31 weeks and counting, we were on our way to another sonogram. We needed to check on Max’s kidney because he had hydronephrosis, the dilation of the kidney due to built-up fluid. The doctors said they didn’t know what was causing it at the time, but I did, I knew. A congenital ureteropelvic junction obstruction, because I just had surgery to correct the same thing.
Basically, it’s just a blockage between the kidney and the ureter. Truly, it wasn’t a big deal, and I wasn’t worried. Sometimes these birth defects correct themselves in-utero, other times they don’t, and require a reconstructive surgery. Even if he did need the procedure, babies heal so much faster than adults, and after-all, we had always been a tough family, we could weather this too. The only hiccup would be the amount of damage the fluid was doing to the renal tissue, but again, I wasn’t overly concerned. We caught it early, we were monitoring it every month, I knew he’d be just fine. I didn’t realize then that maybe God was keeping my emotional threshold in tact, maybe he kept me stable for just a little longer, in anticipation for what was to come.
So, my mom and I were acting up like usual during the appointment, commenting on his feistiness, and unwillingness to cooperate with the technician. She was understanding and kind, and would keep the probe in a certain place longer than usual, so we could continue to gaze at the little miracle I was growing in my tummy. I appreciated her because whenever Max wasn’t in the right positions she didn’t press the probe into him harder in an effort to get him to move like other technicians did. She’d recline the chair almost upside down, and have me laugh instead. I said a little prayer that we’d get her again since not all techs were so patient. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, and my mom snapped a couple pictures of me in my gown because my bump was just starting to show through it. We were excited because even at 31 weeks, “I didn’t look very pregnant,” as if pregnancy was something you could be a lot of or a little of. We giggled, and made jokes, and as the tech went to leave, she said the radiologist would be in shortly. Once she left, we got really rowdy. Seeing the baby always made us that way, igniting our excitement ten-fold. My mom switched her camera to video, and told me to let her record me talking to Max, that maybe one day we’d show it to him. Giddy with the idea that this ambiguous little human would one day be a person, and have thoughts and feelings of happenings o his own, I agreed. I remember the stern love I had for him, even then, even now. I remember telling him he needed to shape up, and get that kidney in order. I remember feeling that no matter what happened, he’d be strong. I remember feeling that even if the worst happened, that with me behind him, he could do anything.
But then there was a sharp knock on the door, and when the radiologist came in looking serious, my heart all but stopped in my chest, before it broke into a sprint. Even now, typing this out, my heart is racing. She was formidable, and the angles of her whole being seemed to jut out. The lines in her face, the sharp edges of her suit, the pointed toe of her heels, they all threatened to burst the happy bubble I had built around this pregnancy, I had built around Max. As she dimmed the lights, and sparked up the screen with his images, I stepped back. As if I could run from the terrible news she was about to tell me, as if whatever she was about to say wouldn’t be true if I could only move far enough away from her.
My mind started to reel, flickering through the images of his kidney. I didn’t understand. I had just watched the tech measure each one, and it had only grown a fraction of a centimeter since the last sonogram. I didn’t understand why they thought something was wrong. I just didn’t understand, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to.
It was sickening, the moment between not knowing, and knowing. The moment that changed everything. As she started talking, it felt like I was watching a scene in a movie, it felt like I was watching someone else’s life play out before me. The room’s dimensions started to morph and bend, as though reality was wondering whether it still wanted to exist, knowing what lay ahead. And though the frame was still, I felt the Earth rotating on its axis painfully slow, dragging out this wretched moment till the end.
I was terrified, thinking that if my breaths came too heavily, or my movements proved too hasty, the room would most definitely shatter before me.
Max had fluid not only in his kidney, but also in his brain. Hydrocephalus. Intracranial pressure. That’s what they were worried about.
Then, heat. I was fire. No, I was ice. My insides were freezing over while my skin melted off the bone. The possibilities were laid out before me.
Slight impairments. Developmental delays. Severe disabilities. Surgeries. Shunts. Mental capacity at stake. His life would be hard.
The breath I’d been holding caught in my throat, snagged and broken, it hitched on the stumbling question. Needing to know with hesitant dread, anticipating the fall of that guillotine, hanging ominously over my neck, threatening to sink and tear, to lay my head down alongside the blame and guilt unforgivingly at my feet, I asked all the same. Dreadfully hesitant or not, I needed to know.
No, there was nothing you could’ve done differently. Sometimes…it just happens.
Though it didn’t matter what she said, the blade still fell against my throat. Her answer fell on deaf ears because mine started to ring, so loudly, it felt like it was coming from inside my head. I truly felt absent in my own body while every one of my nerves were humming, quivering between this universe and the next. And I realized, I wasn’t even there at all. I was hollow. My soul took leave to grieve alone. She left me here in this room, with this woman who was telling me it was okay to cry, turning to my mom saying it’s an important part of processing this type of information.
And what does it feel like to have your soul removed from your being? How exactly does it feel, if you can’t feel anything at all? But my chest, it was heaving, trying to expand while it was being crushed under the weight of the word, intracranial pressure, pressure, pressure.
She didn’t say it gently though, any of it. She was gruff, and matter-of-fact, and so clinical.
And I was agitated.
I get like that when I want the world to stop moving so fast, to stop spinning so quickly. In fact, I wanted it to spin back for just a moment. A few fractions of a second. Back to the moment before she came into the room. When I didn’t know. When it wasn’t real yet. When Max was still my baby. Before he was a medical term. Before he was a statistic. Before he was being measured, and opinions were being weighed, and, “It’s too soon to tell,” and “It’s best to carry on as normal,” were being tossed around.
Because how do you move forward without a soul? And how do you get it back? How do you stop the building darkness from swallowing you whole?
We sat in the car for a while, my mind blank. It was reaching, retreating, reaching retreating, trying to find purchase, some solid ground. Instead it buoyed, bobbing in and out on turbulent nothingness. I couldn’t break the surface long enough to even gasp. It felt like my soul was rebounding, smashing back into me, only to flee once again. She didn’t want to stand witness, she couldn’t stand at all. She didn’t want to feel the moment I realized our path was forever changed. And that static, it was back, crackling behind my eyes. My thoughts were scattering, the resolution too blurry to clearly see. I screwed my eyes shut, trying to squint through the loud distorted images, but the only words I could process through the black and white buzzing were, “Oh no, mom. Oh no.” Over and over again, my brain was short circuiting, a skipping record, a mournful tune: “Oh no, mom. Oh no.” The dread was strangling me. I was suffocating. My lungs were burning through the heaving. Asphyxiated from the inside out. It felt like my ribs couldn’t decide whether they wanted to explode or implode with every breath I took. So they just kept cracking in every direction until they were tiny fragments piercing and lodging themselves between the muscles fibers of my heart. Each time my lungs pulled for another agonizing gasp of air, each time my heart pumped out another gush of blood, each time my body willed itself to survive another moment, my mind screamed for it all to stop. I just wanted it to stop.
But we were home, and I had to face my family. I walked through the door, and saw my siblings. They didn’t know. I remember how strange it seemed to me, that my whole world had just collapsed, but everyone else’s were still intact. Their lives completely unaffected, unchanged, while the leftover debris of mine was collecting the dust that had once held it together. Never had I felt injustice so profoundly in my heart than in that moment. The ringing was back, not just in my head, but in the room as well. I could feel it bouncing around between me and the walls surrounding us. Increasing in volume, oscillating, resonating, bellowing in and out, until it was the only thing left in the room. The ringing matched its wavelengths with the spinning in my mind. It felt like God had taken my thoughts, tied them off, and was swinging them around in elliptic patterns over the hung heads of angels. And with the completion of each rotation, the whistling would rise to an even more deafening volume, until it was the only thing left in all the cosmos. The whole universe packed into a single sound, inside my head. The sheer magnificence of those unspoken words bowed the air between us causing tension only I could feel.
Then, I was sitting on the porch in a rocking chair. I wasn’t sure how or when I got there. The evening was wet with rain, but the moisture in the air was chilled. The fog suspended itself just before the tree line. It was dusk, and the feeling of helplessness was as pressing as the night was for its turn, demanding to exist, to come into being, to be felt and wrangled and wrestled with. The feeling of helplessness is almost indescribable. It’s as if emptiness was an entity, a huge gust of wind, a force of nature, trying to burst through each sinew of your skin. It’s an ever-expanding hollowness carving out every last shred of your chest, every last shred of your psyche. It feels like the soul wants to escape you, and leave the body behind. Screams. They don’t help. Clawing. It doesn’t soothe. Because feeling out of control of your own life is unnerving, but feeling out of control of the life of a person inside you is absolutely nauseating. It’s supposed to be comforting having your baby so close, protected within the layers of your skin, embedded in the hammocks of your womb. But now, I wasn’t so sure. Now, I didn’t even trust my own body. It did something wrong: it hurt him, changed him, threatened him. I wanted to keep him there, but offer him somewhere safer to go. I didn’t know if I was the best home for him anymore, but at the same time, I didn’t want him to ever be born. I just wanted him to stay there in the warmth of not knowing, in the fleshy darkness only moms can offer.