Heather A. Goodman
"Date of your last period." I smile at the medical history sheet in Dr. Guptaís office. Some women dread the change. I missed my last period and had a spotty one at best before that. Free at last. Sure, thereíd be hot flashes, but I get to throw away all my tampons and pads. A month ago, I felt old. Only old women go through menopause. But this is our adventure, Dan keeps telling me, our empty-nest adventure. I chalk up the change to the adventure. Maybe Iím buying into the ancient Indian belief about age. Older is better.
I hand the receptionist my completed paperwork and flip through fashion magazines until the nurse calls my name.
I refrain from giggling, not wanting to shame the doctor. "Iím Ruth, Ruth Sharp. You must have picked up someone elseís paperwork." Silly mistake.
"Yes, I know who you are. You are pregnant," Dr. Gupta repeats in his Indian accent.
"But this is a routine check-up because, well, because I just started going through menopause."
"No, you are pregnant." No smile. He looks serious.
Fire alarms reel in my head. I want to pull over to let the truck pass. Dr. Gupta keeps talking, but his words are far away, like I am listening under water while he yells at me from the surface. I force myself to focus on what he is saying.
"You have two children?" He flips through my chart.
"You are a high-risk pregnancy."
No kidding. Iím forty-seven years old. Of course Iím high risk. He hands me two prescriptions. "You will need to take these." After closing my chart, he strides out of the room in two steps. On to the next patient. The medication names on the two pieces of paper he gave me donít look familiar. Probably for high blood pressure or something. I wish these doctors had more time to talk.
The fire truck follows me home, finagling between the businessmen and buses and beggars, blaring its siren at the goats and cows. I sit at the kitchen table and stare at a mark on the floor. I dropped a plate a couple of months ago, and a jaded corner of the plate had chipped the tile.
My mom died last year. How can I have a baby without my mom there? I donít care how old you are. Sometimes you need your mother. Sheís always been there before.
And what about us? I already have two kids; we had them at a young age, and theyíre out of the house. Weíre supposed to be empty nesters. We moved to India after getting Josh, our youngest, settled in college, and who wouldnít love our chosen destination? The smell of sandalwood lingering in the air, new foods to try (which sometimes my stomach doesnít love as much as my tongue does), silk saris and shawls with delicate patterns draping in the marketplace, and the vacations. Oh, the vacations in Ooty with the monkeys swinging through the trees. We wanted to live, not wallow in the all-of-the-sudden too-big house. Weíre supposed to be on our mid-life adventure, not second parenthood. We had kids early on purpose, not so that we could be strapped to another stroller in our forties. Forties? Iíll be fifty in three years. Fifty! Who has a toddler in their fifties?
I get up to make coffeeóI could use the caffeineóexcept I canít have caffeine. Another strict diet, no caffeine, no alcohol, especially this late in the game. Oh, and the cravings. I lost the weight easily enough in my twenties, but now? The ice cream will plump my frame for good. Pregnant in the land of spice, Iíll have solid heartburn for the duration. Swollen ankles, sore back, sore everything. I sit back in the chair and find the broken tile again.
But with all of these questions and what-ifs and supposed tos, something somewhere in the corner of my heart smiles, something pink and soft like a fluffy cotton blanket with butterflies. A baby. I hope itís a girl.
I stare at that chipped tile for an hour and a half before my husband comes home.
Dan walks in the door and puts down his briefcase. Through the open doorways, I can see him lean on the wall and take his shoes off. Heís whistling "Iíll have a blue Christmas without you" even though itís September. When he comes into the kitchen, he tears a paper towel off the roll and swipes it across his forehead and cheeks.
"I will never get used to this Mumbai pollution," he says. Dirt from his face covers the paper towel. "You okay?"
I nod, which seems to be all I can do these days. Then I shake my head. Then I nod again.
"Working on those Indian head shakes? They need to be a little looser, like this." He demonstrates.
"Iím pregnant." It just comes out like Iíve said it a thousand times before. I have said these words to my husband exactly two times previous to today. The first time, with Sherry, I lit candles and dressed in a black negligee and made his favorite dinner. The second time, we were watching Sherry sleep, cozied with her favorite bear and her Strawberry Shortcake comforter. We lost that baby a month later. With Josh, Dan came with me to the doctorís office. We both saw the stick I peed on but were too afraid to say the words until we heard the doctor say them. Even after we saw baby Josh swimming in the sonic image, the words were too fragile to be able to handle the open sunlight.
I never expected to say these words again.
Dan gapes at me like the woman at the street market the first time I tried to buy fruit. Armed with my Hindi-English dictionary I pointed to my selection, and she put them in a bag. Communicating about money was impossible. I handed her a handful and hoped she could be trusted to give me back the change. Stupid American.
He looks just as dumfounded.
"How? I mean, I know how, but arenít you, I mean, arenít weÖ" The smog buries the rest of his thought.
"Apparently weíre not too old. Apparently those missed periods were not because of menopause. I shouldíve realized that it might be too early." From bra-burning freedom back to guerilla warfare in suburbia.
Then again, I will be needed again, not just spending my day at this luncheon or that high tea like some society lady. Nothing against society ladies, of course. I loved every stage of motherhood. I loved watching this person develop, someone that came out of my womb. And their personalitiesóyou could see their personalities in the first month. In some ways, they havenít changed a bit. I love my kids. Theyíre interesting people. I get to do this all over again.
The noises of Mumbai flood my ears. A prayer chant blasts over the speakers, mixing with the car horns and the goat bleats and cowbells. I want Dan to be excited because I want to be excited. I want him to let me know that this is okay.
"I guess I should get dinner ready."
He covers my hand with his before I get up. "I love you."
In bed that night, I lay my head on Danís chest and loop my leg over his. He pulls me closer with his arms. I need his comfort. There are no other words for it. Iím scared.
"Weíre having a baby," he whispers and kisses my forehead. I look up at him, and he kisses me like weíre honeymooners. "Weíre having a baby."
"Maybe we can do this. Maybe it will be fun." I paste an optimistic faÁade together with rosy cheeks and one of those bright red clown noses in hopes that Iíll believe it.
"Should we stay in Mumbai?"
"Why not? You love teaching here. Weíre in an advanced technological city. Itís not like weíre in the middle of a jungle. We know the drill. Weíve done this before. And plus, weíve already raised two kids in the States. Maybe we need an extra challenge."
"Yeah, because being in the second half of life wonít be challenging enough." Dan scratches my back, barely touching my skin. My skin goosebumps at his fingertips. "There goes the retirement fund."
"I guess we werenít meant to have a midlife crisis. Sorry, no bright yellow convertible for you. Back to the minivan." It feels good to joke about this, to laugh about the baby.
Dan unravels his arms and goes under the sheet to kiss my belly. "Hello, baby," he says.
I pick up my prescriptions and dutifully start the new regime. How high is high risk? Should I be concerned? Dr. Gupta didnít seem too worried. Then again, I canít read anything on his stoic face even when Iím not in shock. Still, heís confident in these medications, so I should be too. I put the bottles next to my Womenís One-a-Day vitamins on my nightstand. One of each every morning.
When Elizabeth comes over for our afternoon tea, I select an herbal tea for myself and Earl Grey for her. Our husbands both teach at the University of Mumbai. Dan teaches English literature. Mark teaches calculus. Elizabeth and I adopted the Indian afternoon tea and became instant friends. Itís my favorite custom, even on sticky September afternoons. I learned to make chai properly for special occasions, boiling the milk with cinnamon sticks and cloves and tea leaves. Today should be a special occasion, a celebration of new life, but Iím too tired for anything more than boiling water.
"Herbal tea?" she asks.
I shrug my shoulders. Iím not ready to talk about this yet. I need to get used to the idea before warding off those curious "arenít you too old for this?" looks. "Trying to cut down on the caffeine."
Elizabeth shows me the brown cashmere wrap she bought at the flea market. I wonder if I can get a crib made of sandalwood with elephants carved on the legs and sides. Wouldnít that be pretty? I could do a whole jungle theme in the babyís room.
The right corner of Danís mouth curves up in an impish half-smile when he comes home from work.
"What?" I ask. Flowers peek out from behind his back.
He brandishes the bouquet with a flourish and a shallow bow. His right hand stays behind his back. I push my nose in the petals, filling my lungs with the lily scent, and then I give my husband a peck on the cheek and turn to get a vase from under the kitchen sink. Lilies. Like Easter.
"Wait." He brings his right hand out, which holds a small bag with cartoon toys scattered on it.
"Pretty soon our living room floor will look like this again," I say. Inside the bag is Winnie-the-Pooh with his red shirt and a stuffed honey jar sewn to his hand.
Dan and I were going to wait to tell friends about the pregnancy for another month or so, but while the herbal tea was easy enough to explain, foregoing wine at dinner a couple nights later was harder to pass off. And I need a female sympathizer. I donít have my mom this time around, and Sherry is less than excited at the news. She didnít say much, but I know this is hard for her. She wants to have her mom coo over her relationship with her boyfriend and her new job and the possibility of marriage, not hang up on her to go throw up. Maybe she still needs me. I want to be that mom for her. I would venture to think that this whole pregnancy thing was a bad idea except that it wasnít my idea at all.
Josh took it as he takes everything.
"Cool. Weird, but, well, congrats, Mom," and then he got off the phone to shoot some hoops with his dorm buddies.
So now Elizabeth and Mark know, and Elizabeth bustles around me like my mom did, even though sheís ten years younger than me. Elizabeth and Mark never had children of their own, so I think Elizabeth sees this as her surrogate pregnancy. Last week, she started coming over to do my laundry or to help me clean.
"I was in the neighborhood."
"Youíre always in the neighborhood. You live two doors down."
She shrugs and keeps dusting. "Cleaning is fun when youíre with people."
"So Iím coming over later to help you clean your house?"
"Thatís okay. I cleaned this morning."
"I had forgotten how tired I get when Iím pregnant," I tell Elizabeth. That suspicion that Iím actually old tiptoes into the room again. Do I have the energy to do this? "Iím definitely more tired this time."
She fusses and brings me pregnancy magazines and keeps my feet propped on the ottoman, and I love every minute of it.
I curl up in a ball and press my hands against my stomach. I didnít cramp like this with Sherry or Josh, did I? Dan snores next to me. I reach over to wake him but stop myself. Heíll want to take me to the hospital. Just wait another minute. The red numbers on the digital clock are frozen in time, unmoving, unchanging. 2:57. Finally, another minute passed. The cramping does not. I get up and find the Tylenol in our medicine cabinet, then crawl back into bed. I pull my knees higher as if the smaller I become the more diminished the cramps will be. My knees almost touch my forehead. A little relief, only a little. Then a little more. Now the red numbers flash too quickly. I want to be asleep in a world where cramps donít exist. A little less pain. 3:43. Smaller and smaller, the pain diminishes.
The cramping subsides. I have a check-up with Dr. Gupta scheduled in the morning. With the cramps gone, this can wait until morning.
"Thatís perfectly normal," Dr. Gupta responds, "Especially for a woman your age."
Last night felt anything but normal, but what do I know about being pregnant in your late forties? My body was fit as a fiddle the last time I did this.
He scribbles in my chart before sticking his stethoscope on my stomach. I tense at the cold metal, that and the phrase, "your age."
"Can I hear my babyís heartbeat?"
"The insurance wonít cover a sonogram every visit."
Twenty-three years ago, I never had a sonogram with Sherry. Because of my miscarriage after Sherry, the insurance allowed more leeway with Josh. I donít know how things work in India or anywhere these days, for that matter.
"Everythingís going well," he assures and leaves the room.
Iím pregnant. Iím pregnant, and itís not up to the doctor to keep my baby safe. Iím the mommy. No alcohol, no caffeine, vitamins, plenty of sleep, a walk everyday, but how to keep the pollution out? A calendar of appointments and what to expect. Two medicine bottles from the doctor. What are they for? I type "Mifepristone" in the Google homepage and click on the FDA link.
There, glaring on the screen, bleeding on the page, are the words "medical abortion."
High risk pregnancy, the doctor told me.
The medicine bottles for my high risk pregnancy judge me from my nightstand, reminding me to take one every morning. I chunk one across the room, leaving a dimple on the sheetrock.
"Can you feel the baby kicking?" Elizabeth asks. But itís so early.
We start to hear stories, a story of a missionary couple in Ooty. Heís Indian, and sheís Caucasion. They have three boys, and the doctor decided that was enough. They didnít get a vote. A story of an Indian couple in the mountains who already had one daughter, but we couldnít figure out if the couple knew, if they had asked the doctor in that case.
Mostly daughters are aborted, we learn. The heavy dowry, the orphanages spilling out little girls like Annie.
I donít tell Dan. Heís so excited about the baby. A son or daughter we donít know, but I donít say a word.
Two days later, spots of blood appear on my panties. I had spotted with Sherry and Josh. Nothing to panic about, I tell myself and put on a panty liner. An hour later, the blood leaks over the sides of the liner and the cramps return. I sit on the toilet as it drips in heavy globs. I pull my cell out of the pocket of my chinos, which slouch around my ankles.
"Come on, come on, answer," I say into the phone.
The department secretary answers in Hindi.
"I need to speak with Dan Sharp, please." I will my voice to remain steady, but it squeaks and huffs.
She switches to English. "Heís in class right now. May I take a message?"
"This is his wife, and this is an emergency. Please interrupt his class!" The hemorrhaging gets worse. Iím at full-on panic now.
"Hurry." The hold message is already playing.
"Whatís wrong?" Dan asks.
I want to scream into the phone. No, I just wanted to call and let you know that I might have seen a small spot of blood. "More than a regular period."
"Iím coming to pick you up."
"No, meet me at the hospital." I stuff a tampon up my vagina and layer two pads in my underwear before getting in the car.
Dan stands at the ER door waiting for me. "Iíve signed you in," he says. "And I asked if they could page Dr. Gupta." Bent over, I lean on his arm like a walker. He lowers me onto a chair, and then begins pacing. The last person I want to see right now is Dr. Gupta.
No one recognizes that weíre here and waiting. The nurses or receptionists, whoever they are, are too busy with other patients or filing their nails or something.
"My wife is bleeding!" he yells at the desk.
A woman asks for my insurance card.
Finally, finally, a nurse leads us to a bed and pulls a curtain around me. She checks my vitals.
"Change into this," she commands, handing me a paper gown. The gown is barely tugged closed around my back when she comes back in and hoists my feet into stir-ups. My blood pours onto the floor.
"Whatís going on?" Dan asks.
The nurse doesnít answer. Dan holds my hand. I donít know who squeezes tighter, him or me. Dr. Gupta walks in the room and sits between my legs.
"What is going on!?" Dan demands.
"Your wife is going into labor." He stares between my legs.
The blood drains from Danís face like it drains from my uterus.
"My baby." My voice sounds like Iíve contracted laryngitis. Nothing works right. The nurses and other patients move in slow motion and fast forward at the same time, some sort of time-lapse that makes me timeless.
The doctor pulls out the pieces of my pregnancy, the leftovers of my baby in a dead placenta, and the nurse pushes morphine through the IV into my arm. Dan scrapes a chair across the linoleum floor to sit next to me. After Dr. Gupta and the nurse leave, we cry. Our baby is gone. No Winnie-the-Poohís or jungle-themed rooms or soft, fluffy blankets.
Maybe our joy of the past weeks was a stolen joy, taken from a young couple strong and energetic and just starting their adult life. We had our turn.
I spend the next days in bed popping Vicodin and trying to tuck my pain under the sheets. Dan lies next to me the first day flipping channels and rubbing my back, and Elizabeth brings me Chamomile tea, scrambled eggs and Ginger Ale. I canít cry anymore. I stare at the TV, at the sheets, at the dimple in the sheetrock.
Why do I mourn for an unwanted child? Perhaps the doctor knew better. But the thought lingers only a moment. That was my child.
I get up, make the bed, and pass my fingers over the dimple in the sheetrock, barely noticeable, unseen by anyone but me. Then I go make dinner for Dan and me.
After all, this is our empty-nest adventure.