Blind Optimism

Most couples hope to have a baby one day. But behind all the happy anticipation, becoming a parent does have its worries, doubts and misgivings. Now imagine experiencing all those emotions in the way this writer did, as an expectant father going blind.

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In a Turkish restaurant over beer and lamb one afternoon, my wife, Tracy, casually announced, “I think I’m pregnant.”

I nursed my beer and waited for the surge of adrenaline to dilute. “You think you’re pregnant,” I ventured, “or you are, you know, pregnant?”

“I am.”

My skull rattled from whatever spazzed in there. Just over a year ago, Tracy had a miscarriage. Complications. Cellular disorder. “But not to worry,” the doctor hastily went on. “It’s treatable.” A child was possible. We’d just have to wait a year before we could try again to ensure the cell did not return, that’s all.

But I, too, had a complication. Retinitis pigmentosa. I’ve been going blind for more than a decade. Poorly behaved genes programmed my retinas to painlessly destruct – very, very slowly. The last functional speck of sight that remained in my right eye could go at any time. And over the past year while we waited, I not only grew a bit blinder but also more and more confused about what a father is and how I could be one.

I didn’t know what to say. “But you might not be,” I tried.

“No, I’m pretty sure I am.”

“You’re pretty . . .”

“I’m sure.”

Tracy’s joy was clear. I could hear it in her voice.

I doubt I’m the only father who has tried to buy time with a little denial.

“No, you’re not,” I replied.

The words surprised me as much as they surprised Tracy. I had accepted our first pregnancy so easily, but this time I had fear. Things could go wrong. We knew that all too well. I saw my life flash before me. How will I teach my child her colours? Know how to change his diapers? Know he’s not making faces at me when I chew him out? And will she be embarrassed that her father walks into sandwich boards on the street? I wanted to be a good father. I wanted to be ready.

Tracy tried to reach me again. “I’m pregnant,” she said. “Really.”

The truth, of course, is that Tracy really was pregnant. And happy. And I knew it. I could hear the smile on her face.

A Flash of Light

We drove from our East Vancouver home to Chinatown for our first ultrasound. We’d been through this procedure before, so I knew what to expect. Yet again I was filled with giddy exhilaration that I was about to see something I knew damned well I wouldn’t see. You’d think I’d learn.

The technician seated me in the corner of the room. Tracy lay on a bed as the nurse explained that she had to goop up Tracy’s belly to allow the ultrasound wand to slide about with greater ease. The nurse went to work, clicking the computer mouse, snatching images. Tracy could see the images and she welled with the feelings only such a first sight can produce. It looked like a flash of light, she said. I felt happy for Tracy, excited to be a father, proud for the three of us – and cheated of the experience.

Though I haven’t seen my own face for nearly a decade, I sometimes believe this time will be different, that this one image will somehow steal its way through the fog. Needless to say, the baby was no exception. It remained an idea reconstructed from Tracy’s description. A flash of light.

A few clicks and a few pictures later, our technician said the baby seemed fine. Relief flooded through me. So far everything was there as it ought to be and doing what it ought to do.

The next person we went to see was not our family doctor, but my old high-school girlfriend, Andrea, who had now become a midwife and part of a midwifery clinic.

Where we live, a midwife has the legal status of a general practitioner: a specialist with hospital privileges, who can prescribe drugs and order tests. And Tracy would have not just one midwife, or two, but three. A private medical team, a board of labour directors, a platoon of baby catchers – and they would even provide postpartum care at home. House calls! This was not a clinic but a cozy, charming storefront boutique, a place where mums were made, not patients or diagnoses.

“Let’s maybe talk a bit about how you guys want to see the labour,” Andrea began.

“Fast is good,” Tracy suggested.

“And painless,” I added.

Hospital or home? Hospital, please. Tracy wanted the security of a hospital and all its experts.

Would you like the triple serum screening done for Down syndrome? Sure, since you asked so nicely.

“And would you now like to hear the baby’s heartbeat?”

Andrea got out the Doppler and turned on her midwife’s stereo. Tracy lifted her skirt and lay back on the couch to let Andrea search for the signal. Nothing emerged but static and the rhythm of Tracy’s own thump, thump, thump. I began to sweat.

Andrea angled again. Still nothing. Then she found it. The pattern of the baby’s heartbeat, faint and fast. There it was. No photos I couldn’t see. Here I was on equal footing and tethered by ear to fatherhood. My mouth smiled big and stupid. The baby’s rhythm, in a funny way, found me. Like a little cane, it tapped out my own echolocation and let me hear a bit of myself as a dad. Then Andrea turned off the machine and the baby disappeared back into Tracy, distant and dark again.

Before we left, Andrea asked if we wanted to learn the sex of the baby after our next ultrasound. Had we discussed it?

Though I grew up in a room stuffed with brothers, oddly enough I found myself unsettled at the prospect of a boy. Maybe a girl would propose something completely different. Girls were a mystery to me. How do they play? I thought about tea parties – I could play that. Dolls – I could make up dialogue. My daughter and I could play house – I knew how that went. Hell, I could be the blind father in the game and spill pretend stuff in the kitchen. I grew more and more attached to the idea of knowing the sex of the baby.

Let’s Play Maths

Two weeks later, Andrea called. She had some test results. “The test for Down syndrome,” she said, “came back positive.”

The initial shock made me doubt the meaning of the words. She meant the good positive, right?

“Positive,” she explained, ”doesn’t mean the baby necessarily has Down syndrome. The triple serum test has a lot of false positives. What it means is that your test results showed a 1-in-200 chance that the baby has Down syndrome.”

The only way we could know for sure, we learned, was through amniocentesis, which involves extracting amniotic fluid by poking a needle into the uterus. Amnio has risks, though. A 1-in-200 chance of inducing early labour – precisely the maths used to determine if a triple serum test is positive.

“What you need to decide,” Andrea advised, “is if this is something you want to know for certain, and if the risks are worth that certainty.”

“What do you recommend?” asked Tracy.

“It’s really your choice, and what you feel most comfortable with,” Andrea replied.

Maths is a funny thing. If somebody told me I had a 1-in-200 chance of not making it across our street, I’d still cross. All the good shops are on the other side. The real chances of me surviving traffic with a white cane are probably worse than that, yet I still leave my house. What were we worried about? But picture this: If someone said you had a 1-in-100 chance of winning the lottery, you’d probably call yourself lucky.

I finally gathered the courage to ask Tracy what she needed. To risk early labour with amnio? What if it was positively positive?

“I think,” Tracy said, “if we had the baby and then found out we should have done the amnio . . .” She trailed off. “It would just be unfair for all of us,” she finished.

I stretched out on the couch with Tracy, our baby and its chances, and listened to the TV. Rock Star’s winner was announced. The audience screamed. I imagine miniskirts flying. Men pumping fists in the air. Rejoice, they told us. Somebody beat the odds. Somebody is the chosen one.

We were off to have our amnio test. At Women’s Hospital they planned to push a fat hollow needle into Tracy’s belly, hoping to stop just shy of the baby. We didn’t talk much on the way.

At the hospital, a genetic counsellor took down our medical histories, then we moved on to the ultrasound clinic, where we were greeted by the attending physician, Dr Tessier, and two nurses. They gooped up Tracy’s belly. When the image came up on the screen, the doctor and the nurses conferred.

“The baby’s sitting quite high,” the doctor said, “so we can’t approach from the preferred angle.”

She said it as if we knew which angle that was. A moment later I knew she wasn’t talking to us.

“You could come in this way, from the right,” the ultrasound technician said.

“No,” the doctor said, “I think from below is better.”

“The placenta is obscuring some visibility, so maybe here would be best, coming this way.”

All the talk of “this way” and “here” and “there” sounded like professional curlers on the ice debating the best approach for the next rock.

Finally the doctor said, “We’re going to insert the needle just below your belly button, Tracy. The needle will go through the abdominal wall, so you will feel a little pinch, OK? OK, here we go. And there. And pressing now . . .”

My body throbbed with adrenaline and sympathy for Tracy.

“There,” the doctor said, “we’re through, all done. Just keep your feet up for the rest of the day and don’t do anything stressful, OK?”

We had two weeks to kill for the result. This nearly killed us. Every time the phone rang I had a heart attack. The two weeks tipped into a third. It was late afternoon when the phone rang. Why were they calling so late? Had they been putting it off?

“Oh, I need to speak to – is this Ryan?” said the counsellor when I answered. The bad news was all over her voice.

“Yes?”

“The baby’s fine.”

I told Tracy, standing beside me.

“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you.”

“Now, do you want to know the baby’s sex? We have that information if you’d like it.”

We didn’t want to know. We’d decided it would be our treat. If the baby was healthy, it was OK.

“She’s just fine,” said the counsellor.

 
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