This story appeared in 2003 in Soundings East.
By Chris Evans
It slowly dawns on me that I’m the only man in the room. Four pregnant women, but no men. Not behind the counter, or back in the filing room. None in the hallway. I haven’t seen a Y chromosome since the parking lot.
Meg holds up the clipboard the nurse has given her. On top is a waiver letting us know that there’s a .5 percent chance that the fetus—this fetus, which isn’t quite a baby yet, still just a thing—won’t survive the process that it and its mother are about to undergo.
“Those are good odds,” says Meg.
She’s smiling, but white in the face, strained at the corners of her mouth.
“Only one in two hundred,” I say.
“Great odds. Really.”
I loosen my tie. I force a laugh and say, “Well, for every two hundred pairs of prospective parents who walk in, a good hundred ninety-nine walk out,” and I force another laugh.
Meg signs the form. “Don’t talk so much,” she says.
I work the tie back and forth, waiting for her to say something else, but she keeps looking at the damn form.
“It’s not as though we talk much, anymore, is it?” I say.
She flips a page, wraps it over the clip at the top of the clipboard and keeps on reading.
Listen, Meg, the truth is that we’ve not had a real conversation since getting back the results of the blood test, the triple marker test, which you had to explain to me, not once but twice, until I understood that our baby might be doomed already, at just four inches long. Genetically doomed, from our genes. That it might be born with Down syndrome, or with its spine outside his body, or might not be born at all. It might be an unsightly thing that we don’t want to have born.
That’s why we’re here, Meg, because we have choices, and the amnio you’re so scared about will tell us what choices we need to make, because you can’t tell us, and I—obviously—don’t have any idea. And what we’re not saying, Meg, is that we both might be ready to abort this child, because we’re both scared as hell about parenthood, because you and I don’t feel up to raising a healthy child, much less one that would need doctors and tests and which would begin a childhood of dying the moment it comes out of your womb.
Why can’t we say this aloud, Meg?
You’re grinding your teeth, so I rub at your neck. But you’re still reading. You don’t seem to notice.
“Can I have one of those?” I ask.
She hands me a pamphlet from the stack. I don’t know how she can read this stuff. It’s dry, technical. It helps me appreciate the good thing I’ve got going with Growing Up Daddy!, my dad-to-be book at home. Growing Up Daddy! has technical passages too, but interspersed with captions and cartoons, which are meant, I’m pretty sure, to take the pressure off. My favorite cartoon shows the baby in the delivery room, just out of the mother, already diapered and being held up to the dad and scrutinizing him, and saying, “The lady I recognize. You, I’m not so sure about.”
A half-hour passes. I was late and Meg wouldn’t go in without me, so they let someone else in first. We sit there. I make a task of memorizing small sections of my pamphlet, so Meg won’t need to explain later what’s happening.
In an amniocentesis, the doctor penetrates the amniotic sack surrounding the baby with a needle in order to obtain enough fluid to determine any chromosomal or developmental abnormalities. Results of the amniocentesis procedure stand as significantly more reliable than results of the alpha-fetoprotein assessment, which you may have undergone prior to this visit
Growing Up Daddy! makes references to sports on nearly every page. The pudgy-faced author compared morning sickness to the worst whiskey-tequila hangover a guy has ever known.
Amniocentesis is not recommended unless the baby’s genetic makeup or other health-related factors are in question, both because of the pain involved for the mother, which can range from minimal to substantial, and because of potentially fatal health risks to the child.
Meg starts to look over at my pamphlet. I stuff it into an inside pocket.
“They have some coffee,” she says, “if you want it.”
I shake my head and take her hand “At least,” I say, “after this we’ll know.”
“Be sure to hold my hand,” she says.
I give her a squeeze.
“In there, I mean.”
* * *
The nurse—older, fatter, sexless—invites us in and tells Meg to get undressed. The woman turns away but doesn’t leave the room, just stares at some papers on the counter by the sink. The dim fluorescent over there is the only light in the room. The rest of the space is all dark corners and shadows.
“Do you know the nature of the abnormality?” the nurse asks.
Meg pauses at the first button on her blouse and looks up, looks at me.
“I thought we didn’t know if there was anything wrong, yet,” I say. I want to advance on the nurse, read her eyes, make her look at me, standing here. Here I am, demanding information. Look at me. “Isn’t that why we’re here. To find out if there is a—an abnormality. To find out if the kid’s okay?”
Meg gently squeezes my arm.
“You’re right about that, Mr. Daniels.” The nurse turns around, looks over her glasses at me. Past me. To Meg. “Do you know if the blood test results were high or low, Mrs. Daniels?”
Meg shakes her head.
“What does that mean,” says Meg, “high or low?”
“Don’t worry about it today,” says the nurse, turning back to her papers, closing a folder. “Your obstetrician will be here soon.”
Jesus, Meg, how can she treat us this way? Would you listen to that tone of hers?
* * *
The doctor shakes my hand when I extend it and smiles at me as though I’m a child.
“Hello,” he says. “Good to meet you.” The old man has a thick, German accent. “I am Dr. Gies. And you are the father?”
Und you arr zee fah-zer?
I force my laugh again. I’ve got to lighten things up. “I will be if everything works out all right,” I say.
I feel like I want to throw up, but instead I’m making jokes.
The doctor frowns. “The nurse said you have questions about whether the blood test results were high or low.”
He looks at me and I have no idea what to say. Meg, already on the table, watches us talk. This is the man’s part, I know. I’m supposed to be stepping up, talking to the doctor, figuring things out, finding out how to comfort my wife, the wife who can’t talk to me about our options. Who screamed at me last week when I mentioned, just once, the words genetic termination. But there’s something about this doctor’s accent throwing me off, something about the way he’s looking at me, half-smiling.
“Well,” he continues, “it’s really not that important now. You know, one is up, the other down.” He smiles, puts a hand on my shoulder.
I look back at Meg to find out whether she wants me to press on, but in the few seconds it takes me to turn around, the obstetrician has moved past me and over toward Meg, and then he puts his hand on her belly. “When we are finished here, you know, we hope that we will know it is neither up nor down.” Smiling, gently laughing, touching and comforting my wife. “We hope that we will know.”
Vee hope zat vee vill know.
Up goes Meg’s hospital gown, exposing her to this man, and suddenly the nurse is back and asking me to step aside, and then she’s smearing clear gel all over Meg’s tiny oval of a belly, then lighting up a monitor—two monitors, a small one in front of her, and a TV suspended from the ceiling, in the corner of the room in Meg’s line of sight—and the doctor has a needle.
The needle goes into Meg’s abdomen without anesthesia because the baby can’t be drugged. From base to tip the thing spans nearly eight inches. This old German doctor smiles as he drives it in. He makes a joke about how he will drain the baby’s pool.
I’ve promised Meg that I’ll hold her hand, but with Dr. Gies on one side of the table and his assistant on the other side monitoring the fetus, I can’t get close. This is the one thing that I said I’d do—hold her hand—and I can’t do it. It’s not right, it’s an injustice. I clench my jaw, feel the increasingly familiar rage gathering behind my eyes, the darkness pumping through my heart.
Meg parts her lips and bends her neck upward and tries not to look at the needle in her belly or at the screen at the end of the table, above my head, showing a second image from the ultrasound. Showing our baby’s translucent shadow.
Meg, honey, this is the closest I can get to holding your hand. I’m stroking your ankle. Feel how hard I’m stroking your ankle.
Dr. Gies removes a collection tube from the end of the needle, and Meg whimpers. I rub harder. She keeps her eyes off the screen but I turn to look, I crane my neck to see the white shadow of our baby flailing its arms at the giant thorn invading its world.
I can’t keep calling this thing inside my wife an It.
“Just one more tube to fill,” says the doctor. He’s staring at the insertion point in Meg’s skin.
Across the table, the nurse, or nurse practitioner, whoever she is, watches her own screen, says the needle is clearing the baby just fine.
“Everything’s okay,” the doctor tells Meg. “You don’t need to be so strong. You can cry if you need to.”
“Can I scream?” she says, her mouth a thin, tight line.
The doctor laughs but doesn’t look away from the needle. He snaps on the second vial, and Meg’s head goes back again. She opens her mouth and draws in a thick gasp of air. Tears run from her eyes, down her temples, into her hair. She’s been saying for so long that she’ll need to cut her hair, that she doesn’t want sticky baby fingers pulling at her hair. She’s laughed about this. She’s wanted a baby for as long as I’ve known her, and now she can’t look at the thing on the screen. She focuses on the place where the ceiling meets the wall, just behind her head. On the monitor our baby flails its arms.
“Megan,” says the doctor. “Try your best not to move. I need to carefully, you know, carefully manage this operation. We are nearly there.”
Vee . . . arr. . . nearly . . . zehr . . .
Meg closes her eyes and squeezes the paper sheet of the examining table, pulling tight bundles of paper into each of her fists, ripping the sheet.
I squeeze her ankle.
Finally, Dr. Gies pulls the needle out of her abdomen, and Meg relaxes her hands. She lets go. The paper on the examining table is crumpled and damp.
“Okay!” chirps the medical assistant, and I feel myself jump. “Let’s just check for a heartbeat, okay?”
The soft-faced author of Growing Up Daddy! writes that a baby’s heart beats at a rate roughly twice that of an adult male, and that the pulsations one hears emitting from the tiny speakers in the gynecologist’s office sound less like a heartbeat than like water rushing across rocks in a stream. Hearing the baby’s heartbeat for the first time, he writes, is one of the greatest joys of early fatherhood. He uses italics for the word greatest.
I hear the slushing sound, easily twice as fast as my heart. But whether this thing—our baby, the thing that could be our child—whether it will be able to count, or add or subtract, or live long enough to take a breath of air does not affect the rate at which the heart beats now. With genetic deformities, the problem is living outside the womb, not inside.
Meg won’t look at me. It occurs to me for the first time that we really might not make it through this—not just the amnio, and not just the birth. If the baby’s not born, or if it’s born deformed, she and I really might not make it as partners in our marriage. My wife thinks I don’t care. She thinks I haven’t been on board. It’s not just today, either, with me being late for the appointment, but the whole pregnancy. I should buy her one those little yellow diamond signs to hang in the car window, Baby’s Father Not on Board.
The assistant, staring at her monitor, looks confused about something. Dr. Gies steps around to see what she’s looking at. The doctor and the assistant look nervous, Meg looks nervous.
“So what is the problem?” says the doctor. The assistant, the nurse, points at something on the screen.
“Oh, I see,” says the doctor.
And suddenly I feel nervous, too, so nervous I’m certain I’m going to be sick. If there’s a defect, it could be a sign. A sign that I’m not ready for fatherhood, or Meg for motherhood. Meg has always seen a family coming out of us. But maybe there’s not supposed to be any family. Does that mean there’s not supposed to be any us?
The doctor walks back around to Meg on the table and lightly touches her belly, still smeared with jelly, still exposed. “How do you feel, Megan? Any problems? Any pain?”
Doctor, what’s the matter? I’m standing here, too, and I need to know. Darkness and rage and confusion are choking my voice, I can’t speak, but I am standing here and I deserve to know.
“The needle wasn’t too nice,” says Meg. “Why? Is something wrong?”
“Wait,” says the nurse.
I rub hard at Meg’s ankle.
Dr. Gies moves around the table in two steps, looking up at the monitor above my head, and then down at the monitor by the nurse. The nurse points at the screen, and Dr. Gies squints, and, suddenly—they both break into smiles.
“Ah,” says the doctor, “no problem.”
“Healthy heartbeat,” says the assistant. And then looking up to Meg, she says, “It’s just these old eyes of mine. Thought I saw something that wasn’t there. Sorry, honey.”
Meg relaxes her neck. She sinks into her pillow. She closes her eyes and rubs her stomach.
Dr. Gies walks back to his side of the table and touches Meg’s shoulder. He smiles. “So, you know, that was just the trial procedure. Now we do it for real.” I stiffen, but the doctor claps his hands and laughs.
He’s only joking.
“You know,” he says, “you two are lucky, because just a few years ago, results from this test could take as long as four weeks to process. It is, you know, it is that the lab technicians, who are very good at what they do, if you want to know, they must wait as the cells extracted with this amniotic fluid, these cells actually shed by your child, they must grow under very controlled laboratory conditions. Yes. I should say, you know, that today you are lucky, because results from these kind of test, they are available much, much sooner.”
“How soon?” says Meg.
“Well, we cannot say, but, well, perhaps as soon as two weeks, you know.”
Meg’s studying his face.
“Yes,” the doctor adds, unprompted, “our modern technology is improving quite rapidly. Quite rapidly, indeed.”
The nurse begins wiping the gel from Meg’s belly. Dr. Gies takes off his plastic gloves and gestures toward the door.
“Mr. Daniels,” he says, “can I talk to you for a moment, outside the room here?” He looks to Meg. “You don’t mind, do you, if I take the father for just a moment?”
Meg shakes her head, looks like she’s ready to fall asleep, and smiles at me.
Meg, when it was all over, even though you were tired, you smiled at me.
In the hallway, Dr. Gies looks me in the eye.
“You were very good to your wife in there, you know.”
I squint at him. “I was?”
“Yes. Most certainly, yes. I imagine she wanted you to hold her hand, I am right? But you were down there, holding her foot. Many husbands sit in the chair, or get very nervous and ask many questions. Many of them, you know, they even stay outside the room. But you, Mr. Daniels, you did not. This is something that she will remember. Yah. I am certain of that.
“But listen, Mr. Daniels, she will need your help the next couple of days, okay? You hear what I am saying? She will be very sore, and she will worry. She is a woman, you know, and this is her baby. Now, we are men. What do we know of babies?”
I manage a laugh that doesn’t feel quite so forced. “Babies are your job, Dr. Gies.”
“Sure,” he says, “but what I am saying is, this battle your baby is fighting, this battle to grow and to be healthy, it is happening inside of your wife. It is very probable that she feels guilty about this. So, you and I know, of course, that the mother and the father have no control over the genetic problem. But she might not know that. Or, even though she knows it, she will not feel it. Women feel, you know? So you must help her to feel it. What I am saying, when she feels it, you must help her.”
I swallow. My throat feels dry. “How do I do that?”
“This, now, I tell you,” he says, “I have no idea. You will figure that out for yourself.”
* * *
In the examining room, Meg is in the process of sitting up. She dangles her legs from the table’s edge.
I walk over to her, and she puts her head on my shoulder.
“Miss?” I say.
The nurse looks up from her papers.
“Do you know if it’s a boy or a girl?”
The nurse looks over her glasses at me. “Are you sure you want to know, honey?”
I step back from Meg.
“We haven’t talked about this,” she says.
“Well, let’s talk.”
“What do you want?”
“I think we need to know. I can’t keep calling our child ‘It.’ I just can’t.”
Meg turns to the nurse. “Can you tell us?”
“Let’s look,” says the nurse. Meg leans back again, and the nurse pulls up the gown, smears more of the gel onto Meg’s skin, and presses the ultrasound sensor into my wife’s soft flesh.
“Which is it?”
“Hold on, Mr. Daniels. Give me a minute.”
Our baby jumps. I see it, and Meg feels it, and she laughs, and I smile when she laughs.
“Okay,” says the nurse, “you see the legs there?”
“I think so.”
Meg takes my hand.
“Right there, the legs, at the top. You see how there’s only two of them?”
“I think so. That’s a good thing, right?”
“Listen, sweetheart, it’s a little early to tell for sure, but when you’ve got a boy, you know it. A boy’s member is, well, disproportional, you could say. If you had a little boy, you wouldn’t need me to tell you. You’d see it right up there, yourself. Or you’d think you had a baby with three legs, deformed and all.”
I’m looking up, watching our baby’s arms float back and forth, the legs jerking every few seconds—and then the screen goes blank, and the nurse is touching Meg’s shoulder, looking devastated and remorseful.
“Oh, Jesus, honey, I’m sorry,” she says.
Meg stares at her, and I turn and say, “What is it?”
Something has happened between them, something I didn’t feel.
“What I just said,” whispers the nurse, “about the baby being deformed. I was being insensitive. I mean, we know why you’re in here today.” She shakes her head and keeps on looking into Meg’s eyes, which are already filling with tears. “I am so sorry. There is no way to know at this point about your baby, really, but we don’t know that she’s deformed. We don’t. Honey, believe me, most of these things turn out just fine.”
“Really?” says Meg.
“Almost all the time,” says the nurse.
I say, “Nurse?”
“Call me Cleo,” she says.
“Cleo, could you put the image back up on the screen?”
Cleo bites her lip and nods, and she realigns the pad on Meg’s stomach, and finds the baby again, and the image returns to the monitor above our heads.
“Megan,” I whisper, “look up there. Look how she’s fidgeting around. Look at how healthy she is.”
Already my wife is crying. I squeeze her hand, tight.
“She’s going to be a runner, or a dancer, or something else—someone—who is talented and special. And loved.” I turn to my wife. “You know that, right?”
Tears are streaming down her cheeks.
“How can you sure?” she says.
“Because I am sure.”
Because you need me to be sure.
“Just because I am. I know it. I feel it. That’s our daughter up there, and we are going to love her, and she is going to love us, and we’re going to be a family. Everything is going to be just fine.”
My wife takes a tissue from the box that Cleo holds out to her.
“Megan, she’s going to be perfect.”
“Believe me,” I say. “I’m sure.”
“So, okay,” says Meg, wiping her eyes. “Then I’m sure, too.”
Meg, in the end, when we were ready to go home together, you cried, and you smiled, and you said you were sure that your daughter would be okay.
“She’ll be perfect,” says Meg.
Sweetheart, your mommy and I both knew that you were going to be perfect.
And we knew, for the first time, that we were ready for you.