We are frozen in. Our unplowed, non-arterial streets hide beneath sheets of treacherous ice. Our nights plummet to single digits and our wan days scramble and dig their crampons into the slick walls of the thermometer to climb to freezing.
I’m not afraid to drive in slippery conditions. I understand the need to temper confidence with caution, when to creep along and when to hit the gas and scream obscenities at the person in front of me because OMIGOD IF YOU DON’T GUN IT WE’RE ALL GOING TO LOSE MOMENTUM AND GET STUCK SLIDING BACKWARDS DOWN THIS HILL, YOU DUMBASS, but the heavy, full-size, rear-wheel drive van has bested me just as Matt so annoyingly predicted it would.
“You will hate this van in the snow,” he warned at the dealership.
“I’ll figure it out.”
There is nothing to figure; it’s a matter of friction and weight and uselessly spinning rear tires. I got it stuck three times the week before Christmas and managed to wriggle my way out of complete catastrophe by rocking it, gunning it, and once by stuffing my floor mats under the rear tires to find purchase on the ice pack. Last Friday, with school out, all four kids buckled in the back, and a mile-long list of errands to accomplish before my sister and my parents arrived for Christmas, I couldn’t back out of the driveway no matter what I did. I rocked and shoveled gravel under the tires only to get stuck another foot back. I made it to the gate, but feared the final push, my skill for turning into the skid challenged by the mirror-image trickery of driving in reverse. The kids alternatively cheered and whined and asked when we were leaving while I tried not to bite their adorable little heads off of their shoulders.
In the end, I did what I do in all moments of intense, immature, first-world frustration. I called Matt and cried. “I have so much to do,” I sobbed, “I have errands.”
“We can do them tomorrow.”
“I can’t sit in the house all day with them. I just can’t.”
“We can trade it in. Or I can look at four-wheel drive trucks next week, so you can have the Suburban on bad days, but today you’re on your own. If you can get it out of our neighborhood, I think you’ll be fine, the main roads are plowed.”
“I CAN’T GET IT OUT OF OUR DRIVEWAY!”
We both knew it was more than another day in the house with the kids. I wanted the big blue van for a lot of reasons – many of them valid. I wanted to be able to carpool. Matt and I have been talking about becoming foster parents for a long time and I wanted a van that would make that possible if we decide to do it. But somewhere, deep in my psyche, I also believed, really believed, that we would still get that last baby I longed to have. Despite the three years of tears, the surgeries and the acceptance, I imagined that we would buy that van, start the final paperwork for the foster program and find out, miraculously and against all odds, that we were pregnant.
I knew it was ridiculous and unlikely and fairytale-ish and then it fucking happened. Not quite four days after we signed the papers. And so all talk of whether the van was right or whether we should trade it or keep it was intimately linked in my mind with the pain of August and the grief of the last four months.
It put me right back on that table, cold against my bare butt with the neonatologist on his swivel stool to my right and Matt crammed into the narrow space between the table and the wall to my left, holding tightly to my hand. The doctor stared gravely at the screen that connected via unseen wires to a multi-million dollar super-ultrasound machine.
“Are you sure?” I whispered.
“Very. 100% certain there are chromosomal abnormalities incompatible with life outside the womb.”
Incompatible with life.
“This pregnancy will end in stillbirth, which could be very dangerous for you with your history.”
“But how are you sure? How do you know? Is there some way that people … decide.”
I expected math and science. Statistics. But what the hell did I care for statistics now? We had already won the lottery of horrible pregnancy outcomes. We had a 98% chance of a healthy baby. Yesterday.
In one of the kindest acts offered to me in my lifetime, he met my eyes and answered. “Well, I think of it in terms of potential for joy in life. Any joy, no matter how small. To find comfort in your arms or taste ice cream for the first time.”
“And this baby’s potential for joy is?”
“Zero. If somehow this baby were born alive, he might live a week in horrible pain.”
Zero. There is absolutely no way to know. Not until you’re standing naked under the harsh white spotlights with the coin in the air. Then, just like Phoebe taught us all, then whether you are willing to admit it or not, you know which way you want the coin to fall. Underneath the crushing pain and the disbelief that this was happening, running like a current through our hands where we clutched each other tightly, I felt in that moment a measure of relief at his certainty in the death sentence. Not that we wouldn’t have cherished a child not matter what, done anything to find that joy, loved for whatever short time we had, but I felt wondrously relieved that the option wasn’t there. That I wouldn’t be forced to know the pain of giving birth and letting go.
It’s a fine line between faith and folly. Somewhere on the winding road called “Never Give Up Hope” you can take a wrong turn into “Banging Your Head Against An Invisible Brick Wall.” I learned something in that awful moment: the harsh truth that what I wanted – and expected – was not whatever came, but rather another perfect carbon copy of Matt to love. I know we would have risen to the challenge and loved no matter what, but I felt relief that we didn’t have to learn our limits.
Sometimes, we stay on course out of faith and hope, but sometimes, it’s stubbornness. Clinging blindly to three-year-old plans doesn’t let us look around and adjust to where we are. Every good captain has to recognize the difference. If the tail wind is driving you straight toward the rocks, it’s time to come about into the teeth of the storm. There’s no other way to change course.
In the driveway, I cursed the ice and the fates and the stars until I laughed. We little mortals are so funny in our futile toils. I unloaded the kids and put them in front of a show, took a much needed break and then stood, surveying my small battle with the elements. The thing was, I needed to get the van turned around. I wasn’t confident enough in my skills in reverse, but if I could hit it moving forward, I knew I could floor it out the gate.
The space was so tight between the garage, the pick up and the rocks that it took me 30 minutes to turn, inch by painful inch, but finally I had it facing the gate. I hit the gas and corrected the skid until the back tires burned through the ice and found the gravel beneath and then we shot through the gate and into the street, the van and I triumphant, where I left it running and blocking the entire road while I collected my chicks and reloaded them.
The pathology report said trisomy 13. The day it came back, I folded around my grief and cried for hours, but then I nodded and found my peace.
I called my sisters and asked them to travel with me for my birthday week. On my fortieth birthday – the day my last baby was due to be born – we will be on horseback in southern Portugal.
I’ve nearly finished the paperwork for the foster program, but we’re not quite ready.
Yesterday, Matt bought a very, very used four-wheel-drive truck. So that I can have the very, very used Suburban on really bad days.
For now, the blue van stays. No need to abandon ship entirely, just patch a few holes and fix the compass.
We’ve turned, inch by painful inch, to face 2013, March, forty, and all that comes after. The wind feels good in our faces. I hope you too feel ready for all that lies ahead. May the odds be in your favor and may you see the rocks and come about before you run aground.
Thank you for walking beside me through 2012 and holding me up. Happy New Year, my loves.