“Call your wife, now!”
My office manager’s urgent tone unnerved me. Seconds before, I had felt quite satisfied with the outcome of my early morning meeting with the construction manager. I hurried down the hall to my office, wracking my brain. What could be so urgent at home?
Sam answered before the first ring ended. Her voice cracked with emotion. “I….I…”
Then I remembered. The amniocentesis results were due today.
“Zach, there’s a problem!”
The word problem stirred up something deep inside me. A bolt of sharp pain ran through my body.
“The doctor wants to see us this afternoon. Come home! Please! I don’t want to be alone.”
I wanted to ask for more information, but I could tell that Sam was scared.
“I’ll be there in a few minutes, honey.”
A quick check in with my project architects on my way out the door assured me that all was going well in my office.
Sam stood at the open door to our apartment. The fright in her eyes said, Hold me. I put my arm around her. We walked into our living room and sat together on the sofa. Her head fell onto my shoulder. Her inability to speak told me volumes because Sam was a real talker. She sobbed. I held her, knowing she would talk when she was ready.
After a while, she let out a long deep sigh, then cleared her throat. “The amnio test confirmed it’s a girl.”
“That’s wonderful, Sam!”
She wanted a girl this time. Doing her part to raise the next generation of self-empowered women was important to her. I supported that.
She smiled slightly, then collapsed into tears again. It took a few minutes before she found enough strength to talk again.
“The test also indicated that she has a severe genetic disorder.”
She took another deep breath and continued.
“Her condition would present significant challenges for her and us, Zach.”
“Oh, Sam, how bad can it be?”
“Severe developmental and physical disabilities are common. Our little girl may not live long. If by some miracle she survives into adulthood, she’ll never have children. Girls with this disorder have no reproductive organs.”
My head sank. I went limp. Our hopes for the perfect family of four evaporated. The only part of my body that was working was my brain, and it was in hyper-drive with a million questions.
♦ ♦ ♦
A heavy silence accompanied us on our thirty-minute drive into New York City. My left hand gripped the steering wheel as if for dear life, and Sam held my right. We parked in a garage on Third Avenue. We shivered in the cold wind as we walked the block to the hospital on Lexington Avenue. As soon as the doors opened, a pungent antiseptic smell hit me hard. I almost heaved. Memories rose up from somewhere deep within me—abandoned, demons, operations.
On the elevator ride to the fourth floor, images of my small bandaged hands flashed through my mind. I leaned against the elevator wall for support. My mind drifted off.
♦ ♦ ♦
Just this morning I had stood at our three-year-old’s bedside, watching Jack sleep. The day I think we conceived him popped into my mind.
A breeze floated through the bedroom window of our summer house on Lake Garfield in the Berkshires. Waves lapped gently at the shore. As Sam and I basked in the afterglow of love-making, a hummingbird tapped on the window pane. I had heard that hummingbirds are a symbol of joy. The day Jack was born I had felt the tiny creature’s presence. Had it been a harbinger of his birth?
I gently rubbed my son’s back. “It’s wake-up time honey,” I whispered.
Jack’s eyes cracked open, and he broke into his typical big smile. What a happy kid! Stretching his little body, he flung his arms around my neck. I dressed him and gave him some dry Cheerios to tide him over until he had breakfast at daycare.
Sam was still sleeping when we left. Jack and I took the elevator to the lobby. Once outside, I lifted him over my head, perching him on my shoulders. That way I could get a firm grip on my briefcase and his little blue backpack stuffed with his favorite toys and blankie.
Looking up and down the street in front of our co-op, I paused, confused. “Jack, help me remember where I parked the car last night.” With alternate side of the street parking rules, my car was in a different place every morning.
Jack pointed to the right. “Dat way, Daddy!” he exclaimed in his squeaky voice.
“Thanks, honey, I knew you’d remember.”
On the way to the car, we stopped at our favorite deli. The aromas of sausages, cheeses, and freshly baked bread were a great way to start the day. I ordered my usual, an “everything” bagel with veggie cream cheese and a slice of tomato, and grabbed a V8 from the cooler.
Johnnie, the owner, welcomed Jack in his lyrical Italian accent. “Good’a morning, young’a man!” Jack’s giggle was infectious. Everyone in the deli smiled.
After dropping my son off at daycare, I drove to the construction site, a steep hillside in Yonkers overlooking the Hudson River. I loved being an architect and was excited about this project, my firm’s first high-rise apartment building. Our structural engineer had told me that it was the first application of a staggered steel truss system for a residential building. Things were going well in general, but my weekly meetings with the construction manager could be intense. Savoring a moment of privacy before entering the construction trailer, I sat in the car to eat my bagel and take a few swigs of V8.
♦ ♦ ♦
The ding of the elevator bell jolted me back into the present. I shook my head and blinked to refocus.
Sam and I walked down a long hallway and stopped at door 4206. The letters on the glass read Sarah Stein, MD, Obstetrician, Gynecologist. We opened the door and entered an empty and quiet waiting room. The harsh glare from fluorescent lights made me squint. Sam signed in with the receptionist. Without speaking, we sat for what felt like an eternity. Finally, a nurse came in and said, “Mr. and Mrs. Morgan, the doctor will see you now.”
Littered with papers, folders, and x-rays, Dr. Stein’s desk seemed chaotic. Behind that mess, bookshelves held medical reference volumes, framed diplomas, and certificates. She was close to our age, maybe early forties. She wore a starched white jacket, and her dark brown hair was pulled into a knot at the nape of her neck. Black glasses with thick lenses made her eyes look huge. Rising from her desk, but not much, she offered me a limp and clammy hand.
“Good to see you again, Mr. Morgan. Please have a seat.”
I wasn’t a fan of Dr. Stein. She had delivered Jack and had strongly advocated for circumcision. I objected. To me, it was an outdated tradition. Dr. Stein, on the other hand, was highly opinionated, advocating for a boy’s penis to look like his father’s. Sam thoroughly bought her doctor’s line, no matter what I said. I felt ganged up on, dismissed, like they were saying, “What do men know about these things?”
“There isn’t much time!” Dr. Stein blurted out. “At this stage in your pregnancy, we need your decision. There’s an opening at our clinic this Thursday at ten-thirty for the procedure.” She glanced at her calendar.
Sam squeezed my hand, but my mind had already left the room. I gazed out the window.
♦ ♦ ♦
I recalled the disturbing dream I’d had that morning.
The train I’m driving is speeding too fast to make the curve ahead! I can’t control it! Oh, my god!
Buzzzz! The alarm jolted me awake. I hit the off switch and pulled the pillow over my head. Just five more minutes, I begged.
Hazy thoughts……the high-rise project…meet with the construction manager…I gotta get up!
I sat on the side of the bed and rubbed my eyes. Two hours till my eight o’clock meeting. My temples pounded and my face muscles tightened.
♦ ♦ ♦
Only vaguely did I hear the doctor spewing medical details about Sam and our baby. In one moment of coherence, I heard, “.…this procedure will terminate the pregnancy,” not your pregnancy, but the pregnancy. A chill swept through me. Doctor Stein had made up her mind again about what was right for us! The look in Sam’s eyes told me she’d been convinced by her doctor once more. Ganged up on again! I raged internally: Bullshit! This decision is a family matter, and I’m a member of this family!
I returned to gazing out the window.
♦ ♦ ♦
My thoughts drifted back to my meeting with the CM earlier in the day. A lot was riding on this project. Demonstrating our design and project management skills was important for our young firm. The excavation was almost complete. The CM had demanded this meeting to discuss the foundation design and his construction schedule.
I did not like the beer-bellied bully. A retired Marine drill sergeant, he still barked orders. Everything about him was rough. Hair cropped to stubbles. Hands coarse as sandpaper. Voice raspy from decades of smoking stogies. Their foul smell filled the construction trailer. Every meeting was a contest of wills, his against mine. He thought architects were pussies. At every opportunity, he challenged my authority. “Why’d you design it that way, college boy? My way’s better!”
My world was full of self-important characters trying to gain the upper hand by doing everything they could to make the other guy look bad. In truth, I wasn’t above these tactics myself when my back was against the wall about time or money or both. Managing construction projects in a timely cost-effective manner was the CM’s job. Even though they challenged me and sometimes pissed me off, I respected their work and the construction trades. After all, I’d put in my time as a mason’s apprentice, carpenter, and steel bridge construction worker. I wanted to set the agenda and tone for today’s meeting, so I decided to psych myself up and create a strategy on my five-miler. I put on my gray sweats, socks, running shoes, and most importantly, my Yankees cap. On my way out, I paused to look at myself in the full-length hallway mirror. Uh oh, only thirty-nine years old and already sporting love handles and the beginning of a belly. I sucked in my gut and vowed to cut down on the pizzas, beers, burgers, and ice cream, and oh, yeah, to get back to the gym a few times a week.
I caught the elevator for the six-story ride to the lobby. Outside the entrance to our co-op, I stretched my legs, turned left, and jogged toward the Bronx River Park. Our coop was at the East edge of Yonkers next to Bronxville. Locals called our area “Bronkers.” My office was only a ten-minute walk from home.
I jogged on the pathway. The river sparkled in the morning sunlight. Sometimes I stopped at stretching stations, but not today. It would feel good to hold my stride.
Around the first mile, adrenalin and endorphins kicked in. Good! I needed a boost for the damn meeting. Just thinking about that arrogant CM aggravated me. Filled with self-righteousness, I thought. I’ll show that guy who’s in charge! I won’t let the fucker bully me again! Tactics formed in my mind. Then I heard my mother’s famous words, “You’ll catch more flies with honey, Zach.” Yes, mother, I remember! I said to myself. Hmm…. maybe I can find a way to make a win-win.
About mile three my mind wandered, and I fell into a familiar rant about architecture. As an undergraduate, I had been taught by exceptional architects devoted to modernist simplicity. Our history teacher had taught at the Bauhaus, Germany’s pre-World War II art and design school until Hitler closed it. I loved exploring new ideas about how to juxtapose space and form. Minimalist details excited me. I was fascinated by how proportions, color, textures, and light affect people’s behavior.
By the time I attended graduate school, though, Postmodernism and New Urbanism had become the rage. I couldn’t believe what was happening. Copying historic styles, what crap! Regressive! Superficial! Way too conservative for me! I didn’t want to waste my time copying anything. I wanted to design what no one had ever seen before. I wanted to start my firm, contribute to making great buildings and cities, and support my family. Pressing through the last two miles, I arrived back at my building. My neighbor, Gino, was just leaving for work. He was a few years younger than me, probably in his early thirties. A short, wiry Italian guy. All we knew about each other was that we were both devoted Yankee fans. The stadium was only minutes away by car.
“Zach! How ya’ do’n?”
“Can’t believe the Yanks came in fourth last season!
“Even so, as long as I get to see them beat the Red Sox a few times, I’m okay.”
“Well, let’s hope this season will be better! It’s only a month away, man!”
Gino waved as he took off to catch his train into the City.
Back in our bedroom, I had spotted a note on our dresser. Sam must have set it there last night because she was still in bed, spread out with her head buried under a pile of pillows.
Her note read, “Zach, after your shower, please wake Jack, get him dressed, and take him to daycare. Love you.”
“Yes, dear!” I whispered.
My shower was way too short. After drying off, I stood in front of the mirror over the sink examining myself. Reddish-brown hair cut an inch over my ears. Blotchy Irish skin that never tans. My dad’s steel-blue eyes. A slightly crooked nose from a fight I had when I was a kid. In spite of its quirks, I liked my face. I opened the medicine cabinet, took out the scissors and started trimming my beard.
Trying not to wake Sam, I tiptoed into the bedroom. The Assistant Director of Admissions at a nearby college, she loved her work and was damn good at it. I was proud of her. In the past few weeks, she had begun looking radiant. I particularly liked that her breasts get larger when she’s pregnant. I kissed her copper hair that peeked out from under the pillows. Touching her belly I said silently, We love you, little one.
♦ ♦ ♦
After the longest hour of our lives in a day, we could never have imagined, Sam and I left the doctor’s office numbed by the magnitude of the decision we faced. On the drive back to Westchester, I struggled to keep my attention on the road.
Internally, I went into a fury about the doctor’s insensitivity. What a cold bitch! How dare she treat us like that, so clinical and impersonal? She never even offered to discuss alternatives or counseling. No! She’d already decided what’s best for us. This little girl is our child! A human life! How the hell do we make this choice?
As if she knew some struggle was going on in my head, Sam reached over the console and held my hand. That steadied me. Somehow, we managed to pick up Jack at daycare and find our way home.
Sam fed Jack. Afterward, I played with him and his Legos on the floor for a while; then Sam put him to bed. By eight o’clock we had time to ourselves.
We debated late into the night. First, I took the idealistic side as I typically did, saying, “Our love for each other is strong enough to get us through this. We can nurture her and love her no matter what.” A stern voice inside my head also insisted that ending our pregnancy was like playing God, and I had no right to do that.
Sam countered my idealism with the practical side, as she normally did, “How will we handle her medical needs, the expenses, time, energy, our careers, Jack? Is it fair to him?” We defended our positions thoroughly, then switched to the other’s point of view to make sure that we didn’t miss anything. After hours of debating, punctuated with Sam’s bursts of grief-stricken sobbing, we were deadlocked. The choice seemed impossible. My head throbbed from the mental gymnastics and the emotional roller coaster. I managed to form one thought: I need a drink or some aspirin. Better judgment ruled. I opted for the aspirin. I excused myself and headed down the hall toward the bathroom.
On the way, I stopped at the door to Jack’s bedroom. Sometimes I fell into a peaceful state just watching him sleep. Lost in the rhythm of his breathing, I often found answers to difficult questions. Tonight, however, when I looked at my healthy son, a voice in my head screamed, But our next child has a defect! Am I the problem? Do I have a defective gene?
In the bathroom, I grabbed the aspirin bottle from the medicine cabinet and closed its door. The man looking at me in the mirror was much older than the one I had seen that morning. The change was shocking. This man was pathetic. A tear flowed out of the corner of his right eye and streamed down his cheek. Another fell from his left eye; then tears tumbled one after another like water from a leaky faucet.
I have to get control!
Splashing cold water on my face, I flicked the faucet handle too hard. Water spewed all over me and onto the floor, soaking my bare feet. I raised my arms so I could see my hands in the mirror. Six mutilated fingers. Inside my head, that voice screamed: If my parents had had amniocentesis in 1948, would my deformed hands have been enough reason for them to terminate ME? The screaming continued: Who am I to decide what life is worth living? How can this be happening to us? It’s not the life we planned!
If I turned my back on the man in the mirror, would he stop screaming at me?
I spun to the right. Oh no, too fast! I slipped and lost my balance. My head hit the tub.
I’m hovering above my body. It’s lying on the floor. The faucet is dripping. How strange…I can think and see and hear. This floating sensation is weird, but comfortable, like taking off a suit and tie after a long day…changing into my old worn jeans…
Allow your body to rest.
What? Who said that?
A sensation enfolds me. I feel warm, relaxed and peaceful. Nothing matters. My business, my family, this dreadful day, all of it, of no concern. Pulsations wash through me like gentle waves greeting a tropical beach. Then a pleasant tingling sensation flows through me.
Be not afraid, Zach.
The voice is back.
I AM Domini! I AM your Soul!
There is no separation between us. We are one.
A moment passes.
I AM the part of you that holds the memory of our origin as love,
Our incarnations, past, present, and future,
Our design for this lifetime.