Unlike the blissful announcement of a baby the first two times, my mother’s smile taking up her entire face; this time, she met the news with a blank expression. “Why?” she said, before hesitating, then hugging me as if to hold me up.
Johnny’s bus comes later, after my other four children are off to school. And suddenly I am in “Johnny Time,”—the half hour each school day morning that I have to spend alone with my youngest son, a small-for-his-age first-grader.
“Ready Mommy?” he says. “Ready!” I say, and, unless we’re rained out, we head outside to play baseball before his bus comes. It is late autumn, the leaves have let go of the trees, and I stand in the grass in my pajamas and robe, a cup of cold coffee on the ground next to me. Johnny races to get our mitts from the garage, his small muscled body pulsing with excitement.
I throw him a high fly; the ball crashes through the branches of our oak tree; he zig-zags beneath the limbs judging exactly where it will fall. “Johnny Jingle makes the catch!” I scream and he beams, raising his mitt, calming the crowd. “How did you get to be such a great baseball player?” I ask, TV-interview style, using a small stick for a microphone. He says the answer I made up for him. “I owe it all to my mother!”
He bats next, my pitch lacks accuracy but he slams it. He hits left-handed—the way my father, a professional baseball player and also named Johnny, used to. Johnny does nothing else left-handed, but by some odd coincidence he hits lefty and his swing makes me smile every time. He has an uncanny resemblance to his namesake as well, tufts of blonde hair, blue eyes like light blue fondant.
I throw a thousand balls, or so it seems by the time the bus lumbers to our driveway, letting out its routine wheeze. Johnny gives me my three kisses, left, right, and center, before getting on. And though I am tired, feeling thin as wax paper, I know I did the right thing seven years ago.
Because Johnny was all my idea. The baby I insisted on having, though he was conceived at a time in my life when a baby should have been the last thing on my mind. My marriage was breaking, my daughters were just two and three, and my career had hit high gear. But for reasons I have only begun to figure out, though I know it was more than a desire for a boy who I could name after my father, I wanted a third child as much as I’d wanted the first; every cell of me committed to it, the need innate, primal.
My husband and I were in marriage counseling at the time; we had been for months. The therapist cautioned against having another child just then. “Another child will not fix things,” she said. Of course not, I thought. But that was not the point.
The point was I wanted a third child whether my husband and I stayed together or not. I was clear on the issue in my mind. I told my mother I was pregnant first. Unlike the blissful announcement of a baby the first two times, my mother’s smile taking up her entire face; this time, she met the news with a blank expression. “Why?” she said, before hesitating, then hugging me as if to hold me up.
I knew what she was thinking; she was the one who came to stay with me when I suffered postpartum depression with both of my daughters, who were born in the context of a better marriage than what I had now. She was the one who took Sophia from my lap while I cried, leaving me frozen in the polka-dot cushioned rocking chair, cold cabbage leaves on my breasts to sooth the engorgement.
I waited many weeks before I told other people, including my husband, who smiled when I showed him the stick that flared pink. He left quickly after to go to his flying lesson. I remember thinking, he would fly 15,000 feet in the air while I stayed grounded.
My husband was home less often. He’d had so many interests and made time to pursue them all—a zest I loved when I married him but hated now that we had children. We were together less and less, a thick silence webbed between us. Over time my daughters sensed the end of something I think; clinging to me, grabbing at my thighs while I cooked macaroni and cheese again, my stomach huge, wedging into the countertop as I filled the large pot with water. At any time I could snap, like a celery stalk, knowing that if I didn’t unravel during the pregnancy, chances were high I would plummet again right after the baby was born.
It was a lonely pregnancy, punctuated by doctor appointments that I went to by myself. At 21 weeks as I lay in the dark on the exam table, my melon-sized belly in full bloom, I asked Dr. Derman if it was a boy or a girl. “I thought you didn’t want to know?” he said, having delivered both of my daughters who I insisted be a surprise. I felt the baby roll inside of me, swimming, as it surfaced on the ultrasound.
“I want to know,” I said.
“Boy” he said.
“For certain?” I said. It was certain.
The divorce came when Johnny was 18 months old; I now have to share my son, along with his sisters. On Wednesdays and every other weekend the children go to my ex-husband’s house and the little bird beats in my throat. In spite of that I try to see the situation through a positive lens, thinking that perhaps the forced separations help me appreciate the extra minutes I have on weekday mornings with my son, before the bus comes—the little boy who I still like to believe was all my doing.