SAMPLE CHAPTER EXCERPTS FROM UNEXPECTED
Elena writes me love letters. She sneaks one under my pillow in the morning and tiptoes away, giggling, thinking I’m still asleep. She hides one in her backpack, where I find it when I reach in to pull out her sweater. She leaves one on the counter, where I discover it while I’m gathering up the breakfast dishes after she’s left for school. In our quiet kitchen, the paper feels weightless in my hands. I hold it for a moment, trace its smooth surface, run my finger along its neatly folded crease, before I open it to read. Later, when I pick her up outside her second grade classroom, Elena runs toward me, beaming, with arms open wide. We embrace, kneeling together on the sidewalk as other families swirl around us. At bedtime, I hold her tight on my lap, and we sit still and silent for several long minutes that feel like a lifetime. We are the whole world to each other, providing a comfort and a calm deeper than either of us has ever known.
I think we’re making up for lost time.
It’s very painful for me to think about the changes that Elena brought to our lives seven years ago. Even before I became a mother, I believed that one of the most rewarding experiences a woman could have would be to bring a child into the world and to love that child unconditionally. I’d spent hours daydreaming about a mysterious baby who would have my sharp Scandinavian cheekbones and my husband Khenan’s dark and smooth Jamaican skin, whose eyes would be whatever color is halfway between clear ocean blue and the warmest brown imaginable.
When I was thirty-five weeks pregnant with Elena, just before I went on maternity leave from my clinical practice as a child psychiatrist, the mother of a long-time patient brought me a gift. It was a precious infant blanket, pink and fluffy, with two matching burp cloths and a card that read, Treasure your new baby. This will be one of the most wonderful times of your life. I brought the blanket home, took it out of its shiny silver box, and set it gently in the crib I had prepared for my daughter, smiling as I envisioned the day I would meet her.
Giving birth was one of the happiest moments I’ve experienced. Elena was beautiful, small and delicate with intense hazel eyes and a shadow of dark hair. She had surprised us by being born on a sweltering August day a month before her due date. But she seemed healthy and strong. She even screamed so much every time we put her down that she couldn’t maintain a normal oxygen level. When the hospital finally discharged her after three days of monitoring, I was glowing as I carried our baby out the door.
But as we settled in at home, our routine quickly became complicated....
...I never want to tell my children that my hands are too tired to make their breakfast, to tie their shoes, or to hug them close when they’re crying. I never want them to hear me say I can’t--because I don’t want to believe it myself. But also because I don’t want them to give up on me. So when I’m exhausted or struggling or know that the task ahead is not something that this body is going to do easily, I work really hard to keep those words out of my language. Instead, I’ll enlist their help: “OK, if we want to do this, we’re going to have to work as a team. Let’s figure it out.” I can’t is heartbreaking for all of us. There’s a panic of fear and deprivation that comes with realizing that your mother can’t take care of you.
If I have any grief about my illness, it’s for that loss of security, that loss of innocence for my family. One day early in my recovery, when I decided to wash my hair but didn’t have the strength to reach up to my head, Dolores was at work and my mom was busy helping Evan. That left then-eight-year-old Avery the most qualified person available for the job at hand. We talked through a plan. He held the curtain in place so we wouldn’t spray the wall, then he helped me soap up my hair. And when the water ran down my face and into my oxygen tubing, he grabbed a dry towel and sweetly blotted my cheek. I was grateful that he couldn’t distinguish my tears from the wash water--or that if he could, he didn’t let on. Gentle and patient caregiver that he was, never did I expect to switch roles with my son at such a young age. I hope that, as they grow, each and every way that my children have been forced to be self-sufficient and compassionate beyond their years will turn into a gift rather than a wound.
For me, motherhood does feel like my best life’s work, and the motivation to be present for my family, to witness their lives, has kept me alive many times over. But in many tangible ways, I’m not the mother that I planned to be.
I thought I’d be kayaking with my children rather than inviting someone else to lead them on adventures I'd devised. Though I often find myself on the sidelines, I do think it’s made me a better parent. I’ve had to shift my focus from a place of doing to a place of being. But to live in a place of being is a privilege in itself. To parent in this way is to watch my children unfold, to shelter their voices, to release my expectations as they become who they are, beyond who I wish they would be. Serendipity has always been one of my favorite words--a little bit of planning, a whole lot of fate. I hope that I’ve put the right pieces into place, and then however things come together I’ve got to let them be. I parent towards making myself obsolete while fighting as hard as I can to be here. Uncomfortably aware of my mortality, I wrestle with an overwhelming self-imposed pressure to get it right--for how I parent and for how Dolores does too, so that if I'm not here they’ll all be okay. That's a heavier weight to carry than the oxygen tank that sustains my breath.
A few months after I was first diagnosed, Avery confessed that he had thought that I was going to die while I was in the hospital. I reassured him that I hadn’t thought I was going to die. “If you were going to die,” he asked slowly, “would you tell me?” I told my pensive eight-year-old that indeed I would, so that we could talk about it. So we could say things to each other. Because he had a right to know. And I told him that we don’t always have that chance, but if we do, it’s a gift. Parenthood has taught me a lot about how little in this life I control. But that’s the one thing my children crave--some control. And to believe that everything is going to be okay. So how do we tell our children that everything might not be okay? Is it enough to teach them that bad things will happen, and that they are resilient? To tell them that they are strong enough to experience great sadness and still feel great joy? To hope that they will learn to manage their fears--or at least that their fears will not paralyze them entirely?...
DOING THE MATH
I always do the math. That woman in the produce aisle looks about six months pregnant, and her son looks about twenty-two months old, which means he would have been maybe sixteen months old when she got pregnant with his little brother or sister, and he’ll be at least two when the baby is born. She looks like she’s in her mid-twenties. I compare my story: I was thirty-four during my first pregnancy, and my first two children would have been less than a year and a half apart. I breathe a little sigh of relief at the differences.
As I watch this anonymous woman and her son loading golden apples into their cart one by one, fragments of equations spin through my mind. How old I was when my husband, Paul, and I started to try for a family. How old I was when, years before that, I wanted to try but Paul wasn’t ready. How old I was for each milestone, each pregnancy, each complication. How old I was when I realized that becoming a mother was going to be the biggest challenge of my life. Sometimes I hate this obsession and the habit that it’s become. Sometimes I feel better when the calculations reassure me that my family did end up like so many others, even after all these years.
One day, I muse to Paul, when I’m a frail old woman whiling away the hours in a nursing home, I’ll sit alone in the low-angled light of the setting sun and rock with a baby doll. We’ve smiled together over this vision of me for all of our seventeen years together, since we were twenty-one, since we were just a family of two. He knows I’ve dreamt of being a mother since I was a little girl. So he understands why my stomach still knots when I admit the sadness and anger that linger after overcoming infertility--and why I can’t quite let go of these struggles, grateful though I am for what we do have....
...I didn’t cry until we got in the car. It had been such a tough morning already, knowing where we were headed, but somehow I held it together for just a little while. As we drove across town, I felt so sad. Just so, so sad. Very soon, this small being inside me would be no longer. My other two brothers and my sister-in-law sent us messages to say how much our family loved us and that they all supported us completely. Through stoplights, bridge crossings, and an ordinary jumble of commuting traffic, the world moved on as our phones buzzed with well-wishes. Tyler and I didn’t need to say much. The decision was made and there was some comfort in that. I struggled to balance how awful I felt about the choices we’d had to face with how fortunate I was to live somewhere that I could make the choice I felt was best, no matter how heart-wrenching it was.
When we arrived at the clinic, I was grateful that no protesters stood outside obstructing our walk up the dingy concrete staircase. After checking me in, a volunteer escorted us quickly into a smaller lounge, away from the roomful of women who, I later learned, were waiting for the results of pregnancy tests. How many of them would be getting difficult, unwanted news today? How many of them would have a supportive partner by their side to hear the news together? In how many ways were their stories different from mine--and in how many ways the same? A nurse measured my weight and checked my blood pressure, then smiled sympathetically as she placed misoprostil--the same medication commonly used for pregnancy inductions--between my lower lip and gum. I put on a thin blue gown, and moved to a bed in a room with three other women. These anonymous women and I were separated by rows of curtains that hung just long enough for me to make out a pair of brown shoes here, a crumpled shirt on the floor there, one foot swaying nervously as it dangled off the bed a few curtains down. I didn’t know any of their stories. But we were joined in a common experience that day, and knowing that I wasn’t alone made the whole thing a little more bearable....