by Deepti Nalavade Mahule
Sheila is sitting in her car at a traffic light. With one hand still on the steering wheel, she strokes her belly with the other. Her fingers do not encounter any noticeable bulge there yet. But she has the symptoms — nausea, tiredness, headaches and even some strange ones that she’d never heard of before.
“That stuffy nose I’ve been waking up with? And all those vivid dreams and grisly nightmares?” she’d said to her husband, Ted, the day before. “I checked online. Turns out those are all symptoms, too.”
Thinking about the transformations going on in her body and mind makes her want to weep. All the biological signs keep proceeding with a certain innocence and naive optimism, oblivious to the final outcome. Last year she’d experienced most of the common manifestations for the first time before they’d come to an abrupt and cruel halt.
Brushing away the wetness from her eyes, Sheila settles her gaze on the cars waiting on the opposite road. The vehicles have left-turn indicator lights going blink, blink, blink in a reassuring rhythm, like heartbeat flutters inside the tiny cashew-nut shape she’d seen on the ultrasound screen at her gynecologist’s office three weeks ago.
This evening, she’s on her way to her second appointment. Ted, driving over separately from his office, will join her there. That morning, before they left for their respective workplaces, he’d hugged her close. She’d cautiously inhaled the smells fanning out from him in individually discernable whiffs. Another one of the symptoms, almost a superpower. But nothing that caused her to gag this time, only his usual minty cologne, bananas, eggs, and coffee.
Sheila pressed into him, her thoughts racing in unwanted directions, thinking about the journey taking Ted and her from one checkpoint to the next, the anxiety riding along like an unwanted third passenger. She let out a sigh.
Ted rubbed her back. “Don’t be so stressed out, sweetie. Everything’s going to be okay this year. Didn’t our first appointment go well?”
Sheila stiffened slightly in his embrace. When she spoke, her voice rode a wave of irritation that she tried and failed to suppress, “How can I not worry? I keep remembering our last time. Dr. Li squinting hard at the screen and that frown on his face even before he opened his mouth to tell us the devastating news. All of that’s seared into my brain. It just won’t go away.”
Even as she was done speaking, guilt rose up within her. Poor Ted was always trying so hard to comfort her.
Back in her car in the middle of waiting traffic, Sheila lifts her hand from her stomach and runs a finger over the bumpy pattern of the leather steering wheel while her vehicle idles. Will it go well this time for Ted and her? Or will the brakes get slammed on yet one more hopeful ride?
This time, a few weeks after her home pregnancy test had shown a bright blue “+” sign, at her first checkup, Sheila had lain on the examination table in the gynecologist’s room, her mind full of dread. Ted hovered close by, grasping her clammy hand in his own, the nervousness radiating off him in waves that only her invisible antennae could pick up.
“Ready to take a look?” Dr. Li had asked, his eyes soft and kind behind his thick glasses as he adjusted the waistband of her pants and rolled up her shirt to uncover her stomach. She nodded and squirmed a little as the gooey gel he squeezed out of its tube made contact with her bare skin. The doctor smiled.
“That stuff is cold. Sorry,” he said and began moving the probe over her lower abdomen, peering intently into the ultrasound monitor.
Unable to look at the screen, she kept her gaze fixed on one of the walls in the room. There was a calendar on it with portraits of music legends for each month of the year. Sir Elton John heralded the start of October, sitting in front of a piano in a pristine white suit and dark sunglasses.
“All looks good.” Dr. Li’s voice came to Sheila as if echoing from the depths of a cave. It took her a few seconds to understand what he’d said. Relief flooded her body like water gushing down the sides of narrow, cavernous walls. But the feeling was short-lived, for the stakes had risen and sent her hurtling into a twisting tunnel of anxiety until her next appointment.
As Sheila waits now in her car for the traffic light to change, a gust of air lifts up and sweeps dry leaves over the hood of her car. The photo of the famed music artist on the calendar in her doctor’s office reminds her of the song title, “Candle in the Wind.” In her mind, the human form growing inside her takes on the appearance of a tiny candle, its heartbeat a flame twisting this way and that even in the slightest breeze, fighting against all odds to keep on burning.
She lowers her eyelids and mentally dives into herself, swimming deep into the shadows of her womb. Once there, she cups her hands around the candle’s wick to shield the flame from the air draft threatening to blow it out. Then her internal vision zooms out, and on the black-and-white ultrasound screen of her brain, she sees the shadow of her own figure bending in the candlelight, her palms enclosing the space around the flame, willing it to continue flickering.
“Keep on burning, little one,” she whispers, rousing herself from her daydream and raising her eyes back up to the road in front of her.
The traffic light turns green and she eases her foot off the brake pedal, driving onward to her doctor’s office with a silent prayer on her lips.