by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Apex, February 2015
I stare out over my pregnant belly, feeling awkward. Feeling irritable. “Why wouldn’t I want to know?”
“Some parents don’t want to know,” Dr. Anders says. “And we respect that.”
“It’s right there on your clipboard, right?” I point to the clipboard, and he holds it infinitesimally closer to his chest. As if he’s hiding the results from me.
“Yes,” Dr. Anders says. “Both the sex and cause of death of your unborn child are right here.”
“Isn’t it kind of artificial then?” I ask. “I mean, you and all the nurses will just keep looking at that clipboard every week when we come in. So, you’d have to purposely conceal it from us.”
“Yes,” Dr. Anders says. “But we’re happy to do that.”
He smiles, and it strikes me wrong.
“Tell you what,” he says, folding the clipboard under his arm. “I’ll give you two a minute to talk it over.”
Dr. Anders leaves me and my husband Chad in the hospital exam room, closing the door behind him. I don’t want a minute to think about it. I don’t want to spend any extra time wearing a paper gown.
“Do you get the sense that he doesn’t want to tell us?” Chad says.
I frown. “I don’t see why he wouldn’t.”
The more I know about this baby, the sooner I can start to feel attached to it. I know some women bond with their babies before they’re born… So far, though, the only time I’ve felt any love for the parasite inside me is when we did the ultrasound. The images were grainy and hard to understand, but they were images of a person. Most of the time, this baby is just a twisty lump inside my belly that feels more like a squirming alien tumor than a tiny human being.
“I don’t know,” Chad says. “I mean, we’ve all heard the horror stories. Like the new parents who found out their baby boy’s cause of death would be SISTER.”
“Right, except, that won’t be a problem for us,” I say, shifting my weight uncomfortably. “Because we’ve already decided that we’re having an only child, right?” I give Chad a meaningful look, and he nods. I don’t ever want to be pregnant again. If Chad could have babies, I wouldn’t have agreed to be pregnant this time.
“Of course,” Chad says, “just to play devil’s advocate here, you do know that those parents decided not to have another child, too?”
I glare at Chad in a way that lets him know this might not be the best time for playing devil’s advocate. Besides, I’ve heard this story before, so I do know that. I also know how it ends. “He was in a coma,” I say. “Someone had to pull the plug on his life support.”
“Even so,” Chad says, “it must have been hard for the parents. Watching their baby daughter, worrying about how she’d someday be the death of their son.”
“Any story is a horror story if you focus on the right parts of it,” I say.
Chad is still looking at me, expecting me to argue with him about this piece of urban mytho-history. I don’t want to argue.
“I want to know,” I say, losing my patience.
“Okay,” Chad says, rubbing my shoulder affectionately. He’s not really worried about this. If he were, we’d have talked about it before. He just likes to cover all his bases. Think everything through carefully. It’s a good trait. Sometimes.
Dr. Anders finally returns and says, “All right, then. Is there anything we need to talk about before scheduling your next appointment? Questions about exercise? Anything like that?”
Maybe Chad is right. Maybe Dr. Anders doesn’t want to tell us. Chad and I look at each other, and then Chad says, “We want to know the sex and cause of death.” His words are definite. There’s no uncertainty.
Dr. Anders nods slowly. “Your baby is a girl,” he says.
That was my secret hope, and my heart leaps at the sudden image, vague but glowing, that fills my eyes. Taking my daughter to the park, brushing her hair, picking out ruffled dresses, and playing with dolls. I don’t know her hair or eye color, the shape of her face, the turn of her nose… But she has become infinitely more real for me. “Amanda,” I breathe. This is the name that Chad and I picked out. I place my hands on my belly. Now I know who’s in there. “Amanda.” I feel much better. I can’t wait to learn more about her.
“And,” Dr. Anders says, “she’ll die from SIDS.”
“What?” I say. His words don’t make sense.
“Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.”
Chad asks, “The thing where babies stop breathing and die for no discernable reason?”
The world has closed in around my ears. Everything sounds like an echo chamber, but they’re still talking. I’m missing important information. “What did you say?” I ask, trying to understand this situation.
“Before the age of one,” Dr. Anders repeats.
“That’s… very young,” Chad says.
“I’m afraid so,” Dr. Anders agrees. “But, as I’m sure you know, these predictions are notoriously misleading.”
Chad frowns, but I can see he’s trying to listen. Trying as hard as I am. “How could… SIDS be misleading?” Chad asks.
“Well, um, off the top of my head,” Dr. Anders says, “It could mean that your daughter will one day… um… have a baby of her own who dies from SIDS… and then… um… kill herself?”
“That’s not better,” Chad says, his voice flat.
Except, of course, it is. This year, right now, it’s better. Any interpretation that means our daughter won’t die this year is better.
The rest of the appointment passes in a somber hush, which is just as well, because the world still feels like an echo chamber to me. All those images of my daughter and the great life we’ll have together just stop now. Before the age of one. The rest of my life stretches before my eyes in painful, isolated, desolation. My life right now is before Amanda. In a little over a year, my life will become after Amanda. It would be better not to have her at all.
“What about an abortion?” I ask as we’re getting in the car to drive home.
Chad shakes his head. We both know it’s too late in the pregnancy. No doctor would perform one. Besides, my daughter doesn’t die from ABORTION. She dies from SIDS.
I sort through the boxes of baby clothes that our parents have given us. Amanda will be the first grandchild on both sides, so we get all the hand-me-downs. Our parents are all very excited. We haven’t told them about Amanda’s death prediction. They assume it’s something normal, something cryptic. Maybe it is?
The clothes in the box from Chad’s parents are funny. A little black velvet vest, red coveralls, tiny shirts with tiny blue sailboats on them. I try to picture Chad wearing them as a baby.
The box from my parents is full of memories. Thinking about dressing Amanda in them feels like a return to my own childhood. Life is circular.
Without thinking about it too clearly, I sort all the clothes into two piles: larger than 12M and smaller than 12M. I fold the bigger ones back into the boxes. The smaller ones go into the drawers under Amanda’s crib.
She could be born any day now, and we have to be ready.
The labor pains start.
It’s been hours, and I can’t believe it’s possible to hurt this much. How can I feel this much pain without dying?
My daughter is handed to me. Her body is warm, and red, and squishy. I know what heaven feels like. It lies on the other side of hell. It feels like holding Amanda in my arms.
It’s time to leave the hospital. Amanda is in my arms, and Chad wheels our chair to the elevator. Part of me doesn’t want to look at her. I know she’s going to leave me, and I need to pull my heart away before she does.
The doors to the elevator open, and Chad wheels us into the hospital lobby. It’s a long room, running the whole length of the hospital, with two-story windows above all the automatic doors to the outside. People come and go. It’s busy today.
I see Amanda’s eyes widen: this is the first time she’s seen anything other than the floor of the hospital she was born on. Her entire world has multiplied magnificently. She had no idea, moments ago in the elevator, that the universe was this large and interesting.
I feel my heart swell with love for her like a balloon swelling into the tip of a knife.
Every night, I burst into tears when Chad says it’s time to put Amanda down in her crib. We fight for a few minutes, sometimes longer, and then Chad gives in. Amanda sleeps in our bed, next to me. I listen to her breathe all night. Treasuring each moment. Getting more tired every day.
I stare at her in the dim light of our bedroom at night, imagining all the ways we might have misunderstood SIDS. She could be a babysitter someday — a very old woman who has outlived me — and she’ll be murdered by the angry father of an infant who died on her watch. She could have a heart attack — as a very, very old woman — when she discovers that one of her great, great grandchildren has suffered from SIDS and died in her arms. She could be on an airplane — enjoying some travel during her retirement years — when the pilot is told his infant at home has died from SIDS. Frantic with grief, the pilot plummets the ship down, down to a horrible watery crash in the middle of the ocean.
My thoughts are insane and loopy, they share three trends. No matter how far from reality I stray, Amanda grows to be a very, very old woman; the infant who suffers a sudden death is not one I currently know — certainly not the precious baby Amanda now sleeping in my arms; and none of them make much sense. But, then, neither does a world like this. Miserable, wretched world. The only sense is Amanda.
Every breath she takes is perfect. The curve of her cheeks; the thin, lightly closed eyelids; the little sighs she makes. I can’t imagine doing anything but watch her breathe. For the rest of my life. For the rest of her life.
I think… As unthinkable as it sounds, I’m waiting for her to stop. Then I can move on.
Amanda is seven months old, and Chad’s finally convinced me that she should sleep in her crib at night. I wouldn’t have agreed, but Amanda’s getting bigger. The doctor says that most cases of SIDS happen in the first six months. Most. Not all. Besides, she’s taken to thrashing her arms about in her sleep, wanting her own space. No one gets any sleep with her in the bed with us.
I lay in Chad’s arms, feel the weight of his body above mine when we make love, and I feel no magic in his touch. The only magic in the whole world is held in that tiny body in the quiet room across the hall. No matter how I strain, I cannot hear her breathing, and, every night, I’m sure will be her last.
Amanda is ten months old, and we’ve taken her to the park. We’ve laid out a blanket on the grass, and we’re having a picnic for Valentine’s Day. There’s fried chicken, greasy on our fingers, for Chad and me. Amanda gums away at a mushy mix of vegetables.
“Should we plan a birthday party?” Chad says, putting his chicken bones back in the grease-stained paper bag.
“A birthday party?” I ask.
“For Amanda,” he says. “My parents always did big family, barbecue, get-together things for my birthday when I was a little kid.”
I stare at him blankly. “April isn’t a really good time for that,” I say, wanting this conversation to go away. “It’ll be too cold for a barbecue.”
Chad looks at me strangely. “Okay,” he says.
“What?” I say, accusation in my voice. I’m not sure what I’m accusing him of, but I’m angry anyway.
Chad shrugs, and we sit on the blanket together in unhappy silence. Amanda loses interest in her vegetable smoosh and looks about for a new entertainment. Her movements are wobbly, unpracticed. She sees the playground behind us, bright with colorful plastic play structures, and she bats an arm, as if she could grab that far away object without moving toward it. With a frown of concentration, Amanda leans into a crawl and pushes herself upward. She wants to walk, but she’s never succeeded before.
A wobble, a fall. Another try, and she takes a step. I gasp, and Chad grabs my arm. “She’s walking!” he says. I say, “I see it! I see it!”
All in all, she only takes five steps toward the playground before plopping back on her bum. She cries at the unfairness of a universe where such a pretty sight is placed out of her reach. I can fix that problem for her, and I swing her up in my arms. I carry her to the playground, place her in a swing, and listen to the happy laughter of a baby flying through the air as I give her gentle pushes.
I can’t fix my own problem, though. After ten months of treasuring every second — trying to treasure every second; every single second — I am tired. I want to move on.
Chad comes up behind me and says, “If you won’t plan a birthday party, maybe we should start making other plans.”
“What do you mean?” I say, but I’m afraid I do know.
“We could go to Hawaii for our anniversary this year,” he says. “We’d need to book tickets ahead of time though.”
Part of me likes that idea, but I say, “It sounds like a lot of work to take a baby to Hawaii, and I don’t know that Amanda will be weaned yet. She might still be nursing.”
We both know that she won’t be nursing. She’d be fifteen months old. She’s never going to be fifteen months old.
I stop the swing and pull Amanda out of the baby seat, against her protestations. I hold her in my arms and think how new the world is to her. She’s just begun to walk, and she’ll never learn to swim or dance or drive a car. She’ll never learn how to cartwheel or somersault. I may never hear her talk. “I can’t plan anything right now,” I say.
“We have to plan something,” Chad says, “or I don’t know what will happen when… What will happen…” He balls his hands into fists. “I don’t know how we’re going to make it through this!”
“What are you saying?” I ask, thinking about how distant I’ve been. How frustrating life with me must be for Chad. “Is that some sort of threat? When… I mean… Are you saying you’re going to leave… us…”
The word — the one that means me and Amanda — hangs in the air between me and Chad. We both know how temporary it is. What I’m really asking is whether he’ll leave me. Alone with the empty space where I now hold the warm, impatient, inarticulate body of my daughter. I carry Amanda back to the blanket with our picnic and set her down. She grabs a shiny rattle and starts beating against the crinkly bag of leftover chicken bones, punctuating each beat with an indecipherable nonsense syllable.
When I turn back to Chad, I see his face contorted by tears. He never cries. I’m scared that maybe he really does plan to leave me. We won’t be a family any more when Amanda dies. Just two sad people. And if I thought I was never willing to go through pregnancy a second time before, I know for sure that I could never, ever go through it again now. I couldn’t face that uncertainty.
That’s it. He’ll leave. Chad has always wanted to be a father. He argued with me for years before agreeing that one child would be enough. He’d never consent to none.
He’ll find another woman. And he’ll have his family. I’ll have the ghost of him and the searing, burning gash on my heart left by Amanda.
“I would never leave you,” Chad says. “But, I know you. And if we don’t make plans, you’re going to… It won’t be good when… I mean… God! How can we even talk about this?” He’s actually asking, truly confused.
I put my hands out to him, and he buries his face in the curve of my shoulder.
His voice is muffled against me: “If I didn’t know for a fact that your death ticket says OLD AGE,” he says, “I’d think for sure that you’d kill yourself. You’d leave me.”
“I wish I could,” I say. I’d always loved that death prediction. I felt so lucky. I don’t feel lucky anymore.
I feel Chad’s body wrack with sobs against mine. I start crying too.
“Please don’t,” he says. “I know that she’s your whole world.” He tightens his arms around me until it hurts. “But you’re mine. Please don’t go.”
I can’t, I think. I couldn’t kill myself if I wanted to. But, he means: don’t leave him. And I can’t promise that right now. I can’t promise anything. I can’t give him even that much. Even if it means pushing him further away. Maybe I want to push him away. Maybe it will be better if we end up apart. Instead of pulling each other down, drowning together in our pain.
“I can’t make plans,” I say. “I just can’t. Not yet.”
Chad nods. His head is still pressed into my shoulder. He says, “Fine.” A minute later, he whispers, “But I have to.”
I run my fingers through his hair until he manages to hide the last of his tears away. We pack the picnic up and go home in silence. Amanda takes another five steps before we put her to bed that night, and as I close the door to her room I worry about what kind of plans Chad might make.
I’m counting the days now. Some mornings, I run into her room as fast as I can, needing to know, instantly, whether today is the day. The horrible day.
Other mornings, I can’t stand it. I really, really can’t stand the idea of walking into her room and finding her in her crib. Cold and blue. I wait by her door on those mornings, crying until I hear her cry.
If she doesn’t cry one of those mornings, will I wait by her door all day? Will she lie there dead all day?
I can’t take it. I cannot take it.
Amanda’s birthday is in a week.
I’ve decided that we can’t have made it this close and then not make it. Her death card can’t really mean that she’ll die from SIDS. Not simply. Not directly. Our family is going to be one of those stories. The funny stories about how death predictions are always true, but never really mean what you think they will.
Oh god, oh god, oh god, oh god.
Chad wasn’t lying when he said he’d make plans. He planned the whole funeral. The birthday too. So we’d be ready either way, he says.
Those hours before Amanda was born were hell. I didn’t know a human body could experience that much pain, but I would live there forever, existing always in those moments of physical torture wracking my entire body, if I could only be that close to her again.
The days stretch on, and the pain doesn’t kill me. I don’t understand why it doesn’t.
Amanda would be fifteen months old now. I look up baby classes I could sign her up for online.
The webpages are cheerful with colorful fonts and happy pictures. There’s a music class where babies play with tambourines and xylophones while their mothers sit in a circle watching them. A gymnastics class where babies tumble about on a foam mat, trying to crawl over stair steps and through hula hoops. The mothers smile and clap, encouraging their children. Hoping their babies will turn out to be Olympians earning gold medals or tiny Mozarts writing concertos. Fantasies. And when the fantasies melt away, those mothers have their plain, ordinary children, alive in their arms. Graduating from second tier colleges. Getting crummy jobs. But alive.
That will not be my life.
I don’t know what my life will be, but it will be empty.
I’m at the park where Amanda took her first steps. There are children playing, and I try to imagine Amanda among them. She’s a phantom on the swings, riding the merry-go-round, and stabbing a little yellow shovel into the sand.
There’s a girl who looks to be about Amanda’s age. Lighter hair. A little chubbier. Smiling. I wonder if they would have been friends. They’d play together, and I’d strike up a conversation with the other little girl’s mother.
I wonder what the girl’s death card reads. Probably OLD AGE like mine. I hate her. And her mother.
I see Chad’s car pull into the parking lot. He gets out of the car, and I can tell he’s looking for me, standing in the open car door. But I don’t wave. I don’t call out. When he sees me, he looks relieved and maybe angry too. He gets back in the car, and I think he’ll drive away. Instead, he gets back out with a folder tucked under his arm.
My heart grows cold. Those will be the divorce papers. He told me he’d be making plans, and I’ve done nothing to stop him. I still love him. I don’t want him to leave me, but I don’t have it in me to stop him. Even if all that means is asking him not to go.
Chad sits down on the park bench beside me. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you,” he says.
He looks at me, and I look at the children. I won’t look at him, and he can’t look at them. I’ve noticed that. Since Amanda died, he turns away whenever there’s a baby. Especially little girls. With dark hair and soulful eyes. I start to cry.
“We can’t go on like this forever,” he says.
I bite my lip, stifle the tears. I’m getting better at that. Though they’re still inside.
“Look, I know you’re probably not ready for this now, but, I’ve been talking to… Well… Here, just look at this.” He hands me the folder.
At first, I won’t take it, but he folds my hands around it. He moves my hands like I’m a puppet, making me open the folder. But I don’t look down.
“I want to have a family,” he says.
“I won’t have another baby.” It’s a reflex. I think those words all the time. Arguing with myself, I’ll think, it might be better a second time. The death prediction would be different. Holding a second infant in my arms would be a happy experience, not one wracked with guilt and terror. Not a betrayal of Amanda.
But I don’t believe any of it. And I know I’ll never change my mind.
Chad sounds frustrated, and he gets up to leave. “Just… look at the third packet,” he says. “Okay?” He turns away, walks to the car, and gets in. But he doesn’t drive away. He’s waiting for me.
I look down at the folder, and I see something I didn’t expect. There’s a blue sheet of information on becoming adoptive parents, followed by packets of information about foster children in the area.
The child in the third packet is a four-year-old girl. Her face in the picture paperclipped to the pages of information is unremarkable. Gaunt, haunted blue eyes, nothing like Amanda who’d been hardy and healthy. For every day she had. Then I read this foster child’s death prediction: CHILDHOOD LEUKEMIA. She was born with it.
Like Amanda, she’s going to die. A child. Her parents are already dead, and there’s no one who’d willingly sign on for that kind of pain.
Almost no one. Chad and I have practice with it.
And, suddenly, in those blue eyes, cursed with the same horrible fate as my own dead and buried baby, I see Amanda’s sister. I see Amanda.