The Daily Dilemma
by Norma Harrington

       This is a story about suffering. And about grace. There are parts to it that I fail to understand fully: moments, people, choices, and events that I either do not remember or which were not significant to me then.

       It is a story about the brief time when my husband Art worked at the Inyokern Naval Ordinance Testing Station, when tests were made to determine how much speed could be tolerated by man, and a human strapped into a rocket became the fastest man on earth. We lived in the adjoining town of China Lake. Both were in the Mojave Desert, north of San Bernadino and east of Bakersfield, fifty or so miles west of Death Valley.

       I lived in another desert, a desert that contained but a single truth: my daughter, my first born, whose very stirring had fascinated her father and me even before she left the womb, who enchanted us as we went on adoring her, had died of cancer two months before her second birthday. The world would never be the same. Nor would I ever be the woman I started out to be, the woman I thought I was to become.

       Art was sent to Inyokern the summer following Candy's death. I was pregnant and stayed back in Manhattan Beach, visiting him only occasionally, because my doctor thought the extreme climate would be unhealthy. I joined him after Bud was born.

       When I think of that place I remember darkness and cold. It was as cold in late November and December as it had been hot in July and August. Yet it could not have been dark. Days would have brought a bright sunny crisp cold. And at night in the black, black sky stars sparkled just beyond reach, more stars, newer stars than had ever existed before, sharp darts of light. But I see inside a darkened house.

       It is morning. Art's breakfast dishes sit in the sink. The bottle sterilizer sits on the stove. Cans of Carnation milk line up in the cupboard. Bud sleeps. I sit on the couch in the living room. I wear slacks or a house coat; it doesn't matter. I am drinking coffee and smoking, trying to gather sufficient energy to get up and make the formula. There is one bottle left, good for the next feeding. But it is time to do it. Perhaps if I comb my hair and put on lipstick it will be easier. I don't move. I don't cry. It has been weeks since I cried. I sat down to read the day's meditation in the Forward Movement Day by Day and I'm still here. I hope the baby sleeps a while longer. I should get the formula done. And I can't bathe him until the dishes are out of the sink. That can go until afternoon though. I bathed him after he threw up last night.

       He throws up every night. Colic. Projectile vomiting, if I read Dr. Spock correctly, and Dr. Pabst seems to agree. He's a good baby all day. He starts to fuss at dinner time. By seven he's crying, screaming. No amount of rocking helps. I warm another bottle. "Don't feed him again so soon," Art urges. "He'll only throw up." What else is there to do? We've rocked, cajoled, put him on his tummy, on his side, used a hot water bottle. He sucks greedily. I put him on my shoulder to burp him. He screams again. I give him back the bottle. Burp him again. Whoosh, out spurts sour milk. "You see," Art says. "I can't stand his crying," I say. I bathe him, dress him in fresh clothes. When I put him down he falls asleep instantly. I go out through the unheated porch to the bathroom to rinse his things. The first drawn water is icy. It would never occur to me to rinse clothes at the kitchen sink.

       "Want to play cribbage?" Art asks when I return.

       "Not really," I reply.


I will be with you, protect you wherever you go, and will bring you back.

-- Genesis 28:15



       That's about all I remember from China Lake. I do remember the time the oil barrel ran dry in the middle of the night. Art tried to turn it, to prop it up so as to eke out just a bit more fuel, but it was empty. Nervously we bundled Bud up against the cold. And I know we were there just before Christmas. Art took people out a lot, and went calling, leaving bottles of Johnny Walker or Jim Beam. He wanted me to go with him. There were sitters. "It's a chance to get out. Hon, you've got to get out." But it was all too much trouble, calling and getting the sitter, and I seldom went.

       I did go to meet Dan and Carol, and I liked them. I knew the story about Dan too. How he'd gone up to inspect the tower top, got out on a beam and froze, grabbing onto the steel. How he'd gripped that steel! It had taken three big iron workers to get him off. As soon as they'd pry loose the fingers of one hand and start on the other, he'd grip the beam again with the free hand. He was possessed of great strength. And he was feeling pure terror. He was humiliated. He didn't speak of it, but the steel workers did. It became part of their litany of important job events: the time the inspector froze. Another steel worker's story, like John Henry.

       I had felt terror twice in my life: waiting for the doctors to come out of surgery and tell us whether Candy's tumor was malignant, and driving to the hospital the night Bud was born. Only the terror, I believe, stayed his precipitous delivery until we reached the hospital.

       I didn't feel terror now; I was simply tired. I didn't want to wash the bottles. I didn't really care about the bottles, but it had to be done. Babies had to have bottles. Another cup of coffee? Another cigarette? I'd work up the energy.

       I knew I worried Art. "Norma Jean, I don't know what to do with you," he told me once. "If you go on like this, I'll have to take you and Bud home to your mother. I don't want to. Honey, I don't know anything else to do."

       I didn't want to worry him. I didn't want to go home to my mother either. She'd had a heart attack, and the stress would be dangerous for her. And she'd nag if I let the formula get down to one bottle.

       We went back to Manhattan Beach for the Christmas holidays. John Hightower filled in for Art at Inyokern. He was older and had started the job. We had my folks over, and our good friends the Wonseys and the Tudors, the night before we were to go back. It was a pleasant evening even though I dreaded the next day. The phone rang. It was Art's boss and he went in the other room to talk.

       "What was it?" I asked.

       "Oh, nothing."

       "But such an odd time to call?" I pushed. Timing has never been my virtue.

       "I'm not going back to Inyokern," Art answered. His voice was hard. His look was hard too. "They've asked for Hightower. They're not satisfied with me."

       My mother looked at me, shocked. Marie looked at me, sympathetic. My dad's face was blank. I was angry and embarrassed. Mortified. The party broke up, quickly.

       "Why didn't you wait?" I asked.

       "You kept asking," he said.

       "What was wrong?"

       "I don't know. They didn't say."

       I had no comfort to give. It was confusing. I was scared. But I wasn't sorry that we weren't going back.

       The cold time. The dark time. The blind time. What I do not remember surprises me.

       I don't remember what Bud looked like. I know he wore Carter's knit sacques and nighties in boy designs. I had given away the layette I made for Candy of embroidered flannel with crochet edgings. I don't remember his look, his feel, his snuggle. Only his colicky rage and his limp, satisfied sleep after he vomited. I don't remember what he slept in, a crib or a basket. I don't remember where or how I did the laundry, or what I cooked, or what I wore. I remember all such details around the infancy of my other children.

       I remember little of Art. Did we talk? Did we fight? Did we touch? I don't remember.

       What I do remember is sitting in the living room, thinking of the terrible suffering that came to Candy, her pain, her distended body, her crying, sitting there remembering how tired I was when she was dying, almost too tired to fetch her the cooky I fed her one day in lieu of lunch, and how tired I was now, wondering about justice, wondering if God, if there was a God, could make it up to her. Thinking that only some Paradise could make it right. Thinking how difficult it was to garner the energy to make the formula. The daily dilemma.

       I said at the start that this was a story about grace. I look back at that woman living in her desert, and I wonder how I got from there to here. I am the same woman. I still know suffering. I still make many of the same mistakes. I'm rarely certain of where here is. And yet I am different. I go on healing. When I began writing this story two years ago I thought, "Those people didn't even know how to live." I look at it now and think, "Why, that young couple was doing the best they could to love each other." God has let me know God. I have become who I am. And I feel the mystery of it all.


Norma Harrington taught school for 17 years while living with her husband, Art, in Hawaii. She is the mother of three grown children and grandmother to four. She is a member of St. Gregory's Church and has participated in St. Gregory's Writer's Retreat for many years.

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