Two weeks after my City Hall wedding ceremony, I start to feel an odd numbness in my fingertips. First, just the pinky finger, almost imperceptibly. It’s hard to trust a loss of sensation. Is my finger falling asleep? Maybe if I just shake my hands out? But slowly, day by day, feeling leaks out of my fingers, diagonally across toward the pointer, each enveloped in thickness. After a few weeks, I’m left with hands that feel dumb and mute.
“They’re like mitts, honey,” I tell my husband, Juan, holding them up like maybe he can see where the feeling has gone.
They look fine. My wedding ring still fits. I can type on the computer at my new job, buckle my shoes, rummage clumsily into my handbag for keys, wallet, cigarettes, lighter. A few weeks of tests culminate in a call from my neurologist as I stand at the gate at JFK Airport, waiting for a flight to take me on my honeymoon.
“You can’t go anywhere,” she says, “your brain is covered with lesions.”
I am to go straight to the hospital. I do as I am told, stumbling to the gate to request a return of my checked bag. The gate attendant doesn’t blink an eye.
It doesn’t take many more days before doctors are clear that what has stolen the sensation from my hands is multiple sclerosis. I quit smoking and take my first shaky step into the new normal. When we go to a specialist for a second opinion, he assures me I can still live a productive life, that I don’t have to be afraid.
“You’re what, 35?” he says. “Are you planning to have children?“ It is urgent that I get started on medication to keep the disease at bay. “If you want a baby, then you should do that first, because you can’t take the meds and be pregnant at the same time.”
I don’t say much. There’s maybe enough capacity to digest that I have a disease that will slowly (maybe not so slowly?) strip the myelin from my brain and spinal cells, leaving me open to a dizzying random range of disabilities (incontinence, blindness, paralysis, loss of language, vaginal prolapse). Now, I’m being advised that I had better hurry up and get pregnant.
Three of my friends get pregnant “accidentally,” in their twenties. Each steps past her astonishment, puts one foot in front of the other, and becomes the mythic thing: a mother. Their choices inspire in me an odd combination of admiration for their courage and frightened revulsion, as if they have a disease that could infect me, too. And it can – I am 24 years old and my period, too, is late. I buy a test, pee on the stick, and almost immediately two unequivocal, bright pink lines emerge. The shock is enough to leave me almost offended. I live with my parents and can’t possibly bring myself tell them – I am pregnant. It barely makes sense. My appointment for an abortion is made within the hour, and less than three weeks will pass between conception and termination. It’s automatic, not a choice between two options. My stern Jamaican mother has never had to tell me that out-of-wedlock pregnancy is not something that is done. I heard her harsh shaming of cousins and the children of acquaintances. Support would not be forthcoming, and I don’t want her support. This is what I assumed I would do if I got pregnant when I wasn’t meant to be. Though I fancy myself in love with my boyfriend, our relationship does not translate to “parents.” I do not want to be a mother.
For two weeks afterwards, I sit huddled each night in front of bad sitcom reruns with a pint of ice cream, awash in hormones and heartache and blood. But it never occurs to me to feel regret. I am lucky enough to be born in an America where women have the right to do as they see fit with their bodies. I could show some gratitude—take my life by the horns and pursue my dreams and never let anything get in my way ever again. But I just go back to the young and confused, not-pregnant person that I was before. There is a lot of time ahead.
I am small, but my appetite for connection is huge. I want long hugs and nicknames, and to be important in someone else’s heart. My best friend Vanessa and I play a game where one of us closes our eyes and lets the other trace letters on her back, to see if we can discern the message. It feels warm and close, whether I can make out the letters or not. My hunger for people and love is an embarrassment to my parents.
“Do you have to call everyone ‘sweetie’? It’s overly familiar,” my mother admonishes me.
They do not embrace or kiss each other. They don’t hug me or my brother much, either. He is sick with asthma all the time, and gets to spend more time in my mother’s lap. He cannot breathe, but still I am jealous.
In high school, my friends and I write long letters to each other and slip them through the slits in our lockers. We observe birthdays like religion. In 10th grade, our classmate Peter kills himself. None of us have ever been to a funeral, and the strict Catholic service is in Korean. We don’t speak the language, but we’re clear that no one says “suicide.” That night, we hold each other a little closer. We love fiercely, as only teenagers can.
I find a place for all that love, working with children in the summers, after school, and when I finish college: small ones, teenaged ones. I teach, advise, help them get into schools better than the ones in their neighborhoods. They pile into my office, all needing more than one or two parents can give. I answer Joel’s angsty, late-night phone calls, fly to Boston for Krys’ graduation. And then there are my friends’ children. I take Manoc and Dele to the movies and out for pizza, run to school to pick up Olivia when her mother is stuck at work. The kids revel in my attention, and it feels good to be an adjunct mother. Choosing the needs that I am good at meeting, I make generous deposits of love and listening, support and sugar. A win for everyone: Auntie Kyla is here.
I live in a little walk-up apartment, full of cigarette smoke, incense, and hand-me-down furniture. My father has died. A collection of unreliable lovers distracts me from grieving. Though I don’t hear it ticking, at 32 years old I know that a biological clock is a real thing. Older women tell me, “Oh you have time!” but I know I may not. No organic hunger for a child has welled up, but if I don’t consider it, will I wake up one day like the teary woman in the iconic Lichtenstein painting, having forgotten to have children? My job pays far less money than I would need to support a child on my own, so I start comparison shopping through my gay friends—who would make the better father? Eitan, my Israeli neighbor who is “manny” to his nephew while waiting for his green card? He’s Jewish, so that’s a plus; my grandparents were Holocaust survivors. All of the members of their immediate families were killed in the War. My father was born in a refugee camp, and I grew up with few relatives. Maybe my kid could have a real Jewish family. Or there’s Brian, my Black restaurateur friend. We have opposite schedules; that could be good for child-rearing, no? I stay up too late each night, smoking and contemplating an unclear future. After writing a prospective “Baby Daddy Questionnaire,” I post it, with what feels like a sense of purpose, on Craigslist, looking for someone who can get it “right.” Question 1: Why do you want to be a father? Question 9: What is your religious background? What would you want to teach a child about religion or God? Question 11: What assets do you possess that you could pass down to a child? While I wait for a response, I answer my own questions—it’s only fair. There are a few responses, but they all want sex. I reply to one man who has composed a impressive, serious, and responsible sounding email, but when we speak it’s clear he just wants sex, too. The questionnaire sits in the folder. It may be time for my eggs, but not for my heart. I never once envision a live baby in my arms.
Then I meet Juan.
We stumble out of the neurologist’s office. Juan squeezes my hand as we walk to the A train. We don’t talk until we get down into the subway.
“Maybe we should think about having our baby now,” he says gently, with a hopeful look. I feel suddenly alone, as though I am standing, stuck at the cold edge of the surf, staring at a tidal wave building and rolling toward me. There are lesions in my brain. My body is now unreliable, life even more unpredictable. Yes, when we got married we said we’d have a baby. I said I’d have one. But now, his optimistic, expectant eyes are almost enough to topple me.
I look at him blankly: “That’s a longer conversation, my love,” I manage.
My brain may be melting, but my body is strong. I lift weights. I run. A girlfriend and I meet three times a week and log many miles together, around the reservoir, along the loop, by the river. We run in Central Park, Prospect Park, on Cape Cod, in Lenox. I run in St. Lucia and Miami and Oakland. Running tells me that for now, I am okay. When I hurt my ankle, I am frustrated and ungrateful. It is an ankle, not a brain, but I want to be able to move and forget about the brain, forget about what might be lurking.
We run and I talk about one thing, the same thing, all the time. Why don’t I want a baby? Do I want a baby? What’s wrong with me that I don’t want a baby? Juan wants a baby. What will happen to my marriage if I never want a baby? I am boring, but my friends are patient. They have questions of their own. One is older than me and cannot conceive. One is freezing her eggs. One loves a man who doesn’t want children. One is a lesbian and cannot decide if she wants to carry a baby, or have her wife do it. We put one foot in front of the other. We run the miles, as if we can burn off the questions. But the questions remain, so we go to brunch.
All the while, Juan waits at home for me to be ready to talk. In the beginning, I wanted to talk, but he didn’t like what I had to say. Then he was ready to talk, but I had no answers, nothing to say. So, we sit next to each other on the couch, we watch movies, and drink wine, and dream of moving to California, and talk about everything but the thing that is wearing out my sneakers as I train five times a week and get faster. I race, and feel good about the times I post—running, running, running away.
My colleague at work, Carol, is 50. I’ve been boring her too. Finally, one day, she tells me:
“Enough, kiddo. Listen, I had a brain tumor at 32 years old. I said I’d never have children, and I regret it. I was just scared. If you know for sure you’ll be fine at my age with no kids, then ignore me. If not, take some advice from an old lady and at least ditch the birth control.”
And for some reason I hear her. After running a half-marathon, I throw out my pills. When people ask if we are trying I reply: I’m having sex with my husband. I refuse to try.
Juan is working in California, 3000 miles away. We have sex when we are together, which is maybe once a month, not always the right time of the month. Even so, it doesn’t take long. Two pink lines look different now. In May, I will be a mother.
When I was little, my father bought me I.B. Singer’s children’s stories. I loved one in particular: Naftali the Storyteller and His Horse, Sus. Singer was a cousin of my grandfather’s, and reading the stories made me feel connected to a past that was lost. The title story didn’t have much plot, but Naftali loved stories, and grew up to be a traveling library and bookstore for the children of the Jewish villages near Warsaw. I loved the Jewish griot that Singer described and held on to the name, to give to a son if I ever had one, to pass down what small Jewish inheritance I had to offer. A Biblical name, it translates from the Hebrew as “my struggle.”
After three days of labor Juan tells me: “We have a son!”
I already know his name.