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Personal Essays

Sacrifice

From choosing a mousetrap to moving across the country, parenting requires tough decisions.

Excluding Stuart Little and The Mouse and the Motorcycle, my favorite stories about mice—well, and rats—are Paul Ford’s “News of a Ratproofing” and David Sedaris’s “Nuit of the Living Dead.”

It was the former I was thinking about a number of weeks ago while browsing the mouse bait/poison section at the Duane Reade at Sixth Avenue and 14th Street. The options seemed too cruel—solutions to the varmint’s life rather than to the problem at hand, which, just as Paul Ford described, was that holes somewhere in the apartment were letting in rodents. Still, for the second time there was a mouse in my home, terrorizing my wife, and it had to be contained somehow—again.

To me, the spaces between our floorboards and baseboards looked only a centimeter or so high, but apparently that was enough for a mouse to suck in its appetite and squeeze its way through to our living room and then into the kitchen. After discovering the intrusion a few months back—the sound of scurrying is what tipped us off, and the occasional grayish-brown blur once it had grown bolder—we called the exterminator, who recommended we jam up the hole with steel wool. We used the next best thing: six months’ worth of plastic shopping bags. When the exterminator dropped by with a selection of poisons, he inspected our work, judging it mouse-proof. On his way out, he handed me a stack of glue traps, “just in case.”

Though we had the occasional bug problem, and now a mouse issue, we decided to leave the poison route unexplored. My wife was pregnant, and like the cautious, first-time parents that we were, we decided anything that risky should be avoided. Why tempt Fate? Leave the mouse be. We’ll get on with our lives; you get on with yours.

But either from months of gnawing—or, who knows, erosion?—the bags hadn’t held, and it was late, and the mouse was again taking command of the floor. Uncomfortable with the arsenal at Duane Reade, I phoned my wife and suggested we get a cat.

“Toxoplasmosis,” she replied.

“What?”

“You can’t have a cat around a baby because of toxoplasmosis. You’re going to have to trap it.”

And that’s when I remembered the glue traps.

 

You see parents lifting and carrying strollers up and out of the subways. Maybe you even help. You see them with children strapped to their chests, running to make the bus, or shielding them from the man cleaning his toes at the end of the park bench. We’ve had friends who’ve done it. Some later moved upstate, others to California. Some were always in New Jersey, others still never left Brooklyn and never considered it. But my wife and I always knew we’d go to Texas, Austin specifically, before we brought on a new member. It’s where our families are; where our friends who were parents chose to settle, we realized, depended without fail on where their families lived, where there were grandparents with free, always-open babysitting available.

As much as New York offers, it didn’t offer much to us as parents. But we weren’t parents yet—and wait, oh yes you are, we learned one afternoon. Plans had to change, but they couldn’t change quickly enough. We’d lived here too long to drop everything and rush out of town. We’d have the baby here, we decided, and found a obstetrician we loved and trusted through friends at Long Island College Hospital. After the baby was born, we’d move to Texas. Meanwhile, we were elated.

With increasing frequency everything, I proclaimed, would be better in Texas. Tired of walking two avenues uphill to get home? Not in Texas—there’s cars there. And how about this snow? Forget it, not in Texas. We looked forward to going back, and I never missed a chance to extol the virtues of our future hometown. I anticipated being there with my new family. I researched summer activities for kids in Austin.

 

I hooked two glue traps together, peeled back the plastic over the adhesive, and laid them by the hole near the baseboards. I hooked another pair together and set them in the corner next to the kitchen, the likeliest path, I figured, for a hungry mouse. What do we do now, I asked my wife.

She shrugged her shoulders. We turned on Top Chef.

When I came back, I sat down and looked at my wife, and said, “I’m not a cruel man.”

About 20 minutes later, the trap near the kitchen began sliding around, frantically. I walked over to find the mouse, obviously tiny enough to make it through that centimeter-high opening, stuck to the trap, panicking, appearing to break its own legs in fear. I’d set out the glue trap, but I hadn’t considered what happened afterwards. You don’t call the vet, after all—and then I remembered the David Sedaris story. I rushed to the closet, grabbed the mop bucket, filled it with warm water, and brought it over to the trap. I gingerly picked up the edge of the trap—the mouse’s weight barely registered—and turned it over in the water, holding it down until the movement ceased.

I let go of the edge of the trap, picked up the bucket, took it into the bathroom, and washed my hands. When I came back, I sat down and looked at my wife, and said, “I’m not a cruel man.”

“I know,” she said.

“I hate having to deal with this shit.”

Sensing what was about to come next, she said, “You know, you’ll have to take care of these kinds of things after we move, too. There are mice in Texas.”

And she’s right. My dad had to “take care” of all sorts of things the rest of us didn’t want to—at least two snakes, a raccoon, a possum. Whatever happened to them, I don’t know. But he’d taken care of it. It’s about sacrificing your wants for your family’s needs. It’s part of the job. In a way, I felt even more like a father than I had before.

 

Our 20-week ultrasound was scheduled for the next week. Our pregnancy halfway over, this would be the clearest picture yet we’d have of the baby. That morning we woke up early and took the train to LICH. The ultrasound technician ushered us into the exam room, I took a seat on a chair in the corner, my wife got up on the table, and the procedure began. The technician showed us the baby’s hands, its heart, its head. Like every time I’ve ever seen photos from anybody’s ultrasound, it all looked very foreign and strange for something so natural and basic. But this time, because it was ours, for us it was amazing.

After a few passes, the technician called in the doctor, who then began scanning. He made small talk, continuing his scan, continuing his small talk, becoming more nervous as he chatted and stared at the screen. He finished up, asked my wife to get dressed, and said he’d be back in a few minutes. My wife looked at me nervously. “I’m sure it’s nothing,” I said.

When the doctor returned, he sat on a stool and let out a breath. “There are problems.”

“Bad?” my wife asked.

His mouth broke at the edges. He’s a friend, he’s known us a long time. “Bad,” his voice cracked.

I felt the chair sucking me in.

My wife, who was standing, knelt down.

“The baby has clenched hands,” he said, holding up two fists. “Water on the brain,” he opened a hand, waving it behind his head. “Enlarged heart,” he placed both hands over his chest. “There are severe chromosomal problems. Some parts are still unformed…”

He looked us each in the eye. “Your baby… is not compatible with life.”

 

We had two choices, our obstetrician explained: We could surgically terminate or we could induce and deliver.

We sat in her office, having left the ultrasound room only a half-hour earlier. My wife and I looked at each other. We looked back at her. I asked what the termination involved.

She addressed us calmly. “I’m proud to say that I deliver babies, but I’m equally proud to say that I perform abortions… because sometimes, for some reason, some babies simply can’t survive. In these cases, I’m proud to say that I protect a couple’s ability to have future births.

Holding each other close, we cried all day, into the afternoon, and all the way into the evening, until we cried so much we couldn’t stand to be awake any longer, and fell asleep, exhausted.

“Of course, some couples,” she went on, “choose to deliver, to see the baby, and have a funeral and say goodbye. If you wish to do that, we can do that instead.” The choice was entirely ours. I imagined the clenched fists, the tiny body. I looked over at my wife and imagined her pain. I imagine when she looked back at me she saw the same thing through her tears. If we do this, we’re protecting our hopes for a family; if we don’t, it could tear us apart emotionally. We looked back at the obstetrician.

“We’re going to terminate,” I said. My wife squeezed my hand.

The next day we began the abortion procedure, which would take two days to complete. The first morning the obstetrician inserted Laminaria sticks to dilate my wife’s cervix, protecting it from potential damage during the next day’s surgery. We went back home, I helped my wife onto the couch, and we sat together. It was then that the baby seemed to move.

Holding each other close, we cried all day, into the afternoon, and all the way into the evening, until we cried so much we couldn’t stand to be awake any longer, and fell asleep, exhausted. Drained of every emotion, dead from what we were about to do, from what we had no choice but to do.

The next morning we went to the hospital. We signed in, the drip was inserted into my wife’s arm, and she began to drift away, peacefully. I went out into the waiting room, where I dropped into a chair and called my father, and we talked about my wife, how much he and I love her, and how much all three of us wished we lived closer to home.

 

The next week, the test results came back. The baby had triploidy—three of every chromosome. Again: “Incompatible with life.” It’s a rare condition, even more rare to have made it to 20 weeks. Quite literally one in a million. It was also a girl.

I remember walking home one afternoon, seven years ago, along North Eighth Street in Williamsburg. I was walking toward the East River, the sun orangey bright on my face, and the city was coming alive with my first New York spring. I had moved here in the dead of winter only months before—finally—after years of trying to break out of Texas. I wondered what could ever possibly take me out of New York. I would never want to leave.

Excited about the evening to come—dinner with friends, surely out afterwards—I walked home to my girlfriend, who would become my fiancée, who would become my wife, who would become the mother of our baby, our first child, whose name was ___________.
 

biopic

Andrew Womack is a founding editor of The Morning News. He is always working on the next installment of the Albums of the Year series at TMN. More by Andrew Womack