by Susan Thornton
We named her Amelia. I spent an hour in the Christian gift shop on Main street looking stupidly at audio tapes of gospel songs, video tapes of the Living Bible, refrigerator magnets with cheerful Christian sayings, before choosing a cross to put in the box with her ashes. Then I drove to the mall, where I found a kiosk called “Things Remembered.” I chose a gold plated brass name plate and waited while the young woman engraved it with her name. Gerry warned me that the ashes made a very small packet. She only weighed a little over a pound. We put the ashes in the box, with the cross, and Gerry sealed and varnished the box, and glued on the name plate.
At the cemetery Gerry’s mother didn’t speak to either of us. Children played and shouted in the school yard below. The priest’s cassock billowed in the warm wind; it was a fine September day. I didn’t know I was supposed to be the first person to throw the dirt on the box. Afterwards Gerry’s aunt pointed out the family graves, including another infant, and six-year-old twins, siblings of Gerry’s father. In the distance rose the spire of the Catholic church. Amelia’s grave made the fifth generation in that cemetery.
I dreamed my obstetrician sent me roses; that’s how I knew I was pregnant. I waited 12 days and, jubilant, went into his office for the test. To conceive our first child, Eleanor, required months of medical intervention. But our second pregnancy just happened. And I had wanted it to happen. The ultrasound showed a face looking back at us with hollow eyes—later I found out Gerry felt uneasy from that point on. I held Eleanor in my lap on the rocking chair—she was eighteen months old—and felt our three hearts beating in one embrace, mine, and Eleanor’s as she sat cradled on my lap, and the baby’s deep inside me and felt happy. The weeks passed. In the afternoons fatigue pressed me to the bed; I woke, hours later, with a cottony mouth not knowing if it were day or night. Gerry said I looked gray. My head ached and I took Tylenol. Then on a Monday a phone call; I made Gerry get the extension. Tears filled the doctor’s voice; he had the results of the amniocentesis: Trisomy 13. Some couples choose to terminate. We were to see a specialist in genetics. How bad can it be? I thought. You read about surgeries done in the womb to patch defective hearts. If it’s only a heart problem. . .
The genetics counselor had an office in a town house overlooking the river, with a picture window view of birch trees and the slow moving, muddy water. As she described the abnormalities I stared at a heavy crystal paperweight. I wanted to fling it through the window, shatter that early June day, send the shards of glass glittering over the brick patio and the careful plantings to the river. The baby was blasted from the beginning. An accident at conception. It wasn’t the Tylenol. It wasn’t anything I did or didn’t do. It was an extra chromosome which meant no brain, a defective heart, extra fingers, a life expectancy of thirty days tied to machines. And we had to decide. The pregnancy had gone on so long that it would continue. I wouldn’t miscarry on my own. We could terminate the pregnancy or I could deliver her into the maw of modern medicine where machines would force her lungs to work until we had to decide to take her off the machines.
Gerry couldn’t agree to an abortion. Doctors had told him he had melanoma. They were wrong. Doctors had told him he would never father children. They were wrong. Now doctors were telling him this child wouldn’t survive, and that one option was to terminate the pregnancy; what if they were wrong? He wanted to repeat the amniocentesis. We would have to bear the cost of it; we didn’t have fifteen hundred dollars.
At last we went to Syracuse to a neonatal specialist and had another ultrasound. Gerry gripped my hand. The technician was kind. She’d never seen a Trisomy 13 baby in a Level II ultrasound. It’s a one in a thousand constellation of birth defects. She ran the sensor through the cool viscous gel that coated my belly. On the large screen above us we saw the hollow skull filled with water, the two-chambered heart, with its defective wall, the deeply scored hare-lip, the extra fingers, the turned-in feet.
I lay on the table for thirty minutes. At last the technician wiped off my skin, I adjusted my clothes, and we went into another room to see the specialist. He sat across from me with a woman assistant; Gerry sat at the head of the table. The doctor had watched the results of the test on another screen. He looked at me steadily and asked why we wouldn’t consider termination. “Was it religious reasons?” Beside me, Gerry couldn’t speak. I said I didn’t want to feel I was taking a life. The doctor said, “At this point, you are the baby’s respirator.”
We walked to the parking lot in silence. In the car Gerry said, “If you want to terminate, I’ll support you.”
We called my obstetrician that afternoon. Because he practices at a Roman Catholic Hospital he had to refer us to someone else. “I’m sorry I can’t be there for you, Susan.”
We arranged for Eleanor to stay with neighbors. At the admitting desk I couldn’t say the words “pregnancy termination.” The nurse wrote that I was in for a routine prenatal examination. This caused delay and confusion until a clerk found us and redid the paperwork. I was in a small room off the maternity ward. We got there at nine AM. I undressed and lay on the unyielding mattress. At eleven, the nurse inserted the first suppository. The drug in the suppository causes the placenta to leave the wall of the uterus; then labor begins and the baby is delivered. It usually takes six to eight hours. Gerry left for a while and I slept.
Morning, afternoon, early evening, late evening. The nurse went home. A new nurse came in. “Flu like symptoms.” I needed Gerry and the nurse to help me out of bed to go to the toilet. Fever, aching, my legs weak as if I’d run a marathon. What was in that drug? I’ve never felt so ill. The cramping began around 10 PM; the shot for the pain medication burned so that I cried out and flinched when the nurse put the needle in my flesh. Midnight, one o’clock. Gerry slept for a while, so did I. More pains woke me up at 2:00. I let them get bad before I called Gerry. I gripped his hands and made him count up to ten and back down. And this was a five month fetus, and she was so small. With Eleanor I had no labor because of the scheduled Cesarean. I felt like a weakling. Then I felt the pain crest, and stop, and the baby moving down and out of my body, and I felt something like elation. It felt familiar, this sense of delivering, of delivery. The word suddenly took on magnified meaning. If the baby had been alive, it would have been an ecstatic high like nothing else.
The young nurse came in, stared at what I had delivered and ran for the older nurse. “It’s O.K.” The older nurse reassured her. “The baby delivered in the placenta.” It had all come out at once, like a kitten, or a puppy. Within that mysterious fluid sac, I could feel the inert little form. There was no hurry of course, since the baby was dead.
The nurses cleaned her off and wrapped her up and brought her to me. They had suggested we take pictures. I looked at her little body. I can’t take a picture of this, I thought. She was like a little dead bird you see on the sidewalk, not ready to be born at all. Her tissue paper skin bright red, showing the blood underneath, the hare lip so pronounced there was hardly a nose, six fingers on each hand, the little wizened arms drawn up to the fragile torso. Gerry looked over my shoulder.
There she lay, in my hands, she who would never take a first step, never chose a dress, never smell a flower, never ask me to tie a sweater around her waist so she could be a “big girl.” She who would never wrinkle her lip at “green things,” who would never tussle with her older sister for a favorite toy, who would never demand an “ice pop” or run to the back door to let the cat out. She who would never chase me down the hall of a day care center, who would never throw herself on the floor of the church nursery and let her urine flow so I had to leave the church service and carry her, damp and smelling of piss, to the car, she who would never call me a “butthead” or a “sporty brat,” she who would never wrap her fingers in my hair and pull so the tears came to my eyes, she who would never scream with frustration at bedtime, fight me off and demand her father, she who would never glance at me as I picked up the phone, and then shriek until my ears rang and I hung up the receiver, she who would never nestle against my neck, or giggle as I kissed her belly, she who would never throw her arms around her father’s neck and be lifted up in the air to kick her feet and crow. She who would never.
At home the next day I’d asked our baby sitter to help with Eleanor. The funeral director had given me a pamphlet on how to deal with grief and bereavement. “Have a picture taken of you holding the baby.” I instantly regretted my decision at the hospital. I knew I still had one day before the baby’s body would be cremated. Jenny thought I was resting in my room. Instead I was pacing. Could I call the funeral home? Would they let me hold the baby? Would I be able to bring myself to touch that cold little body? Where was the camera? Did I have film? I paged through the telephone book. Each time I reached for the phone, Jenny came into the room. I didn’t want to confide in her. But whenever I moved to carry out my plan, she interrupted me. At last I took this for a sign. Eleanor woke up disturbed from her nap. Jenny apologized, but I welcomed the chance to go in and hold her. She nestled against me and fell asleep.
That night after supper Eleanor climbed up on my lap. “Mommy’s tummy all gone,” she observed. “Mommy’s tummy all gone.”
Susan Thornton is a teacher and writer living and working in Binghamton, New York. Her book, On Broken Glass: Loving and Losing John Gardner, published in New York by Carrol and Graf in 2000, is a memoir of her love affair with the celebrated American novelist and author of Grendel. Her short fiction has been reprinted in The Best American Mystery Stories 2016, and in The Santa Fe Literary Review (2016), Dark Fire Fiction (2014, 2015) and in Blackbird (2016). Poems have been anthologized in Love and Ensuing Madness and Such an Ugly Time published by Rat’s Ass Review (2017).