31 January 2009

I Expected

I'm at work on a winter Saturday, which means I'm basically alone and idle. Additionally, this means that I am Web-surfing like a fiend. I just had a sojourn at people.com where I stumbled onto a photo gallery of pregnant stars, starlets, and unknown star-spouses. (The title hook: "Who's Next to Deliver?") Click the mouse: new photo, another sideways-view of a magnificently rounded womb belonging to a beaming celeb (very few of whom seem to have gained the kind of poundage I did at that juncture).

Prior to the People pregnancy parade, I'd been at cnn.com reading up on the famed octuplets lady of California (who now finds herself a single mother of 14, living at her parents' house. My mind boggles.) That article prompted me to check the Duggars' website--in case you haven't heard of them, their 18th was born in December, in a televised special. They rushed that birth show to broadcast, and I'd noticed that Michelle Duggar--the indefatigable mumma, whose spirit and serenity I admire--seemed in physical distress during and after the C-section that brought her and Jim their ninth daughter. I've been wondering if all is well, but their website lacks updates since that time.

Soooo, motherhood's on my brain again. Specifically, the contrast between starlet pregnancies (conceived in households of too much plenty, with mumma's tummy concealed in designer cling, and baby's togs similarly priced out-of-reach) and the regular-Jane pregnancies of the rest of us. People does a disservice, perhaps. Pregnancy is hard work. Sometimes dangerous, and possibly even ill-advised. Don't even start me about the economic repercussions.

Issues of pregnancy still feel immediate and urgent to me for a reason: I got pregnant in September. I know, what are the odds, right? Just launched an all-consuming business, with four kids (one of whom we had just sent off to college), and seriously, I'm 44 years old. Saturated with changes already. Nevertheless, just after Zoë left home, some teasing symptoms arrived, unmistakable and strong. I am pretty much an expert when it comes to the subtle shifts and signs that nudge my brain into counting back and wondering if something might have, um, happened.

When I saw that diagnostic second pink line on the test stick--assertive and sure--I was impressed that my middle-aged physiology could piece together the logic of pregnancy, assembling the hormones and rallying the troops, as it were. Truly, I'd been convinced I was deep into perimenopause, well beyond the fertility gate. But along with the amazement, I was wrapped in a muted bewilderment, a veil of disbelief that did not clear up until mid-November. That was when the OB--a kindly, encouraging man--wielded an ultrasound wand and showed us on a flickering black-and-white screen that my egg--see the sac, there?--was not actually viable. The sac was a tiny, empty space...a vestige. Not a surprising circumstance for a woman of my age and in the early weeks, so my response was, basically, "Mmmm, uh-huh. Yes, I see. Yes. Um, thank you."

In between the pink line and the vestige, I will admit that I had plunged into this experience far more enthusiastically than I'd expected (and, truthfully, more than I knew was prudent). My pregnancy seemed to repudiate the recent losses I've suffered--namely, Mom and my best friend, D.J. I felt triumphant to have unwittingly generated a new life with Pete, exactly nineteen years after we had done so with Zoë. It was like an oh-ho! to (and from) the universe. Moreover, now that my genealogical family tree is completely filled in--with a passel of ancestors who bore children in their forties, I might add--I felt like my lost loved ones were alongside me, awaiting news.

Physically, I recognized the shifts instantly, and basked in them. Craved cereal and oatmeal and milk, saw my figure boosted (ahem), indulged my tiredness as much as possible, and started changing out the tight jeans on my shelf for the ultra-comfort ones. Queasiness and digestive sluggishness plagued me, but I could live with that ::: braaaaap ::: . Been there, done that plenty. I adjusted my sleeping position for heartburn and started silent communications with the fetus inside, willing it to be strong, welcoming it to my inner world.

Before I saw the OB in November, I'd been impatiently 'net-searching on a stream of keywords: midlife, pregnancy, perimenopause, spotting, progesterone, levels, 5 weeks. Let me tell you, the Web is jammed with voices of moms experiencing every possible symptom and the accompanying waves of emotion and fear. They pose vexing, plaintive questions and other moms find their messages somehow, answer them, or share similar experiences in fellowship and comfort. I never posted anywhere or interacted with anyone, but it helped me immeasurably to visit those cyber rooms and eavesdrop on scores of conversations. I learned a lot about what can go wrong with a middle-aged pregnancy, and about the daily hurdles that many women surmount to bring a new life into the world. 

I knew full well that a 44-year-old pregnancy was practically miraculous, so feeling it coming to an end was a little less poignant than it might have been if I wasn't so blindsided in the first place. Of course, I already have four sweet children--with four birth stories to match. And I never had such doubts shadowing me during any of those pregnancies. This time, I couldn't throw off the black cloak of worry--until I miscarried.

It took awhile after the OB's diagnosis for the actual miscarriage to happen. I'd been spotting pretty much the whole time, but our childbearing machinery must be hardwired to hold on for success against all odds...it was blunted to the signals of non-viability for much longer than I would have anticipated. But I was equally fascinated by the unceremonious reversal of those familiar symptoms that caused me to reach for the home pregnancy test in the first place. One day you're subconsciously guarding a bump as you squeeze between a chair and a bookshelf; the next day your jeans fit better than they did before, and so does your bra. Just: over. 

I miscarried without complications. I went into an odd mini-labor at dinnertime, a few days before Thanksgiving. I found myself restless and irritable, and even a shower did not warm my clammy skin. And then I had a few stark contractions, which felt very strange: reminiscent of earlier pregnancies, and yet totally alien. One of the labor pains made me grip a chair as I stood in the kitchen. In hindsight, why was I so surprised? Well, the answer to that is simple: I had no idea what to expect. All the reading, all the worrying...I just didn't know. The OB had no advice for me, because it's different for every woman.

About an hour into the mini-labor, I delivered my non-viable egg intact, as well as the tiny placenta, then provided those to my doc for analysis. (The pathologist deliberated over some possible complications suggested by the samples...finally, a few weeks ago, those issues were ruled out. More Web-cramming, followed by a bigtime whew!)

As December began, I walked around emotionally numb for awhile, and then as the holidays cranked up, pulled myself into now. For awhile, my usual tears about Mom's unfair absence (typically prompted by music, which squeezes me in a vise of nostalgia and regret) mingled with spasms of mourning for a tiny almost-life, and for a cascade of emotions that I never expected to have again.

Today's Web deliberations signaled to me that I haven't lost that insistent inner voice that was really pretty excited about another child, another new experience. All the rounded stomachs I saw online made me keen, a little, with wishing and hoping. (Call it uterus envy.) But the realist in me read each of those celeb captions from a distance, and paused at the mom's ages. Read them, absorbed them. They are each younger than I am. 

I don't envy them their youth; I am happy with the stage I've reached. But I feel a funny tug, knowing that for a little window of time, I stepped back into their realm of fertility. Perimenopause has not overspread me yet. Regardless, as Peter said to me with evident relief as we drove away from the OB's office, "We're not going to do that again."

His cloak of worry had been cast aside, too.

28 January 2009

Grand City

In my college days, when I wanted a dose of real life--separate from the enclosure of Bowdoin's quad and the sometimes stifling atmosphere therein--I headed downtown. I was an inveterate shopper anyway, having grown up in a Queens neighborhood that was hemmed in by shopping thoroughfares on all four sides. And in my grandparents' hometown of Millinocket, Maine, I loved nothing more than an idle stroll through the J.J. Newberry's on Penobscot Avenue, clutching my allowance and deliberating on that week's toy purchase.

Downtown Brunswick, in the 1980s, had two stores that were instantly familiar to me upon my freshman arrival: a J.J. Newberry's, and Grand City. Back then, Grand City was perched at the periphery of a Shop 'n Save parking lot. Years before, it had been a W.T. Grant's--and when that national chain went under, employees preserved the store and renamed it Grand City. I believe they selected this name because it allowed them to continue using the existing store signage--all they did was eliminate the "T'S" from GRANT'S, replacing it with a "D" and then a circle that held the word "City".

Grand City was close enough to my campus home that I could easily walk it, even on a dark subzero February evening. I made that trek innumerable times. Upon arrival, one's nose would be greeted with a smell that I cannot describe. Roasted nuts mingled with merchandise and candy? Hard to say. It was a smell that triggered instantaneous shopping behavior in me, I know that.

Everything I could possibly want was in that department store. A lamp, underwear, earrings, candy, jeans, bean-bag chairs, board games, picture frames, yarn and needles, silverware, stationery, shampoo, mittens. And socks. I love buying socks, and I'm fussy about them. In Maine's climate, you need warm socks, and Grand City never disappointed--they had some kind of arrangement with a factory which meant they had piles of seconds in lots of styles. So my college-student budget could buy socks and socks. Awaiting me at the registers were memeres....French-Canadian nanas. Back then, I had no idea a) how French I really am, and b) that I had numerous distant cousins in Brunswick. No matter--I always felt like I belonged among the ladies who worked the registers, and genealogy ultimately showed me why.

After I graduated from Bowdoin, Grand City remained a go-to for setting up my first apartment in Brunswick. Some years later, the J.J. Newberry's went under, and Grand City pounced on this opportunity to get a more intown slice of real estate. (Then the Shop 'n Save overspread their original footprint.) I'd left town by then, but I return to Brunswick often enough that I was relieved to know I could still rely on Grand City's presence...for, well, socks. And whatever other bargains I might come upon. So I've remained a patron. As did a lot of Brunswick residents, especially the retirees (can't speak for College students, because by the 1990s, Brunswick's ratio of big box stores had started to soar, and Bowdoin had greatly expanded its on-campus store as well).

You know where this is going, don't you? Grand City's lease came up for renewal last fall. The owner decided that between the economic forecast and his own sense of burnout, he would have to close. Thus, yet another store that triggers deep memories for me was fated to disappear. I lament the lack of photographic evidence of places I loved to shop (Freese's and Sears in Bangor, Newberry's in Millinocket and Ellsworth, among many.) So this time I was determined to capture Grand City before its demise.

During an October 2008 visit (Parents Weekend for my daughter, talk about rites of passage!), I ranged all over Grand City and took pictures without anyone even noticing. I wondered if maybe I was not the first. Whatever the case, the longer I snapped away, the more tearful I became. It's not the store, my friends. It's the ghostly presence of my mom and my nana and so many others of a generation that is sliding away. The objects they would be drawn to in a place like this...so many things. The community that existed because this mercantile is what it is.

The photos haunt me. They comfort me with what they captured, but they also sadden me. I won't caption them because geezum, I have blathered enough, and you can go ahead and get whatever you would like out of them. I already have.





As I stood here for the last picture I took, I could almost hear the word: Goodbye.