“I think there’s something wrong with your baby’s brain,” the doctor says, her voice level, but her face as colorless as her starched lab coat. When the radiologist went to get her, Charles and I assumed that’s standard procedure.
I’m reclining on a padded examination table, my swelling belly glossy with ultrasound gel. Alone in the darkened room, we’ve been marveling at the black and white images of our fetus, our son, our baby-boy-to-be, who we’ve just learned is so phenomenally clever he’s already taught himself to suck his thumb. We saw it happen, in real time! It’s January 1992, and the miracle of watching a fetus tumble in its liquid cocoon is brand new.
I had no idea that my heart can inflate to hold this much love. I count off the remaining weeks on fingers tingling with anticipation. He’ll be pink and round and pure, and I’ll swaddle him in softness, breathe in his powdery scent, clasp him to my breast, and make sure he is happy and healthy and safe.
The doctor speaks again. Cradling my future firstborn, I’m not listening. “Pardon?” I prop myself on one elbow.
“Your baby’s brain. It’s not developing normally.” Her words punch a hole in my expanded heart, which deflates with a swift whoosh, a silvery helium balloon twisting atop a tree branch.
Dandy Walker Syndrome?
Excess fluid. Brain could splay apart.
Might live six months.
Can’t be sure he’d be in pain, but yes, probably.
Given the fetal age, you have three weeks to decide whether to terminate. Could fly to Oregon for the next five, though.
Baby could be fine. New technology. Not a lot of data to interpret findings.
My imagined baby’s face contorts, distorts, its features pulled and stretched like Silly Putty. It writhes in my arms, beneath its blanket, reptilian. I put the back of my hand to my mouth, trying not to scream.
As I shuttle between fetal-abnormality specialists, my life telescopes to five-minute increments, the farthest horizon I can manage. Go to the office. Try to write. Go home. Make dinner. Eat dinner. Feign sleep. Charles tosses back whiskey while I choke down dry spoonsful of wheatgerm, willing their nutrients to fix my baby’s brain. Some mornings, my hands shake so hard Charles has to help me put on my pantyhose.
Will the baby be okay, or not? The doctors quote percentages, their sentences filled with “likelies” “probablies” and “hard-to-says.” My attention horizon narrows by half, as the termination-decision-clock ticks, the pages of the calendar turning faster than I can think. I ask myself what “okay” even means.
Is having a baby who’d die in a few months a generous path—at least he’d have lived and been loved? Or is giving him life, where he’d know not only love, but also pain, a selfish one? What if he’s disabled, but lives a long life? Am I strong enough to raise him? Can my marriage handle the stress? The financial burden? How far from “certainly” are their “likelies” and “probablies”? What if the fetus hovers in the statistically smaller interstices?
I don’t know how to raise a healthy baby and my heart skips when I think of raising a special needs child. My heart stops, when I think of bearing a child I expect to bury before his first birthday.
My thoughts carousel from abortion to full-term to disability to healthy to death, never resting on any vision of the future. I probe the people close to me.
“You need to think this through,” my parents say. “You really want to bring a child into the world who’s going to suffer?” I don’t, of course. But what if I deprive myself of having a healthy child?
“Living with someone disabled is harder than you’d think,” my uncle says, referring to his wheelchair-bound wife. “It’s a life sentence for you both.” I gasp, praying my aunt isn’t within earshot, wondering if he’d tell her that my baby is a millstone.
“Go read a poem,” my mother-in-law says. “Something uplifting. You’ll be fine.” I do not read a poem, uplifting or dark, and I am not fine.
My sister doesn’t tell me what to do. She simply answers my late-night phone calls, listens as I spin out rants, tears, terror, and bravado until I can breathe again.
“He’s our little guy,” Charles says. “If he turns out to be our little guy with problems, he’ll be our little guy with problems.” For the moment, his believing we can handle any outcome, together, wipes away my struggles with generosity and selfishness, fills the gaps in my own strengths. He shoulders my trust, and at least for that day, I welcome the lighter load. It’s his baby, too.
As the pregnancy inches on, differences in our physical experiences are profound. Naked in bed, we both see my ballooning breasts start to leak milk, as silvery stretch marks start to feather my abdomen. His body, of course hasn’t changed. He wears his same suits to work, while my old underpants pinch and I can’t button my skirts. He drinks more whiskey, while I reach for milk. What I drink, the fetus drinks.
One afternoon I realize that if I go into labor, if he’s not by my side he won’t even know, unless I call him. He could be at work, or at the movies, or in bed with another woman while my body convulses, tears, and bleeds of its own volition. The gulf between our physical realities as would-be parents is vast. I have no idea in what way that impacts our emotions, but it must be equally profound.
The abortion-clock is running out and I am desperate for certainty, but the doctors can’t give us a concrete diagnosis. None of them, or anyone else, will tell me whether I should have the baby or end the pregnancy. No one says, “Here’s the right thing to do, here’s the decision you’ll never regret.”
Then it dawns on me that no doctor, family member, friend, or clergy can possibly tell me what’s best for me. It’s Charles’ and my baby. But it is my body.
In the end, the decision must be mine.
This piece appeared in Santa Fe Writers. Click Here.