By Genevieve Thurtle
It’s late July, on the cusp of August. The morning sky is golden with an unusual light, strangely honeyed by the ash and smoke of a days-long fire, which is still blazing a hundred miles northeast of us. We can smell the smoke in our bedroom. Rob and I stand on either side of our bed, folding sheets, Ian’s small T-shirts. It’s early, and Ian is not yet out of bed. When the phone rings, I pad into the kitchen and pick up the receiver. From the display, I can see it’s Dr. Yu, my gynecologist, whom I will see later this week for the surgery or the procedure or whatever it is we’re naming it. I wasn’t expecting him to call, so I imagine the surgery schedule has gone awry, that they might have to postpone until later in the summer. I brace myself for a date change.
Dr. Yu greets me, wishes me a good morning in his tentative, halting way. “So, all of your blood work looks good, but I got the pregnancy test results back, and it did detect a low level, very low, of HCG,” he says. He pauses. “But it’s still positive.”
I wedge the phone between my shoulder and ear, and sit on the bed. It takes me a moment to understand him. “That’s impossible. How can that be?” I glance at Rob who continues to fold, his eyebrows raised. Dr. Yu goes on to give a few possible explanations, all of which involve me being pregnant or recently pregnant, despite my age–forty-three–Rob’s vasectomy and my own struggle with infertility years ago.
“Listen, just go back today for a second test,” Dr. Yu says. “We’ll stay the course with the procedure if it comes back negative. It could be a false positive. They’re rare, but they do happen.”
To my friends, I’ve been referring to the procedure, the uterine ablation, as “The Boiling.” It involves circulating hot saline within the uterine cavity to destroy the endometrial lining, which often lessens hemorrhagic periods, or makes them disappear altogether, but there are no guarantees, and considering my history of fibroids, the procedure is less likely to be successful. And my uterus has always played the wild card, which is why I’ve come to resent it, as much as one can resent an organ. It’s an unruly entity, wreaking havoc over the years with its pain and hemorrhaging, its fibroids and irritability. But at its worst, it endangered my pregnancies.
When I was thirty-five weeks pregnant with Ian, my OB noted that he was measuring small and that my amniotic fluid was low. “I think it’s best we deliver as soon as possible. Like today,” she had told me. “He’ll probably grow faster outside of the womb.” And he had. I still carry the guilt of his deprivation, my stingy uterus, only wanting to give him so much space, so much nourishment, my wild new mother’s love not enough to make him grow. Three years later, pregnant with a daughter, my uterus started to contract in the middle of the night, squeezing and squeezing until my water broke. My daughter Olivia, then twenty-three weeks, did not survive the birth.
The ablation would make me sterile, Dr. Yu had told me. The uterus, with its destroyed lining, couldn’t support an embryo, which is why he only recommended it for women like me, ones who were older, who were done having their children. Yes, done, I thought. Whatever that means. I use the word “done” a lot when people asked me if we want to have more children. Nope, one and done, I say, my voice vaulting up an octave to suggest lightheartedness. I know it is an overused epigram, but the terseness of it cuts off the follow-up questions, shields me from further probing that might lead to the real story, to our lost daughter at the heart of it all. The child-bearing phase of our marriage ended several years ago when Rob had a vasectomy, but my body was still physically capable of getting pregnant; it was still within my reach, however unlikely at my age and with my history. “I understand,” I say to Dr. Yu, and I do. Something like grief, but more muted, less barbed, hangs in my chest.
As it turned out, part of the pre-op involved getting a pregnancy test, just to make sure we didn’t unwittingly cause a miscarriage. I had complained about the test when the nurse told me to get it done a few days before the procedure. “It’s absurd,” I had told her. “I’m old, and my husband had a vasectomy five years ago.” “I know,” she said. “It’s just precautionary. Something for us to check off.”
The Friday before the procedure, I walked myself into the Kaiser lab and extended my left arm, resting it on a vinyl platform. I let the lab tech, a young Filipina woman tie off my arm with a blue latex band, and made a ball with my fist so when she tapped the thin skin of my inner arm a vein raised to the surface. “Just a quick pinch,” she said, and I nodded as she slipped the needle in.
“You OK?” she asked, waiting for the vial to fill.
“Oh, yeah. I’ve done this lots of times,” I said, and suddenly my eyes began to sting.
“All done,” she said. She pressed a wad of cotton into the punctured skin, and with her other hand, wrapped purple adhesive gauze around my entire arm to secure it.
“So you’re pregnant,” Rob says. I sit on the bed with the phone receiver still in my hand.
“Can you believe this?”
“That can’t be right. I mean, it has to be a mistake.”
“He said vasectomies aren’t foolproof. That maybe I was pregnant and miscarried, and the test’s still picking up the hormone, or maybe I’m pregnant now. Except that I’m bleeding. I just don’t know.” We’re silent for a moment. I can tell Rob is measuring the possibilities, the likelihood.
After we lost Olivia, Rob and I had tried to get pregnant again. About a year into trying, the doctor said it was time to go to specialists, to do IVF. Instead, we had opted for Rob’s vasectomy. We knew a pregnancy would be high risk anyway, considering what we had been through the last time, and would need the closest of monitoring from the very beginning, and then months of bedrest, and I was done with monitoring and with control and the fear of more grief. It had taken so much time and talking to get better, and this state of better was fragile, like an eggshell, which made me angry. Looking back now, I see the decision to do the vasectomy came, in good part, from anger. I wanted the universe to fuck off. It wasn’t going to keep us in limbo anymore. We would make the decision for ourselves, even if it meant scorching the land for the loss of a tree.
“This is absolutely insane,” I say. “After everything. I mean, Ian’s eleven.” Then something catches in my throat and I can’t talk, only laugh. An exhalation of disbelief is more like it, because nothing I say can get at that tangle that is Ian, his solitariness, and the sister he was supposed to have. When he was in second grade, he was assigned a Day of the Dead diorama, commemorating someone he’d known who’d passed away. One afternoon, we spent time at the kitchen table, discussing his choices. “I did have a sister who died,” he said, but he decided, instead, to dedicate his diorama to our recently deceased pet rat, Chip, which was a relief.
“So what happens now?” Rob asks. He stands above me, clutching one of Ian’s T-shirts. And in that beat of time between his question and my response, the visions start. Sitting there on that bed, I see them. I can’t stop it from happening. Ian, years older, tall, moppy-haired, as sweet as he is now, with a deeper voice. And her. This new baby. A little girl. I can’t help myself. She’s eight or nine. In elementary school. She’s grubby and wild, still living in leaves and air, a little feral still. I carry her from time to time, tell her she’s too old to be carried, but truth be told, I want to, so I lift her up and her legs wrap around my waist. I throw my hip out to bear her weight, even though she’s light, with her baby bones.
I shake off the dream. “I’m going to Kaiser now,” I say to Rob. “To take another test.” I pull on the clothes I wore the day before and forget to brush my teeth. I wrap my hair in a band and push around the mail on our kitchen counter to unbury my keys. I can’t get there fast enough. I’ll avoid the 101, with its morning traffic, the surge of people heading down the Silicon Valley corridor. I’ll take side streets and get there five minutes sooner.
Outside, the sycamore trees that line our street fan their leaves over me, and the sunlight filters through a blanket of haze. The air smells like a distant campfire, but I know better, and think briefly about the wildfire blazing a hundred miles north of us. In the car, I round the corner onto Ninth, and then, with the next left onto Delaware, the visions come back. There she is again, learning to walk. Ian, now thirteen, is gangly. He spots her from behind, just in case she pitches backwards. He still likes us, wants to spend time with us. His sister is a novelty, a person unfurling before him, and he can’t look away. She’s a fascination. We all watch her, amazed by the cleverness of her growth, her accomplishments. In the car, I smile in spite of myself.
Then he’s a high schooler, and I see him brush past her. He has his driver’s license now, and the world we inhabit with her is becoming a mirage to him, attenuating before his eyes as the world beyond us grows more real. He’ll be gone in a few years. Maybe he’ll never look back. We will be the house he visits during the holidays, and if we’re lucky, during those summers he isn’t working elsewhere. She’ll learn to read, and ride a bike, and make jokes, and swear, and he will be out in the world. As an adult, she’ll talk about her brother. “He was a lot older than me,” she’ll tell her friends or her lover. “It was like we were in two different families.” But our friends will say, “You’re so lucky. Ours are all gone, and you still have her.” We will raise two only children.
After the second test, as I’m driving home, I turn on the radio. It’s mid-program, and at first I have no idea what the show’s guests are talking about, but it soon becomes clear. They’re SETI researchers, and they speak with absolute certainty, voicing the belief I’ve heard many times before that the universe is too vast a place not to support life. They talk about coded messages sent into the crushingly dark terrain of space, of two rational species, alien to each other, coming into contact for the first time. The host asks about Hawking’s prediction, how the search for life beyond Earth is our most dangerous human undertaking, with its potential for catastrophe. As they talk, I conjure images of green antennaed creatures I remember from childhood cartoons. The mind tries to fill in what’s not there.
Soon Dr. Yu will call with the results, will tell me I’m not pregnant, that the first test was wrong. I will thank him, put the phone in its cradle, and then start the harangue. Of course, of course, of course, I’ll think. I’ll wonder how I got suckered into the visions, wonder how I could be so stupid. All of my softness will have been spent thinking of the little girl. But until then, the disembodied voices on the radio fill the car with their musings about life beyond our world, and I see her and imagine knowing her, loving her. I grip the steering wheel, making the many turns that will bring me home, and think of all that vastness hovering about us, of all the things real, yet undiscovered, and the unreal, beckoning for us to believe.
Author’s Note: “False Positive” is a companion piece to a recently-published essay about the loss of my daughter when I was twenty-three weeks pregnant. Nine years have passed since then, but I find myself still writing about her, and in the process, exploring how a parent’s imagination works mightily to re-create a lost child, a child she never got to know.
Genevieve Thurtle is a writer and teacher who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and son. Her most recent work has been published in The Sun, Crazyhorse, and Appalachian Heritage. She is currently working on a memoir, Light These Bones.