I was four months pregnant and walking around Manhattan with my new husband when I felt unusual pain in my lower abdomen. The next day an emergency ultrasound showed that I had three huge fibroids growing in my uterus right next to the baby, and one of them was pressing on my cervix causing premature effacement. The doctor told me to go to bed and stay there for the next five months. I had survived nearly three months after that initial diagnosis, staring at the same four walls in my rickety old Hudson Valley farmhouse on a good, steady course.
My eyes opened. In my sleepy fog, I could almost make out the orange-red glow of the sunrise peeking through the window. Something was wrong. A sharp stabbing pain in my lower right abdomen forced me to take a deep breath. I had rejected it the first time a few days ago, but now it was much more severe. I was so close to the finish line now. More than 10 weeks. I was afraid to expire. I pushed my sweaty, tangled hair back from my face. With another sharp pain, I braced myself for the worst, then put my hand under the sheets to search for blood. My hand came back dry. I turned to my husband, Chris, but he wasn’t there. Holding back my tears, I shouted that we had to go to the doctor now. He didn’t hear me. He was on the other side of the house working on the renovations. I screamed his name in panic, but to no avail. Finally he appeared, ready to go to work. I had already called the doctor, my face burning with fear.
Chris helped me to the car. He didn’t say anything to make me think he was worried, but when he held my arm as I navigated the stone steps, he grabbed it so hard he cut off my circulation, and I knew he was as worried as I was. . I squirmed and squirmed, trying to contort my body into a comfortable position. Was this the culmination of all those months?
The baby leaves my body too soon? I hadn’t been good enough after all. Tears flowed not only for the pain but also for my failure. I prayed to God and made a deal with my father whose death I still mourned. “You won’t let me lose this baby. I will not lose this child like I lost you. If you do one last thing for me, keep this baby in my body, alive. In return, I will pray daily for your eternal soul, lifting you higher in the eyes of the Lord. Suddenly I was a religious fanatic, but I wanted to keep my promise. Jews believe that each time you pray for a person’s soul, it ascends higher to heaven. I swore that if this baby lived, I would pray so hard that my father’s soul would be catapulted to the throne of Yahweh.
When we saw the doctor, he was completely professional. He didn’t kiss my hand or amuse me with witty banter like he usually did. After an ultrasound and examination, he said, “The baby is fine. You are not miscarrying. Your fibroids are shrinking. There is a war in there.
I don’t remember the technical terms the doctor used, but he described a battle of wills between the monstrous fibroids and the baby over my blood supply, and even though the monsters were fighting hard, they were losing. The pain I felt was from the retreating monsters. Instead of the tragedy I had anticipated, it was a small victory. It meant that my little warrior was getting stronger. The doctor said he would prescribe painkillers, but there was something about them being bad for the baby’s kidneys, or for the liver, I couldn’t remember which.
When I got home, my mother called from Port Authority for an update and to tell me she was on her way to our farm in the Hudson Valley. Chris had called her while I was getting dressed at the doctor’s. I got back into bed, relieved. Exhausted from both the events of the morning and the excruciating pain, I fell into a fitful sleep.
A few hours later, I woke up to my mother standing over me with a ladle in her hand. “Aileen, take the pills.”
“I don’t take pills.”
“You can’t just suffer. Take the pills.
“I’m not going to hurt my baby.”
She hurried away, and soon I could hear her struggling to get the big pot out of the Lazy Susan. “I brought a chicken with me. I’m going to throw something together, ”she shouted.
I turned to look out the bedroom window. If I took these pills, they would give me temporary relief at best, but there was a chance, however small, that my child would be born with two heads, or at the very least, half a liver. I had already given up most dairy (listeria), carbs (diabetes), and anything else that tasted good (because, well, I was sure that would turn my kid into a cyborg). Now, painkillers had also been crossed off the list.
“Talk to your brother,” my mom said, throwing the phone on the bed.
“I don’t take the pills,” I said, holding the receiver to my ear.
“Take the pills,” my brother said.
“Don’t harass me.” I frown as another wave of pain washes over me.
“No one is harassing you. »
“Dad would understand.”
“Bad argument. He died because he was stubborn and didn’t listen to his doctors.
“Why do you care if I take the pills?” I blew away from the phone.
“Because you are selfish.”
“My pain is selfish? »
“You are torturing your mother.”
“So you don’t care?”
“Only marginally. But it’s time to take care of yourself now.
“I know you see it that way, but I’ve been fighting this war for months. It’s just another skirmish. Why would I do anything to ruin my chances now? Either way, it’s gonna suck. I can handle the pain now, or I can spend my life regretting my decision.
After that, I thought of every stab as a victory for my baby. I turned on the singsong music and focused on deep breathing, and it seemed to ease the pain.
“I brought you lunch. Eat.” My mom put a plate of carrots and hummus on my tray. We’ve been butting heads since I was in high school. no matter the circumstances, no matter how stubborn or angry I became, this woman would always be there, always love me and, as a bonus, I would never go hungry.
“You’re welcome.” She stood there looking at me, waiting for me to take a bite.
Perhaps because I came from a long line of Jewish women, I began to think that the more pain I suffered, the better chance I had of keeping this baby alive. The wait was almost over. I could handle the pain. I couldn’t stand the heat, though. I was on fire. That night, I tossed and turned. There was something hard under my pillow. Half asleep, instead of looking for the culprit, I tried to turn my head away. Every time I fell asleep, I bumped into it again. Eyes open and staring at the ceiling, I wondered if I wanted to pursue this gnarled, unforgiving object, thinking there was a very real possibility that it was a petrified mouse. I rolled over and threw my pillow on the floor, half expecting to find a carcass, but I couldn’t see in the dark and was afraid to get my hands on it.
Squinting, I could just see the outline of something greyish. I stuck out a finger and touched it. It was cold. It must have been a dead mouse. That’s what happens when you live in the countryside; you find vermin under your pillow. I looked again but could not make out a face or limbs. Braver now, and with my curiosity piqued, I patted him with the back of my hand.
I picked it up and rolled it between my palms, wondering if it had anything to do with my mother. bubbemeises, or old wives’ tales. I turned it over, looking for a Hebrew inscription. The woman always put ribbons, prayer cards and Jewish stars under my mattress to ward off the evil eye. There were black words on the rock, but I couldn’t make them out, so I put it on the nightstand, snuggled into my sheets, and threw my leg over Chris’ body before fall back asleep.
The next morning, in the light of day, I picked up the stone again, turned it over and there, written with a Sharpie pen, were the words: “I love you, baby. You rock. Chris. I smiled.
It was a small gesture, but it meant everything.
This excerpt is adapted from Knocked Down: A High Risk Memoir, University of Nebraska Press.