We were in Manhattan when I started spotting. Everything about our pregnancy had been we. “We’re pregnant,” we told Aunt Lucy at lunch, breaking the three-month rule because we weren’t in Manhattan that often. We told Cliff’s parents, his cousins. Yet here it was, indisputably me who was spotting.
I called my OB’s office to ask if it was safe to fly back to Seattle.
“How many weeks are you?”
“What does the spotting look like?”
Purplish. Kind of thick, but not a lot of blood. Not a lot, I stressed. It had taken nine months to get pregnant—nine months of temperature-taking, “Now, Cliff!” sex; of waiting, waiting, waiting; of fourteen other couples, all good friends, making their big announcements. When we finally got pregnant, we didn’t tell my family—not parents or siblings, not seconds, however removed. Ten years prior, I’d tried to talk to them about the abuse that happened during my childhood. They shut me down. I was alone, still five years from knowing that Cliff Meyer walked the planet, but I accepted that my family couldn’t be the one I deserved. I would create a family that could. And now I was spotting.
My OB said nothing could stop a miscarriage once it started, so the flight wouldn’t determine the situation one way or another. We flew home and went bleeding—I was bleeding—to our scheduled appointment with the genetic counselor.
She flips open our thin file. “Alle Hall and Cliff Meyer?”
Cliff squeezes my hand with a regular, comforting rhythm, radioing over: “Best Sweetheart.”
“What kind of blood?”
“Bright red, now,” I say. “Lots.”
They send us to ultrasound. The med tech—compassionate eyes above the severe neutrality of her white mask—says, “I am not seeing a fetus” and leaves to fetch the doctor. In the false twilight of the exam room I reach for Cliff’s hand, to tell him what I had previously told two best girlfriends but not him.
“I thought she was a girl.”
Her name was Mira. In Hebrew, Mira is short for Miriam, one of the few women in the Torah who wasn’t “So-and-so’s mother,” or “So-and-so’s sister.” Miriam was a prophet and a diviner. Her name means “bitterness,” though I prefer the alternate translation: “rebellion.”
I wanted a Hebrew name that worked as a Sea World name—if you get picked from the audience and the dolphin trainer says, “What’s your name, kid?” you don’t want to have to say, “Liviyatan.”
Cliff wanted a “normal” name.
I wanted Mira.
In those first weeks I didn’t reveal that I was having girl feelings, but as Cliff and I played with names—“Nadav!” “Is that a boy or a girl?”—I did lay the groundwork.
“Cliff, did you know that ‘Meira’ is Hebrew for ‘light’? If we have a girl, we could make your last name into her first name.”
“Meira Meyer? Like, ‘Duran Duran’?”
“Not Meira Meyer. Meira Hall.”
Cliff answered, “How about Halle Meyer?”
In theory, Cliff was okay with Mira, perhaps by comparison only. At least now, we wouldn’t have to fight over her name.
The exam room. The doctor wields a large, vibrator-looking thing that can only be the vaginal ultrasound. In it goes. Some pain. I worry, as I have for the last eleven weeks when anything went in, about miscarrying.
The medical wand against the inside of my belly projects my viscera onto the blue computer screen. No fetus.
Click click. With a mouse, the doctor circles the lump of cells that was supposed to have been my child. In seconds, he determines that “development stopped” between five and seven weeks.
I am eleven weeks pregnant. Was. Am. The egg sac and placenta are developing normally, so I (choose your verb) pregnant. There is weight gain, gas, nausea that elicits, “Good!” from every mom and medical person I talk to. They all say, “That means the baby is taking what it needs.”
Only she wasn’t. She quit at five weeks.
“Why?” I ask.
The doctor has no answer. No one has that answer. Left-leaning friends remind me that in Buddhist philosophy, a woman doesn’t lose a baby. The baby chooses different parents. I want to cave their hippy skulls in. Why didn’t Mira think I’d be a good mom? I’d done all this work around my childhood abuse. I would background-check caregivers. I wouldn’t give her Barbies. I would feed her organic everything but would let her eat junk when the other kids were eating it. OK, I’d even give her a Barbie if she wanted one, but I’d also sign her up for Aikido.
Two days after confirming I am/was pregnant, it takes ten minutes for my OB to scrape the remnants of Mira’s placenta and egg sac from my uterus. It is months before I can act on Cliff’s suggestion that we plant something in her honor. The list of pregnant friends keeps growing: 22, 23. Even the receptionist where I go for physical therapy sports a bump. Finally, we fill the two terra cotta planters on the front porch with shrubs. They are evergreen.
When Miriam the Prophet was a five-year-old slave girl, the Pharaoh of Egypt ordered all Hebrew boys murdered at birth. The slaves resolved to stop having babies. This might not need explaining, but in ancient times, the only way to ensure that there would be no more babies was to have no more sex. All of five years old, Miriam foresaw the man who would lead her people to freedom. All of five years old, she convinced her father to once again take her mother under the chuppa. They had a son. His name was Mosheh. Moses.
Which makes Miriam someone’s sister, after all. I imagine a lean girl with fierce eyes above a strong nose, quiet until she has something to say—at which point, you can’t shut her up. I imagine a child with an uncanny ability to hope, even when the grown-ups give up.
As an adult, Miriam used her divining skills to find water for the former slaves during the 40 years they wandered the dessert. Jewish women of the feminist variety adore Miriam. She was not a big part of Passover until we reconstructed it. We re-wrote the haggadah—the book that leads us through the ritual seder—to include her. We created songs and readings in her honor. We made up the Miriam’s Cup, to balance the traditional Cup of Elijah, which stands filled with wine for the prophet Elijah to drink from, a harbinger of the Messiah.
Miriam’s Cup only ever holds mayim hayim, “living waters.” We found her. She validates us.
I have a Miriam’s Cup, made by my friend Yael. Its thick, blue, ceramic base tapers to a narrow, beaded neck, on which sits a shallow scoop of hand-blown glass. Yael also made a companion Elijah’s Cup, in red. Elijah waits in the cabinet for his once-a-year appearance on our seder table. Initially, in addition to seder, I used Miriam to honor the new moon each month. Recently, I’ve started using her weekly. Cliff and I welcome Shabbat with traditional candles, challah, wine, and Miriam’s living waters. Miriam enables me to claim my heritage without claiming my parents. I like to imagine I have some of her insight. But I had hoped for a daughter who would have her power—the power that was taken from me as a child.
After the D&C, my OB diagnoses my progesterone level as “lowish.” The daily dose she prescribes must be shoved up my crotch, followed by fifteen horizontal minutes allotted to “absorbing”—a euphemism for “dripping all over the goddamn place.” Even less charming, progesterone makes me feel as if I’ve eaten an excess of meat.
I stop taking it and find an acupuncturist who specializes in fertility issues—underscoring that I have them. Meanwhile, all the literature instructs me to believe that I am perfectly normal: one in every twenty pregnancies miscarries. I am not supposed to worry until I kill three.
We (we are back to “we”) spend the summer in treatment (though I’m the one with all the appointments) and the fall “trying.” When the number of friends making their happy announcements tops thirty, I stop counting. When Cliff calls me, “Best Sweetheart,” I say, “A ‘Best Sweetheart’ wouldn’t have lost the baby.” I hate having fertility issues. I hate taking my temperature. I hate sex.
January. Bingo. And the real waiting begins. I can’t ignore that Mira chose another mom. My acupuncturist says I worry too much. For this she needs medical training?
I thought she was a girl. Clear girl feelings. I didn’t tell Cliff because Cliff didn’t even want to let many friends know we were “trying.” I had begrudgingly accommodated his caution, telling only my closest friends. Then, when it was the last thing I wanted to discuss, I had had to tell them the baby died.
I am having boy feelings.
When we make our happy announcement, friends who don’t know about the miscarriage ask if we want a boy or girl. There’s a question for the privileged. I want to bond without the terror of “What if I do?” I want to stop aching. Every time I stand for more than twenty minutes, a deep ache permeates my pelvis. Neither my OB nor acupuncturist can diagnose it. They both ask if it feels like pre-menstrual cramping.
“I don’t know. I don’t cramp.”
“What happens before your period?”
“I get this ache.”
They both say, “Oh.” They both look worried.
Around the end of my fourth month, I dream of a boy with dark curls and eyes that crinkle into new moons when he smiles. He looks like the photographs of Cliff’s father as a child. In the dream, I press my son’s face into my neck and say, “I love you,” over and over.
Squeeze, squeeze, squeeze. He hugs my neck with the pulse-like rhythm his papa uses to comfort me. When the genetic counselor reveals, “It’s a boy,” I laugh and burst into tears.
Cliff looks puzzled. “You really wanted a boy?”
“No! I was right!”
We favor the name Zachary. It means “in memory of.” Zachary Fritz Hall Meyer. “Fritz” was Cliff’s father’s name. We are unclear if “Hall” is a second middle or first last name. I don’t care. It just has to be there.
Zachary also means “remembrance of God.”
I am terrified that I will kill him, too; so terrified, that when I turn an ankle waddling to the front door, I insist we go to the emergency room. The ER confirms that Zachary is fine but my ankle is sprained. They send me back to PT, where I find out that the receptionist’s baby was stillborn. Routine delivery, no problem, then, dead. Oh, Julie.
Eight months pregnant and wobbling around on crutches, I finally stop worrying about miscarriage. I’ve got my teeth into stillbirth. “What to do if stillborn” occupies an inordinate amount of space on our birth plan. Surely once I hold him, once he is safely delivered, these worries will end.
Prior to pregnancy—prior to meeting Cliff, even—I spent a solid decade in therapy, addressing the repercussions of surviving the family I was born into. Pushing out Zac after six hours of active labor that began on my due date, I felt pretty on top of how I would parent; no Barbies, no abuse. When I finally held him, when he was finally safely here, my fears did not go away. They intensified.
Parents often say their greatest fear is that what happened to them will happen to their kids. The luckier want to be more emotionally available/have more money/spend more time than their parents did. My father was a pedophile and a rapist; my mother, always either outrageously happy or raging. Once—I was between four and six years old—I opened the door and found her standing there. I knew my mother. Why was she knocking like a visitor on her own front door?
My therapist suspects my mother suffered from what was then called Multiple Personality Disorder—now, Dissociative Identity Disorder. This explains the furious swirl in an orchid-colored bathrobe coming after me with a steak knife. The bend of her back over my brother’s bed. I have no doubt that she physically, sexually, and emotionally abused us, but this murky diptych is my clearest memory. I have crystalline images of my father’s abuse. At a core level, I accept that men rape and batter. In a way, I expect them to. The same level of betrayal from my mother is more than I will allow myself to remember in detail.
For years, I checked regularly with my therapist: are you sure I am not multiple? She said she was sure. She had been seeing me for 12 years. Alle always showed up. Work never complained about absenteeism. I wore a consistent style of clothing. I didn’t suddenly find myself in Argentina. Most importantly, I remembered my life. There were no big holes. I showed no signs of DID.
My question became, “Why not?”
Doctors never have that answer.
As the years passed, as I moved toward marriage, then motherhood, I lived with an uneasy acceptance of what I could only categorize as a blessing: Alle continued to show up.
Then they handed me that tiny, amazing bundle named Zac.
Initially, I was only aware of everything that someone else could do to him. I knew the odds: one in every three girls, slightly fewer boys. This was a time when the relevant parts still hurt—vagina from giving birth, nipples from breastfeeding—when the night feedings meant more than interrupted sleep. The terror of a dark house. Of the grocery store, the park. What if I turned my back for too long, or misjudged a sitter? A friend I had known for years?
Cliff did his best, waking during night feedings to sit with me until he conked out flat on the carpet in Zac’s room, but he could not get on board with what we agreed to call my hypervigilance. He—like most of our parenting peers—thought me a paranoid freak. Cliff, my question is not, “Don’t all parents insist their nannies memorize what to do if a child goes missing in public?” (Call 911 ASAP, even before you call us. You have twenty minutes until that child is raped and dead. If you are in a store, have the staff close the doors immediately. Never leave the house without quickly reviewing your child’s clothing. A clear description for the police could make the difference.) My question is, “Why don’t they?” Oblivious, or swimming in denial. There are monsters out there.
The panic attacks start when Zac turns fifteen months old. Every morning, between 3:15 and 3:45, I wake to a silver terror binding my esophagus, unable to get back to sleep. Around this time, I miscarry again—sorry, we, we we. My sleep dwindles to two hours a night. Another sprained ankle takes four stupid months to heal. I get fat (nine pounds), fail two different tests for sleep apnea—the first because, during the overnight stay, the guy in the next room wakes me by screaming and yelling and banging around. I am jerked from sleep into an unfamiliar room, wires and goo in my hair, thinking my insides have become my outsides and are coming to get me. This is where I start to wonder about my mother’s MPD. Did I say my mother’s?
The second apnea test I fail because I do not have apnea. I have depression. I am sleep deprived, in general, and re-traumatized from the first test. I get on antidepressants, claw my way back to five hours of solid sleep followed by three, intermittent. One night I wake with the usual silver-jumbles, convinced of my multiplicity.
For several months prior, Zac had been obsessed with “walk in street by self.” “Zac!” I say. “Do little boys walk in the street by themselves, or do they hold Mama or Daddy’s hand?”
“No vant, no vant!”
Zac so vanted to walk in street by self that he began darting. My therapist—an internationally recognized expert on the adult children of screwy families and by no means an advocate of physical abuse—said, “You’re going to have to spank him.”
It took me a full three weeks to hear that she was not saying, “Beat him senseless,” but rather, “Hit him just hard enough to get his attention.” Mother wolves snap at their cubs to teach critical lessons in survival, she told me. One whap with an open palm on a covered bottom is not child abuse, she said. Never hit when you are out of control of your anger or fear. Hit only in situations where your child is truly at risk. Immediately following, take him firmly by the shoulders and say in an unyielding voice, “Never ever go in the street again. Ever.” And he won’t.
One afternoon, as Zac and I approached our car, I let go of his hand in order to find my keys. He darted for the street.
I yanked him back: “Don’t do that again.”
I did not hit him. But I knew then I was going to have to.
That weekend, during a visit to an outlet mall, I realized I could not hear the burbles of laughter I associated with my two-year-old. I could not see him. Fluorescent light flooded the store. He wasn’t among the endless rounds of discounted children’s clothes, all made in China—sticky pastels for girls; for boys, tedious navy, sharp red, and grey. There must have been customers other than one Japanese couple, just as there must have been sales staff besides the late-teens/early-twenties male with the pallor that so often accompanies bad skin; at least one more staff member, probably female. In my memory, there are only the Japanese couple and the salesman.
Why would a man work at a children’s clothing store?
If your child disappears in a store, have the staff close the doors immediately.
The door stood open. The night was black.
Never leave the house without quickly reviewing your child’s clothing.
Rounds and rounds of children’s clothing.
You have twenty minutes.
“Zachary?” I said, more loudly. “Zachary Fritz?”
I could not move. “Has anyone seen my child?”
Zac was gone for all of two minutes. He and the Japanese boy were playing under a clothing round in the back of the store. That night, the silver jumbles: I lost him. I am going to have to hit him. She hit me. Our insides are our outsides. He needs to be protected from me.
I stayed on my meds. I slept better. I did what anyone who really wants to address any aspect of childhood has to do: admit where and who we come from. Accept the possibilities while striving to live in the probability: Sybil is not on childcare. I am.
I am not convinced that had my first run at motherhood been with a girl-child, I would have been able to achieve what I did with Zac. I never once hit or shook him. I certainly never sexually abused him. I can state with confidence that I would not have sexually abused Mira, but I can easily envision how adding “she is a girl/I was a girl/I am my mother’s illness” to the raw cocktail of panic, depression, and sleep deprivation would have tipped me into yelling. Perhaps Zac’s being a boy enabled me to keep it together, however incrementally. I never once yelled—at him; Cliff got it a fair bit. When Zac inevitably darted again, I grabbed him by the shoulders and loudly said, “Don’t ever do that again!” I felt angry, and almost—but definitely not—out of control. It was a year before he tried it again.
I sat him down. “The next time I say, ‘Stop,’ and you don’t, I will smack your tushie.”
“Don’t do dat. Dat will hurt.”
“Yes. But I will do it.” I was dead calm in my certainty.
I was also pregnant again. Stop. Seeing the heartbeat at the eight-week ultrasound for the pregnancy that turned into Zac, my unbidden thought was, “Boy.” Upon seeing this fourth pregnancy’s heartbeat, I had the same experience. Only it was, “Girl.”
Rewind. It is late one night or early one morning, some time during the first month of Zac’s life. Cliff is out flat on the carpet. Zac’s little feet are like pieces of sushi. You could dunk them in soy sauce. I can’t wait until he poops so I can change him—partially because once he has pooped, I know exactly what he needs, and partially because I am strangely in love with the milky smell. That’s weird, I know.
I struggle Zac out of the two-blanket burrito wrap, out of the footie-jammies and the onesie bodysuit, out of the poopy diaper and into the clean, then back into the onesie, the jammies, and the two-blanket burrito wrap; all to have him let out another massive, wet poop.
Zac’s mouth twitches. He is too young for a mouth twitch to be anything but a muscle reaction, but it sure looks like he is smiling.
Totally Cliff’s sense of humor.
Almost two years after Mira chose another mom, I understand. Zachary Fritz Hall Meyer is the baby we are supposed to have.
I still don’t understand why.
It still hurts.
The prophet Miriam was five years old when she foresaw the brother that would lead the slaves to freedom. She knew where the Pharaoh’s daughter bathed and sailed the newborn toward her in a reed basket. When Pharaoh’s daughter drew the baby from the river and he needed a wet nurse, Miriam presented their mother. Miriam’s vision ensured that the otherwise doomed boy would survive, nursed by his own mama.
I doubt my Mira was a prophet, but I wonder if she used the insight I ascribe to her to understand that a mom who wanted a daughter to be everything that was taken from her was not a mom who was ready for a daughter. Perhaps Mira accessed the power I ascribe to her to wisely choose a mother who was.
The admission is no longer painful. Mira’s choice goes beyond what was good for her or me. It’s all of us: why, in Mira’s position, my pre-born self chose to stay with my mother; why the uber-mensch I married so loves and willingly stays with someone from such an extreme set of circumstances; why Zac is the child we were supposed to have first. Observing Zac at this stage allows me to pretend I know the answer to a question that used to plague me: what would I have been like, had my parents been remotely normal?
I would have been happy.
As it so happens, I was right, again. Girl. I am doing a good job of not spending much time on that; I’m otherwise occupied debating Cliff about her name. We might have her middle name. Ruth. Beloved. But every first-name consideration lacks that Sea World je ne sais quoi. Zac is lobbying for Greta; which is darling and means pearls, but is a tad “Yodel-ay-hee-hoo.” My choices all evoke light or ascendance. Had I my druthers, she’d be Jaden. God has heard.
So have I.
Alle Chava Hall’s work appears most recently in Dale Peck’s Evergreen Review and Another Chicago Magazine; as well as in Tupelo Quarterly, and Creative Nonfiction Magazine. Claim to fame: interviewed Leonard Nimoy. He was a bit of a pill; disappointing. “Girl feelings” originally appeared in Literary Mama in 2008. Alle blogs at About Childhood: Answers for Writers, Parents, and Former Children. (allehall.wordpress.com) @allechall1