Can I Get a Witness?

Can I Get a Witness?

By Brett Paesel

Can I get a Witness ArtI have a three-year-old son, and I’ve come to the conclusion that raising a young child involves long stretches of boredom interrupted by flashes of terror and bursts of supernatural joy–which sounds awfully close to the definition of psychosis. And, also, I am told, combat. One would think that, knowing this, I would send my child off to boarding school and surgically ensure that I never have another child. But no. For a reason I cannot name, I am obsessed with having a second one.

For a year, I pee on all kinds of sticks. Sticks that tell me when I’m ovulating. Sticks that tell me if I’m pregnant. I get crazy about sticks. I buy them in bulk and pee on them even when I’m not ovulating or remotely close to being pregnant. I begin to live by the sticks.

I circle the best days in my date book for getting it on. I wake Pat in the middle of the night for sex. Because the stick says now. Then I lie on my back with my legs propped against the wall until they lose all feeling and fall onto the bed. I wake Pat again, pounding my paralytic legs with my fists.

I read adoption books and daydream about flying to India to pick up a little girl. I even talk to someone who has a baby connection in Nigeria. But I back out when I realize that we communicate only through his beeper and pay phones.

A year of this and no success. I am desperate–driven by a force beyond myself, like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. So I decide to have my doctor run some tests that will tell me a little more about my chances of getting pregnant.

The day I go in for the results of the tests, I wait alone in the lobby. Pat and my son park the car while I sit on a brown leather sectional and start to finger the neatly placed magazines on the glass table in front of me. I consider reading the article on “Ten Things Men Would Like Us to Know.” But I’m not sure I want to know. I look up to see bamboo shoots in a glossy green pot on the corner of the table. Behind them is a painting of the Buddha done by my doctor, Dr. Sammy. He is a Buddhist, which is and is not a good thing in an OB. At his best, he is cool, detached, and amused. At his worst, he is cool, detached, and amused.

When I was looking for a gynecologist, I asked a couple of friends for their recommendations. The first said that she had a great doctor: thorough, no nonsense. “It’s just . . . “

“What?” I said.

“Well, it’s silly, really. It’s just that he has no sense of humor.”

“I don’t know that that would matter,” I said.

“Well, then, he’s your man,” she said. “It’s just that one time he was doing a Pap. I mean he was right in the middle of it. My feet are in the stirrups. And the lights go out all over the hospital. And he just . . . “


“Well, he waited until they came on again. He didn’t say anything. Nothing to break the tension. I lay there in the dark, my legs spread, and listened to him breathing, while the greasy speculum slipped out of me.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“The lights came on. And he finished the job. He just went on like nothing had happened.”

Not sure about that, I thought.

My next friend said that she had a great guy she had known for years. He was practically a friend.

“It’s just . . . “

“What?” I said.

“Well, his sense of humor is a little strange. It’s okay with me. But you might not like it.”

“Like what does he say?”

“Well, the last time I was making an appointment with him he said, ‘Great, I can’t wait to see that luscious bod. I’ll be waiting, with my tongue hanging out.'”


“He was just joking.”

Not my guy, I thought.

My next friend said that she had met her gynecologist in acting class. He was a Renaissance man–doctor, painter, actor–and Buddhist.

“It’s just . . . “

“What?” I said, weary.

“It’s just. Well, he’s handsome.”

“So what?”

“Well. Some people don’t like that in a gynecologist,” she said.

“How handsome is he?”

“Very handsome,” she said. “He played the Devil in a scene for acting class. And he was so sexy that the women couldn’t take their eyes off him.”

“Your gynecologist played the Devil?”

“He was good,” she said.

Pat and Spence join me in Dr. Sammy’s office. I look out the window and see sky clean as a blue sheet, sunlight bouncing off white squares of concrete in the street below, glinting cars maneuvering in a parking lot. I try to imagine Dr. Sammy as the Devil, and my mind skids to a short list of things I’d be willing to trade my soul for.

“So let me see here,” he says.

I hear him open a file, but I keep my attention on the sheet sky. Spence climbs into my lap.

“He’s three now?” Dr. Sammy asks.

I think, Get to it, get to it. What does the file say?

“Almost three,” says Pat.

“I’ve got some stickers,” says Dr. Sammy. He pops out of his reclining chair and sprints out of the room.

Spence squirms off my lap and on to Pat’s.

Is he stalling? I wonder. Are the stickers a delaying tactic while he gets up the nerve to say that while getting information about my fertility status, he found out that I’m riddled with cancer? It’s a brain tumor, I’m sure. I’m always sure it’s a brain tumor. Wait a minute–he didn’t go anywhere near my brain. It would have to be ovarian cancer. I see myself six months from now wearing a turban, looking thin and impossibly beautiful, being wheeled into Spence’s preschool graduation ceremony.

Dr. Sammy bounces back in with stickers and hands them to Spence.

“Stickers!” Spence says, sliding off Pat’s lap onto the carpet.

Dr. Sammy plops down in his chair, grabs the file, and leans back again.

I see Pat in my hospital room, moving the tubes aside, and carefully lying down next to my waif-like body. Hanging onto my last few breaths, I whisper, “I loved only you.”

“Your progesterone is good,” says Dr. Sammy.

Pat looks at me, smiles, and grabs my hand like we won something. It’s not cancer.

“Pat’s sperm is good.”

Pat nods like he knew that all along.

I look down to see Spence sitting in the middle of all the frog stickers he’s stuck to the carpet. He looks up at me and smiles. King Frog with his subjects.

“So what is it?” I ask.

“Well, Brett, it’s nothing really,” says Dr. Sammy. “It’s just that you’re forty-two and your eggs are old.”

“But I don’t look like I’m forty-two,” I say. “Forty is the new thirty.”

A patient smile spreads across his face. “Not biologically,” he says.

I realize at this moment that I hate him.

“Old eggs?” asks Pat.

“Mmm,” says Dr. Sammy, leaning forward, his beaky nose hanging over his weak mouth. “A woman has only a set number of eggs at birth. She loses these eggs as she gets older, and by forty, the eggs that remain are old. They’re tired.”

How old are they? I hear in my head. So old they need a walker just to get over to the uterine wall.

He goes on, “There’s a higher risk of chromosomal problems. And it’s harder to get pregnant.” I watch as he rests his talons on top of the file.

“Christie Brinkley had a baby at forty-four,” I say.

“I’m not saying you can’t get pregnant,” he says. “In fact, if I were to bet on a forty-two-year-old getting pregnant, I would bet on you.”

“You would?” I ask. My voice sounds girly and flirtatious, not my own.

“You’ve got everything going for you,” Dr. Sammy says. “You’ve got the blood pressure of a teenager.”

“I do?” I ask, giggling.

“And your uterus is in great shape. Pink and healthy.”

“Pink. Great,” I say.

Dr. Sammy is such a handsome, kind man, I think. We should have him over for dinner sometime.

Spence grabs onto my knee and pulls himself up from the frogs. Pat raises an eyebrow at me and turns to Dr. Sammy. “Well, we wanted to know what we’re dealing with because if it looks unlikely that we’ll get pregnant, we’re going to start looking into adoption,” he says.

Spence pulls on the neck of my shirt. “I want more stickers.”

“Just a minute,” I say, prying his fingers away. “Dr. Sammy’s talking to Mommy.”

Dr. Sammy laughs.

“Well, that’s a sure-fire way to get pregnant–start adoption proceedings.”

“Really?” I ask. I look at Dr. Sammy’s lovely, long fingers.

“Stickers,” says Spence, his voice insistent.

Pat reaches over and touches Spence’s hair.

“Just a minute,” I hiss. “So why would starting to adopt make me pregnant?’

“Well, it’s nothing scientific, right?” he says, winking at Pat. “It’s just the way the world works. You get what you want when you’re looking the other way.”

“STICKERS,” screams Spence.

“Spence,” I say. “This is my turn. I get to talk to the doctor now. You are not the only person in the world.”

Spence’s face drops and he sinks back to the carpet of frogs.

My heart lunges toward him. I want to take it back.

I want to say, “You are the only person in the world. That’s the problem. That’s why we’re here. I’m terrified that you will be alone some day. I can’t sleep, thinking of you alone in the world.” The truth of this hits me like a hokey God moment in a made-for-TV movie.

I hear Dr. Sammy intone more about my pink cervix and attractive follicles. I hear percentages and terms like “artificial insemination” and “donor egg.”

But most of this sounds like it’s bits and pieces from outside a door. Inside, I hold my answer. Turn it over and tuck it into my chest. My answer. The reason for this near-psychotic pining for a second child.

The reason offers itself up and I know that it’s been there since the day my brother was born. It is this: I want for my child what I have. A witness. Someone who will say, “Yes, it’s true. Yes, I was there. We were so very loved.”

Author’s Note: Dr. Sammy was right. The month we started to apply at adoption agencies, we got pregnant naturally. Having had two miscarriages, I was reticent to celebrate and I anxiously waited for blood to appear. When we hit the fifth month with no blood, I finally realized that we were actually going to have this child. We told Spence that he would soon have a brother or a sister (so longed for by me, so that he wouldn’t be alone), and he said that he’d rather have a dinosaur named Spencer.

Brain, Child (Winter 2004)

About the Author: Brett Paesel is a contributing editor to Parents and blogs at She is the author of “Mommies Who Drink.”

Illustration by Sarah Solie

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.



Isn’t Forty Kind of Old for That?

Isn’t Forty Kind of Old for That?

By Ann Whitfield Powers

spring2008_powersMy mother’s visit is supposed to be low-key. This is the third time she’s traveled across the country to help us since we adopted Zachary, and it’s the first without a nerve-wracking event on the agenda: no trip to the hospital to get the baby, no visit with the birth parents, no visit to the lactation consultant to learn how to nurse an adopted baby.

We’re just living life, taking the kids to the park, grocery shopping with Zachary while my older son, Patrick, takes a dance class. And so we’re back to being a good team and tolerating the familiar low-level tensions, letting the little things slide.

As we wait in the grocery store checkout line, my mother eyes an Outside magazine without pulling it off the rack. I unload the groceries with one hand, cup baby Zachary’s bare foot with the other, and admire our cashier–an older woman with a mane of long, gray ringlets, dramatic jewelry, and a steady patter with the customers. The cashier ohs and ahs over Zachary as she swipes cans and boxes and weighs the oranges mechanically (organic oranges are so expensive! I can almost hear my mother thinking). Then the cashier pauses and gives my mother and me an appraising stare.

“Let me guess. You’re the two grandmothers, aren’t you?”

My smile freezes.

She grins. “I just think it’s great when the grandmas get along.”

The store seems ultra bright, and everything moves in slow motion, especially my thinking. I try to grasp what she just said. I look like the other grandmother? How can that be? People usually guess that we are mother and daughter, we look so much alike. It’s obvious, they say.

The cashier concentrates on the groceries, suddenly silent. I feel pressure to say something. But what?

Should I try to put her at ease, excuse her for the mistake that I think she knows she made. Should I make light of it, make a joke? Or should I tell her straight up, slam dunk, the message that not only young women have children? Should I make a point of claiming my child as my own? Is it disloyal this way I am standing here silently, grin frozen on my face, letting it slide? And laced through it all, the stunned question: Do I really look as old as my mother?

We walk out. As the automatic doors slide silently shut behind us, my mother says, “I’m sorry.”

“It’s nothing,” I say, but we both hear a tinge of bitterness in my voice.

“I take it as quite the compliment,” she adds hopefully. Then she sighs. “But it probably doesn’t make you happy.”

I smile and shrug. Never before has anyone suggested that I am my mother’s peer. She is a beautiful woman, but she looks, well, she looks old.

That night, I turn on all the bathroom lights and look closely in the mirror and see them–a series of V-shaped lines etched on both sides of my mouth, like lines of geese flying north. As I turn my face, the lines fade and reappear depending on how the light hits them. I think of Tennessee Williams’s fading beauty Blanche DuBois putting a lampshade on the bare bulb in her sister’s apartment. That always seemed like a reasonable plan to me–it made the apartment more attractive. Was it such a crime to choose flattering light? Apparently so, according to Stanley and Mitch and my students. I taught A Streetcar Named Desire to college sophomores, and God, they hated Blanche (delicate, destitute, desperate to hold onto a refined plantation elegance that has long since slipped through her grasp).

Anyway, I have to admit that at this point, I look more like an aging Stella–the practical, earthy sister–than Blanche. I’m chubby, matronly, obviously more of a mom than a Southern belle. I wonder, idly, if I could create a merged version of both women. But then I’d be named Blella … or worse, Stanche.

One day, in my last semester teaching English literature–when we were about three years into our quest for a second child and I had finally succumbed to the pressure to take the entry-level fertility drug, Clomid–the class was discussing a novel in which a middle-aged woman pondered getting pregnant. A cute, usually silent boy piped up to say, “Isn’t forty kind of old for that?”

A few of the girls tittered nervously and glanced my way. I said nothing. I hadn’t mentioned my quest, and yet somehow it seemed that they knew. And then it dawned on me: They didn’t know about the second child I was trying to conceive. They were embarrassed for me because they knew about my first child. Yes, a six-year-old at my age. Imagine. Maybe they knew this because the previous spring I had brought Patrick to campus on Take Your Child to Work Day. Walking back to my office with Patrick, one of my former students had shouted to me from across the street:

“Hey, Professor Powers!”

I waved. I didn’t remember her name, but remembered her as upbeat and sweet and always willing to participate in discussions.

“Is that your grandson?” she shouted.

“No,” I shouted back. “He’s my son.”

“I didn’t know you had a kid so young!” she said in the same chipper voice, and then swept her arm in a happy good-bye wave. “See you!”

A sour taste seeped into my mouth. Patrick walked silently by my side. It was impossible to guess what he thought of the interchange. (Years later, he told me that he thought she was “a complete and total weirdo.”) When he was, oh, maybe four years old, he used to brag gleefully to the other kids in his preschool: “My mom’s older than your mom!”

He hasn’t done that lately.

Recently when I was waiting for Patrick to finish class, I overheard one mom ask another: “At what age did we stop wearing makeup to look older and start wearing makeup to look younger?” I smiled ruefully but didn’t say anything. I was fifteen years older than them, easily, and I wasn’t wearing makeup. I hadn’t worn makeup in a long time.

But now, standing in front of my bathroom mirror it occurs to me that I might still have a green tube of wrinkle-covering Clinique cream in the cabinet. I resist the impulse to pull it out. I wish I could say this is a feminist decision–a proud claiming of my age, wrinkles and all–but really it’s only because I am sure that the cream won’t work. My wrinkles are too plentiful and too deep. Like it or not, I’m stuck with them.

I have chosen the path of the older mother. I have fought against the odds and peer pressure and common sense to get right here: a forty-nine-year-old mother of two young boys. Now I’m going to have to live with it, for better and for worse. And usually it’s better.

Neither of our children came easily, and parenting them is as much a challenge as it is a joy; but now the occasional hurtful comment notwithstanding, my life feels right.

I turn off the light and stand in the dark waiting for the bulbs to cool. Then I reach up over the sink and feel my way to the middle light bulb, unscrew it, then for good measure unscrew the bulb next to it. When I turn the lights back on my wrinkles barely show. Call me Blanche. Blella. Stanche. I’m walking away from this mirror and back into my life.

Brain, Child (Spring 2008) 

Ann Whitfield Powers lives in Joseph, Oregon where she serves as the Executive Director of Fishtrap, a literary arts organization.

 Subscribe to Brain, Child