Bored, I make art. Or “art.” I create a short film in which I morph a strawberry shortcake into a 12-week-old fetus. I paint fetuses in the style of the masters, how Van Gogh, Warhol, Seurat might have looked in their mothers’ wombs. I morph together photos of Patti and me. The result is a creature that is half each of us. It looks like a sort of fat lesbian with a bad haircut. Not a good omen for the Peanut.
We go for genetic counseling, which sounds very Brave New Worldian to me. A South American woman charts our family tree and looks for the nuts and fruits: retards, criminals, and other undesirables whose traits we may not want to pass on. It seems a little late for all that, the damage having been done over thousands of previous generations.
We have to decide whether or not she should have an amniocentesis, which is a grisly affair. The doctor takes a foot-long needle and jams it through her abdominal wall and then sucks out some amniotic fluid to check the Peanut’s chromosomes. It will determine if the Peanut will have Down’s syndrome, of which there is a whopping one out of 285 or so chance. I’m sort of blown away by this number; I know at least that many people and not a single one of them has Down’s syndrome (though my last boss was a bit of a retard). If the test comes back positive, we then get to decide if we want to have the Peanut aborted.
The choice about the amnio is real life and death; there’s a slim chance that the test itself could cause a miscarriage. The baby could be normal and in an effort to decide if we have to terminate it, we could terminate it.
Terminate. What a word.
Despite all this heaviness, we decide that it’ll be better to know in advance than to find out on the Peanut’s birthday when he shows up with bead eyes and a bowl haircut. Either worst-case scenario is pretty unlikely, but worst-case scenarios are my hobby. More importantly, I ‘m a bit worried about PL having a whacking great needle jammed in her tum, but the doctor claims it’s no more traumatic than a blood test. Yeah, right.
We make our way through huge drifts of snow to Garberland. The Peanut appears on the small screen right away; it’s still in there. It’s grown a lot and is now more in a recognizably fetal position. We can see its long thin legs folded up, and it flips and twitches about so much that it’s hard for the technician to get a decent picture. Then we are joined in the room by a big, jolly nurse who gives us non-stop running commentary on her own childbirth experiences and how wonderful it will be when the baby is born.
She and the sonogram lady give me a strange and primeval sensation. They are women gathered in a hut, tending to one of their own, sharing folk wisdom, a million miles from the sterile, masculine world of modern medicine. I imagine brown, wrinkled hands folding banana-leaf diapers, and deep, wise eyes peering through the dimness, hushed figures gathered around a bubbling cauldron.
At one point, the sonogramatician pauses and says ominously: “There is one thing I have to tell you.”
My heart thunders to a halt and falls to the floor, fearing the worst.
“Look at the fingers. Count the knuckles.” We peer into the murky depths of the little screen and locate the tiny paws. “If they are missing the middle knuckle on the index finger…Down’s syndrome.”
No. Where’re the fingers, which is the index one? Wait, wait, one, two, three.
“Your baby looks fine. But who knows, this isn’t really proof. Wait for the amnio.”
“Next, do you want to know the sex?”
We nod vigorously.
“Are you sure?”
Of course. Does the Peanut have a penis? Or a peanot? She examines the nether regions until she finds a little stub that looks more like a spodule of some sort, a boil, a nailhead, than an actual cock, but she says that’s what it is. The Peanut is a boy.
Patti says, “Ooh, it looks so big. He takes after you, honey!”
I blush in the darkness while the two ladies titter.
Next Dr. Garber’s son, Dr. Garber, appears. He is round and looks remarkably like the retarded man who sweeps Christopher Street, a gentle soul with a Frank-like dog named Lucky (the sweeper, not the doctor or the dog). Dr. G. reassures PL and swabs her abdomen with some caramel-colored solution. I look away at that point, preferring to have some distance on that needle. Somehow, live on TV, it will be less real as it penetrates her uterus.
It’s in. Dr. Garber screws a syringe onto the needle and retracts it. Clear, slightly pink liquid fills a vial, then a second. PL is very stoic throughout, holding my hand with one of hers and the sonogram lady’s with the other. Meanwhile, the Peanut also seems a lot calmer and slightly stunned by the loss of the precious urine he calls home. Toward the end, she says she feels a little faint and everyone turns away from the screen and rushes to soothe her. A little rocky, PL gets to her feet, and we drift back home through the snow.
We agreed that we would try to avoid dressing the Peanut in anything we wouldn’t wear ourselves. Yes, I would wear a shirt covered with little animal and vegetable postage stamps. Sadly, they don’t have one in my size.
A boy. Images swirl in my head. At first they are troubling; I keep picturing a large, hairy person with tattoos, a gruff Hell’s Angel who mocks me because I can’t throw a football. Then I imagine all the other things the Peanut might be, like a painter, a doctor, a designer, a writer, a chef, an intellectual, a radical, a woodcarver, a bookbinder, a farmer, a vet…who knows? I also picture a little person walking down the street holding my hand or wrestling on the carpet or reading a book by my side. I think about what it’ll be like to have a third person in the house, a new roommate. As I pull some mink oil from under the sink to clean my snow boots, I wonder, will he mind the mess under the sink? I wonder if he’ll like any of the books that Patti and I like, whether he will have conversations with us, and what they will be like. He will be a stranger to us and yet so familiar.
I really imagined the Peanut as a girl, perhaps because I can more easily imagine looking after a girl, doting on her, spoiling her. But then I think about it more and imagine how strange and exciting it will be to have a boy who is like me, who can learn to see things in the same weird ways I see them, can talk about babes and such, can admire me and hate me.
I haven’t had much experience with fathers, and somehow, I imagine myself as more of a father when it comes to a boy. With a girl, I think of myself as more of a parent, more generic.
The thought of a boy’s father is scary to me. It makes me think of woodsheds, belts, and, “Wait till your father gets home.”
I hope I’m OK at it, that I don’t do any irreparable harm or become too fuzzy and indecisive…or overbearing…or indifferent or…a lot of ellipses as my thoughts grow tangled.
I’m excited. I’m going to be some boy’s dad. Jack’s.
Patti and I go to Au Troquet for our last Valentine’s Day dinner as non-parents. Patti says, “This year, I have two hearts for you instead of just one.” She is very into bringing up her multi-organed state, pointing out that she has a penis at the moment and so forth. It reminds me a bit of a butcher shop.
I buy my first baby clothes, a little garment in a blue and white teapot print. It is very small, for a small person. I also pick up a mini T-shirt and a second one-piece suit. They are in a multicolored print with little animal and vegetable postage stamps.
So many kids I see in the street seem to be dressed up like dolls or circus poodles. PL and I agreed that we would try to avoid dressing the Peanut in anything we wouldn’t wear ourselves. Yes, I would wear a shirt covered with little animal and vegetable postage stamps. Sadly, they don’t have one in my size.
I run into a former colleague who whips out pictures of the baby she and her husband have just adopted. They waited for two years for the child and then had only two weeks warning before the kid showed up, a month old. Sweet, but with an enormous, football-shaped skull. I sense that it is inappropriate to mention the latter to my friend. I am learning.
I walk around SoHo one day while PL works, visiting galleries and stores and looking for a rug for the Peanut’s room-to-be. I suddenly like the idea of a cowboy motif. There’s something pure and innocent and American about little boys and cowboys that I really like. All afternoon I keep thinking about ranches and horses and a set of cowboy pistols I got for my sixth birthday and the unique acrid smell of caps. Suddenly I am struck by a memory of a segment that used to be on The Mickey Mouse Club in Australia when I was little, a serial about boys on a ranch, called “Skip and Willie” or something like that. No, “Spin and Marty,” about a spoiled, weird, standoffish kid with a butler who gets transformed over a summer by a group of all-American boys, open, athletic, outdoorsy kids in jeans and white T-shirts with a triangular logo on the chest. There were a couple of crusty old geezers who tended the horses, and the counselors were all Gary Cooper types who played the guitar and guided the boys with quiet reserve. God, that show was a powerful fantasy for me. Giddyup.
It’s President’s Day, but Patti is working again so it has fallen to me to call the genetic counselor for our results. We are anxious to get them before we go on a last-preparental mini vacation to Florida, wanting to resolve our reproductive future before we hit the groves and everglades. I am thinking all sorts of horrible things and keep chanting to myself, “One in 285, one in 285, one in 285,” and hoping for the best. I’m sure it’ll be OK, don’t you think?
Still waiting. Apparently our culture is slow growing and the results aren’t in yet. On the way home from work, I have this horrific vision of what it would be like if we had to terminate the pregnancy, the dreadful grimness of it, the pre-execution preparations, then a little half baby, alive and wriggling, as it emerges in a bloody doctor’s rubber-gloved hand and gets unceremoniously dumped in a steel dish, slowly buried by other medical waste, its movements stilling, like a fish hauled out of an aquarium…aaargh!
Anyhow, when I come in the door, PL is resting in bed, tired from a rough day. Within a minute a tear rolls down her cheek as she tells me how sick and tired she is of waiting, how nervous that she will have to have another test, how worried that something is wrong. Her sister also had a very slow-growing culture and then had to undergo a second session with the needle. Morgan was born a month premature and only weighed five pounds. She couldn’t be breast-fed because she needed as much food as possible so she would grow quickly. The whole thing was a disappointing drag—though Morgan is a fantastic kid now.
We talk about how everyone told us such fears are absolutely normal and almost certainly groundless, that it is OK to be concerned but not to get too upset, that everything will be OK. By the end of the chat, we both feel used up and wrung out, and PL goes back to her nap. Poor thing, she has been getting tired earlier than normal. Her back has begun to bug her, and she gets pains in her pelvis that only seem to get better when I rub hard on the points of her bum. Last week, she was frightened by pains on the sides of her abdomen, mittleschmerz, caused by the stretching of ligaments and stomach muscles as her uterus expands. I post a week-by-week description of the baby’s development on the fridge. This week he gets little teeth buds, which I can soon nag him to brush.
Separately, PL and I conclude that it is too exhausting and dispiriting to keep worrying about this stupid test and decide to just get on with our lives.
I see Michael Kahan waddling across the lobby in a too-tight Irish sweater. Fortunately, he takes the other bank of elevators.
Still waiting. Despite trying for the very first appointment, we end up grumbling endlessly in the waiting room. Patti announces that she hates Dr. Garber. We become spies. I see a lab report stamped “RESULTS ABNORMAL” and crane over the reception desk to see if our name is on the top, which of course it isn’t. Then we listen through the door as the doctor discusses some sort of grim operation on the phone with another unfortunate. Words like “termination,” “hysterectomy” and “life threatening” drift through the paneling.
Finally we have our audience with Garber. Again we listen to the fetal heartbeat, just like the sound of a needle on the end of a record, shukunk, shukunk in the groove.
Dr. Garber is not concerned about the slow growth of the culture and says that we shouldn’t sweat it either and should just go on our trip. We love her. As we walk home, we discuss how every doctor’s visit begins with us twisted in knots and freaking out and Dr. Garber always makes us feel that there is nothing to worry about. Visits are probably scheduled every three weeks because if they were more frequent we would get so twisted up we’d never get unknotted.
Aaaah! We finally hear from the genetic counselor; presumably Garber lit a Bunsen burner under her ass. All’s well. Actually that’s not the way she puts it; she says that it was “pretty much OK,” although they were not able to grow enough cells to have an absolute, definitive sample—only 11 instead of 12 cultures or something.
Anyhow, there is no indication of the dreaded Down and the Peanut is definitely a boy.
Just in case we are thinking of relaxing, she says there is another indicator that gave her mild concern, the question of whether there was any chance of spina bifida, an opening in the spinal column which allows fluid to drain out of the fetus. Yes, yes, and…? But Dr. Garber (fils, the street-sweeper guy, a specialist in high-risk pregnancies) says that he is not at all concerned, as he had to pierce the placenta to take a sample in the first place and that would explain the presence of this particular element in the amniotic fluid. The genetics counselor suggested we might want to get over to a hospital and have a really good, high-resolution sonogram to check out the baby completely but Dr. G. said that was total overkill.
So a huge load is basically taken off us, one completely imposed by the process and our ignorance, insecurity, and overdeveloped imaginations. Despite positive results there is plenty for the worrywart in me to still grab onto, plenty of caveats that leave room for doubt. The counselor seems more like a member of the legal profession than the medical one, and this is clearly the case where ignorance would have been far more blissful. Our blood pressure was jacked up, our ulcers were scraped, our nerves set on end, and for no reason. It seems like the more we find out through genetic research the more fucked up this whole process will become. Soon doctors will be able to project the probabilities that a kid will get appendicitis, cavities, zits, and a criminal record. What will we do with that sort of information besides sweat and screw up vacations?
At the moment Mr. Gregory is in Rome; thus, this week’s episode is illustration-free; he did send us a postcard though: