I didn’t recognize the feeling of being pregnant. I was seventeen and strapped into a seat on the Big Mountain Thunder ride at Walt Disney World. I felt a sharp pain. Then I felt another. Soon it was excruciating. I bit my lip, willing the tears not to begin. My knuckles turned white as I gripped the safety bar holding me back.
I stumbled to the nearest restroom and discovered a horrific sight. “We have to leave,” I told my boyfriend at the time. “Now.”
I curled up into a ball on the floor of our hotel bathroom, my arms folded against my stomach and begged to be put out of my misery. He knocked, gently at first, but the rapping became more urgent when all he heard were the groans escaping my throat. I stretched and unlocked the door. “Are you okay,” he asked.
What a stupid question, I thought.
“No,” I replied. I refused a trip to the hospital. I had no health insurance. I ran through a list of possibilities. I have Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. Perhaps it was a ruptured cyst. Maybe this was payback for the many months of amenorrhea. The idea of being pregnant never crossed my mind.
I made an appointment with a local primary doctor. “It’s simple,” he coldly informed me, “You had a miscarriage. I don’t recommend a D&C since it’s been a few days already. Get some iron.” I stared at him blankly. He ran his pen over my chart. The scribbling sounded miles away. “You might want to find a grief counselor too.”
I watched the door close behind him, and took notice of the way his white coat swayed. I heard the thin, protective paper covering the examination table as I shifted. I heard the sounds of a busy medical office through the thin wall. I slid one arm out of the fabric gown. This is swanky for an office that works on a sliding scale, I thought. I slowly made my way back into my own clothes. I crept into the waiting room, willing myself to not cry.
“So, what’s the verdict?” he asked when I emerged. A magazine was splayed in his lap but all I could think about was how ridiculous it was to ask this in a fully occupied waiting room.
I stood there while my fingers nervously tapped against my thighs before ultimately folding my arms across my chest. “I was …pregnant.” I frantically made my way for the front door, shoving it open and squinting at the blazing Floridian sun. He scrambled behind me.
“What?” He grabbed my shoulders and turned me towards him. “Did you say pregnant? Did you say ‘was’?”
“Yeah. Was. As in I’m not anymore.” I sat in the car in stony silence on the way back to our apartment. I made my way to our bedroom, gently closing the door behind me. I crawled slowly into bed, buried my face in the stack of pillows and cried until there were no tears left. I never asked any of the seemingly obvious questions. I did not know the baby’s gender. I had not been far enough along or even aware enough to know.
In my mind, though – in the fiction I created for myself – it was a boy. He had light brown curly hair, chocolate brown eyes with barely perceptible flecks of gold in them. He had a chubby body, cheeks that begged to be pinched, and a cherub mouth. He was the best of both of us. I named him and I kept it to myself. If I don’t get to have him, I told myself, no one does.
Two years later, I received a phone call from my best friend. “You’re not going to believe this,” the words falling from her mouth as fast as I had ever heard her. I did not have a chance to ask what this was about. “I’m pregnant!” I did all of the things society tells you to do. I congratulated her. I offered to take her to doctor’s appointments. I helped her move into another house. I bought baby clothes. I cried.
I cried a lot.
By the time Kristin was born, I had moved out of state. I spent months using this as an excuse why I had not visited. I stopped calling as frequently and when I saw my best friend’s number come up on my phone, I often let it go to voicemail. I learned to delete the messages as soon as she got past her typical ‘hello’ or else I would hear Kristin cooing in the background. The sound must have become like white noise to her mother, but in my own ears, it was the sound of my heart breaking.
In time and from a distance, I stayed involved. My best friend went on to have two more children, both boys. I spent hours on the phone helping them with homework, sent workbooks I had scoured teaching supply stores to find, explained math. I patiently listened to stories about school and friends and the latest developments in their lives.
We stitched together our own intentional family and created memories. During visits, we would take long drives with the windows down and the music up. I would wake to the sound of Kristin clicking my heels against the tile floor. It was not perfect and they were not mine, but they were close enough.
Years later, I received a panicked call. “She has nowhere to go,” my best friend spat out. “I don’t know what to do. I can’t afford to move out.”
“Slow down,” I said. “What are you talking about?”
“Kristin. Her grandmother kicked her out.”
“She’s fourteen!” I screamed into the phone. I listened. I sighed. “Well,” I said, “It looks like she’s staying longer than just the summer. Send everything. We’ll figure it out later.” Two weeks later, she stepped off the plane and fully into my life.
I began the process of registering her for school. I stood immobilized in Staples. I have no idea what kind of binder a freshman needs. I mean, does it need pockets? Should I get built-in dividers? How many does she actually need? The fear of failure over something as seemingly simple as school supplies washed over me. “Don’t worry,” my best friend said when I called her in hysterics that night. “I was the same way for first grade. This is really first grade for you. You’re going to do fine.”
I had separation anxiety. I was worried sick when she had to leave the house for anything. She had moved over a thousand miles away to an unfamiliar place. She had no friends here, no support network other than me. “We may get to a point,” I told her, “Where you won’t feel you can talk to me. I want you to know that I will always be here for you and if for any reason you can’t talk to me, I want you to find an adult you trust. Don’t keep things to yourself. I love you.”
Fall turned to winter turned to spring turned to summer. I watched her blossom with each changing season. I reveled in her first winter, the first time she felt snow collecting on her eyelashes. Report cards came and went. I had always known she was smart and capable, but I also knew she was not motivated. I watched all of this change. Her grades improved. I supported her through difficult teenage friendships and hard life lessons. “I want to go to college,” she declared one day.
I beamed. “Well then,” I said, “We’ll get you there.”
This is a chance to do this right, I told myself. The way you would have done for your son. He would almost be Kristin’s age.
I never feel good enough. I let her watch as I often flounder in this thing called adulthood. We talk openly about successes, our failures and what we learned from them. We have Girls Night and junk food runs and spa days. We have times where we cannot bear to be in each other’s company.
People tell me it was brave and courageous to take in a child to whom I am not related. Sometimes, I agree with the sentiment. I frequently doubt myself. I wonder if I’m doing and providing enough. I worry about her going out into the world. I have the same fears that keep me up at night as any other parent. “You may not have given birth to me,” she’s said, “But you’re just as much my Mom as my Mom is.”
While I can’t have my son – my David Michael – with his curly hair and cherub mouth, I often think I would have been an amazing mother.
Then I realize that I already am.