I was sitting on the bed in our first house in Texas when my wife, Anne, casually told me she was pregnant. After a miscarriage and two boys, one of whom had endured a tense delivery that narrowly averted tragedy, I thought I was set. Two kids 15 months apart, a cat, a house with a two-car garage, enough money to allow Anne to stay at home with the boys. My version of winning the lottery circa 1989.
I’d seen enough movies in which such scenes ended with the father-to-be leaping up and hugging his wife with a “That’s great, honey!” exclamation. Not me. I sat there silent for a moment, my brain ripping through calculations that said all my carefully laid plans for two children, two college educations, vacations for four, and houses with three bedrooms (four if we wanted a guest room) were now about to be shitcanned.
In the first nanoseconds after hearing the news, I silently screamed, “No!” Then I blurted out something like “But we can’t afford a third kid!”
A child of the very low middle class, I already had exceeded my wildest expectations with a one-in-a-million job as a journalist-turned-stock-analyst in Dallas. A freelance writer friend of ours had written an article about young yuppy families for the Sunday magazine of my former employer, The Dallas Morning News. The story was about how couples were maniacally pursuing the material accoutrements of success in Big D—the BMW, the swimming pool, the country-club membership—but the writer interviewed us as the example of a couple who was “keeping it real.” Sure I had just gotten a raise in base salary to $50,000, at the time at least twice as much as my father had ever made as a long-haul trucker; but my one and only celebratory extravagance was buying a Sears & Roebuck table saw so that I could do more work on our modest $80,000 three-bedroom tract home in the far north Dallas suburb of Carrollton, where I had spent most of my childhood.
I was a believer then—and still pretty much now—in karmic accounting. If you reached for too much, got too greedy, karma would munch your ass like a starved pit bull.
Three kids? The karmic ledger in my rapidly panicking brain said that was too much. Then I blurted out something like “But what if this kid has something wrong with it?”
We had endured a miscarriage. We had endured a quack of an OB/GYN who had nearly killed the fetus of our first born. We had endured the birth of our second son in which the fetal monitor had gone apeshit in the delivery room as the umbilical cord had wrapped around his neck and our doctor, a specialist in high-risk pregnancies, screamed at the nurse, “Give me the forceps NOW! He’s got to come out NOW!” We had endured those first two days looking at Nicholas’ freakishly oblong head, mushed by the forceps, wondering if the doctor and nurses were lying when they assured us his head would resume a cherubic round shape. Then we wondered if he had suffered any brain damage from the minutes when his pulse had plunged as his oxygen supply had been cut off when the cord had become tangled. The angry red V-shaped mark on his forehead, a stork bite the doctor called it, from the forceps was like a billboard shouting out that something could be wrong.
In the ensuing year, it became clearer that Nick was okay, with the exception of chronic ear infections that had muffled his hearing, delaying his speech development. The insertion of tiny tubes in his ears solved that. He was a happy baby who loved to be tossed around like a sack of potatoes. He went from crawling to climbing the cabinets with no fear of gravity whatsoever.
We had challenged the karmic ledger—and somehow emerged unscathed. Lesson learned. Two kids, that was it for me, even though we both had wanted a girl the first time out and desperately so the second time out. No, our fate was to raise two healthy boys. So be it.
So, when Anne broke the news, all I could muster was a look of pained disbelief and an outpouring of doubt and worry and fear.
“Are you seriously suggesting,” she responded after my angst-filled sililoquy, “that we shouldn’t keep this baby?”
In one of my least admirable moments, I replied, “I don’t know. Maybe we should think about this.”
I regretted those words in less time than it took to say them, particularly when I saw my wife’s expression of, first, stunned bewilderment, then of slit-eyed I’m-so-getting-ready-to-kick-your-ass defiance.
“I guess we’ll be okay,” I sheepishly about faced with zero confidence but secure in the knowledge that life is what happens to you while you’re busy planning for your future.
About three months later, the pregnancy seemed to be going well; but Dr. Forceps, a gregarious guy who nevertheless had his shit wired tight, wanted an amniocentesis just to be sure. Anne was going on 38 for this pregnancy. Given her history, he wanted to cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s. The procedure done, it would take a week or so to get the results. Besides discovering any genetic abnormalities, the test also would confirm the sex of the baby, something that an earlier ultrasound hadn’t been able to do for some reason.
Distracting me from thinking Down Syndrome every waking hour during that week was a marketing trip to Boston and New York. Anne was flying up to meet me in New York to celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary pretty much as we had celebrated our honeymoon: going to the Broadway theater.
My firm at the time put us up in my favorite New York hotel, the Waldorf-Astoria. My salesman and I raced in from LaGuardia after our flight from Boston had been delayed. Anne was supposed to be in the room already. Pushing 7:30, I had only thirty minutes until the curtain, barely time to wash my face and change shirts before we would have to navigate a mob scene in front of the hotel due to the expected appearance of The Rolling Stones, who were being inducted into the Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame that night in the hotel’s grand ballroom. After a quick kiss at the door, I sprinted past Anne to the bathroom, hardly noticing the beautifully redecorated room.
As I emerged with a freshly scrubbed face and a new shirt, Anne stood by the window overlooking the crowds on Park Avenue below. She was holding an elaborately wrapped package.
“I think you should open your anniversary gift now,” she said with that tease in her voice.
I glanced at my watch: 7:35. Only 25 minutes to curtain for this musical everyone was raving about, “Les Miserables.”
“Are you crazy?” I replied. “Sweetheart, we’ve got to get down there and somehow find our driver in that sea of limos and get to the theater. We’ve got $50 tickets that were hard to get, ya know.”
“It won’t take a minute,” she said, always willing to ignore the time, a characteristic that has often made me grind my teeth. “I promise you’ll like it.”
Calculating that I could rip open the box in less time than it took for me to protest further, I grabbed it out of her hands and, now curious, pulled the ribbon of the extravagant bow. Looking down at the street and seeing an even bigger crowd forming, I was beginning to resign myself to the fact that we would miss the curtain for sure. Then I removed the top of the box.
Under crisp tissue paper lay a tiny pink dress with tiny little pleats in front called smocking. So delicate. So perfect. Message received. The test results had come the day before. Not only was everything okay, but we were having a girl at last! As yet another stretch limousine pulled up to the hotel’s entrance on the street below, I began to sob uncontrollably--out of relief, out of joy, and, yes, out of guilt.
The theater had no curtain. The set filled the stage. The house was nearly full. We had talked about this moment for weeks beforehand. After all, it was nearly 20 years in the making. The lights dimmed. The play began.
Within a few minutes, out stepped our daughter, Mary Allison. Dressed as a 1955 teeny-bopper infatuated with James Dean, she was making her collegiate stage debut last week as a sophomore at the College of Charleston in “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.”
She glided confidently through the screen door of the set depicting the interior of a West Texas five-and-dime store very similar to the one I had frequented after school in Odessa as a grader schooler. Instantly, I experienced another of those moments that have occurred many times since Mary Allison’s perfect birth. Pride at the sight of her strawberry blonde hair in a ponytail showing no after effects of the “hair cuts” her brothers used to give her as a toddler, delight at the sight of her plaid poodle skirt and saddle oxfords that seemingly floated above the stage floor after 15 years of dance lessons, and joy upon hearing her West Texas drawl though she’d spent almost her whole life in New Jersey.
But, most of all, I again felt stunned awe that I could have ever contemplated missing the life of the young woman, no longer a little girl, on the stage before us.
Ain’t karma a kick?
Mary Allison at two.
Mary Allison on the set after opening night.