A little over a year ago, when I started to picture myself as a mother, I pictured myself mothering a girl. Not even a baby so much, but a little girl. She would have Andrew’s wavy auburn hair, hair that’s in my lineage, too, but skipped me, and a pert nose and my brown freckles. She would wear ribbons and braids and dresses, but also play with trucks and be rangy and athletic like we both were.
And this is where my ability to say much of anything coherent ends. These are the confounding facts:
A year ago this week I was on a NJ Transit train from my friend Claudia’s house into NYC in a backward-facing seat and became, for the first time in my life, motion sick.** I do not get motion sick. I love trains, taxis, planes, all forms of mass transit. I love both roller coasters and rides that spin. Motion sickness doesn’t happen for the first time when you’re thirty-nine years old. Unless you’re pregnant.
We had begun trying haphazardly in August—no thermometers, no dates circled on calendars, just doing what we did and crossing our fingers. I had spent a lifetime desperate to avoid this condition, had sex for twenty-one years without so much as a scare. I didn’t entirely believe it could happen. And then, a month later, it did. The motion sickness came back that night, on the train back to Claudia’s house, and again on the plane home a few days later.
The daughter I had imagined had come to me. But also not.
We read the books we’d already checked out from the library, changed our diets, made our plans. We tracked our progress. I was sick—so, so sick—unable to keep my blood sugar up, like all the worst parts of a hangover, all day, every day. We submitted blood for the tests that accompanied my diagnosis of Advanced Maternal Age. The tests were inconclusive, so we gave more blood and we waited. And then they weren’t.
I’ve tried a dozen times to make some kind of coherent narrative order of the events that followed: appointments, frantic and rushed as Christmas neared, so we could get everything done before the hospital cut to half-staff; a surprisingly painful amniocentesis and detailed ultrasound; trips to the strange, new public hospital, since our regular doctors wouldn’t perform an abortion, even with a diagnosis considered “incompatible with life”; two days of excruciating, soul-erasing pain while the laminaria forced my unwilling cervix open; a full day at an understaffed hospital for a 20-minute procedure. Trips back and forth past the Emergency entrance vestibule where a fully-uniformed cop manned a metal detector. A humiliating, infuriating review of text mandated by the old white men in our state’s legislature. A full hour of bodily elation after the procedure, followed by the deepest sleep of my life.
What was wrong with the baby? Well, everything. A chromosomal anomaly called Trisomy 13 had disordered every part of her development. Three heart valves. Open abdominal wall. Hydrocephaly. Cleft lip and palate on both sides. Club feet. Almost certainly no intellectual capacity at all. Advanced Maternal Age not all that much of a factor after all, since the average maternal age for Trisomy 13 cases is 31. Unpredictable. Unpreventable. An accident of cell division that may have happened in my egg when it was first formed or in my husband’s sperm right then and there. 1/16,000 live births have T13, though the vast majority of T13 babies are miscarried in the first trimester rather than born alive, making the statistical occurrence somewhat higher. In every case that does endure until birth, they die within hours, or at most a day or two.
I can list these biological details for you. I learned them by rote, to explain. To understand.
But as understanding goes, they have done me no good. We had a choice to make. We chose to end our daughter’s suffering before her nerve endings completed their development, before they had a chance to relay to her malformed brain what was happening to her body. The nurses offered us footprints, burial. We declined. We did not commemorate. We will not.
What I can’t figure out is where she’s gone to, my daughter, whose impossible, broken life happened entirely inside my own. I thought, if we can just get pregnant again, she’ll come back to us.
We did. Her (thus far) healthy, whole brother is due to be born on the anniversary of the abortion. Our doctors, kind, smart, write on our charts the day before or the day after. I hope fervently that this baby will have the accidental grace to honor their hopeful predictions.
She isn’t coming back to us. She never will. There is no way of ordering language that can make me understand or believe this fact.
**apart from a bad spell with some Vicodin, which I do not think counts