Chautauqua, issue 11 (2014)
A Ring of Bells
The Gettysburg Review, Summer 2014
American Athenaeum, Summer 2013
Wisconsin Public Radio, July 26, 2013
Driving to Door County
Wisconsin Public Radio, May 22, 2013
Apeiron Review, May 2013
The Commons, May 1 2013
Wisconsin Public Radio, April 10, 2013
Wisconsin Trails, May/June 2012
Wisconsin Pubic Radio March 14, 2012
Wisconsin Public Radio, October 21, 2011
Wisconsin Public Radio, June 1, 2011
Wisconsin Public Radio, May 4, 2011
Ninth Letter, Fall/Winter 2005
Learning to Ski Skate
Silent Sports, December 1998
Published in Ninth Letter, Fall/Winter 2005.
The drawer of my night-table is packed, as if going to bed were an
expedition for which one can never be too prepared. There is a British Airways eye mask, a bottle of peppermint foot lotion, a pair of earplugs, a size 70 flat-spring diaphragm in a pink plastic box, a tube of contraceptive jelly, plastic containers of antidepressants (current and previous), a flash light, a red alarm clock, meditation tapes, a free sample of Chanel Précision Hydra Sérum, migraine tablets, Japanese book-marks, spare eye-glasses, my grandfather’s round shaving mirror, a photo of my parents, and a bamboo
And underneath my notebooks lies a small plastic-backed rectangle: a pregnancy test kit. At the top it says that two lines means pregnant, one means not pregnant. Two lines cross the yellowing paper in the test window. They used to be mauve but are fading to pinkish lilac.
The colors remind me of the chromatography we learned at school, taking a paper marked with black ink and dropping a solvent onto it to make the ink yield up its improbable secrets—multiple shades whose existence and beauty could never have been suspected had they not been committed to paper. Sometimes I take out the test and look at it, and then put it back in the drawer again. I can’t bring myself to throw it away. It’s all I have left of the baby I never had. My shadow child.
I am twelve, and my mother and I are sitting on the bed in my room, cocooned in summer air drifting through the open window. She is sewing a button onto my father’s green check shirt. We are talking about female things—the scalding shame of discovering that menstrual blood had leaked onto her skirt at school; what it is like to have a baby. The house is unusually quiet, my infant sister napping, everyone else out or otherwise occupied. A honey bee fumbles among the roses in the trellis beneath the window sill, hesitates, drones on its way. I am fascinated by what my mother is revealing about labor, both because she is usually so private and because it has never occurred to me to wonder about the process of birth before: my mother is either pregnant or not. With each of my siblings she has simply vanished in the middle of the night and reappeared in the hospital a day or two later with a new baby. My periods began a year ago, and I know this means I too am “fertile”. But this is the first time I connect that abstract notion with an actual experience, with my own and my mother’s body. I am riveted by the drama of her story: the water breaking; mounting waves of contractions; the exhaustion of pushing; her fear of splitting open; weeping, after I was born, when she realized her stretch marks
were permanent. She even confesses that she once swore at a student nurse inexpertly wielding the surgical scissors—an occurrence so out of character for my mother that it shocks me even more than the medical details. The whole business sounds so hideous that I say, without thinking, “Well, I’m not having any.” Her face snaps shut, our moment of intimacy ended. She stands up and says, shortly, “You are so selfish.” Then she stalks out of
the room, leaving me dumbfounded.
The only women I know who don’t have children are the Irish great-aunts, of whom my mother disapproves. They are all bosomy but not in a glamour magazine way: shelf bosoms, old lady bosoms. Their names are Muriel, Evelyn, and Ena, and they are school
teachers, slightly whiskered and hearty. My aunts wear A-line tweed skirts and sensible, brown lace-up shoes, the kind my father still insists I wear. Their addresses are in Gaelic and they speak with airy hissing “t”s. T’aht(h), they say, for thought. They serve us steaming piles of floury potatoes and strong copper tea at supper time. Their cupboards are repositories of post-war domesticity: sticky jars of home-made gooseberry jam, tins of stale McVitie’s cookies, cratchy woollen vests, and hot water bottle covers. The dominant color in their homes is dark brown, but classical records crackling on the gramophone enliven the gloom. My aunts always reply to the letters I send them detailing my progress in school and piano lessons. From their great distance, they seem delighted with
everything I do.
My mother’s voice takes on a hard edge whenever she talks about the great-aunts, although she professes to be fond of them. I sense that it has to do with the fact that they seem oblivious to beauty and femininity, something my mother embodies entirely, from within her cloud of Caleche perfume. She seems to think that being spinsterish is reprehensible. Years later, I realize that maybe her disapproval came from a different source—with hindsight, it’s clear that one of those maiden aunts had a very happy, long-term lesbian relationship, a fact that totally escaped me at the time.
By the time I turn seventeen and start acquiring boyfriends, my mother has forgotten my vow of childlessness, for she does everything possible to prevent me ever being alone with any of them, fretting constantly about what the neighbors might say. The unspoken threat of pregnancy, illegitimacy and shame loom over us, making her voice tight with anger. She radiates something dark and evil when I have a boy over, or sometimes if I even mention their names. Occasionally she explodes like a flamethrower, like the time she finds my underwear under the sofa the morning after Paul the bassist came over. There she is with the vacuum cleaner going, her face flushed, demanding to know how it got there. I am terrified, so I swear blind I have no clue. When I turn twenty-one, she tries to hint that I might consider taking the pill and I say baldly, “I’ve been taking it for years.” She blanches and looked away. But even at seventeen I knew what getting pregnant would mean: I’d seen my former schoolmates on the bus, lugging toddlers and strollers and plastic bags of groceries. Dulled, beaten down, harassed. Yanking their whining children back violently by the arm, slapping them viciously when they wouldn’t sit still and be quiet. I would look away and pretend not to be witnessing what had become of them.
A few years ago I visited my best friend in the hospital the day her
first child was born. She looked as if someone had sucked all the blood out of her. Even her lips were white. She was worried because her son wasn’t nursing properly; neither of them could figure out how breast-feeding worked, and her nipples were raw already. Needless to say, I was no help. Right in that moment, a gap of experience opened between us that I couldn’t cross, one that just kept widening. It was as if she were travelling further and further away from me into some other country. The baby crowded out all else. Eventually she stopped returning phone calls and dropped out of my life. I don’t know if I’ll still be around when she re-emerges, after the kids leave home.
I’m turning forty in two years. I don’t have much time left to get
pregnant. I feel as if I am living parallel lives—I cannot help constantly comparing what I am doing at any given moment to what I would be doing if I had a baby. I feel gratitude for the luxuries of childlessness and perpetual apprehension about when they will end. Virtually all the people in our social circle have children, and I can tell they have almost given up on me, although they keep trying. “You guys would make great parents.” “Don’t leave it too late!” I hear all about how hard life is for them, the way everything is squeezed—sleep, time, energy, money, creativity, relationships. No sex in the mornings and having to get up at half past five. I talk about my work, our blissful day-long bike-rides, our trips abroad, and people are envious, but someone always ends up telling me we have to have kids anyway. We’ll enjoy it.
But motherhood terrifies me, although I can’t quite close the door on it. I thought I’d have come round to it by now. I wish I could feel sure I wanted a child, but the years go by and I’m not. I know too much about the lack of sleep, the lack of peace, the lack of exercise, not being able to finish a whole sentence, not having time together. How could I possibly handle that level of exhaustion? How could I manage not to screw up my child’s life as well as my own, inflict misery on both of us? I’m afraid I wouldn’t have the strength that parenting takes, wouldn’t be able to be or do what is required. I know too much about fear.
Fear that stems in part from all those years of being the eldest daughter in a large family: sweeping the fireplace first thing in the morning, washing the dishes, shopping, ironing, bringing in washing from the line, polishing the floors on my knees. Our washing machine had to be wheeled into the kitchen and filled with water by hand. It made a thunderous din churning the grey suds. Every Saturday, Dad’s cotton handkerchiefs were boiled in a saucepan on the stove, all froth and scum. My mother still tells the story of their honeymoon camping on the Outer Hebrides. It rained relentlessly, and on day five Dad handed her a bundle of handkerchiefs in the tent and expected her to launder them. My youngest sister’s diapers standing round the house in buckets of Milton disinfectant, fierce antiseptic clashing with the ammonia smell of pee. Me changing her diapers, yellowy-green bird-shit paste. Fortunately breast-fed baby
shit is inoffensive. It smelled sweet-sour, like yogurt. That same infant whose bottom I wiped is now walking around whole and entire and married, giving me advice.
At the place where I work, only two of the women have children. Most of the men do, but their work seems not to be impacted. The sense I get from my colleagues—of both sexes—is that mothers aren’t really serious. That’s the subtext in the dismissive comments, the raised eyebrows. They don’t carry their weight, can’t be relied upon. Fancy demanding to leave a meeting before five. Not willing to put in what it takes for the department. Women with children are
seen as poor performers, unproductive. Sometimes it’s even implied that they’re selfish, putting their families before their co-workers. Ironically, I owe my career in languages to the fact that I could take care of children. ThaT’s how I learned Spanish. I went to Madrid as a nanny when I was eighteen, speaking only about four phrases, with no money whatsoever. What do you do when you’re a clueless girl with no skills—take care of kids, clean toilets, floors, windows,
stoves, sinks. Sit getting bored in playgrounds while your charges run about and scream. Struggle to learn their language.
My Spanish friend, Paco, keeps telling me to have children because
motherhood makes you happy. He says he wishes he’d had children with lots of different women. “And who would take care of them?” I say. He waves his hand, airily. He has two sons who are going to college in the States, so he only sees them for a month every summer. He has taken on a second teaching job, in defiance of university regulations, in order to pay their tuition and expenses.
They’re not good students; they spend all their time partying and going sailing, so they always need more money. The sacrifice means nothing to him. I am alternately exasperated by his insistence, baffled and awed by his equanimity in the face of what looks like thankless servitude.
I feel only disbelief as the two lines on the home pregnancy test appear, like writing in invisible ink, as if we were communing with a spirit from another world. The two of us stare at each other. I always thought I was far too careful to get pregnant by mistake. But I was wrong. It couldn’t have happened at a worse time. I remember my psychiatrist saying in his heavy Polish accent that I should avoid pregnancy because the medication he prescribes for me is known to cause fetal harm. I am thirteen times more likely to have a child with birth defects.
Nausea descends like a pall the morning after I do the test, although I’ve felt fine up until then, just inexplicably tired. I make a flurry of phone calls. In a city of a quarter of a million inhabitants there is only one doctor left who performs abortions and he is booked for three weeks. So we drive to the next big city through a blizzard, car lurching and skidding on the soapy snow. We have to make the trip twice; state law says that I must be shown photographs of fetuses and have time to reflect on them.
On the first visit, I lie on a couch in the examining room with my pants unzipped and gel on my belly, a white towel tucked into my underwear. The nurse says, “Do you want to see the screen while I do it?” and I say yes without thinking. This makes no sense. It verges on the macabre. She waves her wand Above me and a screen full of mysterious white shadows appears, map of a land I don’t know, can’t read. “There’s the birth sac,” she says, and pointing to a speck with the wand, “There it is, looks like six weeks to me.” My face surprises me and grins: Excitement and elation. My body can do this. A miracle. But it’s so commonplace. But it is mine. In spite of me, in spite of everything.
Sitting in the dingy green waiting room afterwards, waiting for my
consult with the doctor, I talk silently to the child, asking its forgiveness, explaining about the medication, the nature of poison. Leafing through the booklet of photos of embryos, I think about heart defects, babies with white faces and great big eyes, subjected to endless operations. I recall the way my own mother chose not to take the pills the doctor pressed on her for morning sickness. She recognized their name from the newspapers: Thalidomide.
In 1963, when my mother was pregnant with her second child, she was living in an isolated area of northern Nigeria; her doctor, the only gynecologist in several hundred miles, was an expatriate Nazi. Thalidomide was developed in West Germany and had only been on the market since late 1957. It was a sedative, marketed as promoting “safe, sound sleep” and controlling morning sickness. It was withdrawn from the European markets in December 1961, after thousands of children were born with hideous disfigurements. Nowadays, it’s been re-approved for use—albeit with enormous caution—as a treatment for leprosy.
My mother’s doctor was either unaware of, or for some inexplicable reason refused to believe, the press reports of birth defects. Mail from Europe took months to arrive. It’s conceivable, although inexcusable, that he may not have known of Thalidomide’s recall. He must have felt that he was offering her cutting-edge German medication, out in the bush, and bullied her, unable to understand her visceral resistance to taking pills for the intense nausea that
was disabling her. Her instinct and her unaccountable stubbornness in the face of authority—she was a cripplingly shy young woman at the time—are all that stand between my tall, healthy brother and the boy who used to get on the bus, cheerful, with his flipper hands growing out of his shoulder joints. Of the ten thousand Thalidomide babies who were born between 1958 and 1963, only five thousand are still alive.
The doctor who will perform the abortion turns out to be matter-of-fact, reserved, not—as I had feared—judgmental. He offers me different levels of anesthetic for the procedure, at different prices. All of this is out of pocket. I choose local anesthetic only; not only is it the cheapest, I want to be present as this minuscule spirit that has lodged in me, with its poppy-seed heart already beating, is uprooted.
Our second and final visit to the clinic. There’s only one protester here this time, thank God. Sometimes it’s twenty-five. They chain themselves to cars and stop you from getting in. He’s middle-aged, muffled up, standing glumly in the snow. I keep my face down, carrying the maxi pads they said to bring stuffed in my briefcase as disguise. It works, because he doesn’t realize I’m going in until I’m almost there. “Turn back, this is an evil place,” he mutters. I had
expected him to shout abuse, to hurl himself in front of me. Instead he’s wooden, embarrassed, as if he doesn’t really know how to protest. And then I’m behind the defense line of clinic volunteers in bright green bibs and walking through the doorway.
The waiting room is full. We’re all waiting, singly or in couples. I’m
embarrassed to look around. They know and I know we all have the same secret: we all did it with someone, or with the person we’re with. Doesn’t bear thinking about. Fear flashes through at intervals, whipping up my heart. The girls who shuffle out are pale and wobbly, moving like old women. The way the other patients moved the time that I was fifteen and in the hospital. I’d tried to kill myself. There was no ward for girls with overdoses so they put me on the “Gyne” ward, which was full of grown-up women who were all blown up with gas from hysterectomies and tubal ligations. They’d groan and cry and laugh and curse their stitches and inch themselves off beds, obscenely slow and painful to the bathroom just like these. The door opens, closes. Women are led out after their abortions. A helper has to be there on the stairs as well in case they faint and fall. And then they call my name.
I’m lying on a table. There are postcards from exotic beaches on the ceiling. “Where are they from?” I ask. “The cards? Oh, they’re from Dr Smith’s vacations.” I’m lying flat upon my back with my feet hoisted in stirrups and my legs spread wide, feeling as safe as an experimenter’s rabbit waiting to be flayed. Same rapid heart-beat, trying to breathe, holding the nurse’s hand. She’s kind. My hand is cold, hers is warm. The doctor comes in, gloved and ready to go. The nurse keeps on talking, telling me what will be done ahead of time: clipping and clamping and inserting of spatulas, speculum, cannula and tubes, dilating. “Keep breathing, honey.” A loud whooshing noise and a man is doing housework inside me. For the first time in my life, I have a sense of where my womb is. How weird: he’s vacuuming it clean. A new sensation wells. I try to breathe, relax, relax, my hands and feet are tingling as though stung by bees. Just breathe. I’m getting cold—cold and light-headed and . . . “All over now,” she says. The doctor’s wrapping something, then he leaves. The nurse gets me up and helps me to a La-Z-Boy across the hall, gives me a blanket. A roomful of us in recliners, each in varying stages of collapse. A nurse with stringy yellow hair and acne, all like me, jollies us along. “Want something for the pain?” “No thanks,” I say. I close my eyes and breathe. And then, “I think I’ll take those pills now, thank you.” The pincers of a giant crab lock on within.
Two weeks go by. I call my good friend Molly on the phone. She has two children, lithe blond girls. I ask her why it is that women never talk about how wonderful it is to raise a child, why all I ever hear about is the stress and exhaustion and strife. She doesn’t answer. Instead she says,“Being a parent is like finding out you’re in a great big club, a member of the human race.” I say nothing, hurt and aghast. So what you mean is, I’m not fully human? “You know,” she adds, “I’ve got another friend like you, she doesn’t want kids either. I asked her why one time, and you know what she told me? She said she’s just too selfish.”
I am troubled; in the months and years that accumulate after our
conversation, I often wish I could excise her comment from my consciousness, but it has stuck there like a burr, and can’t be removed. Logic doesn’t dislodge it. One day I read, entirely by chance, that the fetal risk from maternal exposure to the medication I was taking at the time of the abortion may have been over-estimated. I go upstairs and dig out the pregnancy test from my drawer. The two lavender bars are fading, but they are still quite clear.
Published in Ninth Letter, Fall/Winter 2005.