Across the sea in a paper boat
[The following post departs from my usual tone in that it discusses a very recent, raw and personal tragedy. It also touches upon a sensitive political topic. I’ve disabled the comments on this post but I know you’ll read it with the kindness and compassion so integral to the readers of my blog. For this, and for everything else, I thank you.]
A week ago today and on the way to our doctor’s appointment, Walter and I stopped for some coffee.
“I haven’t felt this good in months,” I said to my husband.
After enduring twenty weeks with a queasy spouse, his face showed quiet relief.
A week ago today, I was pregnant. With coffee in hand and suspense in our hearts, we were en route to learn the sex of our baby. Were we to have another daughter, or a son to steady Walter? A brother or a sister for Poppy?
“It’s a girl,” we had said.
“No, maybe a boy.”
“Oh, it’s a girl. Yes, definitely a girl …” and so forth till we made it to 20 weeks, that distant and gladly reached milestone of pregnancy.
A week ago today, we entered a room that smelt ever so faintly of lemongrass. A sonographer rubbed gel on my belly before carefully, quietly, beginning to do her work. Grey smudges appeared on the screen; broken blots that coalesced now into images of an undersea creature, and now into visions of the cosmos. Slowly, and with deft strokes, blotches turned into a baby — with a head and bent knees and little fists in front of the face. “It’s a boy,” the sonographer said with a flatness to her voice. Walter and I blinked with surprise. Of course, it was ever thus, but for us it seemed that he’d just vaulted into creation.
A week ago today, we were having a son. As we waited for my doctor to ‘interpret’ the scans, our family of four had grown clear. Visions of Poppy as a bossy sister caused Walter to throw his head back and laugh, roars of mirth splitting his face like a hinge.
A week ago today, and for a glorious half hour, Walter and I felt complete. But when my doctor walked in and pulled her chair close, we knew that this wasn’t so.
She said: “I’m concerned about your baby and I won’t mince my words.”
Indeed she did not. Words about his head shape, and his spine. About his kidneys and his liver and his bladder. Words about chromosomes and the fallibility of screening tests. Words about a lifetime of pain and suffering for our little boy. Words, many words, about unlucky accidents of fate.
A week ago today, our doctor allowed us to leave by the back door, to use the fire escape, to avoid the mothers carrying babies whose lives stretched with promise before them. With me carrying my son, whose future was dark, Walter and I exited that world via a flight of concrete steps.
A week ago today, Walter and I felt the anguish of choices, each devastating in their result. Within the space of one dazed morning, we spoke to doctors, to perinatologists and to a genetic counselor. We learned that our baby, even if he made it to term, would need invasive medical care for the rest of his life. If we were to ‘interrupt the pregnancy,’ we’d have to make the decision that day. That day, because this is Texas, and because politicians get a say in our most agonizing and private decisions.
A week ago today, Walter and I chose to stop the life of our child before he had a chance to know suffering. As we drove to the clinic, a place buried amidst a spaghetti of highways, we couldn’t fail to notice the security around the place. Cameras, double-doors and restricted walkways reminded us that our lives were now bound up in America’s most heated debate. Also, fifteen days prior, a new Texan law had come into effect requiring women seeking terminations to have a mandatory sonogram. The woman must also listen to a detailed description of the baby. Here in Texas, men with triumphal smiles, men who’ve never had to wrench their hearts in two, have now turned this extra layer of pain into law.
Thus, overlaying horror upon horror, Walter and I had our third scan of the day, and heard a reluctant doctor describe what he saw of our sick child. The doctor spoke so softly that I could barely hear and I cried so much that I could barely breathe. Twenty-four hours later — a mandatory waiting period imposed by the new law — we returned to the clinic to say goodbye to our son.
A week ago today, I was pregnant. Seven days later, I’m someone else. It seems that learning to live with the loss of a child — even one you haven’t yet met — is like trying to cross the sea in a paper boat. The ocean is vast, my vessel flimsy, and I wonder whether I’ll ever reach that distant shore. Yet as I look around, I see a sea dotted with fragile craft, all of us bobbing about in the waves. Since that horrible day last week, Walter and I have been overwhelmed by the flotilla of loved ones who’ll join us on this crossing.
Day by day, and thanks to those who love us, we get better at steering across this sea.