“Darling, I don’t want to worry you,” she said. Could one inspire any more worry than by uttering a sentence like that?
I let my fingers drift idly over my belly, my cantaloupe belly, firm and round with Ten. I was seven months pregnant.
The woman who’d be a first-time grandmother in several weeks' time pressed on. “I had a biopsy. And it’s cancer, but there’s no need for you to lift a finger. Your brother has found me the best doctor, and this will be taken care of. So don’t worry about a thing. Your job is to grow that wonderful child.”
Suddenly unsteady, I sat down in the chair that had imprisoned me for months as I’d worked feverishly to finish my dissertation before Ten’s birth. It wasn’t a comforting chair. There isn’t a chair comforting enough to tamp down the cold fear running through your veins when you understand, really understand, that the tables have turned, that you can no longer act the child with her, even if you were her child once.
And I wept.
By the time Ten was born, my mother had undergone two surgeries and was well into a course of radiation therapy.
She survived her cancer. But barely. And life for her, for me, too? It would never be the same.
Seven months pregnant with Six, I was making coffee when the telephone rang. It was my mother, calling from Manhattan, calling from the very apartment in which I’d been raised.
“A plane flew into the World Trade Center a few minutes ago!,” she exclaimed.
“Mmm,” I replied absently. Yes, I minimized. But understand this: I didn’t have room in my head to imagine that a plane crashing into a building could be anything but an accident. I suppose that I was too busy gestating a baby, by definition the most optimistic of undertakings. Or maybe this was simply an unimaginable event for anyone — for everyone.
Ten minutes later my calm, controlled husband called me, and for once he was neither calm nor controlled. Instead he shrieked, “Turn on the TV, Sarah!” So I did. I sat on the edge of the bed in front of our small television, holding onto Six (who on a dime felt unbearably heavy), tracing the contours of my expansive belly, just as I had done with Ten.
How else can one protect fetuses from terrible news? I would have covered their eyes and ears if only I could have tunneled my way in.
I stayed seated, my eyes glued to the scene unfolding at the World Trade Center just as yours were, for minutes that slipped too easily into hours. That brilliant blue sky, I remember thinking, was it just too beautiful, too unearthly, for its own good?
And I wept.
To bring a child into the world without his grandmother, oh, that is sad — but had it come to pass, it would have been manageable. To bring a baby into a world that contained September 11th? Felt at that moment like the worst kind of child abuse. It is a piteous child who’s down for the count while he’s still in utero.
If the seventh month of pregnancy was to be a test of my strength, I suppose I passed. My mother is alive,* the world persists, crueler by the day but no less vital for it.
Life will out.
I parent my boys well enough. I am both a mother and a daughter now; I can carry both those loads at once because of the hard lessons I learned (twice! — not, I think, coincidentally) in my seventh month of pregnancy — when I gained the hard-won wisdom that comes of knowing the worst that can happen, and persevering in spite of it.
But I won’t lie, there’s no being a mother and a daughter. Not really. The seesaw is never perfectly balanced. And today I need to be a daughter more than a mother.
No doubt tomorrow the winds will shift.
If I fall into believing that I cannot be the kind of adult I know I ought to be, I have only to return to those two moments — hearing the news of my mother’s cancer and watching the twin towers implode — and as easily as that I shake off my doubts.
Some speak of formative years. I speak of formative days, days when the contrast between life and death, health and illness, good and evil, construction and destruction, is as sharp as the shards of glass and metal, as glaring as the blindingly white financial confetti that on a September morning heralded the reconfiguration of a city’s skyline, and the reconfiguration of our preconceptions and conceptions both.
*My mother has since passed away.
I wrote this piece in 2008. I’ve posted it each year since, on September 11th, of course.