I heard the laugh, the laugh of my broken heart: sweet, giddy, princess-like and eminently endearing.
I wanted to walk over to her, take her into my arms and breathe in her baby smell, feel the endorphins calming my guilty pain, the black aching mass thriving within my ribcage.
The little girl, running through and around the neon plastic playground that humid summer morning, was mumbling coherently only to herself. Tittering her knife-like laugh, deeper and deeper into my soul, she had snuck into my life again, without invitation, without the prerequisite baby showering, or my necessary caressing, loving, feeding, or nurturing. She presented herself for me now, all dolly and cute and cheek-squeezingly terrifying. I knew exactly that she was three years and almost eleven months old because I had been the one who had given her life; bore her from my broken body, just as my mind was beginning to crack.
We were ready, he and I. At least that’s what he had said. By the time I found myself three months pregnant, my centre of gravity had wobbled off course as I self-indulgently manufactured an assortment of anxious relationship inadequacies. He didn’t want me, didn’t really love me. A dread panic writhed from the past twisting my torso from the inside. I can see that now, looking back. Something must have triggered them, these thoughts that I was unable to satisfy his heart, his soul, his mind. Mentally, I found myself inadequate to his intellectual reasoning; emotionally, I had no hope of matching his calm maturity. I was the turkey to his phoenix; of this I was certain.
“Wow,” he had said, lovingly, amazed, eyes brightly glowing, when I announced to him my situation. “Oh wow! We’re gonna have a kid!” His excitement began to effervesce from within his perfect soul. I had hoped for less. “Holy shit! It’s brilliant! How far along are you?”
“Just gone three months,” I answered, the pointed ends of my preened eyebrows edging downward as I furrowed my forehead, doubting the volume of his pleasure, looking for the shallowness of his affection. I looked deep into his eyes, looking for a sign telling me that my queries were justified. I couldn’t find what I was looking for.
He lovingly took my cheeks in his hands and kissed me softly, causing my midriff to sing with sharp pains. “It’s wonderful. Truly wonderful.” I was sure he was lying. “It’s the perfect time, now that we’re settled.”
“Yes,” I told him.
No, yelled my inner voice seeping through the cracks in my fortitude. I wasn’t good enough. This child would be born to a set of unbalanced parents; a father far too good for the mother, and a mother completely incapable of being loved. I knew that the child would find it difficult to attach to me, as difficult as it was for its father to attach to me. I had somehow become unattachable, unloveable.
I could feel this disease of my character spreading through me like a slow release toxin, quietly darkening my veins, reaching out from my heart to my brain, tearing shards from my being as it progressed its jarring path. Bearing toward the end of my first trimester, I had already begun to feel that this man’s child was too precious for me to endure; too reliant on my ability to love it and guide it into some reasonable sense of its own loveability. I could not be responsible for that. I would not let another human being depend on me to shape its own self worth. This was a terror I could not bear; this was a skill I felt I had not learned.
“It’s so exciting,” he breathed into my ear, hugging me close.
“I don’t know,” I replied.
He unclasped himself from me, continuing his gentle hold on my shoulders. “What do you mean?”
“It’s just… I don’t… I can’t decide.” I told him looking down at our bare feet with our toes millimetres apart… at that time I had wished the Sahara between us.
“Decide what?” He spoke to me with loving kindness in his voice, but I felt sure I could see the wisps of disgust he disguised with his tenderness.
“… if I want a child.”
“I don’t understand. I thought we had agreed we both wanted to have a child at some point.” His hands had slid down my arms and he now grasped my hands in his as though he would never let me free.
“Why would you want me to have a child?” I asked him, shaking our hands in the hope that he would drop mine. He held tight.
“Why?” He squinted his eyes as he queried my question. “Why? Why wouldn’t I want you to?”
“Because…you know…I just don’t know.” I was unable to voice the awkward honesty I felt.
“Must we go here again, my love?” he asked. “I don’t know what I have to do to convince you that you’re everything to me.”
“I just don’t know why…I don’t…I don’t know how to be…that woman.”
“But that’s exactly who you are. Why can’t you see that?”
I didn’t answer him. I didn’t know how. Because I didn’t know who that person was exactly, as he assumed. I wanted to be the person he thought I was rather than the woman always pretending to be.
But he didn’t know this. How could he know? Who can ever know? All the people that get involved in a relationship between two people: the person you think you are, the person your partner thinks you are, the person your partner thinks you think you are… and that’s only the one of you! Incalculable concepts of innumerable realities all jumble incoherently into only the vaguest understanding of being. It would have been so much easier if I could have just ignored all the other versions of ourselves living within our relationship. But I couldn’t, and so they slowly all began to push and pull my pregnant self, this multiplicity of being growing exponentially within me. My mind was splitting along panicked fault lines of anxious existence, a stone chipped windshield; cracks in the glass blurring my vision. I had no sense of direction. The road ahead was marred by the shattering image of my present reality.
“I don’t think I want to be a mother.” Tears of confusion were flowing and ebbing from my tear ducts not knowing whether to fall or retreat.
“I don’t understand,” he said, finally releasing my hands. He walked over to the couch and slumped into it.
“Please, love. I don’t think I can do it.”
He dropped his forearms against his thighs with his palms upward to the sky, perhaps hoping to intuit understanding from the cosmic energy. His eyes blasted me with the pain of his frustration.
“Don’t…” Words fell from me. “I can see you’re upset.”
“How can a man possibly not be upset when the woman he loves tells him she doesn’t want his child?” He stared up at me from the couch frowning his hopeless expectation, waiting for my logical explanation.
I couldn’t give him one.
I sat on the couch next to him, not touching him.
We sat there silent, unknowing, uncomfortable and uncomforting for a long time. Our breathing was slow and hollow as though all the blood in our bodies had dropped to our feet in leaden sadness, nothing left but flesh and sorrow, around which the air echoed as it forced itself in and out.
“I love you, you know. I don’t know if you understand it, but I think you know. And I’ll do whatever you need me to do to help us get through this. Whatever it takes for you to…” he stopped, not knowing how to continue.
“To feel normal?” I suggested.
“Loveable.” He stared at my hands as he spoke the solitary word, then turning his face toward me he gently wrapped his arm around my shoulders and said, “I’m always here. No matter what.”
“It’s too late to terminate,” I said quietly. “I don’t think I could, anyway.”
“I’m glad,” was his soft reply. I didn’t know how to continue that line of thinking, and I supposed neither did he, and so we sat again, quietly for some time. He reached across the few inches that separated us and held my hand in his, not squeezing, just being, hands gently resting in one space together. A few tears had fallen and I wiped my cheeks with the sleeve of my sweater and sniffed the emotional residue from the edges of my nostrils.
“One day I’ll be ready,” I said, bravely, after some moments, probably neither convincing myself nor him.
“And I’ll still be here,” he said, turning to look at me, his lashes now also glistening.
There, in that moment something surprising washed over me. It was a sense of calm that I had not felt for quite some time. The cracks were still present, but they seemed to have temporarily halted their fracturing momentum.
It took more than a few years to make significant changes to my state of being. But he has always been here to catch the pieces that fall from me and lovingly put me back together, bit by bit, every time I come apart. Then, I didn’t know why he was still there. I didn’t know why for quite some time. And yet, when I saw that little girl twirling and laughing in the playground, and felt the pain again, I turned to him as he sat next to me on the picnic table, knowing that once again he would hold me together.
“That’s her,” I said softly, knowing deep inside that there was absolutely no possible way of knowing.
“It could be,” he replied, equally as soft, also knowing the truth but doing his best to help me keep the edges of my brain from fraying any more.
Neither of us got up. We both sat there watching this beautiful little child with all her playmates. Why I had honed in on her, I could not say; there were other little girls there who were of the same age, but my mind had been certain, for some reason, in that particular space and time. But that was the problem with my brain; thoughts always arrived before I even knew I had formed them.
“How do you feel?” he asked me as we sat quietly watching the children play.
“Sad,” I admitted.
“Of course you do.” he said gently. I think we both knew that sadness was still a reasonable emotion given the situation and the relatively short time that had passed since we had given her away at birth. “But you know that you can’t keep going through this every time we see a child her age.” He was right, of course.
“I know. I’m trying.” I really was, but I needed him there to remind me that I had to keep my emotions from wrapping themselves around me and obscuring my mind, distorting my ability to think and see clearly.
“Can we just sit here and watch her play a little longer?” I said.
“Sure. It’s lovely to watch the kids play. Just as long as you understand…” he paused. “It isn’t her.” I knew rationally that the chances of her being our daughter were infinitesimally small, but that didn’t stop my heart from wondering whenever we saw a girl her age. However, it was getting better and easier to deal with each time.
The first time it had happened, she would have been only 4 months old. He and I were sipping coffee and eating New York Fries at the food court at the mall. It was the middle of winter on a Sunday afternoon; the food court was full to brimming with post-Christmas bargain hunters. We were there just to get out of the house, get out into public in the hope that my grief would have a chance at distraction for a short time. He hadn’t insisted, but rather had coaxed me with the promise of the pain relief I might find. I wasn’t sure I wanted to let go of the pain, even for a short while, because it felt like the pain of giving up my child was helping to hold me together, reminding me that love is real, tangible and capable of touching me after all, even if it was grieving love. And the pain we felt together meant somehow that he shared in the love with me, and that was at least something for me to know.
A young woman ambled up to the table next to ours, baby tightly swaddled to her breast in a baby sling, tucked almost unnoticeably under her parka. As she took off her coat and began folding it over the back of the chair the baby began to coo softly, but I had already noticed her before she had made a sound. I could smell the smell. I could feel my heart begin to pump, not faster, just deeper somehow, so much so that my toes began to throb, and my chest opened up into a cavernous emptiness of unknowing. What should I do? What could I do? I spoke, head down, only watching her from the corner of my vision.
“It’s her,” I told him, as flatly as I could, knowing I needed to keep my emotions under control, but knowing that at any moment they might fail me and let fly.
“Who?” he answered, looking around for someone he should recognize.
“It’s her,” I repeated, no alteration in my voice.
“Where? Who are you talking about?” His reasoned words arrived at my ears more annoyingly than they had been spoken.
“Our little girl!” I was beginning to panic. “She’s right here. Now! With that woman. Oh my god, I can’t bear this!” I was shaking now. He put his arm around me continuing to look around him. He was looking too far afield, couldn’t see what was clear and present. Hadn’t noticed the child nestled closely under the folds of baby wrap only feet from us both.
He tightened his grasp around my shoulders whispering in my ear, “What’s happening?”
“She’s here. Our baby. That woman’s got her next to us… right here. Can’t you see her? Oh my god, can’t you even smell her?”
He leaned forward to look past me to the table next to us where, in my peripheral vision, I could see the woman gradually releasing the sling’s tension from around the baby. I felt the two of them making eye contact though I was still staring frozen at the speckled-tile floor below me. He probably smiled at her, a full smile with his eyes as well as his cheeks. Just making nice, not causing a fuss, unlike me, and I could feel something so painful swelling through my inner crevasses. My arms were frozen and shaking all at the same time, and I began gasping solid lumps of air.
“No,” he was so calm, speaking right into my ear. “It’s ok. Just breathe. Everything is ok.”
“We have to take her!” My words came without command. “I… I made a mistake. I want her back.” The tears were falling from my eyes without having time to touch my cheeks as I sat slumping forward unable to move but wanting desperately to get up and snatch the child and run as fast as my shaky legs would carry us.
“Ok, Ok. Just take a deep breath. Don’t move. Just be still. Everything’s ok. It’s not her. It’s not her.” I didn’t want to believe him. He only wanted to keep me calm.
“Yes,” I pleaded. “I know it. I can feel it. It’s her. It has to be.”
Without my knowing, the woman began lifting the child from within its cocoon, covering her right shoulder and breast with a thin blanket.
“She’s beautiful,” he said to her. Some energy released from within my solid frame and I grabbed his inner thigh with my right hand and dug my nails into his jeans with a force I didn’t know I was capable of.
“Ow!” he gasped, quietly, trying to keep the pain from exploding outward. I was glad. I wanted him to feel what I was feeling.
The woman spoke.
“He,” she said. “His name’s Jonathon. But it’s so hard to tell at this age, I know.”
Turning slowly, I now faced her for the first time since she had removed her parka. “Let me see him,” I said, fighting hard to keep the terror from my voice.
The woman, with a cautious look in her eye, charitably lifted the blanket which now covered the baby’s head and lifted him lovingly, turning him to sit on her lap facing us.
“He’s beautiful.” I said, tears still falling from my eyes.
“Are you ok?” she asked me kindly.
I took a sharp breath looking up from the baby into the woman’s eyes. “Yes, yes. I’m fine. You know…just, you know…one of those days.” Smiling at me, she lifted her baby again, adjust herself and the blanket and began feeding her baby. I got up and walked away, him following close behind me.
I couldn’t remember what had happened at her birth. There is still only now a vague remembrance of the catatonic emptying of my psyche. They had given me drugs: intravenous systemic opioids; he had known I wouldn’t be able to manage any more pain. But they hadn’t had to ask me. It was the first thing I had asked for as I walked into the hospital, one arm clutched around his waist for support, the other hanging by my side. I didn’t want to caress this lump any more. I wanted anything that would numb me head to toe, brain and heart. Once the drugs had taken hold of me, had temporarily melded all my broken parts together into one unfeeling piece of useless flesh, I allowed my mind to void itself of all thought and feeling.
Within the labour room, full of strange, vacuous sounds and distant voices, I had given forth the child from my body and into the waiting arms of her adoptive parents, who I knew nothing about and wanted to know even less.
Then I had slept.
After some time, he had carried me home, somnambulant, until I awoke three days later to find myself in a wholly different state of internal fracturing. No longer were the edges of my brain falling away from my understanding, rather they throbbed and ebbed in time with my beating heart, constantly, reminding me that even though he loved me, there would still always be the pain of having given away his child. The fact that he stayed, had not turned his back on me when I could not love his child, could not keep her and love her and nourish her as a part of him, proved to be the assurance I had needed that I was worthy of his love. And so over time, the blood began to flow more calmly, evenly between my heart and my brain, finally.
Thinking back, I am more aware of my emotional fissure and have begun allowing him to help me fill them in with his love. I understand that I lost control of myself to such a degree that my only focus was on myself; the more I worried about my own self worth, the less worth I placed on the validity of his love for me. My ability to be loved was hidden from me behind all my assured thoughts of his perfection.
I had assumed he would not give me another child, would hold such resentment for my decision that he would be unable to forgive me. But this only goes to show how much I had misunderstood him. I had not wanted him to be so understanding, so loving, because I felt I was wholly unlovable. But I was wrong, and as I lie here now on this gurney, with his hand in mine, tears streaming from his less than perfect eyes, I realize that he is not the phoenix and I am not the turkey; we are some intertwined mix of the two, me and him, and I hope this child I am about to deliver will be loved neither perfectly nor inadequately. I feel now, through years of his constancy and kindness, that this child will have both a father and a mother he can count on to guide him to a reasonable understanding of his own heart and mind. I know now that all three of us are equally worthy, and he and I will always be soulfully, yet sufferingly, connected by this loveable being now struggling to escape from within me.
I heard the laugh, the laugh of my broken heart: sweet, giddy, princess-like and eminently endearing.