Since I learned I was pregnant, every drink has been my last. But I haven’t stopped. I can’t. I keep promising myself I’ll give it up tomorrow. But I’m out of tomorrows. My baby either has fetal alcohol syndrome, or he doesn’t. Abstinence is no longer about my son’s well-being. Now it’s about getting a few days sober so I won’t go into withdrawal in the delivery room or give the staff a reason to test my baby for alcohol.
A drink, or how I can’t have one, is my waking thought. I open my eyes, and an abyss of nothingness extends before me. I cannot go on like this. Nor can I imagine my life any other way. I roll away from the dinginess of my halfway house room and face the wall, search for patterns in the stucco. One imprint looks like a butterfly. I want to be a butterfly, I think. Transformed and free. Fear tightens the cinch around my chest, forces a lump into my throat that calls for a shot of vodka. But I can’t take a drink, not even a shot. I drape a protective arm over my substantial abdomen.
I jumped off a cliff once. Now every morning when I wake, I’m fifteen again, perched on the precipice of Bluff Island in upstate New York, staring down past my red cheerleading Keds at the water eighty feet below, petrified. I couldn’t begin to imagine jumping, but I did. I never found the courage, but I jumped anyway. I had no choice. Beer was waiting for me in the boat.
My day stretches before me, long as the distance to the water. Walking through it sober seems impossible. I have to do it, but I can’t, so I’m paralyzed. Alcohol has been my constant companion since my first drink at thirteen, a spiritual experience that transformed my outlook on life. Alcohol freed me from myself, made it possible for me to connect to others, to belong. It was magic for fifteen years, until it turned on me. I’ve spent the ten years since trying to quit. With this pregnancy, I have fully conceded that I am powerless over alcohol, but little good that does my baby or me.
I stroke my baby-bump and repeat my mantra, “You’re a happy, healthy baby boy,” as I rock back and forth. I’ve been doing this for months. Most of the time, I dare to believe it. The rest of the time, I’m terrified. My pregnancy is high-risk because of my “advanced age” —thirty-nine. It’s complicated further by late-stage, chronic alcoholism. It will be a miracle if my baby doesn’t have fetal alcohol syndrome.
I survived that jump at fifteen but plunged so deep into the lake I nearly drowned before reaching the surface. Defending against the compulsion to drink is like holding my breath. I can only go so long on willpower and determination before reaching the breakpoint and involuntarily taking a drink. No human power can stop me. But I can’t have alcohol in my system this morning. Luke, who is back in my life because he believes I’m sober, is taking me to my last prenatal appointment at 10:30.
I throw my comforter back and swing my feet to the floor. I will not drink. Black waves crash over me. The weight of my self-hatred is so oppressive I can hardly stand. I lumber down the hall to the community restroom despite the wobbling walls and floor, then fall to my knees the moment I’m back in my room as withdrawal kicks in. There’s no way to hide my shaking hands and dry heaves.
Just one shot.
Once I give in, nothing but drinking more will matter. I retrieve my meager pint of Popov vodka from its hiding place behind the mirror, slide it out of the brown bag, and eye the third that remains. It’s not enough, but it’s all I’ve got to get me through the doctor’s appointment. I pour a splash into a glass, add warm, flat Diet 7-Up, and stare at the drink. I swallow some, berating myself for being weak and evil, then stare with loathing into the cloudy gray eyes of the stranger in the mirror.
The reflection blurs, and my focus lands on the baby mobile of bright-feathered, bobble-eyed parrots floating over the Pack'n Play in the baby’s corner of my small room, a mocking parody of joy in my dismal existence. This scene is all wrong. My baby deserves better.
I am at the jumping-off place, no longer able to imagine life with or without alcohol. I turn back to the face in the mirror. I do not look like the monster I am. Once I’m showered and made up, I will look too good for any of this to be true.
We’re in the doctor’s waiting room forever. I feel sick. Every cell in my body is shrieking for another drink. I shift uncomfortably in my seat, sweaty and shaky, a fraud disguised as wholesome in an American flag T-shirt. I smile at Luke, who grins back. We’re seated cornerwise, our knees touching. Luke has never been more handsome. He’s gained weight and appears younger, his face fuller. His muscular shoulders and chest are broader than ever, like he’s proud to be a daddy. I want to feel close to him, but my deception and fear are bricks and mortar, an insurmountable wall between us. I am alone, even when we are together. I fetch a small Dixie cup of water, look around at the eager, happy couples and imagine the Crate and Barrel nurseries in their cozy homes.
“Lucy?” a medical assistant calls. Thank God! I think. I should be out of here soon. I start calculating the minutes between me and my next drink as Luke and I follow the nurse to an exam room. She takes my vitals and then the baby's. “Everything looks good. We’ll leave the fetal heart monitor on for the doctor; she’ll be with you shortly,” the nurse says as she leaves the room.
Luke and I listen to our baby’s heartbeat, a rhythm that would connect us if I wasn’t obsessing over my next drink. Instead, the heartbeat’s steady cadence keeps time with my foot treads as I walk to the liquor store in my mind, panhandling along the way because I’m flat broke. I should be captivated by the life force beating within me, but I’m agitated by the wait. I want Luke and this baby more than anything, but I need another drink. Luke is here for the baby, but our relationship hinges on the impossible—me getting sober.
Dr. Sahai knocks and enters wearing a white lab coat over ordinary clothes, her dark shoulder-length hair pulled back with a barrette. She smiles in greeting. Suddenly, an alarm tears through the stillness. The steady rhythm of our baby’s heartbeat disappears. Dr. Sahai presses her icy stethoscope into my belly and frowns as she listens. She moves the stethoscope and listens again.
Oh, God, what have I done?
“It’s back,” she says, her shoulders softening. “But it’s slow and irregular.” She removes the device from her ears and takes my hand in hers. “Your baby is in crisis, Lucy. We have to get him out of there.”
I’m never going to get that drink.
A whirlwind of technicians hustle me into a wheelchair. Luke stands against the wall watching, his face colorless beneath his tan, his lips almost white. The day I drove Luke to attempt suicide, I promised God that if he lived, I wouldn’t torment him anymore. But while I’m good at making promises, I’ve never been any good at keeping them. Medical personnel races me down the hall to Labor and Delivery. It isn’t supposed to happen like this. I swore I’d go a minimum of three days without alcohol before the due date so there wouldn’t be any reason for them to take my baby away.
“Call my mom,” I say over my shoulder to Luke. What ensues may destroy her, but I need her.
The techs hoist me into bed and hook me to an IV of Pitocin, a drug to induce labor.
“He’s going to be fine,” Luke says, squeezing my hand.
I nod, offer a slight smile. Fear would crush him if he knew how much beer, wine, vodka, and whiskey our baby had consumed at every stage of his development. Mom rushes in, pale, breathless, and full of optimism. Her encouraging words are helium balloons, and I hold a dart for each one. I’m so sorry, I think for the thousandth time.
Seven hours later, there’s been little progress. Each time the doctor dials up the Pitocin dosage to help me dilate my baby’s heart gallops. My heart races, too, from the struggle to hide my withdrawal symptoms, and from annoyance at the arrival of Luke’s parents, who scrutinize me doubtfully. I do not want them here, but nobody has cared about what I want for a very long time.
The next contraction builds, a vice clamping around my middle. It cranks mercilessly tighter with each interminable second. In response, the beeping begins again, high-pitched and incessant. I strain to see the monitor warning my baby is in distress, too.
Mom bolts to the doorway and calls, “Doctor! Hurry! In here!”
Doctor Sahai and several nurses rush in and huddle around the blaring device. One nurse fiddles with the controls while my doctor gawks at the lines zig-zagging across the screen.
“What’s going on? What’s wrong?” Mom bobs from foot to foot, wringing her hands. Her cartoon dalmatian scrubs are obscenely colorful against the sterile white walls and the frantic tone in the room.
“We don’t know,” Dr. Sahai says, tucking an escaped strand of dark hair behind her ear.
“Is the baby ok?” Mom asks.
He’s not, Mom! And it’s my fault! I want to cry out but keep my mouth shut, terrified that everyone will know the truth before the night is over. I pray for a miracle. The contraction eases, and I gasp for air. The beeping slows. I glare at the apparatus denouncing me with each alarming tone.
“The baby is not coming.” Doctor Sahai rubs her temples.
“What does that mean?” I ask. Please, God, let my baby be ok.
“He’s not progressing down the birth canal, and you’re only a few centimeters dilated.”
“Why isn’t he coming? What’s wrong?”
“Oh, God, he’s not tangled in the umbilical cord, is he?” Mom asks, hand clutching heart, obviously remembering my niece’s birth. I can still see the terror in my brother’s eyes when he popped out of Delivery to update us on her complicated entrance into the world.
“No. We would know if that was the case,” the doctor says. “We don’t know why.”
Why ask why? Try Bud Dry, my brain howls, desperate for a cold beer. It would help. I can’t do anything without alcohol.
“You’re doing great, honey,” Mom says, squeezing my shoulder. Her voice overwhelms me with shame and anchors me in hope. After a devastating absence, she is in my life again because of this baby, because she believes I’m sober.
“Just breathe,” she says.
I offer her a brave smile and act as if I remember the breathing techniques from the Lamaze classes we took together. At the time, I was focused on panting without exhaling because of the alcohol on my breath and pretending I wasn’t ashamed to be in class without the baby’s father.
Luke’s mother, seated just beyond my sprawled feet with a close-up view of my rebellious un-dilated vagina, says, “I had natural childbirth,” for the hundredth time. “Ten pounds, three ounces. Can you imagine? Que, Hans?” She swats her husband. “The nurses couldn’t believe it. Now that was something, I tell you.”
A bottle of Bud Dry sounds even better now. I’d like to hit her over the head with it; after I drink it, of course. How these self-involved, stoic German immigrants made it from the top of my shit list to VIP bedside seating I’ll never know, but here they are, front and center, judging my inadequacy as a vessel for their legacy. I shudder as I imagine how they will react if the baby isn’t ok.
The compression in my gut squeezes tighter again. I grip Luke’s hand, hanging on for dear life.
“You can do this.” Luke leans down and whispers so only I can hear. “I know you can. Look at what you went through to get here.” He kisses my forehead. “This baby is meant to be.”
The one time all year we hooked up, despite the distance and heartbreak between us, we conceived—a miracle in itself, considering our fruitless history of unprotected sexual hyperactivity.
“He’s a happy, healthy baby boy,” Luke says. “Like you keep saying.”
Please, God, let him be healthy in spite of me.
I crush Luke’s hand in mine and clamp my lips together, trapping a scream as another painful contraction swells on top of the last one. Luke’s stricken expression reflects my agony. He pants with me. I try not to choke on my guilt or fear until the contraction ebbs.
I’ve heard it takes a spiritual experience and a complete psychic change to get sober, that sobriety is a gift from God. I thought love would save me, but it hasn’t. Luke and this pregnancy gave me all the reason in the world to stay sober, but neither was enough. Nor were the depths of self-loathing and disgust that accompanied hurting my unborn baby. I tried so hard, tried with every fiber of my being, and I could not abstain. God may have forsaken me, but what about this child?
My abdomen constricts again before I recover from the last excruciating contraction. Doubled over, I blink back images and sensations of oddly similar experiences—moments in the throes of alcohol withdrawal, wrapped around many a toilet bowl, retching. Once when I was seven or eight months pregnant and prostrate before the porcelain god begging for mercy, I heaved so long and hard I thought I might deliver through my mouth. Terrified and riddled with self-hatred, I sobbed and prayed all night: God, please don’t let this baby pay for my mistakes.
The monitor blares again, indicating he very well may.
Nearing midnight, a male doctor—older than Dr. Sahai, who has gone home—hovers beside my bed, hands on his hips, wearing aqua green scrubs and a matching cap. Gray sideburns outline his jaw and wire, rectangular-frame glasses rest low on the bridge of his nose, slipping further as he squints at the apparatus that has been squawking accusations at me all day.
“Your contractions are almost continuous now,” he says, pushing his glasses into place with one finger. “But your baby hasn’t dropped at all. We don’t understand what’s going on.”
He looks at me like I should have an answer. A thousand fears race through my head, but I remain silent. Mom stays quiet, too, which is the scariest thing of all.
“I’m going to break your water to help things along.” The obstetrician slides a stool to the foot of my bed. He sits down with his back to the Steinmanns, reaches under the covers for my feet, and guides them into stirrups. Then he pokes around inside me with a cold steel instrument. I feel a pinch and the warm rush of amniotic fluid as it gushes out and drenches the sheets. The flood feels sufficient to wash the Steinmanns away.
“Meconium,” the doctor says. “He pooped.”
“That little stinker.” Mom winks and elbows me with a grin like it’s funny. “He’s a little stinker just like you.” I grin, too, and ignore the judgment I perceive from the Steinmanns that my baby shitting in me confirms my unworthiness. They leave shortly after this as if they’ve seen quite enough.
“It’s time to get him out of there,” the doctor says. “We can’t risk the meconium blocking his airway. We’ll prepare to do a Cesarean.”
My breath catches. That means an epidural, and anesthesia kills girls like me. I think of my friend Megan who remained silent about her methamphetamine use because she didn’t want another baby taken from her. Anesthesia killed her. I’m not about to admit I have alcohol in my system. I’m terrified, but I can’t tell a soul. After enduring an afternoon and night of hard labor that should have delivered a baby, I now face a new kind of anguish—anticipating an adverse reaction to the anesthetic because of my past alcohol and drug abuse.
The obstetrician administers the epidural. Almost immediately, I lose control over my body. My arms hang limp off the gurney. I can’t speak or swallow and suspect soon my throat will close. I won’t be able to breathe. I’ll never know my son. This baby, if he makes it, will be all I have to show for my life. He is everything. I hope he’s well; that I will have done one good thing. I try to reconcile this as enough but I want to be a part of it, to know him. I want more. Always more.
A technician wheels me into an operating room and sets up a partition that separates my head from my body. The barrier is a high wall like the face of Bluff Island, the cliff I jumped off when I was young—and I thought I was terrified then. This situation seems equally impossible, and I’m much more afraid. I want to see beyond the screen but I can only stare at it in awe and wonder and pray. I want to tell someone I’m slipping away, that this is it, but the words won’t come.
Luke appears beside me dressed in scrubs. Only his blue eyes are visible—the eyes that stopped time over twenty years ago. I plunge into them again. Excitement shines in them, like bright stars showing me the way.
Something extraordinary is happening on the other side of the screen—and complicated. I will learn later that our son’s umbilical cord was only a few inches long. He couldn’t possibly descend the birth canal. I was bearing down on him through all those contractions, and he was trapped. There was no way he could have been born vaginally.
I glimpse my baby above the screen amidst many hands. Now he is with Luke, off to the side. I strain to get a better look but can’t. Does he have a broad forehead? Is there evidence of fetal alcohol syndrome? Everyone fusses about the baby and discounts me entirely. I’m scared and lonely. Shouldn’t I be joyous and surrounded by love?
A nurse reappears and rolls me from the operating room into the hallway. I stare at the ceiling. I pictured this occasion differently, assumed I would be the center of attention—a star. Instead, it’s the same as always. I thought this baby meant I would never be alone again, but they cut him from me and tossed me aside. He’s all anyone was after. I was the packaging, and I’m no longer necessary. Tears stream down my temples and behind my ears.
“There you are,” Mom says as she leans down over me. “How are you, honey? Have you seen your baby yet?”
I shake my head.
“He’s just darling,” she says. “He looks just like you did when you were born.”
Luke appears and gathers my hands in his. “You did good.” He radiates warmth and health and joy. He is what sobriety looks like. I want that. Why can’t I have that?
I smile. “How’s our baby?”
“Perfect! He has all ten fingers and all ten toes. He grabbed my little finger––I waved my fingers at him, and he reached out and grabbed my pinky.” Luke grins. “In that minute, it hit me: I’m a daddy. I’m responsible for that little guy.”
“Why don’t they bring him to me?” Everyone has seen him but me. I wonder if they’re testing him, if they’re going to take him away from me.
“Here he comes now.” Mom claps her hands.
A nurse holds my son so I can see him. My arms don’t work yet, so I just look.
“He’s beautiful!” I smile, relax for the first time in nine months, free for a moment from fear and the burden of my secret. If something is wrong, it doesn’t show. It’s a miracle. God’s grace is swaddled in a blue blanket, has dark hair standing straight up in a Mohawk, and the face of an angel. I have been blessed beyond all measure, and have to honor this gift. I have to make things right. Stay sober somehow.
I need another miracle.