It is early afternoon on a Monday in September 2009. It doesn’t feel like Fall at all, at least not for someone like me who was raised in the Rockies.
The air outside is still hot and heavy with the smell of salt rolling in from the York River. This is only my second September in Virginia and I haven’t quite gotten used to the late-changing seasons below the Mason-Dixon line.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind the summer heat that lingers like a kiss on the land. I am just not used to it, that’s all.
I sit at my broad, white desk in my home office as I talk to my mother-in-law on the old black desk telephone with push buttons and a peeling orange sticker in the middle of the cradle. I weave the corkscrew cord back and forth and back and forth between my fingers.
As my mother-in-laws talks, I think about earlier that morning when I made ambitious plans with my Ph.D. adviser. We both agreed I would be ready to take my qualifying exams by the end of October, right before the weather turned cold for the year and the pecans across the field start to fall.
“Melynda, are you pregnant? I always get weepy when I am pregnant.”
I look out the window and watch several large turkey vultures making wide lazy circles in the hot September air. “No, that’s impossible,” I tell Penny as I reach for a tissue from the box behind my computer monitor. In unison, the vultures bank left on a rising thermal. “And we all know what it would mean if I am pregnant and that’s just a bridge too far for me right now. Plus, I have comprehensive exams next month and I am graduating in May. I can’t be pregnant.”
I hear my voice beginning to fray at the thought of being pregnant, because I know what I would have to endure both emotionally and physically.
Outside my window, the thermal drops away and the wings of the vultures flicker as they adjust their flight, the tips of their long feathers testing the air for new wind.
She laughs. “I remember feeling that way a couple of times too. In fact, out of my eight children, only one of them was planned! God just seems to have a way with these babies.”
“Yes, He certainly does have a time schedule of His own, doesn’t He?”
I untangle my fingers from the phone cord coiled around my right hand as we exchange parting pleasantries. As I hang up, I wonder what if my mother-in-law is right?
NO. She can’t be right. It is impossible to know this early anyway.
My cycle isn’t due for another five days. I can’t be pregnant.
Later that afternoon, I leave the refrigerated air of the Food Lion grocery store and step into the ocean air blowing up from the Chesapeake. I smile and relax into the moist heat. It loosens something inside of me, right near where the sinews meet with cartilage and bone. It feels like home.
As I pause to wait for the slow moving cars to pass in front of my cart, I look up at the aqua-blue water tower on my left. I count seven large vultures perched along the highest catwalk.
Man, those are creepy looking birds.
Across the parking lot is a Dollar Tree store, home to one of the most sensitive and most accurate pregnancy test on the market. Even better, the test only costs a dollar instead of $16 like those fancy ones at the pharmacies. Leaving the parking lot, I make an easy right turn onto Merrimac Trail, heat waves shimmering as they rise from the hot asphalt.
I look in my rearview mirror and see the Dollar Tree sign growing smaller.
Since I am here, I should get some tests. Just in case. I laugh at the thought.
Just in case of what? Just in case I am pregnant like Penny mentioned? Absurd.
Then again, they are only a dollar and I know the test will be negative. What would the harm be, right? I could grab a handful of them, take them all and could call my mother-in-law back and tell her she was wrong. We would have a good laugh and continue making plans for our trip to Uganda for the next summer.
Maybe I should get some tests. Just in case.
I make a quick U-turn at the next light, turning the small sedan back towards the Dollar Tree. I go in, pick up three tests and pay my three dollars cash, no tax since it is considered “medicine.”
When I walk out to the car, I see it with new eyes and realize if Penny is right, we will need a different one. It will be impossible to fit two car seats and a teenager in the back seat.
Well, we really need a new car anyway. I guess that wouldn’t be so bad. But she isn’t going to be right, so I shove the thought from my mind entirely.
I hurry home, trying to beat my son home from the bus stop. I hustle the groceries in and then step inside the half-bathroom just outside my office door.
“I have to go anyway, and since I am already here…” I justify in my mind as I open the first pregnancy test and read the directions.
The instructional designer in me coolly evaluates them as I perform the test, detached from what the results will mean.
“Well written, easy to follow. Two lines means I am pregnant. One line, I am not. Anything that appears after 10 minutes is a false positive. Got it.” I play Sudoku on my phone as I wait.
Impossible. It is a false positive, right? But it hasn’t been ten minutes yet, has it? I check the time on my Sudoku game. Three minutes, 10 seconds.
Impossible. It has to be a false positive. I am only eight days past ovulation. It is in the afternoon and the pregnancy hormone the test detects shouldn’t be high enough to read at this time of day, anyway, especially this soon after ovulation.
Impossible.I rip open another test and follow the instructions again.
I sit down on the toilet and stare at my shaking hands.
Slowly, I open the last test and follow the directions a third time.
I take the tests apart, inserting my thumbnail between the two plastic pieces encasing the test strip. I pull out the strips by the dry ends and hold them up to the light to carefully examine them, turning them this way and that.
Sometimes false positives on these Dollar Tree tests look different depending on the angle you hold the strip in the light, a slight indentation instead of a swelling.
All three tests had the telltale swelling across the second line.
Positive. Positive. Positive.
I hear the air conditioning unit kick on. I look back down at the test strips. They are still positive, positive, positive.
The phone rings. It is my husband.
Estimates are that 40-60% of all women who surrender a child for adoption go on to experience secondary infertility of one form or another.
In comparison, about 10% of all women worldwide who have had a previous child experience secondary infertility.
No one knows exactly why this happens and why surrendering mothers are so prone to this particular type of infertility. No one knows the exact number either. Few agencies or organizations care enough to find out what many birth mothers already know: losing a child to adoption profoundly affects our ability to get pregnant again, to carry another children to term, and to parent any future children.
That fall, I was not quite 38-years old and counted among those mothers who had relinquished a child for adoption, only to discover later that she didn’t have as many chances to be a mother as she thought.
After Luke was born, my husband and I were told we were done adding to our family, and not because we wanted it that way.
I had always wanted a large family.
Then I had Luke and all of those plans changed.
In the years between Luke’s birth in 2004 and the fall of 2009, I had come to terms with the reality of my body’s inability to sustain another pregnancy safely.
It was a hard journey, one that I didn’t share much of with anyone, even my husband. I was finally at peace with my life and was eager to welcome in the next phase. I had plans to take my comprehensive exams at school in the fall, write my dissertation and graduate the next spring.
My life was full of happiness with my two wonderful boys. The older one, Matthew was all knees and elbows, braces and disarming dimples. He was a five foot, ten inch tall 13-year old who showed no signs of slowing down his growth any time soon. My youngest, Luke, my newly minted five year old with Ghirardelli eyes and a rigid inborn code of morality and justice, had just started all day kindergarten exactly one week before.
I was just getting used to the seven hours of daily solitude when the pregnancy tests turned positive.
“Hey, I know you wanted to find out about more life insurance for me. We have the chance to enroll in another $500,000 if we get the paperwork turned in within the next month. The premiums are pretty affordable, too, especially for an old guy like me.”
Jeff laughs at himself and the joke about his age. He just turned 49 two months and three days before.
“I think this policy doesn’t exclude acts of war, either, like the other one.” Usually, this is an important detail to me as he spends a lot of time in dangerous places around the world in his job for the Department of Defense.
“Yeah? What is it? You sound a little distracted. Did I catch you at a bad time?”
“No, no. Not a bad time. I am a bit distracted though.”
I hadn’t had the time or inclination to dream up some way of telling him. The words just tumbled out. “Um…well. I’m pregnant.”
“Oh my gosh, Melynda! Really? Are you kidding me?! That’s awesome!!!”
I stare at the neon orange sticker on the black melamine phone base, the corners peeled back from years of wear. It reads, “In case of emergency, call base police at 6-1-1.”
Does this constitute an emergency because it sure feels like one?
“Oh my gosh,” Jeff says again, this time with a bit less enthusiasm and a lot more concern in his voice.
Over the phone, I can hear reality setting in as he realizes what a pregnancy means for me, for him, and for our family. I imagine he remembers he was the one who emptied the supra-pubic catheter for two weeks after the surgery to repair the damage of a precipitous delivery. He was the one who took care of everything at home for the long twelve weeks post-op when I couldn’t lift anything heavier than three pounds, drive a car, or do any housework.
I hear him sigh deeply on the other end of the phone, the air making a baritone hum as it escapes, his joy momentarily tempered by his memories.
“It had to have been at the Outer Banks.”
He chuckles. “Oh, yes. That makes sense.” In his voice, I hear his eyes crinkling up around the corners. He smiles at the memory of our recent family vacation to the string of coastal barrier islands in North Carolina.
“But what about comprehensive exams? What about your dissertation? Are you still going to graduate next year? Is this safe for you after the surgery?”
“No. Graduation is not going to happen.” I reply. “I think I am due just a few weeks afterwards and there is no way I can meet all the deadlines. I don’t know if it is safe. I haven’t talked with Dr. Welgoss yet. I know what he is going to tell me and I don’t want to hear it.”
“Wow, babe. Just wow. So when are you due?”
I quickly search online for a due date calculator and type in the date of my last cycle. “I am due May 26.” Two weeks before my first daughter was due.
Fourteen weeks later, I am hopped up on a handful of gummy bears and 16 ounces of orange juice. My hands are jittery and my left foot thumps at a steady pace against the floor. Jeff and I are waiting for an ultrasound to find out the sex of the baby I am carrying.
I had wanted to come by myself and then surprise Jeff with the pictures on Christmas morning two weeks later. I chickened out though. I had a hunch I would need him there with me and not at work teaching people how to shoot guns.
“Hi, Ms. Fitt?” says a middle-aged woman with roller-set hair and frosted peach lipstick. I smile wide. I love it when people call me Ms. Fitt. If they say it fast enough, like she just did, it sounds like “misfit.” Most of the time they don’t even realize the joke. This morning I find it particularly humorous as it diffuses some of my growing anxiety.
I rise from my chair as she extends her hand to me. “My name is Sandra and I am going to be doing the ultrasound this morning. This must be Mr. Fitt.” She offers her hand to Jeff. “Well, come on back here with me and let’s get started.”
We follow her down a long hall that gets darker as we get closer to the room. “So is this your first baby?” Sandra turns to ask as we reach our destination. My husband and I look at each other and laugh.
He will be turning 50 next year and I just turned 38.
It wasn’t a question either of us was expecting. This baby wasn’t something we were expecting, either.
I climb onto the table, the tissue crunching and tearing as it catches on the back pocket of my jeans. I lay back, unzip my pants and pull them low around my hips. I mindlessly brush the stretch marks low on my belly and immediately think of my daughter.
They are one of the few physical reminders I have that she actually exists, that she isn’t a beautiful dream I once had.
Instead of saying, “I have two boys at home” I say, “No, I have had three others.”
When people ask about my children, I usually don’t tell them about my third child, their older sister. It just leads to messy, difficult, and almost always awkward conversations.
It is my way of preventing people from saying things they might otherwise regret. However, I always try to be honest with medical personnel about my number of pregnancies. It usually isn’t good to lie to them about those kinds of things.
“Oh wonderful! So this is baby number four for you then? Are the others boys or girls?” Sandra squirts a generous amount of warm gel onto my abdomen and places the transceiver firmly at my navel.
“Oh, well…” my words trail off slightly as I try to figure out what to say. “My daughter is 17 ½.” Jeff gently squeezes my hand when he hears my voice catch. “The boys are just barely thirteen and five.”
“Wow. That’s quite an age spread! And now another one on the way? I bet your older daughter is a lot of help around the house.”
“Well, you know teenagers,” I say.
I don’t tell her my daughter isn’t living with me. That I don’t know teenagers. That I don’t know own teenage daughter.
The words sounds like gunfire to my ears and the unspoken truth smells of burned cordite. It lingers between my husband and myself.
I look at him and with a small shake of my head and a shrug of defeat, my eyes say, “I am sorry for not telling the truth. I can’t win in this situation and I really don’t want to go there this morning.”
He rubs his thumb across the back of my hand and silently mouths the words, “It’s OK. I love you.”
I drop my gaze from his, ashamed that he is part of my lie now, too.
“Alright then. Let me just get a few measurements first. According to the records you are 15 weeks and six days, right?”
Most of which have been spent prostrate on the bathroom floor as I try to curb the rising tides of nausea and heartbreak. When that doesn’t work, a trip to the emergency room to be rehydrated and intravenous meds usually does the trick.
“Looks like baby agrees with us! This little one is measuring right on schedule. Now let’s get to the business of finding out if this is a boy or a girl.”
Sandra flips a switch so we can see the baby in 3D. The transceiver glides over my stomach until it finally comes to rest just above my pubic bone. I wince in pain as she pushes against it, trying to get a better angle of the baby. I can feel it is already out of joint, tender and broken where it should be strong and straight.
“Oh, Hi there little one! See that right there? It looks like you have a snuggly little baby girl. See how she is laying there against the placenta like it’s a big pillow? Congratulations Mom and Dad – it’s a girl.”
I study the picture on the screen carefully. She is facing my spine and moves her hands over her ears as if to block out the sound waves from the ultrasound. Her delicate ribs sprout like new grass from the strand of pearls that is her spine. Her hipbones are smooth shells. She moves her hand a bit and I see her ears. Her nose. A girl.
Sandra moves the transceiver, trying to get the baby to turn towards the screen. She is looking for a clear shot of the baby’s face but has to settle for a profile.
I turn my face away towards my husband’s chest. Every time he shifts, I can smell the cedar wood warmth of his body rising up from the collar of his sweater. He is leaning forward, intently gazing at the ultrasound screen, enraptured with this tiny baby girl. Silent, hot tears slip from my eyes. A girl. Jeff leans down, kisses my hand and then lets his lips linger near my wedding ring, never taking his eyes off of her.
I retreat into myself. I am numb.
Eventually Sandra is done. She prints some pictures and hands them to Jeff. I stand, woozy on my feet. I fumble with the zipper on my jeans. I can feel the teeth scraping against my nails as I search for the pull. I grin mechanically at Sandra. I thank her. Jeff leads me to the car and helps me in. His chatter fills the void between us.
Isn’t she beautiful? That was amazing! Did you see her nose? Oh my gosh, she is gorgeous! Do you still want to name her after our moms? My mom will be so excited to find out its a girl! It’s a girl, Melynda. We are having a daughter.
As we pull out of the parking lot and make our eastward way towards I-64, a silent but deep cry begins to well upside of me. It starts where this baby rests against my spine and snakes it way up into my throat. Tears begin to fall as I gasp for breath.
Jeff looks over at me quickly, trying to gauge both my emotions and the speed of the traffic as we merge onto the northbound lanes. “Oh wow—I didn’t realize you are so happy you are crying, Melynda! Can you believe we are having a baby girl? A daughter!”
I don’t know what to say. Actually, I do know what to say, I am just scared of saying it out loud, scared to hear the answers to my questions.
I don’t want Jeff to think I am ungrateful for this baby, because I am grateful to have another chance at being a mother, I just . . . I just don’t know how to raise a daughter when I gave away my first one.
The vibration of the tires increases as they pick up speed on the Interstate. It unwinds my resolve. What starts out as a small whine grows into a lioness’s roar as I kick against the floorboards and hit my fists into the door panels and dashboard.
A primal sound escapes my mouth as I scream, “I am not crying because I am happy, I am crying because I am terrified I am going to lose this daughter, too! Why would God send me another daughter? Didn’t His church leaders already determine I am not worthy enough to parent a daughter? How could He do this to me? To her? To all of us? Why didn’t we matter to His church? Weren’t we a family, too?”
Somewhere along Willoughby Spit, somewhere near where my maternal ancestors carved out a life from the wilderness in the 1620s, the roar in my heart and throat falls back to a whine and then fades away.
When my anger and tears are spent. I lean my head against the window and stare out at the naked forests for the rest of the ride home.
I am those trees, stripped bare of any pretense, my arms reaching towards an empty sky.
My throat burns as Jeff takes my hand. “Melynda, I am so sorry you are hurting. You know that God had nothing to do with you losing her, right?”
“Yes. I know. I guess.” The words escape me as a long drawn out sigh.
I had known from the very start of this pregnancy it would be a girl who would be named after her grandmothers. I was not shocked the day the ultrasound technician proclaimed, “Its a girl!” Somehow, my soul already knew.
And my heart began to shatter all over again into a million tiny shards.
Raising two boys had insulated me from losing my first-born daughter to adoption. After all, I had been able to white-knuckle my way past the sea of pink hair bows, barrettes, leggings, ruffles, and tutus in the girl’s clothing section to make it to the boy’s.
I had been able to breath deeply and reach past the sweet little patent leather Mary Janes for yet another pair of light-up Thomas the Tank engine sneakers.
I could keep the boys’ hair short and not worry about battling morning tangles and ponytails. There had been no baby dolls, princess dress up clothes, or Polly Pocket pieces to step on in the dim morning light. Just Legos, cars, and trains. Lots and lots of trains.
In short, raising boys had allowed me a bit of breathing room and distance from her because I was not daily reminded of what I had lost.
Well, that isn’t entirely true.
Once Luke came around with his eyes the same deep shade of brown her’s, it became impossible to suppress the memories of her any longer. Every time I gazed into his eyes, she was there.
I thought I had been doing “OK” with managing the disenfranchised grief most mothers who relinquish a child for adoption experience. After all, I had a solid and well-functioning marriage, was a wonderful mother to the two boys I had with me, and was about to finish a Ph.D.
Mothers who are deemed unworthy by their culture of raising their own child as a single mama don’t do those kinds of things, do they?
However, the day I found out for certain this last baby I was carrying was a girl, I was plunged into a pit of grief too long ignored and subverted. I discovered I was not doing as well as once assumed.
I will be the first to admit I drank the adoption Kool-aid, sucking it down like it was the nectar of life. I had to because otherwise, the horror of what I had done to my daughter would have consumed and destroyed me in those first early years post-relinquishment.
But eventually the anesthesia wears off and I was left wanting answers.
The most pressing question weighing on my mind was where had God been in all of this? I had been struggling for nearly eighteen years to sort out the theology of the church from its brutal cultural practices, especially in regards to single mothers. I was finding it very difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile the God of the Restoration with the God of the Mormon culture.
Perhaps I could not reconcile the two because the God I have come to know and worship would never require me to sacrifice my own child and my motherhood on the altar of adoption to justify my redemption.
Perhaps it is because I had come to understand no amount of good works, not matter how “unselfish” or “heroic” or “loving” my church and culture claim them to be, can qualify me for a place in God’s house.
I know these things now, but I didn’t know them those many years before when I had faced a stern bishop, urging me to relinquish my daughter for adoption or face excommunication. I know this now, but I didn’t know it those many years ago when I was urged on every side to “be a good mother” and “do the right thing.”
And it was this knowing as a 38-year old woman and not a scared 20-year old that fueled the fire of my rage on the way home from the ultrasound.
As we turn onto the wide lane that sweeps in front of our home, I see a group of turkey vultures on my rooftop as they sun their wings in a regimented line.
For some reason, my house has become a veritable day-spa for vultures. It all started in September, around the time I discovered I was pregnant.
Every morning a kettle of ten or more of them congregate on up there, their wings spread wide to the morning sun as they stack up like B-52s waiting for take-off. Some days there are too many for the roof and so they roost in the trees outside my bedroom and office windows. When there are too many for the roof and the trees, they simply stand around the front yard and lounge about like a flock of Thanksgiving turkeys.
One time I counted forty-two of them on the roof line, the trees, and on the ground.
When I give people directions to my home, I tell them, “Look for the home with all the turkey vultures hanging around.”
“Damn it! Those creepy birds are back again, Jeff. Why don’t they just leave me alone?”
I took their presence as a personal affront, like they had some elaborate plot to unnerve me with their bald, wrinkled heads. Over the months, their droppings that made our roof look like the losing side of a paint-ball fight and it felt like a punishment of some kind from the Universe.
“I don’t know, Maybe they just like your cooking?” Jeff tried to cheer me up with his attempt at humor, his way to help us both move past what had just happened in the car.
“Don’t worry, I’ll go get the sling shot and chase them away.”
When the turkey vultures first started hanging out at our home, we called Wildlife and Resource Management on base. Jeff wanted to use his .22 on them but it turns out turkey vultures are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. The most lethal thing he could do was ping them in the butts with a plastic BB shot from a slingshot.
As I slowly navigate my way up the stairs and to my bedroom, I hear my husband rummage around the cabinet and pull out the slingshot. The front door clicks shut. I imagine him crouched low like a panther as he draws on all of his commando skills to make his way towards the back yard where he can get a clear shot. A few BBs ping against the siding as he misses the first couple of times.
Then the BBs find feathers and bird flesh and the vultures fly across the field and take refuge in the century-old pecan trees at my neighbor’s house.
The pain of seventeen stairs has left me exhausted and in this exhaustion, the nausea begins to well up again in my stomach. The nausea has overwhelmed me this pregnancy and has moved from a mere inconvenience to a medical diagnosis of hyperemesis gravidarum. In spite of the anti-nausea medications, I have already lost 18 pounds and had at least one visit to the emergency room.
I find myself in the bathroom, leaning over the sink. I look into the mirror. Eyes the same deep brown as Luke’s and her eyes stare back at me. I fall to my knees, my hands grip the sink as I press my forehead into the wood grain of the cabinet door.
Something breaks loose in my soul.
What feels like liquid betrayal begins to ooze out of my bones. This pregnancy feels like a betrayal of my first daughter, the one I gave away to be raised by strangers, my last touch a Judas-kiss on her perfectly formed lips. It feels like a betrayal of this second daughter who will grow up not knowing her older sister.
The tears that fall on the tile floor ask the universe again if God and His church didn’t think I was worthy then, then why I am worthy now? I am the same person, the same mother. If I wasn’t good enough for HER, then why am I am good enough for this one?
In recent days, I had learned of fetal-maternal microchimerism, where a fetus’s cells pass the placental barrier and mingle with their mother’s and embed deep into her bone marrow and liver. Through this incredulous fact of biology, my children’s unique DNA lives on in me, rubbing and bumping up against my own.
It is my daughters’ cells mingling in my bloodstream that tastes like iron when I exhale, it is their DNA crying out at the injustice adoption has brought into all of our lives. This deep physical ache for both of my daughters is a fresh and widening bruise, emanating from the matrices of my bone marrow.
Eventually, I make my way to my bed and fall into a heavy sleep, dreamless and without movement.
When I wake a few hours later, the vultures are back.
I see their shadows on the grass outside as they circle my home. I hear their claws grip my roofline as they jockey for the prime spot in the weak December sun.
My neighbor, half Chippewa by birth, a zoologist by training, and a mystic by nature, tells me turkey vultures are a most auspicious sign. They mean rebirth and regeneration. They consume the old so new life can come about.
Vultures are good, she tells me.
Nekhbet, the goddess of childbirth and feminine energy in ancient Egyptian culture is depicted as a vulture. In fact, the Egyptian hieroglyph for mother is the same as the one for vulture. They are clever and resourceful and actually have quite a sense of humor, “as far as scavengers go,” she laughs.
Vultures are fierce and protective mothers, and are impeccable caretakers of their young. Apollo believed them to be oracles, prophets in their own right.
Vultures are a very good sign, Melynda, she tells me again. Stop trying to chase them away.