“I need to talk to you.” My voice is tense; my expression somewhere between a smirk and a prelude to a sob. A little of both, honestly.
He follows me around the corner, out of view of the kids. I am standing on the stairs in our old house, two steps up from him. Looking down at his face, I show him the test.
I hadn’t even bothered to tell him my suspicions – I was taking the test to put my mind at ease. Just to rule out the possibility.
I move down one step, until we are eye level, and lean into to him. He kisses me lightly. “We’ll figure it out.”
Two weeks later, it’s his turn to surprise me with unexpected news.
His news has less potential for joy. My reaction is less reassuring. But in the end, I let him lean into me. I kiss him lightly. I promise him we’ll figure it out.
Before that, though, between bouts of crying, my whisper is like a knife, and I know just how deeply it will cut a man like him. I don’t care; I say it anyway. “This poor baby.” He sobs.
The months that follow . . . I’ve never been able to describe them. They are horrible and they are wonderful. I scream at him, I hit him more than once. I cry with him and I hold him. In between, we raise two precocious children. I slump through cardiac function lectures and battle nausea through two semesters of nursing clinicals as my scrubs get tighter; he puts on a badge and gun each day and trudges through police work he hates. We see an elderly marriage counselor who is gentle, kind, and going deaf – or perhaps he pretends to be – and makes me repeat the sad, painful things I murmur about trust issues and forgiveness.
And yet, we are close to each other, somehow, maybe closer than we have ever been. The invisible walls we have built between us every day for over ten years have crumbled at our feet, leaving dust no one else can see.
I wonder, every so often, what impact my grief process is having on the baby. Around 20 weeks I break out in terrible hives with no explanation. For months I have a disturbing amount of spotting. But at every midwife checkup she is growing well and appears to be thriving. So I don’t bother to mention my increasingly intrusive thoughts and frequent panic attacks.
Jake’s walls are broken down, I guess. Maybe mine are still up.
Until a Thursday morning, two months before my due date, when Rowan decides she has had enough.
At 11 am I feel off. I should be alarmed by how much I’m bleeding, but I saw the midwife only two days before and she doesn’t seem worried. At least, she didn’t then.
I spend the afternoon drinking water and lying on the couch. Maybe it will stop. I don’t bother to tell Jake at work. No need to alarm him. I pull up the pregnancy tracker on my phone and start timing contractions, which feels a little silly when I know my baby isn’t coming for another two months. After about 20 minutes I hit the button for “get results.”
My phone lights up. “Congratulations, you’re in transition! Your baby is almost here!”
I call the midwife, and I call my husband. No rush, I say, but meet me at the hospital when you can. I drop the kids off at my parents’ house and tell them, It’s probably nothing. I’ll be back soon.
I know it isn’t transition.
And it isn’t. I’m less than 2 cm dilated when they do the ultrasound. They bring me upstairs and put me on the monitors for a little while, just to check on things. Maybe they’ll keep me overnight, maybe not. I have a history of uncomplicated pregnancies, after all.
Four hours later, there she is, 15 inches long, weighing in at 3 pounds, 13 ounces. Four years ago tonight, that’s where we are.
Jake and I confessed to each other afterward, we were both afraid of her birth. Not when we knew I was in labor – not when being scared was the obvious choice – but in the months that led up to it. I didn’t know whether, when I really needed him, I would turn to him, or turn away. He didn’t know either.
But when it happened he held my hand, and I leaned into him, just like I had for our other babies. Somewhere in between the pain of the labor and the fear for my too-soon baby, I found reassurance in this. Whatever happened to her, we would be okay. We would be together.
The moment she is out she cries. So do we, sobbing with our foreheads pressed together, relieved about all of it. Miraculous, it feels, that all three of our hearts are still beating.
They let me hold her, briefly, before they transport her to the NICU in the next city. Jake follows in his car. I shower alone, and wait for the ambulance that will bring me to her. While I wait, I imagine Jake and the NICU ambulance have crashed and my husband and baby have both died in the wreck.
Riding in the ambulance they've called for me, I email a colleague from my days as a childbirth educator, the head of the perinatal mood disorder taskforce on which I served. I ask her to recommend a therapist. Because relieved as I am to have a breathing baby and an intact marriage, even then I know, this is going to get rough.
I don’t schedule an appointment right away. Life becomes a blur of driving to the NICU and back, of trying to explain things to the older kids, of waiting, and waiting, and waiting for her to grow, all seen through the milky, sleepy haze that comes from spending every two hours attached to a hospital grade breast pump. It isn’t until two months later, when seething rage creeps in, when I want to break everything, all the time, that I realize I need to see someone.
So I make an appointment, and bring Rowan with me, and tell my therapist I think I have postpartum anxiety. Oh, and also a traumatic birth. Oh, and also infidelity. I tell her that between everything that’s happened in a year, I can’t shake the feeling of impending doom.
But even as I speak it, finally, my voice breaking, my baby looks up at me and smiles. And I smile back.
Because of Rowan, even my memories of picking up the pieces are brighter.
People say about Rowan, not infrequently, that she brings joy. Personally, she reminds me of sunshine.
When our friends and family get together later this week to celebrate her birthday, they’ll celebrate her cheerful nature, her quick smile, her friendly, feisty demeanor. We will, too.
But even more, when we celebrate Rowan, we’re celebrating our family. We’re celebrating that in the year she came into existence, difficult, crazy, chaotic year that it was, we held on to each other. There are days when I think we held on to each other because of her.
Rowan is my daily reminder to be blessed by circumstances unexpected, and even, maybe, by circumstances unwanted.
She is the baby who changed everything. And in changing it all, she taught me to find joy.
Happy birthday, sweet girl.