“Make sense?” It was a tic. The doctor had said it five times in as many sentences.
I was still on the examination table, the sticky-smooth ultrasound gel casting an eerie sheen at my waistline. I could see the screen reflected in his glasses. A black empty fan where once there had been tiny, nameable organs.
Moments before, our technician had been naming them. She blandly observed, reserving judgment for the expert. We casually nodded along, pretending we could see a chamber, a valve. Pretending we weren’t desperate to grab her by the lapels and demand: “But is the baby healthy?”
“Here’s the brain,” she continued. A pause. “Cute baby,” she murmured. Again and again. “Cute baby.”
Then: “I’ll be back.”
“Something’s wrong,” I said as soon as she’d left.
“She didn’t say anything was wrong,” said my husband, unconvinced.
“Her voice changed. And she kept saying ‘cute baby.’ That’s not normal.”
He gave me a sideways glance. We waited.
This was so unlike my first glimpse, just weeks earlier at my OB appointment. The baby was facing the camera, hands in fists below the chin. Not at all the typical lima-bean-in-profile shot. “Your baby is looking so cute right now!” my OB squealed. Her delight seemed genuine. This baby was adorable. It was a medical fact.
And now this. An ominous, decidedly undelighted drone. “Cute baby.”
The doctor arrived. He did not have the face of someone who should be seared into your memory. Yet, here he is: his ginger hair, his tight frame. He explained that the baby’s nuchal fold, an area at the back of the neck, was measuring large, which increased the risk of certain chromosomal abnormalities.
We nodded. No sense.
I got the CVS. A needle was inserted into the delicate placenta that fed my baby. More of a knitting needle than a medical one. A morsel was extracted, dropped into a tube. I knew the risks — the chance of miscarriage was about 1 in 100. But I needed to know. I felt a rip, not at my placenta, but deeper.
After the CVS, I couldn’t lift heavy objects. At the playground, my 1-year-old son cried, wanting me to lift him to the swings. I wanted it too. I wanted to wrap my arms around this warm little boy with his white socks pulled halfway up his calves and his mini jogging shoes. I relented and picked him up, envisioning my placenta coming unmoored, pools of blood forming below the hardening swell of my belly.
That evening the WebMD charts and ancient chat forum posts loomed and receded behind tears. How much about myself — about what I was capable of — did I want to know?
At last, the nurse called. “Your child does not have any of the chromosomal conditions associated with an increased nuchal fold.”
I remember where I was standing, but not how I responded.
“And we have the sex. Do you want to know?”
To this, I know how I responded.
I called my husband. “Everything’s okay,” I told him. “And we’re having a girl.”
My daughter did not come gently into this world. In the weeks following the CVS, I bled. I worried that my need to know had put my well-being above hers. That my need to hold my son — the one who was already here — had done her in. That because of my selfishness, she would die.
It was not from my needs, the blood. It was from a benign uterine polyp that was finally discovered, effortlessly twisted off and disposed of.
With each tiny bit of me removed, I felt I lost some of her.
When my oldest was born, I felt a fierce pull, animalistic in its intensity. This was my child, mine. I looked at his delicate eyelids and could see my blood beneath them.
When my daughter was born, that immediacy wasn’t there. I felt the weight of her on my chest, heavier than her nine pounds. The moment I saw her weirdly large feet, I knew I would die for her. But I didn’t recognize her. Even as my milk began to flow into her, I remained firmly moored.
That first night, I’m ashamed to admit, I sent her away. We were alone together, and I couldn’t get her to sleep. She wouldn’t take the pacifier. I was so tired. Finally I padded out to the hall and asked the nurses to watch her. They sent her back in a few hours later, pacifier firmly in her mouth, wrapped in a cocoon of faded hospital blanket, her dark eyes bright. What game was she playing?
Two days later, we named her. She still felt foreign.
When she arrived, my son was already formed. I knew him. His needs were clear.
Hers were not so clear. She was ornery. Her early pacifier refusal held true. It would take 30 minutes of cajoling as she cavalierly spit the thing out, like Bogart speaking through a cigarette.
Her body parts matched mine, but I didn’t see myself in her. She was littered with me, but she was not me. I think it was this otherness — How could I keep her safe when I could barely do so when she was inside of me? — I think it was this that took so long to surmount.
And yet, she survived. Untethered from my body, she thrived in a reckless, joyful way. She stood too soon, walked before it seemed her legs could support her. She bulldozed her way through milestones as if to prove her resilience.
My daughter today is still not like me. Although I occasionally see glimpses of myself in her, she is unafraid to be herself. As everyone did the chicken dance at the school dance, she did an unrhythmic spin. Picking up speed, touching the floor, rising again. The sound of clapping and flapping surrounding her. She shone.
That’s how I would describe her now. She shines. Her loud voice, her clear blue eyes, her sly sense of humor. When I am not with her, everything dims, I long for her warmth.
Last summer, we planted a “Fairy Garden.” It had been hot, and the ground was dry. I wasn’t sure the seeds would grow.
Weeks later, there was only spreading grass and weeds.
“I’m not sure it worked,” I said to her, preparing for tears.
“I think it will work,” she said.
Soon, the garden took off. Bright orange and yellow flowers popped. Alongside them, long stalks emerged with fuzzy, snuggled flowers — almost like cocoons. I had never seen these before. They added texture, depth, but I wouldn’t call them beautiful.
My daughter was overjoyed. We got to work building a fairy house out of bricks and leaves and grass. We left a strawberry on the mantle.
I was ready to call our garden a success. But then the cocoons metamorphosed. Dark purple and fuchsia stars sprang forth, specs of yellow in the center. Somehow both delicate and hardy, surprising in their vividness. Our work, our intention, our offerings — they had bloomed into something so lovely. Something ringing of magic.
She was almost too big to carry her outside, but I did anyway. She giggled as she put her arms around my neck, both my arms cupped below her. I rushed her out the door and to our garden to bear witness to what we had created.
Alison Wilkinson is a freelance writer and mother based in Portland, Ore. Find her on Twitter @runknitlove.