The Odds of Growing Up
By Rebecca Givens Rolland
Tonight, when my almost two-year-old daughter falls, I try not to notice. I try to let the fall just come to her, as she races too fast down the ramp a few blocks from our house, arms tipped like wings, breath puffing out the corners of her cheeks.
“Gorilla!” she shouts, gesturing upwards in an exuberant arc, staring out at a thin clump of oaks. Since we got back from the zoo last week, she’s been talking about gorillas nonstop, searching for them in every patch of forest, every collection of city trees.
She doesn’t want to be caught, I think, as she rushes off, doesn’t want to be told that gorillas aren’t exactly Boston natives. I hold my tongue.
It’s something I’ve had to get used to, staying quiet. For years before my daughter’s birth, I relied on logic to guide me through troubles in life. When stressed, I buried myself in books, the harder the better—serious novels, philosophy books—and, by high school, found a strange love for statistics in spite of a general dislike for math.
The probabilities of picking an orange ball from a series, predicting how likely disaster was to occur, in airplanes versus cars—I dove into both word problems and equations. They gave me the feeling that there was nothing too bad on the horizon, that there really was logic behind it all.
Years later, as a doctoral student in education, I should have known better. In the midst of an uncomplicated pregnancy—I was still working, finding time to go for regular swims—
I should have realized there was no way around it. That illusion would have to break down.
Yet when the loss of logic came, I wasn’t prepared. That night, only weeks off from my due date, I woke up with a serious itching on my palms and the soles of my feet. It felt like a series of ants had built a hive and started racing deep inside.
“Probably the shoes,” I told my husband, turning over in bed, my huge maternity pillows on one side. “Should have worn socks today.”
Turning on the light, he picked up each of my hands in turn. No rash, no scar.
“Just Google it in the morning,” he said, flipping over and heading back under the covers. The general household answer to everything.
The next morning, in a rush, I’d almost made it out the door before I remembered to look up the itching: pregnant women are generally itchy, the first two websites read. Relieved, I started to shut the computer off.
“Of course. Another one of those weird pregnant things,” I said.
But then it popped up: itching on the hands and feet can be the sign of a rare liver disorder, most common in women from Sweden and Chile.
“Hold on a sec,” I said, and read it out loud.
My husband shrugged. “It’s rare, they said. And you’re not Swedish.”
“Sure, but you think I have it?” I asked him, struggling over my belly to put on my shoes.
“Doubt it,” he said, calm as usual. I relaxed. If anything, he was more into logic than I was.
He had a more relaxed attitude about pregnancy anyway, which I attributed to his being from France, where they didn’t care if you ate the smelly cheese.
After a few hours at work, though, the itching got worse. Scratching my palms till they reddened, I decided to call. The nurse said to get to the hospital fast. I headed over, trying not to worry about what that meant.
“I don’t see anything,” the nurse said, looking my hands over like a fortune-teller scouting out lifelines. “But that doesn’t mean that everything’s all right.”
Sure enough, the doctor called that night. Liver levels sky-high, and the diagnosis: cholestasis, severe itching that signifies dysfunction and can be dangerous to the baby the longer you wait. She’d need to be born soon, my doctor told me, her voice strained.
“How long do I have?”
“A few days,” she said. “Just check to make sure she’s moving every few hours.”
Panicked, I spent the next day rushing around. I’d assumed I’d still have a few weeks—now I needed newborn clothes, a blanket for the stroller, a pacifier, who knew what else.
But the next morning, when I woke, I felt even worse. I couldn’t feel the baby moving. Sitting back on the couch, I gulped ice water, jiggled my stomach. Nothing.
“We have to go to the hospital,” I told my husband, grabbing my work bag. He nodded. My stomach dropped—yet another emergency.
We’d only talked with the doctor for a few minutes when she looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Come back in two hours. You’re giving birth today.”
I had a meeting, I told her, looking over at my husband—couldn’t we reschedule? He shook his head. She laughed.
“Give up,” she said, pointing me to the door. This was the birth of the world that resisted logic, that wouldn’t shift, no matter how much I tried.
Back home, I picked a suitcase out of the ones we had stored in the closet, a bright plastic red one. It shone brightly, like it was ready to go. Packed a thick copy of Ovid’s Metamorphosis, thinking I might have to wait around a while. My husband, always more practical, threw in a copy of Vogue. Later on, sick and sneaking gummy bears, I’d thank him. It was all I could do to flip through the magazine.
I was lucky, I realize now—the birth was uncomplicated, and early the next morning, my daughter gave a clear, sharp cry. A few hours later, my doctor visited, patted her on the top of the head.
“It’s all good,” she said.
I sighed, relieved to see her, to have my daughter and me both safe on the other end.
Things could have turned out so differently—the probabilities weren’t as clear-cut as all that. Scanning the web, I’d tried to ignore the statistics on my condition, tried to ignore stillbirth printed as a possible outcome. She was fine, I reminded myself, even when I woke exhausted in the middle of the night. She was alive and breathing.
There was something about statistics, I came to see, that didn’t fit her, that limited us. Even if they suggested what might happen, they revealed nothing about the impossible, the imaginary, in which we still had to believe. That new belief was what my daughter taught me: there might be something beyond random, something unexpected but worthwhile in our dreams: children’s stories, monsters that visited us nightly, purple and black spotted, with star-shaped eyes.
And, more importantly, I learned to trust my daughter’s development—through watching her, I came to see it as an arc I could help along but not ensure. I could teach her words, could try to keep her from hurting herself, but I wouldn’t know what would come out of her mouth. I could never predict what she’d believe, the risks she would take, the dangers she might get herself into, even as she’d try to explore.
That could be scary, but I had to not let the danger overwhelm me. The process, if I saw it as joyful, would sustain us both. Playing together, we’d get to know each other, would create, between us, a new universe of our own, a whole new bond.
Tonight’s a night like any other, but a little cooler. My daughter’s birthday is coming up—it’s gone fast, those two years since the doctor called with the news of the disease.
We walk over to see a group of pink plastic flamingos stuck oddly in the ground at the end of our street. My daughter races toward them with an open-mouthed laugh, then starts scaling the steps of nearby brownstones. Those birds must know they’re in the wrong place, I say.
“Jump,” she says, holding her arms out behind her like an unwieldy airplane, stepping almost off the edge of the last stair. Sometimes it’s just a few inches, sometimes half a foot or more. I hold my breath.
I tell myself she’s fine, but I don’t know for sure, not when she races down the steps and off the cobblestones of our narrow street, not when we visit the animal shelter on the next block, and she sticks her fingers into the gray bunnies’ cages, their teeth near the wires, and puts her face up to the whiskers of the long-haired cats. I try to keep her hands away, even as I want her to explore.
It’s become a ritual for us, probably annoying to the shelter’s volunteers, since we’re not interested in adoption for now. At least my husband and I aren’t—my daughter would be happy to take one home if she could. Standing over the bird cages, she imitates their cheeps, runs her hands along the cages.
“Pat, pat, pat.”
We shouldn’t keep coming, I know, but she’s full of so much love I can’t stand not to indulge her. A surprising love, one I never could have predicted, not in all my statistics classes, not even in the baby books. It’s that kind of love that makes her cling to objects, to Toddler Activities, the book whose cover photo reminds her of her cousin in France.
Before bed, she circles the living room, dragging the book with her, propping it up so the girl in the cover photo can “see” her play and eat. I watch her face shift from dark to light. It’s her cousin from France, she keeps saying—I can’t decide if she’s pretending, or if it’s something she really believes.
She turns the book to me, blows a kiss. That cover girl has her captured: river-straight hair, bright blue wide-open eyes.
“Call, call,” she says. I want to tell her it’s a six-hour difference, there’s no way we can talk now—and yet I know I have to give that up too. Let her reinvent her world, resolve its logic in the way she needs.
Nodding at her, I say, “Time to go to bed now. Take your cousin.”
My daughter follows, taking the book with her, curling up in her crib, dropping off—gracefully, illogically—to sleep.
Rebecca Givens Rolland won the 2011 Dana Award for Short Fiction and the inaugural May Sarton New Hampshire First Book Prize for poetry. She currently lives in Boston.
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