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A mother's measure Bundle of joy outweighs burden of sorrow


Sweet Caroline,

In your baby book, I dutifully record your emerging personality as I discover it. You hate being swaddled but think it's neat to be blown with the hair dryer after bathing. You laugh when we dance to rock and roll and calm to a tape of nature sounds.

I also joyfully note your firsts as I witness them: toothless grin, May 2; long-awaited sleep through the night, May 13; much-dreaded shots, May 29; turn over from stomach to back, July 8.

And I'm prompted to add the following footnotes, because nowhere in the book are spaces to mark milestones such as your first (let alone fifth) prenatal photo session with ultrasound or a dramatic flip-turn in utero. Nowhere is there room to record memories of your stillborn sister, of a young friend whose viewing you attended before you were 2 months old, or of a new friend you made at your first party.

Addendum No. 1

(A bit of history)

Perhaps the tension and mayhem were good omens. After all, my experience was that an easy pregnancy had produced tragic results. So I rationalized that a difficult pregnancy could have a happy ending. My logic was comforting, if skewed.

In December 1990, after seven months of seemingly idyllic pregnancy and two days of labor, I had produced a baby girl who was, according to doctors, incompatible with life. A stillborn. Your father and I went home from the hospital with empty arms, hurting hearts and unspoken hopes for you.

My pregnancy with you, confirmed in August 1991, is anything but idyllic. Even though the specialists assure me that what happened to your sister was a "sporadic occurrence," they meticulously chart and evaluate your every move -- or lack thereof -- with a battery of high-tech screenings and diagnostic tests. Their scrutiny sends me reeling.

In October, an ultrasonologist detects two minuscule cysts on your developing brain. And, he adds, you seem small for your age. I panic even before I hear him suggest the possibility of a horrific genetic disorder. Although amniocentesis has inherent risks, your father and I elect to allow a long hollow needle to be inserted through my abdomen and invade your private world of water. A seed of doubt has been planted. In less than a moment, its roots insidiously wrap around my heart, claim my imagination, squeeze my spirit. Even after I learn that your chromosomes are all present and accounted for and lined up in the proper order, I still am wary -- convinced almost -- that we will lose you, too.

In December, a doctor punching the keys of a calculator says the numbers charting your progress don't quite add up right; he mumbles something about the possibility of intrauterine growth retardation. After spanning the curve of my protruding belly with a ragged measuring tape, he tries to persuade me to disregard results from months of high-tech tests and trust his primitive method instead. He's betting you will be healthy but tiny; 6 pounds, max.

In January, two full months before our due date, steady contractions persuade me to stop working. These days, I pay little attention to anything but your presence within me. Even at birthing class I am distracted enough to confuse the deep breaths of early labor with the "oohm-pah-pah" pants that allegedly help when things get fast and furious. The nurse/instructor takes pity and interrupts her lesson to ask each mother-to-be what frightens her most. A teen-ager sitting next to me says, "Dying." I say, "My baby dying." We look at one another perplexed and surprised, one's fear having never occurred to the other.

In February, a geneticist interpreting our entire series of black and white ultrasound images notices shadows under my eyes. He is apologetic when he declares me a victim of technology. The cysts have since resolved themselves and you've caught up in your growth. But "nothing seems wrong" is not the same as "all is well," and neither he nor anyone else will venture that.

In mid-March, you still remain breech, head-up, bottom down. The doctor wants to try to turn you to avoid surgical delivery. The rate of success is 50-50. And there are risks.

I play the odds and stare at a machine that monitors your vital signs while several people in scrubs debate the direction to which you will most likely turn -- if encouraged by brute force. Then, in one synchronized motion, they place their hands on my swollen belly and begin to press, prod, poke and push with all their might. In less than a minute, they proclaim success. I laugh with relief. You've flipped!

Two weeks later, I feel you signaling me. Your father always wondered how I would know when it's time. It's pouring rain and the middle of the night. It's time.

On March 31, after a day of labor and three hours of pushing, the doctor is worried less about my exhaustion than yours. Suddenly, he wants you out. Quick. As I am moved from the homey birthing quarters to a sterile delivery room, people with masks materialize. With forceps, the doctor extracts from me a blue, silent being.

Frozen with fear and anesthesia, I can't understand his elation. Your tiny body is handed off, sprinted next door, where pediatricians and machines await the arrival of babies in distress. A nurse tries to convince me that a distant cry is yours. I shake my head in disbelief and plead to see you.

They need to watch you for a bit, I am told. Not nearly as much as I need to hold you.

Two hours later, when you finally snuggle into the hollow of my chest, I sob from pure, unabated joy. I stare at you -- all 8 pounds and 20 inches of you -- and rub my cheek against yours, wetting your pink face with tears that come and come. Delighting in your mass of dark hair and blue eyes, I call on all my senses to confirm your well-being. I listen to you, watch you, taste, touch and smell you. Elation. Fulfillment. Euphoria.

With some help, I manage awkwardly to guide you to your first meal. Not long after eating, your gastrointestinal tract kicks into gear and your father and I fumble your first diaper change. If you weren't howling, you'd probably laugh at us rookies.

When you are summoned to the nursery for a midnight bath, I pad along behind the nurse, unsettled by her momentary custody of you. Finally, we return to our quiet room where, beside me and your father, you settle and close your eyes. I lay awake, happily wondering if I'll ever sleep again.

Addendum No. 2

(May 25/Memorial Day)

The phone startles me awake at midnight. An ominous silence on the line speaks of death even before I hear that my friend Esther's youngest boy was hit by a car and killed tonight.

I think of her child's face, prettily framed by hair the color of summer wheat. Sweet baby, that gentle face decorates your nursery; he appears on a wall full of photos of children at play. He is the carefree spirit dangling upside down, hanging from his knees on a red rail above a cow barn. His straw hat has fallen off and lies somewhere beyond the frame of the picture; his mud-caked toes are curled up with utter freedom.

Among the countless Amish children given weighty biblical names -- the Levis, the Amoses and the Moseses -- he was a Bubbles.

True to his nickname, David Smucker Jr. had effervescent eyes. But the time you meet him, Caroline, they are shut tight to this world. As I view him in the "good room" of his parents' farmhouse, I gaze from the silent child to you and back again. Can you see well enough yet to focus on his tiny wooden casket, hewn from pine boards just long enough to accommodate his 5-year-old frame? I wonder if you can discern color yet, as I study his swollen, purple cheeks and split white lips. The boy's grandmother lights an oil lamp by his head and swats a fly drawn by its flame to his face. It is too painful to watch her attempt to protect him now, from pesky insects or the ensuing darkness.

Suddenly, one of the boy's aunts claims you; you look pale and tender against her severe, coarse garb. Without you to tend to, I offer each family member a handshake.

I gather details of the accident. After buying a used scooter at a swap meet, Esther buried the treasure under some hay in the cow stable and left notes all over the farm, each leading her boys a step closer to the hiding place. Bubbles found the final clue in the mailbox at the end of the drive. With excitement and glee, he darted across the road without looking.

His three brothers saw him hit by the speeding sports car, heard the screech of tires and the thud of the impact. They watched helplessly as Bubbles was carried along and finally fell from the front bumper into the gutter of the road. Ten-year-old Jacob ran screaming to his mother in the milk house; Samuel, 7, and Amos, 6, went to their little brother's side.

Upon reaching his still body, both boys saw Bubbles' hand move, just once and ever so slightly. Later, they would disagree with their mother's explanation that it was probably a reflex, and disagree with each other, as well: Sam thought Bubbles was reaching out to take the hand of the angel who had come to take him home; Amos figured his brother was waving a final goodbye.

"He had asked to go," his mother whispers to me as she rocks in her chair and knots a soiled a hanky. My quizzical looks prompts her to explain. Earlier in the week when she was weeding the strawberry patch, Bubbles had played near her in the dirt and wondered aloud how it is that people get to heaven.

"With wings," she had answered.

And then he replied that he would like a pair of wings, she said.

I realize that to survive this, she is collecting any shard of mercy her God allows, however painful it may be.

My eyes fill and I am self-conscious; how out of place I feel among these black-clothed people who silently mourn and then drive away in horse-drawn buggies. My bright, white car in the dusty lane and my tears are no doubt offensive; certainly by my hugging the mother and clasping the father's hands, I have committed grievous faux pas.

One woman motions to me while murmuring to another. She tells her friend that I, too, had lost a child. How she knew, I do not know. But suddenly, I am an insider: someone who understands the feelings if not the customs of these people who prepare their family members' bodies for viewing and keep them in the home until burial.

Later, at home, I frantically fish bits of paper from my purse. On them, I have noted your measurements taken at various doctor )) visits since your birth. Tonight, I feel the urgency to properly record your progress. The blue ballpoint dots that the pediatrician plotted on a graph place you in the 95th percentile for height, weight and head circumference for infants your age. Suspicious of their math, I furtively perform my own "pink hat test," which is accurate, if unscientific: The knit cap you wore when I first held you six weeks ago no longer covers your ears.

Into them, delicate and exposed as they are, I whisper a prayer for Esther. I wonder what she will do with Bubbles' battered straw hat.

Addendum No. 3

(June 4)

You slept through this milestone: You officially outgrew your bassinet, a white wicker nest that accommodated all 11 pounds and 23 inches of you so long as you were curled up in the fetal position. But last night, you confidently stretched your chubby legs and lay splayed, one arm straight out and the other flung oh-so-dramatically across your forehead.

Now you no longer sleep by my side. The nursery monitor at the foot of the bed effectively communicates your night sounds -- the sneezes and pre-awakening grunts -- but not the gentle warmth that your presence adds to a room.

Addendum No. 4

(June 6)

Tonight, your father and I had not even greeted the hostess at the neighbor's 25th wedding anniversary fete when we acknowledged the first request.

"Kin I hold yer babe?"

It is with reluctance that I hand you over to the musty stranger whose thick, gnarled fingers I perceive as insistent and greedy. A cursory survey of the wrinkled face reveals suspicious sores.

A propriety urge, unsettling in its strength, prompts me to make small talk with the women rather than, as she suggests, help myself at the nearby buffet.

I wonder where she's from and how she's related to the honored guests. A Western Maryland community named Accident, she says, adding that she's the friend of a friend. . . .

I hover closer. She mistakes my move for a show of intimacy and discloses that it's been a long time since she held a baby so tiny. You are oblivious to that fact, of course, and seem contented to gum the sleeve of her avocado-colored pantsuit as she talks.

"If you drive out to Deep Creek and stop at the lookout, that's our farm you see way down below," she says. "I would be ridin' tractor making hay [thus explaining the skin cancers on her nose and chin] and the city people would pull off and git out of their automobiles and lookit me through binoculars."

Despite the hard work of maintaining 90 acres, a farm was a good place to raise children, she insists, never missing a beat patting your bottom as she deftly moves you from shoulder to knee.

I began to sense this woman would not disapprove (as my mother-in-law does) of the way I cart you around all day -- in my arms as I vacuum, on my lap at the computer -- or of the 3 a.m. feedings that frequently melt into dawns. Most think I am indulging you; but this woman, I could tell, knew better.

"I would rock my babies till they fell asleep and then go on rocking them till they woke up again," she says wistfully.

She had seven of her own, but raised only five, she continues. Her first two, identical twin boys, were several months premature and died shortly after birth.

"I named them Warren Edgar and Walter Edward," she says, "even though the hospital people told me not to waste such perfectly good names on dead babies."

I tell her my husband and I had a stillborn a year and a half ago. The doctors urged us to name her. And, I reveal, because of their gentle encouragement, we even held her for a precious moment.

She respectfully inquires about our first baby's name and politely says that "Jean" is very pretty, indeed. Then she tells me that although she was adamant about naming her boys, the hospital staff refused her requests to hold them and whisked away their tiny bodies before she ever had a chance.

I sense her pulling you closer, Caroline, hugging you before she offers to hand you back.

I ask if she wouldn't mind doing me a favor and holding you a little while longer so I can visit the buffet table.

MARYALICE YAKUTCHIK is a free-lance writer living in Harford County. Her last story for the magazine was on girls' lacrosse.

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