The Alchemy of Love:
A birth story.
As we sped down the highway past thick fields of sunflowers and clouds of migrating monarchs on the road to the Mexican border, my spine-broke copy of Stephen King’s The Stand on the dash and a pile of CDs on the floorboard, the horizon was two outstretched arms before us. We were listening to Phish, Ben Harper, Ben Folds Five, and we were new enough at adulting that the world vibrated with possibility.
The thought of ourselves as parents was as alien to us as the notion that we would one day carry the equivalent of powerful computers in our pockets at all times.
It was 2005 when I realized how much I wanted to have kids. I was working in a combined Pre-K/Kindergarten classroom as a teacher’s assistant. Every morning, I would fold my legs underneath me on the carpet. Small souls buzzed around me like bees, shoving Dr. Suess and Curious George books under my chin. They would slide their small arms around my shoulders, grab my fingers with their warm, tiny hands. I helped them trace their names before we sat the small table crafting Play-doh dinos and fruit. Stooped down to their height, I saw the world as magical and big again in a way I had already begun to lose, buried underneath a decade of waiting tables–the turn of seasons, the simple pleasures of play and pure human interaction, of putting pride and ego aside to care for someone small.
Soon we were in our late twenties, and all around us, friends were having their second or third child. When more than one of my friends began to face heartbreaking fertility problems, I realized the thing that had never occurred to me. Suddenly the fact that we had not discussed when we would have children or if we would have children in anything but vague terms was an orb of fear beginning to materialize behind my lungs.
Thing is, Justin was always the kind of person that when he was ready for something, he was ready, and I kind of always knew that, but it’s a very deep thing to realize the person you’ve invested your life with, your ride or die, may not be on the same timeline or even life plan as you. Experts say you’re supposed to talk about that kind of thing before you get married, but experts don’t take into account people who move in when they’re practically children themselves and live entire lifetimes together before they even think about starting families.
I like to ruminate on things, work them out in my mind and spend ages planning them and psyching myself up, but two years later when Justin was ready to have kids, he was just suddenly ready, and funny thing, I was still kind of working it out. Apparently, my public school sex ed did not serve me as well as I thought, because when I found out I was pregnant less than two months after the, “Okay, I’m ready,” conversation, I was in a state of disbelief.
I knew I was pregnant about four days before the EPT test knew. Food was strange in my mouth, like plastic or wax, and I experienced what I knew had to be implantation bleeding. I was wracked with ambiguity and anxiety…was I supposed to be thrilled? How many of my friends would give anything to get that blinking judgment, “Pregnant”? Was I ungrateful? It did not seem real to me.
This was back in the early days of the Myspace Apocalypse, and I was experimenting with blogging for the first time. I coped with my feelings in the only way I know, if somewhat naively, by writing them in exquisite detail with a raw honesty that was not suitable for mass consumption. As my pregnancy progressed, I was stricken with debilitating headaches and nausea so severe that the very mention of a food item would send me into a cold sweat. I wanted to wrap my mind around my baby, but as hard as I tried, she was an abstract idea floating somewhere in the atmosphere, not tangible like the gripping migraines that plagued me. I tried to perform the emotions expected of me–excitement, anticipation, maternal love–but it wasn’t a switch I could just turn on.
As the weeks went on, she gradually took on more meaning. She was the size of this fruit and that fruit, the pregnancy guides told me. A grape, a kiwi.
And when she was the size of a plum, she began to be real to me, a glowing light of human consciousness unfolding within me like origami. We were crossing the threshold of the second trimester at last. I wrote to her, I dreamed for her, imagined her with strawberry blond curls. And then one night, late in the night, a pain seized my abdomen and fear crackled through me like ice fracturing on the surface of a pond.
The moments of that night and the next day are flashes from a dark dream. The Indian hospital emergency room was cold and bright. The baby was fine, the doctor told me, giving me morphine, brushing me into a room with no explanation, and I stayed there, this pain grabbing me like a white-knuckled fist, not understanding that I was in labor. Hours passed, most of a day, and then they said they were going to give me Pitocin and I still did not understand. The baby was fine, this was the thing I knew, the fact written in stone, with a strong heartbeat and boundless potential. They gave me a narcotic that made me feel as if I was folding into and away from myself, a bleak, terrifying feeling, and finally, I drifted in a strange haze, shivering in the dark, Justin beside me on the chair. And in the night, I lost my child, and it was the worst moment of my life.
My friend Steve once showed me a meme of a person patting their sick friend on the back with a broom so as not to touch them. It read, “There, there.” This is exactly how society addressed miscarriage until recently.
If writing about my pregnancy ambiguity had an alienating effect, the candor with which I wrote about my loss was a razor-sharp scalpel, rapidly severing connections in every corner of my life. I felt split in half, raw. Everything inside of me felt like my road-burned skin after that time I wrecked a scooter on the highway.
It was an infection, they told me. A UTI or something that I never knew I had.
I named her Umeki, “little plum” in Japanese. Nothing mattered to me outside of losing her; all of my relationships had taken on a flat quality like old cola left out overnight.
And then I was pregnant again, too soon probably from the standpoint of healthy psychology, but I had something to pour myself into, to layer on top of that pain, not a poultice but a bandage to hide it beneath, a coat of paint. And I was sick again, migraines and nausea and the same dull ambiguity; I lost 15 pounds this time and even more friends, but I had to get through it on my terms. My ob/gyn conducted ultrasounds at every visit, like someone crossed a Magic Eye picture with a Rorschach test and somewhere in that negative print image was a human soul.
By the second trimester, I was checking rates of survival obsessively each week. I tagged along on Justin’s work trip to Las Vegas, and while he was at his conference, I walked around the Strip, lost in color and sound, carrying my journal with me, scratching out poems and verbal snapshots of imagery, quietly talking to my baby. Although it never left completely, the nausea began to quell, and some of that early doubt drifted away, leaving a quiet tranquility.
I was driving back to work from the long ultrasound where they look at all the baby’s parts and organs the first time I called him by his name. In the dark, cool room, thick ultrasound jelly spread across my navel, I saw him, all of his features, this small soul tucked away inside of me, ablaze in alchemy. I felt I knew him, like I had always known him since before I was even born, and with his name, I breathed him into existence like some ancient incantation.
The week before Christmas, I witnessed my first son’s birth not knowing he would someday be my child. He was a red, wriggling bolt of lightning. With his first breath, the room shifted from sepia to brilliant Kodachrome.
Months passed and eventually, he was squeezed into my short frame so I could hardly move. Even in utero, Arthur had the temperament of a still ocean, gentle currents of rolling and stretching but never kicking up strong waves. We had a yellow submarine baby shower and painted his room to match. He was due on Easter, the doctor told me one Wednesday, but because he was so big and I would be at full term in three days and already dilated, she would break her own rule and induce me in the morning if I was willing.
I dropped by Justin’s workplace to tell him the news. “Do you have plans tomorrow?” I asked slyly. He would have to check.
I smiled. “Would you like to meet your new baby?” To this day, I’ve only ever observed that level of excitement in my husband when he was walking in to a concert or stepping off the train in Amsterdam.
I wanted to accomplish two things before I went home for the night. I was going to get a manicure because I imagined it might be a while before I felt fancy again, and I was going to follow that up with a big, shame-inducing sundae because I knew that after the baby came, I would be watching my food consumption.
As I waddled into the nail salon at Ulta, the techs joked about me having my baby in the store. “Trust me,” I assured them. “This kid is not going anywhere.”
I was standing in line at the register to pay when I felt a sort of shifting within my lower abdomen and instinctively, I knew what was about to happen. I signed the receipt and grabbed my card in a wave of sweeping, frenetic motion and shuffled hurriedly toward the exit. As I lunged across the threshold, there came what can only be described as a cinematic gush of amniotic fluid onto the pavement, onto my legs, into my leather Justin Gypsy boots, and unlike in the movies, it kept coming. I walked in quick, strange lunging strides to the car, laying my jacket across the newly detailed seats.
I dialed Justin and told him I was going to drive myself back to the hospital. “But I’m supposed to drive you!” he protested.
The excitement turned stale quickly. The nurses admitted me and hooked me up to a monitor, where I watched it register huge contractions I could barely feel for hours. I wanted to walk, to do all the good birthing ball type things a mother is supposed to do in labor, but my God, the sheer volume of sticky amniotic fluid every time I moved was astonishing, and I kept telling myself I would walk some more when I was further along with this whole situation.
Thirteen hours later, at dawn, my doctor came in to deliver some disappointing news. “When you got here, you were dilated to 5 centimeters. I’d be exaggerating if I said you were at 6 at this point. We need to go ahead and do a C-section.”
I sobbed. I felt like a failure. I begged her through my Stadol haze to give me more time, give me a chance, but I also knew I had no control over my body’s failure to dilate.
The O.R. was a blur. The exhaustion and the drugs overwhelmed me, and I began to wretch. They gave me Phenergan, which caused me to blink in and out of consciousness, and when they showed him to me, he was a pink flash that did not register like a paragraph read too quickly. Back in my room, the drugs were wearing off, and I realized in a tearful panic I didn’t really see what he looked like.
After a heartbreaking eternity, the nurses brought him to me, a thick, fluffy auburn mohawk down the center of his head. He was thick and small; a study in circles; a dense, pink loaf of bread. He was a beautiful, quivering round thing, face like a cookie. I loved him completely.
They call babies born after a loss “rainbow babies.” Arthur was a bright, healing prism, radiating electricity and photonic magic who breathed his first breath exactly 365 days after I lost his sister. Back at home, I placed him on his infant papasan and talked to him about everything in this life and dreams from beyond. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him, his beautiful, perfect cookie face, his sturdy cinnamon spirit.
A week later, I was holding him and began shaking uncontrollably. I was re-admitted to the hospital with a dangerous abdominal wall infection from my c-section, leaving Justin home with his new son and a full-time job while I underwent emergency surgery and a donor tissue transplant.
Eventually, things settled down again, and Arthur was the center of everything. His red hair fell out and in its place grew loose waves the brassy color of patina. Everything was Arthur–Arthur with his sticky pancake face, Arthur with eyes the color of seawater, Arthur eternally cuddling his red Elmo doll and curled up like Curious George against the man in the yellow hat.
Three years after Arthur was born, we took Arthur to his grandparents’ house for the night, and in the cool pre-dawn, shuffled into the hospital. With Arthur, I was at the mercy of circumstance. But with his sister, I planned everything. I knew the date and approximate time she would be born and felt in control. A former student who had gone on to become a nurse held my hand as my doctor and a specialist for the donor tissue made the incision; I was alert and calm with Justin at my side. And then there was Lucy, a bright, glowing angel of light radiating translucence against the O.R. light. I was back to my room in time for the next episode of Sopranos, home in a couple of days.
Parenting infants and young children is a study in extremes: delightful, exhausting, beautiful, terrifying. It is 3 a.m. checks to make sure they’re still breathing, not being able to feel your arm while you watch your show because your toddler has fallen asleep wrapped around you. It is reliving the thrill of everything you love through another person’s eyes.
As we move into the next phase of our lives together where piggyback rides are replaced with high fives and play dates with robotics tournaments, like all parents, we find ourselves reeling from the changes. But unlike many, we don’t resist it. Each inch of height and word added to their vocabulary is an affirmation that they are safe, alive, becoming the human beings they are meant to be. Beyond all the things we can’t control is the improbable sorcery of human consciousness and the glittering genesis of human connection. It is breathtaking to behold, and I am profoundly grateful for the honor.