Anna is pregnant again, and with a girl. I can feel my daughter through Anna’s skin—the future pressing into the present—squirms and kicks that protrude across her distended belly. It feels like last time, she tells me. Similar sensations.
“It’s like she’s trying to get out,” Anna will sometimes joke, looking down in amazement at her own taut flesh, which is no longer her flesh alone. Only it’s not a joke, it’s a fear. She is in her ninth month of pregnancy this week, and due in early June. We live in Boston, where like everywhere else the pandemic will still be one when she goes into labor, the virus invisible and ever-present. Along with the applesauce and coconut water in her pregnancy go bag (which more than ever seems an appropriate name for the end-times prepper valise we’ll bring to the hospital), there will be n95 respirators, a pair her father happened to have leftover in his garage. At least for now, she won’t have to labor alone. I can imagine how her rhythmic breathing will look with the respirator tightened around her face.
On dry days, until it closed at the end of April, we would walk past old marble obelisks in the nearby cemetery for exercise, down paths Arabis and Linnæa, across Hackmatack Ave, through the Garden of Repose. Big oaks cast shade on headstones with names almost rubbed out. Hundreds of feet away, we would sometimes see other graveyard walkers, usually solitary, some in dark colors as if in mourning, all muzzled in homemade masks. Perhaps this was a self-selecting group, terrified to be too close to anyone else, and thus content to put the dead between them and the world. Even in spring, even with buds coming in on dogwoods and sugar maples, it was difficult not to remember where we are and where we have been. The past pressing into the future.
A little more than a year ago, Anna terminated a five-month pregnancy. Terminated, ended, aborted. Our son was incurably sick. A problem with his heart. Lost in the cemetery, in a pandemic, a red-tailed hawk circling above us, Anna pregnant again—it was difficult not to think about the son who was never born. A huge turtle slips into Lake Hibiscus.
There is a sense of otherworldliness in this moment, so unreal-seeming that we reach for fictional antecedents. The Upside Down comes to mind, that ghostly ashen dimension of drifting spores and lurking monsters in Stranger Things, unseen but nevertheless right next to you. This was how we explained it to friends, after the surgery, the place we had arrived; I know from a pregnancy loss support group that we were not the only people to imagine a lurking Demogorgon.
We felt transported by grief. But we experienced the loss differently—hers was a physiological connection, severed when she went under, and mine was abstracted, felt from a distance. Grief has a way of lingering, of remaining dormant, of re-expressing itself just when you think it’s left your system. It has a way of taking you back to the moment of loss. I remember, in the waiting room, trying to anticipate the precise moment our son was lost to us for good.
It is not difficult to envy our daughter-to-be’s current state of reflexive obliviousness. Of course, as expecting parents, we are concerned about the everyday logistics that billions before us have mastered—feeding, changing diapers, attending to her if she falls ill. Learning to speak her language. Not to mention the climate angst, the question of, into what future is she arriving?
Look outside: empty streets, walkers taking wide parabolas around one another. The everyday distorts, a mirror placed before another mirror.
Our nation is undergoing an exponential decay of culture and the rule of law directly proportionate to the spread of the virus. It is the era of loss. Like the loss of my son, this pandemic is a calamity experienced differently by different bodies. It is coming for us, each and every one, but here it will take your breath away, steal the life of someone you love, and here it is mild or asymptomatic; here is a bus driver or grocery clerk or nurse working without a mask, who has lost their job, who does not know how they will eat, who will be deported even if they are sick—and here I am, privileged to be working safely from home, ordering eggs by the carton from the co-op down the block. My daughter will experience this, too, enter into a history that is a series of repetitions: Anna’s grandmother was an infant during the 1918 flu.
I am trying to understand the patterns of thought that will be weaponized—are actively being weaponized—in this moment of systemic shock. You might look to a handful of Republican governors who have waltzed into the chaos of plague and passed emergency declarations that classify abortion procedures as “nonessential” or “elective.” Calling for total bans or cancelations or postponements in Texas, Ohio, Mississippi, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Indiana, Iowa, and Alabama. Never mind that abortions are essential services for women’s health, for economic and political autonomy. Never mind that these procedures are time sensitive. Never mind that there are an infinite number of reasons why a woman might choose to end a pregnancy. Ours was mercy.
We live in a country in which imagined identification with a fetus often supersedes the complex reality that a mother-to-be must face when confronted with ending a pregnancy. A horde of our fellow citizens launched a devilish TV businessman to the most powerful position in the world. They sacrificed women’s bodies, trans bodies, disabled bodies, black and brown bodies, truth and facts, a climatologically sound future, respect for the rule of law, global leadership and solidarity, competent crisis management, kindness, empathy, love, &c. &c. &c.—all to ostensibly protect the developing fetus from their mothers. These were many of the Evangelicals and rightwing Catholics among us. They loved the unborn all the way to our contemporary underworld.
We lived in Southern California then, January 2019. We were fortunate—Anna became pregnant almost right after we started tying. This was a child we wanted, badly, and here he was. See his spectral image on a blue-black screen, blood flow traced in pulsing reds and blues. The anatomy scan at twenty weeks of pregnancy. Anna on a medical table, her exposed stomach slathered with warm gel, the OB pressing hard, turning the ultrasound wand like a screw. Measuring the femur, the spine, the nuchal fold thickness, kidneys, stomach, toes—and the heart.
The doctor looked away from the monitor and told us, “There is something wrong with the heart of this baby.”
The fetal heart at twenty weeks is the size of your thumbnail. His mitral valve was fibrotic. Broken, basically. A few days later, the fetal cardiologist explained the defect. Only a trickle of blood passed through to the left chamber, where oxygen rich blood from the lungs is pumped to the rest of the body. Without flow, the walls had become inelastic, layers of hardened fiber, unable to beat like a normal heart beats. The ascending aorta had become a sliver, a shadow of itself. He was diagnosed with a severe case of Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome. If he survived to birth, if he survived after birth, he would require multiple surgeries, a stint, a reconstitution of his heart, and finally a transplant; there was the risk of infection; there was the high probability of serious cognitive disabilities.
I know some families ask whether or not there will be pain and suffering, the fetal cardiologist said, and I tell everyone there will be pain and there will be suffering.
I was a father, but I am not yet a father. All of what I knew of my son was mediated through my wife. The binaries of pregnancy also happen to coincide with our new virological reality: inside and outside, internal and external. Past and future slipping into one another. The surgery itself, dilation and evacuation, was so profoundly of and about my wife’s body that I felt, in the aftermath, humbled by a corporeal knowledge I will never possess. Though I was with her in the OB office when the seaweed sticks were inserted into her cervix to dilate her for the operation; with her in Albertson’s, shopping for Gatorade and Tylenol when she nearly passed out, a vasovagal reaction to dilation that drained blood from her face, sent her dizzy down the isles; with her when she cried out in the hot shower after the surgery, her milk coming in for a child who was not there—there was no physical relief for me to provide. No pain I could take on for myself.
I was afflicted with a new, special type of grief. There was no way to shield her from the physical process of losing him. I did not know our son in the way my wife knew our son. Our sorrows were similar but distinct.
In the pre-op bed before surgery, Anna was lying red-faced and sobbing in a hospital gown. There would be daily bouts of horror-crying for months, for both of us, and then periodically for a year. The Upside Down, followed by a new pregnancy and a different, pathogenic Upside Down.
An IV sloped from her forearm at the point of entry for the drugs that would anesthetize her, a small grace. In the gloom outside, the sun rose. Early that morning she showered without looking at her pregnant body. She’d dressed with a towel wrapped around herself.
“Do you want to feel him?” she said. He’d been kicking, and though she knew it wasn’t true, she couldn’t help but imagine his movements as a kind of play. All night he’d kicked, waked her as I slept. She tried to ignore him, and then felt guilty for ignoring him, for not responding. Though she didn’t know how to respond. We loved him so much, and this was what that love looked like.
I felt him through her skin, those kicks, similar but different to what I can feel now, a year later, his sister.
Something inside me was coming to a boil, some darkness beginning to froth. We were in a hospital that in a little over a year would be inundated with people struggling to breathe, nurses and doctors working without the protective supplies required for a necessary membrane between the healer and the afflicted.
Still, Anna came to me while I was writing this and said, “I’m feeling hopeful in this moment.” About what, I asked. “About labor, birth, all that.” Month nine of the pregnancy, and we still have not managed unmitigated hope—which anyway is always a luxury.
Anna was nervous that day in January, understandably. I inspected again where they’d inserted the IV, at the crook of her arm. The porousness of bodies. I was worried to touch her with my sullied hands—she’d washed the night before and again that morning with a special soap that prevented the spread of antibiotic resistant superbugs. She had never been so clean.
The anesthesiologist and nurse came in. We’d already seen the haggard night nurse off, at the end of a shift of waking dreams. She stood in the doorway and told us she’d pray for us. The drugs would begin here, now, to soothe Anna, and by the time they wheeled her into the OR she’d be drowsy. Then they’d inject more, and she’d fall asleep, and when she woke—I walked with her as they wheeled the bed, as the anesthesia kicked in, saw her as far along as they would allow me to see, and then I kissed her goodbye, and went out to the waiting room alone, to wait.
It would be easy to say that I’m still waiting, that we’re all waiting. But it is true. For the birth of my daughter, the slope on the other side of the curve. Anna’s parents surprised her with a gift, a doppler sent by mail, so that we might preform telehealth visits with the OB and not have to risk going in so frequently. What this means is we can listen to our daughter. Anna lies down on the couch, pulls her shirt over her stomach. I press around the bump, feel the hardness beneath, guessing this is my daughter’s head, this her back. Then I apply the gel, turn on the device, and glide the probe, shaped like a portable mic, in circles to spread the gel. At first, the noise comes out like a record scratching, until the sound catches the faint drum of Anna’s pulse—and then, growing strong beneath it, as I press in gently, angle the probe, there it is, my daughter’s heartbeat.