By Dana Huebler
My parents announced the news one night after supper, a few weeks after I’d started first grade.
“We have a surprise for you,” my father began in his deep, professorial voice, a smile tugging at his lips.
“Something new is coming to our house,” my mother added coyly.
“What?” I demanded.
“You have to guess,” my father answered, smiling fully now.
“We’re getting a new car?” my brother, Dorne, guessed. At 11, a replacement for our old Rambler was about the only surprise that could generate any excitement in him.
My parents shook their heads.
“A pony?” my nine-year-old sister, Darcy, offered, giving voice to the dying hope that one day she’d wake up to find a pony grazing in our backyard.
“No,” my father said, with a dry chuckle.
“A monkey!” I shouted. If my sister could reach for the impossible, so could I. But the fantasy evaporated with the laughter that erupted around me. “A monkey?” Darcy sneered.
I looked at our reflections in the kitchen window, where the black night pressed against the glass. I could almost taste the bracing chill of autumn. That year, caught up in the excitement of starting first grade, I was falling in love with fall: the abrupt shift in weather, the vibrant colors of the leaves, the crisp, deep blue of the October sky. On a clear autumn day, I could pretend I was living in a picture-perfect New England village instead of a drab, dying mill town on the Merrimack River.
As I gazed at our images on the glass, the answer came to me with a flash of certainty so clear I hardly raised my voice. “A baby,” I said, looking to my parents for confirmation. They smiled, then nodded, and a sweet light flooded through me. Even though the baby wouldn’t be born until spring, I shivered with the sense of change electrifying my world. I felt as though I’d been given a precious gift, one that I’d have to wait months to receive.
* * *
Forty years later, on the other side of the Atlantic, I start a similar guessing game with my children.
“Something new is coming into our lives,” I tell them, in the same playful voice. “Can you guess what it is?”
“Let’s see,” Lila murmurs, gazing thoughtfully at nothing.
“A Nintendo!” she guesses, her eyes lighting up. She insists she’s the only kid in her 2nd-grade class who doesn’t have one. Marko, her 5-year-old brother, likes the idea of a Nintendo so much he guesses it again, even after we’ve assured them this is not the surprise.
The guessing continues along electronic lines before moving on to cars and pets. A baby seems to be the last thing on their minds, and when they finally do guess, with some strong hints from me and my husband, it has none of the Aha! Eureka! feeling I had as a child.
But I’m not surprised. We’ve never talked about having a third child, and the fact that both children were born in America, not Germany, where we live now, seems to have solidified us as a completed family. Besides, I’m in my mid-forties—I was certain my baby days were behind me.
So certain, that when my period didn’t come, I waited weeks to take a pregnancy test. And though my first reaction was shock—horror, really—I quickly became swept up in the excitement and wonder of this unexpected, late-in-life pregnancy.
* * *
At my first prenatal appointment, I see the baby for the first time. Just a vague form on the sonogram, a white blob of light in a sea of murky gray, it is still an embryo in the fishlike stage, with no hands or limbs, just a visibly beating heart.
The doctor uses a pregnancy wheel to calculate the due date: April 22nd. But later, when the embryo is big enough to measure, the date changes to April 12th. Already something of a miracle, this baby I conceived at 46 will be a spring baby, born almost exactly between my two older children’s birthdays.
But April 12th—that’s the day my mother gave birth to my little brother, the baby I couldn’t wait to meet and help take care of. The coincidence seems amazing to me, and I find myself thinking often of that baby, my brother, and that time so long ago.
I notice other coincidences, too, in those early weeks; shining synchronicities that make me pause, and wonder. For starters, both Marko and my mother- in-law seem to sense the pregnancy on some level before we’ve told anyone the news. A few days after my first prenatal appointment, Marko asks me: “Mommy, can someone get three babies?”
“Of course,” I say, trying to hide my surprise.
“Could you get a third baby?” he persists. He’s never brought up the idea of a sibling before, but now, when I ask him if he’d like to have a little brother or sister, he answers yes without hesitation.
A day or two later, over coffee and cake, my mother-in-law mentions how wonderful it would be to have another grandchild—another Enkelkind for her to cuddle and love. My husband, Kai, and I laugh at the idea—the news is still too fresh for us to share—but I’m stunned she would consider this in light of my age. Even the miniature baby boom in Kai’s work group seems like a good omen to me: among 15 coworkers, three babies had been born that summer.
But it’s the dream I had just before conception that transports simple coincidence into the realm of magic, divination. In the dream, I am stepping off a train on a warm spring day. My friend Joy is waiting for me, with a little girl of about six years old. Together, we go to Joy’s house and I sit under a cover of lush, green trees, with patches of blue sky and brilliant sunlight sparkling through the leaves. Joy gives me an exuberant hug. “You’re still young,” she says. “You can still bring another basket of joy into the world.”
These coincidences, especially the dream and the matching due dates, help bolster my confidence about this unexpected pregnancy, considered high-risk because of my age. I hold onto them as an assurance that everything will be okay.
* * *
I wonder how my mother felt when she discovered she was pregnant with my brother. She certainly had the glow that pregnant women have, and both she and my father seemed happy about the pregnancy, even though this baby, like my baby, had been a surprise, and her pregnancy, like mine, was high- risk. Her risk came not from age—she was only 34—but from the Rh factor, a blood incompatibility between mother and fetus that can harm a developing baby. If, as a child, I was aware of this risk, I did my best to ignore it. I felt as though a giant light was shining on me and my world, and I woke up each morning filled with excitement about the baby coming into our lives. I couldn’t wait to be a big sister, and I was hoping for a boy.
The last vivid memory I have before my brother’s birth was in March, when my mother was in her seventh month. My father and his colleagues staged a “Happening” at the college where he taught art, an all-day event of performance art with stations set up around the school. The memory plays like a movie reel in my mind—a home movie on grainy film, with the whites blurred and overly bright, the grass a dull brown, and the sky a washed-out blue. But even in the fading color, the promise of spring is apparent. The snow is gone, the sky is bright with rolling clouds, and my mother looks radiant: smiling, happy, and very pregnant under her winter coat. I stood with her and a crowd of students watching a helicopter swoop onto the campus parking lot, looping loudly and wildly, drowning out all sound. After it touched down, my father, wearing a gorilla suit and mask, appeared in the doorway. An explosion of laughter erupted from the crowd as the students watched one of their favorite teachers lumber down the stairs, his arms flailing clumsily.
After the splashdown in the parking lot, everyone walked over to the college swimming pool, a dark, dank enclosure with milky, gridded windows, smelling of decades of splashed chlorine. The spectators packed themselves around the pool’s narrow circumference, press- ing against the sweating concrete walls as my father, the gorilla, sat in a row- boat giving rides. I was crowded so close to my mother’s large belly that I could feel the coarse, knobby material of her tweed coat scratching against my face. Sometimes, I could even feel the baby kicking near my ear.
I watched my father rowing the boat, his expression, a rubber mask, unchanging. No matter how many times I told myself that was my father in there, I didn’t quite believe it. I was struck by the strangeness of it all, the wildness even, of the rowboat in the swimming pool, captained by a gorilla, with most of the onlookers wearing high heels and long coats. I felt sure I was witnessing something important, something meaningful, though I had no idea why.
* * *
A certain wildness swirls through me in the early days of my pregnancy. Fear and anxiety threaten to overwhelm my feelings of hope and confidence. Am I crazy to be going through with this? When I tell my mother I’m pregnant, she reminds me that I am her third child, and “look how that turned out.” Like me, she considers the matching due date a positive omen.
I cling to this optimism. In those first weeks, with the onslaught of pregnancy hormones mixing with the shock of the pregnancy, I am a mess of conflicting emotions: questions about the health and viability of the fetus dampen the euphoria I feel about having been able to produce a life at an age when statistics say it is close to impossible.
My greatest fear is what I perceive to be my greatest risk—a chromosomal defect—even though statistically the risk for a miscarriage is considerably higher. My odds for carrying a baby with any kind of chromosomal problem are roughly 1 in 10, and for miscarriage, a frightening 1 in 2. Intuitively, I feel sure that everything will be okay, but I can’t help but be worried by such grim statistics.
In my 15th week, I go in for an amniocentesis, doing my best to lie still through the unbearably icky feeling of having a needle stuck into the most sacred of places, my womb. The doctor, normally friendly and relaxed, is now extremely serious, speaking in quiet, gentle tones as he performs the procedure, reminding us that even though the baby, a girl, looks perfect on the monitor, the results of the amnio could prove otherwise. Still, that voice inside me insists she is healthy.
Later that night, Kai and I wait together in a heavy, dreadful silence.
Our children sleep upstairs, oblivious to our anxiety. When the phone finally rings, I cannot answer it; the call is too important to risk a misunderstanding due to language. I watch my husband’s face closely as he listens to the doctor, and relief floods through me even before the smile has finished spreading across his face. The blood work, the doctor reports, has shown no chromosomal defects. Our baby is genetically perfect.
* * *
There were no tests to reassure us during my mother’s pregnancy— all we could do was hope and wait. And as her due date loomed closer, I worried more and more that it was all too good to be true. That this beautiful dream of having a baby brother to nurture and love would turn out to be only that. A dream.
Maybe I was tuning into the undercurrent of worry and fear running between my parents, who were certainly aware of the risks of this pregnancy: If, like me, the baby had the same blood type as my mother, he would most likely be born healthy; but if, like my brother and sister, he had a positive blood type, his health would be compromised. My sister needed a blood transfusion at birth and spent her first weeks in an incubator; for a third child with the incompatibility, the problems could be far more severe.
I don’t remember my parents making any physical preparations for the baby. Did my father bring up an old cradle or bassinet from the basement? Was a room prepared for the baby to sleep in? All I remember was the blanket that a friend of my mother’s wove for the baby. Weaving was her passion, and the blanket was a work of art. She used soft lamb’s wool to weave a pattern of large squares in vibrant colors: bright orange, deep red, vivid purple. I would sit in the rocking chair in my parents’ room, arranging the blanket over my lap or covering my dolls with it, all the while fantasizing about holding a tiny newborn in my arms, singing to it, feeding it, and loving it.
I held onto my wish for a baby brother as strongly as I could through the final weeks of my mother’s pregnancy, assuring myself that everything would be fine and the baby would be born healthy.
But then it all happened too fast. Suddenly my mother was in the hospital and the baby was born, more than a month early.
“There are problems,” my father said. That’s all he told us.
A hush fell over our house. My father spent most of his time at the hospital, and when he came home to eat or sleep, his reports were vague, hardly reassuring. The baby’s weak, but he’s fighting, he would tell us. The doctors and nurses are doing everything they can.
Two days after the baby was born, I was getting ready for school, pretending it was a day like any other, when my sister rushed into the room, breathless with excitement.
“The baby’s dead,” Darcy whispered.
“No. He’s not.” I refused to believe her.
“It’s true. I heard Dad talking to a nurse at the hospital. I listened in on the upstairs phone.”
“I don’t believe you,” I insisted, even though the truth was already taking hold. “They said he was dead?”
“Well, no, they didn’t actually use those words, but I could tell by the way they were talking. Dad said, ‘Well, you did the best you could…'” She shrugged. “What else could that mean?”
Darcy seemed proud of her discovery, thinking more in that moment of her clever detective work than the reality of the news she’d delivered. The baby was dead.
I knew it was true, but I refused to believe it until I heard my father say it. When we went downstairs to breakfast, I waited for him to speak. But the only sound at the breakfast table came from the crunch of our cereal and the clatter of spoons and bowls. My father was the quietest of all, reading the Boston Globe as he did every day. I watched him closely, or rather, I watched the paper he was hiding behind, waiting for him to put it down and say something.
But all he did was send us off to school with a kiss good-bye. By the time I stepped into my classroom, I’d almost
convinced myself that my sister was wrong. She must have been mistaken, misunderstood the phone call some- how. My father would certainly have said something if the baby had died.
Sometime that morning, my teacher called me up to her desk to pick up a quiz. Like most of the kids in my class, I was afraid of her. Snide and condescending to everyone but her favorites, she looked like a witch, with a beehive of black hair and stone-black eyes magnified by cat’s-eye glasses.
But now, as she handed me my quiz, she told me how sorry she was about the baby. Hearing kindness in her voice for the first time that year, I nodded stupidly and mumbled something in response, but inside I was reeling. How could she know anything about the baby, my brother? How could she be talking about him as though he was already dead?
I reminded myself she hadn’t actually used the word died or dead, she had just said she was sorry. I kept telling myself the baby must still be alive—I would feel it inside of me if he had died. I would know it in my heart. My father never would have sent us to school if something so serious had happened.
Walking home, I allowed myself to fantasize once more about holding the baby in my arms, giving him a bottle and taking care of him. I stopped under a tree and leaned against the trunk, cradling the lunchbox my father had painted for me at the beginning of the school year: a wild brown Mustang running in a cloud of dust. As I remembered how proud I’d felt on the first day of school, all the excitement of autumn and the news of my mother’s pregnancy came back to me. I spotted some lily of the valleys growing under the tree—my mother’s favorite flower—and scooped up a bunch. I breathed in the sweet fragrance and, feeling a small infusion of hope, started walking again.
By the time I got home, I’d nearly convinced myself that things might actually be normal. But when I opened the front door to a silent house, I knew they were not normal at all. I let the flowers fall from my hand as I stepped inside.
“Dana? Is that you?” my father called, his voice even deeper than usual. “Can you come in here, please?”
I set down my lunchbox and hung up my coat. My legs felt heavy, filled with a thick liquid, as I walked to the living room and joined my brother and sister on the couch. My father didn’t say anything for a minute or two, he just looked from one to the other of us with his piercing brown eyes.
“The baby didn’t make it,” he finally said, his voice grave and emotionless. “He died early this morning.” He presented the news as if it had been inevitable, something we simply needed to accept.
“He just wasn’t strong enough. They did everything they could to save him, but…” He let the words trail away and lifted his chin, as though he was trying to put a distance between his head and his heart. We waited for him to say more, but he was silent. And so were we. None of us cried. We did not ask questions. The baby was dead. That was that, and now we needed to move on as a family.
My mother stayed in the hospital for a week. One day soon after she came home, I followed her into the bathroom and asked to see the scar from the Cesarean. Maybe I thought it would make the baby seem more real to me, that I would somehow feel closer to him, or maybe I needed evidence that there had actually been a baby in there, that this hadn’t all been a dream. Whatever my reason, I didn’t expect my mother to comply.
But she did. She stood up from the toilet and lifted her nightgown, showing me her naked pelvis. Her pubic hair had been shaved off, and stubble was already growing in. A black-scabbed scar ran horizontally above the stubble, a row of stitches sewn crosswise through the wound. It was an ugly sight, and I was horrified.
* * *
Near the end of my pregnancy, my doctor tells me if the baby isn’t born by April 12th, he wants to induce labor on the following Monday, April 14th. In spite of having a normal, healthy pregnancy, I’m still high-risk, and he doesn’t want to wait too long.
When I relay this news to my mother, she reminds me that April 14th was the day the baby died. Until then I had not even considered this date— his death date. At first, I worry that it might be inviting bad luck to schedule an inducement on that date, but in these final days, I feel pregnant with hope and optimism, with the expectation and excitement one feels when a new child is about to arrive into a family.
Also, by now, the coincidence of dates seems not to matter anymore; everything pales next to the weight of my growing belly and the emotional pull of the impending birth. April 12th passes without incident, and I decide I’m not ready to induce on the 14th, not because my brother died on that day, but because I want to allow my baby to be born in her own time.
But after another week passes with no signs of labor, the doctor refuses to wait any longer. And by now, I’m ready. I go into the hospital to start the induction process, taking a pill every few hours to bring on contractions. Sometime after midnight, labor begins, and early the next morning, I’m wheeled into the delivery room.
Later, when I look back on these final moments, I see myself on all fours, crawling around the room and howling like an animal. In fact, I am lying on a bed, on my side, with one leg bent and lifted high in the air—a strange, anti-gravity position that the midwife has settled on because she seems afraid to ask me to move. But the howling and screaming are entirely real. The pain is worse than it was for my first two children, and when the midwife announces that I am only six centimeters dilated, I feel I might lose my will. But then my husband reminds me of my son’s birth, how fast things went after exactly this point, and it gives me the strength I need to keep going.
I also find power in my voice. As waves of pain rip through me, I let myself scream with abandon, loudly and deeply—a different sound coming out with each contraction. I yelp rhythmically, blow out through my lips, letting them vibrate loudly, and open my entire throat to push out low, long bellows. Each time, I focus on the sound, traveling with it to its endpoint as though it exists somewhere on the ceiling, on the other side of the room, somewhere far away from the source of the pain—my throbbing, contracting uterus—until the wave recedes and the pain subsides.
Finally, the midwife tells me I can start pushing, even though I am in this awkward sideways position. Through three or four contractions, I push with all my might, until the baby’s head is almost out. Almost, but not quite.
“Ich sehe dunkel haar,” the midwife exclaims. In the midst of my agony, this gives me a thrill of hope. With two fair-haired children, I’ve been hoping for a baby with my dark hair.
“Einz weiter!” the midwife commands. One more push. And finally, the release. A spiraling rush of energy shooting through me and out of my body. I open my eyes and watch the midwife pulling my baby out. Her body is wet and bluish, her eyes are closed, and the umbilical cord is still reaching into me.
I never saw my other children coming out—not with a mirror, not on video—but this time, in this odd position, I see my daughter being pulled from my womb and her still form coming to life. The midwife lays the baby on the bed next to me, and she and I look at each other for the first time. She has blue eyes, is my first thought, and she is looking right at me, her gaze intelligent and intense. As if she has known me forever and as if she, too, has been waiting to see what I look like. Then she does something that takes my breath away: She lifts her hand and reaches out to me, grabbing my index finger with her tiny fingers and holding tight for several seconds.
The doctor makes his notes, the mid-wife starts her cleanup, and I lay back and bring the baby to my breast. Now that the birth has been accomplished, and all risks and questions are behind us, the midwife tells us that today is her own birthday. This, I decide, is just one more coincidence honoring this new life, this miracle.
My daughter Zoe was born on April 22nd—the original due date the doctor gave me at my first prenatal visit. Her middle name, Joy, is in honor of a dear family friend who came into my life the year my mother was pregnant with my brother. Thirty years later, it was Joy who played matchmaker to bring me and my husband together. And it was Joy who came to me in the dream I had just before conceiving. “You’re still young,” she told me. “You can still bring another basket of joy into the world.”
Two weeks after this dream, Zoe was conceived, and five weeks after that, my life transformed with the knowledge of the secret that had been growing inside of me. In April, as flowers and trees burst into bloom and the weather finally settled on spring, she came into the world, reaching out her tiny hand and taking a firm grip on life.
* * *
Four months later, at a well-baby checkup, I wait in the pediatrician’s office worrying over questions to ask. A blanket lies across my chair, and it takes me a moment to notice that, with its large squares of orange, purple, and red, it looks like the baby blanket woven for my brother so many years ago.
Another coincidence. What does it mean? What have they all meant?
I stroke the soft fleece and study the blanket’s colors, and I am back again, in that time of hope and sadness. I wish so much that my brother had lived. That all my hope, joy, and anticipation had been enough to make him come into the world healthy and strong. I wish I knew what he’d looked like, that I’d gotten a chance to see him at least once. Who would I be now if I’d had a little brother to nurture and grow up with? Who would he be, my brother?
I look down at my little girl lying in my arms, and she stares up at me, her eyes watchful and intent, a pacifier moving steadily in her mouth. I press my cheek to hers and breathe in her milky scent. My baby, this baby, alive and healthy, solid and warm in my embrace.
Author’s Note: After my daughter’s birth, the memories of my brother quickly receded back to whatever place in the heart or mind such memories reside. I will always be grateful for the opportunity I had to relive and remember that very charged and traumatic time: the joy I felt about my mother’s pregnancy, the happy anticipation I floated on in the months leading up to his birth, and the profound sadness and loss I felt after he died.
Dana Huebler worked for years as a professional writer and editor before devoting her creative energies to writing fiction and memoir and raising a family. A graduate of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, her work has appeared in Poets & Writers, Watershed, and Venice magazines. She was co-author of the book The Colorblind Career. She recently finished a Young Adult novel, The House on Pilgrim’s Way, and is currently working on a collection of personal essays. Dana lives in Bremen, Germany, with her husband and three children.
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