An ultrasound of a beating heart, at last

By Kelly Westhoff

Sometimes I watch my son dangle from the monkey bars, and I wonder who gifted him a nimble, athletic body. It wasn’t my husband, even though he was a state gymnastics champion. Sometimes I listen to my son talk on and on, and on and on, and I wonder who gifted him a knack for language. It wasn’t me, a woman with a writing career. Mostly, though, I marvel at the universe. How did we, a couple who contributed absolutely nothing to the genetic makeup of our child, end up with a little boy who seems like such a representation of ourselves?

Not through pregnancy.

Well…not a pregnancy that involved us.

I couldn’t get pregnant. Not the old fashioned way and not the fertility clinic way. Perhaps I didn’t want it enough. Pregnancy, that is. Motherhood I wanted, wanted desperately. But pregnancy scared me. It was so physical. So animalistic. I wouldn’t even touch raw meat. How was I, the patient who always requested a reclining chair for a blood draw, supposed to inject myself with fertility meds? I didn’t. I made my husband administer every shot, which he did while I lay on the bed exhaling audible yoga breaths. “Just don’t faint,” he’d say. I’d answer by letting a solitary tear roll down my cheek.

Fertility treatments, for me, were a series of months in which I cried almost every single day. Fear. Disappointment. Guilt. Shame. Hopelessness. These emotions accompanied me on every clinic visit and every pharmacy run. They accompanied me on every trip to the bathroom for I never knew when a hint of red might appear on my toilet paper. And all of them, all of them sat on my shoulder every time I logged onto Facebook because there, anybody from my friend list, might, at any time, post an ultrasound photo as an announcement of their own expectant state. I even got notifications when my friends liked one of their friend’s ultrasound photos.

Those ultrasound photos.

They unraveled me, sent me gulping for air in noisy spasms that came from somewhere in my throat. I was thankful I worked from home so no coworkers had to witness these spontaneous episodes. And what of all of those pictures of adorable toddlers in my feed? They didn’t bother me. I was able to appreciate the kid pics for what they were: proof that these funny, wondrous little people were living their lives.

The ultrasound photos, though, they were a reminder that I was being denied, but of what, I didn’t know. Motherhood? Maybe. But then why didn’t the toddler pictures affect me? Pregnancy? Perhaps. But I didn’t think so. I had searched my soul and really, truly, I did not feel the need to be pregnant. Yet clearly an ultrasound symbolized something to me, something big and life shifting, something I couldn’t describe but knew I wanted. There was some kind of moment, some kind of epiphany that seemed intimately linked to an ultrasound—but one that was forever unnamed and forever not mine.

My son was two years old when my husband and I traveled to China to adopt him. From the very start, he fit into us. Just days into our pairing, we visited the park behind our hotel. We walked and I remember the shadow of our brand new threesome on the sidewalk, Hanru in between my husband and me, each of us holding one of his small hands. We hadn’t gone far, hadn’t even made it to the gates of the park, when Hanru surprised us. He jumped and flipped his body up and over, trusting the strength of our grasp to land him firmly on his feet. By the time we left China for the United States, it felt like he was ours, wholly and completely. And he is. But he is not.

We know nothing about his birth parents. One or both of them may have been eager and outgoing, just like Hanru. One or both of them may have been athletic, graceful and strong. One or both of them may have had a way with words. One or both of them may have carried a gene for corneal scarring. Or maybe the scar that affects Hanru’s vision is a fluke. Maybe one of his birth parents, or maybe both of them, carried a gene for cleft lip, for cleft palate. Or maybe environmental factors gave Hanru that condition. Maybe an ultrasound revealed it while he was in utero. We don’t know. We’ll never know.

And because we’ll never know, my husband and I agreed to an echocardiogram of Hanru’s heart. He’d been home with us for eight months and in that time he’d been subjected to numerous physical exams by various specialists. We didn’t think there was a problem with his heart, but we hadn’t thought there was a problem with his vision either and there we were trying to keep a pair of glasses on a three-year-old. So when, in the course of yet another appointment with yet another specialist, the doctor thought she heard a heart murmur, we didn’t pause to research what the test would entail. We just said “do it.” Our worries would be unfounded, but we didn’t know that yet.

Before we could let out a sigh of relief, we huddled in a darkened room, Hanru stripped from the waist up. His ribs reached like fingers across his small chest. Goose bumps tremored up and down his arms.

“The doctor is going to take a picture of your heart,” I told him, coaxing him to lie back.

“No shots,” my husband said. “No ouchies.”

A screen on a large machine lit up and the image that appeared was just like the ultrasound of a fetus. It was black and white and in that same telltale wedge shape.

This was our ultrasound of our Hanru.

And his heart was beating. And we could see it. And we could hear it.

My husband grabbed my hand.

And for a moment, one very brief moment, it felt like our son had been ours from his beginning.

Kelly Westhoff is an essayist, haiku enthusiast, and aspiring author whose writing is fueled by dark chocolate and green tea. She will celebrate her son’s next birthday by attending a monster truck rally. Follow her work on Facebook or Instagram. Learn more at

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