It wasn’t the first thing people asked about. First, people asked about my pregnancy. I answered their questions as best I could, hoping to divert the attention from my last pregnancy. If I could keep them talking about this baby, there was no need to mention that baby. But eventually someone remembered.
“I don’t know how you will manage,” someone finally said. “Two babies so close in age.”
Before I could reply, someone else jumped into the conversation. “That’s right. Where’s your baby?”
I took a deep breath before answering. “Sadly, she was born prematurely and passed away after eight weeks.”
There were gasps from all of the women around me.
“Oh, you poor thing,” one woman said.
“That must have been terrible,” another added.
“Yes, it was.”
“Well, thank goodness you’re having another.”
I winced. Having another wasn’t going to make it hurt any less that I had lost the first. This child didn’t replace Anna, physically or emotionally. I wouldn’t trade this child to have any more time with Anna. Yes, the only reason I was pregnant now was because Ben and I had made love the day of Anna’s death. This baby wouldn’t exist if we still had Anna, but they weren’t interchangeable.
“Yes,” I said after a moment. “We’re very excited to meet this child.”
“Was there something wrong?” one woman asked. “To make you lose the baby?”
I felt my face go hot. “Uh, not that I know of. I’m going to be going on bed rest soon, because my doctor is concerned about another premature birth, but there’s no real indicator of why it happened.”
“Well, you must have done something. You know about all the things you’re not supposed to eat and do, right? You’re not supposed to have caffeine, you know.”
I cringed inwardly. That wasn’t even true! You only have to limit caffeine.
“Uh, yep. Really, my doctor and I went over everything together already. No indication that I had done anything wrong, and no indication that there was anything wrong with the baby.”
“My second was premature,” another woman said, and I realized that this was the woman who had been pregnant the previous Christmas. She was a mother of three now, at least. Who knew whether number four was on the way.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said honestly. Any level of prematurity can have problems, and I wouldn’t wish them on anyone.
“He only weighed five pounds,” she continued. “It was a nightmare.”
“I’m sure it was,” I said. I meant it, because that’s legitimately scary. Unfortunately, the floodgates were now open, and I realized that I was going to keep talking, even as I tried to stop myself, knowing that I was about to lose my cool. “My daughter weighed a pound and a half when she was born. She never even weighed five pounds.”
“This isn’t a contest,” the other woman replied. “I’m sure I went through as much as you did.”
“Did a doctor operate on your two week old baby? Did you hold your lifeless child in your arms? Or did your son spend an extra day in the hospital to bulk up before you brought him home?”
Oh, shit, I had completely lost the plot.
“You’ve got issues. Maybe you shouldn’t have tried again so soon.”
“I didn’t try to get pregnant. It took four years to have my daughter. This,” I said, pointing to my stomach, “was an accident. I would have never tried to get pregnant again. I’m too scared of the consequences.”
I saw movement to my left and saw that Ben was moving through the crowd to me. I had surely embarrassed him in front of his coworkers and their families. Dammit.
“El, we should go,” he said softly.
“I’m so sorry,” I whispered back.
“What’s going on?”
“She tried to tell me her two day premature five pound baby meant that she understood about Anna. I snapped a little.”
Ben turned around to face the woman. “Laura. Please understand that we’ve been through something unimaginable this year. We are still grieving our loss. Please excuse us.”
He took my elbow and led me from the room. That was exactly what I should have said. How had he known what to say? How did he always know?
Ben loaded me into the car and steered us toward home.
“I am so sorry,” I repeated after we’d been driving for a few minutes.
“I know you are.”
“You’re mad at me.”
“A little bit. Why did you have to get into a fight, Elise? I know it’s been a hard few months, but you cannot unload on people. She wasn’t trying to hurt your feelings. She was being ignorant. You have to let that go sometimes.”
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have let her get to me.”
“No, you shouldn’t have. Seriously, Elise, you have to stop thinking that everyone is out to get you. You take everything so personally.”
“I don’t understand how she could try to compare anything that happened to her to our losing our daughter. How, Ben?”
“Maybe she wanted the attention. I don’t know. You can’t control how other people behave, but you can control yourself. You need to start doing that.”
“You won’t be embarrassed to go back into work, will you?”
“No, of course not. We’ve been through a terrible hurt. People are pretty forgiving.”
“I can’t stand the idea that people think that I’ll forget my daughter because there’s another child.”
“They don’t know, Elise. They don’t know this pain. I’m glad that they don’t, because I wouldn’t wish this on anyone. You can’t blow up at every stranger who doesn’t get it.”
I put my hands on my belly, thinking about this child and the sibling he or she would never know. Our first-born, who no one would ever know the way Ben and I had, so briefly.
And then our baby kicked me, and I gasped. Ben looked over at me, panic etched on his face.
“Are you okay? Do we need to go to the hospital?”
I shook my head. “No, I’m okay. I feel the baby. I feel it kick me. I’ve never had that happen before. Anna was too small to feel her. But...oh. Oh, Ben, you have to feel this.”
Ben pulled the car to the side of the road. I took his hand and placed it on my belly, over where I felt the movement of our child.
I continued to hold Ben’s hand against me, even after the baby had settled down. This was amazing, one of those pregnancy moments that made the baby into a real person. This was a real person inside of me, I thought. This would be our child. We were less than six weeks from getting to meet him or her.
Holy cow, how had we gotten this far? How was I thirty-four weeks pregnant? Sure, not finding out until I was pretty far along certainly helped. When I was pregnant with Anna, even before anything went wrong, the pregnancy felt like it was dragging along. This time it felt like things would be over in the blink of an eye. It was almost enough to make me believe that I’d wake up one morning, and there would be a baby in the house.
“Oh, my God,” I said after a minute of feeling the kicks. “We’re going to have a baby.”