At four months pregnant my daughter has already begun to show herself beneath thin cotton dresses. I had thought I would be a mother who speaks to her belly, but I am not. Instead I lightly tap my fingers where I think she may be, a reconnaissance mission, a cautious Morse code. Are you in there? I tap. Are you happy? Do you think you might stay?
That same month my husband, Andrew, and I take our thirteen-foot Boler trailer and drive until we reach the west coast. He is learning to surf and we camp on a beach in La Push, Washington. In the morning, he paddles into waves that he assures me are safe. I search the shoreline for treasures: jagged bits of shell, tattered feathers, and a rock, midnight blue with coral veins. It fits perfectly in the palm of my hand. That night we eat corn on the cob pulled from the fire, and Andrew lights a handful of bottle rockets purchased from a stand on the main road. They crackle hot and orange, first against the dark sky, and later behind my closed eyes as I try to sleep in our cramped trailer bed. The rawness of this space unmoors me, exposing a fear that grows alongside the person beneath my skin. I press my fingers lightly to my belly once, then twice for reassurance. Are you still there? I tap. Are you listening?
If that child of mine was listening there were things I’d like her to know. Things that the drum of my fingers on my rounding belly couldn’t communicate. I would tell her that I met her father in the winter, when we both started work at the same busy British pub. He was kind, had a wide mouth, he made me laugh. We were friends, then more. Then four years in, he left me for a job. There was a move to a faraway community that felt like the end of the world. I missed him but was hesitant to follow, giving up a job I liked in a small office with a view of the city. I wasn’t sure if I was ready. Then five years in, I was. There was a conversation, an engagement, a wedding on a lake where a naked man on a boat flashed our cocktail hour, swaying in the September sun. We laughed, praised his restraint (he had waited until the vows were finished after all), and drank champagne with small tart blueberries that made me think of the Northern town I was moving to. We packed my things and drove the twenty-two hours to our new home. I took a job at the town newspaper, made friends, and settled in.
We decided to have children. We assumed, like a lot of people do, that making that decision would cause them to appear. They didn’t. Or they only half did, once a small flash of pink on a test, quickly followed by a noticeable absence of pink. “That baby was a quitter,” Andrew said, when faced with the multiple negative pregnancy tests I scattered around our bathroom. “Who wants a quitter baby? Not us,” he said. Although, I knew he wanted exactly whatever that baby had been.
I don’t know if these are the kinds of things that you tell your daughter, while she’s only half formed and sleeping inside of you, but I thought maybe they were. More than anything I wanted her to know that we were happy, even without her, but that living beside that happiness was a twisting line of want, and hope, and sadness, that snaked through my belly and pulled tight in moments I least expected.
We decided we would just see what happened.
What happened was a call from my brother. They were pregnant after one month of trying. “I’m sorry,” he said, and I felt my own sad awkwardness through the phone line. And I was sorry too, but only because the things I wanted had begun to dull my happiness for the people I loved. He was scared to tell me, and that in a way felt worse than those disappearing pink lines.
We booked appointments, sat in waiting rooms, and lay prone on tables. Every way we could be laid bare we were. Months became years, and we began to forget what it felt like to not be trying for a baby. After three years there was a diagnosis, low motility, and a decision, IVF. We decided that neither one of us was ready to let go of the idea of having a child. We found the money and got in line. Six months later we were called.
The process began in March as winter thawed around us. We brought home boxes of medications that Andrew mixed and then injected into the tender area around my belly button. “I’m sorry,” he said after every needle jab, his fingers lightly rubbing the small pink spots my skin now wore. My belly became swollen and round, the appearance of pregnancy without the guarantee. At night Andrew brought me tea and slipped fuzzy socks on my feet, while I curled up drained on the bed.
Then eggs were retrieved, zygotes created, and three days after they had left my body, two hopeful little embryos were put back in. I was told to wait two weeks and then take a blood test at the clinic. After nine days I gave in, peed on a stick, and saw those familiar pink lines. I peed on a stick again on the tenth day, then the eleventh. I went through twenty-three pregnancy tests in those first few weeks. I kept waiting for those lines to stop appearing, for this baby to leave us as well. Two months passed, then three, I still couldn’t believe that she might be real.
It was that fourth month, in the car leaving La Push, Washington and heading down the west coast, that my fear of losing her loomed largest. I wanted not to be scared, but I was. I saw danger at every turn, on the road, in the water, in the fallible home I had built for her inside my body. By the time we reached Brookings, Oregon, I had fallen ill with food poisoning, throwing up for hours beside our trailer in a grassy patch that led to the ocean. Every heave shook my body violently, and I worried that I was hurting her. I pictured her tiny body as hard and still as a stone in my belly.
I didn’t sleep that night.
In the morning as we crossed into California, I felt my sickness subsiding, the sun bleaching away my exhaustion and nausea. In Redwood National Park Andrew and I walked quietly, our fingers lightly laced, following a cool, shady path through the trees. A man, grey haired and small boned, made a joke as he passed us, something about me going into labor in the forest. He thought I was much further along than I was, and I realized for the first time how I appeared to other people: healthy, round, and as full as a cup. At the end of our path we stopped under a massive tree, and I imagined her, moving like a fish beneath my skin. “Hello,” I said, placing a hand on my belly, not tapping now. “Hello in there.” Addressing her in that moment felt like the truest thing I had done since the moment I had found out I was pregnant.
Now ten months old, Saoirse smiles with a mouth as wide and expressive as her father’s. I have continued my habit of silent communication with her, three squeezes means “I love you,” a string of kisses means the same. But our days now consist of a stream of conversation that begins the moment she opens her wide dark eyes. This will be the way it is, until I can speak no more. Every day I will find new words for her, and from them I will build her stories. Stories that speak to everything that has been, and everything that will be, now that she is finally here.
JOURNALIST: Beth McKinlay