Facing my fear: becoming pregnant again after a miscarriage

The first sign we had that I was pregnant again was a home test. I peed on the plastic wand and then attempted to putter casually about the kitchen for three minutes as I waited for the result. When I finally looked, the second pink line – the one that confirms pregnancy – was so faint I didn’t see it at first; it only caught my eye as I moved to toss the test into the trash.

I strode into the living room and told my husband: “It seems that we’re having a baby.”

We’d been here once before. Two years ago, on a similarly unremarkable evening, two thin pink stripes rocked our world. When we went to bed that night we lay awake for hours, holding hands and making plans for the future: baby names, new living arrangements, family trips. We were exhilarated and we were terrified, but it never occurred to us to doubt that in a scant nine months we would be snuggling our newborn.

A month later, on Christmas Eve, we went in for an early ultrasound, but no fuzzy, humanoid form appeared on the screen. Instead, there was only a dense, dark blotch – a black hole where there should have been an embryo. I was miscarrying, the doctor said. I began to bleed a few days later and, by the new year, my brief encounter with pregnancy was over.

When I got pregnant again, the very idea of a baby seemed tenuous – I was never quite sure it was really happening. Whenever I mentioned “the baby” I immediately knocked on wood; I am not superstitious, but I felt the need to announce to myself and anyone listening that I wasn’t getting too cocky, not taking anything for granted. As my jeans started to grow too tight, I simply wore them unbuttoned with long shirts to cover the waistline – I didn’t want to buy maternity pants only to have them become suddenly useless, a reminder that I had again expected too much. We put off announcing our news until close to the 20th week, just in case.

A friend whose wife has gone through several miscarriages still announces each new pregnancy in the early stages. Joy, he reasons, is joy, no matter what comes next. My head admires his stance, but my gut can’t follow suit.

My principal fear, however, was not of another miscarriage. Yes, a second lost pregnancy would have been gut-wrenching, but I was far more afraid of the undeniable apathy that was smothering all my more tender emotions. I was just not emotionally prepared to commit to the joy of “expecting”. I did that once, and got burned.

I began to wonder if somehow my heart had been too scarred, rendered too callous. I envisioned a future in which my baby arrived and I felt only distant admiration for her bright eyes and miniature fingers. When people learned I was pregnant and remarked, “You must be so excited,” I probably struck them as strange and cold, pausing a beat too long before answering, “Of course,” in a flat tone.

The pregnancy progressed despite my ambivalent emotions, and my detachment first showed signs of softening about halfway through, when my sister insisted I assemble a baby registry. Alongside the utilitarian bottle warmers and diaper bags, I picked an impossibly tiny bathrobe decorated with an appliquéd bear.

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Suddenly, I couldn’t help but picture my future daughter, wrapped in the terrycloth after a bath, warm and heavy in my arms. Then the first baby gifts started to arrive, and it was hard to look at the stroller in the corner without anticipating its coming passenger.

My daughter arrived eight weeks ago, and it is safe to say there is nothing distant about my affection for her. The awe I feel at her beauty is lodged deep in my chest; the worry when she lets out a tiny cough is a thin knife in my stomach. I couldn’t say if I feel the right way, if I experienced that textbook wave of transformative love. But when I wrap her up in that little robe after a bath and she drifts off to sleep warm and smiling, the tenderness in my chest is almost physical. It’s the feeling of scars fading.

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From tragedy, a holiday tradition

On Thanksgiving, my parents will set up chairs for the usual crowd: immediate family, my aunt, a handful of cousins. And if this year is like most others, there will also be an extra place or two set for the annual itinerants: an out-of-town visitor, a family friend without other plans, a college roommate far from home.

My family’s Thanksgiving table has always expanded to embrace all comers, occasionally stretching out of the dining room and across the living room. It is a spirit of cheerful hospitality that, I have recently learned, has at least some of its roots in a far less joyous Thanksgiving weekend more than 70 years ago.

FitzgeraldsOn November 28, 1942, my great-grandmother Mary said farewell to four of her five sons as they headed from Wilmington to Boston. Henry, a private in the Army Air Corps, was home on leave, and his brothers James, Wilfred, and John were taking him out to celebrate. But at 2 the next morning, Mary got a heartbreaking phone call: A catastrophic fire had broken out at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in downtown Boston, the spot her sons had chosen for their homecoming revelry. It soon became clear that the four brothers were among the nearly 500 people killed in the blaze.

Mary was shattered by the deaths of her “fine boys,” as she described them to a Globe reporter days after the fire. In her grief, she took to her bed. She lived with her daughter Anna, who tended to her needs, and her grandchildren visited at her bedside, but she almost never left her room.

Anna’s three children found themselves growing up in a house of perpetual mourning. To escape the gloom, they often walked up the street to the home of their aunt and uncle, my Nana and Grampy. Nana, too, grieved the loss of her brothers and was often sad and solemn. But she had a growing flock of children — six girls and a boy by 1950 — so the house was a lively place, full of cousins for Anna’s children to play with.

Mary died in 1951. Her grandchildren grew up, moved away, had children of their own. As Nana often said after the tragedy, “Life goes on.”

In 1979, just days before another Thanksgiving, Grampy, who had long battled cancer, died. After the funeral, emotionally exhausted, Nana sat down in her living room with my mother. Should they go ahead with Thanksgiving? my mother asked. It was Anna’s children who helped Nana make up her mind. She remembered the sorrow her sister’s children lived with, and how they’d taken refuge among their cousins in that same living room. By then, she had 14 grandchildren, and she was determined her house wouldn’t become a place of sadness for them. Thanksgiving, Nana declared, was on.

I was a toddler then and have no memories of that holiday. And until recently, our place in the story of the Cocoanut Grove fire was just another item in the constellation of family facts I have absorbed. Then, last year, there was a flurry of news stories commemorating the 70th anniversary of the fire. I began asking my mother and other family members what they knew about our connection to the event.

What I learned is this: Over the decades since the tragedy, my family has translated the desperate grief of losing loved ones into an almost hereditary habit of taking joy in those who are still here, of opening our arms — and our dinner tables — in welcome. So on Thursday, this year’s crop of guests will pass the stuffing, share news, make jokes about the time my sister tried a new broccoli recipe. We will lift our glasses and toast. And we will most certainly give thanks.

This essay originally ran in The Boston Globe Magazine on November 24, 2013.

Former Times staffer on Jeopardy!

JeopardySSI had just taken a generous bite of glazed doughnut when I was called up onto the Jeopardy! stage.

Along with 14 other scheduled contestants, I was in the studio green room anxiously awaiting my turn to compete in one of five episodes to be filmed that day. I had been too nervous to eat much breakfast at the hotel, and it caught up with me at that moment. I grabbed a doughnut, bit down and almost immediately heard my name called.

I was up first.

If you are a person with any knowledge of odd and obscure facts, it is inevitable that you will, at some point, consider whether you could hack it as a contestant on Jeopardy! For years, that was me.

So last February, for the fourth or fifth time, I took the online qualifying test for the show. Two months later I got an e-mail inviting me to come to Boston and audition for the show.

My instincts said I did well, but the thing about trying out for Jeopardy! is this: Once you audition, you are placed in the contestant pool for 18 months. You only find out whether you have made the cut when you get called to appear on the show (or when the 18 months expires without any such call).

My call came in August, about three months after my audition. I was to head to Los Angeles for a taping in mid-September.

That timeline meant I had just a month to brush up on the Bible (who was Isaac married to again?), learn some rudimentary facts about opera (what’s the difference between Puccini and Rossini?), and memorize the world capitals (fun fact: the capital of Burkina Faso is Ouagadougou).

I reviewed online Jeopardy! archives, scrutinized international maps, and read the SparkNotes summaries of dozens of famous plays. One day, I even attempted to build my focus and stamina by donning my least comfortable pair of high heels and standing for hours as a helpful friend tossed out questions, scolding me when I tried to sit.

My makeshift buzzer: the promotional Jeopardy! click pen I got at my audition.

Once we got to L.A., my husband and I stayed in the hotel recommended by the Jeopardy! staff. Assuming that the other contestants — my rivals — would do the same, we spent both dinner and breakfast scanning the lobby and dining room for likely characters: people with study materials; few, if any, companions; and the anxious demeanor of someone about to have her intelligence tested on national television.

The next morning, I took the shuttle from the hotel along with most of my fellow contestants. Though we were about to compete, with thousands of dollars on the line, everyone was eager to compare notes (or perhaps just assess the enemy): When did you get your call? How many times did you try out? How did you study?

When we arrived at Sony Studios, we were steered into the Jeopardy! green room and handed piles of paperwork to complete. We each spent a few minutes in make-up, then headed to the stage.

Each of us recorded a greeting aimed at our hometown. I stumbled over my words several times before getting a usable take; I hoped it wasn’t a bad omen.

After some practice finding our rhythm on the buzzers we were ushered back to the green room.

And that’s when I picked up the doughnut.

The next 30 minutes are a blur. My two competitors and I filed into the studio. I caught sight of my husband and a friend in the audience and tried to give a small wave, but got no response (I later learned that contestants’ guests had been sternly warned not to communicate with us in any fashion.)

Before I knew it, I was onstage, poised at a podium, buzzer in hand. Moments later, lights swept across the stage and host Alex Trebek appeared as a deep voice intoned the familiar opening words of the show: “This … is … Jeopardy!”

At that moment, it finally sunk in. Oh my (expletive deleted) god. I’m on Jeopardy!

The questions seemed to fly faster than they ever do when I am watching at home. Each episode lasts 22 minutes, but I would have believed it was just 10. For some stretches, I struggled to keep up; other times, I found my groove and nothing seemed easier than calling out categories and buzzing in at the perfect moment. But before I knew it, the other contestants and I were standing in the middle of the stage, as the credits rolled, chatting with Trebek, who made small talk and cracked a couple of jokes about the game.

For legal reasons, I can divulge no further details of the game itself, nor whether my run on the show lasted more than those first 22 minutes.

But the taping did end, and I flew back to real life the next day. Since returning, I have been frequently asked to describe the experience.

My answer (in the form of a question, of course): What is incredibly fun?

This story originally appeared in the Cape Cod Times on December 28, 2012.