Winter 2019 Poetry

Kerry Donoghue 

Capable

 

Maybe you’d joked too much.
It wasn’t your first rodeo—
your little girl was already two.
So why not share your happy news at just six weeks?
It’d likely be a Halloween birth.
You placed a bet about delivering in costume, that scene from Alien.
No need to be so uptight this time around.
A simple text informed your girlfriends: “Guess who’s sick from the dick?”
It was fine to joke about it.
At thirty-eight, you had a toddler on your hip and the stretch marks to prove it.
You were safe.

 

Friday (12 weeks, 2 days)

Bad news approaches
like a cat dropping a bird wing at your feet.
A geneticist calls during lunch while you’re working from home,
her voice as steady and firm as a prenatal vitamin.
The results are in: a boy.
You cheer. You’ll have one of each now.

Also, Trisomy 21.
Ninety-four percent likely
your son has Down syndrome.

Stare through the French door in your kitchen, ten perfect panes.
The ravenous path of ivy outside.
She’s speaking more words to you, about who you need to call. Tests to have done.
A monarch clings to some jasmine in the sea breeze.
You cannot remember where your pencil is, even though there’s always one in your purse.
You cannot find your purse.
The small mercy of her offering to email you everything she’d just said,
including her direct number, which you will call, needing her to repeat all of this.

Place a distraught call to your husband at work.
He rushes home an hour later to find you bent into your daughter’s glider.
The way you cry together breaks you anew.

Walk to the beach to think. You even hold hands along the way.
This is your son.
Your belly’s already rounding out, the crippling gags of morning sickness in full effect.
He just has some problems. Will that make you love him less?
Are you even capable of these thoughts?
“He’ll be made fun of so much.”
“But we have so much love to give. Maybe we’re the right parents for him.”
Your son already knows what your heartbeat sounds like.
Pray the crashing waves muffle this conversation.

Later that night, as your daughter dances around the living room, try to picture a male version of her:
blonde, with slightly upturned eyes, still dependent on you in your seventies.
Maybe you’ll surprise yourself with the depth of love he’ll bring out.
But what if you surprise yourself in a different way?

 

Monday (12 weeks, 5 days)

Avoid eye contact with the other pregnant women in the waiting room
and cry as soon as the sonographer calls your name.
Tell her you already know the baby has Downs. You are learning to own this.
Lie down and ask her to turn off the viewing screen above you.
She nods and gives you The Look. Might as well get used to it.
Gel on the belly and then she presses down.
Grip your husband’s hand while he watches your boy on her screen:
heart valves fluttering, stick arms flailing.
You mostly cry.
But you do sneak one glance at the sonographer’s face. It seems stony.

“I’m not ready to see,” you manage. “But can I get the photos anyway?”
She quickly prints them, jamming them into a manila envelope.
Then she scurries out and is gone so long, you know the news won’t be good.
Yet you’re still somehow surprised when she comes back with a doctor, dressed in scrubs.
“It’s really bad.” This doctor has a mouth like a butcher’s knife. “There’s fluid all around the fetus.”
She lists chromosomal anomalies. Heart problems. Plus the Downs. Not your fault.
“What does that mean?” you squeak.
“It may not survive after birth. It may not even survive until Wednesday. We just don’t know.”
You hear a strange honking in the room and realize it’s you hyperventilating.

 

Wednesday (13 weeks)

Zombiewalk through two more days until your next appointment
to stick a needle through your belly into your baby.
It's a way to confirm the anomalies they’ve already seen,
though you won’t be able to get the results for three more weeks.
That’s another three weeks spent masking your anguish with a smile and your bulkiest sweater at work.
But those numbers won’t lie.
Do you wait it out because you need to hear the estimated survival rate, no matter how low it is?
Or do you choose mercy?
At this age, you’ve learned not to ask questions about things you already know the answers to.
You refuse the needle and walk out of the appointment instead.

There’s a window of time where you can do this and now you’re waiting too long.
Lurk in pregnancy-loss threads, read about babies who die in their mothers’ arms hours after birth.
Hydrops, edema, Google images, scientific papers from 1992.
You’re a goddamn MD at this point.
Odds of survival: 8 percent. Are you willing to gamble on that?
A life of surgeries, feeding tubes, holes in the heart.
Do you have enough money to gamble on that?
Picture your husband selecting the perfect tiny coffin.
Envision yourselves lost in that loss.
Whisper to him you don’t have the courage to call your doctor.
“Are you just scared to admit we’ve made a decision?” he asks.

Your fingers eventually dial the number
and your obstetrician is sympathetic.
“Though I don’t feel comfortable doing it this far along,” she says.
Which instantly rattles you.
“But I know two doctors who will.”
And there it is: the trauma a melody so personal,
but your body just a chorus in someone else’s song.

Investigate online photos of these doctors,
praying they have kind eyes.
How deep the relief that one does.

 

Thursday (13 weeks, 1 day)

Endure another waiting room packed with excited pregnant women
and prepare to meet the stranger who will guide you through this hideous moment.
Nurses have been gently reminding you to make your decision before the fourteenth week,
“because things could get more difficult then.”
You’re not brave enough to ask why
or admit you feel quietly relieved when this doctor with the gentle blue eyes makes room in her schedule for you
next Wednesday at 1:50 p.m.
Confusion, sorrow, denial:
one more week.

“I’m gonna be a big sister!” your daughter squeals.
Your mother’s celebrating her seventieth birthday in Honolulu.
Video chatting means she can see your face. Motherhood means she’ll know you’re lying.
Angle your head out of the frame as you sing the birthday song, ask about luaus.
Dig your nails into your palm and keep your shit together,
especially when your toddler grabs your belly and kisses “the baby.”
You wait all day to break down in the shower so you don’t scare anyone.

 

Friday (13 weeks, 2 days)

Take a leave from work and spend what little energy you have
hunched on the bedroom carpet studying sonogram pictures.
Lay out the photos. Squint, comparing your boy with images of swollen babies online.
Search for the fluid, the extra thickness around his neck.
Force yourself to look for clues.
Try harder.
You need to be certain.

 

Sunday (13 weeks, 4 days)

Doctors don’t call on weekends,
so for two days, you’ve gotten to pretend this is not happening.
And you pretend so hard.
Make your daughter grilled cheese, wash sippy cups, sing her special lullaby,
like you’re a lighthouse on the shore of motherhood.
And then before bed
stare at your face in the bathroom mirror,
horrified.

 

Tuesday (13 weeks, 6 days)

The day before your procedure, find yourself pulled to the pier, the ironic comfort of water.
Pick a spot that’s not jammed with day-drunk fishermen and watch two seals spinning through the waves.
“Betcha see a little one from them real soon, huh?”
You can’t even force politeness, so you let your silence scream.
“What’s your name?” the fisherman pushes.
“Kelly,” you lie.
“You a local?”
Become the spray. “Just visiting.”

The hospital calls. A young man preregisters you, advising you about anesthesia, fasting, not wearing your contacts.
He also needs you to answer some insurance questions,
like why you’re having this procedure.

You swell off the couch.

When your voice returns, it tsunamis out of your mouth.
“To end my pregnancy,” you rage,
the first time you’ve said it out loud.
Then he asks how you want to pay. Because this is a transaction, after all.
Your decision will cost $1,200 up front.  
Pull out your credit card.
Time, money, life, it’s all borrowed now.

Stand in a line of men at Walgreens, waiting for your misoprostol.
Several friends have confided in you this week, voices low,
admitting they’ve gone through something similar.
But why does everyone insist on whispering?
“You know what this pill is for?” the pharmacist asks you, her voice, of course, dropping.
You hug your daughter to your hip and announce yes.
You try to sound loud, confident in front of these men.
But you have been outed.
You are a mother
preparing to kill her baby,
you fucking fraud.

Sit with your girl cozied against you at bedtime, reading aloud from her magazine.
The May issue, about twins growing bean sprouts for their mom, a gift to keep growing.
Two perfect sprouts from my two perfect twin sprouts!
Inhale.
Your weekly pregnancy email says your son is currently the size of a peapod.
Imagine him curled inside you and pray he’s already dead.
Change the words to the story so you can get through it.

Later that night, lie on your side in the dark bedroom and say your last words to your son.
Tell him you love him. That you’ll see him again.
But mostly whisper that you’re sorry.
You’re so sorry.

 

Wednesday (14 weeks)

Drop off your daughter at daycare,
a regular Wednesday morning.
Except you return to the paisley recliner in your living room
and clench your husband’s hand as you swallow a surprisingly small pill.
It begins
in the luminous abundance of the springtime sun.
What a terrible moment to realize Mother’s Day is this weekend.

Head out on the 280 in a dented green Subaru. People racing to jobs or classes, tropical vacations,
while your husband drives slower than usual to the hospital.
You're slumped in the passenger seat,
stretchy pants, a little makeup, hair brushed,
the futility of these actions not lost on you.
He gets cut off, yet you both resist the urge to give the driver the finger—he didn’t know.
But you will always know.

Your husband stands alone in the hospital hallway.
Though you’d planned on holding his hand through this, you find out he’s not allowed past the doors,
so he gets as close as he can,
watching you cry and shuffle off in nubby blue surgery socks.
Look back.
Look down.
Look at you still choosing this.

You’d imagined at least getting wheeled in on a gurney.
Instead, they have you walk right into the operating room.
Memorize each face, these four strangers who will see your son for the last time.
The spread of silver instruments, that damn speculum. You can’t help but look for the vacuum.
The operating table is angled for you to have your right leg splayed open.
Climb up
but you even do that wrong,
like an old circus elephant suddenly forgetting the routine.
Your gown opens, revealing your doughy mother’s body,
and you cry as a nurse covers you, positions you correctly.
Feel yourself concede.
You’re doing this.
How are you doing this?
The fentanyl kicks in and you’re gone.

Wake up to a muddled blackness behind your eyelids.
You can’t feel anything, but you hear yourself weeping,
your heart always the first to betray your head.
“I can hear you,” you mumble.
“You’re all done now.” A nurse is close, her voice like a sunrise.
“Was my baby already dead?”
“Yes, honey, your baby is dead.”
“I’m glad. I’m so happy he was already dead.”
“Yes, he’s dead now.”
“I’m a terrible mother.”
“No. You’re a wonderful mother,” she whispers. “My mother raised my sister until she was three and then
she died of a similar thing. If you ask me, you made the right decision.”
You will play this over and over in your head afterward,
noting she never clarified if he was already dead.

Learn the hard way what a uterine balloon feels like.
Bleeding complications, your body conspiring with your age against you.
For a foggy moment, you smile thinking of how your daughter squeals every time she gets a balloon.
Then the deflating fluorescence of a hospital light
reminds you of where you are
and what you just did.

The next nurse, a recovery nurse, has eyes like a wooden hull, dark brown and steadying.
You lock into them as she pulls pack out of you with each one of your exhales,
yanking like she’s restarting a busted lawnmower.  
So much bandaging, dry and mottled, it takes your breath away when you realize
that’s how hollowed out you are now.
“There’s about four feet in there,” she explains.
“I need a second,” you say.
She nods and you are grateful for the dignity she gives you, waiting for you to catch your breath.

 

Thursday (empty)

Rewatch every episode of Twin Peaks because it almost distracts you
from the kicks you still feel in your belly,
insistent, as your uterus slowly shrinks.
You wish it would all shrink away: the baby weight you now have to lose, the depression, the reality.
It won’t, of course, and today is the first day you sit with your decision.
Watch a mosquito flitting through the curtains
until that brings you to tears, thinking of having to kill that, too.

 

5 months later (still empty)

Halloween arrives.

And as I drown in homemade costumes,
trying to move something forward,
I see how silence is a poisoned well.

So in honor of you, sweet baby,
I stop whispering. 

Here is my voice.

Be cradled, here,
by words
stronger than my arms.

 

 
 

 

 


Kerry Donoghue’s writing has appeared in Harpur Palate, The Louisville ReviewPainted Bride QuarterlyThe PinchThe Potomac Review, and The South Carolina Review. Her short story collection, Mouth, was a semi-finalist for the 2017 St. Lawrence Book Award. She lives on the coast in Northern California with her husband and daughter. When she’s not writing, she’s making cheese. 

 

 


 

 

  © Ninth Letter, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.