The Greatest Act of Love

May 10, 2017
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It’s four thirty in the morning and my heart hurts. It feels as though Margot has her tiny under-formed fists wrapped around my muscles, squeezing and crushing me from the inside. The darkness of the room pulses in time with our heartbeats, pressing itself into my eye sockets, filling me with emptiness. Above us, the ceiling fan sputters-the only noise in an otherwise stifling silence-and beads of cool sweat gather on my forehead. A headache throbs around my temples and I curl into a ball, folding in on myself as I struggle to draw breath.
On nights like this, heavy with impossible choices, I can see her when I close my eyes. I can reach out and stroke her velvet skin, marvel at every tiny finger and fingernail. Marcus’s eyes and mouth smile up at me and she is beautiful.
My hand strokes my belly, fingers as delicate as moth’s wings flitting over the exposed skin above my navel. It’s four forty and my heart aches with longing-longing to hold Margot in my arms, to cradle her head and breathe in her new-baby smell. Longing to rock her in my arms, kiss her cheeks, and promise to love her always. My heart splinters under the strain of such a selfish love.
I know it would be agony. For Margot. I understand that her cries would not be the welcomed cries of a newborn begging her mother for love. Her’s would be the cries of a creature in torment.
But I’ve never wanted anything as much as I want Margot. I’ve never loved anything as much as I love her, this tiny girl I’ve never known. In my head she is perfect. In my head she does not convulse with seizures nor does she shriek with the acute pain of cranial pressure. She is not deformed and she is not in pain and she is a lie.
Sobs turn to heaves of loneliness and longing, but I come up empty.


Next to me, Marcus has caved in-a clay pot on the wheel collapsing under its own weight. I feel fleetingly embarrassed for him, slumped in the green plastic chair like so many ragdolls. Leaning back in my own seat, I observe the cracked white ceiling where flakes of paint are peeling away from a fissure and flecking the carpet below with white specks. I stare until I feel something brush my arm, a touch so brief it almost hadn’t happened at all. I reluctantly turn my attention back to Marcus, who has straightened himself back into a more recognizable shape. What? I ask, or shout, or whisper, or never say at all.
“Did you hear me Vanessa?” asks the man sitting adjacent to us, his expression somber and marred by deep crevices where laughlines might have been. The man is balding, and I try very hard not to stare at the shiny circle of scalp emerging from underneath his combover. I tilt my head back, open my mouth and breathe.
“You think my baby’s head is too small?” The doctor’s eyebrows knit together and he folds his wrinkled hands on the fine mahogany desk between us. It’s impossible to discern whether the gesture is one of gravity or impatience, his face remains impassive and impossible to read.
“Microcephaly” he begins again, “Is a rare condition which results in an abnormally small cranium. However-” I carefully place my hands over my stomach, shielding the baby from the implications of his words, “-your baby appears to be a severe case-” I find myself slowly shaking my head, because this is surely all a mistake and “-may want to consider terminating the pregnancy.” The world stops but nobody notices. Next to me Marcus is nodding. Marcus is nodding. Nodding, in agreement. His eyes are wet as he reaches for my hand and his fingers look like claws. My chest is on fire but my lungs have frozen, and I think I’ve sprung to my feet. Ashen faced, the room sways and I have nothing left to steady myself with. I snarl, or whimper. Or maybe don’t make any sound at all.


Marcus was so happy when he found out. He didn’t even pause, who would? Three weeks establishing Internet connections in the poorest regions of Brazil, corporate expense. Marcus’s dream adventure for Marcus’s dream job. With little more than a kiss on the cheek, he left his new wife to chase a finally recognized dream.
The work proved simple and provided him with a comfortable excess of free time. Marcus wrote extensively of his adventures and experiences, signing all his notes with love. I envied him, trekking through tropical rainforest and ziplining through waterfalls as I sat in the boiling flat.
I remember the ache of missing him, a twisted knot in my chest as I read the smudgy letters. I laughed at his vivid descriptions and anecdotes, tacking every new envelope to the corkboard above my bed so I too could dream of Brazil. So we could see it together. His only complaint was the mosquitoes, and they seemed like a minor inconvenience in exchange for the beauty of the country.
Marcus was not a selfish man, he spent his life being cloyingly selfless and I married him for it. Yet I encouraged him aggressively to put himself first for once, to experience and indulge in his ambition.  I swore self-sufficiency. I promised patience. I regretted it as soon as I watched him go. Still tan from our honeymoon, setting off on his next adventure without me.
Turns out, that trip to Brazil gave Marcus a damn sight more than a healthy tan and lasting memories. 
I tried not to blame him.
I try not to blame him. 


“We need to talk about this.” I’m out of words. The sheets are scratchy against my cheek and they smell like lemon soap. Sunlight streams through the window and illuminates one square of the shag carpet. A fly buzzes against a window and-“Think about what’s best for the baby”-finds itself trapped behind the glass. “I think you know what’s right here. You’re a smart woman Vanessa.” The sheets are too clean and I’m suffocating.
Marcus sighs but doesn’t take my silence as the dismissal it’s meant to be. I can feel him reaching out to touch me, hovering above the blankets. The moment hangs, suspended in the miles of air between us. I hear his hand fall back into his lap and try not to care. I struggle to breathe around the crushing vice constricting my lungs and chest, close my eyes and sob my way into blackness. I’m not ready. How could I possibly be ready? 



There are some decisions with no winners. Bleak from any angle, painful for everyone. My decision to abort Margot will stay with me for the rest of my life, as part of me as my own heart. A brutal decision made out of love, a mercy killing, euthanasia.
Whatever you choose to call it, nobody will tell you you’re doing the right thing when you decide to terminate a pregnancy, I learned that quickly. For the most part, nobody will tell you you’re making a mistake either. Nobody wants to hear about your baby girl who was too good to be born. It makes people uncomfortable to discover you took liberty over another’s life, especially one without a voice of its own. Nobody wants to know how when a baby leaves, she takes you with her.
I saved Margot’s life when I ended it, I saved her from a life of crippling mental dysfunction. I saved her from a brief but excruciating existence, and knowing makes it easier to go on. I try to forgive myself, I try to forgive Marcus, and some nights I almost manage.


Sick Day
The worst, most intimately horrible moment of my life was carefully conducted 150 miles outside of Northern Michigan within the walls of Pine Lake Clinic, a small facility with no pines or lakes to speak of. It was the closest clinic we could find willing to carry out abortive action after 19 weeks. I was informed upon entry that the technical term was “induced labor” as I was too far along for the quicker procedure. Essentially the doctors were going to simulate a miscarriage, in a sterile room, while I lay on a cold metal table, miles away from any friends or family.
Marcus drove me, quietly gripping the steering wheel while I stared out the window. I marveled at how little time was required for a life to unravel. I was losing Margot, losing Marcus, losing myself. A week ago I was flushed with the joy of impending motherhood. I glowed. A week ago I was in love, I carried love, I was made of love. Now I just feel vaguely nauseous. .
Trees whip past, blurring into one long streak of green. Above us, dark clouds sweep across a slate sky. Droplets of rain spatter on the windshield and roll down the smudged glass. A gentle flutter of fingers, soft against sweaty palms, familiar yet almost forgotten. Without turning his gaze away from the empty road before us, Marcus slips his hand into mine, threading our fingers together. Skin on skin. A reminder and a promise, my throat burns.  I return my gaze to the window and tears fall silently, down my cheeks and onto the steering wheel.
He holds my hand hours later when I am beset by uncontrollable convulsions. He squeezes so tightly I think I might break. I am acutely aware of my own fragility in this moment. Remarkably I do not shatter as I am ripped apart. I think I’m crying, my face is wet. I think I’m dying, there is blood everywhere. I think I’m falling, shouts are becoming murmurs. The only thing I know for sure is pain. And Marcus is still gripping my hand.
I think I’m alive, I hold Margot for the first and last time. She is not beautiful, one glance enough to see something horribly wrong. She is my baby, impossibly small against my chest and still as only the dead can be. Too small to cradle, I hold her in between my breasts where she fits as though she belongs. As if my body were made especially for her, here, in this moment. I fall asleep, impossibly empty, and when I wake she is gone.
That day I take my baby home from the hospital, in a little blue urn embellished with tiny white flowers.



Marcus and I took Margot to Mount Adams, Seattle, where my family used to spend the lazy West-coast summers. We climbed in silence, listening to the birds and the distant whoosh of water falling. The mountain air was alive with spring and, though our breath puffed white clouds as we climbed, there was the promise of warmth clinging to the trees around us. Frost-crusted pine-needles crunched under our boots as we climbed the summit, careful not to tread on the buds peeking cautiously from beneath frozen leaves. We reached a clearing and stood motionless, taking in the vastness before us. Mountains, purple in the early light, rose in every direction. Valleys lush with pine trees and stark with dormant skeletal branches awaited the changing season. The sky was ice-blue and cloudless, the kind of sky that rosies the ends of noses and reddens the tips of ears.
Carefully I removed the top of Margot’s vase, pouring the grey ashes into my palm and allowing curtains of fine dusty memory to float down on the valley like snow. Margot is not in these ashes. She’s in the rain and the wind and the hot summer nights. She’s in the season’s first snow and every spring thunderstorm. She’s in the monsoons and the rivers and the oceans. Margot is part of the universe now, forever part of me. She is inside me now as truly as she was before everything changed. I loved her too much to give her life, my baby who is with me always and never, all at once. She is gone and she is here, Margot, the great love of my life. I open my fist, and let my baby go.

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