(The following is a brief excerpt from my book KRASATA, a Memoir of Motherhood, Down Syndrome and Surprising Beauty, a story about the birth of our third daughter in the former Soviet Union while we lived there as missionaries and her diagnosis of Down syndrome.)
The first time I had felt the baby move, I was in the bath, looking down at my cushioned middle. The movement was just a slight flutter. She probably wasn’t any bigger than my finger. I loved taking baths, and when I got pregnant I continued my nightly ritual. I just made sure the water wasn’t too hot. The tub was deep, wide. The warm water swirled, while bubbles of Dove soap popped and fizzled around me. Sounds and smells that were unfamiliar to me were muted by the running water. I would lay in the bath and commune with my unborn child. It was us against the world, protected by the pink, high, Pepto Bismol walls of the bathtub. I was happy there, regardless of loneliness or homesickness or frustration over the Russian language.
Around the time I first felt the baby move, Sergei brought home a few books for me to read. Once in a while he’d stumble across a vendor who sold books in English in an outdoor market in Kiev. Whenever he’d come home with something new, it was like Christmas morning.
One book in the pile caught my eye. Jewel by Bret Lott. The story took place in the backwoods of Mississippi in the 1940s. Based on true events, it was about a woman whose sixth child, Brenda Kay, was born with Down syndrome. I read the book in one sitting, ignoring my husband and kids, my usual practice when I had a new book to read.
I thought about my baby, then a size of a Lima bean, growing inside me. The day I finished the book, I was sitting on the bed in our room. The sun was setting. It was the kind of evening in September when life is hazy. The kids were already in bed, even though it wasn’t dark yet. The air was tinted green.
“I couldn’t do it,” I told Sergei. “I could never be the mother of a child with special needs.” Instantly I wanted to take the words back. There was a life in me, paddling around, growing fingers and toes. God was knitting her together in my womb. What if there was something wrong with this baby?
My mom knits. If I close my eyes, I can still see her sitting in a chair in my childhood home. Already in pajamas at 7 p.m., her hair wet from a bath, a Coke sweating on the side table next to her on top of a flimsy paper napkin. I see her hands moving, click, click, click, click. Sometimes she’d unravel a sweater or a scarf that was nearly done. I didn’t see the point after coming so far to start over because of a few mistakes. “Who wants to wear a sweater with mistakes?” she’d say. Later on in her life, she started to ignore mistakes more often. I guess by then she wasn’t afraid of a little imperfection.
My fears about the pregnancy grew with my stomach. The baby started to move less often. By then we knew she was girl. When she became sluggish, all I wanted was to get on a plane and fly back to the States. I was sure the doctor was missing something. My hands were tied, though. It wasn’t easy to just pick up and go home, and no one else seemed to think anything was wrong. When I’d start to worry, I’d go over the facts with Sergei: the baby is growing steadily, although she is small, I felt her kick every day, my doctor thought everything was okay.
But I’d still ache for a doctor and a hospital back in Michigan. Doctors in the States wouldn’t let anything slide under the radar. I would be able to trust them if they told me the baby was fine. Instead, I was stuck here in Ukraine.
Sergei prayed and I worried and time passed. Somehow, each day I convinced myself I was overreacting. I drank lots of orange juice and spent afternoons lying on my left side on the bed, counting kicks. I’d lay there and cry and at some point almost always felt a soft kick to reassure me of her existence.
And I ate a lot of Big Macs.
Mondays were our family days. We’d pile into our white Ford Focus purchased finally after three years of dragging the kids around town on buses and trains. We’d drive to METRO, an indoor mall in Kiev that housed a huge, modern grocery store and a skating rink, outlined by a dozen fast food places, clothing stores and flower shops.
My pregnancy weight packed on but I didn’t care. Every Big Mac tasted like home. We’d sit right up to the skating rink glass and laugh as beginner skaters flailed around on the solid, slippery surface. Elaina and Zoya were appeased to sit still for a while thanks to vanilla soft serve ice cream cones that dripped on to their shirts.
A couple times Sergei took the girls skating. I’d sit alone with my Big Mac and my third little daughter quiet and still inside me and giggle as they crept along, the three of them joined together by locked hands, digging their blades sideways in the ice to move forward. A chord of three strains isn’t easily broken it says in the Bible. Not so for my family. They’d fall on the ice and I’d laugh until I tasted my tears.
(Leave a comment and tell me if/why you think my book should be published. Seriously, I need the love today. Oh, and I will pick a random winner on Friday, March 2nd, my birthday, and send you Jewel by Bret Lott. Beautiful, beautiful novel and my premonition of Polly.)
(Also, for those of who so kindly have said you wanted to read more of my story, check out my post Moving my heart towards him, another excerpt from my memoir about meeting my husband Sergei in Ukraine in 1996 when I took a year off from college.)