount of tensile strength in it, enough to snug it back in place
when I took my finger away.
I carefully turned her back over and her arms and legs began
that slo-mo dog paddle again. Cradling her against me, I took in
the brownish fuzz that capped her head, one piece in front almost
long enough for my licked fingertip to paste into a curl. I
examined the minuscule diaper, deciding it looked like the one worn
by the wetting doll I got for Christmas when I was five.
I leaned over to check out the itty-bitty eyelashes, so we were
almost nose to nose when she opened her eyes. We both flinched, and
I pulled back far enough to focus. The cliché caught me off guard,
that intense rush of love that bonded me to her instantly. That
alone would have been a powerful enough experience, albeit shared
with virtually every other new mother since the beginning of time.
But that was only the first jab of the one-two punch that changed my
life forever; the tap that laid me out was looking into her eyes and
seeing my own face—twice, tiny—reflected back. Not the face I had
then, but my future face, the one that bends over a yellow pad
tonight as I sit on this bunk and scribble out my life. Was that
future me trying desperately to communicate answers to questions
teen me had not yet begun to ask? Before I averted my eyes to break
that frightening connection, three powerful thoughts surged into
me: one, that this child would save me; two, that I would be
willing to give up my own life for her; and three, that I would one
day see her fly. All three have come true.
A tall, silver-haired priest was the next person to try to
persuade me to have my daughter’s wings removed. As I was in a
Catholic hospital, I was not surprised to see a priest, but from the
embarrassed look on Father Paul’s face, he was surprised to
see a female breast. Hey, what could I do? It was snack time for
the kidlet, and an open ward doesn’t offer a heck of a lot of
Father Paul was almost too easy a target. When he speculated
that my daughter would be teased by her school chums—he actually
used that word, chums—when they learned of her secret deformity, I
countered by claiming to be reluctant to interfere with God’s plan.
“If He created her this way, how can we mere mortals presume to
improve on His plan? And she doesn’t have a deformity; she has a
pair of wings.”
“Allison, you can’t actually believe they’re wings. That
“Oh, right. But a pregnant virgin and a dead guy waking up
after three days make perfect sense. Sorry, padre, but I’m sticking
with the wings theory.”
I’m not sure if it was my blasphemy or the sight of my swollen,
blue-veined boob as the baby finished brunch and lolled away from
it, but the good father stood quickly, scraping his chair back. I’m
sure part of him wanted to stay and fight for the soul of a child
born to so obviously a lost-cause mother, but I also sensed the
larger part of him would be relieved to get back to the terminal
patients who welcomed his comforting words. I decided to absolve
him of my sins.
“I’m naming her Angel.”
Camel’s back, meet the straw. Father Paul didn’t have much of
a poker face and, looking appalled, he choked out a tight blessing,
then exited ward left.
I had only said it to be a bitch, but when micro girl burped in
her sleep and I looked down at the milk bubble inflating and
deflating in the corner of her mouth, I figured Angel was as good a
name as any. You don’t have to believe in God to believe in angels.
I had three days in the hospital getting to know her, learning
how to take care of her basic needs, and wondering where we could go
when St. Luke’s threw us out. Brian’s mom and dad had been amazing,
letting me stay at their house when I started looking like I was
hiding a basketball under my shirt and my own parents ejected me
from their vinyl-sided Eden (with detached garage), but Brian was
taking early college entrance and I could hardly ask Mr. and Mrs.
Haywood to let me stay on with the bambina. Nice as they were, I
knew half the reason they invited me in the first place was their
fervent, long shot hope that Bri was the father. They clung to the
belief that being gay was a phase he would snap out of and that Greg
was just his study buddy.
Brian came to the hospital the day after Angel was born,
carrying a bouquet of daisies for me and a really inappropriate
teddy bear in a black leather onesie for her. That was the day he
told me he was leaving for Berkeley the following week. We had been
good friends since the tenth grade, and his departure would bring me
down to zero in the best-buds department, as Heather and Chelsea—my
two partners in the great frat party debacle—had been forbidden to
have any contact with me since our drunk and disorderly escapade.
Most of the rest of my semifriends had pulled back when my pregnancy
became obvious, with the few holdouts falling away when the
principal told me I could no longer be a Gettysburg Cougar. (Go,
silver and blue!) I think it was less that the other kids were
judgmental and more that we didn’t see each other every day at
school anymore. Face it, the foundation for ninety-five percent of
all high school friendships is proximity.
I bonded with Angel, ate instant oatmeal and green Jell-O, and
resisted two more attempts by the doctor to change my mind about
removing the wings. On the fourth morning I was released. I stood
on the steps of St. Luke’s without a home, a job, a clue, a high
school diploma, a family, or friends.
But I had my baby and, thanks to me, she still had her wings.
Jesus, I wish I had listened to that doctor.