Largo, Lento, Grave
The story of a baby, a heartbeat, and a metronome
My wife Michelle and I decided to have a baby while driving home from a late night party in New Jersey. We’d spent the evening cooing over a friend’s slightly bizarre-looking three-week-old. “Do they always look like aliens?” I asked.
“They come cuter than that,” Michelle said.
“I want seventy-five percent cuter,” I said. We talked like that in those days. Like we could order a baby from the back of the New Yorker.
It was June 2009 and we’d been married three years. Michelle worked for a large clothing manufacturer in their legal department, and I was a working musician — constantly on the road. Along with work, Michelle had gone back to school part-time for a masters degree in International Economics, and she was nearly finished. She’d suffered through three years of executive work hours and 10pm classes and was in the middle of her thesis. The stress level was high.
“I want to make you the only pregnant girl in class,” I told her as we pointed the Subaru over the George Washington Bridge toward Brooklyn. She rolled her eyes at me and looked out the window. “You do, do ya?”
“I think we’re ready,” I said, gripping the steering wheel a little tighter. I looked over. Michelle was deep in thought. She’s a quiet thinker. I love that about her.
On the FDR we discussed the baby’s timing — this was New York after all, the kid needed to be on a schedule. On the Williamsburg Bridge we talked about the color of the baby’s room, green it was decided. On the Brooklyn Queens Expressway we came up with names, Zachary for a boy, Chloe if it was a girl. By the time we’d parked the car outside our Brooklyn apartment, the decision was made. Michelle leaned over and kissed me. “Let’s get to it,” she said. And we did.
And we did. And we did. And we did. And a year later, still no baby.
If someone had told me how hard it was to get pregnant, I would have stopped buying condoms in my twenties. For me, babies had always meant preventative measures. Take away the prevention, add the thrill of something akin to jumping out of a plane without a parachute, and bam, instant baby.
My understanding of the human reproductive system jumped tenfold that year. I became an expert in all things sperm-and-egg. I’d catch myself on gigs telling drummers about ovulation cycles and the latest detection equipment.
“They make this new thing,” I’d tell them. “It’ll track your wife’s cycle and let you know when it’s the best time to have sex.”
“Sounds romantic,” they’d say.
I became a fathering machine. If the chart said four o’clock on a Wednesday was the best time for sex, I’d be standing next to the bed naked by three forty five. If someone told me too much garlic was bad for sperm production, I’d eat dry noodles for a month. Michelle became an expert in prenatal vitamins. Folic acid in the mornings, iron and calcium at night. There was prenatal yoga, prenatal spin class, prenatal Pilates, and a book called What to Expect Before You’re Expecting. Michelle didn’t drink for a year.
And with all of it, the ever-present thesis. School became a ball of stress that attached itself to my wife every night and wouldn’t let go. After a year of dry pasta, vitamins, scheduled sex, and the thesis, we were exhausted. Michelle was convinced there was something wrong.
The Internet was telling me that tight underwear killed sperm and I’d been a briefs man my whole life. The “something wrong” was obviously me.
“You’d be amazed,” said Dr. Vapnek. “By the time most guys are sitting in my office, their wives are already pregnant.” My urologist told me this while writing out a referral to a semen analysis clinic. “There’s something about making the decision to get tested that frees the mind,” he said. “It reduces the stress. Trust me, you’ll see. I’ve been doing this a very long time.”
He sent me over to a building that looked like a day spa. There was soft music, and an attractive receptionist who had me fill out forms. There were questions like, When was the last time you had sex? How often do you masturbate? Have you masturbated in the past five days? Like I had time for that, I said to myself, and thought longingly back to my teenage years when masturbation was pretty much the focus of my day. I brought the forms to the desk.
She led me to a room with a huge armchair in the middle and a big-screen TV on the wall. There were porn magazines spread out on a coffee table from the eighties. She told me to take the sample to the office down the hall when I was finished, and excused herself.
I walked around the room checking out the plants. I looked out the window that faced Sixth Avenue and watched the hundreds of people streaming towards midtown. I sat in the big chair and stared at the ceiling. I spent a few minutes fiddling with the TV and gave up. I thumbed through Asian Babes and Celebrity Skin. It was three in the afternoon and I wondered how many guys had been in that room and done what I was about to do.
I was out of practice. I needed my own apartment. Get me in that room when I was seventeen and I would have walked out with some smart ass comment like, Here ya go everyone, there’s plenty more where that came from. But it was different now. I had a routine and this was the furthest thing from it. I looked at the cup. What kind of aim did they expect, exactly? It felt like one of those midway games where you try and swish the basketball only to discover that they’ve made the hoop so small you can’t win.
I’m not sure what level of masculinity is wrapped up in the volume of one’s own semen sample sitting at the bottom of a plastic cup, but let’s just say my ego was severely crushed that day. There’s no way something like that could get anyone pregnant, I thought as I stood in the middle of the room looking down at my less than adequate handiwork. I sheepishly brought the sample down the hall and set it on the counter.
It’s my fault, I said to myself as I walked out on to Sixth Avenue. I’m the problem.
Three weeks later, Michelle was pregnant.
I got the phone call while walking down Queen Street in Toronto. I was playing two nights at a local jazz club and I’d just finished lunch. Michelle was so excited I thought she was going to jump through the phone. I stopped in the middle of the street and did this kind of movie move, that thing where you look up into the sky and spin around a few times. Before she’d called I’d been taking stock of everyone that walked by and wondering how they’d all been born. How were so many people walking around in the world when it was this hard to get pregnant? And then the phone call, and the elation, and good God, it was finally happening to us. “I’m going to be a dad!” I yelled to anyone on the street who would listen. A few people looked at me like they were about to be mugged.
I got back to the hotel and texted the band. Then I phoned my parents. Then my brothers. Then anyone on the West Coast who wouldn’t mind being woken up with the kind of news I was packing. Then I went for another walk. Everything looked different. The buildings were somehow taller, people were smiling more, the sky was clearer. I’d never been that happy.
Michelle and I talked on the phone nearly twenty times that day. We attempted to pinpoint the moment of conception, the precise timing of it all.
“I think it was when we tried that special position from the book,” I told her.
“Could be,” she said. “Practically needed a spotter for that one.” We both laughed and she cried and I told her what a wonderful moment this was. The line went silent for a long while.
“I wish you were here,” Michelle said, eventually.
“Me too,” I said. “When’s the doctor’s appointment?”
“Tomorrow,” she said.
Tomorrow meant that I’d be flying home from Toronto and be back in Brooklyn before Michelle returned from work, and classes, and a meeting with her thesis advisor. It was eleven o’clock at night before she walked through the door, twenty-four hours after she’d told me the news. She looked tired.
“What did the doctor say?” I jumped from the couch and muted the TV. I gave her the longest hug.
“We’re pregnant,” she said.
Jon Stewart was on. I unmuted the TV. “Perfect,” she said, smiling at her favourite show. She pulled of her shoes, curled up on the couch, and fell asleep.”
Over the next four weeks I Googled everything I could on the first six weeks of pregnancy. I bookmarked pictures of various amorphous blobs and pulled them out in the evenings when Michelle needed a break from the thesis work. “Look, arm buds!” I’d say pointing to a picture. “I think we’re about this stage.”
“I hope it gets cuter,” she’d say.
Michelle worked in Times Square, which made it easy to get to the doctor’s office on her lunch break. Just a quick trip on the A train to Lincoln Center. For the sixth-week appointment I took the train in from Brooklyn and met her at Dr. Francis’ office. I remember how I felt on the subway ride over, like I wanted to get up and hug everyone on the train. It was the day we were going to finally see our munchkin on the monitor. Michelle had taken a long lunch, “Everyone in the office is so excited,” she told me when I met her outside the clinic.
We sat in a pale-green examination room waiting for the doctor, Michelle was already in the stirrups, the nurse had come in, taken her blood and given her a gown. We both sat nervously discussing work, gigs, the thesis, anything but baby.
Dr. Francis carried herself with a calming ease. “I always love it when the husbands show up to the early appointments,” she said as she walked in and shook my hand. “You guys ready to see your baby?” I held Michelle’s hand and we nodded at the same time.
The monitor bleeped to life and Dr. Francis moved Michelle into position. She put gel on a long probe and I thought, Jesus, that’s doesn’t look comfortable. There was a lot of black-and-white nothingness on the monitor that seemed to move by very quickly. Dr. Francis talked calmly to us about the weather, her kids, and Brooklyn. She moved the probe around inside Michelle until a black patch slowly came into view on the screen, and then a small dot of something unrecognizable. She zoomed in, rotated the picture, and froze the image. “There you go,” she said. “There’s your baby.”
Michelle and I looked at each other, it looked like a pixilated eighties computer game character. Dr. Francis looked up and saw that Michelle was crying. “I hope that’s a happy cry?” she said in the softest doctor voice ever.
“It took so long,” Michelle said. “I can’t believe it’s really happening.”
“Oh, it’s happening,” said Dr. Francis, and we all laughed.
The doctor snapped a picture and took a few measurements. “Computer is telling me you’re six weeks and two days,” she said. “When was conception?” We laughed again, Michelle and I were a little embarrassed. We’d had so much sex that pinning down a specific date was like finding a needle in the haystack we’d spent the year rolling in. We weren’t quite sure, we told her.
“No worries,” said Dr. Francis. “Everything looks great. Want to hear the heartbeat?” She moved the wand inside Michelle again until a faint thumping came through the speakers.
“That’s fast. 120 beats per minute,” I said.
“How did you know?” asked Dr. Francis.
“Chris is a musician,” Michelle said, and she gripped my hand tight. I felt proud. Like I knew something about my child only I could know. Like this was what it was like to be a dad.
Michelle calls my inability to keep a secret, “challenging.” She’s become an expert at spotting my divulgences before they happen. Whether it’s at a party or we’re out with friends, she senses when I’m about to drop a sensitive piece of information and intervenes with the skill of a professional handler. She can change the subject quicker than a politician. I’ve gotten better at keeping my mouth shut over the years, especially with Michelle’s help. But I have to admit to a certain excitement that builds in me when I know something I want everyone else to know, a feeling that once I get the information out, the world will be a better place. I was this way with the pregnancy. I discussed our baby names with mere acquaintances. I talked with fellow musicians about plans that were none of their business. I reveled in the constant congratulations and feeling that I had somehow joined an exclusive club. The daddy club. I was smoking the cigar before earning the right to be in the delivery room.
“You have to stop telling people,” Michelle told me. “What if something goes wrong?”
“I haven’t told that many people,” I said.
“You told the guy who runs the Bodega!” she said, and she was right, I had.
And I had. And I had.
A week later, Michelle took the train during her lunch break to Dr. Francis’ office. I was at home because we’d decided that I didn’t need to be at every appointment, there was going to be a lot of them and this particular one was only a check-in.
“Call me as soon as you’re done,” I said.
She had to be back in her office at one o’clock. So at five minutes after one, I called her desk. I wanted to hear about what she’d seen on the monitor. I wanted to know how the little spud’s arms were progressing. But Michelle wasn’t there. I called every ten minutes for an hour. Finally, at two, she picked up. She’d been crying.
“Where have you been?” I asked. “Are you okay?”
“Something’s wrong,” she said. “The baby is smaller than it’s supposed to be.”
Smaller than it’s supposed to be. Smaller than it’s supposed to be. I ran the line over in my head trying to remember if I’d read anything in the hundreds of Google searches that I’d seen. “That doesn’t sound too bad,” I said. “Kids come in different sizes.”
Michelle cried harder. “It should be eight weeks and it’s only six,” she told me. “The heartbeat is slower, too. It hasn’t grown since our last appointment.” She was trying to lower her voice, she didn’t want everyone in her office to hear her crying. “I’m coming home,” she said, and hung up.
Here’s what we learned: in the early stages of pregnancy, the weekly size of your baby is very important. Dr. Francis told us there was a possibility we’d gotten the conception date wrong, that everything was still fine and that we’d know more in a week.
I dug into the Internet. I’d sneak out of bed in the middle of the night and spend hours online researching everything I could find on weekly gestation. The news was not good. Hundreds of mothers posting about the same problem. Gestation weeks that were off, posting in forums begging for help, any kind of information possible. And to be sure, there were a few miracles. Like the one from Mom_Zone234: My baby wasn’t growing and then all of a sudden, it sprung to life! Grew two weeks size in one week! Don’t lose hope! Thank God. Thank God. It is a miracle!
Michelle and I moved like we were under water that week. We stayed in, watched Forrest Gump three times and two full seasons of the Sopranos. We ate Skinny Cow ice cream sandwiches and tried to forget what might be coming. I was angry at myself for having told people about the pregnancy too soon. Why had I said anything? I had jinxed it. I was the problem. Michelle meanwhile found extra hours somewhere in the day to push ahead on the thesis. Her focus nothing short of miraculous.
“The fetus is still six weeks in size,” Dr. Francis told Michelle and me as we sat in the examination room clinging to hope. She pushed the wand around inside Michelle until the heartbeat crept through the speakers.
“About eighty beats-per-minute,” I said and Dr. Francis nodded. “I’ve been reading about cases where the baby suddenly starts growing again,” I said optimistically.
“I’ve been doing this for twenty years,” Dr. Francis said. “I’m afraid the prognosis doesn’t look good. I’ve never seen a pregnancy recover.”
Michelle and I had talked during the week. If there were still a heartbeat we would wait, and Dr. Francis agreed. So we waited another week.
And another week. And another week.
After three more weeks, thirty beats per minute and the baby was still six weeks in size. Each week was a mix of hope and desperation. Our baby was dying before our eyes.
Dr. Francis had been telling us that Michelle would most likely miscarry, she was surprised it hadn’t happened already. As the weeks pressed on and the heartbeat grew slower, the fear of the miscarriage followed Michelle everywhere she went.
“I don’t want it to happen at work,” she said to me one day when I met her for lunch. She hugged me and we cried together in the middle of Times Square. Red tour busses drove by, stacked with tourists taking pictures. There were throngs of people and neon signs. Michelle felt small in my arms in the biggest place in the world.
Dr. Francis was recommending a procedure called a D&C. We could check Michelle into the hospital in the morning and she’d be out that afternoon. “But there’s still a heartbeat,” I said as Michelle and I were back for yet another appointment. It was now twenty beats-per-minute. I could see the heartbeat on the monitor.
Take the slowest setting possible on a metronome (30 bpm).
Drop it by ten.
largheto: rather broadly (60–66 bpm).
largo: broadly (40–60 bpm).
lento: slowly (40–60 bpm).
grave: slow and solemn (20–40 bpm).
“Is this an abortion?” I asked Dr. Francis. She looked at me with sadness, the look of someone wanting to reassure me that what were about to do would never be considered such a thing. “In my medical opinion this pregnancy must be terminated,” she said. It sounded like she’d been practicing the line since college.
“I want it to be over,” Michelle said. She was sitting on the examination table, rolling the end of her paper robe between her fingers. Her head was down. She was crying. Dr. Francis took her hand, told her everything would be okay. I took one last look at the monitor before Dr. Francis shut it off. I could see the warble of the heartbeat, I could see the stubs of the baby’s arms.
Michelle was in the recovery room still under anesthetic. I’d been allowed in so I could be there when she woke up. She looked so tiny in that hospital bed. Worn out and fragile. Her short hair was sticking up in every direction and she looked pale. I had never seen my wife like this. I had never seen her so vulnerable. So beaten down. Her strength through this whole thing carved yet another space in my heart reserved only for her, Always remember how much you love this woman, I told myself.
“Is it gone?” she asked as her eyes blinked open. She looked around the room and for a second I didn’t think she recognized me. “Baby, is it over?” she asked me again as she tried to focus.
“It’s over,” I said.
“Where am I?” she asked.
I told her she was in the recovery room, that everything had gone smoothly. “Can I have a glass of water?” she asked.
The attending nurse came over and helped her sit up and I took the glass of water and put it to Michelle’s lips. Her mouth was dry. Her lips were white, parched and hard. Slowly she gained control of her hands, took the water under her own power and had the nurse refill it. I sat there watching my wife, neither of us saying a word. Dr. Francis came in, “You did great,” she said to Michelle. “I’m proud of you guys.” I asked an awkward question about the baby, something about it looking alive. “It doesn’t look like what you’d think,” said Dr. Francis.
I felt a great sadness in that moment, for Michelle, for the situation we found ourselves in, for the decision we’d made to silence a heartbeat. But there was something else, a kind of dread that came from the hopelessness of what we had in front of us. Getting pregnant again felt so far away. Could we go through it again? Not if this was the result.
No way. No way.
And there’s that heartbeat, I still think about it today, nearly two years after our Chloe was born. I can feel twenty beats-per-minute in my body like it’s a part of me, something I’ve taken on, a rhythm that guides me as I lift Chloe into a swing or help her down the slide. Like there’s a life, as small and fleeting as it was, that gave up everything for this happiness. And what about the ethics of our decision? It’s what stays with me now, long after. What are the ethics when there is no choice? So I have to ask myself, in those moments where the love for my daughter is so strong I think my heart can’t take another second of it. Where does life begin? The best I can figure, is that it starts in the heart, and grows from there.
accelerando (quickly, and with excitement); cesura (break, stop. ie: a complete break in sound); con anima (with feeling); gustoso (with happy emphasis); ad libitum (the speed and manner of execution are left to the performer); con sordino (with mute); lagrimoso (tearfully); obbligato (required, indispensable)
This story was originally published in the anthology “How To Expect What You’re Not Expecting: Stories of Pregnancy, Parenthood, and Loss”
Chris Tarry is the author of the story collection, How To Carry Bigfoot Home (Red Hen Press, March 2015), and holds an MFA from the University of British Columbia. His writing has appeared in publications such as The Literary Review, On Spec, The GW Review, PANK, BULL, Monkeybicycle, and other places. Chris is also a four-time Juno Award winner, and one of New York’s most sought-after musicians. www.christarry.com