Never Now and Always
Published in the anthology Mothering Through the Darkness: Women Open Up About the Postpartum Experience (HerStories, 2014).
Anything that the new year promises hides beneath surfaces of champagne and dancing and unopened cookie-fortunes.
A small blue plus sign appears on the test. Your almost-three-year-old son is curled up in his fort of blankets and you snuggle in with him, trying to stay warm on a January morning. Your husband is working out of state, a couple weeks gone, a few nights home. It’s been like this since summer. Your baby blues may nudge you from somewhere invisible, long before the baby is born.
You make an appointment at the clinic to confirm what you remember, New Year’s Eve, when you’d mutually decided it was time to toss birth control into the trash and dream for another child.
You are thrilled that your son will have a sibling. You worry about the months your husband was deployed overseas. What he might have been exposed to. The years you lived near a nuclear power plant. You listen to morning radio news and realize the whole world is probably doomed. You double-guess your choice to bring children into a fractured world. You are almost 35, so you decide to get tested, to be sure your baby is okay.
All day, every day, nausea reminds you of seasickness. You and your son pretend you’re in a boat of bubbles in the bathtub. You subsist on peanut butter, carrots and macaroni. Safe harbor is weeks away.
weeks six, seven, eight and nine
Your son loves stacking firewood and learns to count the pieces. He pretend-cuts with a toy chainsaw that was a gift for his third birthday. You take long walks in the woods, even on rainy afternoons, and wait for your man to return from sea. You feel isolated and alone. Some mornings, you attend an exercise class that offers friendship, childcare and a safe playground.
You drive to the city to visit the medical center for state-of-the-art prenatal testing. The day before, you visit a dear friend. You’d become mothers the same year; her daughter and your son are playmates. Your friend is supportive and excited about your pregnancy. She confides that she still grieves for the child she could never conceive. She tells you that they hope to adopt again. She offers to watch your son while you go to the clinic. You park four blocks from the medical center and savor the long walk up a steep hill. The teaching hospital is over-busy, and you wait more than an hour for your turn. The CVS probe through your cervix feels like a thousand cramps. They can’t seem to get the right tissue sample.
You realize it was a mistake to do this test. You should have waited a few weeks for amniocentesis. You try to phone your husband, but can’t reach him. On the hundred-mile-drive home, you’re exhausted and stop along the highway to barf. Your son hands you his juice box and a toy tractor to cheer you up.
Your husband returns from a distant state and tells you that he doesn’t want to be so separated. He wants to live all together, up north. You close up your cottage and drive almost a thousand miles to the small port where he keeps the boat.
All day, every day, your husband is working fourteen-hour days. He is also building a second boat and the bills keep coming in and he keeps pressing forward. One evening, you suggest a family day off. You want to explore the islands, or maybe Seattle. Whenever you try to talk about slowing down, it turns into an argument. His anger scares you. Therefore, you’re not entirely upset that he is gone all day, every day.
Your son loves painting. His wild colors brighten up the drab décor of the transient motel. You feel like you’re living in a movie set for a grim film about sad people doing bad things. On rainy days, you prolong every excursion to the grocery store, just to avoid the dreary motel room. You lack energy to play the way you once did. Your son begs to go for a bike ride, but you can’t get it together. You are anxious about strangers, about strange noises outside on the sidewalk of this strange town where everything is gray and damp and bleak.
The medical center calls to say, “Your fetus is chromosomally normal.” You are relieved. They ask if you want to know the gender. You reply that you want to be surprised. You grew up with two sisters and have no clue about raising a boy, let alone two. In fact, you’re having issues with your husband. You glance with envy at other couples, who seem to be enjoying each other’s company. You slowly slip into a thin, icy crevasse of doubts.
The person you now see in the mirror wears a faded blue bathrobe, baggy yoga tights, and she can’t find her hairbrush. She has an extremely rough acne outbreak on her forehead and a rash on her swollen breasts.
You’re trying to park your husband’s heavy-duty pickup in a narrow slot outside the fast food place. You’re eating for 2, always hungry now that morning sickness has abated. Your son wants to play in the happy fun zone. You like the happy fun zone too. But there’s a problem. It feels wet between your legs. You notice blood seeping onto the truck seat. “Let’s just drive through,” you say. You try to make your voice cheerful, but something inside is falling apart. “You promised we could play,” the small boy says.
You order two fun-meals. Your boy is strapped in his astronaut-style car seat and you wonder how to protect him from whatever is about to happen while you hemorrhage to death in a fast food parking lot.
You’re cramping and panicked. You don’t know anyone in this town. Your husband is out at the islands. He can’t be reached by phone. You wonder if you have the strength to drive back to the motel where you’ve been quasi-living for the past month. You could try the marine operator, but aren’t sure what to say.
Your son is amazing. He is entertaining himself with French fries while you listen to a Dylan song on the radio that tells you how a woman can break just like a little girl. You vaguely remember seeing a hospital sign, somewhere on the other side of the harbor—but then—you can’t think clearly at all—you realize it would be too weird for your son to go into an ER with his mommy bleeding like crazy from down there.
You arrive at the motel and try to climb down without your son seeing the crime-scene-sized bloodstains. He notices, of course.
“What’s that, Mommy?”
“Must have spilled some ketchup,” you lie.
You let him unlock the motel door, to buy distraction time. When you burst in, water is running full volume in the bathroom. Your husband comes out and grins. He whirls your son around in the air making helicopter noises.
“Weather picked up. Got a day off!” he says.
His steel blue eyes miss nothing, though. He turns cartoons on the TV, plops your son on the bed, with an excited bounce, and offer of a blankie for a tent. Then, your husband pulls you into the bathroom. Your planet is swirling off-center. You don’t need to pretend to be strong anymore. You’re sobbing, and he holds you with a tenderness that you have forgotten. You collapse on the grimy floor, wishing the bathroom were a cave. He wraps his thick winter jacket around you.
Somehow you find yourselves at a small, under-equipped, rural hospital, where they bring a portable ultrasound into the ER. The radiologist tells you it is week fifteen. Miscarriages at this stage are common. Very common, they emphasize. They offer to let you wait it out on the cold steel table, until you can be seen by the ER doctor, who is busy with a heart attack victim. Or, they could call in the OB/GYN for a quick D and C. You say you don’t want plan A or plan B, or a D and C, you just want everything to be normal. They say that normal is different for everyone. They tell you that your baby is a girl.
One of the deck hands takes your son out to play bouncy ball. In the ER cubicle, a flimsy curtain pulses in and out with the unseen breath of a heating vent. Your husband holds your face against his. You notice his tears. His hands smell faintly of ivory soap and diesel. You imagine you’re on the boat, cruising out to a difficult day’s work in stormy seas. He whispers, “Whatever happens, everything will be okay.” Your husband is no stranger to suffering, having endured two special forces tours of duty in combat zones.
You want better than okay. The physician comes in, speaks quickly; there’s another, more pressing emergency.
“At this stage, we just let nature take its course,” he says. “There is zero chance of your infant’s survival if she’s born now. We hear a normal heartbeat. Sometimes bleeding just happens. Go home and rest in bed.”
Your mind turns over and over.
“Or wait here, and see what happens,” the doctor invites. “You have insurance, right?”
You refuse to let your daughter die in a hospital a thousand miles from home. You’ve seen it in movies where women hide in the bathroom and miscarry and then return to the real world and get on with life. You think, I can handle this. You struggle to calm your breathing, to slow the churning of blood through the superhighway of your arteries.
Your husband turns out to be like superman in an emergency. He’s used to emergencies, stress, complicated emotions, contingency plans, pretending that things are okay when they’re not. That afternoon, he transports you safely back to the motel room, stopping en-route to buy a giant box of maxi pads. He helps your son turn the motel table into a new fort. Your husband is reluctant to leave you alone, but you insist. You’re drifting in and out of sleep. He pulls extra covers over you, offers a glass of water. Your son brings your fun-meal toy and tucks his blue teddy bear in next to you. Then, the guys go out to do guy things: check on the boat and find ice cream. When you wake the next morning, you’re not bleeding anymore.
weeks sixteen, seventeen
The next weeks are a blur of reading The Little Engine That Could hundreds of times to your son. This alternates with looking for Waldo and playing with puzzles that distract you moment-by-moment. Your husband hires a bookkeeper so all you have to do is rest. You are on medication to keep your muscles relaxed. But you feel tense, have migraines, don’t know how to cope.
You decide that you should move back to your real home, that living in the motel isn’t safe. You drive twenty hours and your mom comes to stay for a week. The apple trees blossom. You are still carrying your unborn daughter. You wonder if she will ever be able to climb an apple tree with her brother.
Your husband heads back up north to work, because there are payments to make and a crew to pay. It’s all for the security of the family, but you wonder if any of it is worth it. Now, of course, the hospital bill, and another hospital bill because you started bleeding again. You are prescribed complete bed rest. Your sister comes to visit. She’s your little sister, but now she takes care of you and plays with your son. She cheers you up with interesting conversations and she’s a great cook, which is awesome because you’ve been forbidden to stand for longer than five minutes at a time. No more walks in the forest, chopping wood, building fires. No more exercise class. No more anything that made you happy. No more wine, beer, coffee or sex.
Your muscles atrophy from being on bed rest. A neighbor brings the mail. Your parents take your son to stay with them for awhile. You are glad because he will have fun. You are lonesome, even though your husband now works from a harbor close to home. You rest and daydream. Friends send you cards and bring small gifts that help you get through the ever-longer days of springtime.
One afternoon you feel strong, and decide to tackle one load of laundry. You have always found refuge in the simple repetitive task of washing and folding. A fancy, flowered envelope falls from one of your husband’s jacket pockets. Graceful but unfamiliar handwriting, addressed to him at one of those instant post box places. You can’t help yourself. You read it, while the dryer tumbles around and around and around, and you sink to the floor. Around and around, you are tumbling, hating him, hating yourself. Hating this woman whose name you recall him having mentioned as someone he’d known years before.
You’re freaking out on the inside. Your exterior has turned to stone, like a statue. A goddess statue, with certain body parts missing, strewn across a disaster zone. You bide your time, not sure what to do.
You want to confront your husband but wonder, really: what’s the point? Part of you wants him to run away with her, leaving you and your son and your baby girl in peace. You feel betrayed in a way you can’t put words to. You want to torch his clothes on fire. You want to send a cryptic postcard to the return address on the envelope. You read the letter multiple times for clues. Then you hide it, this unwanted beast, this rabid rat of evidence. You hide it until you can figure out how to destroy it.
Your son returns home from his grandparental getaway and you fall into a rhythm of Where’s Waldo and The Little Engine That Could.
You are too embarrassed to confide in anyone, not even your sister. You are no fun anymore. Of course he found someone else. Someone to take dancing, surfing, to dinner. Someone to share an entire conversation without interruption or crying. Someone who can enjoy sex without worrying about miscarriage. You assume that sex with her must be incredible, way better than anything you ever experienced with him.
Your husband arrives home early one afternoon. It’s obvious you’ve been crying, but he doesn’t seem to notice. Or, maybe he never actually looks at you anymore. You are not the same person he married, the one who ran in races and swam in big waves in tropical waters way off the grid. The one who bicycle commuted thirty miles a day. That girl is gone. Now you understand multiple layers of the word invalid. You also realize that pregnancy is temporary, and somewhere, somehow, you will be able to run and bike and maybe even make love again.
But wait, he is carrying a big pizza box and your son is behind him, laughing and holding a bag of popsicles and special tea that Mommy is allowed to drink. You slip away into the bathroom and wash your face. You change into a thin summer dress that used to make you feel sexy and desirable. When you return to the main room, your boy says, “Mommy, you look pretty.” You lie on your side on the couch and allow yourself to be taken care of. That night, after your son is tucked in and asleep, you pull the letter out of its hiding place and throw it in your husband’s lap.
You realize you are living with a complicated guy who is running from his own fears. His anger is bigger than yours, and he has more experience than you in methods of marital deceit. He promises that it doesn’t mean anything, and he rests his shaggy head with his little-boy-blue eyes next to your belly. You hold him like a soldier might hold a grenade. Breathing in, breathing out, wanting to believe that everything will be okay.
Things aren’t okay. You’re in the hospital again and tired of trying to be strong. Part of you wants to be a cave woman, to wander near a river until she collapses, to let nature take its course. A very kind nurse mentions that if you make it to thirty weeks gestation, your baby has good chances for survival. She explains how moms in labor are transported to a special hospital in the city, where they’re able to save infants smaller than three pounds. You owe it to your daughter to hold on to this idea.
You’re not a fun mommy anymore. If there is one thing that your son is teaching you, it’s the value of make-believe.
Your daughter is born at the lifesaving urban hospital, and spends the next ten weeks in neonatal intensive care. You are surrounded with families whose children are in very delicate and complicated conditions. Your husband coaches you back to your feet, out the door, and inspires you to be stronger than you thought possible.
Your new normal is to live in a Ronald McDonald house with your son, a cheerful place full of families in crisis. You are in the dinosaur room and your husband becomes a road warrior, traveling back and forth from San Francisco to the far north and he promises that things will be better once you are all at home again.
You bring your baby girl home from the intensive care nursery just when the apples are ripening. Your husband takes your son out on long hikes looking for birds or bears. Indian summer days slip into a routine. The sanctuary of home soothes you, while the erratic emotional terrain of the marriage frightens you. You figure out how to avoid discussing anything volatile.
You want to return to work, and wonder if this is possible with your baby still fragile. You meet other moms going it alone. The doctor says she is growing just fine, and all her vital signs are normal, a healthy almost-six-month-old. She is like a small angel and you love the hours in the middle of the night when you sit and nurse and rock and sing lullabies. Your husband is gone long hours and weeks at a time. A week home, a week away. You decide not to ask too many questions because he is a good provider and because you know you cannot handle any more anger or any more pain.
Your sister comes to visit and she senses something is wrong, but you can’t bring yourself to confide. Your son turns four. He and your husband build a new picnic table and you host a happy family party with everyone you know, lots of balloons, cake, potluck, laughter. You skate on top of a lake of gratitude. You know there is an abyss beneath, you just have no idea how deep, how murky, or if you will survive.
You’re living day to day, until one afternoon, the phone rings. With tragic, surreal news. There’s been an accident. You don’t understand what happened. The Coast Guard transported him from the boat to the hospital, but he could not be saved. The crew, his friends, everyone is in shock. Of course, you don’t believe it. A friend flies you up to the remote coastal town where you go into the hospital where you expect to find your husband making a joke about his accident. They tell you he has been moved to the funeral home. These words bounce off you like there is a titanium hull around you. Words, emotions, criss-cross in so many directions without making sense. You try to explain life and death to your son.
You take small comfort in the Coast Guard Commander’s words. He says, “So often up here, people go missing. We can’t even retrieve their bodies.” You sign the first of many papers that will allow you to take what remains of your husband home. You climb into the boat and take your husband’s personal gear, his jacket, the ship’s log. If there are other random love letters, you don’t notice them. You give the crew authority to move the boat out of the harbor. You don’t want to be doing all these things. You are catapulted to a planet called grief. Your children’s new, favorite story becomes: Where’s Daddy?
People you love and people you have never met before come from near and far to pay their respects at the memorial. This is how we begin to let go. Your husband’s closest friends have navigated the boat five hundred miles from there to home, with his ashes on board. You are in a daze. Your son plays with friends in the meadow. Apple trees and wild rhododendron bloom, daffodils everywhere. A massive bonfire. Slight breeze from the north. Jets fly in formation, dispatched from some unseen military base, swooping in low and then vanishing. His friends you’d never met, he’d never spoken of, from that secret band of brothers. Ravens noisy in the forest. Your daughter’s deep blue eyes, searching this sea of strangers for signs of her daddy.
You can’t allow yourself to be mired in the past. Your daughter crawls but doesn’t quite walk. The children are hard-wired to believe in the future. Every day brings new discovery. They lead you to explore each day. A dead sea lion in tide pools at the beach. Shells tumbling and turning and castles built in damp sand, then claimed by high tide. A salvaged iron anchor and a bronze sundial that your son shows you, hidden beneath lavender in your garden. Time takes all but memories: words carved into the sundial. You wonder where that came from. Your son says that he and Daddy put the treasures there, a long time ago.
“You blow the candle and you make a wish.” Your son explains the ritual to his sister at her first birthday. The three of you are sitting outside at the redwood picnic table that had been the centerpiece of that other birthday party, just a few months earlier. The cake is homemade, chocolate-from-a-box, a flavor your husband might have called bittersweet. With whipped cream frosting. You all blow, and the flame goes out. A thin plume of smoke swirls up to the sapphire sky. And that is how you move through the moments.