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One sunny, crisp Saturday in September when I was seven years old, I watched my father drop dead. I was playing with my favorite doll on the stone wall that bordered our driveway while he mowed the lawn. One minute he was mowing, and the next, he was facefirst in the grass as the mower propelled itself in slow motion down the hill of our backyard.
I thought at first he was sleeping, or playing a game. But when I crouched beside him on the lawn, his eyes were still open. Damp cut grass stuck to his forehead.
I don’t remember calling for my mother, but I must have.
When I think about that day, it is in slow motion. The mower, walking alone. The carton of milk my mother was carrying when she ran outside, which dropped to the tarred driveway. The sound of round vowels as my mother screamed into the phone to give our address to the ambulance.
My mother left me at the neighbor’s house while she went to the hospital. The neighbor was an old woman whose couch smelled like pee. She offered me chocolate-covered peppermints that were so old the chocolate had turned white at the edges. When her telephone rang I wandered into the backyard and crawled behind a row of hedges. In the soft mulch, I buried my doll and walked away.
My mother never noticed that it was gone—but then, it barely seemed that she acknowledged my father being gone, either. She never cried. She stood stiff-backed through my father’s funeral. She sat across from me at the kitchen table that I still sometimes set with a third place for my father, as we gradually ate our way through chipped beef casserole and mac-and-cheese-and-franks, sympathy platters from my father’s colleagues and neighbors who hoped food could make up for the fact that they didn’t know what to say. When a robust, healthy forty-two-year-old dies of a massive heart attack, the grieving family is suddenly contagious. Come too close, and you might catch our bad luck.
Six months after my father died, my mother—still stoic—took his suits and shirts out of the closet they shared and brought them to Goodwill. She asked the liquor store for boxes, and she packed away the biography that he had been reading, which had been on the nightstand all this time; and his pipe, and his coin collection. She did not pack away his Abbott and Costello videos, although she always had told my father that she never really understood what made them funny.
My mother carried these boxes to the attic, a place that seemed to trap cluster flies and heat. On her third trip up, she didn’t come back. Instead, what floated downstairs was a silly, fizzy refrain piped through the speakers of an old record player. I could not understand all the words, but it had something to do with a witch doctor telling someone how to win the heart of a girl.
Ooo eee ooo ah ah, ting tang, walla walla, bing bang, I heard. It made a laugh bubble up in my chest, and since I hadn’t laughed all that much lately, I hurried to the source.
When I stepped into the attic, I found my mother weeping. “This record,” she said, playing it over again. “It made him so happy.”
I knew better than to ask why, then, she was sobbing. Instead, I curled up beside her and listened to the song that had finally given my mother permission to cry.
Every life has a soundtrack.
There is a tune that makes me think of the summer I spent rubbing baby oil on my stomach in pursuit of the perfect tan. There’s another that reminds me of tagging along with my father on Sunday mornings to pick up the New York Times. There’s the song that reminds me of using fake ID to get into a nightclub; and the one that brings back my cousin Isobel’s sweet sixteen, where I played Seven Minutes in Heaven with a boy whose breath smelled like tomato soup.
If you ask me, music is the language of memory.
Wanda, the shift nurse at Shady Acres Assisted Living, hands me a visitor pass, although I’ve been coming to the nursing home for the past year to work with various clients. “How is he today?” I ask.
“The usual,” Wanda says. “Swinging from the chandelier and entertaining the masses with a combination of tap dancing and shadow puppets.”
I grin. Mr. Docker is in the final throes of dementia. In the twelve months I’ve been his music therapist, he’s interacted with me twice. Most of the time, he sits in his bed or a wheelchair, staring through me, completely unresponsive.
When I tell people I am a music therapist, they think it means I play guitar for people who are in the hospital—that I’m a performer. Actually, I’m more like a physical therapist, except instead of using treadmills and grab bars as tools, I use music. When I tell people that, they usually dismiss my job as some New Age BS.
In fact, it’s very scientific. In brain scans, music lights up the medial prefrontal cortex and triggers a memory that starts playing in your mind. All of a sudden you can see a place, a person, an incident. The strongest responses to music—the ones that elicit vivid memories—cause the greatest activity on brain scans. It’s for this reason that stroke patients can access lyrics before they remember language, why Alzheimer’s patients can still remember songs from their youth.
And why I haven’t given up on Mr. Docker yet.
“Thanks for the warning,” I tell Wanda, and I pick up my duffel, my guitar, and my djembe.
“Put those down,” she insists. “You’re not supposed to be carrying anything heavy.”
“Then I’d better get rid of this,” I say, touching my belly. In my twenty-eighth week, I’m enormous—and I’m also completely lying. I worked way too hard to have this baby to feel like any part of the pregnancy is a burden. I give Wanda a wave and head down the hall to start today’s session.
Usually my nursing home clients meet in a group setting, but Mr. Docker is a special case. A former CEO of a Fortune 500 company, he now lives in this very chic elder-care facility, and his daughter Mim contracts my services for weekly sessions. He’s just shy of eighty, has a lion’s mane of white hair and gnarled hands that apparently used to play a mean jazz piano.
The last time Mr. Docker gave any indication that he was aware I shared the same physical space as him was two months ago. I’d been playing my guitar, and he smacked his fist against the handle of his wheelchair twice. I am not sure if he wanted to chime in for good measure or was trying to tell me to stop—but he was in rhythm.
I knock and open the door. “Mr. Docker?” I say. “It’s Zoe. Zoe Baxter. You feel like playing a little music?”
Someone on staff has moved him to an armchair, where he sits looking out the window. Or maybe just through it—he’s not focusing on anything. His hands are curled in his lap like lobster claws.
“Right!” I say briskly, trying to maneuver myself around the bed and the television stand and the table with his untouched breakfast. “What should we sing today?” I wait a beat but am not really expecting an answer. “‘You Are My Sunshine’?” I ask. “‘Tennessee Waltz’?” I try to extract my guitar from its case in a small space beside the bed, which is not really big enough for my instrument and my pregnancy. Settling the guitar awkwardly on top of my belly, I start to strum a few chords. Then, on second thought, I put it down.
I rummage through the duffel bag for a maraca—I have all sorts of small instruments in there, for opportunities just like this. I gently wedge it into the curl of his hand. “Just in case you want to join in.” Then I start singing softly. “Take me out to the ball game; take me out with the . . .”
The end, I leave hanging. There’s a need in all of us to finish a phrase we know, and so I’m hoping to get him to mutter that final “crowd.” I glance at Mr. Docker, but the maraca remains clenched in his hand, silent.
“Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack; I don’t care if I never get back.”
I keep singing as I step in front of him, strumming gently. “Let me root, root, root for the home team; if they don’t win it’s a shame. For it’s one, two, three—”
Suddenly Mr. Docker’s hand comes flying up and the maraca clips me in the mouth. I can taste blood. I’m so surprised I stagger backward, and tears spring to my eyes. I press my sleeve to my cut lip, trying to keep him from seeing that he’s hurt me. “Did I do something to upset you?”
Mr. Docker doesn’t respond.
The maraca has landed on the pillow of his bed. “I’m just going to reach behind you, here, and get the instrument,” I say carefully, and as I do, he takes another swing at me. This time I stumble, crashing into the table and overturning his breakfast tray.
“What is going on in here?” Wanda cries, bursting through the door. She looks at me, at the mess on the floor, and then at Mr. Docker.
“We’re okay,” I tell her. “Everything’s okay.”
Wanda takes a long, pointed look at my belly. “You sure?”
I nod, and she backs out of the room. This time, I sit gingerly on the edge of the radiator in front of the window. “Mr. Docker,” I ask softly, “what’s wrong?”
When he faces me, his eyes are bright with tears and lucidity. He lets his gaze roam the room—from its institutional curtains to the emergency medical equipment in the cabinet behind the bed to the plastic pitcher of water on the nightstand. “Everything,” he says tightly.
I think about this man, who once was written up in Money and Fortune. Who used to command thousands of employees and whose days were spent in a richly paneled corner office with a plush carpet and a leather swivel chair. For a moment, I want to apologize for taking out my guitar, for unlocking his blocked mind with music.
Because there are some things we’d rather forget.
The doll that I buried at a neighbor’s house on the day my father died was called Sweet Cindy. I had begged for her the previous Christmas, completely suckered by the television ads that ran on Saturday mornings between cartoons. Sweet Cindy could eat and drink and poop and tell you that she loved you. “Can she fix a carburetor?” my father had joked, when I showed him my Christmas list. “Can she clean the bathroom?”
I had a history of treating dolls badly. I cut off my Barbie dolls’ hair with fingernail scissors. I decapitated Ken, although in my defense that had been an accident involving a fall from a bicycle basket. But Sweet Cindy I treated like my own baby. I tucked her each night into a crib that was set beside my own bed. I bathed her every day. I pushed her up and down the driveway in a stroller we’d bought at a garage sale.
On the day of my father’s death, he’d wanted to go for a bike ride. It was beautiful out; I had just gotten my training wheels removed. But I’d told my father that I was playing with Cindy, and maybe we could go later. “Sounds like a plan, Zo,” he had said, and he’d started to mow the back lawn, and of course there was no later.
If I had never gotten Sweet Cindy for Christmas.
If I’d said yes to my father when he asked.
If I’d been watching him, instead of playing with the doll.
There were a thousand permutations of behavior that, in my mind, could have saved my father’s life—and so, although it was too late, I told myself I’d never wanted that stupid doll in the first place, that she was the reason my father wasn’t here anymore.
The first time it snowed after my father died, I had a dream that Sweet Cindy was sitting on my bed. Crows had pecked out her blue-marble eyes. She was shivering.
The next day I took a garden spade from the garage and walked to the neighbor’s house where I’d buried her. I dug up the snow and the mulch from half of the hedgerow, but the doll was gone. Carried away by a dog, maybe, or a little girl who knew better.
I know it’s stupid for a forty-year-old woman to connect a foolish act of grief with four unsuccessful cycles of IVF, two miscarriages, and enough infertility issues to bring down a civilization—but I cannot tell you how many times I’ve wondered if this is some kind of karmic punishment.
If I hadn’t so recklessly abandoned the first baby I ever loved, would I have a real one by now?
By the time my session with Mr. Docker ends, his daughter Mim has rushed from her ladies’ auxiliary meeting to Shady Acres. “Are you sure you didn’t get hurt?” she says, looking me over for the hundredth time.
“Yes,” I tell her, although I suspect her concern has more to do with a fear of being sued than with genuine concern for my well-being.
She rummages in her purse and pulls out a fistful of cash. “Here,” Mim says.
“But you’ve already paid me for this month—”
“This is a bonus,” she says. “I’m sure, with the baby and everything, there are expenses.”
It’s hush money, I know that, but she’s right. However, the expenses surrounding my baby have less to do with car seats and strollers than with Lupron and Follistim injections. After five IVF cycles—both fresh and frozen—we have depleted all of our savings and maxed out our credit cards. I take the money and tuck it into the pocket of my jeans. “Thank you,” I say, and then I meet her gaze. “What your father did? I know you don’t see it this way, but it’s a huge step forward for him. He connected with me.”
“Yeah, right on your jaw,” Wanda mutters.
“He interacted,” I correct. “Maybe in a less than socially appropriate way . . . but still. For a minute, the music got to him. For a minute, he was here.”
I can tell Mim doesn’t buy this, but that’s all right. I have been bitten by an autistic child; I have sobbed beside a little girl dying of brain cancer; I have played in tune with the screams of a child who was burned over eighty percent of his body. This job . . . if it hurts me, I know I am doing it well.
“I’d better go,” I say, picking up my guitar case.
Wanda doesn’t glance up from the chart she’s writing in. “See you next week.”
“Actually, you’ll see me in about two hours at the baby shower.”
“What baby shower?”
I grin. “The one I’m not supposed to know about.”
Wanda sighs. “If your mother asks, you better make sure you tell her I wasn’t the one who spilled the beans.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll act appropriately surprised.”
Mim reaches out her hand toward my protruding belly. “May I?” I nod. I know some pregnant women think it’s an invasion of privacy to have strangers reaching to pat or touch or offer parenting advice, but I don’t mind in the least. I can barely keep myself from rubbing my hands over the baby, from being magnetically drawn to the proof that this time, it is going to work.
“It’s a boy,” she announces.
I am thoroughly convinced that I’m carrying a girl. I dream in pink. I wake up with fairy tales caught on my tongue. “We’ll see,” I say.
I’ve always found it ironic that someone who has trouble getting pregnant begins in vitro fertilization by taking birth control pills. It is all about regulating an irregular cycle, in order to begin an endless alphabet soup of medications: three ampoules each of FSH and hMG—Follistim and Repronex—injected into me twice a day by Max, a man who used to faint at the sight of a needle and who now, after five years, can give me a shot with one hand and pour coffee with the other. Six days after starting the injections, a transvaginal ultrasound measured the size of my ovarian follicles, and a blood test measured my estradiol levels. That led to Antagon, a new medication meant to keep the eggs in the follicles until they were ready. Three days later: another ultrasound and blood test. The amounts of Follistim and Repronex were reduced—one ampoule of each morning and night—and then two days later, another ultrasound and blood test.
One of my follicles measured twenty-one millimeters. One measured twenty millimeters. And one was nineteen millimeters.
At precisely 8:30 P.M. Max injected ten thousand units of hCG into me. Exactly thirty-six hours later, those eggs were retrieved.
Then ICSI—intracytoplasmic sperm injection—was used to fertilize the egg with Max’s sperm. And three days later, with Max holding my hand, a vaginal catheter was inserted into me and we watched the embryo transfer on a blinking computer monitor. There, the lining of my uterus looked like sea grass swaying in the current. A little white spark, a star, shot out of the syringe and fell between two blades of grass. We celebrated our potential pregnancy with a shot of progesterone in my butt.
And to think, some people who want to have a baby only need to make love.
My mother is on her computer when I walk into her house, adding information to her recently acquired Facebook profile. DARA WEEKS, her status says, WISHES HER DAUGHTER WOULD FRIEND HER. “I’m not talking to you,” she says, snippy, “but your husband called.”
“Do you have more than one?”
“What did he want?”
She shrugs. Ignoring her, I pick up the phone in the kitchen and dial Max’s mobile number. “Why isn’t your cell on?” Max asks, as soon as he picks up.
“Yes, honey,” I reply. “I love you, too.”
In the background I can hear a lawn mower. Max runs a landscaping business. He is busy mowing in the summer, raking in the fall, and snowplowing in the winter. What do you do during mud season? I had asked the first time we met.
Wallow, he’d said, smiling.
“I heard you got hurt.”
“Embarrassing news travels fast. Who called you, anyway?”
“I just think . . . I mean, we worked so hard to get to this point.” Max stumbles over the words, but I know what he means.
“You heard Dr. Gelman,” I tell him. “We’re in the home stretch.”
It seems ironic that, after all these years of trying, I am the one who is more relaxed about the pregnancy than Max. There were years when I was so superstitious I counted backward from twenty before getting out of bed, or wore the same lucky camisole for a week in an effort to ensure that particular embryo would be the one that actually stuck. But I’ve never made it this far before, where my ankles are blissfully swollen and my joints ache and I cannot see my feet in the shower. I’ve never been so pregnant that someone could plan a baby shower.
“I know we need the money, Zoe, but if your clients are violent—”
“Max. Mr. Docker is catatonic ninety-nine percent of the time, and my burn victims are usually unconscious. Honestly, this was a fluke. I could just as easily get hurt walking across the street.”
“Then don’t cross the road,” Max says. “When are you coming home?”
I’m sure he knows about the baby shower, but I play along. “I have to do an assessment of a new client,” I joke. “Mike Tyson.”
“Very funny. Look, I can’t talk right now—”
“You called me—”
“Only because I thought you were doing something stupid—”
“Max,” I say, cutting him off. “Let’s not. Let’s just not.” For years, Max and I were told by couples with children how lucky we were; how our relationship had the luxury of being all about us, instead of who was cooking dinner and who was carpooling to Little League. But the flame of romance can be just as effectively doused by dinner conversations that center on estradiol levels and appointment times at the clinic. It is not that Max doesn’t do everything right—from massaging my feet to telling me I look beautiful instead of bloated. It’s that, lately, even when I am pressed up close against him, I feel like I cannot get close enough to touch him, like he is somewhere else. I have told myself that I’m imagining things. That it’s nerves on his part, raging hormones on mine. I just wish I didn’t have to keep making excuses.
Not for the first time, I wish I had a girlfriend to confide in. Someone who would nod and say all the right things when I complained about my husband. But my friendships had dwindled as Max and I began to devote ourselves entirely to combating infertility. Some relationships I’d ended, because I didn’t want to hear a friend talk about her baby’s first words, or go to a couple’s home for dinner and be confronted with sippy cups and Matchbox cars and stuffed bears—details of a life that eluded me. Other relationships had simply fallen by the wayside, since the only person who really could understand the cyclone of emotions involved in IVF was Max. We’d isolated ourselves, because we were the only pair among our married friends who didn’t have kids yet. We’d isolated ourselves, because it hurt less.
I hear him hang up. My mother, I see, has been hanging on every word. “Is everything all right between you two?”
“I thought you were mad at me.”
“Then how come you’re eavesdropping?”
“It’s not eavesdropping if it’s my phone and my kitchen. What’s wrong with Max?”
“Nothing.” I shake my head. “I don’t know.”
She schools her features into an expression of open concern. “Let’s sit down and unpack this feeling together.”
I roll my eyes. “Does that really work with your clients?”
“You’d be surprised. Most people already know the answers to their problems.”
My mother, for the past four months, has reinvented herself as the owner and sole employee of Mama Knows Best Life Coaching. This profession comes on the heels of her earlier incarnations as a Reiki instructor, a stand-up comedienne, and—for one very uncomfortable summer of my adolescence—a door-to-door saleswoman for her entrepreneurial invention: the Banana Sack (a fitted pink neoprene suit that shimmied over the fruit to keep it from going brown too quickly; unfortunately, it was mistaken repeatedly for a sex toy). By comparison, becoming a life coach is fairly tame.
“When I was pregnant with you, your father and I fought so much that one day I left him.”
I stare at her. How is it possible that, in the forty years I’ve been alive, I never knew this? “Seriously?”
She nods. “I packed and told him I was leaving him and I did.”
“Where did you go?”
“To the end of the driveway,” my mother says. “I was nine months pregnant; that was the maximum distance I could waddle without feeling as if my uterus was falling out.”
I wince. “Do you have to be quite so graphic?”
“What would you like me to call it, Zoe? A fetal living room?”
“The sun went down, and your father came out with a jacket for me. We sat for a few minutes and we went back inside.” She shrugs. “And then you were born, and whatever it was that we’d been arguing about didn’t seem to matter. All I’m saying is that the past is nothing but a springboard for the future.”
I fold my arms. “Have you been sniffing the Windex again?”
“No, it’s my new tagline. Look.” My mother’s fingers fly over the keyboard. The best advice she ever gave me was to take a typing course. I’d fought her furiously. It was in the voc-tech side of my high school and full of kids who were not in my Über-academic classes—kids who smoked outside before school, who wore heavy eyeliner and listened to heavier metal. Are you there to judge people or to type? she’d asked me. In the end I was one of three girls who got a blue ribbon from the teacher for mastering seventy-five words per minute. Nowadays I use a keyboard, of course, but every time I type up an assessment for one of my clients, I silently thank my mother for being right.
She brings up her business’s Facebook page. There’s a picture of her on it, and her cheesy tagline. “You would have known that was my new motto if you’d accepted my friend request.”
“Are you seriously going to hold social networking etiquette against me?” I ask.
“All I know is that I carried you for nine months. I fed you, I clothed you, I paid for your college education. Friending me on Facebook seems like a small thing to ask in return.”
“You’re my mother. You don’t have to be my friend.”
She gestures at my belly. “I just hope that she gives you the same heartache you give me.”
“Why do you even have Facebook, anyway?”
“Because it’s good for business.”
She has three clients that I know of—none of whom seem perturbed that my mother has no degree in counseling or consulting or anything else you’d want from a motivational coach. One client is a former stay-at-home mother who wants to rejoin the workforce but has no skills beyond making a mean PB&J sandwich and separating lights from darks. One is a twenty-six-year-old guy who recently found his birth mother but is afraid to make contact with her. And the last is a recovering alcoholic who just likes the stability of a meeting every week.
“A life coach should be on the cutting edge. Hip,” my mother says.
“If you were hip, you wouldn’t use the word hip. You know what I think this is about? The movie we went to last Sunday.”
“I didn’t like it. The book’s ending was better—”
“No, not that. The girl at the ticket booth asked if you were a senior, and you didn’t say another word for the rest of the night.”
She stands up. “Do I look like a senior, for God’s sake? I color my hair religiously. I have an elliptical machine. I gave up Brian Williams for Jon Stewart.”
I have to give her this—she looks better than most of my friends’ mothers. She has the same poker-straight brown hair and green eyes that I do and the kind of funky, eclectic style that always makes you look twice at someone, wondering if she planned the outfit meticulously or just rummaged in the depths of her closet. “Mom,” I say, “you are the youngest sixty-five-year-old I know. You don’t need Facebook to prove it.”
It amazes me that someone—anyone—would pay my mother to be a life coach. I mean, as her daughter, isn’t her advice the very thing I’ve tried to escape? But my mother insists that her clients like the fact that she’s survived a great loss herself; it gives her credibility. She says the vast majority of life coaches are nothing more than good listeners who, every so often, can give a procrastinator a kick in the pants. And really, what are the best credentials for that, outside of being a mother?
I peer over her shoulder. “Don’t you think you should mention me on the site?” I say. “On account of the fact that I’m your primary qualification for this job?”
“Imagine how ridiculous it will look if your name is on the site and there isn’t a link to your profile. But”—she sighs—“that’s only for people who’ve accepted my friend invitation . . .”
“Oh, for God’s sake.” I lean down and type, my hands between hers, this baby pressed to her back. I log in to my profile. The live feed that fills the screen contains the thoughts and actions of people I went to high school with or other music therapists or former professors; a former college roommate named Darci I haven’t spoken with in months. I should call her, I think, and at the same time I know I won’t. She has twins who are just going to preschool; their smiling faces are her profile photo.
I accept my mother’s pending friend request, even though it feels like a new low in social networking. “There,” I say. “Happy?”
“Very. Now at least I know I’ll be able to see new pictures of my grandchild when I log in.”
“As opposed to driving a mile to my apartment to see her in person?”
“It’s the principle, Zoe,” my mother says. “I’m just glad you finally got off your high horse.”
“No horses,” I say. “I’m just not in the mood to fight until it’s time to leave for my baby shower.”
My mother opens her mouth to respond, then snaps it shut. For a half second, she contemplates going along with the ruse, and, just as quickly, she gives up. “Who told you?”
“I think the pregnancy is bringing out a sixth sense in me,” I confide.
She considers this, impressed. “Really?”
I walk into her kitchen to raid the fridge—there are three tubs of hummus and a bag of carrots, plus various indistinguishable clots in Tupperware containers. “Some mornings I wake up and I just know Max is going to say he wants Cap’n Crunch for breakfast. Or I’ll hear the phone ring and I know it’s you before I even pick up.”
“I used to be able to predict rain when I was pregnant with you,” my mother says. “I was more accurate than the weatherman on the ABC news.”
I dip my finger into the hummus. “When I woke up this morning, the whole bedroom smelled like eggplant parmigiana—you know, the really good kind that they make at Bolonisi’s?”
“That’s where the shower’s being held!” she gasps, amazed. “When did all this start?”
“About the same time I found a Kinko’s receipt for the invitations in Max’s jacket.”
It takes my mother a moment, and then she starts to laugh. “And here I was planning the cruise I was going to take after I won the lottery with your number picks.”
“Sorry to disappoint you.”
She rubs her hand over my belly. “Zoe,” my mother says, “you couldn’t if you tried.”
Some cognitive scientists believe human response to music provides evidence that we are more than just flesh and blood—that we also have souls. Their thinking is as follows:
All reactions to external stimuli can be traced back to an evolutionary rationale. You pull your hand away from fire to avoid physical harm. You get butterflies before an important speech because the adrenaline running through your veins has caused a physiological fight-or-flight response. But there is no evolutionary context within which people’s response to music makes sense—the tapping of a foot, the urge to sing along or get up and dance, there’s just no survival benefit to these activities. For this reason, some believe that our response to music is proof that there’s more to us than just biological and physiological mechanics—that the only way to be moved by the spirit, so to speak, is to have one in the first place.
There are games. Estimate Zoe’s Belly Size, a purse scavenger hunt (who would have guessed that my mother had an overdue utility bill in her bag?), a baby-sock-matching relay, and, now, a particularly disgusting foray in which baby diapers filled with melted chocolate are passed around for identification by candy bar brand.
Even though this isn’t really my cup of tea, I play along. My part-time bookkeeper, Alexa, has organized the whole event—and has even gone to the trouble of rounding up guests: my mother, my cousin Isobel, Wanda from Shady Acres and another nurse from the burn unit of the hospital where I work, and a school counselor named Vanessa who contracted me to do music therapy earlier this year with a profoundly autistic ninth grader.
It’s sort of depressing that these women, acquaintances at best, are being substituted for close friends. Then again, if I’m not working, I’m with Max. And Max would rather be run over by his own lawn-mowing machines than identify chocolate feces in a diaper. For this reason alone, he is really the only friend I need.
I watch Wanda peer into the Pampers. “Snickers?” she guesses incorrectly.
Vanessa gets the diaper next. She’s tall, with short platinum blond hair and piercingly blue eyes. The first time I met her she invited me into her office and gave me a blistering lecture on how the SATs were a conspiracy by the College Board to take over the world eighty dollars at a time. Well? she said when she finally stopped for a breath. What do you have to say for yourself?
I’m the new music therapist, I told her.
She blinked at me, and then looked down at her calendar and flipped the page backward. Ah, she said. Guess the rep from Kaplan is coming tomorrow.
Vanessa doesn’t even glance down at the diaper. “They look like Mounds to me,” she says drily. “Two, to be exact.”
I burst out laughing, but I’m the only one who seems to get Vanessa’s joke. Alexa looks devastated because her party games aren’t being taken seriously. My mother intervenes, collecting the diaper from Vanessa’s place mat. “How about Name That Baby?” she suggests.
I feel a twinge in my side and absently rub my hand over the spot.
My mother reads from a paper Alexa has printed off the Internet. “A baby lion is a . . .”
My cousin’s hand shoots up. “Cub!” she yells out.
“Right! A baby fish is a . . . ?”
“Caviar?” Vanessa suggests.
“Fry,” Wanda says.
“That’s a verb,” Isobel argues.
“I’m telling you, I saw it on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire—”
Suddenly I am seized by a cramp so intense that all the breath rushes out of my body.
“Zoe?” My mother’s voice seems far away. I struggle to my feet.
Twenty-eight weeks, I think. Too soon.
Another current rips through me. As I fall against my mother, I feel a warm gush between my legs. “My water,” I whisper. “I think it just broke.”
But when I glance down, I am standing in a pool of blood. Last night was the first night Max and I ever talked about baby names.
“Johanna,” I whispered, after he turned out the light.
“Sorry to disappoint,” Max said. “But it’s just me.”
In the dark, I could see his smile. Max is the sort of man I never imagined would be attracted to me—big, broad, a surfer with a shock of blond hair and enough wattage in his smile to make grocery clerks drop his change and soccer moms slow down near our driveway. I was always considered smart, but by no stretch of the imagination am I a looker. I am the girl next door, the wallflower, the one whose features you cannot recall. The first time he talked to me—at his brother’s wedding, where I was filling in for the lead vocalist in the band, who’d developed a kidney stone—I turned around, certain that he was speaking to someone else. Years later he told me that he never knew what to say to girls but that my voice was like a drug; it had seeped into his veins and given him the courage to come up to me during the band’s fifteen-minute break.
He didn’t think a woman with a master’s degree in musicology would want anything to do with a college dropout / surf rat who was scraping together a landscaping business.
I didn’t think a man who could have taken home his pick of anyone with two X chromosomes would find me even remotely attractive.
Last night he put his gentle hand over our baby, an umbrella. “I thought talking about the baby was bad luck.”
It was. Or, at least, it always had been, to me. But we were so close to making it to the finish line. This was so real. What could possibly go wrong? “Well,” I said, “I changed my mind.”
“Okay, then. Elspeth,” Max said. “After my favorite aunt.”
“Please tell me you’re making that up . . .”
He laughed. “I have another aunt named Ermintrude—”
“Hannah,” I countered. “Stella. Sage.”
“That’s a spice,” Max said.
“Yeah, but not like Ground Cloves. It’s pretty.”
He leaned over my belly and pressed his ear against it. “Let’s ask her what she wants to be called,” Max suggested. “I think . . . wait . . . no, hang on, she’s coming in loud and clear.” He looked up at me, his cheek still against our baby. “Bertha,” he pronounced.
The baby, as if to comment, gave his jaw a swift kick; and I was sure at the time that this meant she was fine. That it hadn’t been bad luck at all.
I am being turned inside out; I am falling through blades. I have never felt so much agony, as if the pain is trapped under my skin, and trying desperately to slice its way out.
“It’s going to be all right,” Max says, clasping my hand as if we are about to arm-wrestle. I wonder when he arrived. I wonder why he is lying to me.
His face is as white as a midnight moon, and, even though he’s only inches away, I can barely see him. Instead, there is a blur of doctors and nurses crowded into the tiny delivery room. An IV is fed into my arm. A band is wrapped around my belly and hooked up to a fetal monitor.
“I’m only twenty-eight weeks,” I pant.
“We know, honey,” a nurse says, and she turns her attention to the medical personnel. “I’m not getting anything on the monitor . . .”
“Try it again—”
I grab the nurse’s sleeve. “Is she . . . is she too little?”
“Zoe,” the nurse says, “we’re doing everything we can.” She fiddles with a knob on the monitor and readjusts the band around my belly. “I’m still not getting a heartbeat—”
“What?” I struggle to a sitting position as Max tries to hold me back. “Why not?”
“Get the ultrasound,” Dr. Gelman snaps, and a moment later one is wheeled in. Cold gel squirts onto my abdomen as I am twisted by another cramp. The doctor’s eyes are trained on the ultrasound monitor. “There’s the head,” she says calmly. “And there’s the heart.”
I look frantically, but I see only shifting sands of gray and black. “What do you see?”
“Zoe, I need you to relax for a moment,” Dr. Gelman says.
So I bite my lip. I listen to the blood pounding in my ears. A minute passes, and then another. There is no sound in the room except for the quiet beeps of machines.
And then Dr. Gelman says what I’ve known she’ll say all along. “I’m not seeing a heartbeat, Zoe.” She looks me in the eye. “I’m afraid your baby is dead.”
Into the silence rips a sound that makes me let go of Max’s hand and cover my ears. It is like the strafe of a bullet, nails on a chalkboard, promises being broken. It’s a note I have never heard—this chord of pure pain—and it takes a moment to realize it is coming from me.
This is what I have packed in my hospital bag for delivery:
A nightgown with tiny blue flowers printed all over it, although I haven’t worn a nightgown since I was twelve.
Three pairs of maternity underwear.
A change of clothes.
A small gift pack of cocoa butter lotion and soap leaves for a new mom, given to me by the mother of one of my recently discharged burn victims at the hospital.
An incredibly soft stuffed pig, which Max and I bought years ago, during my first pregnancy, before the miscarriage, when we were still capable of hope.
And my iPod, loaded with music. So much music. While doing my undergraduate degree at Berklee in music therapy, I had worked with the professor who first cataloged the effect of music therapy during childbirth. Although studies had been done linking music to breathing, and breathing to the autonomic nervous system, nothing had been done until that point to formally connect Lamaze breathing techniques to self-selected music. The premise was that women who listened to different music at different parts of labor could use that music to breathe properly, to remain relaxed, and to subsequently reduce labor pain.
At nineteen, I had found it amazing to work with someone whose research had become widespread practice during childbirth. I didn’t realize it would be another twenty-one years before I got the chance to try it myself.
Because music is so important to me, I selected the pieces to use during labor and delivery very carefully. For early labor, I would relax to Brahms. For active labor, when I needed to stay focused on my breathing, I chose music with a strong tempo and rhythm: Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” For transition, when I knew it would hurt the most, I had gathered a combination of music—from the songs with the strongest positive memories from my childhood—REO Speedwagon and Madonna and Elvis Costello and Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” whose angry lifts and falls would mirror what was going on in my body.
I wholeheartedly believe that music can alleviate the physical pain of childbirth.
I just don’t know if it can do anything for the grief.
While I am delivering the baby, I am already thinking that one day I will not remember this. That I will not remember Dr. Gelman talking about the submucosal fibroids that she had wanted to remove before this IVF cycle—a surgery I declined, because I was in too big a hurry to get pregnant—fibroids which are now so much bigger. I will not remember her telling me that the placenta had sheared away from the uterine wall. I will not feel her checking my cervix and quietly saying that I’m at six centimeters. I will not notice Max hooking up my iPod so that Beethoven fills the room; I will not see the nurses gliding in somber slow motion, so different from every giddy and raucous labor and delivery I’ve ever seen on A Baby Story.
I will not remember my water being broken, or how so much blood soaked the sheet beneath me. I won’t remember the sad eyes of the anesthesiologist who said he was sorry for my loss before he rolled me onto my side to give me an epidural.
I won’t remember losing the sensation in my legs and thinking that this was a start, wondering if they could fix it so that I didn’t feel anything at all.
I won’t recall opening my eyes after a knotted contraction and seeing Max’s face, twisted just as hard as mine with tears.
I won’t remember telling Max to turn off the Beethoven. And I won’t remember that, when he didn’t do it fast enough, I lashed out with one arm and knocked the iPod dock station to the floor and broke it.
I won’t remember that, afterward, it was silent.
I will have to be told by someone else how the baby slipped between my legs like a silver fish, how Dr. Gelman said the baby was a boy.
But that’s not right, I’ll think, although I won’t have the recollection. Bertha is supposed to be a girl. And how, on the heels of that, I wondered what else the doctor had gotten wrong.
I won’t remember the nurses wrapping him in a blanket, crowning him with a tiny knit cap.
I won’t remember holding him: his head, the size of a plum. His blue-veined features. The perfect nose, the pouting mouth, the smooth skin where his eyebrows were still being sketched in. The chest, fragile as a bird’s, and still. The way he nearly fit in the palm of one hand; the way he weighed nothing at all.
I won’t remember how, until that moment, I really did not believe it was true. In my hazy dream I spin back one month. Max and I are lying in bed after midnight. You awake? I ask.
Yeah. Just thinking.
He shakes his head. Nothing. You were worrying, I say.
No. I was wondering, he says soberly, about olive oil.
Right. What’s it made from?
Is this a trick question? I ask. Olives.
And corn oil. What’s that made from?
So, Max says, how about baby oil?
For a moment, we are both silent. Then we start laughing. We laugh so hard that tears come to my eyes. In the dark, I reach for Max’s hand, but I miss.
When I wake up, the shades in the room are drawn but the door is ajar. At first, I cannot remember where I am. There is noise in the hallway, and I see a tangle of family—grandparents, children, teenagers—floating along on the trail of their own laughter. They are carrying a rainbow of balloons.
I start to cry.
Max sits down beside me on the bed. He awkwardly puts his arm around me. Playing Florence Nightingale is not his strong suit. One Christmas, we had the flu together. In between my own bouts of vomiting, I would walk to the bathroom and get him cold compresses. “Zo,” he murmurs. “How do you feel?”
“How do you think I feel?” I am being a bitch. Anger burns the back of my throat. It fills the space inside me that was formerly home to my baby.
“I want to see him.”
Max freezes. “I, um . . .”
“Call the nurse.” My mother’s voice comes from the corner of the room where she’s sitting. Her eyes are red and swollen. “You heard what she wants.”
Nodding, Max gets up and walks out of the room. My mother folds me into her arms. “It’s not fair,” I say, my face crumpling.
“I know, Zo.” She strokes my hair, and I lean against her, the way I did when I was four years old and teased for my freckles, or fifteen and getting my heart broken for the first time. I realize I will not have the chance to comfort my own baby this way, and that makes me cry even harder.
A nurse steps into the room with Max at her heels. “Look,” he says, handing me a photo of our son. It looks as if it were snapped while he was asleep in a bassinet. His hands are curled on either side of his head. His chin has a tiny dimple.
Beneath the photo are a handprint and a footprint, too tiny to look real.
“Mrs. Baxter,” she says softly, “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“Why are you whispering?” I ask. “Why are you all whispering? Where the hell is my baby?”
As if I have summoned him, a second nurse enters, carrying my son. He is dressed now, in clothes that are swimming on him. I reach for him.
For a single day, I worked in an NICU unit. I was playing guitar with the preemies, and singing to them, as part of developmental care—babies who are exposed to music therapy show increased oxygen saturation and decreased heart rate, and some studies have even shown preemies doubling their daily weight gain when music therapy is part of their routine. I’d been working with one mother, singing a lullaby in Spanish to her baby, when a social worker came in and asked for my help.
“The Rodriguez baby died this morning,” she told me. “The family’s waiting for their favorite nurse to come in and do the last bath.”
“The last bath?”
“It helps, sometimes,” the social worker said. “The thing is, it’s a big family, and I think they could use a hand in there.”
When I walked into the private room where the family was waiting, I understood why. The mother was sitting in a rocking chair with the dead infant in her arms. Her face looked as if it had been carved from stone. The father was hovering behind her. There were aunts and uncles and grandparents milling in silence, a direct counterpoint to the nieces and nephews, who were shrieking and chasing each other around the hospital bed.
“Hello,” I said. “I’m Zoe. Would it be all right if I played?” I gestured at the guitar hanging by its strap across my back.
When the mother didn’t answer, I knelt down in front of the chair. “Your daughter was beautiful,” I said.
She didn’t answer, nor did anyone else, so I pulled my guitar around and began to sing—the same Spanish lullaby I’d been singing minutes before:
DuÉrmete, mi niÑa
DuÉrmete, mi sol
De mi corazÓn.
For a moment, the kids who were running in circles paused. The adults in the room stared at me. I became the focal point, the center of all their energy, instead of that poor infant. As soon as the nurse arrived and undressed the baby for its last bath, I slipped out of the room and went to the administrative offices of the hospital and quit.
I had played at the bedsides of children who were dying dozens of times; I had always considered it a privilege to swing them from this world into the next with a string of notes, a sweet refrain. But this had been different. I just couldn’t play Orpheus for a dead baby, not when Max and I were trying so hard to get pregnant.
My own son is cold to the touch. I lay him down between my legs on the hospital mattress and unsnap the blue pajamas in which some kind nurse has dressed him. I cover his torso with my hand, but there’s no heartbeat.
DuÉrmete, mi niÑo, I whisper.
“Would you like to keep him here for a while?” asks the nurse who was carrying him.
I look up at her. “I can do that?”
“You can keep him as long as you like,” she says. “Well . . .” She doesn’t finish the rest of the thought.
“Where does he stay?” I say.
“I beg your pardon?”
“When he’s not here. Where does he stay?” I look at the nurse. “In the morgue?”
“No. He stays with us.”
She’s lying to me. I know she’s lying. If he had been in a bassinet with the other babies, his skin wouldn’t have a chill to it, like an autumn morning. “I want to see.”
“I’m afraid we can’t—”
“Do it.” My mother’s voice crackles with authority. “If that’s what she needs to see, let her.”
The two nurses look at each other. Then one of them steps outside and brings in a wheelchair. They help me swing my legs off the bed and sit down. The whole time I am holding the baby.
Max wheels me down the hallway. Behind one door I hear the grunt of a woman in labor. He pushes me a little faster.
“Mrs. Baxter would like to see where her son has been,” the nurse says to a colleague behind the desk, as if this is the kind of request she fields daily. She leads me past the nurses’ station to a row of shelving units stuffed with plastic-wrapped tubing and stacks of swaddling blankets and diapers. Beside it is a small, stainless steel refrigerator, the kind I used to have in my dorm room at college.
The nurse opens up the refrigerator. I don’t understand at first, and then when I look inside and see the empty white walls and the single rack, I do.
I grab the baby closer, but he is so small that it’s hard to feel as if I’ve got him soundly. I might as well be holding a bag of feathers, a breath, a wish. I stand up without a plan in my head—just knowing that I cannot look at that refrigerator anymore—and suddenly I cannot breathe, and the world is spinning, and my chest is being crushed in a vise. All I can think, before I fall to the ground, is that I won’t drop my son. That a good mother wouldn’t let go.
“What you’re saying,” I tell Dr. Gelman, my OB, “is that I’m a ticking time bomb.”
After I fainted, was revived, and told the doctors my symptoms, I was put on heparin. A spiral CT scan showed a blood clot that had traveled to my lung—a pulmonary embolism. Now, my doctor’s told me that my blood tests showed a clotting disorder. That this could happen again and again.
“Not necessarily. Now that we know you’ve got AT III, we can put you on Coumadin. It’s treatable, Zoe.”
I am a little afraid to move, certain that I will jar the clot and send it right to my brain and have an aneurysm. Dr. Gelman assures me that the shots of heparin I’ve had will keep that from happening.
There’s a part of me, the part that feels like I’ve swallowed a stone, that is disappointed.
“How come you didn’t test for it before?” Max asks. “You tested for everything else.”
Dr. Gelman turns to him. “Antithrombin three deficiency isn’t pregnancy-related. It’s something you’re born with, and this thrombophilia tends to show up in younger people. We often can’t diagnose a clotting disorder until someone’s aggravated it. A broken leg can do that. Or, in Zoe’s case, labor and delivery.”
“It’s not pregnancy-related,” I repeat, grabbing on to that statement with all my might. “So technically I could still have a baby?”
The obstetrician hesitates. “The two conditions are not mutually exclusive,” she says, “but why don’t we talk about this in a few weeks?”
We both turn at the sound of the door closing behind Max, who’s left the room.
When I am discharged from the hospital, I am wheeled to the bank of elevators by an orderly, with Max carrying my overnight bag. I notice something I didn’t notice during the two days I’ve been there—a single buttercup in a little glass vase that is suctioned to my hospital room door. My room is the only one in the hallway that has a vase. I realize this is some kind of sign, a cue for the phlebotomists and the residents and the candy stripers entering the room that this is not a zone of happiness, that, unlike in every other new mother’s room, here something terrible has happened.
As we are waiting for the doors to open, another woman is wheeled up beside me. She has a newborn in her arms, and attached to the arm of her wheelchair is a CONGRATULATIONS balloon. Her husband follows, his arms full of flowers. “Is that Daddy?” the woman coos, as the baby stirs. “Are you waving?”
A bell dings, and the elevator doors open. It is empty, plenty of room for two. The woman is wheeled inside first, and then my orderly begins to pivot the wheelchair, so that I can be wheeled in beside her.
Max, however, blocks his way. “We’ll take the next one,” he says.
We drive home in Max’s truck, which smells of loam and freshly cut grass, even though there are no mowers or weed cutters in the flatbed. I wonder who is covering the business. Max turns on the radio and sets it to a music station. This is a big deal—usually we argue over the programming. He will listen to Car Talk on NPR, Wait Wait. . . Don’t Tell Me! and just about any news show . . . but he doesn’t like music playing while he’s driving. Me, I can’t imagine even a half-mile trip without singing along to a song.
“It’s supposed to be nice this weekend,” Max says. “Hot.”
I look out the window. We’re at a red light, and in the car beside us is a mother with two children, who are eating animal crackers in the backseat.
“I thought we could take a ride down to the beach, maybe.”
Max surfs; these are the last days of summer. It’s what he’d normally do. Except nothing is normal. “Maybe,” I say.
“I thought,” Max continues, “that might be a good place for, you know.” He swallows. “The ashes.”
We named the baby Daniel and arranged to have him cremated. The ashes would come back in an urn shaped like a tiny ceramic baby shoe with a blue ribbon. We didn’t really discuss what we would do with them once they arrived, but now I realize Max has a point. I don’t want the urn on the kitchen counter. I don’t want to bury it in our backyard the way we buried our canary when it died. I suppose the beach is a pretty place, if not a meaningful one. But then again, what is my other option? It’s not like my baby was conceived in a romantic place like Venice, where I could float the urn down the river Po; or under the stars in Tanzania, where I could open the urn to the wind of the Serengeti. He was conceived in a lab at an IVF clinic, and I can’t really scatter the ashes through its halls.
“Maybe,” I say, which is all I can give Max right now.
When we pull into our driveway, my mother’s car is already there. She is going to be staying with me during the day to make sure I’m all right when Max goes to work. She comes outside to the truck to help me down from my seat. “What can I get you, Zo?” she asks. “A cup of tea? Some chocolate? We could watch the episodes of True Blood you’ve got TiVoed . . .”
“I want to just lie down,” I say, and when she and Max both rush to help me, I hold them off. I walk down the hall slowly, using the wall for support. But instead of entering our bedroom at the end of the hall, I duck into a smaller room on the right.
Up until a month ago, this had been my makeshift office—the place where, once a week, Alexa came to do my books. Then, over the course of one weekend, Max and I painted it a sunny yolk-yellow and lugged in a crib and a changing table we’d scored from a charity shop for a grand total of forty dollars. While Max did the heavy lifting, I organized books—my favorites from when I was little: Where the Wild Things Are, Harry the Dirty Dog, and Caps for Sale—on a shelf.
But now, when I open the door, I draw in my breath. Instead of the crib and changing table, there is the old drafting board I used as a desk. My computer is hooked up and humming again. My files are neatly stacked beside it. And my instruments—djembes and banjos and guitars and chimes—are lined up against the wall.
The only indication that there might ever have been a nursery here are the walls, which are still that sunshine yellow. The color you feel inside you, when you smile.
I lie down on the braided rug in the middle of the floor and curl my knees into my chest. Max’s voice drifts down the hall. “Zoe? Zo? Where are you?” I hear him open the door to the bedroom, make a quick sweep, and leave. He does the same thing in the bathroom. Then he opens the door and sees me. “Zoe,” he says. “What’s wrong?”
I look around this room, this not-nursery, and I think of Mr. Docker, of what it means to become aware of your surroundings. It’s like waking up from the best dream to find a hundred knives at your throat. “Everything,” I whisper.
Max sits down beside me. “We have to talk.”
I don’t face him. I don’t even sit up. I keep staring straight ahead, my eyes level with the radiators. Max forgot to take the safety plugs out of the outlets. They are all still covered with those flat disks of plastic, to make sure no one gets hurt.
Too fucking late.
“Not now,” I say.
You lose keys, your wallet, your glasses. You lose a job. You lose weight.
You lose money. You lose your mind.
You lose hope; you lose faith. You lose your sense of direction.
You lose track of friends.
You lose your head. You lose a tennis match. You lose a bet.
You lose a baby, or so they say.
Except I know exactly where he is.
The next day, I wake up and my breasts have become marble. I can’t even breathe without them aching. I have no newborn, but my body doesn’t seem to know that. The nurses at the hospital had warned me about this. There used to be an injection to dry up breast milk, but there were serious side effects, and so now they could only send me home with fair warning about what would come to pass.
The covers on Max’s side of the mattress are still tucked in. He did not come to bed last night; I don’t know where he slept. By now, he will have left for work.
“Mom,” I call out, but no one comes. I sit up, wincing, and see a note on my nightstand. Gone grocery shopping, my mother has written.
I shuffle through the discharge paperwork I was given at the hospital. But no one thinks to send the woman who’s delivered a stillborn home with the contact information for a lactation expert.
Feeling stupid, I dial the office number for Dr. Gelman. Her receptionist—a sweet girl I’ve seen monthly now for over half a year—picks up. “Hi,” I say. “This is Zoe Baxter—”
“Zoe!” she says enthusiastically. “I heard you were being admitted on Friday! So? Boy or girl?”
I can tell, from the bubbles in her voice, that she has no idea what happened over the weekend. The words in my throat rustle like leaves. “Boy,” I manage. I can’t say the rest.
Even the fabric of my T-shirt is causing me excruciating pain. “Can I speak to a nurse-midwife?”
“Sure, I’ll put you through . . . ,” the receptionist says, and I hold the line praying that the nurse-midwife, at least, knows what happened.
There is a click on the line. “Zoe,” the nurse says gently, “how are you doing?”
“My milk,” I choke out. “Is there anything I can do to dry it up?”
“Not really—you have to sort of ride it out,” she says. “But you can take some ibuprofen. Try putting refrigerated cabbage leaves inside your bra—we don’t know why, but there’s something in them that helps reduce inflammation. And sage—if you have any, cook with it. Or make a tea. Sage inhibits milk production.”
I thank her and hang up the phone. As I am putting down the handset again, it falls against the clock and inadvertently turns on the radio. I have it tuned to a classical station because it’s somehow easier for me to wake up at 6:00 A.M. to orchestral strains rather than a rock beat.
The flute. The seesaw of the string section. The pumping grunt of the tuba and the horn. Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” wings from wall to ceiling to floor, filling the room with chaos and drive.
This track is on a CD still in a birthing bag I have not unpacked.
This track was never played during my delivery, although I had a baby.
In one quick move I grab the clock radio and yank it out of the electrical socket where it’s plugged in. I hold it high over my head and hurl it across the room so that it smashes onto the wooden floor in a crescendo that would have done Wagner proud.
When there is only silence, I can hear the tatter of my breath. I imagine explaining this to Max. Or my mother, showing up with a grocery bag and stumbling into this scene. “Okay,” I say to myself. “You can do this. You just have to pick up the pieces.”
In the kitchen I find a black trash bag and a dustpan and broom. I take the remnants of the radio and clean them up. I sweep all the tiny fragments and the innards into the dustpan.
Pick up the pieces.
It’s that simple, really. For the first time in forty-eight hours I feel a shift, a purpose. I dial Dr. Gelman’s office for the second time in ten minutes. “This is Zoe Baxter again,” I say. “I’d like to schedule an appointment.”
There are several reasons that I went home with Max the first night I met him:
He smelled like summer.
I was not the kind of girl who went home with guys she just met. Ever.
He was bleeding profusely.
Even though it was Max’s brother’s wedding, he spent all his time waiting for me to have my next band break. While the other guys went out for a smoke or to grab a glass of water from the bar, I’d look down and find Max waiting for me with a soft drink. At the time, I assumed that he wasn’t drinking alcohol out of solidarity: I was working, and not allowed to, so neither would Max. I remember thinking that was awfully sweet. Something most guys would not have done.
I didn’t know the happy couple, since I was a last-minute substitute singer, but it was hard to believe that Reid and Max were related. Not just in looks—Reid was tall and athletic in a golf-and-racquetball kind of way, whereas Max was sheer brute size and strength—but also in demeanor. Reid’s friends seemed all to be bankers and lawyers who liked to hear themselves talk; their girlfriends and wives had names like Muffy and Winks. Reid’s new wife, Liddy, came from Mississippi and seemed to thank Jesus a lot—for the weather, the wine, and the fact that her grammy Kate had lived long enough to see a ring on Liddy’s finger. Compared to the rest of the wedding party, Max was much more refreshing: what you saw was what you got. By midnight, when we were scheduled to stop playing, I knew that Max ran his own landscaping business, that he plowed snow in the winter, that his older brother was responsible for the silver scar on his cheek (line drive with a baseball), and that he was allergic to shellfish. He knew that I could sing the alphabet backward, that I could play ten instruments, and that I wanted a family. A big family.
From my spot on the podium, I turned to the band. According to the playlist, our final song was supposed to be Donna Summer’s “Last Dance.” But this didn’t seem like a disco crowd, so I turned to the guys behind me. “You know Etta James?” I asked, and the keyboard player launched into the beginning strains of “At Last.”
Sometimes when I sing, I close my eyes. There’s harmony in every breath I take; the drums become my pulse, the melody is the flow of my blood. This is what it means to lose yourself in music, to become a symphony of notes and rests and measures.
When I finished singing, there was a thunder of applause. I could hear Reid clapping loudly: Brava! And Liddy’s twittering girlfriends: . . . best wedding band I’ve ever heard . . . must get their card from you.
“Thank you very much,” I murmured, and when I finally opened my eyes, Max was staring into them.
Suddenly, a man came crashing toward the stage, smacking his hand against the drum set as he stumbled forward. He was completely trashed and, from the sound of his Southern accent, one of Liddy’s relatives or family friends. “Hey, girlie,” he crowed, grabbing at the hem of my black dress. “You know what you are?”
The bass player took a step forward, shielding me, but Max was already coming to my rescue. “Sir,” he said politely, “I think you should leave . . .”
The drunk man shoved him and grabbed my hand. “You,” he slurred, “are a fucking nightingale!”
“You don’t swear in front of a lady,” Max said, and he punched the guy. The drunk collapsed against a shrieking cotillion of bridesmaids, their long gowns breaking his fall to the floor.
In an instant, a tuxedoed behemoth grabbed Max and spun him around. “This here’s for beatin’ on my daddy,” he said, and he knocked Max unconscious.
It was pandemonium—Hatfields versus McCoys, tables being overturned, old ladies tearing ribbons off each other’s hats. The band grabbed up their instruments, trying to keep the fray from destroying their equipment. I leaped off the stage and crouched over Max. He was bleeding from his mouth and nose, and also from a cut on his forehead where he’d struck the stage as he fell. I pulled his head onto my lap and huddled over him, shielding him from the rest of the commotion. “That,” I said, as soon as his eyes fluttered open, “was idiotic.”
He grinned. “I don’t know about that,” Max said. “It got your arms around me.”
He was bleeding so much that I insisted he go to the emergency room. He gave me the keys to his truck and let me drive while he pressed a napkin to his forehead. “Guess no one’s ever going to forget Reid’s wedding,” he mused.
I didn’t answer.
“You’re mad at me,” Max said.
“It was a compliment,” I said finally. “You punched a guy for giving me a compliment.”
He hesitated. “You’re right. I should have let him tear your dress off.”
“He wouldn’t have torn my dress off. The guys in the band would have stopped him before—”
“I wanted to be the one to save you,” Max said simply, and I stared at him in the green glow of the dashboard.
At the hospital, I waited with Max in a cubicle. “You’re going to need stitches,” I told him.
“I’m going to need a lot more than that,” he said. “For starters, I’m pretty sure my brother will never speak to me again.”
Before I could respond, a doctor pulled aside the curtain and entered, introducing himself. He snapped on a pair of rubber gloves and asked what had happened. “I ran into something,” Max said.
He winced as the doctor probed the scalp wound. “Into what?”
The doctor took a penlight from his pocket and instructed Max to follow the tiny beam. I watched his eyes roll up, then from side to side. He caught my glance and winked at me.
“You’re going to need stitches,” the doctor echoed. “You don’t seem to have a concussion, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea to make sure someone stays with you tonight.” He pulled aside the curtains of the cubicle. “I’ll be back with the suture tray.”
Max looked up at me, a question in his eyes.
“Of course I’ll stay,” I said. “Doctor’s orders.”
One week later, I go back to work at the burn unit of the hospital. The first patient I see is Serena, a fourteen-year-old girl from the Dominican Republic who is one of my regulars. Burned severely in a house fire, she was treated locally and wound up disfigured and scarred. She hid in the dark in her family home for two years before coming to Rhode Island to have reconstructive skin grafts. I’ve met with her for an hour each time I am scheduled to be at the hospital, although at first, no one really understood what good music therapy could do for Serena. She was blind because of cataracts that developed when her scarred eyelids wouldn’t shut, and has limited movement in her hands. At first I just sang to her until she began to sing along with me. Eventually, I modified a guitar for her, tuning it to an open chord and then fitting it with a slide so that she could play. I put Velcro patches on the back of the neck of the guitar so that she could literally feel her way into the chords she was learning to play.
“Hi, Serena,” I say, as I knock on the door to her room.
“Hey, stranger,” she answers. I can hear the smile in her voice.
I am grateful, selfishly, for her blindness. For the fact that, unlike minutes ago, when I was talking to the nurses at their desk, I will not have to be responsible for putting her at ease when she doesn’t know how to offer condolences. Serena never knew I was pregnant; therefore, she has no reason to know the baby died.
“Where’ve you been?” she asks.
“Sick,” I say, pulling up a chair beside her and settling my guitar across my lap. I begin to tune it, and she reaches for her own instrument. “What have you been doing?”
“The usual,” Serena says. Her face is swathed in bandages, still healing from her most recent operation. Her words are slurred, but, after all this time, I know the patterns of her speech. “I have something for you.”
“Yeah. Listen. It’s called ‘The Third Life.’” I sit up, interested. This term grew out of therapy sessions we’d had over the past two months, where we’d talked about the difference between her first life—pre-fire—and her second, after the fire. What about your third life? I had asked Serena. Where do you think of yourself, when all the surgeries are finished?
I listen to Serena’s reedy soprano, punctuated by the beeps and whirs of monitors attached to her body:
No hiding in the darkness
No anger and no pain
The outside may be different
But inside I’m the same
On the second verse, when I have her melody tangled in my mind, I begin to pick out harmony on my own guitar. I finish when she finishes singing, and as she slides her hand up the neck of the guitar, I clap.
“That,” I tell Serena, “was the best present ever.”
“Worth getting sick for?”
Once, during a session, Serena was playing with a rainstick, turning it over and over and getting progressively more agitated. When I asked her what it reminded her of, she told me about the last day she had been outside in the Dominican Republic. She was walking home from school and it started to pour. She knew, because she stepped in the puddles that were forming, and her hair was wet. But she couldn’t feel drops on her skin, because of the scar tissue. What she’d never understood was why she could not feel rain, but something as insubstantial as a classmate’s sneer about her Bride of Frankenstein face felt like a hot sword running through her.
That was the moment she decided not to leave her house again.
Music therapy is not supposed to be about the therapist, it’s supposed to be about the patient. And yet, a small splash on the belly of my guitar suggests I must be crying. Like Serena, I haven’t felt the tears on my cheeks at all.
I take a deep breath. “Which verse do you like the most?”
“The second, I guess.”
I fall back into the familiar: teacher to student, therapist to patient, the person I used to be. “Tell me why,” I say.
I don’t know where Max has found the boat, but the rental is waiting for us when we get to Narragansett Bay. The weather report was wrong; it is cold and damp. I am quite sure we are the only people booking a motorboat this morning. Mist sprays against my face, and I zip my jacket all the way up to my chin.
“You go first,” Max says, and he holds the boat so that I can step into it. Then he hands me the cardboard box that has been on the seat between us for the drive down to the beach.
Max guns the engine, and we go spitting out to sea, puttering through the no-wake zone around buoys and the sleeping hulks of sailboats. Whitecaps reach their bony fingers over the hull of the little boat and soak my sneakers.
“Where are we going?” I yell over the motor.
Max doesn’t hear me, or he pretends not to. He has been doing a lot of that lately. He comes home hours after the sun has set and I know he couldn’t possibly be pruning or planting or mowing or even surfing. He uses this excuse to sleep on the couch. I didn’t want to wake you up, he says, as if it is my fault.
It’s not even really morning yet. It was Max’s idea to come out here when the ocean was quiet—no fishing trawlers, no weekend sailors. I sit on the center of the bench of the boat with the box on my lap. When I close my eyes, the churn of the engine and the slap of the waves rearrange themselves into a rap beat. I drum my fingers against the metal seat, playing in time.
After about ten minutes Max cuts the engine. We bob along, tossed by our own wake.
He sits across from me, his hands tucked between his knees. “What do you think we should do?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you want to . . .”
“No,” I say, thrusting the box at him. “You do it.”
He nods and takes the small blue ceramic shoe out of the box. A few packing peanuts flutter away on the wind. It makes me panic—what if a big gust of wind comes along at just the wrong moment? What if the ashes wind up in my hair, on my jacket?
“I feel like we ought to say something,” Max murmurs.
My eyes fill with tears. “I’m sorry,” I whisper.
For not knowing anything better to say.
For having to do this in the first place.
For not being able to keep you safe inside me a few more weeks.
Max reaches across the space between us and squeezes my hand. “I am, too.”
The reality of my baby, it turns out, is no more than a breath in the cold, a puff of smoke. The ashes are gone almost the very moment they hit the air. If I’d blinked, I could easily have pretended that it never happened.
But I imagine them settling on the frantic surface of the ocean. I imagine the Sirens on the sea floor, singing him home.
Max is late to the appointment with Dr. Gelman. He comes skidding into her paneled office, smelling of mulch. “Sorry,” he apologizes. “Job ran late.”
There was a time when he was ten minutes early for our appointments. When, once, his truck broke down and he jogged with a semen sample to the clinic so that it would arrive in the window of time necessary to fertilize the harvested eggs. But in the two weeks since I’ve been discharged from the hospital, our conversation has been limited to the weather, the grocery list, and what I’d like to watch on TV at night. He slides into the chair beside me and looks at the obstetrician expectantly. “Is she okay?”
“There’s no reason to think that Zoe’s not going to be fine,” Dr. Gelman says. “Now that we know about the thrombophilia, it’s manageable with medication. And the fibroids that we saw beneath the placenta—we’ll hope that, without the hormonal fluctuations of pregnancy, they shrink again.”
“But what about next time?” I ask.
“I honestly don’t anticipate another clot, as long as we keep you on Coumadin—”
“No,” I interrupt. “I mean, the next time I get pregnant. You said I could try again.”
“What?” Max says. “What the hell?”
I face him. “We have three embryos left. Three frozen embryos, Max. We didn’t give up before when I miscarried. We can’t just give up now—”
Max turns to Dr. Gelman. “Tell her. Tell her this is a bad idea.”
The obstetrician runs her thumb along the edge of her blotter. “The chance of you having a placental abruption again is between twenty and fifty percent. In addition, there are other risks, Zoe. Pre-eclampsia, for example: high blood pressure and swelling that would require you to take magnesium to prevent seizures. You could have a stroke—”
“Jesus Christ,” Max mutters.
“But I can try,” I say again, looking her directly in the eye.
“Yes,” she says. “Knowing the risks, you can.”
“No.” The word is barely audible, as Max stands up. “No,” he repeats, and he walks out of the office.
I follow him, hurrying down the hall to grab his arm. He shakes me off. “Max!” I yell after him, but he is headed toward the elevator. He steps inside, and I reach the doors just as they are closing. I slip in and stand beside him.
There’s a mother in the elevator, too, pushing a stroller. Max stares straight ahead.
The elevator bell dings, and the doors open; the woman pushes her child out. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted,” I say, as soon as we are alone again. “To have a baby.”
“What if it’s not what I want?”
“It’s what you used to want.”
“Well, you used to want a relationship with me,” Max says, “so I guess we’ve both changed a little.”
“What are you talking about? I still want a relationship with you.”
“You want a relationship with my sperm. This . . . this baby thing . . . it’s gotten so much bigger than the two of us. It’s not even us, in it together anymore. It’s you, and it’s the baby we can’t seem to have, and the harder it gets the more air it sucks out of the room, Zoe. There’s no space left for me.”
“You’re jealous? You’re jealous of a baby that doesn’t even exist?”
“I’m not jealous. I’m lonely. I want my wife back. I want the girl who used to want to spend time with me, reading the obituaries out loud and driving for forty miles just to see what town we’d wind up in. I want you to call my cell to talk to me, instead of to remind me that I have to be at the clinic at four. And now—now you want to get pregnant again, even if it kills you? When do you stop, Zoe?”
“It’s not going to kill me,” I insist.
“Then it just might kill me.” He looks up. “It’s been nine years. I can’t do this anymore.”
There is something in his gaze, some bitter pill of truth, that sends a shiver down my spine. “Then we’ll find a surrogate. Or we’ll adopt—”
“Zoe,” Max says, “I mean, I can’t do this. I can’t do us.”
The elevator doors open. We are on the ground floor, and the afternoon sun streams through the glass doors at the front of the clinic. Max walks out of the elevator, but I don’t.
I tell myself the light is playing tricks on me. That this is an optical illusion. One minute I can see him, and the next, it’s like he was never here at all.
© 2011 Jodi Picoult