D Is for Daughter

flying
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Tamiko Nimura

I am the straight leg of a capital D: leaning towards the curved window and wall of an airplane, insistent, staring at the arc of the horizon. I’m in between deep space and blue sky and white clouds and brown earth. I have to tell myself to stop holding my breath. The sun keeps setting faster as I fly east, towards the hospital where you, my niece, are about to be born. It’s getting darker and darker.

•••

Last week your uncle Josh called me, walking to his bus stop in Seattle after work. He was on his way back to Tacoma, where we live. His voice was uncharacteristically high and tight, and he was slightly out of breath. “My grandpa died,” he said.

“Oh, hon,” I said. Exhaled. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” he said, but he hesitated.

I took a deep breath, too. From the first time I met him some twenty years ago, Grandpa Dave greeted me with an exclamation point, every time, every year: “Hey, Tamiko!” he’d say, and give me a big hug.

•••

What it has meant for me to live in this space where death and birth follow each other so closely? It has felt like both parts of a capital D: the straight rigid line, the soft curving out, both lines working together to create an open space. Something like a mouth. Something like the halves of an ancient chapel door. Something sacred.

•••

I’m flying from Washington State, where I live with my family: your uncle Josh, your cousins, who are my daughters. All of us can’t wait to meet you for the first time. I’ve had your first picture, a fuzzy ultrasound, on my desk in our kitchen. I’m flying down the West Coast to the Bay Area, where your mother and father went to school. From there I’ll take a different plane that travels south over Monterey, where your parents were married, then make a left and head farther south and east into Texas. I’ll return to Seattle after that. The round trip looks like a D on the map. D for death? I think and quickly push the thought away.

•••

The day before my flight, I was on a freeway ramp, racing back from a meeting to pick up your cousins from school. I got a series of texts from your mother. She was going to the hospital to be induced, she said, because a number of risk factors indicated the increased possibility of stillbirth. My anxiety skyrocketed. I started to make myself breathe deeply, calling on every single mind-trick that I knew from yoga to calm myself down.

•••

Maternal deaths in childbirth are much less frequent these days, but somehow I can’t help but project into the very worst-case scenario. Your mother and I already lived through some of the worst together, when our father died so many years ago. She was six years old, and I was ten. If I am facing the prospect of your death or your mother’s, it is because your mother and I met death intimately as children. The worst and unthinkable has already happened to us, and so death never feels very far from me.

•••

During the first part of the trip, I can’t think about very much else but you. I don’t know just when you’ll arrive, but I know you’re really on your way now. On the plane ride I sip plastic cups of ginger ale, refuse the snack mixes. I’ve just turned to a chapter in the book I’m reading. Believe it or not, the chapter is called “It’s A Girl!” But as it turns out, the child in the book is stillborn. I breathe out. I close the book, put it in the seat pocket in front of me. D is for daughter.

I don’t want anything like stillbirth hovering close to your arrival. But the word’s been mentioned by doctors often enough that the specter’s there anyway. Until now I haven’t known that kind of haunting, the specific terror that your uncle Josh felt during both of my pregnancies: the terror of something bad happening to mother or child or both. He hid it well. I was too focused inward to notice, towards growing and welcoming life.

•••

On the plane I’m thinking about a character from a TV show that your mama and I both adore: Downton Abbey. In one episode, a much-loved sister dies of complications from her daughter’s birth. In my mind I am watching that episode, watching a loop of that endless minute, watching that character shudder through a violent seizure and die.

•••

Our grandfathers died before your mother and I were born. Adoptive grandfathers were special to us. So Grandpa Dave was one of the only grandpas I knew, even though he was really your uncle Josh’s grandfather. At ninety-two, Grandpa had lived a beautifully long life. He retired some thirty-five years ago, spent most of his retirement at his own house and at his daughter’s house in the very last few years. He lived to see many grandchildren and even several of his great-grandchildren.

Grandpa Dave and I connected very early after we met, most often through food. Cooking food with him and for him—he loved to watch me cook with Josh, together—was one of the greatest pleasures of our trips home. He cured his own olives, grew and harvested his own avocados. His daughters and grandchildren used to call him every Christmas morning to talk about how many raviolis they’d made together at their houses. Grandpa Dave loved trying sukiyaki and egg rolls from our family’s New Year’s gatherings and he loved my family’s recipe for teriyaki sauce. Food was central to his life as it has been in mine, good simple food. He grew up with very little, but savored so much.

•••

Caught one plane, about to catch another, I am still tense. I don’t watch the news on the TV screens. Only later do I find out about the attacks in Paris and Beirut. Instead, I walk miles in the airports so I can walk through some of that tight energy. I am taut like a bow before it’s released the arrow, I am the arrow flying towards you. Are you here yet?

•••

At the end, Grandpa didn’t have any prolonged suffering or hospital stays. He woke up one morning feeling badly. He had difficulty breathing. He just didn’t come back from the emergency room that day. And in the grand scale of deaths, his was as good a death as might be wished.

For the holidays we will go to California to visit our families, as we do every year. But I can’t believe I’m not going to be able to hug Grandpa in his flannel shirt, watch him take off his glasses, see him rub his forehead, hear the exclamation point in his voice.

•••

In storytelling rules, this is where I should probably talk about your mama—my little sister—and how much I love her. I can tell you about her first cries, all the way from the delivery room and in the elevator and into the nursery. I was four years old. I can tell you where I was sitting on the couch in our childhood house when I held her for the first time.

I should tell you more about what and who is at stake if she dies. But I can barely write those last three words. There are not enough words to tell you about my love for my little sister. This is where my words leave me.

•••

I am talking about Grandpa’s death as a “good death,” as if I can manage my grief away by talking about his loss as something good. And there’s a part of me that thinks I’m a terrible aunt for mentioning his death in a letter to you. Death and a newborn baby? As if any mention of the two in the same pages, much less the same paragraph or sentence, will tarnish this new life for you. The hard truth is that they’re not so far apart, after all.

•••

Once I had to say goodbye to a yoga teacher, a teacher that I really loved, without her knowing I was saying goodbye. I hadn’t realized just how much I loved those classes until I knew I wouldn’t see her anymore. I knew she was leaving before anyone else in the class. In fact, I don’t even think she knew I knew. But yoga is one of the best places to hold space, and this teacher was so good at creating and holding space for her students to feel deeply. She talked about the strength it takes to let go. So I sat, allowing myself to feel a deep sadness for an hour and a half. Not trying to escape it, not trying to fix it or numb it.

That hour might have been the first time I welcomed grief. Now I can think back to that class, that teacher, that shadowed room with its pale yellow walls, and I am grateful. I wonder how many are able to hold space for the hard questions. How do we say goodbye to a life? How do we welcome a new life? To keep the heart open enough and long enough to do these things with love? I think part of the answer’s in the breath.

•••

It’s early evening and I’ve left the sunset far behind on the West Coast. I’m here at the Austin airport, texting, trying to find out where you and your mother are. I check Facebook, and somehow, there’s a green dot, saying that your mama is online. “Oh,” your mama writes. “You’re here early. Baby’s not here yet.”

•••

These last couple of weeks have felt like living among the raw edges of death and birth. But maybe this is how we all live, so many of us unaware most of the time.

When you choose to feel your emotions, a wise woman has said, you can’t just choose to feel the good ones. You have to feel the good ones and the bad ones. I am learning how to un-numb myself, then, even as I write this sentence to you. Feeling a deep grief at Grandpa Dave’s death, I can feel that kind of deep joy over you. They are all tangled up together, my grief and joy. I wish you could have met him. He would have welcomed you, too.

•••

It’s Saturday morning, the day after I’ve landed in Texas. Several hours in the waiting room, a couple of hundred feet from where you are. Other fathers are coming out from behind double doors, being greeted by family members with balloons and flowers. Your grandmother and I are still waiting, jumping every time those double doors open.

At last, a picture appears on my phone from your daddy. And there you are, little one. You are all soft curves, sleeping. To see your face: the faces of my babies. A few hours later, holding you, I see your mama’s face: my baby sister’s face when she was a baby. How incredible just to watch you breathe.

On your first day, I am finally bending after so many waiting hours of sitting straight. I am curving towards you. We are breathing together and I am whispering to you: this is life, this is life, this is life.

•••

TAMIKO NIMURA is a freelance writer living in Tacoma, Washington. She is a contributing writer for Discover Nikkei, the International Examiner, and the Seattle Star. Recent writing has appeared in HYPHEN, The Rumpus, and Full Grown People. Find more of her writing at tamikonimura.net.

 

Read more FGP essays by Tamiko Nimura.

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This Body

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Zsofi McMullin

The first time the trainer tells me to put my hands on my side and feel my abdominal muscles work, I can’t help but laugh. The only thing I feel are rolls of fat and loose skin. This is not really a surprise—I haven’t exercised in a good decade or more and expecting any muscle activity in my middle region seems silly. For weeks on end, I don’t even feel the effects of doing sit-ups or crunches. It’s like there are no muscles there to feel sore.

Recently I’ve been pushing my body—I am not even sure why. I’ve always hated exercise. I never felt the rush of adrenaline, I never enjoyed the sweat, the effort, the hassle. But something clicks this time around—is it turning forty? Is it fear that the achy knee every morning will lead to more serious issues? Is it wanting to run and swim and climb with my six-year-old? I suppose it is a bit of everything.

I feel my body go into that zone—not entirely under my control, pushing beyond what my mind would encourage under normal circumstances. My mind is more likely to whisper “go, sit on that couch, and have a piece of chocolate and a glass of wine.” But this body pushes on, struggling, jiggling, losing balance, and unglamorously dripping in sweat.

I still hate the sweat and the hassle. But the trainer on the videos is not entirely hateful and her mantras soon take on meanings beyond exercise: “If you want something you’ve never had, you have to do something you’ve never done.” “Don’t wish for it, work for it.”

•••

The night before Sam is born, I feel like an animal. I spend the night curled up in an armchair, leaning forward to take the pressure off my aching back. I build a small fort, placing pillows around me and on the coffee table in front of me so I can rest my arms and head. I stay like this for hours, not asleep but not fully awake either, just conscious enough to record the start and end of each contraction.

My friends who are pregnant at the same time have elaborate birth plans that involve doulas and hot tubs and yoga balls and no drugs. My birth plan includes getting through the whole ordeal feeling as little of it as possible. I want every possible drug and intervention.

Sam is born fast—no time for an epidural or any other drug to take effect. It is the last day of the year—a snowstorm kicks up outside; the sky is eerily pink and it is a Blue Moon.

My body takes over and I feel terrified by the force and inevitability of muscles contracting, skin stretching, ribs being kicked and pushed from within. There is nothing I can do to stop this baby from violently forcing its way out of me. I can breathe and push—or not—the result will be the same. I am terrified of pushing, but I can’t help it. My body does it for me and all I can do is hold on and look at the snow and bare my teeth at the nurse who is yelling at me to push harder.

But weirdly, there is no pain. At least none that I can remember now. Or not pain like a pulled muscle or a headache or a sore throat. The pain is bigger than that, almost beyond feeling. And then so much relief when it’s finally, finally over. In a haze after my baby emerges, I ask the nurse to see the placenta—she reaches into the bucket on the floor between my legs and lifts up the entire sack that my baby lived in for nine months. I am almost more fascinated by it than by the baby lying so quietly in his warming cot—the baby who is no longer a part of my body.

This body grew the one thing to nurture the other.

•••

In my exercise videos the trainer always tells you what exact muscles to engage during certain exercises. The core muscles to protect your back; the biceps to help out your shoulders, the calves and knees to support you as you lift heavier weights.

It takes time to learn to locate all of these muscles. This is news to me. How do you know when your “pelvis is tucked” or whether you are “squeezing your glutes” or “engaging your back” or “exploding through your arms” or “shooting energy through your calves,” when these are not things that you do on a regular basis?

But I do feel the difference—suddenly, I feel pain where I am supposed to, or “feel the burn,” as the trainer puts it. Muscles tighten, sweat drips, breath quickens—even though you are supposed to slow down and control your breathing. When you are in pain, you know you are doing it right.

I wonder if it works like that for the heart. Can I choose to engage it or not? Can I learn to flex or tighten just certain parts of it at certain times to protect it from injury? When it hurts, does it mean I am using it correctly, that all of its muscles are fully functional, aligned, doing what they are supposed to be doing?

•••

I miss being unaware of my body. I can’t remember when that was—maybe in my twenties?—when my body just did what it was supposed to do and I never gave it a second thought. I didn’t think about my weight or about being healthy or eating healthy, or whether I should exercise or not. I didn’t think about whether my stomach was too big to wear that shirt or if those jeans will make my butt look big. My body was just there, doing its thing. It never protested, it didn’t put on ten pounds in one stressful year. It didn’t ache, it didn’t bloat, it didn’t feel heavy and stiff in the mornings. It just was.

I appreciate that blitheness now when I try to run up the stairs too fast or when I lift my arm and there is that extra bit of jiggle or when I run my fingers across the stretch-marks on my belly and that little extra pooch that’s there from having a baby—next to the other little pooches from too much Haagen-Dazs.

Why keep doing something that is painful? Why does the body want to stop so badly and why am I trying to convince it to not stop? Is it to build a stronger core, hoping that it will hold me up—longer, straighter, leaner? “It doesn’t get easier, you just get stronger,” says the peppy trainer and I want to believe that she is right.

•••

By the time I cross the bridge over the Main river in Frankfurt, I have a good rhythm. I see the old church tower in the distance, my destination, and I focus on it step after step. My skin prickles against the cold, damp day. My cheeks feel flushed and my hair whips around my face. I pick up a chestnut at the foot of the bridge, under a tall chestnut tree, and I roll its smooth skin between my fingers in my pocket as I walk.

Maybe it’s the jetlag, or maybe it’s the cold, or maybe it’s the excitement of walking in a foreign city—suddenly I am aware of my body moving through these streets. I feel the cobblestone on my soles through my sneakers, my calves stretching, knees bending, thighs tightening. I feel the cold air rush into my lungs. I think of how odd it is that just twelve hours earlier I was in New York and now I am walking here, a half a world away, across this river.

Just twenty-four hours ago, I was snuggled in bed with my son—warm and sleepy. Just before that, I was in bed with my husband; just before that, at work, or exercising, or having coffee with a friend or walking down the aisles at the grocery store. And days and months before that, my body was walking on sandy beaches and shady hiking trails in Maine; along busy streets in London and Budapest and New York.

And years and years before that, my body was caressed by lovers, cut open by surgeons; it rested and moved; it developed breasts and curves; it grew tall with solid bones; it learned to walk, to crawl, to sit up. It emerged from my mother.

But on this day, this body is walking on gray, misty, medieval streets, carrying along all of its experiences. I feel it all rush past me and through me and I try to imagine where this body will be in a few hours, days, weeks, months, years.

•••

One morning Sam sits on the floor and plays while I huff and puff away during my thirty-minute workout in the living room. He watches me, then the screen. When I’m done and I flop on the couch with my water bottle, he curls up to my side. He is still in his PJs—it’s a Saturday. His long, thin body has filled out over the summer, but he still somehow finds the right position to tuck himself as close to me as possible. His hand is on my belly, one leg across mine.

“Mama,” he starts, “are you going to be as straight as those people on the TV?”

It takes me a moment to realize that he means “skinny.” “Well, no, probably I will never be as straight,” I answer. “But I will be straighter, hopefully, if I keep up the work.”

Sam seems pacified for the moment. “Okay, because I want my mama to be soft and round and warm.”

•••

Change is hard to detect—the definition of muscle against flab; the way inches melt off; the way things become tighter, lifted, lighter. It is discouraging, really, that so much work produces such little effect at first. “You have to take it one day at a time, one pound at a time,” the trainer announces cheerfully. And I do. I really don’t have a choice.

On Facebook I’m part of a workout challenge group and I look at sweaty pictures of other women and watch their transformation from before to after. I don’t take any photos of my body and I definitely don’t post them, but I’d like to think that the same is happening to me, even if it is imperceptible to my eyes.

And I wonder whether eventually the downfall of my body will happen like this as well—one freak, aging cell at a time, unnoticeable to the naked eye, but inevitable and out of my control, just like giving birth.

•••

ZSOFI MCMULLIN is a writer with recent essays in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Butter, and several other online publications. She blogs at http://zsofiwrites.com and she is on Twitter as @zsofimcmullin. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People.

Read more FGP essays by Zsofi McMullin. (And, hey, this very one is nominated for a Pushcart Prize!)

Hope Floating

baby
By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By Robin Schoenthaler

I was forty, and single, and pregnant, and jubilant. I blossomed during a perfect pregnancy and then proceeded to give birth to a beautiful baby boy I named Ryan Peter Schoenthaler, eight pounds twelve ounces and twenty-one gorgeous inches long. He died nine days later in my arms, still and cool.

I buried that boy on a sunny hillside in a tiny casket designed to look like a bassinet, and by the time I stumbled out of the cemetery, I was a dead woman walking. Some days I couldn’t keep my eyes open; other days I could barely speak. I dreamed in adjectives: impossible, unbearable, unimaginable; I woke up with verbs: pulverized, imploding, eviscerated.

Two years later, I gave birth to a boy named Kenzie James. I got through the pregnancy and birth through denial, plain and simple, with one permanent pricetag: nine months of total amnesia. Of that period of pregnant pause, I remember OJ Simpson and I remember grinding my teeth, and that is really all.

Three miscarriages and three years later, when my last son came along—Cooper Craig Schoenthaler—I was wholly awake and fully attentive and I remember everything. Of the six pregnancies, I am left with one birth story.

Cooper was delivered by Cesarean section. An average C-section takes six or seven minutes from incision to delivery; Kenzie’s took an endless half-an-hour; Cooper, eleven minutes. Eleven minutes to a lifetime.

I lay there while they opened me up again, floating along the arc-line that had gradually and irrevocably led me to this scene—lying flat on my back in a yellow room with bright lights. I was a woman physician under the care of women who started out just like me, women who struggled over books and tests and money and hostile men in positions of power for years at a time and who now put their bodies and souls on the line.

I remember my obstetrician Sharon coming to my hospital room at midnight to attend Ryan’s brain-dead baptism. I picture her holding my hand in the NICU that night and then again and again over the next five years. I think of all the phone calls: I would sob and she would let me make any appointment any time as I worked through the surviving of survivorship.

I think of all the tables I have laid on and all the doctors I have seen—a long line, a stately procession—giving me good news and bad news and no news at all. I think of Ryan’s delivery and his death. I think of how I lifted his body straight up above me, offering him to the sky. I think of Sharon two years later holding Kenzie aloft, in triumph, a giddy elevation of child-spirit, a peak moment, a crystal. I think of the dim light in Ryan’s NICU room where his soul sailed away, and the bright lights in Kenzie’s delivery room when his soul sailed in.

I think of the night light that Kenzie uses—how at three he is already such a singular little person who wants to look at books alone at night, how his soul is full of light and always has been. I feel the presence of both Kenzie and Ryan very distinctly within me,  as well as a whole line of women who have given birth before me—my grandmothers and my friends, my mom and all the bereaved women in books and on buses.

I listen to the heartbeat monitors and think of Ryan’s heartbeat ceasing and Kenzie’s frantic heartbeat when he’s feverish and the roaring in my ears each time I miscarried and I can’t help but compare them to the steady beat-beat-beat that is my own heart’s rhythm in this room at this moment.

It’s a long eleven minutes.

Then I hear Sharon start to croon. In seemingly an instant, she again holds one of my sons aloft in the light. The overhead lamps create an aura, a halo, an embrace and I experience blindness reversed as the light heightens every pore and every limb and Cooper is outlined in beauty, screaming shrieking bloody beauty. He is alive, he is aquiver, he is a soul.

They bring him to me wrapped up and warm. I get my first good hard look at him: he is red-faced and dumbstruck, and I am the same.

I reach for him. No one says a word. The room is quiet; it feels like an altar. There’s no heart monitor machines now, no barking loudspeakers, just the murmuring of Sharon and her partner, and the nurses counting sponges. I kiss Coop over and over—his perfect cheeks, perfect skin, perfect neck. He turns to me when I speak.

I lay there with this miracle in my arms, flooded with all that can happen over the course of half a decade. I remember the long period after Ryan’s death when a pain-free interval seemed impossible, when anguish never ended and never waxed or waned.

But I realize, lying there, that somehow, somewhere, something carried me through. It is too strong to call it “hope”: there was no hoping back then. It’s too strong to say it was anchored in me—it was not. But it must have floated, in and out, with the moon, or with the seasons, or maybe with each breath.

Because something helped me hear the muffled words that sometimes bounced off the sheer rock cliffs of my pain. I began to hear the voices in the cemeteries I visited—voices of mothers who murmured that if I could just keep breathing long enough the tunneled darkness might begin to lift. I began to see the anguish of my cancer patients in terms of cells defying death. I began to connect myself to a humanity bound up with suffering—plague victims, war dead, road kill, religious martyrs, and most of all a long line of women who had keened over children in caskets.

Something had taken hold of me. It wasn’t optimism or confidence or faith in an equitable universe—that was gone and would never come back.

It was much fainter: a tiny turning, a whispered murmur, a miniature red berry lying deep and dormant. But the berry dropped a seed and the seedling took. A tiny bud appeared and on it there must have been a drop of dew, and that was where I let that little thing that must have been hope float. I never touched it, I never named it, I really never even knew it was there. I just let it float. I let my hope float. I let my hope float on an impossibly tiny bud and now I had another son, I had two more sons.

They move us to the recovery room where it is dimly lit and quiet. Cooper nurses. I am pain-free and at a level of peace that is hard to describe to this world. I curl up on the gurney in the darkened recovery room, all dreamy sated senses.

Eventually the nurse and I begin to chat. She remembers Ryan well. “Every time I pass Room 428 I think of all the flowers you left behind,” she tells me. Then we coo about Cooper, how beautiful he is and already such a good nurser and so alert and connected and smart.

She tells me then about her own difficulties with conceiving, her doubts and how frightened she has become. I can so completely relate to this young woman at the beginnings of yet another long trail. She says to me, “We’ve tried so hard to have a baby, but I’m afraid to keep trying. How did you keep your hope alive?”

I start to tell her, but I hesitate. I’m suddenly tired beyond imagining, my eyes and limbs feel weak and I am nearly asleep. I murmur, “Just let it float.” She says, “Hope Floats? Isn’t that a movie?” and I giggle into the pillow.

Lying there laughing, I feel them like a flash flood, the raw and precious lives that led us here: the lives where pain has a beginning but anguish has an end, where seasons start and berries fall, where there are voices that can pierce the darkness and where cells that split can mean life in one year and death in the next and where there are webs that connect us with our ancestors and that in the darkest winter there are buds that can act as cradles and that hope may not spring eternal but that it can absolutely float.

•••

ROBIN SCHOENTHALER is a writer/mom/physician (the order varies by the day) who lives outside Boston with her sons Kenzie and Cooper. They are now seventeen and fourteen, and Ryan, had he lived, would be a freshman in college. Her website is www.DrRobin.org.

In Praise of Synthetic Vaginas

uterusembroidery
Photo by Hey Paul Studios/ Flickr

by Catherine Newman

Because a blow-up doll will surely take up too much room in the bed, what I really want is a syngina. You’ll want one too, trust me. Go ahead and Google it. You’re going to be like, “Wait! I’m not a tampon manufacturer needing to test absorbency!” That’s okay. I’m not either. My interest in a synthetic vagina is purely personal. I plan to deploy it as an occasional stand-in for my real vagina, the same way a college may hire an adjunct to replace a professor on sabbatical—with the sabbatical being taken, in this case, by my own weary crotch.

Heterosexuality is a bizarre and perverted phenomenon. Whose idea was it to combine reproduction with sex? Because it was a bad one. At forty-four, after more extreme reproductive experiences than you could count on my nipple hairs, sex feels about as festive to me as a Ferris wheel erected in a cemetery. It’s thrilling, sure, and the views are great, but it’s also just plain weird, and sometimes kind of sad and scary.

In the twenty-five years that Michael and I have been together, I have peed on one gazillion pregnancy tests, give or take. I have thrilled to positive and negative results both, to plus signs and minus signs, double lines and single lines and subtle ombre shiftings of color, as well as the subtle absence of this shifting of color, from white to blue, or white to pink, or white to some other shade of white, and “Honey, are these two colors the same color or not?” (“Um. You mean the white and, uh, the white?”) I have also wept over positive and negative results both. I have thrilled to a positive test, my heart briefly soaring, mere moments before sighing and picking up the phone to call Planned Parenthood. I have wept over a negative pregnancy test, cried for the baby I didn’t want but now wouldn’t get to have, mere moments after clasping my hands in prayer that it would be negative.

Wanted pregnancies have devolved into bloody phlegm, me on my hands and knees on the bathroom tiles, keening, or me propped up in bed, munching on a donut with sticky equanimity. Unexpected pregnancies have progressed into toast-induced vomiting and colossally pendulous hemorrhoids, and then into babies who braced themselves stubbornly against my pelvis and had to be forcibly excavated with scalpels and sections, my belly traversed by a transcontinental railroad of staples and stitches. An unwanted pregnancy was terminated with suction and ad hoc Slavic-inflected counseling (“You khev heared of diaphragm?”), with a stupor of grief and relief and Valium, watching The Bird Cage with Michael and snorting laughter out of my nose at all the funny parts. “You would normally have hated this movie,” he said, and I said, “I know,” and shrugged pleasantly from beneath the drugs. Grief morphed briefly into regret, morphed back, later, to relief. (That anybody would use the fact of grief or regret as an argument against reproductive rights always strikes me as short-sighted. Should every potentially regrettable choice be illegal? Marriage, paint colors, teetery t-strap sandals? Having sex or a baby? Ordering a second basket of fries or a third mojito?)

I have squinted at an ultrasound with my mystified gynecologist until she clapped and said “There!” and pointed to the IUD listing over at the edge of my withered whoopee cushion of a uterus. “Probably not a great fit for you,” she said, adding, superfluously, “birth-control-wise.”

I have had allergic reactions in the vagina, to latex, lambskin, and spermicide. I have had literally dozens of yeast infections and figuratively millions of UTIs. When I explained to my ten-year-old daughter that women get more bladder infections than men, she said, wisely, “Well sure. With women, it’s like you’re walking right into the house. Men have a kind of a mudroom.”

My body is a wonderland. If, by “wonderland,” you mean mismatched breasts like a hedgehog family’s deflating air mattresses. If you mean brown, rubbery nipples that appear to have been pilfered from a 1970s-era baby bottle before getting glued on. It’s not just regular aging—like the fact that my neck looks like somebody’s ill-cared-for scrotum. It’s not the constellations of moles and acne and wrinkles, like a crazed galaxy spanning multiple eons. It’s that my body is like a beautiful and terrible reproductive neighborhood. Sexuality is in the mix, sure, but it’s a flowering window box on a condemned building, with the wrecking ball swinging noisily in the background.

I weep and rage. I’m sad sometimes, or overcome with joy. I fill up, spill over with nostalgia: These silver c-section scars! These golden children! The blinding lights of my life, who bring me to my knees with love, a thousand times a second. I shudder and burst into tears and cry until I laugh.

And Michael? Michael just comes and comes. He has experienced this same twenty-five years as a more or less happy collection of orgasms, as if he’s the simple hydraulic version of a senselessly complicated machine. He has also seduced and delighted, to be sure. Baffled and alarmed, he has held me while I wept. He has fathered two beautiful children in a beautiful way. But for him, sex is still about, of all things, pleasure. It is not a holy act of grief-stricken joy. It is not exhibit A in a report about PTSD, or a tearful, garter-belted clown in a postmodern circus. He does not cling to my neck, weeping, “This is how we made our babies.” His cheerful seed sprays hither and yon. And I hate to begrudge him.

Thus the syngina. I’ll put my novel down, even, and turn towards him willingly, my fake vagina at the ready. I won’t worry, for the thirtieth year in a row, about getting pregnant. I won’t experience full-body flashbacks. I’ll just smile and encourage and my vagina will wink at me, like a retiring police horse, before its blameless and well-earned rest.

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CATHERINE NEWMAN is the author of the book Waiting for Birdy and the blog benandbirdy.blogspot.com, where she writes about parenting her kids and feeding her family.