Ok folks – big favor to ask. I’m in the process of applying for a writing seminar with two of my favorite female writers. But here’s the deal – you can’t just throw them a check and expect to get in – you have to get accepted. And I need to submit ten pages, which luckily for me, is the same length as my prologue and my first chapter. So while my inner critic is going crazy, I’m looking for some general audience feedback. I know my poor writing group is sick to death of it and have been total troopers watching me baby it week after week until they challenged me to “kill my darling” (which is as bloody and painful as it sounds) and then subsequently helped me get the defibrillator out and resuscitate it into its current form. So if you’re so inclined, give it a read. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Eskimos have over 50 words for “snow.” For fine snow, soft, deep snow, drifting snow, crusts of snow, or fallen snow floating on water. It’s rumored that they have even more for sea ice; large hulking floes, floes with overhanging shelves, sheer vertical blocks of ice, and even one for ice that is dotted with holes like Swiss cheese. So many words to hold the gentle movements and dappled light of a familiar landscape – words so real you can feel them float over your lips and taste them on your tongue.
And yet at 34, as I stood by the virtual smoking wreckage of the life I had planned for myself, I realized I couldn’t find one word to capture the type of loss I felt. Nothing to capture how it felt standing in the perfumed lobby of a funeral home watching the hearse drift slowly down the driveway to deliver my mother’s body. I stood stiff and fragile trying to pick out an overpriced urn, careful not to move too quickly, or else my liquid insides would begin to spill out of me onto the grey carpet. Or just two weeks later, huddled in the front seat of my husband’s car, that the hope I had found in the twins that were growing in my belly was lost. Nor words that could capture the sound that tears make as they fell on a white sheet, a delicate tapping noise, not unlike a tiny heartbeat, which the doctor had just told me would never again come from my womb.
And still I couldn’t find the words. Words to describe the type of loss that I had scraped my white knuckles raw on. Words to describe the type of pain that I choked and gagged on. Words to respond to the offered condolences that lay flat like a doormat or rang like a doorbell at a house where no one was home. There was only the sense that I was stumbling blindly, fingertips grazing the hallways of my life, trodding forward, and nodding slowly to those who apologized for those things and people that have left me or would never be.
But eventually, there was the coming back.
And slowly, the life that I pulled the curtains against began to shine again. While my bones still ached from these losses, I realized that they would not break. And the words began to trickle back in, bringing more light, and helping me to stand straighter. There was a whisper of life calling me outside. As I took the first few steps through the front door and out into the world again, I remembered what is it was to feel again life’s bold beating heart, swim in its bright, vivid colors, and linger with the sweetness of each and every moment, every memory.
This is the story of that journey.
Chapter One: Single Red Lines
I couldn’t tell if that single red line staring back at me from the pregnancy test was sullen or smug. Sullen as it reflected my frown, a Charlie Brown squiggle-faced expression peering in to its display; or smug because it was parroting back the small voice in my head that had grown louder with every month as it whispered in my ear, “You can’t get pregnant.” Most likely it was neither, but as my attempts to become pregnant had morphed from an expectation to a fist fight with my own ovaries, I found myself looking for friends or foes on either side of the action. Clearly the pregnancy test was just the ref, keeping tabs on the fight and at the end of every month, raising the winner’s arm in the center of the ring. This was the eighth time I watched the pregnancy test raise that “not pregnant” arm, reaching it straight across the display with slow determination. It was almost as if it were a forgone conclusion.
It kept its composure, kept its celebration to a minimum as it darkened on the white background; far more than I could as I held its housing in my shaking hands.I tipped the test to one side and then to the other as my panic rose in my chest, feathers brushing up against my ribs as it got ready to take flight. I felt like I had been fighting for months. I was ready for flight. The panic of the single line was only heightened by the fact that I just broke the rules. I had been so conscious and careful, tiptoeing around my own body for months, treating all of my thermometers and tests like surgical tools.
So I got nervous after I picked the test up off the counter, because that wasn’t something you were supposed to do. Don’t pick it up and for the love of all things holy – absolutely do not tip the display back and forth I thought, as I tipped it carefully left and then carefully right. In my mind’s eye, I could almost see a woman in a white lab coat, pale pink lipstick and hair that clung to her head in tight curls who looked vaguely like my grandmother, wagging her finger and shaking her head at me. I hated that. Wagging fingers. Most people’s parents teach them not to point. Mine never did, and it didn’t matter because I was never really a pointer anyway. But the wagging finger made my blood boil every time. On my first day of sixth grade, I stood at the corner across the street from the hulking brick building, having just walked from the high school parking lot. The junior high school and the high school were just a block apart. Moments ago my sister had swerved our ’74 canary yellow Toyota hatchback into a parking spot. As I got out and stood nervously by the passenger door toying with my hair and waiting for some advice on how to survive my first day of middle school, my sister grabbed her back pack and shut the door, walking away without a glance. I watched a stream of students, all of whom looked bigger than me, walk towards the intersection and wait at the light. It seemed like they knew the rules. They knew what to do and how to do it. I didn’t like doing things for the first time. I didn’t like not knowing what to do. I didn’t ever want to be the stupid girl. There was really no worse fate in our family than to be stupid. But I needed to get to school so I pretended I had walked there a million times before as I made my way to the intersection and stood on the corner, tracing invisible designs with the toe of my shoe on the sidewalk. I got lost in the terrors of my imagination of what home room with Mrs. Adams would be like, looked up to see the light change, and without thinking, stepped toward the street. Immediately I heard a loud whistle, turned to see the crossing card waving me back. Instead of leaving it at the overly aggressive gym teacher whistle, she began waving her finger and shaking her head at me once I had take the half step back up on to the curb. I saw a deep, deep red, and it was reflected in the rosiness that climbed up my neck to my ears like a vine. I was so angry I wanted to cry. I looked around to see if anyone had seen my massive, first-day-of-sixth-grade faux pas, but no one appeared to have noticed. When the light did change and I made my way across the street in a river of students, I decided to flip that crossing guard the bird. I had my hand pressed down on my jeans so my defiance was only slightly visible, but still gave me satisfaction as I felt the tip of my left middle finger graze the denim of my new Guess jeans.
Leaning over the counter in my bathroom, I looked back down at the test and couldn’t help thinking that there was something wrong. Maybe one reason the red line hadn’t twinned from a single to a double was that my pregnant pee, bursting with pregnant lady hormones, hadn’t made it all the way into the test. I could see all of those hormones, trying to launch themselves from the tip of the test, fat and waddling their way up the pregnancy test stick, holding on to the plastic side to take a rest before they made it up to the display. Did I hold the test in my urine long enough? It’s possible I hadn’t given those chunky girls enough time to hold on to the strip. Maybe I had the tip pointed upwards in the stream (another pregnancy test no-no)? Could there be something wrong with the test? Just like a two-tailed coin, maybe this test was only capable of showing one line, no matter the circumstances? Maybe this was a bad batch with a broken pregnancy urinary yardstick?
My panic went from brushing my ribs to sweeping against my entire chest, rattling my lungs to exit and made my breathing sound like a rusted fan. Maybe this entire brand of test was bad. Truth be told, this was the second line of tests I had used. Because at first, choosing a test from the wide array at the local CVS had seemed fairly benign. I looked at a few, turning the boxes over in my hands, reading each of their claims on simplicity and accuracy. Some claimed to have the response sooner than others, “Only brand that can tell you six days sooner!” Others touted response rates, “rapid results in one minute.” One even exclaimed that it gave you results in words instead of symbols, “Easy to read results in words!” They all claimed 99% accuracy, and only differed in their pastel packaging, pretty pinks, blues, and purples. After another minute gaping at the tests, I reached my arm out towards the shelf, grabbed one that was the closest to my hand and was not a generic brand, and threw it in my red plastic basket along with some Advil and sunscreen. I shook my head. How crazy was it to have all these tests that did exactly the same thing? I remember thinking – what did it really matter? And as Tony Bennett once wisely said, “Life teaches you how to live it, if you live long enough,” I have come to expect that if there is something that I disdain, anything I pass judgment on, something that I “will never do” inevitably ends up squarely in my lap, staring at me with puppy dog eyes saying, “I told you so.” And my flippant choice of pregnancy tests would become far more serious in the coming months.
My first few tests gave the results using a plus or minus sign. Pregnant or not pregnant. A flashback to my very simple addition and “take away” lessons from Mrs. Wilson’s first grade class. But the more tests that came back with a minus instead of a plus, the harder it was to face the minus. I feared it. More accurately, the more difficult it was for me to face the lack of a plus. With every minus I was reminded of all the additions I was missing out on; the warmth of a baby sleeping on my chest, the tiny fist curling around my index finger, beautiful blue eyes staring back up at me. I was not making any additions to the world or to my family. I was not getting more than the standard grade. Instead, I kept getting minuses. They indicated I was less than, that I was subtracting from the world by my continued inability to get pregnant. For the first four months, I was never a plus. And it was the maddening absence of a plus that sent me back to CVS. To look at those boxes more carefully, and pour over the differences in an effort to ensure the next test gave me a different result. I headed to the checkout line in the drug store with a new test. One line or two. And while the single red line was still technically a minus, it didn’t seem as judgmental. One lined compared to two seemed more humane. Until now. Now I was reminded that a minus was still a minus.
I had always thought that I would get pregnant quickly. My parents often told the story about how I had been a “surprise,” conceived at the Hotel Daniela in Florence while they were on vacation and my mother was on birth control. She was 34 at the time, had an eight year old and five year old already. I came across a picture not too long ago that was taken as I stood in the doorway of the Hotel Daniela sixteen years after the fact with a big smile on my face, grinning at the camera with the excitement of a teenager standing below the sign that was her namesake. What was not captured on film was that smile as it melted into horror as I realized I was standing in the doorway of a hotel where my parents had once had sex.
I assumed that same “the wind blows and you’re pregnant” circumstances would apply to me. So while Chris and I were starting later than my parents had, I still felt that the odds were in our favor. We had decided to “pull the goalie” in June of that year. After the summer passed without us getting pregnant I went to see my doctor. She assured me that after more than a decade of birth control, my body would need to adjust. It would need to shake of the shackles of hormone regulation, begin to regain its own rhythm as it jogged down the street under the trees, stretching its legs and building up its pace. The stress of my new job hadn’t helped, adding hurdles and obstacles in the way. But they were starting to clear and for the past few months, all we had was open road. I was ready to be pregnant.
We had done everything right this month. Chris and I had sex at exactly the right time according to the ovulation test I had taken. I had cross-checked the days using a tracking calendar, and just to be sure, had mapped by temperature using a basal thermometer. A few friends that are church-goers said prayers. Others sent their thoughts, good energy, or big hugs. I meditated, exercised, and slept well. I had already started to follow the diet of a pregnant woman – no more nitrates, sushi or alcohol. I had even taken the drastic steps to kick caffeine to the curb a few months back. It was a tough break up. He grumbled and slammed the door on his way out.
I’d often think about the showers, the registries, the nursery, and hopefully, the little baby girl that would allow me to be a different type of mom. As a mom, I’d mirror my own mother’s creativity, her strength, and her passion. I would put her selfishness, her need for drama, and her addiction in a box on the top shelf in the closet that my children would never find it. And I kept feeling that. And each month passed with just a single line on the pregnancy test. I felt deep in my bones that this test would look different than the others. This was the month that the display would have two lines instead of one. And these past few days, my body felt different. It felt fuller, more whole. My skin felt fresh, my hair thick. Those two lines would tell me that there were now two people in my body instead of just one. That I was now an equal to all of my friends who had children, that I was finally contributing and joining the world of motherhood.
But this test was no different. It had just one.
And with that, my hopes of having a baby flatlined for the eighth month in a row.