My happiest day with Martha was the day I took her to Typhoon Lagoon. It almost made up for the day, years later, when she killed herself.
Martha at ten, with Piglet, in 2004, on her last visit to Disney World
Her mother still slept in the hotel room, but Martha and I rose early and didn’t intend to waste a sunny morning in Disney World hanging around the dimness waiting for Melinda to get up. So we drove to Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon, stored our stuff in a locker, and walked barefoot in swimsuits into the sunshine. Beautiful young women in bikinis and maillots filled the water park, a sea of female legs. A giant wave-making machine knocked us off our feet with a clear bright tsunami. Later we sat in life preservers and drifted down the mild current of Creek. Martha and I were both too timid for snorkeling, but we peered through underwater glass at the snorkelers paddling among rainbow-colored fish and harmless sharks.
Martha Corey-Ochoa, at ten, was the most adorable girl in the water park in her red swimsuit with the little skirt. Her brown hair hung to her shoulders, with bangs on her forehead, the way she wore it most of her life. Her eyes were brown and intelligent, her face heart-shaped—a wide expanse at the cheekbones, a narrow knob at the chin. In her features mingled her parents’ ethnicities—Ecuadorian on my side; Austrian, Slovak, and Ukrainian on her mother’s side. She laughed with delight at each new adventure in Typhoon Lagoon, each new fanciful detail, and I had the pleasure known only to parents and others who care for children—the pleasure of bringing joy to a child. I had the added pleasure of sharing the moment just with her, making a memory only she and I would have. It was the last of several trips we took to Disney World, the last chance I had to make her happy there.
Now that she’s gone, I am the only keeper of that memory, and when I’m gone, it will die with me, unless you remember it for me. That, to a degree, is what the first part of this book is for: setting down my memory of Martha so it will have a chance of living on after me. But I also want you to have the memory to prepare you for the second part of the book, my life after Martha’s suicide at eighteen. To understand what Martha’s loss meant to me, you need to know Martha.
Well, she started out like all of us: as a fertilized egg. In her case, the act of fertilization most likely happened in the white sheets of a hotel room in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday night, July 6, 1993. A heat wave pummeled the city at the time, temperatures up to 102 degrees. Melinda and I had some time to kill before dinner and had just visited the Holocaust Museum, so the idea of life renewing itself seemed appealing. Of course, Melinda and I never needed an excuse to have sex. Her neck smelled good that night, like peaches and milk, and she liked the sight of me in a black polo shirt. We had been lovers for nine years, married for six, and were still young enough to throw ourselves into sex without thinking much about anything else.
A couple of days later, on the Amtrak home to New York, Melinda felt strangely flushed, as though unknown hormones had suddenly burst through her. We didn’t think anything of it at the time, but in the next few weeks she missed her period and her breasts swelled. On Sunday, August 1, after church, we stopped by the pharmacy in our neighborhood of Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, and bought a pregnancy test kit. I mixed the chemicals, like a little boy with a toy chemistry lab, and on the third step the telltale spot turned pink. Melinda was pregnant.
Happy and petrified, I hugged her. “I’m so happy,” I said, leaving out the petrified part.
“It’s a gift from God,” she said solemnly, looking fearful.
Those were our dominant emotions during Melinda’s pregnancy: happiness and fear. This was a wanted child: we had been trying, off and on, for two years to conceive. But even in wanting it, we had been terrified of what we wanted, like people who compel themselves to see a horror movie they know will be too gory for them. Melinda and I already had a nice life as married freelancers living in a one-bedroom apartment and writing reference books together. We had written The Book of Answers, a popular compendium of odd questions and answers supposedly culled from phone calls to the reference librarian at the New York Public Library but actually concocted by us in the kitchen. The apartment had enough room for Melinda, with her short red hair and round face, and me, with my coarse black hair and big nose. Neither of us was very tall. But where would a baby fit in? Where would he or she sleep? And how would we afford him or her? When some publisher paid us part of an advance, we ate well for a few months, but other months we could barely pay the electric bill.
These were practical fears, but there was a bigger one: the inchoate knowledge that our lives had changed forever in ways I had only heard about, never experienced. A responsibility bigger than I had ever known had landed on me like a jet on an unready runway. And there was no escape. Even if Melinda miscarried and the baby never saw the light of day, we would know we had lost our child. Indeed, the moment you know you’ve conceived a child you live in terror. With a child you gain a future, and futures are full of hope, but also fear.
Two days after the pregnancy test result I took the subway into Manhattan to deliver the manuscript of our latest reference work, The Timeline Book of Science. In those days before email, books had to be delivered on paper, and I usually took the opportunity to take the afternoon off and see a movie. The movie that day was So I Married an Axe Murderer with Mike Myers. Afterward I stopped for a yogurt at Citicorp Center and thought about the baby. Actually, I thought to the baby, addressing this young person in my mind as if he or she could hear me, even though I didn’t even know the person’s sex.
What a world we’re bringing you into, I told the baby. What woe. If you could choose now, with all that you will one day know, you might refuse. Yet I hope you wouldn’t. Since we cannot consult you, we are saying yes for you.
Thinking back now on my speech to the baby, I find the irony rich. Once born, Martha could not refuse to have been born, but as soon as she came of age, she did the next best thing: refuse to live any longer. And in a way this never surprised me. Martha and I were made of the same stuff, and even then, eating my yogurt in Citicorp Center at the age of thirty-two, I had suffered most of my life from a persistent melancholy and mental turbulence for which I had no name, a pain of the mind that had sometimes made me want to kill myself. Years later, the doctors would give it a name—bipolar disorder—and tell me it was heritable, and it would turn out to afflict Martha too. But at the time, following Nabokov in Lolita, I just called it my tangle of thorns. Did I want to curse a child with it—this tangle of thorns that was the history of my heart? I already had. I told the baby: You’ll have to go through it all one day too.
Soon Melinda’s doctor confirmed the pregnancy. We first saw the baby in a sonogram, her little heart fluttering. In later sonograms her heart developed further, acquiring four chambers while her trunk acquired arms and legs, a skull, a cerebellum. I often wonder when Martha first developed the that would kill her, but it couldn’t have been in the womb. The entire machinery of a fetus is directed to developing into a living child. As long as the fetus functions properly and the uterine environment is right, it will achieve its aim. The suicidal impulse couldn’t have started here.
The early sonograms couldn’t show the sex of the fetus—we were thinking Harry for a boy, Martha for a girl—but on October 29 the amniocentesis results told us we would have a Martha. I was a little disappointed because I didn’t know what I would say to a girl. How would we bond? Could I share with her the boyish things I liked, such as Batman and horror movies? But there was a beautiful Beatles song, “Martha, My Dear,” and at least I would be able to play it for her.
On Wednesday, April 6, 1994, at 2:39 p.m., Martha Adeline Corey-Ochoa was born. She emerged in an emergency C-section at Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan after the doctor detected fetal distress during Melinda’s difficult labor. I first glimpsed Martha, a bloody tangle of infant limbs, crying in the doctor’s hands after being pulled from Melinda’s body. Moments later I found her lying in a pan, streaked with greenish-gray fetal feces, being cleaned by nurses. As I gazed at her I fell helplessly in love with her. It was a love unlike any I had ever known. All other loves I had known were learned over time, and required receipt of benefits. But this was instant, and required nothing from Martha. I loved her completely and knew I would never stop loving her. And I never have.
Melinda was awake during all this, her body anesthetized with an epidural, and once the nurses cleaned Martha up they showed her to her mother. “She’s beautiful,” said Melinda. “How did I give birth to a beauty?”
She was beautiful, her tiny head perfectly shaped, topped by strings of brown hair. The three of us spent our first few days together in the hospital, during which Melinda learned to breast-feed, I learned to change diapers, and I played “Martha, My Dear” for Martha. On April 11, the hospital let us go, though I thought this was a serious mistake. How could they entrust the care of this five day-old wonder to a couple of writers from Brooklyn with no experience in this kind of thing? I manhandled Martha into the car seat in the back of our red 1991 Geo Prizm and drove her home at well below the speed limit, fearful the vibrations would break her neck. Somehow she survived.
Our apartment in Brooklyn had had plenty of space for Melinda when she was single, but it had become more cramped when we got married and I moved in, and even more when we started our at-home writing business. The room that had once been the living room, the spot where we first had sex, had become a combination copy room and store room, with a copier, boxes full of manuscripts, and tall bookcases crammed with volumes. Now we had pushed aside some of the boxes to install a bassinet, and the room became Martha’s nursery.
The first couple of weeks we did no work, just tended to Martha. She was exhausting but transcendently cute. Yet in those days she wasn’t fully human. Basically, she was an animal with a human form, but without the higher faculties and culture we think of as human. Her governing passion was sucking, six or seven times a day to feed from Melinda’s breasts, other times just to suck. When I held her she rooted at my chest in futile hope of finding milk. All day long she made bestial grunts, squeals, purrs, coos, snorts. She shitted and pissed with abandon, farted often. She could be sad or happy, frustrated or content, frightened or comforted, alert or groggy, interested or bored—all of which seemed things an animal could be. She couldn’t smile. Sometimes when sleeping it looked like she was about to wake up, and some of those times she put herself back to sleep, but other times she didn’t and erupted into a full squall. While watching her at those uncertain moments, Melinda would say to me, “Looks like she’s gonna blow!”
In those days as an infant, Martha showed no signs of a . She was an animal, and animals are driven to live; for the most part, they don’t choose to die. Martha demanded food, affection, and stimulation, all things that would promote her life. It must have been later that she demanded death.
By May, Martha smiled, smiled often, lighting up the room and breaking my heart with affection for her. Having my baby smile at me made up for almost everything that had ever gone wrong in my life. She was making vowel sounds now, ay and ah, and ooh, adding consonants to make las and gas and . We had returned to work by then, which in our case didn’t require leaving the apartment. We just took shifts—Melinda gave Martha her bath on the kitchen table in the morning while I slept in; I amused her with soft toys while Melinda worked in the afternoon; while I worked in the evening Melinda put her to bed, rocking her gently in her arms to Cole Porter songs; and Melinda and I both worked late at night while Martha slept. The next day we reversed the order, so I took the morning shift with Martha, and so on. We hired no babysitters, because we were broke, loved being with Martha, and were control freaks who didn’t trust anyone else to take care of her properly. This despite the fact that our own babysitting experience amounted to a month.
In this way Martha grew, learning to sit up and laugh while her parents wrote books around her. In July, we handed in our first post-Martha tome, The Timeline Book of the Arts, while Martha ate her first solid food (apple sauce) and learned to hold her own bottle. In August, we fast-forwarded through movies frantically on the VCR, compiling quotes for The Dictionary of Film Quotations, while Martha moved to a crib and discovered rolling over. In September, she was baptized, marking her first official encounter with God, then we rushed home to write the last batch of entries for The Encyclopedia of the Victorian World. In November, she learned to crawl and we started on a history book called The American Story. In December, at eight months, she learned her first word, calling me Dada, and I paused in my work to marvel.
The work was frenzied, hard to do while taking care of Martha, and we had to succumb to hiring babysitters part-time so we could meet our deadlines. Sometimes we ran out of money and had to live off Melinda’s father, adding to the unpleasantness. Most of my time caring for Martha she mesmerized me, and holding and watching her filled me with pleasure. But once trying to work while she was fussy I got so frustrated I yelled “Stop crying!”—which made her cry more.
Martha had many toys, but by the first days of 1995, as she turned nine months old, she had picked out one to be her “lovey,” the one toy she carried around all day and kept close to her while she slept. This was a small, soft, green and pink stuffed dog whom we called Sad Dog because of the sad look on his face. I don’t know why Martha loved Sad Dog so, but that she chose him was significant because it was her first real choice. She loved us, of course, but babies can’t help loving their parents. Sad Dog, by contrast, was elected to his office. And Martha showed toward him a loyalty that turned out to be lifelong. Throughout Martha’s life, Sad Dog changed names many times, got lost a few times, became gray and frayed, required patches that Melinda lovingly sewed on, even switched genders from boy to girl. Martha made up a pouting voice for her and a complaining personality, married her to a stuffed deer named Baby Minnesota, and eventually designated her a mahatma who tended to the spiritual needs of other stuffed animals. But Sad Dog almost always slept in Martha’s bed, and accompanied her to college. There Sad Dog, by then named , parted from Martha. After Martha’s death, we brought home. She still has Martha’s childhood smell, herbs and breast milk and flowers. She sits by the window in a rocking chair atop a pile of Martha’s other stuffed animals, as if hoping if she waits long enough she will see Martha walking across the driveway toward the front door.
Chapter 1 of the memoir AFTER MARTHA
Copyright 2020 George Ochoa