By Allison Gehlhaus
Here it is, I thought, the ultimate paradox of motherhood. The word “mother” ushers in images of fullness, of bellies, of breasts, of arms. Then there’s the flip side, the side that doesn’t get much play time, the side that holds the endless tracks of losses - of small babies, of innocence, of good intentions. Once you experience the love, the immense volcano of love a mother has for her children, even her unborn ones, you can never be truly happy again. You’re too afraid to lose it. Yeah, I thought, watching my friend push her eggs around her plate, but it’s a paradox that I’m not going to talk about.
“I’ve always dreamt in the singular,” she said. Her blue eyes were filled with tears. I kept watching for when they would spill and fall. But they didn’t. Instead the tears just hung there, lush and still, vessels reflecting the colors around us.
I kept quiet.
“When I was little, you know, I dreamt about what my life would be. It never included anyone else. It was always just me, like in a studio apartment, painting, doing my thing. It was weird, you know. My sister dreamt of the big wedding, the white dress and all. I never dreamt of that.” She took a long sip of coffee and continued to stare out the window.
“And look at us now,” she said laughing. “I’m married, she’s not. I’m trying her dreams on for size, she’s trying mine.”
We let the sounds of the coffee shop envelope us up for a few moments.
“Do you think God punishes us for our dreams?” she asked, looking straight at me.
“Oh, no. Here we go. Don’t ask me.” It was my turn to watch the street traffic.
“How do you do it?” she asked.
“Do what?” I said, although I knew exactly what she meant. It always came down to this, the believers curious about the non-believers. They look at us with the same skepticism that we use when we look up towards heaven. She waited.
“I believe in stuff.” I said a bit defensively. “I believe in science. I believe in people. I…”
“Do you know what my sister-in-law said to me last night?” she said, interrupting.
“Chris? No. Tell me.”
“She said, ‘God must have wanted the baby more than I did.’”
“Ow,” I said, wincing.
“She said it was God’s will and all that. What do you think of that?”
“You really want to know?”
She nodded her head yes.
“I think it’s funny, even if you do believe, to imagine God’s up there in the sky, looming over us, like some white-haired judge on the “People’s Court,” deciding who deserves babies, who wants them badly enough, who dreams in the singular. Don’t you think he’s got enough to do? Why can’t bad stuff just happen?”
“That’s it, your philosophy? Bad stuff happens?” Lizzie said, her lips reluctantly turning into a smile. She poured herself another cup of coffee.
“Impressive, isn’t it?” I said, laughing. “Listen, I’m not proud of this. I’m winging it every day. I wish I could believe sometimes. I look at people who are comforted by their religion and envy that framework. All that certainty and answers to big questions.” I squirmed in my seat. “Rich and I wonder if we’re doing right by our kids. I know they’re little, but I tell them all the time, do the right thing because it’s the right thing. Be good people. Be kind. Be compassionate.” I shrugged. “What do I know? I’m flying without a safety net.”
I waited while she poured cream and sugar in it and stirred slowly, watching the whirlpool swirling around the inside of the mug.
“Part of me knows bad stuff just happens. But still… part of me wonders if I’m being punished, or tested. It’s hard to let that go,” she said. She looked like she was five again. Like she did when we met in kindergarten, in Sunday school of all places.
“Punished for what?”
“For not wanting the baby at first.”
“It was bad timing, that’s all, you came around. You got used to the idea. You made room for that baby.” I talked low and soft to her, leaning in. “That’s how it is for us mothers. The instant you know you’re pregnant, the future starts. When those two little pink lines show up on that pregnancy test, whether your reaction is delight or dread, the universe shifts – you’ll never be the same again. All intentions are doubled. It felt like a state of grace for me.” I remembered when I found out I was pregnant with my last one, the timing couldn’t have been worse, Rich had just lost his job, we had two kids under four, and still I felt this rushing flame of pleasure. It made no practical sense, but I was thrilled nonetheless. Pregnancy is the triumph of possibility.
“You know,” she said shifting gears, “there’s a club.”
“A club?” I asked.
“Oh yeah, you’re missing out. It’s the miscarriage club. Women come out of the woodwork and tell you their stories. “I lost a baby in 1968,’ ‘I was eleven weeks pregnant when I started to bleed.’ They never forget. Even the ones with kids. Their unborn never lose their place. It’s actually kinda nice. They remember their due dates. Mine was in October. My neighbor told me that I’d always feel it, the loss, you know, every October.”
I thought to myself, she doesn’t know it yet, but that’s what mothers do, we remember. Every day is a loss and a gain at the same time. Every first is also a last. She wasn’t ready to hear that part. I kept my mouth shut.
“Can I tell you something?” she whispered. “I used to work with a woman who lost a baby when she was nine weeks pregnant. She was grief-stricken. I didn’t get it. I remember thinking that she was only nine weeks along. She’d only even known about the baby for a month. Now I know. I know I’m the same person I was before, but I feel emptier, less than what I was, somehow.” She stared out the window, full of regret. “I think I even said something like “There must have been something wrong with the baby. Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise.” She held her hand over her forehead, remembering, regretting.
“No one knows how to talk about miscarriages. Why don’t we make a list that you can hand out to friends and family detailing the helpful and unhelpful things to say?”
She laughed a bit at that. We sat there, imagining such a list, neatly typed, quickly handed out to co-workers and sister-in-laws, before they are permitted to speak. The idea of such a list, ridiculous as it was, seemed to cheer her.
Lizzie flashed me a mischievous smile and said, “Even the word sucks, miscarriage. Like I was carrying something, like a precious vase or something, and I dropped it, or carried it wrong, like I was careless.”
“You sound as though you’re blaming yourself,” I said. “This was not your fault.”
“I know, I know, still there’s shame. I know that I shouldn’t feel this way. But…” She closed her eyes as if hoping the right words, the true words, would float into her head and settle in her mouth. “I am ashamed that my body didn’t protect the baby, that it failed doing the one thing God designed it to do.”
“Lizzie, when you think about all the things that could go wrong when you’re pregnant, all the connections that have to be made, the millions of cells that have to do exactly what they are supposed to, it’s a miracle that it doesn’t go wrong more often. It’s amazing that it ever works at all.”
“Why’s it always so easy for you?” she asked. I was wondering when she would turn on me, turn on my body that so easily made babies, and kept them inside where they needed to be kept, until they were ready to come out, pushing out three lovely healthy pink babies with such force and will that my own power surprised me.
“I’ve been lucky. That’s all it is. Luck.”
“What if I’m never lucky?”
“You’ll be lucky. It’ll happen for you. And if it doesn’t, there are alternatives. There are worse things than not being able to have children.”
“Ha…” she laughed bitterly. “Even you don’t believe that, even you with your sleepless nights, separation anxiety, temper tantrums, blah, blah, blah, even you don’t believe that.”
She was right. I couldn’t argue.
“Let’s go – I want to take you somewhere,” I said, sliding out of the booth.
It was raining. Large drops hit our bare skin like vaccinations.
“Oh no,” she said laughing, when I pulled into our destination. “You are not taking me to God’s Little Acre Nursery.”
“Yes, I am. Fitting, isn’t it?”
“You are quite mad,” she said. “What do you have in mind?”
We entered the greenhouse, surrounded by the smell of fertile soil. The rain pelted the glass roof. In the diffused gray light, the flowers looked like jewels laid out for our inspection. We passed wooden tables full of vibrant colored pansies. “Too fragile,” I said.
The sherbert colored buds on the impatiens were still tight and hung on to the plants like baby possums. The hard green stalks of the perennial plants pushed out of the soil, giving no hints of their future beauty. “I’ll know it when I see it,” I said, mostly to myself.
We left the shelter of the greenhouse and went outside. Here were the plants that could tolerate being out in the elements. There were bushes and trees on either side of a long winding mulch-covered trail. Roses are too needy, I thought, passing them by. The azaleas and rhododendrons were not quite right. The rain started to come down even harder.
The trail inclined and ended at a small plateau overlooking the rest of the nursery. Although the buds were not fully out on the oak tree that formed a natural canopy over the area, the branches were thick enough to provide some protection from the rain. There were dozens of trees up there, grouped by type, leaning against each other for support, their roots swaddled in burlap. I kept walking past the weeping cherry trees. “These just won’t do.” I said.
The paper bark birches looked in need of too much repair. I ignored the fruit-bearing trees. The evergreens were close, but still wrong.
“This is it.” We stopped at a maple tree. It had a beautiful shape. It was tall and sturdy with upward arching branches that hugged its small leaves. The tag said, “October Glory.”
Lizzie just watched as I paid for the tree and declined the nursery’s offer to deliver it during the week.
We struggled carrying the tree out to the car. When we saw my Honda Accord in the parking lot, we couldn’t stop laughing.
Lizzie took over. “Open the door,” she commanded. I did as I was told. I threw the car seats in the trunk.
“Open the sunroof.”
“Yes sir,” I stood at attention, saluting her.
“Cut the crap, and do it,” she said.
Somehow we maneuvered that tree into the car. It looked hysterical to us, the branches covered with tiny buds of green, sticking up and out of the sunroof, reaching for the sky. “Are we ignoring the fact that it is raining?” I asked her.
“Don’t give me a hard time,” she warned. “You started this.”
We planted that maple tree in Lizzie’s front yard. It took us two hours to dig the hole. I had to leave and pick up my kids from school. The air from the defroster made my blue jeans feel colder and even wetter. I got mud all over my car. Instead of going home after getting my children, I drove back to Lizzie’s house. She was standing in the yard looking at the tree. I took my children and stood next to her in the rain. My three year old buried her face in my neck.
“This.” Lizzie said, finally letting the tears spill. “This moment is what I’m going to believe in.”
“This seems like something good to believe in,” I said, reaching for her hand.
“Remember when you said before that you were flying without a safety net?”
“I think you’re wrong. I think we’re both looking at this all wrong. Maybe this,” she said, looking up to the sky and sweeping her hand up the length of the tree and around the circle of children, “all of it, should be our safety net.”
“Hey, I like that.” I said, squeezing her hand. “Cause we’re gonna need that cushion. You do a lot of flying when you’re a mother.”
Allison Gehlhaus lives, writes and mothers in Rumson,New Jersey. She has five children. This is her first published short story.