Warning: This Is Not A Love Story

by Jamie Sumner
JGI/Daniel Grill / Getty

February 14, 2012. I am at dinner at a fancy flatbread place whose tiny pizzas leave you with the feeling of having just taken a year’s worth of communion. I’m still hungry and I really want a glass of wine. Everybody else is doing it. I can hear the glasses clinking. But I am six months pregnant, almost. I am rounding up. And I cannot afford the risk.

There are already too many risks, I think, as my husband of four years and partner in infertility sips his beer apologetically across the table. “I don’t like beer,” I say, because I really don’t and also to make him feel a teensy bit sorry for me. But there’s no need for that. We are soon to become the parents of a child with special needs. The sorrys from the world at large are already coming in by the handful.

The waiter clears our table of crumbs with a curved metal implement that looks suspiciously like something out of my OB’s office. He takes his time. There are many crumbs. What else is flatbread but crumbs? I feel a little sick, like I haven’t eaten at all and my blood sugar dips. I want to lay my head on the table, an offering to the gods to take it easy on me.

I think back to a month ago during the gestational diabetes test—that damn test that led to an unplanned ultrasound that led to an emergency trip to a maternal fetal specialist that led to an amniocentesis that led to the terrible waiting period we are currently in. We’re on a month-long hold with the Mayo Clinic while they try to decipher the glitches and breaks in our baby’s chromosomal chain.

“Dessert?” My husband holds out a tiny menu, and he says it like a game show host hustling whatever’s behind door number two. He waves the menu under my nose like a snifter. I take it. Here’s to hoping it might give me the boost I need to start a sentence that doesn’t begin with “What are the odds…”

All around us couples are holding hands in the clashing glow of overhead fluorescent lighting and table candles. I look around to make sure. One, two, three, yep, the whole place is holding hands like a rom-com, except no one ever casts a sad pregnant lady and her soon-to-be special needs family in a romance or a comedy. Two tables down by the window someone dips a skewered marshmallow into a pot.

“Let’s get fondue,” I say, the first full sentence of the night.

His eyes light up like I’ve just said I’ll marry him all over again. Or at least I assume that’s what his eyes did when he proposed five years ago. It was on a beach at night and he’d brought along a headlamp so he could see to put the ring on my finger. It was a little like being proposed to by a lighthouse.

But then again, he kind of is a lighthouse. He’s withstood the years of infertility better than me. I don’t do well with unknowns and diversions from the life plan. I’m the GPS to his star-gazing. The gazer always comes out ahead. And yet, through all of it, our marriage has gotten stronger. The IUIs, IVFs, FETs and all the other acronyms have unified us, as wars against an enemy tend to do. I’m no idiot. It could have gone another way. Divorce is big in the infertility world. But then again, it’s big in the special needs world too. I know. I’ve looked it up. I scan him across the table, the hollows under his eyes, the hipster beard turning gristly, the cracked lips because he’s obsessive with the Chapstick and has now formed a chemical dependency. My own hair is graying, my hands dry and a little shaky as I skewer a banana slice. We’re weathered. So much for that pregnancy glow.

We’ve been through so much by this time that I’ve grown outwardly unresponsive to calamity. To an observer, we are just a happily married couple on their way to parenthood. Our faces flicker gently in the candlelight.

I do not know on this February night that in one month, almost to the day, our son will be born at thirty weeks. It will be the same day we get the results from the Mayo Clinic, as if their call was his starting signal. As I dip my finger directly into the fondue pot, I do not know what Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome is or how to suction out a tracheotomy or read an oxygen and heartrate monitor and order new breaks for a wheelchair or what the “palsy” in “cerebral palsy” really means. I also do not know that my son will have blond curly hair and eyes that ripen to green like new moss. I do not know that he will be left-handed like me and a lover of music and a reader of books and a devotee to his iPad where we will never abide by screen time limits. I do not know that his laugh will become the center of things.

On this night I do not know the kind of mother I will become—the advocate, the nurse, the teacher, the scientist, the breaker of chains that would hold him back. All I understand on this Valentine’s night is that I married this man and we are having this child and though we do not hold hands, it’s enough.

This is not a love story. It is a life story.