The Sunday Rumpus Essay: A New and Magical Life
My father had been dead exactly six months on the day I found out I was pregnant, which was also Mother’s Day. For several weeks, Jason, my husband, had noticed my insomnia giving way to deep, vampirish states of unconsciousness and my water consumption skyrocketing. As we were driving back from another tense visit with my mom, Jason gingerly asked if I felt up for taking a test. I dismissed his concerns. I was still raw with grief, prone to snappish, reclusive moods that preceded sunshower displays of joy. In the months after my father died, I’d turn biting and brutal over the minutia of housework, drift easily from conversation, get lost in the Internet for whole days in bed. Then I’d walk the dog in a glorious spring rain, blare pop music, call a friend and laugh until my throat burned. I lived at the poles of life. I startled myself.
I sulked in the car, unable to distinguish my emotional state from my hormonal state. Earlier, at our Mother’s Day lunch, my mother had told me she talked to my father whenever she wanted, leaning on her faith that her ex-husband was alive in heaven. “If you believed, you could talk to him, too,” she said, convinced it was a matter of choice. She was sad and frustrated that I reported feeling him as nothing but an utter earthly absence.
My period was five days late. On the road, I had no escape. Jason pressed me about the test. “It’ll probably be negative,” he said, “but imagine the great story it could make. Becoming a mother on Mother’s Day.”
At home, I went alone into the bathroom. As soon as I set the test on the sink, two pink lines appeared.
I was slightly hungover, and a muted shriek sounded in the back of my head—dehydration, and now, thinking of last night’s wine, panic. I breathed a soft string of Oh-my-gods as I showed Jason the positive result. Then I took a very long shower.
Before my father was diagnosed with renal cell cancer the previous year, Jason and I had been serious about getting pregnant. We went to the requisite doctor’s appointments, bought ovulation kits, stocked up on First Responses. We learned that conception could take up to a year, with our monthly chances hovering around 15-25%. My father’s cancer, on the other hand, progressed rapidly; by the time his urologist discovered the tumor on his CAT scan, the cancer had already spread to his lungs. Three days later, while he watched TV at home, his heart stopped. The paramedics could not restart it.
As his only child, I was appointed executrix of his estate, which included a multi-family house and a neighborhood bar that my father had owned for nearly twenty years. Overwhelmed as unwitting business owners and landlords, Jason and I shelved our baby plans. We didn’t resume using birth control, but we stopped our scheduled sex, and how often we copulated fluctuated wildly with my moods. We paid no attention to my cycle. I was no longer having sex to conceive a child; I was having sex to give sound and body to my grief. I thrashed and wailed and clung to the bedframe. Sex unleashed a quaking relief as I fucked my way back to something tangible and familiar in Jason’s body, and then sobbed afterward when the room settled back into this new configuration—my father’s briefcase in the corner, a chasm in my core. Sometimes, in the quiet after I’d stop crying, one of us would half-joke that maybe I’d gotten pregnant. That night. That morning. That blue hour when I woke from a dream and needed Jason’s weight on top of me, needed him to hold me by a fistful of hair. “What if?” he’d say, waiting for me to finish his thought. But I never did. Hope like that felt too dangerous to let into the room. It seems a silly question now, that what if—of course I could have gotten pregnant—but it seemed impossible then. Grief is a protracted suspension of reality, or a different reality altogether. The very idea of new life had become impossible in both ruinous and radiant ways. Biology was akin to magic.
If it happens, it happens, we said. We’d welcome good news if it came. We could use some good news.
* * *
My father’s death had launched in me a need for change. At the gym, where I went nearly every night in the weeks after he died, I could not run fast enough. I wept as I ran. Sweat and tears soaked my moisture-wicking shirt, and I ran harder, trying to run right out of my skin. When a song I loved shuffled on my iPod, I’d listen for a minute, then switch to another song I had to hear as rabidly as my father’s voice. I thought of his ashes still in their velvet sack on my night table. I fantasized about where in the world I could take them.
He’d given me no instructions for his remains. My father had never been a traveler—when he died in late 2012, his 1999 Nissan had 36,000 miles on it. He’d never expressed even the faintest desire to get on a plane. Maybe I would take his ashes to Thailand, where his brother had died, scattering them in the Nor Noi grass where the air base used to be. My job search, once confined to a two-state radius around my upstate New York hometown, expanded to Chicago, Tampa, Reno. I could live in Reno, I thought. I could learn blackjack and befriend sex workers in the legal brothels. I could haul my father’s ashes up a huge bare rock in the desert and let them fly across the shifting, sifting sand. I could go the desert and disappear in the west, just as he had disappeared.
Before I got pregnant, I hung out frequently on Craigslist, looking at apartments in distant cities. Jason would wander into the bedroom and find me moving us into a two-bedroom in Merced, California, or a converted barn in Whitefish, Montana. I fixated on teaching English in Tehran or Hong Kong, and pushed Jason to file applications with me. When he resisted, I whined about not wanting to die like my father, never knowing how many ways we could find to be happy. The space my father vacated kept expanding. I felt saddled with freedom, a mandate, it seemed, to live in a bigger world.
But with that first positive test, my concept of change shifted. Instead of traveling the world, I became a world. My body felt toxic with grief, a contaminated land of fault lines and sinkholes and dramatic temperatures, and yet something had taken root there. I thought about the nature documentaries my father and I watched where filmmakers travel to the most remote places—the Tanami desert, the Taiga forest—and find animal tracks, rare cold-weather plants. Life finding a way even in the most inhospitable environments.
I took more pregnancy tests while I waited for my first prenatal appointment, a torturous four weeks later. Each positive test brought on a vertigo that turned my insides liquid, sloshing. My parents had been divorced for twenty-eight years, but in all those years, my father had remained devoted to my mother. After the divorce, he lived the rest of his days as though loneliness was a bitter but familiar medicine, a panacea against other suffering. When he was diagnosed with cancer, I told myself that ushering him through illness would prepare me for motherhood, but I don’t really believe in this kind of bargaining. I knew my suffering wouldn’t insulate me from more suffering. That the baby (was it safer to call it a fetus?) was not a talisman. It would not protect me from more grief. It could, in fact, be lost, as well.
I cried nearly all the time that first month. The numbness and nightly gym-going of early grief caved to the most intense loss and fear (and nausea) I’d ever experienced. I didn’t even need a trigger to cry—no Humane Society commercial or smoky smell of my father’s sweaters. Jason would install a water purifier or make me an elaborate, vitamin-packed dinner, and I would crumble under kindness meant to help nourish the baby. The pressure to keep something alive under these conditions was overwhelming. I pictured my uterus filling with stress-induced cortisol like an incubator filled with mustard gas. I lived on the Internet, reading forum after forum about panicked mothers who drank alcohol before they knew they were pregnant. I stared bleary-eyed at the comments that called these mothers stupid, selfish, unfit. At every twitch of my abdomen, I was sure I was miscarrying.
I bought more tests. To keep Jason from knowing, I took them at the gym or the coffee shop next door. I tried different brands: First Response, AccuClear, E.P.T., Clearblue Plus. I took them at different times of day, sometimes one test in the morning and another at night.
In total, I took twenty-three tests. All were positive.
But with the short-lived relief of another plus sign or double pink line or even a digital “pregnant,” there also came more fear and, somewhere beneath that, resentment.
There were few people whose company I craved after my father died. Very few who didn’t flinch at my anger and its awkward manifestations. I was thirty years old and the first of my close friends to lose a parent. Grief was isolating, an experience that made me unknowable to the people who loved me. When a friend was able to touch the burned parts of me, I felt resuscitated. One day, I met my friend Jaime at the coffee shop. It was a busy January morning, two months after my father’s wake. All the seats inside were full, so we sat outside on the bus bench clutching giant Americanos in our stiff, freezing hands. The wind lashed at our faces as we watched the buses wear grooves in the slush. I recited all the vapid, unhelpful things people had said to me that week. Jaime lit a clove cigarette and wittily quipped about what we called the “Cult of Positivity, Where Everything Bad is Just Good in Disguise.” I felt blissfully uncensored with her, at home in my misery and the frigid, hostile weather.
But anger and babies make an especially unsavory combination, and when Jason and I went public with the pregnancy, I usually regretted telling people. Most often they expressed relief that something good had finally happened to me. After months of bearing witness to my grief and its snowballing losses—my father, his sold car, his donated clothes—many wanted to celebrate my pregnancy as an antidote. People mentioned the “cycle of life,” as though I had come around on a continuous loop from death to birth, as though my baby (fetus?) was an inevitable joy I had coming to me, a wellness earned by enduring the illness of grief.
“But what will you say if I miscarry, or if the baby dies from SIDS?” I said. More like spat, sniped, hurled in defense. The person would recoil and fumble. “Oh, well, I hadn’t thought about that…” And I’d watch the excitement melt away from their face and feel satisfied. Because I’d undermined the platitude that everything happens for a reason. Because I didn’t want to be alone in my sadness and fear. Because if I couldn’t be happy about this baby, I didn’t want anyone else to be, either.
What happens when two roads do not diverge, but merge into a frenzied freeway? Emily Rapp, who lost her two-year-old son to Tay-Sachs disease, wonders if it’s even possible to draw narrative lines when life’s major transitions—birth, death, new job, new city—tempt us to make a getaway from one life to another. In her essay “Grief Magic,” she recounts a friend coming to visit the converted church Rapp now shares with her new partner in a tiny desert community in New Mexico, the home she moved into a few months after her son’s death. Looking around the striking space and lovingly landscaped grounds, the friend asks, “Do you feel like you’ve stepped into a new and magical life?” As though the house, with all its beautiful, spiritual quietude, and the relationship, with all its energy and promise, could cancel out the horror of Rapp’s loss, erase her haunted memories, remake her existence not as a mother whose child died after suffering a merciless disease, but as a woman embarking down the more redemptive narrative road of romance and gardening.
Despite Rapp’s pleasure in this narrative, she can’t relax in it. “The problem is, I’m still on call,” she says. “I’m like an alcoholic who doesn’t drink anything but worst-case scenarios, or anything else I can possibly do to cause self-torment (erroneous emotional algebra is a special gift of mine, where something = something else, and the equation is always wrong) as a way of giving my brain something to do apart from ruminate on those final images of my son’s wasted body lying in his crib, gone.” The habits and familiar feelings of her old life—grief-wracked but meaningful—keep edging into the more palatable story of her new one, a life she’s not sure she wants to separate from the one she had with her son.
For me, the idea of a new story was crushing. I wasn’t ready to let becoming a mother make me relinquish being a daughter and any insistence upon that made me hold on tighter to my grief. In our cultural script, the baby began a new narrative, one that didn’t include my father. I wasn’t ready to let him be that gone.
The other response I heard was grounded in religion. When I expressed sorrow that I couldn’t tell my father about the pregnancy, many people automatically countered with, “He knows.” They often used my name: “Amy, he knows,” or, “You know, Amy, that he knows.” My father, whose only dying request was that we not hold any religious services in his memory, was not a believer. When he was dying, neither of us turned to prayer or made promises of seeing one another in the hereafter. He never assured me that he would always be with me, watching over me. And while I’m grateful that we agreed on something so fundamental, there was a great loneliness about his death, a loneliness that some believers mistook for arrogance.
My mother firmly believed that my father knew I was pregnant. “I know he’s happy,” she told me. She herself was overjoyed. It had been difficult for her to grieve her ex-husband; she wasn’t sure how to qualify her loss. Like Rapp’s friend, my mother hoped my pregnancy would be a new beginning, and her Christian beliefs allowed her to feel comfortable setting aside her grief to celebrate her new grandchild, then a cluster of dividing cells she would never have deigned to call a fetus. She was flabbergasted at my constant tears, then helpless to comfort me, then angry. “This child may not be ‘real’ to you yet,” she emailed me when I was ten weeks along, “but it’s real. It’s real to me.”
One day in May, two weeks after Mother’s Day, I met Jaime at the park where she was babysitting a chubby nine-month-old named Toby. We spread out a blanket and plopped Toby between us. His arms and legs were like bread dough, fat and squishy and smooth. He’d graduated to solid food, and as we talked, Jaime pushed rice crackers and cubes of tofu into his eager, wet mouth. She pulled his floppy hat on his head, and he pulled it off and flung it to the ground, delighted with his growing strength. Jaime, an on-and-off professional nanny, tried different combinations of clothing to keep Toby happy—hat, no hat, shoes, no shoes. She tickled his legs and softly brushed his bulbous cheeks with her fingertips. She was a patient caretaker and, lithe and beautiful at thirty years old, looked like she could be Toby’s mother. People smiled as they walked by.
We’d come to the park to discuss how I was feeling about being pregnant. “I’m eschewing hope,” I said, pulling at the young grass.
Jaime laughed. As we talked about feelings of doom, she showed Toby his reflection in the baby mirror. He tapped his fingers against it, recognizing himself. There I am, his drooly grin said. The sun drew hard shadows on the ground, and we scooted between them, shade, then sun, then shade again. We kicked off our shoes. We pushed our sunglasses up and down on our faces as the light slanted toward and away from us.
“I don’t think it’s fair that my father ‘knows’ and I wasn’t the one to tell him,” I said, still trying for humor.
Jaime’s head turned at a sincere angle. “Have you thought about how you would’ve told him?” she said. “Do you want to tell me?”
It was such an unassuming offer, and I was stunned by the quickness of my tears. Jaime was making room for my father in my baby’s burgeoning life. There it was again, the world getting bigger. I thought about my own death, and Jason’s death, and, someday, our child’s death, and how life, in its relentlessness, would find another way.
I considered my words. “I think I just want tell him I’m pregnant,” I said. “I want to see him smile. I want him to hug me and tell me it’s going to be okay.” It was child’s request. The basest desire for comfort and love.
Jaime nodded. Then she smiled and hugged me.
My father actually knew of our plan to get pregnant. A few months before his diagnosis, Jason and I met him at the bar and told him what we were working on. “No kidding?” he said. “That’s great, hon.”
We even had a name picked out if we had a boy: Frederick, my father’s older brother’s name. Freddie was killed in 1968 at an air base in Thailand while serving his second tour during the Vietnam War. It was an accident. My father was eighteen. I never met my uncle, and I never knew my father without his grief. It was part of him as a parent, and I could see it sometimes in his slumped posture, a sadness I couldn’t name or cure. I know now that grief—for his brother, for his failed marriage—was responsible for my father’s sharp, inconsolable moods, for his desperate way of loving, for the times when he’d call me to him and say, “I’m just so glad you’re here.”
In the low, yellowed light in the bar, Jason and I watched his eyes soften with tears at the idea of his brother’s namesake. He was already sick, already dying, though none of us knew it yet. “Really?” he said. “Gosh, that means the world to me.”
* * *
At my eight-week ultrasound, the baby looked like a just-hatched Tyrannosaurus, a lump of body with two claw-like arms reaching into the black universe of my uterus.
But at twelve weeks, the baby looked like a baby. Its head had quadrupled in size. Its arms and legs waved away the wand pressing down on my abdomen. Jason and I watched with open mouths. His face spread with a rare toothy smile.
A few days later, waking late after a night of nausea, I was making the bed after Jason had left for work. As I pulled the quilt up to the pillows, my hand slipped on the fabric and lightly thumped my belly. “Oh, I’m so sorry, baby!” I said.
I was alone. And then I realized I wasn’t. The baby had eyes, I’d read in our pregnancy book, and could curl and uncurl its fingers. Soon, it would be able to hear me. When it was born, it would recognize my voice.
Across the room, I glimpsed a framed photographed of my father and me, taken several years before at my cousin’s wedding. In it, we sit with arms around each other. Two sets of dark brown eyes and wide smiles betray unmistakably shared genetics. Every time I looked in the mirror, I saw a chimera.
After my date with Jaime and Toby in the park, I’d gone home and impulsively dialed my father’s phone number, giving in to an urge so primal it made my hands shake. I was relieved when the atonal beeps sounded that the number had been disconnected. I don’t know what I would have said had someone answered.
Yet the urge wouldn’t go away. Even if I knew that, like the baby at twelve weeks, he couldn’t hear me, I had to speak to him. Acknowledge him. Acknowledge the place where he used to be.
I picked up the photograph. “Dad, I miss you,” I said. “I love you.
From the piles of applications Jason and I had scattered around the world, Wisconsin came calling. A branch campus of the state university offered two full-time teaching positions in Eau Claire, a small city near the Minnesota border.
Though I’d asked precisely for this—a geographical change, a reason to literally get up and move—and why not to the upper Midwest, the original American frontier, land of beer and cheese?—I stalled on making the decision. Suddenly, it all felt like too much change. What I craved now was stillness. I wanted to lie on the couch undisturbed for the next six months, grieving and gestating in delicate tandem. I wanted my body, emptied by loss and light as blown ash, to fill with something that would anchor me, hold me in place, root me to my own life.
But the pay and benefits in Wisconsin were better, and my mother urged us to take the jobs. “You stayed here for your father, and now you have to go for your child,” she said.
We moved in August when I was sixteen weeks pregnant. At our first appointment with the midwife group in Eau Claire, another ultrasound showed us a baby practically swimming in my uterus, flipping gracefully in amniotic fluid, exhaling in grand, theatrical yawns like a dolphin. It also revealed something else: we were having a girl.
Instead of naming our child after my father’s brother, we decided to name her Benna, after the protagonist in Lorrie Moore’s novel Anagrams. In the novel, Benna Carpenter lives a different life in each chapter—nightclub singer, aerobics instructor, poetry teacher. At one point, she even imagines she has a six-year-old daughter with whom she watches Dan Rather and takes showers and eats pancakes on Sundays, a daughter who embodies Benna’s escape from loneliness. We liked the idea of a namesake whose life was never fixed, but fluid, able to blend and blur and rejoin itself in endless possible combinations, morphing into new roles in a world of constant evolution.
Emily Rapp says, “It’s not out of one life and into the next; there’s always going to be some bleed.”
Jason eagerly began setting up the nursery in our new house. My mother had sent us to Wisconsin with boxes of my old baby things—clothes, a set of needlepoint blocks, wooden pull toys. Jason built the crib and changing table, filled baskets of diapers, hung shelves for toys and books. One night, hyper with new father energy, he asked if I wanted to hang the snake.
I had forgotten about the snake. Sixteen feet long and Sunkist orange, the plush snake had once been mine. My godfather brought it to the hospital on the day I was born. It was a joke; my father was terrified of snakes. My mother found it so funny that she strung the snake along the ceiling of my nursery, where it lived throughout my childhood. Before we moved, she vacuumed sealed it in plastic and tossed it into the U-Haul.
Jason strung it exactly as it had hung in my old room, an enchanting, dragon-like creature curled protectively above the crib. I cried when I saw it. The room felt as swollen as my belly with the grace of ancestry, with both known and unrecoverable things.
“She can hear me now,” I said, grabbing tissues to stanch the tears. “I don’t want her to hear me cry.”
But Jason wasn’t worried. “She’s going to see you cry sometimes,” he said. “It’ll be a good reason to talk about him. It’ll help us tell her about death when she’s ready.”
He led me to the couch where we lay against the cushions, exhausted by the pace and enormity of our lives. They orbited ever outward, yet moved along only one trajectory no matter how much they contained.
So we stretched out into stillness for a while. We lay in the darkness for hours, saying nothing, feeling our lives tick forward, time kept by the steady beat of baby kicks.