Under a dark sky, a baby is born
This story is based on interviews with Marie and police and court documents. The Globe is identifying Marie only by her middle name to protect her privacy.
The baby was born on a concrete loading dock in Chinatown in a frigid wind. The outside world was visible just above the lip of the dumpster at the edge of the dock, a sliver of sodium street lights and a starless sky.
The loading dock was sunk beneath a parking garage, a Chinese grocery store, and a dim sum banquet house. On the street above, traffic poured out of the Financial District and onto the highway; the Chinatown Gateway rose over sushi and hot pot restaurants and shop windows glowing orange with hanging displays of pork and duck. Outside, someone might have helped. But the mother had only managed to stagger a few feet from the pile of donated blankets where she slept.
Later, she would remember the pressure and the terror and the whirring of the industrial fans, but not whether she had cradled the baby, or kissed his face.
* * *
The mother, Marie, had long searched for peace, and found it in forgetting. The brown powder, the cooker, the needle, the relief of floating away. The small dark scars on her forearm climbed the curve of her vein like a flock of birds rising on the wind.
She is 27 years old and carries her life with her in bags slung over her shoulders, walking fast between Chinatown, South Station, and Downtown Crossing, an eternal circuit of departure and pursuit. When she is still, she slumps, her blue eyes finding the ground. She speaks in short sentences. What is there to say? What could a person who has done the things she has done ever say?
She could tell the chronological story. She started using at 12 when her parents’ marriage fell apart. At 16, she got pregnant. At 17, she had a son. At 24, she lost custody and became homeless. At 24, her father died. At 25, she went to jail and grieved for the first time, because in jail there is nothing to do but think. At 26, she got out and put her thoughts away.
She could tell the story of why. Some people cut themselves. She shoots heroin.
Or she could tell the story of the baby.
She discovered she was pregnant early this year. At the time, she was mostly smoking crack. She and her boyfriend resolved to keep the child. They allowed shivers of excitement and fear and hope to course through them. They would go to detox in a few days, they promised each other. They would apply for housing and benefits. They would move into a little apartment and be a family. The baby was a way back to what she had lost, and a way forward, out of what she had become.
Even Marie does not seem to know if she ever believed this.
“Every drug addict hopes. We don’t want it to be like this,” she said. “I guess some of it’s true.”
They never went to detox. She can’t explain why. Her boyfriend used more and more crack and became someone else. In June, he got arrested for throwing a bottle of milk at a 7-Eleven store clerk, and because his record was littered with open cases, he stayed behind bars. And so she was alone. Just her and the baby.
She had loved being pregnant with her first child. This time, she said, it just didn’t matter. She used heroin in the morning, at night, all day.
In September, she said, she was arrested and forced into treatment for 29 days. She heard her child’s heartbeat for the first time: whoosh-whoosh-whoosh, 157 beats per minute. Despite everything, he was healthy. Other people could place their palms to her belly and feel his little feet tapping. Marie felt nothing.
When she got out, she said, she skipped her follow-up appointments and sold her addiction-treating Subutex prescription to get high.
She drifted. Her belly grew. At some point, she took up residence on the loading dock, a dark fissure in the cement of the city hidden by a high gray wall. She disappeared in the stale air and shadows. Waiters and busboys smoked cigarettes and ignored her. Sometimes, the doors swung open and someone emerged to hurl bags of trash into the dumpster where someone had scrawled, “Kill me.”
On the day after Thanksgiving, Marie lay for hours under her blankets, trying to ignore the pain in her belly. Forget, she willed herself. Her dead father, her boyfriend in jail. Her homelessness, her bottomless need, the things she had done to feed it. The bitter cold and the baby.
But her stomach. The pressure was intense.
She rose and realized she could barely move. She squatted on the loading dock. She reached down, felt something hot and slippery.
After that, her memory splinters.
* * *
Marie does not know when the baby stopped breathing.
She knows he was born with a single push. She knows she shouted for her friend sleeping nearby to call 911, and that her friend gave her a yellow fleece blanket to wrap the baby in. She knows she heard him cry.
But she does not remember the moment that he went into cardiac arrest. She does not remember the ambulance arriving, or that she sat on the loading dock screaming while EMTs performed CPR on his small body.
And she does not remember the moment that he came back — tenacious, improbable, insistent on life — because by then, other hands held him.
The EMTs brought Marie and the baby to Tufts Medical Center. The drugs she had taken coursed through his body, too, she said, and he went into withdrawal. He weighed a little more than 5 pounds.
Marie held him just once in the hospital. The state had taken custody immediately, she said; he was not hers. They lay in silence, breathing in and out. She gave him her father’s name. She had nothing else. And then she was gone, back out onto the street, trying to forget.