Some people seek a life of excitement, but the most adventurous action I’ve ever taken is to pursue my dream of becoming a mother. Not such a daring choice for many, but for me and my life partner Lori it was an exploration into uncharted and murky waters. And while no one ever really knows how the parent project will turn out, it’s definitely more of a risk for alternative families than for your average mom and dad, their white picket fence and Fido. Still, I naïvely forged into the world of parenthood without meaning to seek excitement as much as to live a life that felt natural to me.
So I was not in search of adventure when almost seven months into my pregnancy my best friend Katy and her lover Synthia came out to Tucson for a visit. Rather, it was about wanting to spend time with my oldest friend, to share with her the excitement of my pending motherhood. My partner was still adapting to my current physical state of hugeness, and the fear of pending parenthood, so it had been a little difficult to share my joy with her. Katy was able to listen to me go on and on about the amazing experience of carrying a child. She held her hand gently against my protruding abdomen, hoping to feel from the outside the movements I felt from within. She put on the headphones we had bought and listened to a tiny heartbeat more in two days than we had in four months. A little overenthusiastic for her attention, I pulled up my shirt and showed Katy how the veins in my breast had become fat threads the color of ripe eggplant. Maybe a little bit of an overshare, ok.
On the April weekend of their visit the weather was sunny and fine, perfect to show off to visitors from Wisconsin, where the ground wouldn’t thaw for another six weeks. Since Katy and Synthia had never been out to this part of the Southwest, I suggested that we go on a hike. Not a real hike-hike, more like a walk on a sweet little trail I knew. It was important to me to guide my friends around town, and Mt. Lemmon was such a beautiful part of it.
Lori was not in favor of this. Her reluctance, when I knew how much she loved to hike, was just over-protectiveness and fear for my belly and me. This bothered me to no end, and I was committed to show off my ability to lead a regular life even while living in a body that had grown as large as a small horse. Lori’s hesitance about going for my nice little walk in the woods angered me as a betrayal of my own illusions.
“We’ll just drive up Mt. Lemmon, have a piece of pie at that great café up top, and hike the Marshall Gulch loop. Just a taste of the forest, no big deal.” Lori’s mouth was set in a line, her brown eyes becoming squintier by the second. “C’mon, honey, it’ll be fun. Please, please, please?” I kissed each knuckle on her hand between my pleases.
This always worked and she smiled, even if it was only a slight stretching of her lips. “OK. But we’re coming back if it’s too much.” I dropped her hand then and she swiftly left the room.
So that’s how it started. Then we had to stop at the top of the hill for fondue and pie, and got started out on the trail a little later than planned. No problem though, we just walked and talked and laughed and enjoyed the late afternoon warmth. We passed my hairdresser Scott, who was hiking down as we climbed. I introduced him to my visitors. “Isn’t it a great day for a walk?”
Scott looked at me with a funny expression. “Well, yeah. I guess. A little late in the day to start out though, isn’t it?”
“Oh, Scotty. Such a sweet gay man you are!” He didn’t laugh at my casual teasing as he usually did though, and we went on.
We hiked a little more slowly as the trail gained altitude. I quit talking and concentrated on breathing as the trail that I remembered as an easy walk became more difficult for me to manage. It didn’t help that my lungs were squished to make room for a baby. Katy saw my struggle and suggested that we turn around.
“It’s OK, Michelle, we’ve seen enough. It really is beautiful out here, though. I’m glad you brought us.”
“Katy, this is a loop trail. Since we’ve gone this far I want to follow it around.” She didn’t answer me. “I’m fine, really.” No reply.
So we kept on, Lori’s eyes refusing to meet mine each time she glanced back at me. The trail finally began to descend and we trudged on, expecting to see the car at any minute. Instead all we saw was tree after tree after tree. The part of the forest where we hiked was filled with aspen, and in the fall it is breathtaking. This was early in the spring, though, and the buds hadn’t even come out yet. The trail was at 8,000 feet of altitude and in April it’s still cold at night up there.
As we trudged along I ignored the pain in my side and my aching feet and creaky knees and chided myself for not working out more consistently through my pregnancy, through my whole life. I thought about the aspen, and how all their roots are interconnected and each tree behaves as if it’s part of the others. They all grow buds together and grow leaves together and turn yellow together in the fall. The way we look at a grove of aspen it seems as if they are separate trees, each with its own life path, but just beneath the surface it’s clear that they are all one organism. Not so different than families connected by blood or law or a decision to make it so.
Was that how it was with this growing child inside of me, and if so how long could that connection last? With a child inside there’s an obvious connection even though it’s time limited. But what then? What happens to the emotional bond when the physical cord has been cut? Would it really be possible to push this child out of me? And would I continue to push, as my own mother had pushed me, until there was no connection at all?
Perhaps this was the wrong worry at that moment in time, since surely my legs were going to give out soon and my friends would have to have me airlifted back to the car. Surely I would dehydrate, the easiest way to ensure a miscarriage even this late in the game. Clearly they would have to leave me out here, where I would die of exposure before they could get anyone in here to find me and take me and the still-inside-me-child home.
After another hour of plodding we had to admit something was wrong. My friendly little hike now felt hostile. We weren’t lost, as evidenced by the clearly marked trail. The problem was that the damn trail wasn’t going where it was supposed to go. We discussed going back but the thought of slaving up the hill we had been trudging down forever made me feel a little sick, and as the one most compromised by our position I had the veto power on the turnaround idea. We kept on.
Another half hour passed and even I knew we had to do something different. At 5 PM on the mountain in April you’re left with less than an hour of daylight. We were at least three hours from the car, on God knows what trail. We finally agreed to turn around and retrace our steps, knowing we’d never make it back before dark.
We were living the reality of how most true adventures are born. Start with an idea, throw in poor judgment, selective inattention, and stupid pride and there it is. We found ourselves in the middle of an event that we had never anticipated and would not choose again. I wondered if that was Lori had been feeling about my pregnancy recently, but decided now was not the time for that particular discussion in my head.
We each reacted to the situation differently. The out-of-towners kept quiet as they pretended not to watch the drama between my lover and me. Because as we started back my eyes filled and panic set in. My breath became increasingly ragged as I kept seeing us lost out there forever. I rubbed my belly and apologized over and over to the little being that surely now was never going to be. I mentally kicked myself for choices that affected not only the four of us adults, but a little one who had no say in the matter at all. Sweat and tears ran down my cheeks to be swiped away by my grimy hands as I sniffled repeatedly. This went on until Lori faced me and grasped my shoulders.
“We are going to walk out of here. You need to get a grip. We are going to walk out. Do you get that?” Her usually soft brown eyes were stone. “We are walking out of here and you need to get it together. Now.”
Her grip on me was tight and my eyes got wider. “There is no extra energy to waste with drama because we are going to walk out. Now get it together.” I don’t know if it was her look or her words, or maybe the hint of tears I saw in her own eyes, but whatever it was it worked. I stopped crying. The positive effect of fear galvanized by anger and tinged with love has its uses in such a situation.
We trudged. As the night deepened it became harder to see the trail. We talked as we went, and set up some rules. No separating. No leaving the trail. We all had to agree on every decision we made. When we couldn’t agree which way to go any more we would stop.
Then we got quiet again, each of us was left with our own thoughts and feelings. After I got over my initial panic I alternated between coaching and berating myself. In the midst of the confusion, I felt with nauseating certainty that if anything happened to the baby I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. How could I? It had taken over two years of trying for me to get pregnant, then I risked that little life for a whim and sheer mulishness.
We plodded among scores of trees blackened by dusk, shadows obscuring any hope of seeing a familiar landmark. All too soon it was completely dark and I could no longer make out the white of Lori’s shoes twelve inches in front of mine. A sliver of moon helped at first, then abandoned us to total blackness. Katy and Lori got down on their hands and knees and felt for the trail as Synthia and I followed. Lori gritted out commands to me as we inched along.
“Don’t move. Set your foot here. Wait! Don’t move until I tell you to step ahead.” She fell once and when I cried out and moved to help her she yelled me back.
“You can not fall, get it? I can fall and I’ll be fine. You. Can. Not. Fall.” Biting off each short word. Slightly surprised she had listened to my ob-gyn’s warning about the danger of falling in the third trimester, I waited obediently until she made her way back to me and lifted my foot over the invisible root that had grabbed her ankle.
As if the dark wasn’t bad enough, the cold was almost intolerable. Each of us had dressed for a warm afternoon hike, and Lori wore only a tank top over shorts. I had brought a long-sleeved shirt, the others wore t-shirts. The smallest part of my center remained warm while the rest grew numb as I purposely shivered and chattered my teeth to try to increase my activity any way I could. But as bad as it was, that cold kept us moving—fear of sitting still in such arctic conditions was a good motivator.
After awhile the other three pooled the water in their squeeze bottles and gave it to me. Besides falling, dehydration was the main thing I had to fear. Every cell in my codependent body cried out against this act of generosity, but I grudgingly took them up on their offer. For the baby, I kept reminding myself.
An hour later Synthia sat down on the trail and began to cry. “You have to leave me here, I can’t make it. I’m cold. I’m thirsty. I want to go to sleep,” she wailed. I hated her a little then, that Synthia-with-an-S. Katy was far more charitable, and gently convinced her girlfriend to get up and keep moving.
Finally we couldn’t agree on the trail so we had to stop.
“We can’t stop,” I wailed. “We’ll freeze to death out here!”
“Michelle’s right, we have to keep moving.” My ally Katy came through for me.
“No. We can’t lose the trail. We’ve been fine this long because we’ve known where we were. If we get off the trail we won’t get out, even after it’s light again. Michelle, we can’t get lost. I am going to get you out of here like I promised. We can not get lost,” in that staccato-like tone she had used earlier.
Lori spoke as the voice of reason, and if the others heard a subtext of threat in her voice they didn’t let on. But in the end we gave in to her insistence, her refusal to continue to crawl along the ground when she didn’t believe in our ability to go forward. We agreed to stick with our earlier commitment to stay together and we agreed to stop.
This decision felt like death to me. My whole body shook and my teeth cracked like shots from a pellet gun in the night silence as they complained to anyone who would listen. This was it, I was sure. I couldn’t feel my fingertips and I blew on them to wake up the deadened nerve endings. There followed a tingling that was far worse than the previous numbness and I thought it might be better just to let them freeze. I pictured myself in a doctor’s office, a warm one, looking at blackened fingers and asking how I would be able to play the piano for my child. I saw myself in another doctor’s office sobbing over a blank sonogram screen. Tears welled at this visual and the only thing that made me stop them was my fear they would freeze on my face and make things worse.
We hunched on the frigid earth, one long-sleeved shirt among us. It was a huge maternity shirt with room to spare and we took turns wrapping it around two of us at a time. We huddled into a circle, trading out which one of us got to be in the middle. We curled up together on the ground and lay as close to each other as we could, every possible body part touching, a light denim blouse tucked around our edges. In spite of everything we tried, bitter cold crept into my toes, my shoulders, my brain. I murmured quietly to the baby, hoping the others wouldn’t hear and tell me to shut up. To their credit, no one did. Or maybe their eardrums had just gone numb along with the rest of their bodies.
The night went on forever. By Katy’s watch we had stopped at 2:15 AM and periodically she called out the time. I remembered a story I had read about miners caught in a collapsed shaft. The one with the watch would call out the time for the others but he made it seem as if they hadn’t been there as long as they had so no one would worry about the oxygen running out. When the miners were finally rescued every one of them was OK except for the guy with the watch, who died. I wondered if Katy was telling us the real time and if I really wanted to know it anyway and would Katy be OK after this was over. Against my will I wondered about how time is measured by an infant in the womb and what if my body wasn’t keeping that little one sheltered enough?
Then Synthia cried out and said she had seen something. A wild animal, a big cat, she thought.
“It’s tawny colored,” she said. Which was patently ridiculous. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, how could she see tawny? I really hated Synthia then. But the idea was planted and we couldn’t ignore the possibility of a mountain lion stalking us. We all jumped up and screamed and waved sticks and yelled.
When sheer exhaustion made us stop we sat down and shivered together and ached for the light that was never going to come.
But dawn always comes, and when it did we were whipped. We dragged ourselves over two more hours of that hateful trail back to our car. We climbed into our lonely car and drank all the water in bottles we had left there to spare ourselves the extra weight on the trail. As we drove down we stopped at the ranger station for more water. Dazed, we told the park wardens that we had spent the night outside. They looked at us, a little dubiously it seemed, probably not sure that we weren’t a little nutty.
It wasn’t until later in the morning, my belly hooked up to a fetal monitor, that we cried. And did we cry. The nurse who knew only the gist of our ordeal left the four of us alone in a sterile little room. We cried and held hands and watched the monitor and listened to the heartbeat of a baby who in the end was probably more comfortable all night long than we had been. Finally we smiled and wiped our tears and hugged and went home.
The aftereffects of this event came slowly. When we first drove off the mountain we wanted to stop everyone we saw and tell them we had spent the night out there in the dark and the cold with nothing but each other to keep us whole. Then we wanted to tell no one, because who wants to be one of those stupid people you see on the news? Later we laughed. We talked about who would have been voted off the mountain first and knew it was Synthia. I was able to salvage what little pride I had left in not being voted off first in spite of my condition.
We were left with an exciting adventure story to tell little Benjamin when he’s old enough to understand. Most likely we’ll bring him up to the trail, show him the exact place we made a wrong turn, tell him how cold we were and how warm he was all snuggled up inside. Maybe it will make an impact on him, maybe not.
As with most true adventures, Lori and I were irrevocably changed by the event. Some time during that night I became a mother, when I knew in my heart that my choices would now forever impact one who was completely dependent on me, at least in the beginning. I began to take the physical effect of pregnancy on my body more seriously, to eat more of what my doctor suggested, and to swim regular laps at the pool.
Lori felt the weight of pending responsibility that both awed and terrified her. She gained a new respect for my body, bulky as it was. For through it all that body never quit, never failed, kept trudging along, and succeeded in keeping that little baby snug and warm and healthy. She began to get more involved in my physical changes, less freaked out. We joined more in the project of bringing a child into the world.
Lori and I both got our first taste of what all parents go through, no matter what their family looks like. Before Benjamin was even born we learned that when it comes to parenthood the vast majority of what happens is out of our control. This particular tragedy averted left us with the perspective that life is a journey with no predictable destination, there is no ordinary, and it’s probably best to expect that anything can happen. And it’s all an adventure.