Parallel Planes: The Ghosts of Mothers and Daughters
My doctor is talking, but I don’t understand. Just one minute ago, I was watching my twelve-week-old fetus flail its tiny arms and kick its tiny legs on the sonogram screen above me. Its heartbeat was steady, its measurements spot on. What the hell could possibly be concerning?
I must force myself to listen. I am alone at this appointment—my husband and I had talked and talked about him taking the day off but finally settled on my coming alone. Everything about the pregnancy had been going so well. Besides, if there were signs of a disorder, we’d run more tests and figure it out. This appointment was not worth risking his new job.
But I can tell from my doctor’s face that things are no longer going well. I am scared and I am sinking, sinking, sinking. Don’t sink away. I ask my doctor to repeat herself.
“I absolutely had to see my baby girl,” my mother said as I drove her from the airport to my Brooklyn apartment a few months earlier. She hadn’t come to New York since I’d first moved as a clueless college grad ten years ago, and it was exciting to show off the city that now felt like my home. We walked down bright sidewalks, perused vintage stores, drank Coke and ate pastries in cute cafes. Still, her trip wasn’t easy. There were moments when she grew so tired we had to sit on a bench and forgo the day’s plans, when panic overwhelmed her so intensely we had to drop our place in line and hail a cab home, when her legs twitched so fiercely she couldn’t get comfortable enough to sit and eat what we’d ordered. But instead of fretting over all this, we both simply accepted it. For the first time ever, we talked and laughed and genuinely enjoyed each other’s company even in the midst of her struggles. It all felt so natural; the only strange parts were that she’d willingly stepped onto a plane—something she’d sworn off long ago—and that she’d been dead for four years.
I woke with a jarring jerk to the sound of my alarm. As I moved through my morning routine, I couldn’t shake the tingling in my skin or the thick fog whirling around my brain. Mom’s trip to Brooklyn felt less like a dream and more like a parallel reality in which she hadn’t died but instead had lived and aged the way she really might have: her skin was looser, more wrinkled, the twitching and confusion from her meds more pronounced, yet she was also wiser, more acquiesced, somehow even fuller of love. And, as always, her hair was dyed and styled into that adorable jet-black bob she’d maintained throughout everything—even her psychotic break and the medicated decade of side effects that followed.
I’ve had plenty of Mom dreams since her death, but none of them startled me in the way this one did. I just couldn’t make sense of it. But then, later that night as I stared in disbelief at the third positive pregnancy test I’d peed on, I realized it hadn’t been a dream but a visit; my mother had come to tell me the surprise.
I slid down the wall to the cold tile of my bathroom floor, heart pounding so hard I thought it would burst through my breastbone. How the hell had I let this happen?
Ironically, I did want another child. In fact, Dave and I had taken a baby-making sexcation in the spring while Lewis, our toddler, had stayed behind with the grandparents. But when Dave was surprisingly laid off right before we left, we nixed the pregnancy plans (the sex was still fun).
While things felt more promising by the fall, we still weren’t ready. Dave had picked up some freelance work but nothing regular. I, however, had gotten a second part-time job that was supposed to become a full-time gig by January. My new plan was to work my ass off, get the promotion, settle in, make a baby. Between my jam-packed schedule and Dave’s unpredictable hours, we both often said, “Aren’t you so glad we didn’t get pregnant?”
And then there I was, two weeks into the second job, holding a pee stick and freaking out.
By the morning after, I was all in. With a twelve-month financial plan in my head and some candy and a card in my bag, I came home ready to convince Dave everything would be fine when he shared a surprise of his own: he’d been offered a real job that afternoon.
“Wow!” I exclaimed. “Just… wow.”
I handed him the candy and card, a cheesy note about how he needed to eat up so I wouldn’t be the only one with a big belly come springtime. His face changed as he read it, then he turned to me with tears in his eyes.
“You’re right—wow. But the timing is perfect, it truly is.”
I got thick fast. By week seven, my favorite pants no longer fit. I was planning to hide Baby Wow until the full thirteen weeks had passed, but since this was already a challenge, I began daydreaming about whom I would tell and how they’d react.
Still, my anxiety disorder ran wild. Every time I felt any wetness between my legs, I’d rush to the bathroom, positive it was the beginnings of a gruesome miscarriage. I also regularly envisioned myself staring at a sonogram screen of a motionless fetus, its heart rate a line of nothing beneath it.
But at a week-nine appointment, Dave and I heard Baby Wow’s strong, thumping heartbeat, and our joy became explosive. The chances of a miscarriage were now down to less than one percent. At week eleven, we decided to tell Lewis, who’d been asking questions, plus a few more friends.
“You have a guardian angel,” one of them said, and I nodded, knowing my mother had brought me this baby then worked the rest out for us.
My doctor takes in a long, deep breath, then tells me again that my baby doesn’t have a skull. I lean forward as if this might keep me from sinking, but it doesn’t. I bob in and out, catching only bits and pieces as she continues.
Chromosomal disorder. Lethal. One in a thousand. Brains exposed. Liquefying. Dangerous. The safest option: immediate termination.
I am a naive fucking idiot. After all that freaking out, I now wish I had miscarried the baby so that I wouldn’t be on the phone with the hospital scheduling an abortion for Thanksgiving break while my body continues to expand and shift even though the life inside of it is slowly dying.
I am furious with my mother. She is not my guardian angel; she’s my bad omen. I did everything right, dammit. I took all the right supplements, ate all the right foods. I loved my pregnant body. I believed in my mom. And now, because of some strange chromosomal disorder on a random gene I have never heard of, it’s over.
Fuck. How many other terrible ends have I not yet imagined?
I have to talk about it. There are people who know I’m pregnant who now need to know it’s ending. I wonder if I ever should have told them in the first place. But even worse—I just can’t accept that I will never feel my baby jab at my ribs, never smell its head or touch its skin. I want to be a mother of two, of Lewis and of this baby, my Baby Wow, a nickname that now feels disturbingly appropriate.
I need to hear myself say it out loud to make it real.
It is two days after the sonogram, three days before the procedure, as I am calling it now, and I am wandering around my apartment in a stupor.
Earlier this morning, Dave and I told Lewis we are sad because the baby is sick and will not be born. He stuck his lower lip out and cried. I told him it’s okay to be sad, I’m sad, too, we can be sad together and one day we will feel better together. He sat on my lap and as we both cried, and I cupped the back of his ninety-eighth percentile skull and reveled in the mystery of how one kid can have so much while the other has none at all.
This waiting game is killing me. I just want it done. I’m trying to be present in these final days with Baby Wow, to fall back on the Buddhist practices I’ve spent the past twelve years developing, to experience whatever comes up without getting lost, but I can’t; I am too full of sadness and anger. I hate that I am pregnant, that my pants don’t fit, that my hips hurt. I hate that when Dave looks at my body, he sees our loss instead of just me. And I hate most of all that I don’t get to have my baby.
I feel my mother here with me, and, for the first time since the sonogram, her presence is comforting. I suddenly remember the doctor saying that an embryo develops its skull (or not) around week four of a pregnancy. Mom visited at the end of week four. I absolutely had to see my baby girl.
Maybe she hadn’t come to tell me the good news but rather to prepare me for what she knew was ahead.
I try to channel her strength, but even though she is here and my husband is here and my bright-eyed, beautiful boy is here, everything feels so lonely. I am trapped in a hole without enough strength to climb out.
I read obsessively about anencephaly. Knowledge is power, of course, but there is a difference between educating oneself and reading the same stories over and over at 3 a.m. Still, I feel connected to these women who have posted their raw sadness on message boards and blogs, who, like me, feel there is no place for them in the real world but that here in this virtual space with strangers, we are safe.
I keep looking for an article to change things, a study to prove my doctor wrong. Instead, I find stories of women oppressed by governments and religions that make it illegal and immoral for them to take care of their own bodies, forcing them to undergo dangerous pregnancies for babies who, if not born dead, typically die a few hours later. I discover there are four cases in recorded history of babies with anencephaly who survived more than a few days, and each one reads like a nightmare.
I seethe with rage on behalf of all women who do not live in a place like New York City with protective laws and qualified professionals. Not once have I considered what my senator or state judge might think about my situation. My decision to end this pregnancy now, rather than continue on knowing the risks, is based on four factors only: me, my baby, Dave, and Lewis.
As a Kentuckian raised in United Baptism, a strict sect of evangelical Christianity, I decide not to tell my family until everything is over. I’m not sure if they’ll support or judge me. This contributes to my grief, but also my rage. How could anyone not support their family member through such trauma, medically necessary or not? I list in my head all the people I grew up with who’d posted their “pro-life” views on Facebook, and I try to imagine the comments they’d make about me if they knew. I wonder if my aunts and uncles, the mom I babysat for, the friends I went to Sunday school with, would think of me as evil, if they would pray for my soul.
In Buddhism, there is a parable called the “Sallatha Sutta,” or “Story of the Two Arrows,” that explains how we humans cause a lot of unnecessary pain for ourselves. The main idea is that the first arrow—an injury, the loss of a job, the death of a loved one—hurts when it pierces us, but instead of simply being in this, we double our pain with a second arrow—our grief, anger, denial.
I keep thinking about how losing Baby Wow also means losing an entire future I’d become so excited for: my three-year-old Lewis holding his new sibling, my two teenagers arguing over the bathroom, my grown kids visiting me during the holidays. But is grieving this future the first arrow or the second?
The Buddha once said that we experience pain because we experience love, and that when we feel extreme pain, we should look for the love underneath it. Perhaps it’s time to sit down and meditate on that.
My grief has lodged itself in my throat. I can barely speak. This physical sensation brings me back to both times I lost my mother, first to her mental illness and then to her death, and I can’t seem to disconnect losing this baby from losing her. I wonder if daughterhood and motherhood are so much the same that grieving one means grieving both. Or maybe this is how grief works. Maybe new losses make old losses feel fresh again; maybe we’re supposed to take time to visit old ghosts.
The day is filled with pre-op tests and appointments. At 9 a.m., we enter a waiting room where three other women with watermelon bellies are playing on their phones. I want to scream. Instead, I hide in a corner until a nurse calls my name. Dave squeezes my hand as we follow her down a hallway to a room in the back. I lie on the bed, paper sheets crinkling, then the doctor lifts my shirt, squirts warm gel onto my skin, and sticks a long needle into my stomach to extract a sample of my placenta. When she is done, a nurse turns on the computer’s sound and the “whoosh whoosh” of our baby’s heartbeat floods the room. I laugh out loud.
Lewis mentions his sibling a few more times that evening then cries when I remind him it won’t be born. I want to be here for him, but I am scared and my thoughts run crazy. What will happen to my anxiety disorder when, in just twenty minutes, my uterus goes from pregnant to empty? What if I wake up and still think I’m pregnant? What if I don’t wake up? The chances are minimal, yet the chances of a baby without a skull were also pretty low.
I breathe in, put my hands on my belly, and tilt my face toward my baby. “Oh honey, I’m sorry. This is not what I want. I want you. I want to have you and get to know you and watch you grow up. I am so sorry this isn’t going to happen. I love you, Baby Wow. Please know that wherever you go next, you’ll have my love with you, okay? I want to send you off like that, full of my love. I want you to know you were loved.”
Back in high school, a few men I knew from my restaurant job regularly volunteered to escort women from their cars to the front doors of the abortion clinic in Louisville. They did this because a group of Christians would picket, yell, and even throw food at these women. As I lie awake in bed the night before the procedure, I envision a row of people attacking me as I walk from the parking garage on 17th Street to the hospital on First Avenue. My heart races, and I burst out crying.
The whole morning is unreal. I feel nothing but exhaustion and hunger. We have taken care of all the details: Lewis is with my in-laws, Dave has found a sub for his next two shifts, and I’ve made arrangements with both of my jobs then have Thanksgiving break to recover.
This. Is. Happening.
The staff is ready and waiting when we walk into the clinic. An especially kind nurse ushers us to a room where I change into an oversized gown and a pair of standard, non-slip hospital socks, then sit in a chair next to Dave. I immediately start to shake. He touches my hand to comfort me, but instead I am startled and twitch, knocking him away.
“I’m sorry,” I say. He waves off my apology, his expression filled with nothing but love.
The room suddenly feels too small and I can’t breathe. I pull my legs into my chair, rest my hands on my knees, and meditate. I am aware that I am breathing in, I am aware that I am breathing out, I repeat until my body calms itself. Then I think about how much I love this baby, how I will send it off with compassion, how I will not let my anxiety overpower my love. I open my eyes as the anesthesiologist walks in. He tells me the names of the drugs in his needle and asks for my weight, then the doctor who will perform the procedure comes in and guides me to my feet. I am calm, focused on love, but when we enter the operating room, I freeze.
It is a scene from a horror movie. A long chair with foot stirrups sticking out like bear traps. A fluorescent light buzzing brightly above it. Shelves filled with aspirators and tubes and things that look like large funnels. I can’t, I just can’t, this is not what I want, this can’t be happening, I’m going to puke. The doctors hold my trembling arms and lead me to the chair. I remind myself that this is the best choice for everyone, and I love you Baby Wow, I love you, I love you, I love you.
My uterus feels exactly like you might imagine it would feel to have the lining of one of your insides scraped and removed; it burns and stings, and even though my belly is still bloated and swollen, I feel emptied. My baby is gone.
My abdomen cramps, my back aches, I bleed heavily into pads, and I cry and cry. Now that I’ve sent Baby Wow off on a rainbow of love, I just want to wrap myself in grief. Yet while I am heartbroken for myself, I feel ripped apart over the women who go through this alone or with shitty partners, over the women in alleys with doctors whom they have no choice but to trust.
My dad still doesn’t know. While he’s always been more open than others in my family, the slim chance he wouldn’t support me had been enough to stop me from calling him. But now, it is over. I dial his number, heart pounding in my throat as he answers. I stammer for a minute then finally say, “I lost the baby.”
“Oh Beck, I’m so sorry. Did you have a miscarriage or did they have to take it from you?”
I gasp, shocked by the question yet also completely moved by the phrasing of it. “They took it,” I whisper.
“Honey, I’m sorry. That’s so hard. I love you so much.”
His complete acceptance overwhelms me, and I feel some of my pain release. I realize that I’m actually glad I told so many people; now that it’s done, I need them.
The next day, Thanksgiving proper, my hormones tank. One minute I feel joyous to have Dave and Lewis and then the next I’m audibly weeping. These sobfests often coincide with intense bleeding, sweaty armpits, and colostrum oozing from my nipples. Dave looks concerned so I say, “I’m okay, just leaky.”
I am cold then nauseatingly hot then cold then hot again, and I feel all kinds of strange aches and pains as my body moves through the process of realizing its no longer pregnant. I need to meditate. I have refused to since the abortion, knowing that if I did I would accept it. But as I finally lie down and breathe in, I realize that letting go of grief doesn’t mean forgetting—Baby Wow will always be my number two.
I tell myself not to open that email, especially not now while Dave is at work and I am alone with Lewis. But two months have passed already. I have grieved and processed. I am ready. I click the attachment and instantly realize there is no way to ever be ready for that very first line: “Sex—Female.”
A baby girl. I am gutted, wailing, my throat so knotted that the sound of my howl isn’t coming out. I’d wanted to learn if my genes are flawed or not; I hadn’t wanted to learn about my daughter. Now, as I flip through page after page of results for my “female specimen,” the fact that everything was normal—except for her fucking skull—brings me no comfort.
But despite how insane and terrifying it feels, I know I will try again one day. And what happens if number three is a boy? Will I wish he were something else? Why does this even matter so much?
Perhaps Baby Wow will somehow be a part of my next child, in its cells or its soul, whatever its sex organs are. Maybe that’s where she is, waiting inside of me for another chance to come out. Or has she moved on to another place? And what will she feel like next year and the year after? Will my daughter still be with me, or will she become one of those old ghosts I visit only when a new loss makes her feel fresh again?
“Mommy, you’re sad?” Lewis asks as he touches my knee. I thought he was absorbed in an alphabet game out on the couch, and I hadn’t noticed him walk into the bathroom. Now I feel like a terrible mother who has neglected my living son over a female specimen who survived only twelve and a half weeks inside of me.
“Yeah, honey, I’m sad.” I think of the articles I’d read about how to tell your toddler his sibling is dying before she is born and I add, “It’s okay to be sad.”
He climbs onto my lap and wraps his arms around my neck. “I have you now, Mommy, you’re safe. I love you.” Then he squeezes me in a hug that truly does relieve some of my pain and suddenly, I feel so full.
Lewis can sense the shift. He pulls back and grins. “You’re happier now, right?”
I can’t manage to do anything but smile at that adorable face of his. A face that looks so much like my mother’s.
“Yes, I’m happier now,” I say.
He is proud of this. As we embrace in another hug, I realize that the Buddha is right: underneath all that pain, there is so much love.
Rumpus original art by Clare Nauman.