How to Build a Nursery for a Dying Baby

by Victoria Barrett

Image via Jug Jones/Flickr; MOdified by Maximum Middle Age

Begin with an idea: This child swimming in her own confined ocean inside you is some kind of sea creature. This will be a mistake, but do it anyway. Commit fully to the image. Buy fabric and floss and batting to make a quilt embroidered with squids and jellyfish and various tentacled life forms. Buy yarn in the colors of the sea and the sun and the sky and begin to crochet an afghan. Buy, inexplicably, two tins of glitter. Buy a strange finger puppet of a single red tentacle at an upscale toy store. Start a secret Pinterest board. Share it only with your husband. Fill it with images of ocean-themed wall decals.

A walk-in closet is a poor place to put a baby, but at first, when you're obsessed with cats in cradles and sound control and proximity to your own bed, it's the only thing that makes sense. Draw a scale model of your closet, including its cantilevered dormer ceiling, on graph paper, marking out placement of all the things the baby websites claim you need: crib, rocking chair, feeding supplies, changing table, dresser, baskets and baskets of creams, ointments, implements. Buy extra fabric and batting to staple over the texture of the cantilevered ceiling.

Love is a noun. Something like hope, but attached to a person, or to the idea of a person. You cannot feel her yet in your body but you can in your soul. It is hope that keeps you up at night, planning how you'll convert that closet, how you'll decorate it, down to the last detail, whether to cut the five-panel door into a makeshift Dutch door to keep out the cats but let through the air, the sound of her. How you'll insulate the rickety windows, cover that ceiling to protect her. How you'll fit all the things you need into that closet. The hope-like thing propels you, even when you don't feel much like being propelled.

These are all things you can do yourself. You hung the drywall in that closet yourself, installed the light fixture, sewed the curtains that hide the rickety windows. Yourself.

Before long, though, you become desperately sick, barely able to function. Your blood sugar drops through the floor every hour. Your doctor says more protein so you down Greek yogurt and peanut butter by the bucketful. You can barely stand the smell or taste of meat, so you keep at the yogurt, buy Clif Bars, drink so much milk. The cold sweats and trembling and pounding headaches don't stop. You eat more, drink more. You gain twenty pounds in a handful of weeks. The baby is taking something from you, but you can't know what just yet. You can't know how much.

You say, "If people had told me it would be like this, I wouldn't have done it."

You say, "Baby, you better be cute."

You sit in front of the TV, stitching row after row on the afghan, yellow, green, white, blue. You tell yourself, "I can do this." You can't. Nobody can.

In the twelfth week you find out that the high-tech prenatal test was inconclusive. You drive across town to the doctor's office to give another vial of blood. You wait another two weeks. You haven't begun yet to move your clothes and shoes out of the walk-in closet, much less the boxes of flowered dresses and lug-sole boots you've been keeping since the '90s, certain they will come back around. When the phone rings it isn't the nurse, like before, but your doctor. You hear her voice catch in her throat. You know before you know. You hear her say "Trisomy 13." You hear her say "incompatible with life."

The abortion takes place five days before Christmas. In the recovery room, the surgeon asks if you can tell that you're no longer pregnant, if you can feel it. You can. You momentarily harbor the delusion that it's over, that you can move on. At home, you tuck the half-afghan, the quilter's calico, the embroidery floss into a bag in a different closet than the one where you pictured her sleeping. You will wonder, at a future date, pregnant with your first son, whether you can reuse the afghan, whether that would be all right.

Love is a verb. A practice. You will never hold this child, never soothe her with a hand on the forehead, never touch her soft curls. It will never be okay. Instead, you will want to pull the loose strand at the unfinished end of the afghan, ravel, unravel, back to the beginning, to the idea of her, the image of you brushing her hair, twisting it into braids or barrettes or bouncy pigtails, tying them with those puffy yarn ribbons you haven't seen since your own mother tied them into your own braids in 1979.

With each loop of yarn you hooked, you were loving her. You cannot unravel that. You cannot unlove her. You cannot repurpose your love into something new. It will lie in your closet, this bright, unfinished thing you can never touch again.

Victoria Barrett's fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Glimmer Train, Salon, PANK, and other outlets. She lives and writes in a house full of men and boys (even the pets) and tries not to feel too bad about it.