The back of the photo reads, “Hyde Park November 1978.” I flip it over it hoping to find some secret to my parent’s pre-child existence inside the curling and peeling white border. Mommy in tartan trousers, a navy wool sweater with her monogram, RAF, in the center and her omnipresent pearls stands near the top of a rolling green-brown hill. I can’t see the pennies in her loafers but I know they are there. She’s bearing her teeth with clenched jaws like she does in all photos – incapable of generating a friendly-looking smile if she says “cheese.” Her underbite gives the distinct impression of perpetual annoyance at the photographer.
In the foreground, I see Daddy’s long shadow. His legs balance, tree trunks planted in his two-feet under two-knees, under two-hips stance- perfected during his time on the USS Orriskany. I imagine he’s wearing Levi’s and an Aran fisherman’s sweater – his weekend uniform. His pre-Top-Gun Ray Ban aviator sunglasses are on top of his head. Daddy died young. It never occurred to me that this photographer’s error would later become emblematic of his presence in all of our lives – a shadow. The sun must be close to setting but my parents’ bodies indicate mid-afternoon – no fatigued slumping hinting that the autumn day is nearing its end. Even the dark fall blue of the sky is lightened and faded adding to the illusion of midday, nowhere near rest.
That’s how I remember them when they were together, always in mid-action. Mommy puts on diamond and emerald earrings while Daddy adjusts his green bow tie for the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick ball; Mommy leans back in her chair while Daddy drags on a Marlboro Red in mid-sentence; Mommy puts her elbow on the table and her chin in her hand while Daddy takes a slow sip of Remy Martin and smiles at her. When Daddy was home there was always music playing on the Hi-Fi – it was always silent when only Mommy was home. They reserved a certain silence just for each other, dancing to silent music and speaking silent languages only they could hear. I felt like an intruder or a spy whenever I watched them in these everyday moments. The normality of their interactions had the effect of heightening their intimacy. What does my marriage look like to our daughter?
Hyde Park, FDR’s house on the Hudson, sits atop a steep hill overlooking the Hudson River. It’s a museum and National Park but it still feels like a family home. Years later, well after Daddy died, Mommy and I drove up to Hyde Park and spent the day there. It’s her favorite house in the world. I can see how it impacted her own personal brand of Irish-Preppy interior design – a club chair covered in chintz perfectly at ease next to a country French arm chair, both angled around a slightly nicked wooden coffee table.
My mother is pregnant with me in the photo, but not showing. I marvel that she climbed that hill and then realize they probably started at the top. She started a stir in the extended family by deciding not to tell anyone she was pregnant with me until she was in her third trimester. She doesn’t like attention for what could be perceived as weakness.
My hand reaches down to my own newly pregnant belly. Was she afraid of things like spina bifida, trisomy 13, 18 or 21? Noonan’s syndrome, Turner syndrome, fragile X? Did they even tell anyone to fear things that happen 1 in 120,000 people? For now, these are my own secret worries. Will my teeth strain to grin in photos now?
My eyes trace the edge of the hill in the photo. After the nuchal translucency ultrasound, the tech did not smile at me. Rather, she said, “You can get dressed, the doctor will want to talk to you in his office.” Apparently, an enlarged sac of fluid behind a fetus’ neck could mean anything from no problems at all to a fatal birth defect. The renowned maternal-fetal medicine specialist, wearing reefs and a shark tooth necklace (these are the times I want to be back in New York with a slightly patronizing doctor wearing a tie and wingtips) asked, “Could be cardio-vascular. What runs in your family?”
“Well, umm.” Came out instead of, “My father died of a cerebral aneurysm complicated by smoking and Von Willebrand Disease.” My six-year-old daughter was sitting in the chair next to me because I couldn’t get a sitter. Her face looked like mine should have. I had to be brave and matter-of-fact for her sake. Thanks to modern genetic testing, we already knew that we’re having a boy. “Well, I guess we’ll schedule the amnio. Thank you for your time.”
As I walked out the door, Dr. Waiting-to-hit-Mavericks said, “Good luck.”
I place the photo on the table and ask my mother, “Was this at the FDR museum?”
“Yes. That was probably after the Holy Cross game at West Point. We took a lot of road trips that year. I was pregnant. It was nice to escape the city sometimes.”
“But you had that great apartment in The Village.”
“Yes, I did.”
“It was the Carter years, Kate. No one knew what the hell was next.”
She’s right though, “no one knew what the hell was next.” She probably expected a long happy life with my father. Instead, she was widowed at thirty-eight with a small freckle-faced eight year-old. If nothing else, it explains the reactionary political climate in her house. What the hell is next?
Is that her way of telling me as mothers we are always at a loss to know our children’s fate? We are hurling through space without at map, doing the best we can and nothing about parenting has really changed? Or, is she simply trying to avoid my tendency to over-analyze everything?
What I would give to be able to tell her that I am afraid of having a boy. I am afraid that he will have inherited some curse to die young – that I will love him and have to say good-bye too soon. No parent can imagine anything worse than something happening to his or her child. My fears for this boy extend beyond his nuchal translucency. What if I put a ticking time bomb in his brain? You can’t see that in a blood test, on an ultrasound screen, or even when he’s born with ten perfect fingers, ten nubby toes and electric blue eyes just like his sister.
All biological parents give their children DNA, that’s how the whole thing works. Yet I feel responsible for infusing his DNA with some unknown danger he never chose. Even worse, this risk marker could mean be nothing at all. How do I cling to the 80% chance that nothing is wrong instead of the 20% that something is indeed a problem? Why are genetic counselors allowed to call anything “normal?” My mother would tell me to stop “spinning.” She’d be correct but she never gave me the DNA that knows how to do that, as if such a thing exists.
That’s the full extent of our conversation. My mother isn’t one to reminisce. She has a way of ending her sentenced with a special kind of period – hers are extra final. No more discussion welcome here. Go do something productive with your time instead of noseying around my old photos.
Like my life and belly, she is in perpetual forward motion. Then again, according to physics – so is the Universe – expanding into infinity and rarely looking back at the dark matter trapped inside it and pushing it ever outward.
What will this new child see in photos of me? Huge sunglasses and an imperfect Us-Weekly pose? Will he know that I picture him with his older sister learning how to build a block tower on a sunlit afternoon, running while he laughs with mouth wide open? Will he know that all the knowledge we’ve gained since 1970’s, while miraculous has served only to make me more afraid for him? Will he know he is loved, even now when he resembles a microscopic round sea-horse swimming inside me? Perhaps it doesn’t matter because I know these things. For now, that’s all the assurance I can give.
EPILOGUE - 20 weeks later
John (Jack) Thomas Thome was born with 10 fingers and toes two weeks ago. We lived through an amnio, some concerns over my health, and a “very long” labor for a second child. He’s sliding right into our family of three and we are thrilled to have him here. Somehow, I know he knows he is loved. Welcome little one.