Issue 05

Counting Breaths

Written by Lela Preston

I’m 39 and pregnant. About to give birth, actually. I track every stage of the experience, as excited as one can be about such dramatic changes both within and beyond. Growing a human is about as surreal as it gets on a scale of somewhat common experiences. Whether or not I am, her room is ready, complete with a closetful of tiny clothes and boxes upon boxes of diapers, though I have never changed one.

Career-minded, somewhat ambivalent about whether or not I would have children because I was single, independent, and mostly unfettered, I reveled in my status until that funny little clock tapped on my heart. I did not even know I had a “biological clock” and maybe I didn’t until I met that sailor in that pub and, connected by the Cat Stevens that filled the smoky air, we kissed and didn’t stop. At least until he rekindled another love affair.

My husband splits his time between the sea and me. We have enough ocean between us to maintain an epic love story and document it with poetry and music and all the romance we can muster thousands of miles apart. He ports in Charleston and I meet him to spend a week in a tiny hotel room, newly wed, now convinced that’s where she came about.

The first time he left me for drugs I was cooking dinner, what Neapolitans call ziti aum aum to be exact. I remember too distinctly the smell of roasted eggplant, and while divine, it still makes me cringe. Waiting was horrible and I packed up that food with fury and fear, not knowing what to think. My husband ran an errand and did not return for days. I called jails and hospitals until it was revealed through phone records and our bank account that he was being strangled by his other lover

“Don’t rush marriage” and philosophies around waiting do not provide the immunity to failure I hope for—I think time and maturity guarantee insight, inoculating me against bad decisions. I waited until I knew I had met “the one” only to learn the hard way that one never really knows. One feels, believes, wants, needs, but one cannot know.

I am stereotypically pregnant; obsessed with pickles, watermelon, and ice cream. I eat well and exercise until I am teetering on the elliptical, balancing between my big belly and fleeting equilibrium, compensating for age and a life of uninhibited choices, choices that are increasingly less about me and more about this expanding human recreating me, conceived in booze and possibility. With all his coming and going, there was always a celebration to honor or loneliness to console and alcohol was usually my host. I drank most days until she moved into me then stopped abruptly. It was relatively easy because of the nausea and weight of responsibility for another human who marked her presence with constant reminders—changing body, expanding heart, worried mind.

My body isn’t exactly my own in this state, most evident under the purview of the doctors and specialists I shuttle to and from because, in the context of pregnancy, I am old. My status is defined as “pregnant elder,” at least according to my medical paperwork. I am stunned and amused by the pronouncement; it reads like an oxymoron. They classify me through my years—algebraic equations and statistics determine the safe cutoff and perhaps my body is more sophisticated or cultured than it was in my twenties, but I am pregnant and “elder” defies rather than defines me. I resist time because it goes too fast and aging is the physical manifestation of such. It reveals my need for control in its absolute resistance to it. Time is a nemesis I try not to wish away. During my first ultrasound, she is still a peanut—not even a ‘she’ yet—a heartbeat. I have two heartbeats. I don’t feel old at all. I feel brand new.

I’m 39 and pregnant and he is in the middle of the ocean. I document every stage of her development, from olive to apple to banana, and watch it unfold via modern technology. During my monthly ultrasound, I am surrounded by women who love me; my mama, sister, and mother-in-law crowd the room as we await the broadcast of this nebulous figure, pushing her head against what looks like a kitchen sponge but is apparently a part of my body. I record her heartbeats and purchase DVDs to commemorate fleeting moments that precede walking and talking and high school graduation. Disembodied, I stare at a screen across the room as the technician shoves a camera against my full and now pained bladder. It’s exciting but strange to look at oneself from the inside and, due to my “elder” status, we repeat this process over and over again.

The more I know, the more I worry. Her head is too large or my pelvis too small. What did women do before ultrasounds and technology? They died. (Or they birthed unimpeded). I planned so well for this but now I’m scared because they call me a pregnant elder, they put a timeline on miracles and motherhood and my mortality and I know better but it’s hard to reject when so much is riding on these old-ish bones. I am not old, even at “advanced maternal age” or “high risk stage.” The universe works just so—some codes we cannot and should not crack, even as we try to fill in the gaps.

I’m 39 and pregnant and despite trepidation I feel ever-so-prepared. I watch The Business of Being Born, attend a series classes on natural childbirth and breastfeeding, read about and practice hypnobirthing techniques and essential oils. A giant yoga ball waits for me to bounce and the halls wait for me to walk. Yet when I go into labor, I am hooked up to wires and wait, paralyzed by pain, with excited anticipation for the next contraction, the next sign that she is alive, healthy, still on the horizon of my elder, risk-ridden state. I am still pre-Caesarean and, at the moment, prepared to birth in water surrounded by nothing but love and prove everyone wrong about my age or assumptions. But I don’t. And I realize it doesn’t matter because she is just fine, and I resist categorization, even with bad knees and a back that has to adjust to every ounce of a big beautiful baby.

The night she is born I feel split in two, exhausted and in awe. Visitors come and go but eventually nurses shoo everyone away so I can cry and sleep between nursing and staring. I am in love and in pain and feel more than I have ever felt in my life. I simultaneously wonder and know where her father is, hoping against hope he fills the doorway. I am awestruck and mindblown and wondering what’s around corners.

I arrive home with her all cockeyed but safe in her car seat to flowers everywhere, the very sheets my mother slept on when she brought both my sister and me home from the hospital, my aunt cooking for us through those first overwhelming, tired, incredible days. Knowing glances and supportive nods tell me my mama knows more than I want her to (or she wants me to) about what’s to come. Beauty laced with grief and pain and uncertainty. I associate my first days of motherhood with pizza fritta and fresh pasta mixed with wonder and wet onesies. The smell of sauce and baby breath and the feeling of falling and flying at once.

***

I’m 41 and single with a toddler. I rediscover every revelation with her—snails and the moon and the way sand sticks to water on her skin. Every nuance of every emotion within. The crazy zigzag of living while trying to set someone straight. Yet letting her become. In-betweens. The same in-betweens that led me to him, then to her. The same in-betweens I’d come to know as “the one,” which led me to myself all along, and that’s exactly what I want for her. The wow of it all.

Lisa Logan

Gorgeous, honest, poignant, courageous.

 

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Lori Eagle

I appreciate every word of this.

 

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Amy

Oh, Leandra. I’m speechless. But even tho this sounds weird and possibly stalkerish in a strange academic way, I have admired you so much ever since you reviewed a paper for me waaayyy back in the 90s sometime when I didn’t know where I fit in the world and you, a good ten or more years younger, seemed to have figured out exactly who you unashamedly were. Now many years later, we have so much in common, including our single motherhood among other things. I don’t know why I’m weiting all of this but probably it’s jist to let you know you’re not alone and you’re doing a great job becoming you, the one you always were.

 

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Leandra Preston

Aww thank you, Amy. This means so much to read. And makes me more confident sharing my too-long-kept secrets. <3

 

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Megan K

You have the most amazing gift of words. This is incredibly beautiful and so acutely painful to read. Tears are streaming down my cheeks. This is the third time I’ve read this and just now have something semi-coherent to comment with. Thank you for sharing and putting to light that weird space that exists between intensely real love and indescribable fear and grief. It’s comforting and empowering to know I am not alone in that space.

 

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