By Carrie Friedman
My doctor asks me my symptoms as I hoist myself up on the examination table. He has just finished cooing over my three month old daughter, Dee, asleep in her stroller, bundled in a snowsuit on this unusually cold and rainy day in Los Angeles.
I start to cry as I list what I’ve been feeling for the past few months: exhaustion so extreme I’ve had to pull over while driving to take a catnap, painful abdominal bloating, and – I gesture to my tear-stained cheeks – “I’m very emotional.”
“Well, you’ve had a very stressful year,” he says.
I nod. There had been a lot of drama leading up to the birth of our long-awaited first child twelve weeks ago: the surrogate we had hired had been hospitalized halfway through the pregnancy, then threatened to leave the hospital, then tried to bar us from future ultrasounds and appointments. It was a mess, a near disaster actually, resulting in Dee entering the world early but, mercifully, healthy. All the feelings I had repressed during those long months – there was no other way to get through it – were finally coming to the surface.
What I don’t say to my doctor, can’t even utter aloud, is that I’m worried I’m really sick, that all the years of hormone treatments and failed rounds of in vitro fertilization have caught up with me at last, creating grapefruit sized tumors on my ovaries.
Because he’s been my general practitioner for over a decade now, my doctor knows I only come in with serious concerns. He has seen me at my worst and has become something of a friend ever since he consoled me when I sobbed on this same table years before, sharing what my fertility doctor had told me three years into our struggle to conceive: “Your body is fighting off the embryos You will never carry a baby to term. The odds of just getting pregnant are close to 1 in 100,000.”
What some might call hypochondria I know as something else. When my siblings and I were young, my parents always encouraged us to count our blessings and not get too cocky, reminding us that things can fall apart in an instant. Unfortunately, their attempts to cushion us from life’s inevitable blows made life almost impossible to enjoy and, from as early as I can remember, I was wired to be suspicious of good fortune to the point of actually fearing it. I always felt that if anything good happened to me, the universe would rush to balance it out with something awful.
As a parent, I knew I didn’t want to pass that world-view onto my daughter, but I wasn’t sure how to loosen its grip on my own life. Here I was, finally experiencing true happiness with Dee, and I was convinced I was dying, that this was the bargain, the price I would have to pay. Just once I wanted to allow myself to feel joy and really bask in it, without worrying about the torrent of clichés that could describe my fate, my punishment for such an offense: that the other shoe will drop, that the universe gives with one hand and takes with the other. That you can’t have your cake and eat it too.
So I’m uneasy with joy. There’s a certain security in being sad because at least you have less to lose. But now, I have this beautiful baby cooing in her stroller. I have everything to lose.
“Let’s check you out,” my doctor says, pressing gently on my abdomen.
“Hmmmm,” he says.
Hmmm? Is there a worse sound that could come out of a doctor?
“What is it?” I ask, starting to sweat. “It’s a mass, isn’t it.”
“There’s definitely something there,” he says, touching it from all angles. “I want to ultrasound it and see what we’re dealing with.”
Holy shit. This is it, the moment I’ve been dreading all my life. I think of all of the baby’s firsts that I will miss: when she walks, talks, reads, writes. Will she know how much I loved her? Will she even know I’m gone?
A few days ago Dee let out her first squeal. She surprised even herself when she did it – her smile turned to a frown instantly when she was startled by the echo off the walls. But my husband and I clapped, to encourage both her joy and the unabashed expression of it. In those moments, I’ve found myself taking mental notes: remember this time, tell her about this someday, write this down. Which leads to the closest I ever get to prayer: a silent recitation of my wishes for our child. May she know more joy than pain in life. And when she is met with disappointment or seemingly insurmountable challenges, may she have the courage to climb over or through them.
My doctor places the wand on my stomach. I’ve been in this position so many times before, and during every other visit I was hoping for something to show up on the ultrasound screen. But now I pray for ashy emptiness. What would a tumor even look like? I’m so sick with panic I turn my face away to watch Dee in her stroller. All I can hear are her sleepy sighs and the humming fluorescent lights above.
“Huh,” he says.
Huh?! Huh is even worse than Hmmm!
“Well,” he says, “it’s definitely a mass. Here, take a look.”
I turn my head to the ultrasound screen and can make out a round blob. I squint: on closer inspection, the round blob has two tiny offshoots that look almost like hands. And two more below that could be feet.
“You’re pregnant,” he says.
“Shut your mouth,” I say.
“No really!” he says, smiling now.
“You’re lying.” My face burns.
“It’s a miracle!” he says. “By the measurements it looks like you’re about twelve weeks along. You’re through your first trimester.” He shakes his head in disbelief.
I watch the mass waving and wiggling on the ultrasound screen. “Twelve weeks along? How is that even possible?” I say. I still don’t believe him. I am more likely to believe it is a baby-shaped tumor that is so big it has its own heartbeat.
But then I think back. To New Year’s Eve. Exactly a week after Dee was born. The hotel room by the hospital. Applebee’s for dinner and several of their signature Bahama Mama cocktails.
“I’ve heard about this happening,” my doctor says now. “You and Steve must have finally been relaxed and boom! It just happened!”
I’m too stunned to correct him, to tell him that we were anything but relaxed. Our premature daughter was miraculously alive but had to wear an oxygen mask and a feeding tube in a hospital almost four hours from our house.
“Not relaxed, no,” I correct him. “But we were drunk.”
Suddenly some other things make sense too: A few weeks ago, the phrase “inexpensive fish” mentioned in a TV news story about rancid food made me vomit as soon as I heard it.
And how else could I explain my ravenous appetite? The other day, I pulled over at a food truck and, once back in my car, tore through a burrito, its contents flying everywhere as I inhaled it. I later found rice in my hair and three black beans in my bra.
I turn back to the ultrasound screen. I can see the little heart flickering away, as if keeping time with my heart. I’ve never fallen in love so fast.
It’s my turn to say “Huh” now. A miracle indeed.
The rain has stopped. Instead of heading down to the underground parking lot, I take Dee for a walk, mostly because I need some air and worry I’m still too overwhelmed to drive.
How many years, how many specialists, how many losses had there been? I’m trying calculate, to put numbers to levels of pain and loss – something that can’t be done. It’s a sort of emotional whiplash: I’ve been so sad about childlessness for so long and now there’s a possibility of having two in less than a year? I’m already worried we won’t have enough time, love, and attention for two kids so close in age. Will Steve be excited or terrified? I look at my watch. I know he’s in a meeting right now, and I’m too shocked to call him. Besides, this is in-person news, not a voicemail or rushed exchange in the last minutes of a lunch break.
Dee is awake now – I can see her through the white muslin blanket covering the top of her buggy. She’s looking at me. She has my incongruent eyes and puffy cheeks – two things I don’t like about myself but love about her. She gives me the faintest smile. When she smiles her eyes smile too. Doctors say her smiles aren’t conscious yet – can’t be – but they don’t know my girl.
It’s so easy for me to get stuck in my head. But this baby’s smile through the billowy cotton brings me back to right now, reminds me to look at the sky, at how the rain has stopped. The clouds have moved on, over the mountains, unveiling this perfect day directly above us. The wet grass is the only indicator that it ever rained at all.
And then, as if on cue, my baby lets out her unfettered squeal of joy.
Head tilted to the sky, I listen to her and let myself bask.
Carrie Friedman has been published in numerous magazines and newspapers, and wrote the memoir, Pregnant Pause. Her latest project is the blog whatididntexpect.com. When she’s not writing, she’s loving life with her husband, beagle, and two daughters.