The girl with cancer sleeps. Meanwhile, four blocks away, at eight weeks pregnant, I thrash in bed.
The next day, I walk those four blocks to visit her: the girl with cancer, my friend David’s daughter, Maxine, a seven year-old child. Earlier in the day, I ventured into the Times Square Disney store where I deliberated over which Frozen trinket to buy for Maxine: a glittery mug or a stuffed snowman; a character-adorned art kit or an oversized snow globe – my baby bump not yet visible – wondering which copyright-protected characters my child will obsess over, and whether we’ll even give in to the Disney pandemonium. I decided on the Frozen art kit, but now when I bring it to Maxine’s bedside, I realize my mistake: her paralysis has spread to her arms, and she can no longer control her hands well enough to draw. Her mother discretely moves the kit away from her while I try to deflect.
I ask Maxine a series of questions:
“What’s your favorite color?”
“I don’t have one. I like all the colors,” she responds.
“What’s your favorite food?”
“Hmm, I don’t know. I don’t have a favorite food. I like a lot of them.”
“What about your favorite animal? Dog?”
“I like dogs, but I like a lot of animals.”
I’m frustrated by her appreciation of all things. I want favorites. I want to put the world into boxes. I want definitive answers.
As I gather my belongings to leave in their foyer, Maxine’s mother, Lydia, confides in me, tears welling: her husband had confessed that he loves both his children but is intentionally growing closer to his older daughter, Isabella, to protect himself. She goes on, “But Maxine is just like him. They have a tight bond. She’s The One.”
I stand there in the suffocating entry hall, not knowing how to respond, overheating in my down winter jacket, hemmed in by a coatrack of puffy parkas, a child’s scooter, a Velcro tennis shoe collection, hats for small heads, and neglected homework assignments stacked precariously on top of jewel-toned backpacks. I stand there, trapped between walls. I touch Lydia’s hair and listen to her search for the manual called How To Watch My Child Suffer. Suddenly, as she talks, I feel a wave of chills, a whirl of vertigo. I squat, rolling myself in a ball for balance, to keep from passing out. Lydia interrupts herself to see if I am ok, then asks, in a moment of levity, “Maybe you’re pregnant?” She smiles.
I shake my head, furrow my brow, “No,” I say. This is not the time, I think.
This week, my baby’s muscles have begun to form. The books and blogs offer visualizations:
At 8 weeks, your baby is the size of a kidney bean.
At 9 weeks, your baby is the size of a raspberry.
Another book begs to differ:
At 8 weeks, your baby is the size of a raspberry.
At 9 weeks, your baby is the size of a green olive.
All sources rapidly advance to larger produce over the coming weeks:
At 16 weeks, your baby is the size of an apple.
At 20 weeks, your baby is the size of a banana.
At 34 weeks, your baby is the size of a cantaloupe.
Maxine asks me to cook her a batch of applesauce. She has asked little of people as her appetite dwindles; I can’t help but feel flattered and purposeful. I stew the apples, watch them liquefy, mix in the cinnamon until the specks disappear. By her bedside, spoonful by small spoonful, I feed it to her, asking if it tastes good. She closes her eyes and musters a nod and a subtle smile. I squeeze her hand, though she can no longer feel my touch, and wonder if she can sense that I am in the midst of bringing a new life into this world. Am I an ally or a traitor, a coward, a liar?
Weeks later we visit our obstetrician in her Manhattan office, a stone’s throw from the East River. We have come to learn the results of our Nuchal Translucency Ultrasound, which detects chromosomal abnormalities; and our MaterniT21 test, which detects additional chromosomal abnormalities, and in doing so, can determine the baby’s sex. We await the results of measurements and DNA samples to tell us how our now thirteen-week-old, peach-sized fetus is faring.
Our doctor tells us that all the tests are normal. We breathe a sigh of relief, freed from considering our reactions had the news been otherwise. My husband gets to press my barely bloated belly with a device and we listen to the tiny heart fluttering 160 times a minute.
“That’s your baby,” she informs us.
“Are you sure it’s not a whale?” my husband dryly asks.
“A whale’s heartbeat would be much slower, actually. The larger the mammal, the slower the heartbeat.”
“Right,” my husband whispers.
“A hummingbird’s heartbeat would be faster than your baby’s.” “I think it’s probably human,” I say.
“I would bet on that,” she says, smiling.
When we leave the doctor’s office, I clench a snack-pack of Cheddar Bunnies in my right hand, one of the few foods I can stomach, my left hand gripping the sealed envelope that contains a slip of paper with one of two words: GIRL or BOY. I suggest we cross the street and open the envelope under the bare trees, wrapped in strings of white Christmas lights.
My husband does the honors and we peek inside the envelope. In pencil, each letter is distinct, carefully marked in lines reminiscent of important notes passed in junior-high math class stating the names of crushes: GIRL.
Girl. I can’t stop thinking about Maxine, the girl with cancer, that special girl.
To focus on happier things, I call my friend Leslie to share my baby news. But when I ask how she’s doing, she tells me that her mom passed away months ago. Suddenly, I am the bad friend with the good news. I ask her what she’d told her four-year-old, train-obsessed son Alex about her mom’s death. She says:
“I wish we were religious so I could tell him she went to heaven with the angels. Instead, I went with physics: ‘Grandma’s body didn’t work any more because she was old, and now her body is dust so that all the things her body was made of can be new things, like trees and flowers.’ Or, according to Alex, like trains.
The leaves brown and thin as Maxine loses all touch and taste, and finally, one day deep into November, she dies. I am sixteen weeks pregnant.
After Maxine’s service, many of us return to her family’s home for a small reception. The whole community has rallied to be there: neighbors, friends, children, teachers, even Maxine’s school principal, who spoke at the funeral. While I palm a seltzer, feigning a vodka tonic, still not revealing my news, smoked pork and baked beans waft, equally repulsive and desirable in my condition.
At the service, David shared heartbreaking memories of Maxine’s ordinariness and her uniqueness. He mentioned their trip to Italy through the Make-a-Wish Foundation; how she swam in many oceans on many coasts in states many of us have visited and in countries most of us will never see; her love of dogs. But what haunts me the most are the details that make a person, a person: her insistence on collecting snails from their backyard so she could protect them from birds hungering for escargot.
As the trash begins to pile up in the hubbub of the crowded kitchen, a few of us sort through the overflow – separating empty beer bottles for recycling from paper plates sticky with the remnants of meat and rice. Picking up the tangible, the small and ordinary.
Over casual chatter, among the smeared paper towels and scraps of food, a woman combing through the trash spots a strap attached to a bug-collecting jar with breathing holes punched in the lid: inside are three snails. Maxine’s snails. Desperately, we fish out the jar and wipe away greasy rice grains, spilled beer, grounds of coffee stuck to the outside.
We offer the snails to David, who beams at our rescue, and, eyeing the survivors through the magnifying lid, proudly loops the strap of the jar onto the shutter of the kitchen window. As the jar steadies itself, each snail comes into focus, body suctioned with all its gooey might to the inside wall of the jar, tentacles reaching out, surrendering to the complete unknown.
I want to believe that Jane’s mom is trees. And flowers. And trains.
I try to believe that Maxine is trees. And flowers. And snails.
I decide to believe that, at sixteen weeks now, my baby is solid as an apple. Then big as a banana. Then certain as a cantaloupe. She will be, I guess, what she will be.
Originally from Cambridge, MA, Julia Price Baron received her BA from Vassar College where she majored in Creative Writing, and her MA from the University of Texas at Austin in Radio-TV-Film studies. She writes and produces for television, and created LoveFail, a comedic web series about online dating. She currently resides in Brooklyn, NY with her husband and daughter.