The extent to which we prioritize work versus family life may be shaped by our childhood experiences in the family home, according to a study.
But my father-in-law had just been disqualified from the bone–marrow transplant because he was too sick to survive the procedure. So with few options remaining, the bubble was disassembled. The gloves and masks were gone; there was no longer a need to keep the home sterile to make sure he would last until the transplant. The lack of human contact that had pervaded his existence for seven months was forgotten, and Amir walked over to his father and touched his skin for the first time since his diagnosis. I watched from afar as they embraced by the window, two figures still until their bodies rippled into one.
On the drive home, I took Amir’s hand in mine. The baby was moving, his hand gliding under the skin of my belly. I didn’t place Amir’s hand on it.
I was away from Amir and his family when it happened, but I felt my belly rumble around his time of death.
At the funeral, Amir spoke intimately of his father, detailing their life together, mourning the life he‘d hoped they would have as adults. He spoke of the emptiness in his daily routine, of the kindness he had learned, of the generosity of spirit. Of the fact that his father would never meet his own son. My belly thundered, and I swallowed a mouthful of vomit. I loved and missed him too.
When I‘d met my future in-laws over ten years earlier, Amir‘s father had struck me as different. A traditional “meet the parents“dinner ended with an oversized hug and an “I love you.“Amir told me it was just because.
“Well, I love you,“Amir said to me, “so that is enough for him.“
“He loves me just because you love me?“I asked. “That doesn‘t make sense. Doesn‘t he want to get to know me first? See my life‘s résumé? Meet my parents?“
“Nope,“Amir shook his head, placing his arm around me. “Seeing this is enough for him.“
For seven days of Shiva, we told stories and laughed and cried, and I listened to questions about the baby‘s name. Strangers, distant family members, colleagues all came up to me, saying, “It‘s the cycle of life.“
People I didn‘t know touched my belly, smiling mournfully.
“It‘s going to be such a help to everyone.“
“How wonderful that you‘re having a baby. And a boy, no less.“
“Yes,“I would say, rubbing my belly, and then I would walk away, shielding my eyes, wanting to scream “No.“
His face couldn‘t be Photoshopped over another to complete the family photo. He would be a boy on his own. And it was up to me alone to ensure that his growth was healthy, that his development continued on track. This baby was going to be born no matter the timing, no matter the need, no matter the hole he filled, whether it was the following day, the following month, or anytime thereafter.
But as we buried my father-in-law, people I didn‘t know continued to approach me, always touching my belly and informing me of my unborn child‘s role in this cycle of life.
“You‘re going to name the baby after him, right?“
“This is going to be the best thing to happen to everyone.“
But there is no “best thing” that happens at a funeral.
Hours later, with the baby moving visibly through my dress, Amir and I walked into a bedroom at his mother‘s house and, away from the guests, came up with our son‘s name.
By the time I was eight months pregnant, I had been sent to the hospital for preterm labor multiple times. I spent many evenings strapped to a pink and blue monitoring belt to ensure that the baby was still healthy. He had irregular heartbeats. I was contracting too early, too quickly, too evenly. I was over 35, with a medical history. Nobody was willing to take a risk, so at any glimmer of an irregular fetal heartbeat, I was whisked away to Labor and Delivery for a daylong stay of tests and ultrasounds and cervical examinations, just a few floors above the bed where my father-in-law last slept.
Amir wasn‘t with me for most of those visits. I navigated these appointments alone, spent many evenings admitted into the hospital alone. Shopped for baby clothes alone. Rearranged our apartment alone. While we were mourning the loss of his father separately, he was split, wanting to feel excitement but furious with himself for feeling any.
He rarely spoke of my pregnancy — of the excitement to come, the fear of raising two children, the novelty of a boy, my emotions and my body‘s changes, the internal struggles of pregnancy, which I swallowed until they led me to the hospital five additional times in one month. We didn‘t fight; we didn‘t talk much at all. And it wasn‘t his fault. Nor was it mine. But if I focused too much on sadness, the heart rate that was in trouble would worsen, and so I was forced to look one way while Amir looked another.
At nine months, my pregnancy became a topic of conversation.
“You know, he was so sad about the baby,“my mother-in-law told me about my father-in-law. “He was wondering if you were going to name the baby after him.“
She paused for a moment, unsure of my reaction.
“He wanted you to.“
In truth, he hadn’t spoken of the baby much to me or Amir. He hadn’t been able to accept that he wouldn’t be there for his grandson’s life. What all of us didn’t realize is that he wouldn’t be there for his grandson’s birth.
A few weeks later, I gave birth to a healthy boy. His name was given at his bris, in the same home that had hosted the same guests a little more than 60 days earlier for the Shiva. Children played in the backyard, their voices cackling through the windows, just as they had two months earlier. A different rabbi spoke about the entryway to life instead of its exit. My mother and mother-in-law stood together as my father held the baby during the ceremony. I spoke about the name we passed on from Amir‘s father while Amir helped with the circumcision.
And time stopped, only to be sped up again over the next six months with the renaissance of responsibility, dual childcare, careers, life, dishes, laundry, and diapers. But in that brief moment when the ocean of time seemed navigable, Amir and I held each other, our son, and our daughter, and for the first time in nine months, we were reunited.
Elizabeth L. Silver is the author of The Tincture of Time: A Memoir of (Medical) Uncertainty, recently published by the Penguin Press, and the novel The Execution of Noa P. Singleton, which was published in seven languages. She lives in Los Angeles with her family.
I flew home to Pennsylvania in December to tell my dad I was pregnant with my first child. By then it had been more than a year since my father had been able to get out of the hospital bed that had taken up permanent residence in my parents’ living room. He could no longer stand, lift his arms to feed himself, or use the bathroom on his own.
“We’re having a baby.” I stood next to his bed and puffed my barely-three-months-pregnant belly toward him. He couldn’t speak, but his entire face smiled. His hand trembled as he moved it toward my stomach to touch it.
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“He kicked,” I lied and made myself smile when he made contact. It was too soon for the baby to move. But I wanted to make him happy.
Two days later my dad went to sleep. He didn’t wake up. He was 62.
The genetic mutation that caused Dad’s muscular dystrophy, the disease that caused other diseases that ultimately killed him, lives on an obscure region of his fourth chromosome called q35. Growing up, our family doctors told me I couldn’t inherit it. They were wrong.
I was married for six months when my husband Nick and I started talking to my doctor about having our own baby. The conversation covered all the standard genetics questions and the not-standard ones. Yes, my dad has this disease. No, I’m not a carrier. Are you sure? Actually, I wasn’t. I couldn’t remember the exact conversation with my family doctor. I couldn’t remember if I’d long ago created the narrative in my mind that I wanted to believe.
They took a lot of blood. Six weeks later, I heard back from a chirpy genetics counselor named Violet.
“Hi, Jo! I was surprised by your results,” she informed me in the same tone someone will tell you the winner of The Bachelor. “You do have the genetic mutation.”
I’d read once that some people swoon, actually pass out, when they hear bad news. My joints turned to butter, and I sat down on the floor to listen numbly to her directions about what to do next.
Two voices fought for supremacy in my head.
The first: You should just give up. Stop working. Fuck it! Let your roots grow out, dye your hair green, and sit with the gutter punks down on Haight-Ashbury smoking crack … because why not?
And the second: It doesn’t matter what the tests say. You’ll fight. You’re strong. You’re stronger than you know.
The first voice was so clearly mine. The second was Nick’s.
I couldn’t imagine wanting a baby, living with it in my body for three months, and then ending its brief life because of something that might happen to it in 40 or 50 years.
“You should divorce me,” I said to my husband that night, my brand-new husband who loved skiing and hiking and climbing and riding things. “Maybe the good of being married to me doesn’t outweigh the bad anymore,” I said to him the night after I talked to Violet. “You should find a hot and healthy new wife.” I paused. “Maybe not hot, but someone sturdy!”
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He looked at me like I was nuts and scratched his head. “You know, I measured it. I had these tools to measure the good and the bad of being married to you, and I set up the machine and I did all of these calculations, and you know what happened? The damn machine broke, the good outweighed the bad so freakin’ much.”
I married a good man.
We met with a neurologist to determine whether the muscular dystrophy had already started degrading my muscles. He couldn’t find anything tangible. Yet.
“Because this kind of muscular dystrophy affects the facial muscles, people often have a hard time smiling, and so people often think they’re unhappy,” the doctor said. “Do people often think you are unhappy?”
“So you’re saying a symptom of this kind of muscular dystrophy is resting bitch face?” I made a joke because it was true. Weren’t old men on the street always telling me to smile more? I’d spent most of my adult life being told to “wipe that puss off my face.” I cut to the chase. “What about our kids?”
“They have a fifty-fifty chance. You can’t screen for it in an embryo, so IVF won’t help. You can test a fetus, but not until about twelve weeks, and then you have the option of terminating the pregnancy.” The words terminating the pregnancy hung in the air like a storm cloud ready to burst any second. I opened my mouth but couldn’t say anything. I pinched my thigh above the knee, hard. My nails curled into my skin. I needed to feel something. “We should go,” I finally whispered to Nick. “I just want to go home. Please.”