When we meet on Venice Beach, Jen wears the off-white capris that she lent me when I was pregnant. Her belly peeks out above them, a little pop of flesh, the size of a small jug. She sees me notice it and bites her lip, so I keep my eyes on the blinding tarmac, as if we’re actually headed somewhere, instead following her vague request to walk by the ocean.
It would be good for me, she told me on the phone, and I hastened to agree. Anything you need.
It would be good, she repeated with less conviction.
Since we’re both from landlocked New England towns, it shouldn’t surprise me that even today, on the western edge of California, we can’t find the waves. We have our two toddlers with us, and their strollers have forced us to take the smooth, flat bike path. The surf crashes far away from it, beyond yards and yards of beach.
We reach a little playground. Her son Liam erupts from his seat and trots toward the ladder to the slide. My son doesn’t move, so after a moment I lift him out and set him in a swing. He looks like a limp blond doll, his pale arms flopping over the harness. I push. His smile is nervous.
I ask Jen how she is going to do it.
She presses her fingers to her eyes and tells me that she will dilate with a chemical stimulus and go through labor. The pain medication is up to her. “But I don’t want to have to wait for an epidural to wear off,” she says. “I can’t imagine sitting in the maternity ward afterward, wanting to go.”
My son whines. I pluck him out of the swing, but the black rubber won’t come loose from his hips. I lift him higher, the chains grating under my elbows. Finally the seat falls free and we are left, clinging to each other.
“How will he …” I pause, not wanting to say it.
“He’ll die coming down the birth canal,” Jen replies curtly. “He has no lungs.”
She looks away toward Liam. He has her brown hair, her high cheekbones. She must see herself every time she glances at him. Right now he crouches on the last rungs of the jungle gym ladder with the sturdy grace of a two-year-old, his red shoes lodged and hands clenched, going neither forward nor back.
“I bet he’s stuck,” she says, heading his way. Her walk is slow, her body conscious of the changes at its center.
I carry my son back to the thin stripe of shade from a palm tree. His medication makes him sensitive to the sun, and besides he isn’t playing. He just wants me to hold him. It’s what he always wants since he first contracted a mysterious gastrointestinal illness four months ago, just before his first birthday. Bleeding ulcers line his digestive tract, making him weak, anemic, unable to chew and swallow. We may not be able to walk or talk together, but we are champions of embracing, my son and I. We’ve perfected it through the hospital stays, the blood transfusions, and the new liquid diet that means my husband and I can’t eat around him because it makes him cry.
As we two stand waiting, he runs his soft hands up the back of my neck. I curve mine down around his hips. Our bellies and ribs touch, and beneath them our thumping hearts. After months of this airborne hug, I feel like I have a notch at my waist that only he fits into, and when I walk around without him I am strangely light.
Liam makes the last step to the slide and whooshes down the yellow plastic. He cheers. He’s clearly fine playing independently, so Jen walks back to us. She’s always had the whitest, purest skin, but today there is a rough layer over it, like the grit on drying cement. Her green eyes won’t focus.
“I could be put under, but I decided I needed to be awake for it,” she says. “Have you ever had anesthesia? You wake up feeling like no time has passed.”
It’s been a week since her ultrasound, since she first saw the hole in his diaphragm, the heart beating on the wrong side of the body. It’s been days since the surgeon told her the likelihood of survival was no higher than ten percent. She had a choice and she had to make it fast: Keep the baby and risk his probable suffering and death, or end the pregnancy now, at five and a half months.
We decide to keep walking. My son slumps in his stroller while Liam leaps from concrete curb to concrete curb, smiling and whipping a deflated balloon on a ribbon. Jen tells me it’s his latest favorite toy. Bikers flash past us, heading toward the great white Ferris wheel of the Santa Monica pier. “We probably won’t get there,” she says, “but it’s worth a try.”
As we stutter along, I gaze at the wheel’s giant curves, the spokes, the dangling cars. It has one purpose: to lift us above the ocean and the hazy city. Without our awe, it’s just a circle going nowhere, spinning and spinning against the sky.
I don’t want to be a sorry person. I don’t want us to be sorry people, two hardy New England women, two good mothers, two faithful wives. But while Jen talks about having a plan for afterward, for when she is no longer making choices about this baby, and must start again to make choices for herself, all I can hear is the whir and whine of my own life since the disease has taken over. I hear my traitorous voice to her on the phone the other day, take it from the mother of a sick child–I said, and then I couldn’t finish.
My son makes a small needy noise. I grab his “milk” and lift it to his mouth. I know it is not what he wants, but I can offer nothing else. He drinks a tiny sip and then shoves the cup away, his blue eyes leaden.
“No milk?” I hate my bruised and tentative tone. “No milk?”
I hold the spout to his lips again. He whips his head away, raising the wand of his arm and whacking the lid. There are scars on his hands from the last blood-draw. I watch myself catch the cup before it spills.
“He never drinks enough,” I say to Jen, but she is calling after Liam, who has run in the path of the cyclists. He stops and stares back. He is the height of a fire hydrant and just as solid. I envy that she can provide him what mothers are supposed to provide–food, drink, sleep, love–and that is enough for him to grow and flourish. It is difficult to describe how deeply I envy this. I envy it with my arms and my breasts and the hole in my body where I grew my son.
“It’d be nice to actually be by the water,” Jen says.
I nod. Isn’t that what we wanted? A walk by the sea?
I heft my son and she herds hers and we push the empty strollers into the sand. Their wheels sink into the soft white finery, sludging and grinding. I remember how my father taught me to put a board beneath a snow-stuck tire to stop it from digging itself deeper. He taught me and I must have forgot, because I know I’ve seen a hole grow, the tire whining, the air around it widening through the snow, then the earth, chucking up hunks of grass and black mud.
The sand burns where it grazes the tops of my feet. I shove. Jen shoves. My son’s small torso curls into me, rib to rib, his confiding hand on the back of my neck.
Take it from the mother of a sick child, I said the other night and then I trailed off because the next words were ones I could not utter: You could save him from suffering.
I believe she’s making the right choice.
I don’t believe we can save anything from suffering.
I want to tell her this, but instead I watch her body balk at making another step, and I can’t go any further, either. Suddenly we’re retreating in tandem, each of us dragging our stroller, clog and lurch, then finally rolling free. Back on the path, we stop again, hoisting our sons, setting them down. The shadows on her face have deepened their hold, and in each of them something impossibly small is moving.
There is an ugly term for what my friend is about to do. In courts and legislative bodies, people are fighting over her right to make this decision. They are debating in the abstract about life and death, and the deepest questions of motherhood. I will never be able to think of the latter as abstractions again. Here is Jen, standing with her little keg of a belly, with her breasts that ache and mind that can’t sleep, gripping the hand of her son so he won’t run in the path of the cyclists. The waves crash behind her, out of sight. I hear them all the way back to the street, all the way to my child’s crib that night, smashing to pieces under the soft treble of his breath. For days after, I hear the sea washing my ears. First I rub them to try to get it out, and then I just listen to its dark and immense power.