Water Children

by Nina de Gramont

Every year in Wilmington, North Carolina, pro-life activists stage a silent protest. For a single day they stand on either side of Oleander, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, holding up neatly lettered placards. It’s a harbinger of autumn, and I know that the long, southern months of Indian summer have arrived when the quiet chain appears. It goes on for miles—solemn and plaintive faces of all ages. Last year there were nearly two thousand of them, their lips sealed in self-restraint as passing motorists hurled eggs from car windows. The eggs didn’t hit anyone, just splattered angrily at their feet, slowly cooking on the still-hot pavement.

Oleander is a road I drive down often, and in the three years I’ve lived here I’ve always managed to stumble upon the so-called Life Chain. The first time, in the moment I recognized the nature of the demonstration (words steadily hanging in the air: “Abortion Kills Children”), I started to make a reflexive gesture at the protesters, who stared—insistent and inquisitive—through every windshield. It wouldn’t have been a hostile gesture, nothing obscene. Just an exaggerated frown, a dramatic shake of my head, perhaps accompanied by a raised and wagging finger, to let them know how vehemently I disagreed.

But somehow, returning the protesters’ unspeaking gaze, I couldn’t manage an expression of disapproval. As a teenager, I had been deeply involved in protesting nuclear weapons and took intensive courses in civil disobedience and nonviolent protest. That long river of silence struck an admiring chord. It impressed me and it moved me. If I didn’t agree with their politics, I could still appreciate the poetry of the gesture, and the undeniable power of silent numbers.

 

I have a friend who’s opposed to abortion. Recently, she asked me if I’d ever had one.

“No,” I answered truthfully.

“Would you have?” she asked. “When you were single?” “I guess so,” I said. “It was always my contingency plan.”

As a single woman—from my teens and into my twenties—I was assiduously careful about birth control. The closest I ever came to an unplanned pregnancy was one drunken night on Nantucket, with a good-looking and cocky boy who’d never read The Catcher in the Rye.

“I don’t really like to read,” he’d told me, back at the Chicken Box, the only bar that would accept our fake IDs. I remember sipping my sea breeze and feeling sad for the boy, who didn’t realize he’d just blown his chances.

Several hours and several sea breezes later, literary credentials didn’t seem so important. As we made out on a deserted beach with no birth control in sight, I remember having a very specific, very drunken thought: that if I got pregnant, the subsequent abortion would be another life experience, like getting lost on the London Tube or drinking wine with homeless sailors on the docks at Key West. Perfectly in tune with my youth, the trauma would make me a deeper, more fully realized person. These ideas, or something close to them, actually formed in my foggy head.

Luckily, a weeping friend interrupted our embrace, distraught over an altercation with her boyfriend. The boy who didn’t like to read disappeared into the night—as surely as he would have had the evening proceeded to its inevitable drunken conclusion.

I used to know a girl who became pregnant during a similar encounter. Describing her subsequent abortion, she’d said, “I wanted it out of my body as fast as possible.”

If I’d become pregnant on Nantucket by a boy I barely knew and didn’t even like, never mind my conscious decision—in the supposed heat of passion—to take my chances, I would have felt precisely the same way.

 

At the southern university where I teach English, students are not so cavalier about premarital sex, let alone abortion. Many of them come from deeply Christian backgrounds, and I regularly receive passionate and well-written papers about love for Jesus, the importance of chastity, the evils of abortion. During classroom discussions on the topic of abortion, the pro-life students speak fervently, their spines straight and certain, while the pro-choice students slump apologetically in their chairs. Once, when I asked students to separate into groups and discuss the issue of abortion, a group of young men—athletes, mostly—came back with the conclusion that they had no opinion either way. “It’s none of our business,” they explained. “It’s something for women to decide.”

A student who had already identified herself as pro-life turned around in her chair with an assertive snap of her ponytail. “That’s pro-choice,” she informed them, and then turned back toward me, her chin raised in self-assured defiance. When I was not much older than she, I volunteered for NARAL’s phone banks and escorted women across picket lines into abortion clinics. I would never have associated with someone who felt the way she did.

But the passage of time has made it hard for me to see the world in absolutes. I liked seeing a teenage woman confident enough to challenge a group of handsome men. When she looked at me for approval, I couldn’t help but smile at her.

 

My first pregnancy was accidental but certainly not catastrophic. I was thirty-five and married. After I took the test, my husband David and I stared at that faint, pink line—leaning over the bathroom sink, our heads moving closer to the stick in a comic, disbelieving double-take. Our astonishment soon gave way to an odd kind of euphoria. I’ve always been slow to make life-changing decisions. An accidental pregnancy was probably the only way I’d ever have a child.

And the chances of getting pregnant at that particular juncture seemed slim, not just because of my indecision, or ambivalence. I was past my most fertile years. My husband had undergone an orchiectomy as treatment for testicular cancer. I’d been using birth control.

All of which convinced me: the child I carried was uniquely devoted to her own existence.

Still, I did feel that pregnancy had been sprung on me. On the phone with my friend Danae—the mother of two—I admitted that I hadn’t stopped taking my daily runs.

“You have to change your thinking right now,” she cautioned. “Your body doesn’t belong to you anymore.”

“This baby’s going to adapt to our lifestyle,” I told her. “Not the other way around.”

We lived on Cape Cod at the time, and in the growing heat of New England spring, I stuck to my minimum twenty miles a week. The needle on my scale barely rose, a fact that secretly pleased me.

None of this meant I wasn’t excited about the baby. Every day the surprise joy of expectation mounted. While I ran, I would think about my child. The dogwoods had started to bloom, and the countryside blurred in fragrant pixels of pink and white. Certain I carried a girl, I would list names in my head. I liked Genevieve. Suddenly, my future seemed rolled out before me in a more serious, more permanent way. I would be somebody’s mother. I might even be a grandmother one day.

Meanwhile, Danae signed me up for newsletters from a website called babycenter.com. Once a week, I received an email updating me on what was taking place inside my body. The first one came when I was five weeks pregnant. “Deep in your uterus,” it told me, “your embryo is growing at a furious pace. At this point he’s about the size of a sesame seed, and he looks more like a tiny tadpole than a human.” I disliked this description, conflicting as it did with the image I’d already constructed of a fat and pink-cheeked baby, gurgling inside me contentedly, already aware—somehow—of my love and good wishes. I longed for the nine-week mark, when my baby would graduate from embryo to fetus.

At my eight-week checkup, the nurse warned me that we might not pick up a heartbeat. “A lot of people don’t this early,” she said, pressing the fetal Doppler to my still-flat stomach. In an instant, the room filled with pounding, rapid drumbeats. The nurse and I burst out laughing.

 

The percussion of my own child’s heartbeat: I carried it everywhere. According to contemporary etiquette, it was too early to announce my pregnancy. But I couldn’t help boasting about that heartbeat’s strength, its resonance, its insistence on being heard. I told everyone I knew.

The week after that doctor’s appointment, I went to New Jersey to visit my parents. As I lay alone in my childhood bed, I felt acutely aware of the other being in the room with me. Inside my body. The strangest feeling, being two people: a definite and welcome haunting. When I touched my stomach now, it was with the protecting and attentive hands of a mother. The energy between my fingertips and my belly—what lay within my belly—felt sacred and palpable.

It was hot that June in New Jersey. Never one to mind the midday heat, I did a favorite old run—up Next Day Hill, one of the steepest in Englewood. I ran past the playground at Flat Rock Brook, imagining the day when I’d push Genevieve on the swings there. When I came home sweating, my mother scolded me. For running in the heat. For not eating enough. For not slowing down.

I ignored her, smiling to myself as I chugged a glass of water. I was six days past the awaited nine-week mark. According to babycenter.com, Genevieve’s vital organs—lungs, kidneys, intestines, and brain—had all begun to function. She had spinal nerves, fingernails. Her elbows bent. Her legs kicked.

My pregnancy had announced itself against the odds. It had broken down my maternal ambivalence with the force and spirit of a Hun. The life I carried seemed so insistent, I didn’t believe anything could halt its arc.

 

The first blood appeared two days later, back on Cape Cod. It started as light brown spotting. “Nothing to worry about,” my OB assured me, over the phone. “Just try to take it easy.” I knew such spotting was commonplace during pregnancy, so I wasn’t particularly worried. I even went to a barbecue at a friend’s house, my version of taking it easy, sitting rather than standing, while I told people about our impending parenthood.

What happened over the next twenty-four hours occurred in a sequence of indelible moments. First my cat, bringing a sparrow through our open window and releasing it in our bedroom. My eyes fluttered open in concert with the bird’s frantic wings and a sharp, stabbing pain in my abdomen. While David chased down the bird, I limped to the bathroom and felt a brief moment of gratitude over the clean pantyliner before a thick stream of blood released itself into the toilet.

Standing at the admit desk at Cape Cod Hospital while David parked the car, I was too wracked with sobs to tell the nurse what had happened. The security guard—probably thinking I’d been attacked—came over to help her make heads or tail out of what I was trying to say. “Miscarriage,” he finally interpreted, from my unintelligible gurgling and frantic gestures toward my belly. I could see both pairs of shoulders relax, in sympathetic relief that nothing more terrible had happened to me.

My blood pressure was through the roof, a dangerous situation for a pregnant woman, regardless of the viability of the pregnancy itself. They couldn’t perform an ultrasound before the radiology department opened in the morning, so the primary medical business became getting me through the night in a non-hysterical state while—still hoping for the life of the fetus—I refused any sort of sedative.

“This doesn’t necessarily mean you’re miscarrying,” the ER doctor promised, his latex gloves bright red with blood from my examination.

“What about the cramps?” I asked.

After a long pause, he admitted, “The cramps are worrisome.”

Still, I was willing to cling to the line of hope they offered me. I wasn’t able to sleep, but I remember a deep and calming fondness at the sight of David napping on the gynecological exam table, his long legs draped over the stirrups. By morning, my main concern became the overwhelming need to urinate, which they wouldn’t let me do before the ultrasound. Although I was only at ten weeks and had gained barely three pounds, recalling this scene I envision myself as hugely pregnant. I know this image is flatly incorrect and yet it persists. I see myself waddling from the bathroom after the radiation technician allowed me to pee just a little bit, and joking with her about the inhumane practice of making a pregnant woman hold her bladder. I picture my stomach making a tent of the thin hospital gown, as if I were just about to deliver.

But the most pivotal image was the one I never saw. The ultrasound screen discretely and pointedly faced the technician, but I could read everything I needed in her blank expression as she clicked away at the screen. I knew that if the fetus were alive, she would have turned that screen toward me.

“Just tell me,” I said.

And in a harrowing experience marked by the compassion of my caretakers, she did the most compassionate thing yet. She told me the truth.

“There’s no heartbeat,” she said.

After my D&C, David brought me back to his mother’s house to rest. She was standing by her garden in the bright sunlight, a tangle of weeds in one hand. Before David had a chance to come around to open my car door, I got out myself, and stumbled up the hill toward her. It was a terrible moment, the pending admission that would make my grief real, and the knowledge of how the news would disappoint her—the lost grandchild.

“It’s gone,” I said. And fell into her arms. She held me tight. Having lost two pregnancies herself—one in the fifth month—she knew the road I’d just traveled all too well.

“Poor baby,” she said, thumping my back. “Poor baby.” For a split, dizzy second, I wasn’t sure if she meant me or the child I’d miscarried.

 

With the notion of Genevieve lost, I felt awash in grief and contradictions. Everyone—doctors, friends, even the condolence email from babycenter.com in response to my plea for a stop to the fetus updates—assured me that the miscarriage was not my fault. But I had left my first prenatal checkup laden with pamphlets, telling me what a pregnant woman must do and not do. She must not drink or smoke, obviously. Less obvious, and harder to keep track: she must not eat soft or unpasteurized cheese. She must not eat deli meat or tuna or swordfish, or clams or oysters or sushi. She must avoid nearly all medication except for Tylenol—and even that only when necessary. She must not change kitty litter, or go to the dry cleaner’s, or sit in a hot tub.

I remember, during that first pregnancy, unthinkingly popping a slice of brie into my mouth. And then suddenly remembering that proscription with certain and self-incriminating dread.

Despite all the rules and cautions, it’s never a woman’s fault when she miscarries. From every direction came assurances that nothing in the world could have prevented it. It didn’t matter that I’d eaten that slice of brie, or had green tea, or gone for long runs in the blazing sun.

“I’ve had patients who were crack addicts,” the doctor who performed my D&C told me, when I told him about the green tea and excessive exercise. “And they’ve delivered perfectly healthy babies. It’s all a matter of luck.”

A few weeks later, at a checkup with my OB, I confessed again—like an obsessive—to the five-mile run I’d taken three days before my miscarriage. “The heartbeat had probably already stopped,” she promised, giving me that same smile—that practiced and careful sympathy.

“But next time,” she added, before I left the office. “Try to keep it to two.”

In her first trimester, my friend Katie Hogan placed third in a triathlon. She climbed Long’s Peak when she was five months pregnant. Her daughter Melanie was now a healthy toddler.

Take crack. Run marathons. Eat brie. Drink one pint of Guinness a day, as my friend Trudy’s Dublin OB recommended. The doctors had no idea what had or had not ended my pregnancy. They only knew that in the absence of any explanation, there was no reason not to assure me of complete inculpability.

In her book Waiting for Daisy, Peggy Orenstein explores these medical contradictions and other, more political dilemmas. “My own pro-abortion-rights politics defy me,” she writes. “Social personhood may be distinct from biological and legal personhood, yet the zing of connection between me and my embryo felt startlingly real, and at direct odds with everything I believe about when life begins … I tell myself that this wasn’t a person. It wasn’t a child. At the same time, I can’t deny that it was something. How can I mourn what I don’t believe existed?”

Orenstein goes on to say, “There is no word in English for a miscarried or aborted fetus. In Japanese it is mizuko, which is typically translated as ‘water child.’ Historically, Japanese Buddhists believed that existence flowed into a being slowly, like liquid. Children solidified only gradually over time and weren’t considered to be fully in our world until they reached the age of seven.” In Japan, where the legality of abortion is not so passionately in dispute, women make offerings to their miscarried and aborted fetuses. They leave toys and baby clothes at altars of Jizo—the bodhisattva who is the Buddhist version of a patron saint of lost pregnancies.

The Sunday after my miscarriage, David constructed our own version of a Jizo shrine. He walked through dunes and spartina to a secluded spot, a few yards back from the beach, and built a small memorial out of stones and sea glass.

 

The body is an amazing thing. Everything in mine—hormones, uterus, psyche—obliterated my previous ambivalence about children and conspired with passionate single-mindedness toward one ultimate goal: getting pregnant again.

First, though, I wanted to be sure that my body had not caused the miscarriage. At the ultrasound, fibroids had been detected. David’s mother had told me that her own miscarriages had been the result of a hormonal imbalance, and I wondered if my situation were the same.

“It doesn’t make sense,” my OB told me, when I insisted on further testing. “Miscarriages are extremely common. A woman isn’t considered infertile until she’s had three or four.”

I blanched at the word “infertile,” a horrific notion when my entire body screamed to resume its spinning of new cells and fetal tissue. At home, I called my friend Danae and told her what the doctor had said. “She wants me to try again and see if I miscarry,” I said. “But I can’t risk losing another pregnancy. Not just because I don’t want to go through that again. But because … ” I let my voice trail off, not certain how to put it into words.

“Of course,” Danae said, understanding as always. “These are your children.”

And that was the thing. Three days after my miscarriage, I sat naked in an empty bathtub, my knees pulled up to my chest. I sobbed and rocked and keened, my greatest display of emotion in the course of a highly emotional life. No, no, no, I sobbed, again and again.

No. I had not just lost a pregnancy. I had lost a child.

 

It was difficult to reconcile this reaction, this gut belief in the loss of an actual person, with what I’d always considered our ambiguous beginnings. Suddenly it didn’t seem outrageous to believe life began at conception. Conception is, after all, when the DNA, the chromosomes, the molecules that form our bodies meet and merge. It’s when we start brewing. Each of us can trace our present, physical existence back to a single, precise moment: of father’s sperm joining mother’s egg.

My brief attempt at pregnancy had made me an expert. A week after conception occurs, we exist as a tiny blastocyst—a ball of furiously multiplying cells. Our organs don’t begin to develop for another week, when we reach embryonic status. Still not attached to the uterus, the placenta under construction, one more week to go before heart chambers form and start pumping: this is when most women discover their pregnancy.

It’s a vulnerable state. One in three pregnancies results in miscarriage. Include the pregnancies that end before we get around to taking that pregnancy test and more than forty percent of all conceptions may be lost.

Considered in these terms, abortion seems a simple and almost obvious act. What harm to dispose of a collection of cells the size of a sesame seed—a sweeping act that nature performs on a random and routine basis?

Still, I found my opinions changing in subtle ways. Although loath to ever agree with President Bush, I found myself approving of the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which—when a pregnant woman is a victim of violence—counts a fetus that is injured or killed as an additional victim. Imagining myself murdered any time before my miscarriage, I couldn’t help but consider the perpetrator liable for two deaths.

My students often compare embryos to full-term babies—in defense of both pro-life and pro-choice positions. I regularly assign my students a short story by T. C. Boyle. “The Love of My Life” is about a teenage couple who conceal a pregnancy and then throw their newborn infant—wrapped in plastic but still breathing—into a dumpster. My pro-life students invariably equate these actions with abortion, a comparison that rankles me no end.

Amazingly, some pro-choice students make that same comparison. In an argument paper defending abortion rights, one student cited the ancient practice of exposure—leaving infants with cleft palates, or twins (considered bad luck) out on a hillside to die. He discussed the Roman laws permitting infanticide. “Nobody judges the Romans for what they did,” he wrote. “Why judge American women who want to abort?”

I stared at the paper with my brow furrowed, at a loss for comments to write in the margins.

 

An old friend from college was diagnosed with breast cancer during her first pregnancy. In order to have the mastectomy and chemotherapy that might have cured her, she would have had to abort. She chose to go through with the pregnancy, and died not long after giving birth to a healthy girl.

The best mother I know aborted her first pregnancy, in her early twenties, because she didn’t want to marry her boyfriend and wasn’t ready to have a child.

Another college friend—also a great mother—aborted a fetus when the amnio showed Down syndrome.

An old friend’s sister had an abortion so she would fit into her wedding dress; she became pregnant again, with her first child, a few weeks after the wedding.

One of my dearest friends gave a child up for adoption. In her early forties now, she hasn’t had another child. It was an open adoption, and she sees her son—now a teenager—once or twice a year. She worries daily about his well-being. His loss—his distance—is a constant, unending sorrow.

 

My OB agreed to a series of fertility tests, and declared me fit to try again. The August after my June miscarriage, I was pregnant. Six weeks along, on a trip to Colorado, I contracted an intestinal bacteria. At the hospital in Boulder, we waited behind the ER curtain for the doctor’s diagnosis. I barely remember anything he said about my own physical health. But I remember these words exactly: “Don’t worry for a second about your pregnancy.”

Despite the persistent and frightening symptoms of my wrecked gut, all fears dissipated into the filtered, Pine-Sol air. That doctor could have told me anything. He could have told me I had leukemia, and as long as the pregnancy was safe I would have breathed a sigh of relief.

My concern was primal, focused, and absolute. As long as I knew the baby would be all right, I didn’t care what happened to me. I remember the same feeling, eight months later, signing a consent form for a caesarian section. My OB listed all the possible complications—from uterine tearing to uncontrollable hemorrhage to deep vein thrombosis. The only moment I balked—actually saying “Don’t do that” out loud—was when she told me she might accidentally cut the baby while making the incision.

 

About fifteen weeks into my second pregnancy, I dreamed that I’d discovered a window in my belly button that allowed me to look inside and see the baby. Through that filmy glass, she waved back at me madly, smiling, then swam away to do the most gleeful rolls and somersaults, like a sea otter.

One week later, at the 3D ultrasound I’d chosen over an amniocentesis, the baby moved so wildly the radiologist couldn’t get a clear picture. He called in the OB, who frowned at the screen, then couldn’t help but laugh—the fetus would sit still for a split second, then turn around in the other direction, then somersault. Every shot was blurry, but not so much that he couldn’t tell with fair certainty that I was carrying a girl.

I asked him about spina bifida.

“We can rule it out with this test,” he said, trying to point out the healthy spine on my galloping fetus.

“What about Down syndrome?” I said.

He looked at my chart to check my age, and frowned when he saw it. “You’re not getting an amnio?” he said.

“No,” I told him. After the miscarriage, we’d decided we wouldn’t terminate a pregnancy, regardless of test results. So there was no point in risking another miscarriage just to comfort ourselves.

The doctor watched the baby, jumping and leaping and waving her arms. He shrugged. “Unlikely,” he said.

I asked him to give me the likelihood in the sort of statistics that his profession so revered.

“One in five hundred?” he said. “But you need an amnio to be sure.”

If I’d had an amniocentesis, I would have waited another two weeks for the results: the genetic makeup of my child. In the unlucky event that makeup was faulty, a decision would be needed—at nearly five months pregnant—whether to carry her to term.

I’d received my weekly email update that morning. At eighteen weeks, a female fetus already possesses a developed uterus and fallopian tubes. Judging from the picture on the ultrasound screen, she also possesses a personality.

The doctor left the room, on to his next appointment. My OB performed an AFP test, and reported the fetus’s likelihood of Down syndrome was one in 6,700. Within a few weeks we had named our daughter, and her movement became a constant matter of my existence. At night, I’d lie with my belly against David’s back so he could feel her World Cup kicks against his spine. He often managed to sleep through the kicks. I seldom did. I would lie awake, staring at the ceiling, feeling the never-ending and jubilant movement. And I would think, “Is this kid ever going to sleep?”

In fact, the fetus’s insistence on movement was a salient trait of the child.

She didn’t sleep through the night until her second birthday.

 

About aborting two of her triplets, pro-choice activist Amy Richards writes, “Even in my moments of thinking about having three, I don’t think that deep down I was ever considering it.” Richards’s multiple pregnancy was natural—the consecutive conception of a stand-alone and a pair of identical twins. She decided to terminate two of the fetuses by selective reduction; a specialist administered a shot of potassium chloride to the heart of each of her twins.

When I read about the sort of events that inspired Boyle’s “The Love of My Life”—oddly, perversely frequent—I am aware of a sympathy that has shifted since my pregnancies. Not that my strongest sympathy wouldn’t have been with the baby in the past; but I would have allowed flickers of excuse, surges of empathy with that teenage girl—her terror, her confusion, her embattled hormones. Now, when I reach for that empathy—wanting, quite strongly, for it to exist—I find myself coming up empty. Grading a response paper by a student who stated that China and Jeremy, the teenage couple, should be wrapped in plastic and tossed in a dumpster, I horrified myself by nodding in agreement.

I have a similar reaction—of anger, and moral judgment—reading Amy Richards’s story. I don’t want to have that reaction. I don’t like it. But there it is.

A baby is considered full-term at thirty-seven weeks. By then she’s a complex, if not independent, life form. Once delivered, her lungs will function, meconium will be passed, eyes will focus about eight inches—the approximate distance from a mother’s arms to a mother’s face.

So different from an embryo, a life form simple enough to be frozen for later implantation.

 

I assigned Amy Richards’s essay to my English 101 class. In response, one of my favorite students—an eighteen-year-old boy from rural North Carolina—wrote about his Fundamentalist Christian upbringing. He had always been pro-life as a matter of course, until in a typical freshman night of debauchery, he got drunk and had sex with a young woman he barely knew. When she became pregnant, there was a question of paternity. While waiting for the test results, my student agonized over the few moments that might have inexorably changed his life, and the responsibility for which he felt nowhere near ready.

This boy had huge dark eyes and pale freckles across the bridge of his nose. In August, he had shown up in my classroom wearing a backwards baseball cap and Carhartts. By November he sported a pierced ear and dyed-black hair. This was a smart and sensitive boy, a witty and good-natured smart aleck. He had only begun experimenting with his identity, figuring out who he wanted to be. I couldn’t imagine demanding a halt to this evolution, forcing him into the responsibility of fatherhood—to say nothing of the terrified girl, carrying a stranger’s child.

My student turned out not to be the father. Despite his relief, his heart went out to the girl he’d known a scant few minutes. Knowing how he had felt, and imagining how she still felt, how, he wrote, could he ever again insist on someone else’s course of action?

Defending Amy Richards, he cited her legitimate reasons for not wanting multiples: possible medical complications, inevitable bed rest, financial difficulties, irreversible interruption of career.

“I can’t say what Amy Richards should do,” he wrote. “It’s her life. It’s not mine. I don’t see any reason I should have anything to say about it.”

Sometimes, life experience fosters compassion. Sometimes, it fosters the reverse.

“You can’t feel that way if you’re pro-choice,” a woman told me, when I admitted my discomfort with selective reduction.

But I did feel that way. And I understood that what I felt had nothing to do with Amy Richards’s right to do exactly what she’d done. It wasn’t my choice—it was hers. The fact that I disagreed with her choice, that it made me uncomfortable, wasn’t relevant. Furthermore, I had no way of knowing how my ideas about selective reduction might change if I became pregnant with triplets. Daunting enough, after all, to carry one child to term.

It is worth noting here that my daughter—the child of the second pregnancy I so dearly wanted—was conceived on Nantucket. I greeted the news of that pregnancy with a joy tantamount to the horror I would have felt, nearly fifteen years earlier, had I been impregnated by that boy on the beach. The fact that I now understand my old friend’s decision to risk dying from cancer to safely deliver her child doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten what it feels like to be a young and impetuous woman, with my self and life existing mostly as a question mark.

It is also worth noting the ease of my decision to forego an amniocentesis when my odds of a child with Down syndrome were one in 6,700, my odds of spina bifida nonexistent. If the results had been different, my thoughts about risking miscarriage might have drastically shifted—never mind how my feelings could have changed, had amnio results been dire.

How easy to pass favorable judgment upon your own actions when luck is on your side. The truth is, my new reverence for the process of incubating a human life had not undermined my pro-choice beliefs. It had solidified them.

 

I believe that life begins at conception. I also believe that every woman has the right to terminate a pregnancy without explaining herself. Without ever telling a living soul, if she so chooses. Or, if she prefers, to tell her story—as loudly as she needs and without apology.

I believe both these things because life is contradiction, and opposing facts stand side by side as a matter of course. For example, there is my daughter, who—in all her specific, frenetic, defiant, and quirky splendor—is the central joy of my life. There is my daughter who never could have existed if that first pregnancy had gone full term. And shouldn’t that very fact—the impossibility of someone I love so immeasurably—eradicate any grief over the original loss?

The small memorial David built after my miscarriage still stands. Hidden in a thicket of scrub pine, beach grass, and poison ivy, nobody but us and white-tailed deer ever go there. It’s a simple shrine—a ring of stones and seashells, with one thick, cradle-shaped rock in the middle. We visited the place often in the months after the miscarriage and during my second pregnancy. Less often after our daughter was born, and we moved to North Carolina. But it’s still a place we go when we visit Cape Cod, to leave sea glass and pretty stones. To rearrange whatever offerings we brought last—scattered after months of wind and rain, the best pieces of sea glass buried, sometimes irretrievably, beneath the sand.

 

I will go there again, and again, and again. I will never stop going there. To sit beside the little Jizo shrine that David built without knowing Buddhist tradition, but on the grieving impulses of his own heart. To offer my lost child pieces of the beach, and to think about her, and to let her know I haven’t forgotten.

All this while knowing that the child I grieve—the personal pronoun I assign, the thought of her as an existing consciousness—is a construct of my imagination, having little to do with the failed assemblage of DNA that my body carried for a while, and then rejected. If for some reason I had chosen to end the same pregnancy—not knowing my actions were jumping nature’s gun—I don’t expect I would have this lifelong intention toward quiet mourning. Although, surely, I would have wondered from time to time what might have been if I’d acted differently.

There is no Genevieve. There was only, for some brief weeks, her spectral possibility, replaced in time by an actual child, corporeal and spectacular. Still, I’ll tell you this. If by some macabre stroke of magic, I found out that my original child had not died. If through some inexplicable twist—the stuff of soap opera, science fiction, and daydreams—I discovered she had not died but lived, and now existed somewhere out there, away from me.

I would go anywhere, I would do anything. To find her.


“Water Children” appeared in the anthology Choice: True Stories of Birth, Contraception, Infertility, Adoption, Single Parenthood, and Abortion (MacAdam/Cage, 2007).

Published on February 1, 2022

First published in Harvard Review 33.

2022-01-31T19:01:58-04:00