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Meanwhile, Upstairs

By Kris Woll

Meanwhile Upstairs Art 2When I realized what I had done, I reached for my phone and called my OB’s after-hours number (saved in favorites, just under his office number and right above my husband’s cell).

Yes, I need to speak to the doctor right away, I told the answering service.

Are you in labor? the calm voice inquired.

No, but it’s very serious, I said.

If this is an emergency, you should dial 911, the voice responded.

It is serious, but not yet an emergency.

Ok, so let me get your name …

I rattled off my birth date, my last appointment, my due date (still over 7 months away).

And what is the situation? the voice inquired.

I ate the wrong cheese, I responded, choking on the words.  Tears welled; I filled with guilt and fear.

I’m not sure that I heard you, the voice responded.  The wrong cheese?

Yes, the wrong cheese! I cried back.  I ate feta!  On a salad!  From the deli by work!  I was craving salt!  And it’s my favorite salad!  And then I came home and went to the fridge to get some cold water and …


And saw the magnet, with the “foods to avoid during your pregnancy” list.  Soft cheese.  Feta cheese!  I should have read it when I put it on the fridge, but I didn’t, and now …

My voice trailed off as tears took over.

There it was: the big catastrophe, avoidable, had I simply been prepared.  But I wasn’t, and now everything would be ruined.  I didn’t read the magnet, even though it had been on fridge for weeks.  And so I gave into my salt craving by going after some feta, ignoring the PB&J on wheat wrapped in tin foil, now squished at the bottom of my purse.

Can you please have the doctor call me?  I begged the voice.  I need to know if there’s anything I can do to …

I will, Miss, the voice responded.

I hit “end” and curled up in the corner of the futon in front of the TV, phone in hand and blanket almost over my head, waiting for the phone to ring.

I have always been a little bit of a—what’s the word?—let’s say a worrier.  A little on the nervous side.  For example, when I was a child for two entire summers—nearly all of the warm weather, no-school days between my 2nd and 4th grade years—I sat in the southwest corner of my family’s unfinished, cement basement, reading Little House on the Prairie books and stuffing cotton in my ears so that I couldn’t hear the thunder—if and when there was a storm.  I could not be forced to wait for something like a weather-service issued tornado warning, or even a storm watch.  Just in case the ever-present wind of my prairie hometown blew something my way, I would be safe.  I occasionally snatched my mother’s purse or all the fruit in the fridge and set them by me and my books until someone noticed they were gone and came to claim them.  Just in case, I’d explain.

My parents and older siblings tried to lure me out of the cellar with reason and logic.  Kristie, it’s sunny and there are no clouds.  Kristie, it’s only 40 degrees outside.  Kristie, it’s late August and you need to practice existing outside of the basement because school is about to start.  But this was not about logic and reason.  I’m not quite sure what it was about, really, because no one thought to invest in a psychological evaluation of the child who wouldn’t leave the basement corner during summer vacation.  But I can say it would be only the first of several—perhaps many would be a word choice here—demonstrations of my rather worrisome worrying.

Still, it took another 21 years—and approximately 10 weeks gestation—before my worry spread to Greek salads, which proved particularly troublesome.  Because here’s the thing: soft cheese knows no basements.  There is nowhere to hide from feta digested.  I scanned website after website, where people with questionable avatars submit poorly punctuated and deeply fretful questions about falling, having sex, and yes, eating feta, while pregnant.  And then know-it-all’s respond with finger wagging and directions to call your doctor or go to the ER.  I scanned these as I waited for my doctor’s call—What’s keeping him? What can an on-call OB possibly be doing that is more important than this? —and emailed a baker’s dozen of contrite, horrified, highly-repetitive emails to my husband, who was on a flight to the opposite coast for a conference and would get them six hours later, in one big batch.  (And who would, because he is patient and calm and wise, quickly delete them and wait several hours—blaming traffic, meetings, or the time change, before calling to check in.  He had to develop his own strategies for living with my worry.)

I was writing message number 14 (subject line: What Will I Do?) when the phone rang.

How are you doing? My mother-in-law asked.  She was calling because her son was gone and I was newly pregnant and she was being nice.

I started to cry.  To bawl, really.  To howl and wail.

You miss him?  she asked.

No, I sobbed.  I ate the wrong cheese!

After explaining, between tear-induced gasps for air, that I was not (yet anyway – sob, sob, sob) suffering from food poisoning, I described my deli lunch.  And the magnet on the fridge.  And my resulting terror.  She responded that, back when she was pregnant, they didn’t have those magnets.  But they did often have cocktails and cigarettes.  Which she would not recommend, but was just sharing.  To calm me down.  The ol’ but Kristie, come on up from down there! line, updated.

It’s just …

It’s just what? she asked.

I don’t want to lose this pregnancy!

Of course you won’t, she responded.

But last time I did.

I surprised myself with that line as it left my mouth. But I was now 10 weeks along.  Which—last time—was when I got those bright red spots, and then went into the doctor, and he turned the screen away and said, I’m so sorry.  On top of the salad topped with croutons and olives and that terrifying cheese, I was having a tough (gestational) week.

I don’t remember what else my mother-in-law said, but I eventually stopped crying, hung up the phone and even closed my laptop.  I sat on the futon, watching TV—the very futon where, the following July, my water would break, the very futon around which I would lean and stand and sway while I labored for several hours, waiting for regular contractions while watching Harry Potter DVDs.  And at some point—on the feta night, not while in labor—I fell asleep in the futon’s comforting little curve.

For the first day of 4th grade, I had to come out of the basement corner, strap on my backpack, pick through my short, permed hair, and put on my giant pastel pink glasses (with this sentence, at least one reason for basement-hiding seems a bit more evident), had to head out into world and its weather.  Looking back, that little act of bravery provided good practice for the rest of my pregnancy (and for the one that followed, and for years of motherhood that I am currently wading my way through).  We should read our magnets and keep an eye on the weather, be smart and safe, and then—though we often have no idea what to expect, and though we worry—we must get on with things.  Some of what will happen will come without warning.  Some dangers will never make it on a list on the fridge.  And sometimes those things we have always feared and associated with suffering and terror may surprise us.

Like that windy, stormy, thundering July night, after a hot and steamy day, when—eleven stories up, high in the Manhattan skyline—I gave birth to a son.

Kris Woll is a Minneapolis-based writer.

 Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.

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