False Positive

False Positive

Vector image of an bird's nest on white background

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.




Until It Bleeds Like We Do

Until It Bleeds Like We Do

By Caroline Horwitz


My scream joined the chorus of every woman who has unwillingly lost the life inside her. 


The nurse in purple scrubs walks me to an examination room and asks a third time if I’ve provided them with a urine sample. I affirm that I have. “Sorry,” she says in response to her forgetfulness. “There are five of you in here today all with the same complaint, and you start to run together after a while.”

My complaint is that I’m experiencing heavy vaginal bleeding. This is significant because I am—I was—pregnant. I take the nurse’s flippant words to mean the other four women are too. Five female bodies in this silent, sterile place, simultaneously and involuntarily expelling their embryos and fetuses. But that’s not what we call them: Babies. I lost the baby.

An hour before, a young man in fatigues checked me into the Air Force base hospital where my family received all of our healthcare—even after six years of marriage to a service member, I still registered the peculiarity of seeing camouflage and combat boots in lieu of white coats.         

“What’s going on?” he asked, a hand on his computer mouse.     

I cleared my throat. I had no illusions about what was coming out of me. I was, until early this morning, six weeks and five days along. “I just had a miscarriage.” My voice dropped and quavered on the M-word.        

“Sorry, a what?” He leaned forward.    

I jostled my sunglasses onto my face to hide the tears threatening to form. “A miscarriage.”

“Oh,” he said, and seemed on the verge of sympathy or an apology but began typing. “And this has been confirmed?”       

“Not yet,” I said. “But what I saw was pretty definitive.”   

It was. I didn’t need to frantically pull down my striped pajama shorts that morning to know what I would find in them after feeling a forceful surge of fluid. But I did anyway, and when I saw the vast amount of clumpy blood, I was neither surprised nor consolable.

The visceral roar emanating from my lungs was not mine alone. My scream joined the chorus of every woman who has unwillingly lost the life inside her. The millions rage and sob, trying to stab the air with our cries until it bleeds like we do. Then we stand up, take a shower, and go to the hospital.  

Hours later, all that’s left to accomplish at the ER—after a blood draw, abdominal ultrasound, transvaginal ultrasound, and pelvic exam—is the out-processing paperwork, so I reassure my husband that he can leave to pick up our son from daycare on time and return for me afterward. I am relieved to be departing this place of invasive procedures that concluded what I already knew.

My tears are gone for now. I stoically buy a coffee (Hey, I can have caffeine, I think) and wait for the car at a picnic table beneath a swaying line of trees. Air Force jets blast the sky above, setting off rogue car alarms here and there. The noise does not annoy me. It’s pleasing. They’re screaming for me.

Soul singer Merry Clayton recorded vocals with The Rolling Stones for their 1969 track “Gimme Shelter.” Rape, murder. It’s just a shot away. It’s just a shot away, she belts. The fervor of her voice reaches such climactic proportions that it cracks twice. She was pregnant. On her way home from the recording, she miscarried. She wondered later if the overexertion of her singing could have caused it.

That’s what you do, even if you know that most early miscarriages occur because of a chromosomal abnormality or incompatibility with life or one missed step of the many required in the fertilization process. You wonder if it was the flight you took across the country, the frequent lifting of your twenty-five-pound toddler, the pre-knowledge beer you didn’t even finish while stargazing in Bryce Canyon. You do it because blaming yourself is what mothers do, no matter how short-lived the motherhood.

“Gimme Shelter” is the first track on its album, Let It Bleed. Decades later, rock journalist Gavin Edwards raved about the album’s sound, asserting that “…the Stones made sure you went home covered in blood.” Merry Clayton did.

The day after the loss, I wandered out the back of my house to the patio and discovered on the table the remains of what had been a relaxing morning: a half-drunk mug of decaf and an opened first edition of Joyce Carol Oates stories I’d purchased the month before from a used bookshop in Ojai, California. The city where, if my menstrual-cycle math was correct, I had gotten pregnant. I was clutching, and promptly abandoned, both of these artifacts when I felt the blood, but they awaited me like stains.

It wouldn’t take long for my fertility to return, I was told. There was no way to tell when or if I’d get pregnant again, of course, but I would most likely ovulate within two to four weeks. I wanted to hear this, yes. We had planned this pregnancy. We wanted a second child. Rules were less stringent nowadays for complete, uncomplicated miscarriages like mine, so we didn’t require a waiting period. Yet it seemed cruel of my body. Two weeks? A new egg might arrive as soon as that, when someone who was attempting to grow into a child was just there? My body would not grieve, I realized. It was a landlord eager to move a new renter into an empty apartment, even though the last tenant recently died there. I, on the other hand, despite being aware of the pregnancy for only two weeks, will be cognizant of its loss for the rest of my life, no matter how swiftly I accept it.

If I get pregnant again, I won’t expect another miscarriage. The odds of having a subsequent one are low in women with no previous reproductive problems. It happened last time, therefore, it won’t happen again, I will reason.

If I get pregnant again, I will expect another miscarriage. Someone has to be on the losing end of the odds. My last pregnancy ended in a red gush, so why wouldn’t the next one? It happened last time, therefore, it will happen again, I will reason.
Caroline Horwitz lives in Las Vegas with her husband and son. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Chatham University. Her work has appeared in Animal, bioStories, Lowestoft Chronicle, Mothers Always Write, and The Summerset Review, and is forthcoming in the anthology My Mom Body: Reflections on Body Image and Motherhood from Monkey Star Press.

Photo: Kien Do | Unsplash

Teaching Our Children About the Meaning of Friendship

Teaching Our Children About the Meaning of Friendship

By Meagan Schultz

“See, bud, THIS is what friends do.” I tell him, returning to the conversation we started earlier. “Friends do nice things for each other, to make each other feel better.”


“Augie is my friend,” Silas says proudly one morning as we’re eating breakfast at the kitchen table that straddles the french doors to our back deck.

“Lucky you,” I say.

“And Finn, and Shay, and Ivy, and Matilde … ” he goes on, listing every kid he can remember in his nursery school.

“And what do friends do?” I ask him.

“Friends give hugs.”

“Oh,” I say.

“Friends kiss.”

I try to imagine him kissing all of these kids and my mind moves quickly to the email the school sent last week about the case of lice going around. I shudder.

He returns to his granola and berries, staring down at his bowl, determined to get the fruit on his Elmo spoon without using his fingers. He’s a righty, and today he props his left elbow on the table next to the bowl, resting his head on his knuckles. He’s half playing, half eating, and keeps glancing towards the family room where his train set still covers the floor from last night.

The doorbell rings and I leave him at the table to answer it. I return with a delivery from UPS.

“For me, Mama?” He asks, sing-songing the mama, as he does when he is excited. He expects all packages are for him after his birthday last month.

“Nope, this time it’s for me buddy.”

“No, MINE.” He bangs his little fist on the table, nearly knocking his bowl over, and shouts through clenched teeth.

“Oooooh, but look what’s inside,” I say, trying to distract his disappointment.

And it works. Suddenly his face softens into a smile, his dimples return. He lifts his eyebrows and his neck to see over the top of the box I’ve just set on the table next to him. He’s forgotten that it’s not his gift and sweet Silas is back.

“Look Mama, a cardinal,” he says, and points to a speck of red on the telephone wire that runs across the backyard and above the garage. And then he turns his attention back to the box.

I pull out a beautiful flowered gift bag with purple tissue paper hanging over the edge and read the card. His eyes focus first on the bag and then follow my hands as I open the envelope. It’s a care package from one of my best friends, someone I only talk to a few times a year, who lives across the country, but who knew I had been grieving. Two weeks earlier, I’d suffered yet another miscarriage, my sixth. This one came at twelve weeks after a miserable morning in the ER and a D&C that followed.

“Oh my goodness,” I say. “I can’t believe this. This is so NICE,” I say, my voice inflecting and emphasizing the ‘nice.’

He watches me quietly while I open each little tissue-wrapped gift inside the bag.

“See, bud, THIS is what friends do.” I tell him, returning to the conversation we started earlier. “Friends do nice things for each other, to make each other feel better.”

I realize I have a captive audience here; he’s put both elbows on the table now and is holding his head in his hands. So I slow down, unwrapping with wide-eyes and gasps as if—with each gift—I’ve discovered an oyster pearl the size of a golf ball. Socks, a bracelet, a candle, a notebook, a mug. He watches me silently, but opens his mouth slightly with each “oooh” and “ahhh,” mimicking my expressions.

When I’m finished, he slides out of his chair and onto the bench next to me, his little hands reaching for the candle, pulling it to his nose for three quick and shallow sniffs, looking a little like a hamster. I doubt he smelled the ollaliberry and tangerine, but he is satisfied and moves on to fondle the mug, intrigued by the heart shaped handle.

He spends the next half hour in the family room focused on rebuilding his train tracks. I know he is working hard because I can hear him breathing. I sit at the kitchen table with my coffee, finishing the morning paper. He talks to himself while he plays, in the high-pitched voices he uses for the stuffed friends he takes to bed each night. Every so often, I look up to find him staring at the bag on the table. I quickly look away.

“That’s SO nice,” he squeals, delighted with himself.

“OHMYGOODNESS, that was so NICE of you.”

“Thank you so MUCH.”

He’s trying out patterns, giving weight and prominence to the different syllables of gratitude.

He’s copying the melodramatic exaggerations he heard earlier.

He’s practicing for when it’s his turn to be a friend.
Originally from California, Meagan Schultz lives in Milwaukee Wisconsin with her husband and two young boys. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming on Write On, Mamas, Literary Mama, and Mamalode.

Photo: Getty Images

Counting Stars

Counting Stars

By Amanda Linsmeier


The tattoo my daughter likes to touch is a scattering of stars. There is one shooting star—representing my son—and five little stars. Those are blacked out, and small. Their light never came to be.


“Mo-om!” my son calls to me in the harried minutes before dinner. In haste, I join him and his 20-month-old sister in the living room.

“What is it, sweetheart?” I ask, wooden spoon forgotten in my hand. A bit of sauce drips on the laminate floor. I let the dog lick it up.

“She took my tractor!”

My spirited 5-year-old had us, and all his toys, to himself for almost 4 years. It is a struggle sometimes to share. To learn to give, to let go. And his baby sister can be feisty. As he rips the toy from her tiny hand, she reaches out and whacks him in the face.

Before I even try to handle the situation, my son stomps off, murmuring under frustrated tears, “I wish I didn’t have a sister.”

Usually, my oldest is gentle and patient with her. On a recent afternoon, I walked past the living room with a basket of laundry and there they were, unprompted, sitting close, holding hands. It was one of those cup-runneth-over moments.

However, when one or both of them refuse to share, or are in the way, or something else equally annoying, occasionally that phrase comes out, and I cringe internally. I think about what his father and I went through to have a second child, his baby sister, who looks at him in such adoration, but I don’t say anything.

My first pregnancy ended in miscarriage. It was quick, and straightforward, at 7 weeks. All the same, it broke my heart. When I conceived my son a couple months later, I was terrified. But, he came along, born spontaneously on his due date, beautiful and healthy. After that, I did not worry. I had mastered the secret, I thought. When I conceived shortly after his first birthday I smiled wryly. I was both scared and thrilled he would have a sibling so close in age. It never entered my mind that would not happen.

After dinner, the kids and I dance while their father watches in amusement. Our son is silly, and spins around. Our daughter, taking after me, loves to dance. She wants to be held the whole song—which I repeat three times, so by the end I am sweaty and out of breath. Even as a petite toddler, three dances is work. I peel off my cardigan as we take a rest. She climbs onto the couch, reaching for the stars inked on my shoulder as she has before. Curious, as if she’s asking, what is this? Why is this there?

“Pretty?” I ask and she nods. My son keeps spinning. He knows what the stars mean. Or maybe he’s forgotten. I wonder if he remembers all the times we said we were going to have another baby but didn’t. The last couple of times I didn’t even tell him. I hated to see that look in his eyes when I said, “The baby is gone.”

Perhaps it was just my own grief reflected in his eyes.

The tattoo my daughter likes to touch is a scattering of stars. There is one shooting star—representing my son—and five little stars. Those are blacked out, and small. Their light never came to be. Those are my first five losses. The siblings that never happened. One before my son. Four after him. I haven’t had the second shooting star for my daughter added yet. Or the tiny stars that came after her. I’d like to end this permanent art with one last shooting star, one more sibling for my babies. I’m stubbornly waiting for that to happen, and then I will book my next tattoo after birth and weaning. Somehow one of my fears is my son will not be as thrilled to hear we’d be having another baby as he was when I finally shared I was pregnant with his sister, at over 20 weeks along.

When we had told him the news, he kissed my belly, talked to the baby. He relished the anticipation of his sister’s arrival.

When she was born, he referred to her as “my baby.”

“She’s my baby,” I’d laugh as I soaked up the feel of them both in my arms. “Mine and Daddy’s.”

“No,” his black eyes never wavered, “She’s mine.”

The years in between my two children were fraught with doctor’s appointments, testing, and research. I learned I’m the carrier of a genetic condition, which causes miscarriage about half the time. When I questioned the genetic counselor on my stats, worse than 50%, I was told, “It’s just a numbers game.” Upon receiving my diagnosis, somewhere after loss #3, my husband and I struggled with the decision whether or not to continue trying. Well-meaning friends and family told us to be happy with what we had. And we were. But I didn’t want to let this disorder win, when it had already stolen so much. Damn the genetics. I am glad now we pushed on. Glad I can someday tell my children, who may likely carry the same reproductive challenge, that I didn’t give up. That it was a long, hard road, but I fought. And in the end, I won.

We ease into bedtime calmly. Both children are clean and sweet when we settle them into their shared room, another struggle sometimes. But tonight, they are ready for sleep. My daughter goes right to the crib, with the warm bottle we still allow her. And my son, my sensitive boy, curls into bed with a favorite stuffed animal and the chunk of amethyst I gave him to keep away nightmares. My husband and I kiss them and shut out the light. As the door closes, I hear my son croon to his sister, “Good-night, baby. Love you.”

I smile, and my heart blooms.

Author’s Note: My husband and I are overjoyed to be expecting our third child, due this fall. Our daughter waivers between curiosity and disinterest. Our son is thrilled. Both children occasionally kiss my belly.

Amanda Linsmeier lives in Wisconsin with her husband and two children and works part-time at her local library. Her flash fiction has appeared on the WOW! Women on Writing blog, The Muffin and her debut novel Ditch Flowers will be released by Penner Publishing in the upcoming months. You can find her on Facebook.


Image: dreamstime.com

The Swing Set I Had Already Chosen

The Swing Set I Had Already Chosen

By Alona Martinez


And in that infinitesimal second I feel the weight of that loss, which happened so many years ago, which I was told about so casually, which so many women go through quietly and on their own.


The baby I lost was going to have a playset from Costco. I knew this, just as clearly as I knew I’d practice stirring porridge slowly and lovingly, the way my mother taught me, making sure I’d get it just right. I’d add a dash of salt and a generous pat of butter at the end, watching it pool into a golden lake in the center. I’d do this carefully for the child growing inside me. My mother had passed many years ago, so she wouldn’t be there to remind me if I got it wrong.

The playset I wanted to purchase was an upgrade from the metal one in my childhood backyard in 1972, a rusted contraption coated in chipped silver paint with cherry red trim showcasing a blue swing that screeched much too loudly and a glider that my sisters and I fought over. There were three of us, so one was always excommunicated from tandem play, ostracized to the quirky misfits of the beaten up playset: the agonizing cry of that damaged swing, the cadence always interrupted by hiccups of metal against metal, or the dented steps that led to a buckled narrow slide whose precarious ride culminated in a spattering of leaves and mud as the slide bent upward and spat me out with a dirty and soggy bum.

Our yard was an insignificant rectangular patch of green at the mouth of a residential cul-de-sac misplaced in the guts of a huge, cosmopolitan South American city. There was only room for an undernourished lime tree and that swing set, which my mother often boasted had come with the house and been part of the appeal when my parents first moved there with a toddler and a baby on the way.

I can’t remember the precise memories from swinging or dangling or fighting with my sisters on the swing set, but I’ve seen them recorded in the faded Polaroid shots that have served as much of my family’s narrative, notably swimming unorganized in one of the drawers of my mother’s antique flip desk. In these garden photos, my mother was usually posing nearby in oversized black sunglasses and a flower-printed dress, a child on her hip or in her belly or both. Inevitably, there’d be a blur of golden curls at the edge: one of us girls too distracted to sit still for a picture.

I held this hope for my unborn baby. The one I was told was merely the size of a grain of rice. I spoke to him regularly, for I had decided it was a boy, placing my hands over my abdomen, waiting and willing for him to swell with life. While I washed dishes I’d stare at the garden and imagine his first steps, his wobbly feet teetering towards the play deck or his gleeful laugh as I pushed him on the bright yellow baby swing.

I was quiet about these plans, sharing only clinical facts with others: this week the heart is beating, fingers and toes will form soon. Perhaps he can suck his thumb. But in my mind, my child had already romped through our large back yard, not tiny and cluttered and noisy, like the yard I had grown up in, but ample and fertile with lush tropical trees, overlooking a picturesque South Florida canal, decidedly and proudly suburban.

I had a child already, a beautiful 18-month old girl with almond eyes and Shirley Temple curls. She learned to smile at five weeks and never stopped. She giggled, breathed, and walked just like my husband, and everywhere the three of us went, people exclaimed, “She’s Daddy’s spitting image!” noting the obvious physical similarities.

Maybe this child will be blonde and blue-eyed like me? I wondered.

Together they’d play on the playset I’d already chosen. She’d race ahead and swing open the plastic door to the miniature clubhouse, inviting her little brother to come in.

I was nibbling on an endive salad in a stylish bistro when the pain began. It was late spring and a gorgeous day, the kind that begged for an al fresco lunch in a trendy Miami Beach restaurant. I was with a group of friends when I excused myself and entered the dim, cool interior, rushing past a modern bar and heading to the back, where, under the bright white fluorescents of the restroom stall, I encountered what every pregnant woman most fears.  

A visit to my doctor confirmed I had lost the baby.

I was told, not by the doctor himself, but by a nurse in wrinkled teal scrubs.

“It wasn’t meant to be,” she matter-of-factly announced while closing my medical file. I couldn’t tell if she was trying to comfort me or brush me off.  She said I could resume my normal activities within 24 hours and sent me on my way.

I told myself she was right. It wasn’t meant to be. It’s better this way. Better now than later. And all the rest. I dug into statistics: 1 in every 4 pregnancies end in miscarriage, 75% of miscarriages happen in the first trimester, the vast majority of women experiencing miscarriage can expect to have a normal pregnancy the next time.

But no matter how many times I told myself this, I still pictured that Costco playset, still fought to block the faded Polaroid images of my mother’s smile with a baby on her hip

The statistics were accurate. I did get pregnant shortly thereafter and birthed a strong, healthy boy. He loves pasta and is obsessed with Marvel comics. He enjoys playing in the backyard, although it’s more along the lines of kicking around a soccer ball, shooting hoops, or chasing after our Golden Retriever.

I never purchased the playset.

A damaged part of me screeched like the blue swing, reminding me of the memories left unmade, of the giggle I’ll never hear; the happy, boisterous, child who’d never make it into the family photographs, a persistent gap, a quiet empty space that I carry with me.

Even as life flourishes and thrives and is happy, there’s that tiny gap of a child lost the entire world knows nothing about. It’s a very small space, nothing close to consuming, even to me. As a mother, I am too busy enjoying and nourishing my two children. My husband has certainly moved passed it. Friends likely have forgotten about it, if they even knew. Life continues, as it should, as I’d expect it to. And yet, sometimes, in the most unexpected moments, like stepping out of the shower or folding the clothes, I wonder: what would he have been like? Would he have been more of a meat eater (like my daughter) or a fish eater (like my son)? Would he have had a sophisticated sense of humor? Would he have loved to learn about the world? Teeny, tiny, simple questions that stun me. Stop me. And in that infinitesimal second I feel the weight of that loss, which happened so many years ago, which I was told about so casually, which so many women go through quietly and on their own. And then go on.

Alona Martinez is a writer and mother of two who lives in Plantation, Florida. She writes about food and family on her blog, Culinary Compulsion, and is currently working on her first book. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

Stopping for Death

Stopping for Death


WO Stop for Death Art

By Kristen Witucki

“Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me”

–Emily Dickinson

On a soft spring morning when sunlight dappled us through the trees, my friend, Anita, and I, both blind, took Langston, my three-year-old sighted son, to the playground at the West Virginia School for the Blind where we worked. I braced myself to cross High Street, the busy street near our house. There are no traffic lights on that corner, so the “rule” is that you wait for a break in the traffic and make a dash for it. This meant that Anita and I listened to make sure there was no traffic approaching before crossing the street. The three of us crossed without apparent incident, but I learned that death had, in fact, occurred. As we continued walking toward the playground, Langston told me, “The squirrels laid down.”

“What?” I said.

“The car came, and it ran over the squirrels. They laid down and didn’t get up. It was on its back with its belly up.”

“He must be making up a story,” Anita said.

“No,” I said, feeling myself hurtling toward an empty space even as I continued to walk in an upright position, my son’s small hand in mine. “He never spoke that way before. He saw it.”

I wanted to ask Langston if the squirrels were bleeding, if any bones were broken, but I wasn’t sure he knew what blood was or if he wanted to stare at or recall broken bones. Not seeing the damage made me reluctant to add extra horror to what he had witnessed, yet not knowing these details made me worry that I was unwittingly glossing them over.

To Anita’s credit, though she is devoutly Christian, she did not talk about death, God or Heaven. Maybe, unlike me, she held onto the hope that Langston was making up a story.

As Anita took Langston on the slides and we sang songs on our favorite swing, the weight of our impending walk home pressed on me; I didn’t want Langston to see the dead squirrels again. Maybe, I thought, one of my neighbors had buried them while we were gone.

No such luck. As we crossed back over High Street, Langston stopped in the middle of the highway and screamed. Just one lone shriek, but so different from the usual cry over small childhood disappointments. And he couldn’t move. I panicked, worried that a car would make a corpse out of him next. “Get out of the street!” I shouted. “We have to get out of the street! Now!” I tugged him to the safety of the curb, all the while thinking, “He is staring down at the face of death, and you’re yelling at him to move. What kind of a world is this?”

When we got home, I asked my neighbors to check out the crime scene for me. “Yeah, two squirrels died,” they said. “It’s O.K., Langston. They’re just squirrels.” On the one hand, I couldn’t help but agree. I had never harbored a particular fondness for squirrels, and I was grateful that Langston’s first encounter with death, aside from bugs, was witnessing the end of two squirrels, not the death of a relative, friend or pet. On the other hand, “just” squirrels? All of the adults standing there valued people over squirrels; only the child truly mourned them. I grieved for all the insects I had killed, the meat I would continue to eat. Yet I couldn’t bury the squirrels myself. I did not have the courage to get that close to the decay.

The day passed more or less as expected—nap, playtime, dinner, bath—but it was peppered with death. Langston kept replaying the scenario, running a plastic toy squirrel over with his tractor. I cringed, worrying that by allowing him to run over the squirrel again and again, I was condoning the violent act. But I was too stunned and fascinated by this development to stop him.

The reenactments led to more questions. “What is dead?” Langston asked.

“The squirrels can’t move anymore.”

“Why did they die?”

“They didn’t know you are supposed to look both ways and listen before you cross the street, and a person in a car hit them.” Was this turning into too much of a cautionary tale?

“The squirrels will be fine soon, right?”

“No,” I said, “they’re dead. They won’t get up anymore.”

I am an agnostic or atheist, depending on the day. In West Virginia, where we lived, our community predominantly consisted of Baptists and Methodists. They would have told Langston that God had wanted this, or maybe even that the squirrels, having done nothing wrong, had gone to Heaven. At the very least, Anita might have ended the squirrels’ story with more than nothingness. I had been raised a Catholic but couldn’t remember how my parents had explained death to me as a small child. Had they ended our cat’s death with a trip to Heaven? As much as I didn’t believe such an ending was possible, I longed to give my son reassurance that it was all going to be O.K. somehow. Breaking my belief in death as an end would have been an act of betrayal on my part, but sticking to my simple story of nothing didn’t make me feel any better.

I emailed one of my high school English teachers, with whom I am still in touch fifteen years after I graduated and who remains one of my life and parenting inspirations. The subject of my email was “Explaining Death to a Very Young Person: a Parenting Qualification I Don’t Possess.” He wrote back with comforting words, reminding me that Langston’s first encounter “with the profound, the existential, and maybe even the ‘void,'” was not an easy concept to explain to such a young person. He recommended we watch an episode of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood as a possible way into the experience. I was flooded with relief at the chance to approach the subject again with more than just my fumbling words.

Langston and I watched the “death” episode together. In it, Mr. Rogers discovers that one of his fish has died. He removes the fish from the tank and places it in a separate container of water with extra salt, explaining that he has heard it is a strategy for reviving a very sick fish. When that strategy fails, he explains that the method didn’t work this time and that the fish is “dead,” and he carefully buries it in the yard.

Langston asked to watch the episode many times over in the coming months. It gave him a definition for “death” to which he would turn again and again. He ran over his toy squirrel a few more times and created a scenario in which his stuffed monkey died from an unexplained cause and then came back to life again. Because Fred Rogers’s website said playing about death was “necessary and appropriate,” I kept my misgivings to myself. But I wondered how he could really learn about death if the story had a happy ending and the monkey lived again?

Two months later, on a visit to my friend Soxna’s house in Maine, Langston fell in love with her chickens. He loved to watch Soxna care for the hens and let them out of their coop and to help her feed them chicken feed, meal worms and Japanese beetles.

A few days after our return from Maine, Soxna wrote to tell me that Buffy, one of the chickens, had died. She had wandered away from the flock and been eaten by a fox. “Don’t tell Langston,” she added. I knew that Soxna was trying to protect Langston’s feelings, but I seized on the opportunity to speak further with him about death, one he didn’t have to witness.

“Langston, remember Soxna’s chickens?” I asked him later that day.

“Yes.” Of course, he remembered. He talked about them incessantly, and his toy chickens were his favorite farm animals.

“One of them died. Buffy died.”


“She walked away from the other chickens and a fox got her.”

“That’s not nice! Why did the fox get her?”

“He was hungry and needed the chicken to stay alive. We eat chickens sometimes to stay alive, too.”

He ignored the possibility that we weren’t any better than foxes. “The fox was bad. I don’t like foxes.”

Langston began a new play scenario. In it, his chickens walked together in a group. Then one chicken walked away and a plastic fox leaped out of his box of animals to attack it. “Run, Buffy! Run!” Langston shouted as the chicken clambered to safety. “She got away!”he told me triumphantly. “The chicken escaped from the fox!”

Langston tossed the toys to the floor and stood up. “Now I’ll be the fox,” Langston said, “and you be the chicken, Mommy!”

In a way, it was exactly what I deserved. Against my friend’s advice, I had alerted Langston to the chicken’s death. Now I was the chicken. The chase was pretty short because, when in pursuit, Langston easily outruns me. When he caught me, he made eating noises. Fortunately, the eating remained imaginary.

That night, while I lay beside him in bed, Langston asked, “What happens to you? Do you keep growing up like me?”

“Not exactly,” I said, “I guess I just get older.” I thought about the way our minds expand as they take in new information, and our emotions stretch as they envelop new experiences, but at the time, I wasn’t sure he would understand that kind of growth. Looking back, I wonder if I underestimated him.

“And then what?” Langston asked. “Do you become a kid again?”

“No,” I said vaguely. I didn’t want Langston to grapple with my eventual death just yet. Wait, I told myself. Wait until he explicitly asks whether you’ll die, and wait until he’s fully awake! Was that inability to face up to the possibility of my own death in front of my son wisdom or merely cowardice?

Day after day, Langston asked if Buffy was OK, needing me to remind him how she had wandered away from the others and had died. The toy chickens became the favorite toy, but Langston didn’t play any form of Fox and Chicken again; the fox had become so evil that it was banished to the depths of his toy chest where he couldn’t find it easily.

Later that month, I found out I was pregnant. I wanted to stop Langston from jumping and rough-housing with me, but I didn’t want to shoo him off with a vague explanation about not feeling well. So despite all the online advice against it, I told Langston he couldn’t jump on me because I was expecting a baby.

Nine days after the positive pregnancy test, I miscarried. As my cramps sharpened and my body removed those few errant cells, I worried about what to tell my son about the baby who was no longer coming.

Sure enough, he asked me how the baby was doing the next morning. “I’m not having a baby anymore,” I told him slowly.


I choked up. “The baby … died.” I wanted to sob. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have told you about a baby before it was formed enough.”

Langston climbed into my lap and gave me a hug. “Maybe you can make another one soon,” he said.

His childish optimism lightened me. It reminded me that mothering Langston teaches me as I go. I am learning that I don’t always need to end his narratives for him or even construct them. Rather, we will both participate in and observe each others stories for as long as we continue on this fortuitous journey together. Maybe the squirrels, Buffy, the chicken, and that almost-embryo would never be OK, but Langston was still young enough to end his stories—and mine—with the possibility of renewal.

Kristen Witucki earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Her first book, The Transcriber, is part of Gemmamedia’s Open Door series for adolescent emerging readers. Her essays have appeared on Brain, Child, Huffington Post, Literary Mama and the Momoir Project, among other publications. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and son. Learn more at http://www.kristenwitucki.com.

Photo: canstockphoto

When the Raspberries Come

When the Raspberries Come

Rasberries growing on the bushBy Rebecca Altman

Seven years ago, when I was pregnant with my first child but didn’t know it, my husband and I planted three raspberry bushes.

They bore fruit the summer my firstborn was one. He toddled into the brambles and ate straight from the canes. One at a time, he stuck each berry on his pointer finger and let the juice run down his arms.

The following winter I was expecting again, and explained to my son that he would be a brother soon. Like many parents I struggled with how to make something as inscrutable as gestation tangible to a two-year-old.

I couldn’t tell him: in August. Nor did the concept of summer resonate. The regularity of seasons passing one to the next hadn’t been established yet.

The explanation that satisfied him, by which I mean the one that stopped the incessant question—when can I see him?—was this: when the raspberries come. I told him to watch the bushes in our backyard and when the fruit was ready, his brother would be born.

He ran to the window, but there was nothing to see. I had shorn the canes to the ground after their leaves dropped. Snow covered the dormant roots.

Eighteen weeks into the pregnancy, a fetal ultrasound found a swelling of the right kidney. It hadn’t formed correctly and would never work. I was moved into a high-risk obstetric practice for regular fetal monitoring. Each week, in the darkened exam room, I’d wait for the reassuring cadence of his heartbeat, more rapid and erratic than the steady rhythm of mine.

I would read the technician’s face, like she read the screen, the two of us searching for slight deviations from the norm.

*   *   *

Spring arrived, the first canes sprouted. My son and I wandered out to the raspberry bushes to check their progress. We watched as they grew taller than him during the long days of June and July. As the days shortened again and my belly swelled, they flowered and set fruit.

When the precariousness of my pregnancy felt unbearable, I found comfort in the raspberries growing as they should.

And then, as expected, they arrived at the end of August. And so did my second son, whose birth—and health—we celebrated with berries. We decorated his first birthday cake with them. And then his second. My boys sat underneath the bushes, the canes arched over their heads. They stripped them clean and then, grinning, emerged with berry-stained chins and t-shirts.

*   *   *

Until I had children, I had been out of touch with cycles and seasons, disconnected from the ecological system of which I am a part. But since I’d become a mother, I’d grown into the habit of juxtaposing our lives with the lifecycle of our raspberries. They had become timekeepers, steady and sure during the disordered days of early motherhood.

I began to wonder about other ways to ground us in our place and time:

When the trees bud.

When the acorns drop.

When the snow flies.

But the more I read about the ecology of eastern Massachusetts where I live, the more I discovered that the timing of seasonal events is shifting with a complexity as intangible to adults as a mother’s pregnancy is to a small child.

As we alter the Earth’s chemistry, some seasonal changes no longer sync with the expectations we formed as children about the order of things. Muddied, too, is our sense of seasonal weather patterns, of storms and when to expect them gathering on the horizon. And the very same industrial practices that disrupt ecological systems, scientists tell us may also be interfering with the basic functions of the human bodies—how our children think and grow, and even with our capacity to bear children at all. Uncertainty, it seems, is the new certainty from which we must build our lives.

I learned from ecologist Amy Seidl, author of Early Spring, that lilacs now bloom eight to sixteen days earlier than when I was a child. And when my children are grown, scientists predict they may bloom as much as a month in advance. Someday when the lilacs bloom, when the raspberries come could mean something altogether different. It’s a small shift in comparison to the catastrophic changes other communities face, but this giving way of accustomed seasonal rites signals larger changes that make me question the future. What will the world be like for my children, or their children, or their children’s children? The more I learned about, and witnessed, the changes already underway, the more I worried whether it was selfish to want another child.

But the summer my youngest turned three I was—to my surprise—pregnant again. The raspberries ripened early, small and pale. We ate them in July instead of August. It seemed strange at the time, and in retrospect, foreboding.

*   *   *

On the last night of August, my 36th birthday— when the raspberries should have been in full fruit—the pregnancy went dormant, just shy of the second trimester. It began as a cramp, a few stupefying spots. We had been out to dinner, about to take an evening stroll, when we rerouted ourselves to the hospital. There, the radiologist couldn’t sense life, only its absence. They sent us home. They told me: expect bleeding.

In what few stories other women shared with me, miscarriage was a noun, as in: I had a miscarriage. But no one described it as a verb or, for that matter, in a way that would have helped me understand what to anticipate. I sensed there would be an emotional component—how to let go of the expectations that accompany a pregnancy—and a biological one, and I knew little about either, most especially the latter. How does an expectant body reverse states? What should I expect now that I wasn’t expecting? I arrived at the wrong assumption that a miscarriage would be a withering, slow and solemn. Instead, I found it to be a violent uprooting.

For hours, my body heaved like labor. Each convulsion released fist-sized clots. I retreated to the shower. Blood splattered onto the glass doors against which my husband pressed his hands. This is natural, I told him, I told myself.

But bodies contain a finite quantity of fluid.

It was the unexpected taste of metal on my tongue that made me relent, that convinced me the miscarriage had gone off-course. We raced back to the hospital on vacant, after-midnight roads. Hours later, after another ultrasound, after fainting twice, after hours of waiting in my own blood, I was strapped to a table so the OB could harvest from me what my womb wouldn’t surrender. I left the next afternoon barren, barely conscious, in a body that had betrayed itself.

In the fallow weeks that followed, in the absence of cultural rituals around pregnancy loss, I read how other women have marked miscarriages and coped with the cross of guilt-grief that can accompany the unraveling of a pregnancy and other taken-for-granted certainties. With miscarriage, there is rarely a body to bury. But a friend told me to plant something, as she had done. I hadn’t even known she’d lost a pregnancy.

*   *   *

And so a month later, still white-lipped and disoriented with anemia, my mother and I went to a nursery. By then it was autumn. The sedum had turned burgundy. The nursery was emptier now that the growing season had passed and what plants remained had overgrown their pots and were discounted. She bought me a hydrangea and helped me drive it home. My father and now six-year-old son dug the hole to set it near the raspberries. In the act, I realized burial and planting felt like analogous transactions with the Earth, which receives what we put into it, and in turn, offers the solace that comes with the possibility that life can begin again, enriched by what has gone before.

After they placed the hydrangea in the ground, after I knelt down to pack soil around its roots, I looked up and saw the raspberries had borne a second batch of fruit. In the six years since we planted them, they had never fruited twice.

Maybe everything that happened that summer was the product of erratic fluctuations in fertility, perhaps it was a fluke, or happenstance, or a harbinger of disturbances in complex systems. I would never know, but I needed to find a way to live with the multiple, sometimes subtle, sometimes engulfing uncertainties that have become the hallmark of this era in which I raise children.

On that long-shadowed late September afternoon, after we finished planting, we filled our muddy hands with berries and went inside, thankful the raspberries had come back.

Rebecca Altman is an environmental sociologist. She serves on the Board of Directors of the Science and Environmental Health Network and sometimes teaches seminars on environmental health for Tufts University. Her recent creative non-fiction has appeared in Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment and the Journal of Compressed Creative Arts.  She blogs at http://tothescratch.blogspot.com.


Bite Your Tongue

Bite Your Tongue

By Kathleen Bustamante

biteyourtongueI sit on the toilet, gripping a white stick that boasts a bright pink plus sign. I am pregnant again! A second time I marvel (with a hint of pride) how easily my husband and I have made a baby. I call myself “Fertile Myrtle” upon sharing the news with my husband later that night.

We tell our parents, siblings, and a few close friends, but agree to wait until the end of the first trimester before we announce our accomplishment to the rest of the world. Just a precaution really.

Ten weeks into my pregnancy, I am in the waiting area of the ultrasound department of our clinic. Despite its antiseptic smell, this is a happy place. After all, this is the same room in which I sat two-and-a-half years prior, awaiting a glimpse of little Fiona on the monitor. Still, as I sit on the teal couch watching my daughter flip through picture books, a sense of foreboding takes root inside my belly. I recall the visit to the midwife the week before. I had been bleeding some, but I was not really concerned since I had also experienced some bleeding early in my pregnancy with Fiona. I shared this information with my midwife while she poked my belly with her fingers, searching for my uterus. She asked if I had been experiencing any nausea this time around. I hadn’t. The midwife and her nurse assistant shared a glance. When the nurse assistant handed me the slip of paper containing the ultrasound department’s contact information, the same twinge of foreboding nagged at my abdomen.

An hour after the ultrasound, my husband and I are ushered into a small office by a blonde nurse with kind eyes and a gentle voice. I know something is wrong when she draws the blinds. I notice a box of tissues on the otherwise bare plywood table that separates us from the woman. I know before the words escape her mouth. My hands, clasped in my lap, begin to quiver and my heart races. I want nothing more than to dart out of the room and out of the clinic, but I will myself to remain in my chair awaiting the ominous message.

“I’m so sorry. The technician didn’t detect a heartbeat. It seems your pregnancy has resulted in miscarriage.” The sadness in her eyes tells me she truly is sorry.

I stare at the woman, mouth agape, for several moments. My husband takes my hand in his. As her words sink in, my hands go numb, my mouth turns dry, and I weep so hard I don’t make a sound for a long time. When I finally do, I wail in a voice I don’t recognize as my own.  A primal sound.

I travel the bumpy path of emotions through grief, despair, and anger. I torture myself with endless questions, but no answers take shape. What did I do wrong? Was it the pomegranate martini I enjoyed while celebrating a much-needed night out with my husband early in my pregnancy? Was it the sinus medicine I swallowed that week I was feeling lousy? Did I exercise too hard, lifting too much weight during my work out? But I had no idea I was pregnant! How could I have known?

My husband and I give ourselves a few months before trying again. When our first attempt fails, I am disappointed but not shocked. The miscarriage has shattered my illusion that procreation is effortless. Still, I take comfort that a handful of my girlfriends who have also suffered miscarriage had little trouble getting pregnant again. And I am mostly confident I will become pregnant again soon.

Nearly one-and-a-half years later we are still trying.

Fiona is three-and-a-half, and the rest of the world, it seems, has determined three years is a big enough gap between children. I am shocked by how many people—friends and strangers alike—ask without any qualms, “So, when’s your little girl going to have a brother or sister?” Of course, they have no idea how many times I have asked God the same thing, nor do they suspect the grief and disappointment I experience at the start of my recurring period. I can’t seem to keep my hope in check each month as what seems like pregnancy symptoms—tender breasts, break outs, and bloating—sets in. Eventually, so do the cramps. On the first day of my period, I find myself snapping at Fiona over senseless things and pulling away from my husband.

Because I keep these woes to myself, people take it upon themselves to inquire. I begin to dread appointments with my hairdresser because of her inevitable probing: “When are you going to have another baby?” Even after I relay the heartache of my miscarriage and subsequent infertility problems, she continues to inquire at each hair appointment “are you pregnant yet?” I am pretty sure she is part of some underground fertility watchdog group keeping tabs on the situation.

I am even confronted during celebrations. One evening, my husband and I attended a retirement party for a former colleague. It had been fun—exactly what I needed. But when someone posed the dreaded question: “So, when’s the next baby planned?” my blood pressure skyrocketed, my face became flushed. I was ready to shout back that either my husband’s sperm or my ovaries haven’t been compliant, and would he care to share his thoughts on the problem? Thankfully, however, my husband stepped in and skillfully handled the situation before I exploded.

The hardest, however, is when well-meaning friends and family deal clumsily with the uncomfortable truth about my inability to conceive.

During a recent girls’ night at a friend’s house, I sat cross-legged on the living room floor sipping coffee and catching up with four other women. One friend had just finished sharing the antics of her toddler who gave himself a haircut during quiet time when another friend announced the pending arrival of her third child—”a complete accident” as she described it. Then she turned her attention to me and assured me in front of the other women in the room, “It’s okay if you hate me. I understand.” I was stunned and mortified. I knew this was not her intent, but her statement minimized my loss in such a way that I felt small and petty for struggling with infertility.

Days later, a close friend, privy to our difficulties and desperation, listed the fleet of pregnant women around us. “There’s just something in the water these days!” Perhaps she was trying to offer encouraging words. However, it only emphasized the stark contrast between me and the many fertile women who have obviously gotten something right.

Each of these incidents is as painful as broken glass against bare flesh. I am amazed at how clueless people can be. Even more, I realize that before experiencing loss and yearning personally, I, too, have callously posed similar questions to others.

One lesson I have learned throughout this journey is how important tact and sensitivity are during conversations about babies and fertility. It is not my place to ask when someone is planning to have another child, unless that person broaches the subject first.

I’m thankful for the many people who have never inquired about the size or future of my family, but rather have provided me the time and space to offer information when I feel ready to share it. The most supportive words I have received came from a thoughtful friend: “I can’t begin to know the pain you’re experiencing right now, and I don’t want to bring up the topic if you’re not ready to talk about it. Just know that when you are ready to talk, I’m here to listen.” When I was finally ready to talk—she was the friend I chose to confide in. And she was there to listen.

Kathleen Bustamante lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and two children. She is a stay-at-home mom by day and a writing instructor by night.

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Barren in the Andes

Barren in the Andes

By Laura Resau
Art Barren in the Andes 3Breathless, I hurry along narrow trails between Quichua family farms, past squawking chickens and curly-tailed piglets. My destination is a shaman who lives in this village on the outskirts of Otavalo, Ecuador. I’m going as a last-ditch hope he can heal me. Back in Colorado, I tried everything—Eastern and Western medicine, herbs and tinctures, weird diets. And now I’m teetering on the edge of bitter despair.

I emerge from the foliage to a vista of fifteen-thousand-foot peaks rising above emerald fields, dotted with red-tiled roofs and grazing sheep. Two of these mountains are said to be ancient Incan gods: the male, Imbabura, and his lover, Cotacachi. When she’s covered with light frost at dawn, locals claim it’s semen from a night of passion. Their offspring— smaller, baby mountains—lie scattered between them. Then there’s the ubiquitous Andean deity, Pacha Mama, the World Mother, whose fertile body spills out in swirling folds, patchworks of velvet fields, silken pastures.

Fertility is a deep and ancient craving, at once visceral and mythical, elemental and universal. This, at least, is my impression as an anthropologist, or, more to the point, as a woman who cannot seem to have a baby.

If my first pregnancy hadn’t ended in miscarriage, my child would be five. And if any of the next years of fertility treatments had worked, I’d have a preschooler, or toddler, or baby. I’d be holding his pudgy hand, or idly tousling his hair, or, what I crave most, kissing his tiny feet.

A few months ago, after years of heart-breaking negatives, a miracle occurred: I got pregnant again, naturally. But anxiety eclipsed the joy; my body felt fragile and broken. Terrified I’d lose the baby, I ate only hyper-hygienically-prepared organic food, let no synthetic chemicals touch my skin. Despite my vigilance, after eleven weeks, I lost the baby.

Now, one month later, my heart still feels as raw and broken as my belly. If my body had functioned, a baby bump would just be showing. I place my hand over the plane of my abdomen, flat except for a smattering of recent bug bites.

After this second miscarriage, I mustered up my scant energy and planned a trip to Ecuador, ostensibly to visit my friend, María. At the heart of it, I needed to get out of my house, with its heavy, empty, childless silence.

The shaman’s curing room is large and high-ceilinged, yet cave-like, with soot-blackened adobe walls holding the scent of candle wax and wood smoke and incense. He positions me smack in the center of the room and gives an instruction in Quichua, translated by María with a suppressed snicker. “Strip to your underwear, Laurita.”

I stand, blinking, taking stock of my body, which frankly, I’ve come to hate more with every month of infertility. Encased in my unflattering beige sports bra are my ever-milkless breasts, six pounds of useless meat, serving only to remind me of what I don’t have. My gaze drops lower, to the faint surgical scar at my navel—evidence of a fruitless effort to restore fertility.

The shaman picks up a green glass bottle shaped like a woman in large skirts—reminiscent of the old Aunt Jemima syrup bottles—filled with alcohol. He chants and whistles a meandering tune as he circles the bottle in a blessing. From the altar, he grabs a pinch of rose petals, sticks them between his lips, takes a mouthful of liquor, and spits it all over me.

I shut my eyes, try not to wince. As the shaman spits wave after wave, I try to imagine myself as a goddess, solid and fertile as the semen-coated mountain Cotacachi. I envision Pacha Mama herself, rising through the earthen floor, filling me. I visualize the gusts blowing away the dark energy clinging to me.

It does require effort, however, to ignore the germ-laden saliva of a strange man covering my body, and I’m relieved when he stops spitting and begins beating me instead. Gently, I should add, with a bundle of healing chilca leaves. It’s actually a nice sensation, my body turned into a drum. He pounds the leaves on my chest, as if giving it a new rhythm, a passionate, strong heartbeat. But now my thoughts are creeping to the distinct lack of heartbeat on the ultrasound last month. That night, I’d lain in bed, staring at the overhead fan in the blue half-light, tear-soaked and sob-wracked. Near dawn, when I was cried out, I found myself repeating, fuck, fuck, fuck, a beating like a heart, a rhythm like a drum. It went on for a long, long time. Hours, maybe. By the time morning light came, I knew I couldn’t bear another month of hope and heartbreak. A few days later, in my bathrobe, with damp tissues spilling from the pockets, I searched online for adoption information. Maybe, I thought, heavy with desperation and shame, if I adopt, then I’ll get pregnant.

*   *   *

My gloomy ruminations continue as the shaman beats me with shell-intact raw eggs (to absorb negative energy), and then (for reasons that remain unclear) blows cheap local cigarette smoke all over me, punctuated with a kind of smoky kiss on the top of my head. He then picks up the Aunt Jemima-style bottle, which he raises to his lips, presumably, to spit on me some more. Still half-lost in mournful memories, and vaguely aware that I already reek of a seedy, late-night bar, I take a deep breath and brace myself for the next round.

But this time is different. This time the shaman, standing about six paces away, extends a lighter at arm’s length before he spits the liquor.

A mist of alcohol blasts through the flame and catches fire. Catches fire!

And oh my God there’s a fireball heading toward me and holy crap I’m covered in flammable liquid.

Fear explodes through me. There is no time to dive out of the way. There is only time to squeeze my eyes shut and pray.

A wave of heat rolls over me.

María gasps on the sidelines.

I open my eyes, look down at my body. I am not on fire. Thank God, I’m not on fire! Chest pounding, I peer closer, at the light hairs on my arms. Unsinged. The fireball must have burned up just before reaching me. I let out a breath. Oh, thank God, my bug-bitten flesh is intact. Thank God my broken body remains whole.

The shaman is already taking another mouthful. I steel myself, shut my eyes, and pray. Another wave of heat. A flash of fear. Afterward, a mental scan of my flesh. Still not on fire. Thank you. And on and on they go, these fire- balls that tug me right into this place, this moment.

By the time they stop, my body is quivering like a plucked string, but now thoroughly warmed. Pulse racing, sweat pouring from my armpits, I wonder what comes next.

The shaman picks up a large, smooth, black stone from his altar. Andean shamans’ stones have personalities, talents, lives of their own. The shaman places his helper stone over my belly, and then, in a powerful voice, as if he’s channeling the wind, shouts, “Shunguuu!” it’s a whoosh, this word, and it whooshes right into me.

“Shunguuu!” he shouts again, with the force of a storm, and any silly thoughts that were not burned up by the fireballs are now blown away. Shunguuu! A perfect word for this focused power aimed straight into my center.

He murmurs something to María, who translates, “Think about what you want, Laurita.”

I am very practiced at wishing. For every birthday and shooting star sighting and heads-side-up penny over the past five years, I have wished for increasingly detailed versions of the same thing: that I get pregnant with a baby in my own womb with my own egg and Ian’s sperm and give birth to my healthy and beautiful and happy full- term baby. There is no room for nasty surprises from the universe with that degree of specificity.

I now prepare to carefully whisper my wish, but then, I stop.

I surprise myself by asking, Laura, what do you really, truly want?

In response, something happens inside my chest. A kind of whoosh of sunlight into my heart. It’s as if a doorway has opened, a passage I never knew existed. And on the other side, in the light, are tiny, tender feet. A baby who nestles into my body, his world. A baby who is not inside my belly, but inside my heart, in this light-filled space that was here all along. This baby, these feet, they are my joy.

This is what I want. This is the wish I whisper.

*   *   *

After the ceremony, I stand, soaking wet in my sports bra, plastered with bits of rose petals, my heart still hurting, but stronger now, encased in this flawed but loved body. I bask inside my own hidden patch of light as the shaman explains that to complete the ceremony, I may not indulge in the following items for three days: chocolate, pork, fish, avocado, milk, chili, and (regrettably) showers.

For the next three days, I’ll be living with a thin coating of alcohol and saliva and smoke and rose petals on my skin. But none of that matters because I’m not thinking so much about my body now, but my heart, and its surprise doorway, and the baby feet, and the glimpse of joy.

Nodding confidently, the shaman tells María one more thing. She beams as she translates, “this mujercita—this little woman—will have a baby very soon!”

Yes, I think, my heart freshly full and newly light, this mujercita will.

*   *   *

Back home, as my bug-bite welts fade, as springtime blooms in Colorado, I embark on a nine-month-long adoption process, not as means to a pregnancy, but as a pathway to this baby inside my heart, my baby. My husband is supportive, but, as is typical in adoptions (and pregnancies), it is the woman who labors, the woman who, one way or another, delivers her child. My life quickly fills with reams of paperwork, long waits in government buildings, and multiple trips to Guatemala.

I deal with these tasks the way a pregnant woman deals with morning sickness and swollen feet and other annoyances that pale beside the monumental and sparkling anticipation of the baby coming. At the three-month mark, instead of an ultrasound, I’m rewarded with photos of the newborn whose spirit is growing inside me. As his arrival nears, something inside me thrums, something stronger than kicks or hiccups—something inside my chest, the beating of thousands of shimmering wings.

*   *   *

Three years later, when he’s old enough to begin to understand, I tell my son I wish my belly hadn’t been broken so that he could have been in it. I wish my breasts could have given him milk. I tell him it made me sad, but that even though he couldn’t grow in my belly, he grew in my heart.

He nuzzles in my lap like a baby animal and tells me my breasts are soft pillows for his head. He tells me, in our whispered conversations, “I always wanted a mommy like you. Out of all the mommies in the world, I wanted you. I’m so happy you’re mine.”

And I tell him, my voice breaking, “I always wanted a little boy like you. Out of all the babies in the world, I wanted you. I’m so happy you’re mine.”

Then, for the ten thousandth time, I kiss his feet.

Author’s Note: During the process of adopting my son, I wrote the novel The Indigo Notebook, about a teenage boy searching for his birth parents in the Andes. This book gave me the chance to explore the idea of looking beyond what I think I want, to discover what I truly want. (It also gave me the chance to include a shaman-spitting-fireballs scene).

Laura Resau has lived and traveled in Latin America and Europe. Her experiences inspired her novels for young people—What the Moon Saw, Red Glass, The Indigo Notebook, Star in the Forest, and The Queen of Water. She lives with her family in Colorado (www.lauraresau.com).

Adventures in Fertility and Mortality

Adventures in Fertility and Mortality

By Zahie El Kouri

spring2012_elkouri“Do you believe in an afterlife?” the doctor asks.

I’m lying on an examination table, wearing a sweater and socks, my feet in stirrups. A nurse has given me a folded, translucent square of paper, and I choose to leave it folded to cover my lap effectively rather than unfold it to cover more of my body while leaving nothing to the imagination. The doctor slides a special probe up what the truly educated are now calling the vajayjay. I am about to start my second round of in vitro fertilization, and the doctor is doing a baseline transvaginal ultrasound to see if we can go forward.

For some women, this kind of ultrasound is no big deal, but for me it is so uncomfortable it verges on the painful. I know I’ll be less uncomfortable if I relax, but I can’t do that because the doctor and I are talking about my father’s death.

My husband, John, is sitting by my side, and he squeezes my hand when he hears the doctor’s question. John is sad about my father’s death, sad that I have to go through all this medicalized stripping down, sad that sex has been taken out of our procreative equation. But he is also tired of being sad. That’s why minutes ago, before the doctor arrived, when I was crying while taking off my clothes, he tried to distract me by singing the tune of what he says is the music one finds in porn. Bam ba dah bam bah. Humor is the way he copes with stress and sadness, and the doctor has undone the moment of laughter John and I shared in his absence.

“So, how long has it been since your father died?” the doctor asks. He is looking from my vagina to the monitor and back again, and pushing buttons on a side panel. His glasses are smudged, and through a trick of the light, I can see my reflection in them, even though he isn’t looking at me.

“About six months,” I say, even though I know the answer down to the day.

“Was it a long illness?”

“No, just ten weeks. Pancreatic cancer.”

 *   *   *

In many ways I’m a typical fertility patient, if there is such a thing. I am thirty-six years old. I have been trying to get pregnant for three years. Seven months earlier I lost my first pregnancy, achieved through IVF, to miscarriage. Two weeks before this appointment, I started injecting myself with Lupron, which has put me into temporary chemical menopause, a condition that, ironically, will help me get pregnant through IVF, even though the associated mood swings and headache may also alienate everyone who has ever loved me.

Fertility and mortality are not the only things on my mind. Just a few months after my father’s death, John and I moved to this new city for his new job. My mother is staying with us because she is too sad to be alone, and my in-laws are visiting, and all the parental attention only highlights my father’s absence.

In many ways, I am alone in my grief, and in my mind having a baby has become all tied up with my father’s death. A grandchild was perhaps the thing he wanted most in life, and I feel like a failure for not finding the right person to marry earlier, for not having a baby before his death. I can blame the weepiness and the irritability on the chemical menopause (and I do), but I know that I am sad and desperate because I am still trying to redeem myself.

I want a baby—I have always wanted a baby—but the truth is that, without my father’s death, I might have chosen not to do all of this. I might have chosen adoption. The truth is that, yes, I do believe in an afterlife, in a religious sense, but that belief does not save me from my grief. It does not keep me from missing my father. The truth is that I am loath to start injecting myself with drugs that will hyperstimulate my ovaries. I am loath to go from chemical menopause to chemical super-fertility in ten seconds flat. But the most important truth is that right now, I am willing to do anything to preserve my father’s genetic legacy—other than my memories, the only piece of him I have left.

“Well, do you believe in an afterlife?” the doctor asks.

There is a long pause, and eventually, John answers the question for me.

“Yes,” he says. He takes my hand and squeezes it. “She does. Her priest really helped us through it.” John leans toward agnostic, but he, too, is transformed through this experience of death. He prefers humor, but he knows when to step in and be serious.

I cannot look at John without crying, and I don’t want to answer the doctor’s question, so instead, I spend my time coming up with all the possible reasons for the doctor to ask me this question at this particular moment. I come up with three:

1. The doctor may think that making any conversation will distract me from what is going on with my body, and therefore relax me (like a Caribbean vacation with no hurricanes).

2. The doctor is particularly curious about my unique presentation of the human condition. The doctor has lost a loved one, and has found solace in his belief in an afterlife.

3. The doctor is bored because he has seen too many vaginas.

I begin by considering reason #1. Maybe the doctor has had success with making small talk while doing transvaginal ultrasounds. Maybe, after dealing with thousands of women desperate for a child, he believes that having a conversation about something other than fertility will relax me, reduce stress, and increase my chances of getting pregnant. Maybe he sees himself as part therapist, and knows that I am in desperate need of some therapy before I should be allowed to get pregnant.

This may all be true, but I still rule out rule out reason #1, as it is unlikely that anyone would think that asking about a patient’s father’s illness and death would distract her from a penis-sized plastic probe up her vajajay.

I next consider reason #2. I vaguely remember this doctor mentioning losing his own parents. Maybe he struggles, as a man of science, with issues of faith and mortality. Maybe creating fertility miracles every day has given him the intellectual space to consider the possibility of an afterlife. Or maybe it is the opposite. Maybe he doesn’t believe in an afterlife, but he envies those who do?

If I were being rational, I might conclude that I can explain the doctor’s behavior with reason #1 or reason #2. He is a warm and friendly man. Like my husband, he’s sad for me. But I don’t want to dwell on these possibilities because they are just too painful, so I go with reason #3—the doctor has simply seen too many vaginas.

Now, to be clear, my doctor is a board-certified reproductive endocrinologist with an excellent record of successful IVF pregnancies, so he sees more vaginas than say, your average neurosurgeon. He probably also sees more vaginas than your average obstetrician/gynecologist, as your typical patient comes in once a year, takes off her panties, and that’s it. She might get pregnant, in which case, she would be coming in every now and then for exams, and then there would be the labor, where the doctor would see a whole lot of her vagina, but still, most women don’t go through labor more than once a year. Unless they have multiple uteruses, but that might present other issues that might also require a specialist.

It’s not that I think my vagina is anything special, or that I don’t appreciate the square of paper or the fact that my doctor will spend the extra ten minutes talking to me about my IVF cycle or inquiring as to my state of mind and grieving process. I respect the Swedish position on nudity and the time-honored tradition of skinny-dipping. It’s just that I miss the days when the only naked conversations I had about the afterlife were with my husband. I am tired of being physically and emotionally exposed. I don’t know how to talk about my feelings about death while trying to create new life.

*   *   *

In the next year and a half, I manage to get pregnant and miscarry twice more. I travel to another state for even more specialized medical treatment, coming back to the afterlife doctor for early-pregnancy monitoring when I get pregnant for the fourth time. In the appointments, he is still friendly, though he discusses work with John instead of discussing death with me. When I’m eight weeks pregnant, he sends me on to an obstetrician, wishing me the best.

That pregnancy took, and I gave birth to a healthy baby boy in June of that year. Soon after, I see this doctor again, as John and I leave the office of a lactation consultant who shares his waiting room. The doctor’s receptionist sees us walking by and sends him out to see us while we’re trying to get our crying baby into his car seat. The doctor approaches and greets us with a smile. After asking permission, he takes the baby and dances around with him. The baby stops crying and looks at his reflection in the doctor’s smudged glasses.

“How are you feeling?” he asks.

“I’m great,” I say. “Tired, but happy.”

“That’s good to hear,” he says. “Isn’t that good to hear?” he asks the baby in a sing-song voice.

John and I smile at each other.

“Who do you think he looks like?” the doctor asks, looking from the baby to my husband, and back to me. “I see bits of both of you.”

“He looks like Zahie’s father,” John says. I have never heard him say this before. “It’s nice.”

I stare at the baby with new eyes. I have been so sleep-deprived since his birth, so focused on the work of keeping him fed and clean and making sure he is still breathing, I haven’t really studied his features.

John is right—there are my father’s big brown eyes, his full lips, his round face. I hope to see my father in the afterlife, but I am happy to have these pieces of him here with me now.

*   *   *

Author’s Note: “Once infertile, always infertile.” That’s what my friend used to tell me when she was pregnant and I was still in the midst of my infertility struggle. At the time, I thought she was a little crazy, a little whacked out on pregnancy hormones, but now I know what she means. My ongoing mental state of infertility, which persists despite the presence of my vocal, playful baby, leads me to check the infertility message boards every day, and to pay special attention to any personal essays about infertility or fertility treatments. I’ve noticed a trend lately of comments on these essays saying that women who go through IVF to get a child instead of adopting are selfish. Was my desire to see my parents in my child selfish? I think about this question all the time. I wish more peace in this question for others, and I hope that this essay will give a sense of some of the emotions connected with wanting a child with a genetic link to you—and the ways in which those emotions are so much more complicated than the word selfish might ever contain.

Brain, Child (Spring 2012)

Zahie El Kouri writes about family, fertility, and immigrant culture. As the child of a Syrian/Lebanese/Palestinian father and an Italian mother, she has a special interest in the experience of second-generation immigrants, within the family and without. Her creative non-fiction has appeared in Memoir Journal, Brain, Child, Garbanzo Literary Journal, and Ars Medica. Her short fiction has appeared in Mizna, a Journal of Arab American Writing and the second edition of Dinarzad’s Children: an Anthology of Arab-American literature.  She holds an MFA in creative writing from New School University and lives in Austin, Texas with her husband, the novelist and legal theorist John Greenman, and their son. You can read more about Zahie at www.zahieelkouri.com.

Wanting More Than Enough

Wanting More Than Enough

By Kristina Wright

0-2“You shouldn’t have children,” my mother said. “You’re too selfish.”

That word echoes down the timeline of my life. Selfish, selfish, selfish.

I was forty-two when I had my first son, forty-four when I had my second son. I have felt lucky. Lucky. Or crazy, depending on who I’m talking to. My mother, if she were alive, would say I was selfish. Selfish for having them, selfish for waiting until I was in my forties to have them, selfish for feeling lucky instead of … guilty, I guess.

Selfish. Maybe I am. As I look at their faces for signs of me, of my mother, wondering if it’s a good thing or a bad thing when I see some shadow of myself in them, I feel selfish.

*   *   *

I don’t know how to be a good mother. I have no role models. My maternal grandmother died when I was two, I never knew my birth father or his mother and my stepfather’s mother was distant and cold. My mother was not a good mother. She was a martyr to the cause of motherhood. “Look what I gave up for you!” she said when I didn’t do what she wanted, when I wasn’t enough like her. “I gave up my life for you!” Is that what good motherhood is? Sacrificing one’s self to the cause? Because if it is, I’m destined to be a bad mother.

*   *   *

I love my children, I do. They are my sweet, beautiful, funny, playful boys. I love them. But motherhood is not my calling. I have known that my whole life, even into my late thirties when I was told it was “now or never,” even after the miscarriages (three over fifteen years), even when I turned forty.

Conception came easy for me. Wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am-I’m-pregnant easy. Eight or nine weeks later, there was blood. Always blood. I dreamed about babies before I had my own. Now I don’t dream at all. I’m too tired.

 *   *   *

Pregnant again after a miscarriage eight months prior, my doctor prescribed a progesterone supplement. Carrying to term then became as easy as conception. My first son Patrick was born after three miscarriages. One year and one week after his birth, the very first time I had unprotected sex, my second baby was conceived. I thought I would surely miscarry. But no. With progesterone prescribed again, Lucas was born twenty-one months after his brother.

This double success made the temptation to try for a third, yes at my age, almost overwhelming. I could hear my mother in my head. Selfish, selfish, selfish. Two babies in two years, two Cesarean sections to deliver those large, healthy boys. My body had done an amazing job, but two was enough. Enough.

 *   *   *

“Enough!” I’m screaming in frustration. No, anger. Rage. Two kids testing my limits, one not-quite-two, the other a defiant three-and-a-half year old. Where did he learn that, the defiance? He’s not in daycare. He’s usually with me, except for a few precious hours a day when I escape—I mean leave—to write and edit and reclaim my sanity and self. I entrust my boys to a beautiful young woman who could easily be mistaken for their mother. Katherine is less than half my age. I could be her mother. Their grandmother.

“Selfish,” my mother hisses in the cold dark part of my brain. The part that remembers how she gave up her youth to marry the guy she met while working in a bar, the one who was willing to take on the parenting of her bastard baby by a married man. Was she selfish, to be out dating again before I was even able to walk? Was she selfish to keep me when she realized the man she was with had a wife and maybe even other children? Roe vs. Wade hadn’t come to pass yet. It was the late sixties and the options were adoption, illegal abortion or keep the bastard. She kept me. Was that selfish?

*   *   *

All I ever knew about my biological father was that when I was stubborn or did something my mother didn’t want me to do, I was, “just like him.” I took it as a compliment. I was as different from my mother as any person could be. I imagined him to be wealthy, strong, powerful, kind, loving. He would show up and want to take me home with him, my father who may or may not have known I existed (the story changed over the years). I wasn’t told his name, but I knew it must be beautiful and exotic and go perfectly with Kristina in a way my mother’s maiden name and stepfather’s name didn’t.

*   *   *

I didn’t find out my biological father’s name until after my mother’s death in 2007 when an aunt gave me some information about him. His name isn’t beautiful or exotic and I still prefer my married to name to the other three possibilities. So much for that fantasy.

*   *   *

“Enough!” I’m yelling at my children, my pulse pounding, my heart aching. I sound like her. I feel like her. I have become her. I can’t stand it. I am selfish, selfish, selfish, but not in the way she accused me of being. I’m selfish for wanting my children to be better than me. Better than her.

*   *   *

My husband is going out of town. Jay is a lieutenant commander in the Navy. After twenty-three years of marriage, only four of them with children, I’ve been through more three month and six month deployments than I can remember. But he’s never been gone more than a few days since we had our second son. And now he’ll be gone for two weeks. I feel my heart racing like a rabbit cornered by a dog. How will I manage? How?

It’s not the housework or sleeping alone that bothers me. It’s not the noises in the night that wake me. It’s not even the days when I have our sweet babysitter, whom I trust completely and the boys adore. It’s the weekend, stretching out before me. Solitary parenting with no break, no buffer, no way to escape when enough is enough.

*   *   *

Jay was gone for eight months when our first son was born—the entire third trimester and the first five months of Patrick’s life. He was home for eighteen days after the birth, and then I was alone again with a newborn—me, who had never even changed a diaper before. I had to do it all, even things my doctor told me I shouldn’t do. At less than three weeks post-partum, I shoveled snow off our deck so our old dog could get outside to relieve himself. My Cesarean incision burned for days afterward, but I did it.

I have done other things alone. Managed. Survived. I went through miscarriages and emergency room visits and prenatal appointments and endless tests because of my advanced maternal age. I’ve experienced job changes, family conflicts, the ebb and flow of new and old friendships, a dog’s surgery, the death of two cats and the news of my estranged mother’s death—all alone. I even went through a hurricane by myself. I’ve dealt with all sorts of things alone, confident in my ability to do anything. Anything. And now I’m terrified and depressed over spending time alone with my children with no time at all for myself.

Selfish, selfish, selfish. It echoes from beyond the grave. I am selfish for not finding infinite joy in every minute spent with my boys. I am selfish for not relishing the time I have them to myself, the long summer days and nights, just the three of us. I should be happy! I should be excited!

Enough, I think. Enough.

*   *   *

I can’t recall many days in my childhood when my mother seemed genuinely happy. Nothing was ever enough, nothing was ever just right. I wasn’t loving enough, I wasn’t appreciative enough. I wasn’t enough. And yet, I have known many happy days in my adulthood. Yes, even since I had children. Yes, even now when I am alone with them. I just need some time to myself. Some solitude. Something that is mine and mine alone. My self.

*   *   *

I redecorated our bedroom when I was pregnant with my first son. Rather than buying new nursery furniture, we bought a new bedroom suite for ourselves for the first time in fifteen years and had the old furniture refinished for the baby’s room. Selfish, my mother would have said. But Patrick didn’t know the difference and looking around my new bedroom (“It looks like an adult’s bedroom now,” Jay said), I declared it my sanctuary. Home. Haven. Heaven. Mine.

 *   *   *

I just rolled over on a Matchbox car. The sharp metal digs into my hipbone. I am in hell. They bring their toys to my room, their stuffed animals, their little boy laughs and cuddles. It’s a place between the heaven of solitude and the hell of exhaustion and caretaking. It is home. I am comfortable here now. Almost always.

*   *   *

The days pass in a blur, some better than others. We get through the first weekend and Jay comes home in the middle of the second weekend. It wasn’t so bad, not really. Not at all. Really. They were good boys, I was as good a mother as I will ever be. Jay comes home and they are excited to see him, but not overly so. Not as if he has been gone for two weeks or as if I’d done such a horrible job they couldn’t bear one more minute with me. In fact, when I leave to get coffee at Starbucks, they cry. They’re young, they only know what’s in front of them. I try to put my best face forward. For them. For myself. Fake it until you make it, right? I’m faking being a good mother. Maybe I’ll grow into it.

*   *   *

My mother was not the comforting, coddling sort of mother. She believed in tough love. “If you are too sick to come to the table,” she would say, “then you’re too sick to eat.” No chicken noodle soup in bed for me. It made me self-reliant. I can appreciate her tactics now, though I’m not sure it was a tactic. A bitterness, perhaps. Of sharing her parents’ love with eleven other children, of sharing everything she ever owned with someone else. Of never having anything that was hers and hers alone—until she had me and erased my paternity from my birth certificate and my life. She always seemed hungry for something she couldn’t name. I know that feeling. I inherited it, I think. But my hunger is not for more children or more security or more love. It’s a hunger for life itself. More, always more.

*   *   *

The anticipation is worse than the reality. The intangible fear of losing one’s self is greater than the slow slipping away as hours once spent in self-absorption are now given over to thoughts of breakfast, lunch, nap, dinner, bath, stories, bedtime. In between “The Wheels on the Bus” and “You Are My Sunshine,” I pause to think, “This is my life. This is it. Right here, right now. Forty-six years old, two kids, married for half of my life. This is my life.”

It’s a good life. It’s enough, and yet it’s never enough. I want more of this life, and the life I had before and the life I can only imagine. I want it all. For me. For my boys. For my mother, who never had the chance. Is that selfish?

Yeah, it probably is.

Kristina Wright (kristinawright.com) is a full-time writer and editor, Navy spouse and mother to two young boys. She holds a graduate degree in humanities from Old Dominion University and is the author of Bedded Bliss: A Couple’s Guide to Lust Ever After, published by Cleis Press. 

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Remembering Kauai

Remembering Kauai

By Kelly Loy Gilbert
0-15Pregnancy can make you deeply emotional, and by the time we touched down for a layover in Honolulu–a family trip with my husband’s family, whom we hadn’t seen for more than half the year–I’d cried three times already.

The first was thinking about the size of our tiny, tiny growing baby on the way to the airport, and picturing the family’s reaction when we told them. The second was seeing a family–mom, dad, brother–saying goodbye to their daughter; they’d waited with her through the security line to send her off to college in Montana and the mom was trying not to cry. The dad was stoic, but when they had to say goodbye at the security checkpoint the dad kept trying to take pictures of her with his cell phone.  They were going to be terrible pictures, too far away and of the back of her head, but still, watching them do that I got all weepy, and I thought, Oh, God, 18 years sounds way too soon and we’ll be seeing our baby off to college! I remembered what a friend with teenaged children told me about how you have these children and someday they’ll leave you, and already my heart rebelled against it.

The third time I cried was when we landed, and everyone clapped. Which wasn’t even anything, I was just weepy. And happy, mostly. Thrilled. I whispered to my husband that everything made me cry, and we giggled together.

Our baby’s first trip.

This baby would be a surprise to the rest of the world but it was someone we’d longed for for a while, and I wanted to tell everyone right away. My husband’s stepmom asked me how the flight was and laughingly asked if I’d been sedated enough, because I am deathly afraid of flying and spend most flights holding perfectly still so as not to disrupt the plane’s balance, staring down flight attendants to watch for any looks of panic so I at least have a little heads-up about our collective impending doom. But this time I’d taken nothing because the doctor had told me to take nothing but Tylenol for the sake of the baby. I said no, I hadn’t, and I wanted to tell my mother-in-law about the baby then, but we were all veering off to different bathrooms, looking at gates, et cetera, so we held it in for the time being. And it was during that layover in Honolulu, right after we’d been reunited with the family, where I first started to worry.

 *     *     *

Kauai was where we’d honeymooned four years ago, and for whatever reason, it more than almost any other place I’ve ever been stands out clearly in my mind. Maybe it’s the geography, how everything’s along one main highway on the island. We were thrilled to be going back, thrilled that it was going to be such a meaningful place for us: we went after we got married, and now we were back after we’d found out we were going to be parents. In the airport between flights, in limbo, I tuned out of the conversation with family we hadn’t seen in eight months and looked up everything I could to reassure myself. Plenty of women had had similar symptoms and gone on to have healthy babies, and really, my symptoms were so minor as to be nearly invisible–the biggest thing was the weight beginning to press against my chest, that sense that something was wrong, and there was no medical basis to believe that meant anything. Flying into Kauai, also without any kind of sedative, I closed my eyes and pictured my baby.

For dinner that night we all ate saimin at Hamura’s, all of us crowded into a hot, humid room where we lined up and sat at counter-like tables and slurped up our noodles. I was exhausted. I’d never been sleepy like this, and it was thrilling to realize it was from the pregnancy. There were two distinct times it seemed right to share our news about the baby, but it was loud and crowded and we were all eating in a line so we couldn’t all quite hear each other, so we waited. At night I took my prenatal vitamins and then collapsed early into bed like I’d been doing the past weeks, and, over sushi I didn’t eat, we shared the news at lunch the next day. We said we were excited, and happy, but in truth by then I was already starting to fear.

The few people who knew I was worried told me everything would be fine even as my symptoms increased. As things grew worse, we spent hours on the phone with doctors. My husband did, actually, not me, because I couldn’t. In Kauai there are very few OB-GYNs, and, it turned out, none who could see me. We called the doctors at home for advice, answers, anything. The first doctor we spoke to was reassuring, and we believed everything would be okay. It would be fine, we told each other–either way, it was going to be okay, and we were going to be okay, and everything would be fine. Over and over we said it, hugging each other and lying down together and watching the water and the sky out the window, repeating it like an incantation.

I am an anxious person by nature and I’ve learned that the worst-case scenarios my heart feels as truth are not always so; fear is not the same as fate, and it’s dangerous to blindly trust one’s worst forebodings. But I knew this loss already. Even as it was happening, even as maybe it hadn’t technically happened yet, I could feel what it was going to be like on the other side when we went through the rest of our lives without this baby. I entered a sort of parallel world, numb to the trip we were on and the people we were with. Mostly, I stayed inside–I never put on my bathing suit and barely unpacked. This is what I’ll remember of Kauai now: The Wal-Mart bathroom where I saw more blood after a night that had felt safe and solid and had given me more hope that things would be all right. The state park bathroom where we made a pit stop, less because I needed to pee and more because I was nervous. The bathroom in the Kailuea shopping center where a European woman complained bitterly to me about people using the air-vent hand dryers–it made everything take so long! she complained, looking to me for solidarity–where I went in and saw more blood. The National Park where we saw puffy baby birds and I broke down on the public path and cried. The surf gear shop where my husband held up a tiny, tiny pair of flip-flops for me to see.

What I hadn’t understood was that losing my baby would be a process, not a simple sloughing off or a fast exit or a sign that that was it, it was over now; but days of bleeding and cramping and–worst of all–hoping against hope that everyone had been wrong, that the lessening blood meant everything was better now. I lay in the rental bed with my hand on my stomach, resenting the layers of skin and flesh and muscle that separated me from my baby, and tried to stay very still and I prayed. First the prayers were that things would be all right and that my baby would be fine, and as the pain increased and the hope lessened the prayers changed. It was very painful on the worst night, but all I could pray was Please, please, please don’t let it hurt to the baby. Please don’t let the baby feel it. Please don’t let my baby be in pain.  

We found an early flight and booked an appointment for my doctor’s office at home, and we left. I cried on the way to the airport and then in our four hours in the airport, thinking about abandoning our baby in Hawaii. I cried thinking about its remains somewhere in the sewer systems an ocean away from where we’d be. I cried taking off from Kauai, where we spent the last days with our baby. I cried and clutched my husband in terror when the plane rocketed in turbulence, the pilot coming on the intercom three times to apologize for the roughness. I hadn’t taken anything because I still hoped that maybe, maybe, just in case.

I cried landing in San Jose without the baby. I cried seeing my parents, who would not be grandparents, and my brother, who had been sending me excited text messages and who now would not be an uncle. I cried when we pulled into our parking lot when we were home without the baby, and we pulled our suitcases from the car and stood for a while outside the door to our apartment.

And then the two of us, no longer the three of us, went in to a home that felt so empty now, to a loneliness that was both hugely, gapingly cavernous and somehow at the same time needle-sharp precise.

 *     *     *

In the morning there was an appointment–an empty uterus on the ultrasound screen, a few blood tests. There were cards and flowers and food and visits from friends, who rallied around us and made sure we weren’t grieving alone. There was my return to work, the private dismantling of all those cherished future plans. After that, for a long time, there were nightmares–not the kind that wake you up and leave you gasping and alone in the night, but the kind that linger and seep into your day. Mine involved travel or miscarriage, sometimes both.

And for a long time after that I felt I was residing in a strange valley of fear and doubt, a time of deep mistrust. When my husband left home, even for small errands or just to go down to the car, my mind, unbidden, ran through all scenarios in which something terrible would happen and he would never come back. When I felt odd twinges in my body I felt my whole spine seize up in anxiety and I thought of all the ways your body can betray you, all the insidious invisible dangers that might cause disaster.

But those were the easy parts, the more understandable ones. What was harder, and what took me longer to understand, was that for a while I no longer trusted myself. Because, after all, in a real and tangible way there was no baby. I had fallen in love with what was in the end a bloody, clot-like formation inside my body, indistinguishable to my eyes from any other clots or tissue I might pass. All those things I felt for my tiny little one: it was unfathomable that they would land on this, this non-child disintegrating inside me. I didn’t know, and perhaps still don’t, what it meant that I could so fiercely, so desperately love something that didn’t quite exist. What did that make me, and what might that mean of all the other things I loved?

How difficult it is to reconcile that amount of love given to something so small, so unformed, so inhuman. I’ve read often since then–perhaps it brings me some semblance of comfort, something like the feeling I get from hearing about other and often worse stories of loss–about fetal microchimerism. This is the phenomenon in which fetal cells are found to persist in a mother’s bloodstream for decades and decades after her pregnancy, and, when you are grieving a child you never held, it’s easy to romanticize the idea of these cells. It’s something to hold onto, at least, some tangible proof that my baby made me in some ways a mother.

It feels like a while ago now. But sometimes when it’s quiet around or sometimes when it isn’t, sometimes at the most inopportune times when a certain song or sight or feeling catches me off guard when I’m out, I am paralyzed temporarily by helplessness and guilt. Mostly, I’m haunted by the disconnect between myself and my tiny, tiny child, or not-yet-child–how unable I was to provide any sort of the mothering that I so badly longed to. Because your child then is both a part of you and still so wholly separate from you; you can whisper I love you, I love you, I’m sorry to your dying little one; you can lay your hand on your stomach and press as hard as you can; you can sing to your small one, or pray, and none of that reaches through, in the end. To miscarry is to love someone incapable of receiving that love, so it deflects back at you and comes back changed and twisted into something that in the end just feels a whole lot more like grief.

Kelly Loy Gilbert lives with her husband and newborn daughter in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Her debut novel is forthcoming from Disney-Hyperion in 2014, and she blogs here and is on Twitter @KellyLoyGilbert.  

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Every. Little. Thing.

Every. Little. Thing.

By Audrey Milner

0-20At age 42, after a brief but valiant marriage, I sent myself to my first creative writing class. My life had become tightly constricted around my husband and child, and I desperately needed to open up again, to any possibility of hope or excitement.

Our instructor was a reassuring man in his early 60s. I could barely restrain myself from addressing his every question. Please, please, please, let there be more remaining to my life than the last few years have shown me.

After our round of introductions, the instructor wrote a four-step writing prompt on the white board. My pen hovered until he said, “Go.”

1) Think of three people in your past.

I had lost three, all so small, but big enough to matter.  I wrote without thinking:

first little person

second little person

third little person

2) Write a question to the first person.

Were you surprised to slip out so quickly? Were you in my clothes, or in the toilet, or on the hospital floor? Or were you in a plastic tube, and then sent for incineration? What is it like where you are? Is there something I can do for you now?

3) Write her answer.

I had barely begun. Everything was a surprise. Life was a surprise. Death was a surprise. I know you were surprised, too.

I am with others now who are not with you. We are fine. We watch you, and are curious, and send you our love. It’s a blurry line between you and us.

What can you do for me? You can love your son. Your son and I rose from the same pool of Life. You can move forward because we are all with you.

4) Now, think of a song.

Song? I don’t have a song from that time…

But the first song that comes to mind is Bob Marley: “Don’t worry about a thing, ’cause every little thing will be alright.”

A realization knocked the wind out of me: the title of that song is “Three Little Birds.”

“Woke up this morning, smiled at the rising sun

Three little birds, outside my window

Singing sweet songs, a melody clear and true

Singing, this is my message to you.

Don’t worry about a thing

Cause every little thing will be alright…”

It was simple, perfect, and I wept, with the sounds of pens scratching paper, and the instructor’s warmth quietly radiating out to me.

Maybe these three little people, these three lost possibilities and hopes, are my Three Little Birds, and this is their message to me: “Every little thing will be alright.”

Take your class. Love your son. Open your life. Every little thing will be all right.

Audrey Milner is a mother, writer, reader and ocean lover. This is her first foray into creative nonfiction.

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Meanwhile, Upstairs

Meanwhile, Upstairs

By Kris Woll

Meanwhile Upstairs Art 2When I realized what I had done, I reached for my phone and called my OB’s after-hours number (saved in favorites, just under his office number and right above my husband’s cell).

Yes, I need to speak to the doctor right away, I told the answering service.

Are you in labor? the calm voice inquired.

No, but it’s very serious, I said.

If this is an emergency, you should dial 911, the voice responded.

It is serious, but not yet an emergency.

Ok, so let me get your name …

I rattled off my birth date, my last appointment, my due date (still over 7 months away).

And what is the situation? the voice inquired.

I ate the wrong cheese, I responded, choking on the words.  Tears welled; I filled with guilt and fear.

I’m not sure that I heard you, the voice responded.  The wrong cheese?

Yes, the wrong cheese! I cried back.  I ate feta!  On a salad!  From the deli by work!  I was craving salt!  And it’s my favorite salad!  And then I came home and went to the fridge to get some cold water and …


And saw the magnet, with the “foods to avoid during your pregnancy” list.  Soft cheese.  Feta cheese!  I should have read it when I put it on the fridge, but I didn’t, and now …

My voice trailed off as tears took over.

There it was: the big catastrophe, avoidable, had I simply been prepared.  But I wasn’t, and now everything would be ruined.  I didn’t read the magnet, even though it had been on fridge for weeks.  And so I gave into my salt craving by going after some feta, ignoring the PB&J on wheat wrapped in tin foil, now squished at the bottom of my purse.

Can you please have the doctor call me?  I begged the voice.  I need to know if there’s anything I can do to …

I will, Miss, the voice responded.

I hit “end” and curled up in the corner of the futon in front of the TV, phone in hand and blanket almost over my head, waiting for the phone to ring.

I have always been a little bit of a—what’s the word?—let’s say a worrier.  A little on the nervous side.  For example, when I was a child for two entire summers—nearly all of the warm weather, no-school days between my 2nd and 4th grade years—I sat in the southwest corner of my family’s unfinished, cement basement, reading Little House on the Prairie books and stuffing cotton in my ears so that I couldn’t hear the thunder—if and when there was a storm.  I could not be forced to wait for something like a weather-service issued tornado warning, or even a storm watch.  Just in case the ever-present wind of my prairie hometown blew something my way, I would be safe.  I occasionally snatched my mother’s purse or all the fruit in the fridge and set them by me and my books until someone noticed they were gone and came to claim them.  Just in case, I’d explain.

My parents and older siblings tried to lure me out of the cellar with reason and logic.  Kristie, it’s sunny and there are no clouds.  Kristie, it’s only 40 degrees outside.  Kristie, it’s late August and you need to practice existing outside of the basement because school is about to start.  But this was not about logic and reason.  I’m not quite sure what it was about, really, because no one thought to invest in a psychological evaluation of the child who wouldn’t leave the basement corner during summer vacation.  But I can say it would be only the first of several—perhaps many would be a word choice here—demonstrations of my rather worrisome worrying.

Still, it took another 21 years—and approximately 10 weeks gestation—before my worry spread to Greek salads, which proved particularly troublesome.  Because here’s the thing: soft cheese knows no basements.  There is nowhere to hide from feta digested.  I scanned website after website, where people with questionable avatars submit poorly punctuated and deeply fretful questions about falling, having sex, and yes, eating feta, while pregnant.  And then know-it-all’s respond with finger wagging and directions to call your doctor or go to the ER.  I scanned these as I waited for my doctor’s call—What’s keeping him? What can an on-call OB possibly be doing that is more important than this? —and emailed a baker’s dozen of contrite, horrified, highly-repetitive emails to my husband, who was on a flight to the opposite coast for a conference and would get them six hours later, in one big batch.  (And who would, because he is patient and calm and wise, quickly delete them and wait several hours—blaming traffic, meetings, or the time change, before calling to check in.  He had to develop his own strategies for living with my worry.)

I was writing message number 14 (subject line: What Will I Do?) when the phone rang.

How are you doing? My mother-in-law asked.  She was calling because her son was gone and I was newly pregnant and she was being nice.

I started to cry.  To bawl, really.  To howl and wail.

You miss him?  she asked.

No, I sobbed.  I ate the wrong cheese!

After explaining, between tear-induced gasps for air, that I was not (yet anyway – sob, sob, sob) suffering from food poisoning, I described my deli lunch.  And the magnet on the fridge.  And my resulting terror.  She responded that, back when she was pregnant, they didn’t have those magnets.  But they did often have cocktails and cigarettes.  Which she would not recommend, but was just sharing.  To calm me down.  The ol’ but Kristie, come on up from down there! line, updated.

It’s just …

It’s just what? she asked.

I don’t want to lose this pregnancy!

Of course you won’t, she responded.

But last time I did.

I surprised myself with that line as it left my mouth. But I was now 10 weeks along.  Which—last time—was when I got those bright red spots, and then went into the doctor, and he turned the screen away and said, I’m so sorry.  On top of the salad topped with croutons and olives and that terrifying cheese, I was having a tough (gestational) week.

I don’t remember what else my mother-in-law said, but I eventually stopped crying, hung up the phone and even closed my laptop.  I sat on the futon, watching TV—the very futon where, the following July, my water would break, the very futon around which I would lean and stand and sway while I labored for several hours, waiting for regular contractions while watching Harry Potter DVDs.  And at some point—on the feta night, not while in labor—I fell asleep in the futon’s comforting little curve.

For the first day of 4th grade, I had to come out of the basement corner, strap on my backpack, pick through my short, permed hair, and put on my giant pastel pink glasses (with this sentence, at least one reason for basement-hiding seems a bit more evident), had to head out into world and its weather.  Looking back, that little act of bravery provided good practice for the rest of my pregnancy (and for the one that followed, and for years of motherhood that I am currently wading my way through).  We should read our magnets and keep an eye on the weather, be smart and safe, and then—though we often have no idea what to expect, and though we worry—we must get on with things.  Some of what will happen will come without warning.  Some dangers will never make it on a list on the fridge.  And sometimes those things we have always feared and associated with suffering and terror may surprise us.

Like that windy, stormy, thundering July night, after a hot and steamy day, when—eleven stories up, high in the Manhattan skyline—I gave birth to a son.

Kris Woll is a Minneapolis-based writer.

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