Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Non Sequitur/Validation

If you're up and you happen to be thinking of it, I know some folks, some mamas and daddies, struggling mightily to overcome and do good things, who could use every single powerful, heartfelt prayer you have. Their babies too--even some grown-up ones who've just today had a very bad prognosis indeed. Thanks very much and God bless.

The following resonated with me, for no reason in particular. Or perhaps every reason in particular. It's a story that could be told over and over in hundreds of kitchens, the world over, the details varying only slightly from apartment to mansion to yurt.

John and Martha, two Harvard PhD candidates, are up, making cookies in the middle of the night, worrying about their unborn, probably disabled baby boy, when the mixer breaks.

"Oh, great," said John. "Just great."

For some reason, this was just one thing too much for me. I curled up in my chair as best I could, my knees pressed against my pregnant torso, and started to cry in earnest.

John turned on me, his lips tight with annoyance. "What are you blubbering about?"

"It broke," I wailed.

"Yes, I realize that," John snapped. "I was holding it."

"Everything breaks," I sobbed. "Nothing goes right, everything goes wrong. Something's happened to us, John. We can't do things anymore. Not anything. I mean, how could you expect us to make a good baby when we can't even make a good cookie?"

"Oh for crying out loud, Martha!" John's voice was getting loud. "Would you grab the reins? I'm sick and tired of hearing how miserable your life is."

I cried harder. "I'm just scared," I said.

John cracked two eggs into the mixing bowl and started whipping them into the other ingredients with the wooden spoon. He looked as though he had plenty of energy to compensate for the broken mixer.

"Scared of what?" he said. "Of a little baby who's not as perfect as you think he ought to be?" He dumped flour into the mixing bowl and began to thrash at it with the spoon. A mist of flour rose from the bowl, covering his hands and forearms.

"I didn't say I wanted him to be perfect," I said. "I just want him to be normal. That's all I want. Just normal."

"Bullsh*t," John barked. He measured salt and baking soda into the dough and went back to work with the mixing spoon.

I raised my dripping face out of my hands. "Excuse me?"

"That is total bullsh*t," he repeated. "You don't want this baby to be normal. You'd throw him in a Dumpster if he just turned out to be normal. What you really want is for him to be superhuman."

I squinted at him. "What the h*ll are you talking about?"

John added chocolate chips and beat them in. At this stage, of course, the dough is sticky and stiff and hard to mix. But John whipped away at it as if it were nothing but egg whites. He was starting to sweat.

"For your information," I said in my most acid tone, "I was the one who decided to keep this baby, even though he's got Down's. You were the one who wanted to throw him in a Dumpster."

"How would you know?" John's voice was still gaining volume. "You never asked me what I wanted, did you? No! You never even asked me!"

I was so stunned I stopped crying. "What is going on with you, John? I thought--"

"Yeah, that's right!" he shouted. "You thought, you thought, you thought! You thought all kinds of things, didn't you? You thought old John would just strap on the saddle and take you wherever you want to go. And then I'm supposed to feel sorry for you?"


He went into baby talk. "Poor wittle Mawfa," he simpered. "She has to have a bad baby. She has to have a freak, instead of a perfect little boy like she wants."

I was staring at him with utter incredulity. "What planet are you from?" I said.

"You act like you're on some big moral pedestal," John shot back. "You think it's such a big deal to keep this baby. But I know what's really going on inside you. You don't want him. He disgusts you. The only real reason you're having this baby at all is that you didn't have the guts to get an abortion."

I came out of the chair straight at him, my head low, like a bull in the ring. I had a few steps to pick up speed, and I weighed considerably more than usual. My shoulder hit John right below the rib cage, knocking him back against the counter.

John had to struggle for a minute to get his breath back. "Oh, that's good," he said. "That's just wonderful. Physically violent women make great mommies."

I wanted to kill him. All the emotion that had been hidden behind weeks of careful, civilized silence rushed from my guts into my head, my heart, my arms and legs. I felt like a tiger tearing down a trap. I wanted to rip the plumbing apart with my bare hands and beat down the walls with it. Instead, I grabbed a lump of cookie dough from the mixing bowl and pushed it into John's face.

"How dare you talk to me like that?" I screamed. "How dare you? Is there one tiny molecule somewhere in your brain that can begin to understand what this is like for me?" I thumped myself in the abdomen with both hands, so hard that I could see John wince through his mask of cookie dough. "This is my son!" I sobbed. "He's a part of me! If you don't want him, you can leave us both, but he is my son, and that's why I'm keeping him, even if he is a freak!"

"There you go!" John shouted. "You can't even mention him without calling him names, can you? No matter what he does, he'll never be good enough for you. Never!" He scraped a lump of dough off his cheek and threw it at me.

I dodged. "What the hell are you talking about?" I hollered. "Are you completely insane?"

"Do you know how this baby is going to feel?" John yelled. "Do you know how you're going to make him feel? Every day of his life, he's going to know he's not good enough. He's going to try and try and work and work and work and work and work, and it's never going to be enough for you!"

He seized another piece of dough from the bowl and slung it at me. I turned my head at the last second, and it hit me just above the ear, clinging to my hair like a misshapen barrette.

"Why can't he ever be enough for you?" John was still yelling. Another lump of dough whizzed by me and stuck to the wall.

"Why does he have to work so hard?" This one hit me in the arm.

"How come he has to be perfect, and do everything just right, and never make a mistake?" Another dough ball landed on my shoulder and stuck to my bathrobe.

"John," I said, in a low, dangerous voice. "John, calm down."

"Why can't you just love him because he's a little boy?" John screamed as a final projectile missed me and landed in the sink. "Why can't you love him as he is?"

His voice had degenerated into a hoarse sob, and tears were running in two steady streams over the cookie dough on his face. John touched his cheek and brought his hand away slowly, staring at it in amazement.

"There's water on my face," he said in a baffled whisper. He looked at me with complete bewilderment. "How come there's water on my face?"

I don't think John had cried in front of another person since he could remember. I looked at him, and the anger drained out of me all at once, leaving me scoured and exhausted.

"Honey," I said, in my normal speaking voice, "you realize that you're not really talking about the baby, don't you? You're talking about yourself."

John nodded.

"Do you also realize that you're not really talking to me?"

He raised his eyes to mine and looked into them almost desperately. "I'm not?" he whispered.

"No." I moved forward and wiped some of the dough off his cheek. "Listen to me," I said. "I'm not your mom, and I'm not your dad, and I'm not your church, and I'm not Harvard. Actually, I'm not much of anything. But for what it's worth, I love you as you are. I thought you knew that."

John's dough-smeared face crumpled, and for the first time ever, I saw him really cry.

From Expecting Adam, by Martha Beck.

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