[wpaudio url=”/audio/september12/Lerner.mp3″ text=”listen to this essay” dl=”0″]
The line turned blue. I was ecstatic. Charles’ brow furrowed.

–  Our girls are still babies, he said.

– So, they’ll be close in age, I said.

– I’m not sure I’m ready for a third, he said.

I had always wanted three children. Truth was, our two-child family reminded me of my isolated childhood, just me and my brother, our parents out of control and absent. Our basement housed a Primal Scream box, littering my mother’s dresser were vials of lithium. Raising two kids would be too quiet. A third baby, I was sure, would serve as a stop sign to the barrage of lonely memories. Three kids equaled a party. Charles’s uncertainty paled in the face of my desperation.

The pregnancy was eventful.

Six weeks: 104-degree fever. – Patience and Tylenol, said the OB.

Nine weeks: Heavy bleeding caused by prenatal diagnostic test. Frozen in bed, thighs clenched, I figured I’d blown it, would never get another chance at having a third. The next morning, a bloody pad bunched between my legs, the ultrasound wand, unbelievably, found a heartbeat. My tears of happiness thudded softly on the exam table paper.

Twenty-eight weeks: Motionless baby sent a panicked me to the ER.

– The heartbeat’s loud and strong, the OB said, her voice calm and measured. I went limp with relief.

Thirty-six weeks: Low amniotic fluid per ultrasound.

I waddled down the hall to the high risk OB. He smeared the dome of my abdomen with goo.

– Well?

– Baby’s fine, but we need to watch carefully.

Thirty-eight weeks: – Time to schedule the delivery, said the OB.

– But it’s two weeks before my due date.

– Tomorrow, she said.

Charles narrowed his eyes upon hearing this news. His physician friends had told him stories about deliveries gone wrong, and he had been anxious at our girls’ births.

– It’ll be fine, I said. Charles sighed and reached for my hand.

– Push, said the OB.

– You can do it, said Charles.

The nurse must have said – It’s a boy! I must have smiled. The baby cried. The nurse took him aside to be cleaned up.

– Mary, page the surgical team, said the OB in a clipped tone. The doctor pushed one hand up deep, while the other smashed down on my belly from the outside.

– Where are they, Mary? asked the doctor, her usually congenial voice sharp.

The OB removed her hand, walked to the wall and pressed the red button on a chrome panel before returning to the valley between my stirrups. Elbow-deep inside me she moved her hand along my innards, as if searching for a ring in a dark room.

– What’s wrong? I asked, scared.

She continued without answering. Charles sucked in his upper lip. I imagined I had become a character in one of the stories about life-threatening post-delivery placental problems. The normally unflappable OB barked orders to the nurse in a voice I did not recognize.

My son lay, red like Esau, jerking tiny feet and fists, in a clear Plexiglas bassinet. It became clear to me, there on the delivery table, that now that I had successfully—and selfishly—brought our third child into the world, I might die. I might never see my son flash a toothless grin, never know if he preferred chocolate or vanilla. And my girls. Still watching Barney, still in patent leather Mary Janes, would they grow to be math/science nerds or humanities lovers? Love spicy curry or be white food kids? Adamant that three children would spare me from the lonely memories of my untethered upbringing, I had doomed them to growing up without a mother. And Charles. None of us would get the life I worked so hard to create.

Paper ripped. The nurse swabbed cold between my legs. My nostrils tingled from an antiseptic smell.

Cancel the page, said the OB. She must have said something like I’m not worried anymore. Or I see what happened now. Or false alarm.

All I remember is that from the space between my knees I saw her face soften, and the creases on her forehead smooth.

– Thank you, God, I whispered through tears.

The baby wailed.

Charles squeezed my hand.