Image: “Fracture,” by Anthony R. Westenkirchner, manipulated digital photo (F/1.8 4mm 1/498s ISO-53), 42×56 in., 2019
No Baby, An Apology
By Bill Marsh
I dream sometimes about babies. I know these are babies I’m dreaming about because afterwards, when I stir awake with some semblance of recognition, I feel a hazy sense of having dwelled for a moment in fuzzy warmth, a zone of charmed interaction. The babies I dream about come in surprising shapes and sizes, all of them loved and ineluctably mine, all to be taken seriously and treated tenderly. Sometimes, thinking back on the dream, I decide it’s a baby when it could have been something else entirely, like a kitten or an injured squirrel, a puppy seeking shelter under my wing-like arm. What resonates upon waking is a feeling of deep primal bonding, a wordless, timeless infatuation, a caretaker’s commitment to long-term health and well-being. Then the baby slips away, and I’m awake in a world with no baby.
I say dream in the present tense, but it’s been a while since my last visitation. When I did dream about babies I always believed—wanted to believe—that I was dreaming about the two we never had. I don’t believe in ghosts, traces, or extrasensory transmissions, but I remember touting my dreams as time-space portals through which our unborn babies, both of them, waved a cheery hello from a nearby dimension. I liked the simple poetry behind this idea or at least the sweet sentimentality. For me the dreams made it possible to mourn and move on without really mourning or moving on. I always told you about my dreams because I figured this would help you feel better, but usually my groggy reports just made you cry.
It happened twice, the first time in San Francisco. The four of us had driven up from San Diego—a family road trip to celebrate the pregnancy, the early promise of viability. We had a name picked out, but in truth we’d done this long before. I think it was I who’d settled on ‘Simon’ as a placeholder, but soon the name latched on and wouldn’t let go. We talked about Simon like he was already alive and kicking, Simon the boy, the new brother to his two older sisters. His prescribed gender was a convenience mostly, a balancing act for the girls’ benefit, although that gesture seems pointless now.
It was early summer in Frisco and we made the most of it: Chinatown, Fisherman’s Wharf, a chilly trek halfway across the Golden Gate Bridge, pausing to count rivets and hazard guesses about height and span. The morning of the second day we climbed Telegraph Hill and that’s when the pain hit—mild pelvic discomfort at first, then cramps, dizziness, some nausea. An ectopic pregnancy can be deadly if left untreated, but the Mission District ER was busy that Saturday, your symptoms serious but not urgent. They put you on a gurney wedged into a quiet corner to keep you safe, comfortable, and out of the way. In the waiting room I busied the kids with coloring books and stale peanut butter crackers from the overpriced vending machine. The girls had questions, but I assured them everything would be okay.
The nurses gave you painkillers, and I remember standing there bedside as they sped by. We joked about the impeccable timing. “Some vacation, eh?” I may have quipped. I don’t recall the exact words and you probably don’t either. The meds had you surging—at turns cheerful, morose, heartbroken, resigned. We didn’t know for sure yet, but we could venture a guess, and when the doctor finally got around to us we learned we’d guessed correctly. The fetus had lodged in one of your damaged tubes, where it had grown, as a matter of course, into a much larger fetus.
“It was doing all the right things, but in the wrong place,” the mother said, thinking about her baby.
“Get it out of her, now,” the husband said, thinking about his wife.
No apologies necessary.
I don’t dream about babies so often anymore, but I do think about what it means to not have a baby of our own. These are ludicrous, irrational thoughts, however, because we do have two kids, both in their early twenties now, offspring of your previous marriage, yes, but very much our kids, my children, that obligatory ‘step’ notwithstanding and more than a little annoying when the prefix charges headfirst into the vast parenting cosmos I inhabit. When you and I met, the oldest was two years old, the youngest a volleyball riding high in your belly. Some months later I held the newborn in my arms. Soon enough I was wiping bottoms, making lunches, reading picture books over drooping eyelids. All this and more sealed the deal, but three years in, when we made that trip down to North Carolina, we both knew what we wanted, and we knew we could make it work.
“I think you’re going to get pregnant,” the surgeon told you in recovery. He had kind eyes and the chiseled, polished face of a bodybuilder buffing up for his next competition. We had every reason to agree with his prediction. Success rates for reverse tubal ligations range from 40 to 85 percent. We’d driven across five states because the man standing there with a surgical mask tied around his neck had an even better track record: five out of six, seven out of eight, something notable like that. On the other hand, we were both pushing forty so we understood our chances. You were doped up and maybe don’t recall the conversation, but when the doctor proffered details specific to the physics of fallopian transit, when he described what he’d seen in there (severe scarring, narrow passageways), I knew he was telling us to keep our hopes at a low simmer. But you were happy and so was I. “I think we’re going to get pregnant.”
In San Francisco they injected methotrexate, a chemotherapy drug used primarily to shrink cancer cells. Two years later, in New York City, we waited too long, pushed our luck too far, so they had to cut you open and take it out. We’d moved to the city to start new jobs and maybe, we continued to hope, grow the family by twenty-five percent. When you woke up in agony just after midnight, we both knew the numbers wouldn’t change anytime soon.
We lived in Queens, but your doctor’s hospital was on the Upper East Side. We took Northern Boulevard and the Queensboro Bridge. The pain was magnificent but you said something thoughtful and lovely about the soft lights of lower Manhattan easing the pressure down below. I found a parking space a block away from the hospital. I put my arm around your waist and together we walked through the sliding glass doors. The next day I found a ticket tucked under the wiper blade, $150 for parking in a bus lane, later reduced to $100 when I appealed online and landed the right judge, who took some pity.
But that night I wasn’t thinking about parking tickets. I was thinking about you and Simon #2 now reclassified as an ectopic pregnancy in need of emergency laparotomy. The sun had just come up when your doctor, a plump middle-aged man with scruffy gray hair, pushed through the waiting room door and called my name. Mostly I remember his cocky smile, the self-assured waddle as he approached and reached for my hand.
“She’s doing fine,” he said. Shedding the worst of my fears, I wanted more basic procedural stuff: Where do I go? When can I see her? But the doctor’s smile broadened as he volunteered details about what he had just cut out of you. “No rupture, but you got her here just in time,” he said. “It looked like a small sausage, about yea big.” Then he used his right thumb and forefinger to measure out ‘yea’ for his rapt audience of one. For some reason I asked about the status of your tubes, which seemed to annoy him. “No way,” he said, shaking his head, almost chuckling. “She’ll never get pregnant again.”
Later that morning I held a plastic emesis basin under your chin as you puked up the anesthesia’s aftermath. Then I flushed the spinach-green fluid down the toilet. “I know you love me because you’ll do that,” you moaned, coming around.
The word ‘apology’ holds two meanings: acknowledgement of an offense or failure; reasoned explanation or justification, vindication. In the years since we married, you’ve apologized more than once for having your tubes tied in the first place. More recently, post-reversal, you’ve even apologized (if that’s the right word) for either the baby’s ‘failure’ to find the womb or our joint failure to bring the project to fruition. “It tried to live,” you sometimes say, “but it just didn’t work.”
Before we met and fell in love you’d decided to stop having kids. You didn’t plan on getting divorced, let alone remarrying someone with whom the dream of a baby (again, one more) would resurface with a passion and urgency hard to ignore. I always appreciated the apologies but never really understood them. Of course I loved the idea of getting pregnant, having a baby, but your decision made perfect sense to me, especially given the delightful babies you’d already had, the ones we’ve raised together. Talking it through with you I could always muster, if called upon, an equally agonizing sense of regret, but the fact is I regret nothing about our life together. Why trouble a good thing with these pesky self-recriminations? What’s done is done. We move on.
But it isn’t that easy, is it?
In fact the ‘trouble’ we have has less to do with lingering feelings of regret (and sadness, missed opportunity) than with my perennial failure to understand what it feels like to have and then lose a baby. I dream sometimes about babies, which is the closest I’ll ever get to having one inside me. To this day you mourn the loss of two babies, which means they will always be close, always inside you. I owe you an apology because really none of this means what I think it does. I need to apologize, too, because I seem to have a thing for apologies as explanations, as vindications. One kind of apology can prey upon the other, swallow it whole, and that’s where the trouble lies.
This becomes very clear to me when I tell you I want to write about Simon, about that time in our lives, about tactless doctors and ‘sausage babies’ and our earnest, failed attempts at growing the family. I ask a question, and suddenly you’re in tears, in a rage.
“What makes you think you can do that?” you want to know, but I have no clue what you’re asking me. “Don’t you see how dangerous this is?”
I fumble about, confused by your reaction. Dangerous? I scramble for words like ‘time’ and ‘distance’ and ‘detachment,’ but you have no patience for my words. “You’re not even asking the right question,” you say, and at first I can’t tell if you’re trying to help or hurt me, then I realize you’re doing both and neither. I feel a dreamlike pivot into territories unknown, but it’s obvious we’ve been living here all along.
Finally I blurt something about my fear, back then, of losing you, of exploding tubes, of careless surgeons and their winsome fascination with growths and sizes. I think it’s a decent defense, but later, after we’ve both settled down and returned to that place of quiet sharing, I feel ashamed and embarrassed, small and choked off. Out of necessity I put the baby topic aside and weeks go by. Winter comes and the world freezes over. Only when the streets start to thaw do I pick it up again—because, if nothing else, I must apologize.
An apology for all those years of hope and heartbreak. An apology for the babies we never had, for doing all the right things but in the wrong place. An apology for not ever fully accepting your apology. An apology for the pain and blood and scars. An apology for male doctors and their false assurances, their witty observations, their hairy know-it-all fingers. An apology, too, for me and my explanations, for my apologetic ways, for not understanding how to understand, and for wanting to ask when I don’t even know the right question.
No baby, an apology.
It’s a dangerous move, I know, because the two—our baby, my apology—cannot be so easily separated. Fused together they start to resemble dreamlike shapes both familiar and strange. I look for a simpler way to end this, to close the distance, but the distance is precisely what we share, what can’t be closed. Somewhere there’s a baby stuck in a wordless, timeless dream who also moves in surprisingly dangerous, unpredictable ways, and this too we share. Then the baby slips away and we’re awake, together, in a world of no baby. I struggle to remember what this looks and feels like. I scramble for words. But this baby between us is like no baby I’ve ever seen before.