Heart Warriors, Chapter 2-3
. . . Because of my HMO-ish PPO insurance plan and the fact that I was twenty-eight, the midwives didn’t want to give me a twenty week ultrasound like the “What to Expect” ladies and all the preggo- mommy message boards insisted was par for the course.
The insurance company paid for that first one at ten weeks. It’s a one-shot deal unless the doctor/midwife deems it “medically necessary” and codes it accordingly. It’s a rule of numbers, not unlike the one I played to assuage any worry for Flipper since Mandi’s baby found the problems first. My midwives told me I didn’t need another ultrasound, and I believed them completely.
Nothing bad was going to happen to me or my Flipper, but I can’t stand surprises. I hate waiting for Christmas presents, I won’t tolerate suspense in movies, and I lose my mind when my ipod gets set to shuffle. I cannot abide not knowing exactly what’s up, and you do not ever want to take a vacation or plan a party with me. It can’t be coincidence that there are five A’s in my name and my blood type is A+. Being a snoopy, controlling, flawed Pandora type, I had to know if Flipper was a girl or a boy.
During my pregnancy, I drove the five-minute commute home to eat lunch every single day so I could watch two episodes of A Baby Story on TLC. Like those people on the show, I paid lip service to the “we only want a healthy baby” line. But Jim and I both wanted a girl..
Years before, when I ran the Montgomery Ward Children’s department, my favorite part of the job was displaying the frilly holiday dresses. I worried I might be disappointed if Flipper was a boy and I was forced to go with the tracksuits. I was unapologetically shallow. I didn’t know any better. Caught up in my moment of impending motherhood, I just enjoyed the ride.
Still, I had to know whether Flipper was a boy or a girl. The suspense was killing me. On the midwives’ second “no,” I slyly mentioned Jim’s first-cousin-blood-relation was having a baby with omphalocele, and maybe they should do a check since that might be genetic, right?
Oh yes, I played the birth defect card from Mandi’s unfortunate
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hand so I could shop for my baby before it arrived. No, of course I am not proud of it. However, to my dying day I will be glad of it.
We were medically approved for one more full coverage ultrasound. Still, the midwife knew our ulterior motive and suggested we wait until week twenty-three when the baby was bigger.
December 30th was our big day. Our appointment was late morning, and we had lunch plans to celebrate our great discovery. Whatever sex Flipper was, our baby would be great! We brought nothing but optimism into this appointment.
I had a commitment after the appointment to return a narrow black proof book of family pictures we’d taken in November. I was already a week late returning it, and the trip to the studio was an excuse to investigate the cute cafes and bookshops in the neighborhood. The afternoon was ours, and I filled it with expectations of adding pink items to my Target registry. I was planning and expecting, always planning and expecting.
I held my bladder for hours and grew excitedly uncomfortable waiting outside the ultrasound room reading the Working Mother magazine with Rosie the Riveter on the cover. That issue listed my employer as one of the best companies for working moms because they gave new moms breast pumps. Mine was already at home in Flipper’s spacious closet.
Finally, the other couple came out of our room. My turn! The routine exam began with warm goop on my belly. It didn’t take long before our son made his maleness known. Overwhelmed by a wave of love, I saw that baby with his reptilian spine, his tiny skull and looming eye sockets, and his little baby-man-parts on the screen. I didn’t want a girl. I only wanted him, that baby, our baby, and so did Jim.
Flipper was suddenly and forevermore Liam, and any thought of girls disappeared as our glee washed over the room. We watched our son in his grainy alien world inside my own familiar body and brimmed with love, wonder, and not a few tears of joy. No doubts, no second thoughts, nothing existed in that moment but love for our little boy. Nothing ever felt so pure and true or so right in my entire life. It was a perfect moment, and I cherish it all the more for how
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brief and fleeting it was.
We were having a boy, and at the peak of my blissful ignorance
it never occurred to me, other than my bursting bladder, that this exam was taking a long time. I’d never had a complete ultrasound before, so it didn’t seem strange to me that Karen, our ultrasound tech, kept making me shift around for the better part of an hour.
Finally and mercifully, Karen sent me to the bathroom to see if Liam would move. The fact that she muttered “I just can’t get a good view of his heart” more than once set off no alarms. I had no idea that was extraordinary in any way.
Karen should seek a second career as a professional gambler. With her poker face, she’d be a millionaire. We were beyond oblivious to what was coming. Pregnant ladies hear what they want to hear.
My Death and Resurrection
Jim and I rolled down the hall from ultrasound room to the midwives’ office with our fabulous fetus photos. We called both grandmas to gush about our boy. Liam! Liam! Liam! He, he, he! We were having a boy and everyone who crossed our effusive path was made aware of the gender of the child I carried. You’d have thought we were the first people to ever procreate.
Like a powder-blue freight train driven by a maniacal stork, we chugged in for our appointment as if it was no more than an inconvenient station stop on our way to our glorious destiny as Liam’s parents. We were cow-catching every person in our path with entirely too much information.
Once we checked in, a nurse weighed me and took my blood pressure and then tucked us into a corner exam room to bask in our joy. We waited for a midwife we’d never met before. We waited so long that shadows replaced the sunbeams. We observed the fading view on two sides of the building, made a couple more cell phone calls, giggled, waited, looked at our pictures of Liam, and waited some more.
We began to wonder if they’d forgotten about us or gotten busy with another patient. Maybe a woman went into labor during an office visit. We made sport of it because we were too happy to be annoyed. It never once occurred to me that anything was wrong – that anything could even possibly be wrong. We were so young eight years ago.
Rachel finally crept in like a timid rabbit. Perched on the exam table with my back to the door, I didn’t see her enter the room at first. I looked over my shoulder and watched her slink slowly around the
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bed, sigh, and sit on a round medical stool. Rolling up to me, she put her hands on my knees, then took my hands in hers and said, “I have some really bad news.”
I don’t think the pause between Rachel’s first words and her next was more than a few seconds, but time stopped.
I was in free fall with Midwife Rachel’s exclamation of “…really bad news.”I hit rock bottom with, “Your baby has Downs Syndrome and a severe congenital heart defect. . . static . . . neuchal fold . . . static . . . Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome . . . don’t look it up on the Internet, it will only scare you . . . static . . . you should still go on your vacation this week . . . static . . . you might want an amniocentesis. . . . static . . . none of our doctors are available, they’re all gone on vacation.”
Jim and I both cried. In shame, we retreated downstairs after our previous display of “it’s a boy” shenanigans, like vaudevillians realizing they crashed a wake. Everything we had been was now wholly inappropriate. We stumbled out the door to find the air outside.
In the parking lot the day that literally and figuratively started out so sunny had grown overcast. Most of the afternoon slipped away while we were in the corner room, and it was dead winter. I grabbed a naked young tree in the cold air and sobbed uncontrollably. I’d gone rubber-boned as I absorbed the chilling vinegar of Rachel’s pronouncement.
Tears streamed down Jim’s face as he caressed my back. An elderly couple walked by us, their faces awash with pity. Their expressions made me sick to my stomach, and the heat came back to my ears. I felt frozen everywhere else as we retreated to the car.
The narrow black proof book was still in my seat where I left it, like a bookmark for my life. My life I left in the blue Saturn was on a different planet from the one we now inhabited. Jim wanted to go home. I refused. I absolutely could not go home. Going home made this real. I willed myself to return the proof book to the photographer. I had promised, and it was already late.
Jim said they would understand, but I had to take it back. I didn’t think they would understand. I didn’t understand. I offer no
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explanation for that compulsion. Though she was only the messenger, Rachel stole my life away from me, and I was determined to finish this one thing that I’d set out to do that day. It was now too late for lunch and we couldn’t comprehend food. We would not shop for baby clothes. Everything else was shit, so I had to return that book. It was the only thing I had left to do. It was all I could do.
We drove through town to the highway. I called our moms and retracted all of our good news through sobs. . . on voicemail. I imagine them both off telling their work friends about the new grandson, how excited we were, and how we kept saying we wanted a girl, but they’re so happy now. After all those years together and wanting a baby, “Jim and Amanda are so happy now.”
Only now we weren’t happy at all. Not a drop of happiness remained in my body. It was as if I was brimming with it and a nuclear explosion detonated, incinerating every drop of my joy in my flesh with a flash. All that remained was an ash shadow of that glowing happiness from a couple of hours before. It took all my energy to not blow away.
I was unintentionally cruel that day, making Jim drive me thirty miles and back to return a stupid proof book and telling two grandmothers to expect a broken grandchild on voice mail. I still see them, our own mothers, returning to their desks, checking their messages expecting congratulations but hearing me sobbing and incoherent, stealing back all their joy.
I was the instrument of aftershock lying helpless in the rubble of my own life. I’ve never found the strength to ask anyone else about that day, to apologize for my insensitivity. It never occurred to me that there was collateral damage as I carried the time bomb in my own body.
When we hit the cloverleaf to exit I25, I wailed like a banshee, “I don’t want a retarded baby!” and instantly felt guilty and evil for saying it. This poor baby that I wanted so badly only hours before and years before that did nothing wrong. Liam didn’t change anything, but everything had changed.
For years whenever I found myself cresting the incline of that exit, I was seared again with guilt for rejecting my child in
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that one wicked moment. It’s been eight years and I’m still trying to take it back. My empathy lapsed for our mothers, but I never stopped thinking of our child.
We parked a few doors down from the photography studio, and Jim waited in the car. I’d pushed him to the limit. Jim took me this far, but now he was fixed to his seat. Maybe he called his mom, I don’t remember. I was a negligent wife and a wild animal in pain. I was desperate to get that proof book out of my life, as if returning it would set everything right. It was insane.
I was insane.
In defeat, I walked through a hallway lined with gorgeous pictures of pregnant bellies caressed by paternal hands, naked newborns on their father’s hairy forearms, smiling infants, and gleeful toddlers. When I finally made it to the counter, I was in tears again. No one was there, so I shoved the book on the desk behind the counter hoping they would find it.
Just a month before, I’d studied those baby pictures, relishing the time when I would bring my own baby back in the spring to create our own photos to hang in our own house. I relished how after being so good, doing everything right, and dodging the cold threat of infertility, it was finally my turn. I had the goldenrod price sheet at home, a souvenir from when I thought I could plan my own life and set expectations. That time was now over.
I hastily retreated down the hall of shame and held my hands to my face like blinders to block those photos from my periphery. I quickened my step. They were like evil faces staring through a window in a horror movie. All those perfect babies sneering at me and my broken boy, “You’ll never be like us. This isn’t yours anymore.” But, it never really was.
I folded my rubber self back into our car, instantly exhausted. I had been running on adrenaline and now was flooded by sorrow.
The December sky was growing dark as we drove home. Jim took the dogs out about the same time the phone started to ring. I suppose it rang all afternoon, driving our dogs to distraction. But I
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made us take our time getting home. I wanted to stop time.
Everyone knew, everyone called, my mom called twice. The first
time I re-explained what I didn’t know or understand.
My mother said, “I’m so glad you didn’t find out until after Christmas, you were both so happy at Christmas. I’m glad you had
I folded like Gumby, sliding down the door to the floor, and
whispered hoarsely, “I don’t think I’ll ever be happy again.” I shut my eyes. “I have to go.”
Against Rachel’s advice, we hit the Internet and learned about Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome (HLHS). It scared the shit out of us, and for the first time I learned there are things far worse than Down Syndrome. It made me hope for Corky from that TV show Life Goes On instead of the tiny white coffin trapped in my head tearing apart my soul.
My mom called again. She wanted to come over, she kept asking if I wanted her to come over. I didn’t take the hint. I didn’t want her to come over. I didn’t want anyone to come over. I could not bear a house full of mourners. Who was dead? Our two parental bodies were still breathing, all three broken hearts were still beating, but something was clearly dead.
The day we learned of Liam’s massively defective heart and impending mental limitations, I said, “Fuck it,” and took a warm bath. I hadn’t taken a bath in over a year. I stopped soaking in favor of showers when I read that warm baths make it harder to get pregnant. I didn’t take them after I was pregnant because soaking in hot water wasn’t good for the fetus’s heart—seriously, the heart.
I didn’t drink diet soda, alcohol, caffeine, etc. I ate well, slept well when I could, and generally followed the “What to Expect” book like a Bible for the cult of the pregnant. I did everything right. I only gained the bare minimum weight, and I was careful to get the right nutrition. I took vitamins for as long as I refused myself a bath, and it did me absolutely no good. A crack whore knocked up by a heroin addict with AIDS would give birth to a healthier child than ours, so I ran a bath.
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I forgot myself for a few minutes in the warm water and thought, “I should shave my legs,” but my razor was nowhere to be found. Jim took it while the tub was filling. When I asked him why, he looked at me so sadly and said, “I was afraid you might do something.”
Jim was afraid because he knew that when I was fourteen I’d been on the edge of suicide, and if anything could drive me back there, wouldn’t this be it? But I laughed out loud, because as horrible as this day was, and it was truly the worst day of my life, I felt no desire to end my existence, much less by disassembling a Daisy razor.
In that one moment of inappropriate laughter, I realized that as dark as things were and as scared as I was, I had survived a worse mental state as a teen and emerged stronger. Truly, my suicidal teen phase held no catalyst as obvious as what I now faced. Yet, I trapped myself in a private hell at fourteen because I couldn’t see any way out at the time. With no social skills, no coping skills, no self-esteem, and no recourse as a child, I was lost. Now I was twenty-eight. I wasn’t a little girl any more. Yes, I was terrified for my son, but I was not afraid of myself and I didn’t want Jim to be afraid for me either.
This night, fourteen years later and a lifetime stronger, fearing for my baby’s life, I couldn’t see the way forward, but I knew in that instant, as surely as I knew I would never kill myself, that there was a way. I would do whatever was necessary to save my baby. No matter what Liam was like I would love him unconditionally. I already did but it took my brain a few hours to catch up with my heart.
I would survive this conflagration. I might not know the exit in all the smoke, but I was going to find the way for Liam, for Jim, and for myself. I arose from that bath like a Phoenix from her ashes. A naked, bald, badly-beaten, scorched and mangled Phoenix, but I was ready for a fight. The prototypical pregnant lady was dead, but a Heart Mom was born.