by Sarabeth Matilsky
I had a major big-girl-crush on Jen. She talked about drugs and sex with me like I was an adult, and wore clothes only if they were comfortable. She came up with quick retorts when strangers commented on how thin she was. I knew her kidneys didn't work right. Once she told me, like it was no big deal, “The doctors said I wouldn't live past twenty-one. They don't know anything!” People thought Jen and I were sisters all the time—same dark eyes, dark hair, dark skin, and she _was_ tiny. Sometimes we'd pretend right along with them. Jen loved my family, especially my dad. (Hers left when she was four, and now she said she wanted a new one.)
Jen and I both shared the unique ability to develop a distaste for a food simply because we decided it wasn't good for us. She was sure that dairy gave her a stomach ache the second it went down her esophagus. She said she could feel her stomach bloating. To prevent exposure to toxins, I started getting the same all-natural shampoo that she used. Just in case.
One day, Jen showed up glowing and said she was in love. She'd had girlfriends and boyfriends since I'd met her, and none of them had made her glow. But she said she loved Neal, and this was different. She was going to be with him. I said, Okay, whatever. But Neal was it. And he was all right, I decided, and really nice to her. I didn't understand till years later, when I met my soon-to-be husband, that Jen loved Neal the way I loved Jeff, in that way that is better and more real than than movies or words can say.
As I grew up, Jen became less of an idol and more of an equal. I thought her dope habit was really stupid, but she kept smoking. I wonder now if some of the pain caused by her kidneys was dulled by her daily joint. One day I told her that I only have friends whom I can learn things from. "Whoa," she said. “That's kind of crazy. What do you learn from me?” I tried to explain about her funny mix of self-deprecation and utter confidence, her complete intolerance of anyone pushing her around. She knew she was good. I tried to explain about the comfortable clothes and the shampoo. My explanation never came out quite right.
One day, Jen biked to a rare appointment with the kidney specialist, so they could check out her symptoms of gout and dark circles under her eyes and the often severe pain in her lower belly and back. The specialist said he couldn't believe she was standing there, let alone riding her bike to the appointment. He said she'd be lucky if she made it past 30. He suggested heavy drugs or a transplant or dialysis, but there was no way to cure her kidneys, which functioned somewhere around 10% of a normal person's. She learned about the risks of treatments (very high), and biked home for her low protein vegetarian meal.
Soon after I met Jeff, Jen decided she wanted to be a midwife. “Someday maybe you'll have a baby and I can be at the birth!” she said. I still couldn't imagine that I'd ever have babies. Jen and Neal moved to Florida so she could go to school, but she always called when she had a break from studying. “I don't think I'll make this exam. It's _crazy_ hard!” she'd say, tired as ever. Of course you will, I'd say. When hadn't Jen done what she said she would do?
Years seemed to go by more quickly now. Suddenly she was graduating, and now she was a professional midwife helping mamas deliver their babies. Meanwhile, Jeff and I had moved to Boston and we were going to have a baby of our own. Jen didn't seem like she was much older than me anymore. I gave her updates over the phone. “We're going to do Hypnobirthing. Our midwife says it's really great. We're supposed to only talk about happy birth stories, to get in the right mood for birth.”
“Hypnobirthing, huh? Doesn't seem like your thing.” Jen could be so annoying, even on the phone. “I don't know--what if you want to make noise? You shouldn't take that too seriously--I think you'll be one of those Scorpio mamas who really gets into it and yells!” God, I hated when she brought up astrology. I didn't call her for a couple of weeks.
I had Ben in 2004, during one of Boston's freezing cold spells in January. (Hypnobirthing was fine, thank you very much.) Jen was always cold, and she said she'd visit in the summer. She was loving Florida, with its tropical heat and humidity. I told her that someday I'd visit Florida, maybe in the winter.
Jen always called. Life would get in the way, I would forget to contact anyone, and then there would be a message on the machine. “Hiiiii, it's Jennifer...call me back, bye.” But even when you don't talk with a person, little bits of them are permanently stuck in your head. Like the way I would think of her while I sudsed up my shampoo, or as I seasoned dinner and thought about her inexplicable dislike of black pepper. She and I both liked to cook our food ourselves so it would come out exactly right.
I never seemed to make it to Florida. It was so far away. “Why don't you move here?” I'd say. “What don't you move here?” she'd say. “Too hot.” “Too cold.” She would come north to visit her family, and we'd hang out like the old days, annoying and understanding each other just like we used to.
Another January, three years later. We hadn't talked in a month or two. I hadn't told her I was pregnant again. We played phone tag for a week, then finally, she got me. “Hiiii, Sara...how are you?” I'd wait to tell her, not take over the conversation right from the start.
“Goood. How are you?”
“I have to tell you something, but you have to promise not to tell anyone...Okay, you can tell Jeff, if _he_ doesn't tell anyone.”
“Okay, okay, I promise.”
“You're kidding,” I said, “_I'm_ pregnant!”
“When were you going to tell me?? You know, it's _way_ harder with two. You just started sleeping through the night. You're crazy!”
“I was _calling_ to tell you.” My stomach felt funny. “But aren't _you_ crazy?”
“Yeah, it's crazy. I didn't think we could even get pregnant. The high-risk OB says I'm the highest-risk case he's seen.” As usual, she'd calculated everything. There would be no homebirth in her future, she pretty much knew that. If she made it to 28 weeks, she'd probably have a cesarean. If she made it to 34 weeks, she planned to birth normally, but in the hospital. If she made it past 35 or 36 weeks, well, who knows? Maybe it would be possible.
“You think I'm crazy, right?”
“Yes. I mean no. I mean, you'll be okay, right?”
Everything was going great, actually, and as usual, the doctors were surprised. As usual, Jen was critical of them. “I went to the highest-risk OB in the state, and he didn't say a _thing_ about diet, through the entire appointment! I asked him, 'Oh, are you not counseling me on nutrition because you know I'm a midwife?' And he said he _never_ talks with women about what they eat... It's not part of his practice. It's _crazy_!” It was nuts. Her chances of miscarrying were huge. The biggest probability was that she'd get pre-eclamptic--that her blood pressure would skyrocket, and the baby would be born severely prematurely, and possibly die. But the doctors had always issued dire warnings to Jen. Her condition never lived up to their fears, so why would it start now?
Now Jen was 28 weeks pregnant, and she and the baby were fine. We compared notes over the phone about our growing bellies. She was having a girl. I hadn't had an ultrasound, and didn't know. Our due dates were less than a month apart, although her baby would probably come early. But mine might too--Ben was born three weeks before we expected.
Soon she'd reached 32 weeks, and the high-risk OB thought maybe she shouldn't be seeing him anymore--This wasn't as risky a case as everyone seemed to think. Then Jen was 34 weeks. We talked on the phone while I made dinner. “You wouldn't recognize me, I'm so huge!” she said. “Neal says I've reached another dimension. But it's just in my belly, so the rest of me looks tiny. A woman at the birth center who didn't know I'm pregnant, thought I was hiding one of those little watermelons under my shirt, to pretend.” Fruit season. We sighed in unison over the wires. Watermelon...berries. Blueberries were already ripe in Florida.
“I want to name her Willow Blueberry. But Neal says I can't do it unless I go into labor while we're actually picking blueberries. I guess I'll just have to hang out there a lot in the next month.”
My baby was growing too—my belly stretched tight over a new little being, who moved way more than Ben Starling ever did. I was distracted by kicks in the ribs, all the things we had to do, the beautiful summer weather. I didn't talk to Jen again over the next two weeks.
The call from Deb, Jen's older sister, came out of the blue, on a breezy Sunday in June. “Jen had a beautiful little girl on Thursday. Jen didn't make it.” Jeff sat with me as I sat and sobbed. “When will Mama feel better?” Ben asked.
I didn't tell Ben, but it might never go away, this horrible feeling in my belly that sat uncomfortably close to the new life wriggling alongside it. I sobbed at the craziness of Neal with his new little Lila Jen, who didn't have a mama. Lila was so healthy that she didn't even need oxygen after her emergency C-section at 36 weeks. And Jen was...dead. My awake-nightmares at one a.m. kept me up for hours.
It's not fair that a mama never saw her baby. It's not fair that a baby only ever snuggled on her mama's chest for two days, before there was a bleed in the brain stem and they turned off the life support. It's amazing that the day after they turned it off, Jen's liver was donated and inside another person who wouldn't be alive without it. It's not fair that everything else was fine except those damn kidneys.
I wait now, for my own child, who kicks me in the ribs and makes my belly tighter than it was even last week. My breasts get tiny bursts of milk lately, when I think of my baby, and when I think of Jen's baby, whom she never got to nurse. My pregnancy, although healthy and wonderful, is not the blissful ignorance of last time, when I only listened to happy birth stories. I sometimes cry out of the blue, because I see black pepper or blueberries or shampoo. We were going to have babies together. I was going to finally send her the photos. she was going to send me that recipe... She was crazy to try it. Why did she take that biggest risk of all, for the sake of a human she'd never met?
"Aren't you scared of the risks?" people would ask. But Jen lived life like a mountain climber climbs dangerous ascents: climbing because the mountain's there. She assessed the risks, decided on the best course of action, and then she tucked the risks away. Not totally out of sight, but in a place where they wouldn't block the view of whatever she was doing.
I do see now, Jen, how you couldn't not do it. How you loved Neal so much, and wanted to be with him. How you wanted to have a baby with him. How much you already loved that tiny unknown human in your belly, made with love from you both. I watch the love showering onto your baby, in the form of donated breastmilk from women whose babies you helped into the world. Little Lila Jen, in her tiny way, takes after her mama--she has friends and family everywhere, who love her not because she climbs mountains but simply because she IS.
I wish you were here so I could finish answering your funny question from so long ago: "What do you learn from me?" I could tell you more of the things I loved about you, and even the things that bugged me. I'd tell you that one way I will honor you is by birthing my baby with the same calm non-fear you had all your life. I'll be a mountain climber, too.