The 1995 November issue of Life magazine features a soldier with the saddest eyes I’ve ever seen. He holds his son, who will become the unofficial poster child for Gulf War babies. Born without arm bones, the boy has wrists and hands that grow directly out of his shoulders; his legs, once bent and twisted, have been amputated.
I stand at the magazine rack in my company’s employee store, fingers against my barely-pregnant belly. I’m only six weeks along, not even showing yet.
My mind flashes back five years, to when I was a lieutenant with 3rd Armor Division. I traveled through Iraq during the ground war, breathed in smoke from the Kuwaiti oil well fires, and endured all the vaccinations given to soldiers deployed to the Middle East. I even swallowed nerve agent tablets with warm water from my canteen, popping each one from its foil casing, something that always reminded me of taking birth control pills.
Since then, I’ve traded camouflaged uniforms and combat boots for power suits and high heels. Although some days, like today, I’m reminded you can take the girl out of the Army, but you can’t always take the Army out of the girl.
I read the article, my eyes drawn to the photographs of children, no matter how I try to avert them. I leave without buying a copy.
A few weeks later, I can still see those babies, even while Dr. H speaks reassuring words.
“It’s been nearly five years,” he says, “and you haven’t had any symptoms. Have you?”
I shake my head.
“And you’re healthy,” he adds with a wink.
I smile. At the door, he pauses. “I’ll make a note in your chart. If you want an amnio or Level II ultrasound, let me know. I’ll authorize it.”
I nod my thanks. These tests are reserved for women with high-risk pregnancies or advanced maternal age — neither of which I am.
The nurse bustles in. “It’s still very early,” she says. “Don’t worry if we don’t find the heartbeat.” She gives me a stern look. “Okay?”
The KY Jelly cools moments after it hits my skin. She guides the wand back and forth and I hear rhythmic thumping through water.
“That’s you,” she says.
Then there it is, for just a second. Strong, quick, and gone. The nurse chases the sound across my belly and we hear it again.
“Oh, that’s good.” She glances at her watch, counting the beats per minute. “Nice and strong.”
Nice and strong. I close my eyes and memorize the beat of my baby’s heart.
I always thought I’d have one of those do-everything pregnancies. Power-walking and yoga. Working and studying. A picture on the cover of a magazine won’t change that. Charlie Mike, as my husband Bob might say: an Army term for “continue the mission.”
I sign up for grad courses in economics, statistics, and business Russian. Once the baby comes, I won’t have time for these things. Besides, it will help keep my mind off images I can’t completely banish.
Then a routine blood draw at 16 weeks makes my pregnancy less than routine. The alpha-fetoprotein test comes back with elevated levels, which could indicate the baby has an open neural tube defect.
I think about the nerve agent pills. Could they cause something like this? No one has an answer. Procedures that were once special-authorization only are now offered up to us. Would we like an amnio — accurate, but with risk of a miscarriage? Or Level II ultrasounds, which don’t catch everything?
We decide on the Level II ultrasounds.
I feel the baby kick early, fluttering inside me, my own little butterfly. At the first ultrasound, the technician marvels at the baby’s somersaults and she laughs when it takes her twice as long as normal to chart the baby’s growth.
“Do you want to know the sex?” she asks.
“It’s a boy.” On the monitor, she circles part of the baby’s body as proof. I take her word for it, and when the baby brings his hand near his mouth, I smile.
“Look, Mom,” the tech says. “He’s waving at you.”
He is. And I don’t care if the technician is watching. I don’t care if it looks silly.
I wave back.
A late season snow falls as Bob leaves for a week-long business trip. It isn’t that hard to snow blow the driveway. I’ve done it before. My five-months pregnant belly disagrees. I feel something pull – the sensation goes through and around me all at once. At the end of the drive, I stop: I stand, up to my knees in snow, a mittened hand on my stomach.
I wait for the baby to move.
Snowflakes gather in my lashes and I feel the cold against my cheeks. Then there it is, a single flip flop. I survey the lone track I’ve made in the drive and reluctantly ease the snow blower back, inch by inch. In the garage, a cold sweat washes my body. I’m not having one of those do-everything pregnancies.
Later that evening, I watch the snow pile higher while paging through my pregnancy book, my mind more on the chances of getting in to work the next day than the outline of “how you may look” at five months. Something on the page catches my eye, no more than a sidebar, an afterthought in a section I’d already skimmed.
Nothing conclusive, the text assures me. I’m beginning to realize that when it comes to pregnancy, nothing is ever conclusive. But it says that women with elevated alpha-fetoprotein levels may be at higher risk for pre-term labor.
Not conclusive, I think. Not me.
With Memorial Day comes finals, and celebration, but a folding chair is no way for a woman seven months pregnant to enjoy a picnic. The hostess has given me the most comfortable one — and I’m not that big yet — but no matter how I twist or turn, I feel odd. Bob notices my discomfort and we head home, where neither the couch nor bed feels quite right.
The urge to clean hits me early on Saturday morning. When Bob stumbles into the kitchen for a cup of coffee, I’m standing on a chair, scrubbing the top of the refrigerator.
“What are you doing?” he asks.
I give him “the look,” but because it’s early, I follow it with a smile. “Cleaning,” I say.
“I can see that.” He eyes the fridge, then me, and gives my bottom a quick slap. “Don’t work too hard.”
Three hours later, I’ve discovered the floor molding is in sad shape. I’m on hands and knees when Bob’s fingers touch the nape of my neck, sending a chill through me.
“Slow down.” He takes the sponge from my hand. “You’re scaring me.”
He sweeps a strand of hair from my cheek. “Let’s go shopping. Let’s buy something for the baby.”
“Really?” We haven’t, at least not much, not yet. The room upstairs has a fresh coat of paint and new carpet, but that’s it.
We go, but when we return, I wait for Bob to retreat to his office and the computer, then continue my surreptitious cleaning binge.
Tuesday, at work, I can’t pinpoint what I notice first. The dull backache? Or the strange tightening around my waist? I time the sensations with my watch, they come and go, come and go. I call the OB/GYN triage nurse, thinking she’ll soothe my fears, tell me it’s nothing.
She tells me to come in immediately.
At the doctor’s office, I’m led to a back room I’ve never seen before. There in its center is a ratty old recliner. I lie down; the nurses tip me back, and stick electrodes to my belly. I hike up the maternity blouse I’m wearing and tug the pants down a bit. Then they leave me alone, the beep of the monitor my only company.
A nurse comes to check the printout and then Dr. H arrives. It’s official. I’m having contractions three minutes apart.
I’m in pre-term labor.
The same nurse who helped me find the baby’s heartbeat readies a shot. “It’s really asthma medication,” she says. “It relaxes the involuntary muscles. It should stop the contractions.”
A pinprick in my arm, and again, I’m left alone. But they’ve moved the monitor during all this. I can see the printout, and I watch the peaks of my contractions flatten to little blips — still present, but not the angry spikes of ten minutes before.
But the damage has been done. I can’t risk going into labor again or having too many productive contractions. I’m on strict bed rest and medication. No power suits or power walks. I learn about lying on my left side, and drinking water, lots and lots of water — dehydration makes everything worse — and how to count contractions.
Each day is fraught with small but significant choices. Can I risk a shower? Sit at the computer and check the pregnancy forum on CompuServe? Wash a few dishes so there aren’t so many when Bob gets home? Anything could trigger labor. Anything could put my baby at risk.
I decide only two kinds of people experience the agony of solitary confinement — the worst criminals and women on bed rest.
Daytime television makes me cringe. I roll my eyes at soap operas. But from eleven to two each weekday, I watch the home improvement shows on the Discovery Channel. I nest vicariously and watch others do things, while I do the only thing I can at this point: I learn to lie still.
Bob tries to cheer me with something we can do together: a 3D puzzle of Cinderella’s castle. I start with the foundation; Bob, the spires. It’s not long before he accuses me of hoarding pieces beneath my belly.
“Well, I can’t reach those over there.” I point to the far side of the coffee table.
We work in grudging silence until my eyes meet his.
“Want to quit?” I ask.
“Oh, no,” he says. “We’re building this damn castle if it’s the last thing we do.” Despite his grim expression, his eyes hold humor. Charlie Mike, I think.
After we pop in the last piece, Bob rounds the coffee table and kneels at my side.
“So, maybe that wasn’t one of my better ideas.” His hand comes to rest on my stomach. The baby must sense the pressure, because moments later, he kicks, and a grin spreads across Bob’s face.
“What do we do?” he asks.
I don’t have an answer, but for several minutes we stay like that: Bob’s hand on my stomach, both of us still, with only the baby moving inside me.
When Dr. H pronounces me at “term,” I’m free. No more bed rest. But I don’t go into labor right away, I simply have more contractions. At nine months, I waddle back to the office. I’ve used six weeks of disability and the payments drop a level if I don’t work for an entire week before going on maternity leave. In the evening, I continue my couch and water vigil, our newly acquired mortgage on my mind.
At work, I surprise a colleague with my big belly.
“I didn’t know you were pregnant,” she says.
I explain about the pre-term labor and the bed rest.
“Oh!” There’s envy and a little disdain in her expression. “To lie around with nothing to do all day.”
The gulf between “lying around all day” and “being on bed rest” is vast. A contraction tightens my belly and I inhale. I want to tell her everything, explain how at every moment your next move might be the wrong one.
“Did you ever play statues as a kid?” I ask instead.
She gives me an odd look. I think of being whirled around and forced to strike an awkward pose — the last one left holding still wins.
“It’s like that,” I say, “only lying down.”
One week and one day after returning to work, my belly contracts with serious intent. I’m at my desk, one hand on the keyboard, the other on my stomach. Go home, the triage nurse tells me over the phone. When the contractions are three to five minutes apart, we head for the hospital.
After 12 hours of labor — or two months, depending on how you look at it — Andrew is born. The nurse is wiping him down when Bob, nearly as sweaty as I am, speaks.
“What’s this? What’s on his wrist?”
The room freezes. The doctor looks at the popped blister on Andrew’s wrist, his expression puzzled. I sit up — barely — and think. Then it hits me.
“The ultrasound.” I mimic Andrew’s hand by his face posture.
The nurse laughs. “He must have been sucking on his wrist in the womb.”
Later, after Bob passes out on a folding cot, the nurse offers to take Andrew to the nursery or place him in the bassinet. I’m lying on my left side, with Andrew tucked next to me. I can’t imagine being without his warm baby smell, so I tell the nurse I’m fine. She shuts the door behind her. I lie still. It isn’t hard.
I’ve had lots of practice.