By Amy Silverman
On a cool winter day in 2003, I parked my little silver VW station wagon at a rambling medical complex in downtown Phoenix and found my way through a maze of offices to my appointment for an ultrasound, the nonroutine kind.
I was six months pregnant with my second child and I should have been scared shitless, but I was oddly calm as I waddled toward the elevator.
Half an hour later, the technician clicked off the machine and handed me a rough paper towel to wipe the goop off my stomach.
“I’m not supposed to say anything,” she said as I yanked my black maternity T-shirt down and struggled like a turtle on its back to pull my body to an upright position on the exam table in the small, dim room, then stuck my feet back in my red Dansko clogs. “But I know why you’re here. And I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that your baby does not have Down syndrome.”
The ultrasound had been a compromise. A week earlier, I’d sat on another exam table in another medical building a few blocks away, shivering in a paper dress as my obstetrician tried to talk me into getting an amniocentesis. A blood test that screens for birth defects had come back showing an elevated risk of Down syndrome, he explained.
I knew that Down syndrome was part of the list of things you don’t want your kid to have—along with spina bifida and Tay-Sachs—and that my unborn kid had a 1 in 214 chance of getting it, according to this doctor. Those seemed like pretty good odds, but the guy looked so serious I got a little spooked. I called my husband, Ray, and explained the whole thing in a rush, ending with the risk of miscarriage associated with amniocentesis.
“That, and I don’t really want anyone sticking a needle in my stomach,” I admitted.
“If they find out she has it, can they fix it?”
“Then why would you get the amnio?” Ray asked. “You’re six months pregnant. What are you going to do, get a late-term abortion?” Well, when he put it like that—no way.
We already had one child: a beautiful, perfect little girl. The only difference between this pregnancy and the last one, I was certain, was the fact that I’d had Annabelle at thirty-four. Now I was thirty-six.
Did you know that they call it a “geriatric pregnancy” when you’re thirty-six? They do, and they give you a bunch of tests no one gives you when you are thirty-four. Silly.
I called the doctor. No amnio. Okay, he said, but please, at least get an ultrasound, the high definition kind where they can see everything.
Not quite everything, as it turns out.
I walked out of the medical imaging office into a pretty Phoenix February afternoon and can honestly say I didn’t think about “Down syndrome” again till a hot morning in May when I blearily opened my eyes in a bright white room. I couldn’t move. It took a minute to realize where I was. The recovery room. I’d just had a baby.
I’d awoken before dawn, in a puddle. My water had broken, three weeks before my due date. So much for the scheduled C-section. Ray and I scurried around, packed bags, met my in-laws in the hospital parking lot, hugged and kissed Annabelle good-bye. Then I aimed myself through the automatic sliding doors at Desert Samaritan Hospital, a giant bath towel wadded between my legs.
At that point, my biggest problem in life was that my father-in-law had now seen me crossing a parking lot with a giant bath towel wadded between my legs.
Because it was an emergency C-section, I needed my obstetrician who wasn’t available. A young associate from his practice—a woman I’d never met—delivered Sophie, holding her high in the air for me to see over the blue surgical curtain. Everyone cheered, and the young OB (my new favorite person, after she’d told Ray to quit complaining that I was squeezing his hand too hard as I got the epidural) asked if I’d like an extra shot of painkillers. Of course I would.
I suppose it took me a little longer than normal to wake up. And when I did, Ray and a nurse were deep in conversation.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“We’re measuring Sophie’s ears,” Ray said without a trace of emotion. “It looks like she has Down syndrome.”
I felt my stomach drop several stories, even though I was flat on my back. I had to be dreaming, right? This was some sort of drug-induced nightmare. The epidural, maybe? The extra shot? I couldn’t run. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t believe it. So I did what any normal person would do. I closed my eyes and went back to sleep.
I woke up in another room. My hospital room. Sophie was there in a hospital-issue bassinet, wrapped in the hospital-issue blue-and-pink striped blanket, fast asleep. Ray was not asleep.
“OK, so here’s the deal,” he said as soon as my eyes fluttered. “I’ve asked all the nurses, and they all think she has it.”
I started to sit up, quickly stopped by the pain in my gut. It’s not true, I thought to myself. It can’t be. I won’t let it be. I turned my face to the wall. Ray took off for the hospital library. I stared at the ceiling. All day long, doctors and nurses came in and out of the room—checking on my incision, giving me painkillers, helping me stand up, whisking Sophie off to the nursery and back again—and every time, I asked.
“Do you think the baby has Down syndrome?” I tried to be nonchalant. You know, like I had my hand on my hip, my head cocked to one side. Just curious.
Not 100 percent completely freaking out. Not ready to open my mouth and scream and never, ever stop. I felt oddly detached; this wasn’t happening, I was sure of that. When was I going to wake up, look up at Ray in the recovery room, and collect my compliments for another perfect baby? When was this going to stop?
Each nurse looked, and each nurse said the same thing. “Yeah, looks like she has it.”
Years later, I stare at Sophie’s baby pictures or pictures of other babies with Down syndrome, and I still can’t see it. The eyes are a little slanted, the ears a bit lower. Are the features squashed? I really can’t tell. Maybe it’s a coping mechanism left over from that period of denial.
One of the nurses offered me the number for a support group. The gash on my abdomen was the only thing that stopped me from running out the door. I took the paper but didn’t look at it. I didn’t need it, right? No one had said for sure that the baby had Down syndrome. No way was this going to happen to me.
But what if it did?
Amy Silverman was born and raised in the sometimes scary state of Arizona. She escaped—but returned and, to her great surprise, is living happily ever after (knock wood) with her husband Ray, daughters Annabelle and Sophie, and a revolving cast of pets. Amy blogs here and is the author of My Heart Can’t Even Believe It, of which the above is an adapted excerpt.