There is an eerie calm in the doctor’s office. I have been waiting for 15 minutes. The nurses bustle about quietly at this early hour with a muted sense of urgency. They seem to share the knowledge of a secret emergency. Sandy had mentioned the possibility of a long wait when I requested this urgent appointment. Dr. Shah is on call on Wednesday, she had said. I don’t mind waiting, I have my journal for company. I wonder how many babies Dr. Shah has delivered in her 20 years of practice. I open the pine green cover of my hard-bound journal to the first page, ignoring the silky bookmark that invites me to write. Today I feel the need to read. I start at the beginning.
March 12, 2001
Shankar called to say they have reached Mumbai safely. Nandu behaved like a perfect angel. Why did he say behaved like an angel? Nandu is an angel, my very own six-month old angel. An unfortunate angel separated from his mother. I can’t believe I let Shankar take my son away from me. Actually, it’s not Shankar’s fault. There are practical reasons for taking this step, to take Nandu to India, to be raised by his grandparents. I understand the logic, but it still doesn’t seem right. What else could I do? I was forced to return to work when Nandu was three weeks old, to slog at this lousy post-doc job to support the three of us. Shankar can’t watch Nandu, he needs to complete his thesis. There is no funding for him since his advisor has left the school. Meena Aunty used to take care of him so lovingly but since she moved away, poor Nandu has been shuttling from one daycare to another. He has not had one continuous week of good health in the last three months. The pediatrician says we should consider surgery to insert tubes in his ears if he gets another infection. Shankar’s parents had offered to take Nandu right from the beginning, but I could not even think of that option then.
Now here I am, all alone, while Shankar drops Nandu off. I think I made the right decision for Nandu. It is only for a few months.
I know Shankar’s parents will be doting grandparents. He is their first grandson after all. But I can’t help wishing it was Amma who was taking care of him. I hope Amma is watching him from her heavenly perch, sending the same comforting waves to soothe him as she still does to me. Did I do the right thing, Amma?
March 30, 2001
It is just Shankar and me now. The cramped apartment seems empty. How can the absence of a baby who joined us only six months ago cause such a hole in our lives? All day I think about him, wondering what he is doing at this moment. “He is sleeping,” says Shankar, “It is night in India.” He is technically correct, but I meant it more figuratively. Can’t a mother wonder?
April 30, 2001
Nandu has adjusted to the heat and humidity. He is sitting up quite well, they said. It is amazing, my tiny little Nandu who could barely hold up his head is now viewing the world from an upright position. He likes to chew on hard things, spoons and keys, practically everything he can get his hands on. I hope they don’t let him put dirty objects in his mouth. They probably don’t sterilize anything. What if he falls sick?
May 13, 2001
It is two months since Nandu left me. Does he even remember me? That is my cross to bear, for agreeing to this arrangement. He is eating soft rice these days and trying to crawl. I wish I had a picture to visualize his activities. His favorite grandparent is my father-in-law who makes funny faces and gets toothless belly laughs in return. I wish I was his favorite person. Am I not entitled? I am his mother. Or am I?
May 28, 2001
Shankar was supposed to complete his lab work by now. Done by Memorial Day, he said. Now he says his results don’t make sense. When will he finish his experiments? It will take him at least three months to write up, then he has to defend his dissertation. At this rate, I may continue to slave in this laboratory forever. I can do it, but what about Nandu?
June 20, 2001
I met Nora for lunch today, to celebrate her successful thesis defense. I had not spent time with her since she completed her Ph.D. two months ago. We used to be practically inseparable until little Angela’s birth last year. Angela’s arrival during her research was unplanned. “I don’t have any choice,” she had said. “I have to send her to China till I finish.” And that’s what she did. I admire her for being so focused. She was so happy to claim her daughter back last week. I hope I will be lucky enough to get Nandu back before he turns 1. What do I do till then?
July 4, 2001
We just came back from a picnic to the lake. The usual crowd of Indian graduate students, some single, some newlywed, almost all without kids. I am not sure which group I belong to. It is clear that I am married and don’t have a kid hanging on to me. Does that make me childfree or childless?
July 22, 2001
Nandu cut his first tooth this week. Almost since the first day, I have been diligently writing down the dates of all of Nandu’s milestones in the adorable baby journal given by Nora. I was so proud the day he rolled over. I was thrilled to see him succeed but I felt I must be doing something right, feeding him, nurturing him, indirectly helping him develop. Now I hear about his progress second-hand. I can’t share those first thrilling moments with him. Writing about these milestones makes me think I am cheating on an exam. I feel I am transcribing someone else’s words into my paper. How much longer do I have to be a second-hand mom?
August 5, 2001
Shankar says he is close to finishing his lab work. He won’t give me a final date. I can’t stand his casual attitude. While he dawdles, my poor child grows up in a distant land. On some days, Shankar does not say even one word about Nandu. Am I the only one who misses him?
August 26, 2001
A new Indian student started in the lab this week. Anil’s desk is adjacent to mine. Today Anil said something about missing his grandmother, not his parents. I could not resist asking him about it. Turns out his father had a transferable job so they left him with his grandmother to keep him in the same school. Anil seems very close to his grandmother, which is really nice. What bothered me was his animosity to his parents. So many years later he still feels abandoned. Will Nandu hate me in the same way?
September 4, 2001
Smita asked me to help with Monica’s first birthday party on the weekend. I had to agree. We were pregnancy buddies last year. We had a contest to see who would have the baby first. She won. Nandu’s birthday is next week. I am happy to see Monica growing happily in her own home but I don’t visit them often. How can I not think of Nandu when I see Monica? I am not jealous of their family, but I feel so empty when I see children who are similar in age to Nandu. I want to pick up and hug these babies who are strangers to me. I try to keep a firm grip on myself so people don’t think I’m nuts. Is it crazy to retain your motherly instinct when you are separated from your child?
September 10, 2001
I called to wish Nandu Happy Birthday. It is the morning of September 11 in India. I wanted to be the first to call. He does not understand anything I say but I wanted to convey my love and hopes and blessings. I can’t believe it is a year since I gave birth to him at University hospital. They tell me he is walking now. My little baby is walking already! Where did the year go?
September 11, 2001
Everything’s changed. Nan-du’s birthday will forever be remembered here, not as a happy day to celebrate but as a reminder of the World Trade Center tragedy. I think about all those innocent people who went to work this morning in the Twin Towers. How many of them might have been parents, casually bending down to retrieve a file only to find themselves in the midst of this disaster? I saw a mother and daughter on television, desperately looking for the child’s father, not knowing if he was safe or dead. I thought about Nandu. I know he is safe, but I can’t see him. I sometimes have this dream where a little boy comes to me, asking if I have seen his mother. Is that boy Nandu? What if he is looking for me? Would he be able to recognize me?
September 29, 2001
We are one step closer to getting Nandu back. Shankar finished his lab work. Now he has to write his thesis. I pray that he speeds up on this part. I know I should not start counting the days but I am so excited. Is it too early to plan a trip to India in January and get Nandu back?
October 26, 2001
Shankar has not written a single chapter yet. He says he does not have easy access to the lab computer. He wants to buy a computer. Where will the money come from?
November 28, 2001
I finally gave in. We bought a computer this week, no India trip for me. I just have to console myself with a long letter from Shankar’s mother, describing Nandu’s activities. He points to himself when asked “Where is Nandu?” His favorite game is peek-a-boo. I wish I could close my eyes and have Nandu magically appear before me. Will you come, my sweet Nandu?
December 25, 2001
I went to the lab today. Everyone is out for the holidays, enjoying their time off, celebrating with their families. I wanted to visit my cousin Sudha, but Shankar did not agree. He wants to write his thesis. I would not mind if he was doing it seriously. But now that the computer is available to him, he is just wasting his time. I have no idea what he does at home while I am gone, probably surfs the Net, day and night. Why can’t I have Nandu with me during this break?
January 20, 2002
It’s a new year with nothing new on the horizon for me. That’s not true. I found out something today. Shankar has started smoking again. He had given it up, at least he said he had given up smoking when I was pregnant. Now he is back to his old ways. Do I have to support this man and his habit?
February 14, 2002
Valentine’s day, another boring day at work. Shankar seemed oblivious to the date. When I mentioned it after dinner, he asked me what I wanted from him. Isn’t it obvious? I want my son back, I wanted to scream. But I didn’t. It didn’t seem like the right time. How can Shankar be so self-absorbed and dense?
March 12, 2002
It is exactly a year since Nandu went away. One full year. 365 days. My child has been away from me for two-thirds of his life. I look at Nandu’s recent picture, taken in a photo studio, all glossy and unreal. He looks like a serious little boy, his hair perfectly combed, his shirt, ironed and stiff. I can’t see a smile or his teeth in this picture. When will I see the real Nandu?
April 30, 2002
I am having a hard time keeping up this journal. All I seem to write is depressing stuff about my dead-end life with a lazy husband and a mysterious child. Sometime I wonder if I totally dreamed up Nandu. Children occasionally have imaginary friends. Have I conjured up an imaginary child to keep me company? But the scar from my C-section, proof of my motherhood, glares at me from the chipped bathroom mirror, silently mocking me. Does giving birth make me a mother?
June 4, 2002
We had a big fight today. No progress on Shankar’s thesis writing. I could not restrain myself any more. I am tired of playing the part of the silent, supportive wife. He told me Nandu would be gone only for a few months, till he finished his Ph.D. Now it is more than 14 months and all he can say is, it takes time to write. Does it mean we continue this charade forever?
August 16, 2002
Shankar was all lovey-dovey last night. We have not been on talking terms the past two months. This year he remembered our wedding anniversary, unlike the last. We went out to dinner. I don’t remember the last time we ate out. He says he is almost done with his writing. Why don’t we start thinking about getting Nandu back, he says. How can I trust him?
September 6, 2002
Nandu will be 2 years old next week. He is not talking much. He is an active child they say. I wonder if there is some problem that they are hiding from me. It’s amazing how they never tell me when he is sick. He must have had at least a cold in the last year and a half. What can I say to my in-laws? I am indebted to them for taking on this additional responsibility at their age.
I feel very tired these days. Is the stress finally getting to me?
September 11, 2002
Nandu’s birthday. First anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks. I listened to the radio in the lab all day. One person who lived near the towers described how he feels about the emptiness in the place the towers used to be. It feels like negative space, he said. I know exactly what he means. The absence of something of such great significance can’t be described by a simple word like vacant. The absence is actually the removal of the object and something else, something intangible, from the observer himself. How could I describe my feelings about Nandu’s absence any better?
September 27, 2002
Nandu said Mamma today. I am so happy, I feel like running around telling everyone. If only I wasn’t so exhausted all the time. It’s probably the flu going around. My stomach has been queasy for more than a couple of weeks now. I have not been eating regularly. Maybe that is why I am so tired. Why can’t I wake up feeling fresh?
I wrote that a week ago. Now I know why I have been so tired. I have not told Shankar about the positive pregnancy test.
“The doctor will see you in a few minutes,” says Sandy, in her breathless voice, as she points to the pale pink gown laid out on the brown vinyl chair by the exam table in Room 2.
I change into the unflattering gown and stare at the distasteful chart of the female reproductive system on the far wall as the petite Dr. Shah enters. I feel detached from my body as she asks me questions and completes the internal exam. I respond with a disembodied voice. I am eight weeks pregnant, she says.
“Isn’t that happy news?” she repeats when I don’t react to the statement the first time.
“No,” I reply emphatically. The vehemence of the response surprises me as much as it surprises her.
I feel reluctant to express my doubts about this pregnancy. How can I expect a relative stranger to understand my dilemma? My doubts about my mothering ability, my reluctance to bring another baby into this world when I cannot even be with my first-born, my hesitation regarding the kind of family life I can offer this new child, these issues can’t be succinctly explained in a 15 minute appointment.
The kind doctor asks me to come back to see her in a week even though the insurance company insists on a month between appointments in the first trimester.
I don’t feel like returning to the lab. I don’t feel like going home. It is an unpleasant feeling.
I sit in the park beside the doctor’s office, watching the pigeons. I open my journal and flip the pages to the next blank one.
October 3, 2002
I am pregnant. Most women would be thrilled. I feel only dread. I should tell Shankar. But what will he say? Would he even understand what this means? He still has not set a date for his defense. How can I deal with another pregnancy at this time? I have one week to decide. I can’t imagine going through the process of bringing another child into this world only to have my baby separated from me. Regardless of the decision I make, whether or not I tell Shankar, I know I have already failed once, by not being a good mother to Nandu. If I decide to terminate this pregnancy, will I be failing twice? n
Ranjani Nellore lives in the Silicon Valley, and her stories have appeared on sulekha.com and desijournal.com.