Last Tuesday we went again to the midwife – riding our bikes slowly through the morning air, Amber winding down like a clock with low batteries. Each morning, more aches, a further testament to the dictates of whole over part, of species over mere member. But we made it and this time had a typically tall, strong, rectangular woman for our midwife – verloskundingen – and she was noticeably in a hurry through all of our questions but smiled and answered them all. Amber persisted where I, even in this scenario, was withering – we can, after all, ask these questions later…don’t want to be a bother…We heard the baby’s heartbeat again and this time it was noticeably stronger than before, less a faint whoosh-whooshing like an organ on a far off corner of the seafloor and more a tympanic pock-pocking, something a bit less aquatic, more terrestrial, drum-like, and airy. Later that day we rode bikes out to campus for a dentist appointment in the little temporary trailer behind the Bastille. All checked out, the doctor’s shaved cranium looked like a gently lobed bagpipe or a pinkpale kidney hovering over the open mouth of Amber, radiating a smooth, clean, doctorly light…amazing how little spaces of comfort open up in situations wholly unfamiliar only minutes before. Amber’s back hurt afterward.
Then Thursday I rode my bike from the office at 2:15 to catch a 2:40 train at Drienerlo, met Amber on board. She had bought my ticket at Hengelo. We then walked to the hospital for our 20 week echo appointment. Brandweer trucks went weee-wooooing by us, their sirens wheezy, irritated lungs. We checked in at one building to get Amber a card and then had to walk ten minutes through a bridge over to the other building. We were still half an hour early and sat in a little open area next to a cafeteria, gift shop, and hair cutting joint. A table of old people sat next to us, one of them in a wheelchair. Hospital smells and my usual thoughts about the sick and dying, about germs, about healing, about the acceleration of technology…one day no one will die.
We walked around the corner and checked in at room 65. Both of us nervous about the state of our baby, until now invisible. At most only muted, spasmodic force – unpredictable flutters and jabs in Amber’s belly…and also the pock-pocking or whooshing of a heartbeat. Technological mediation, making the inaudible audible. Now it would make the invisible visible. But it of course is different than the unaided look or listen of the human sensorium. Would she have all the parts, would she be human, would she be sick – have Down’s Syndrome or Spina Bifida? The technique was looming – the threat of knowledge. How knowledge can haunt us. Why would we want to know? But we kept walking forward, as if on a conveyor belt.
We were escorted into the room by our technician. It was not large, but it seemed cavernous as it was only sparsely populated with a medical bed, a couple of chairs, a televison monitor hanging from the ceiling, and the technician’s station – a flatscreen monitor sitting atop a futuristic console of orange glowing, raised buttons of various sizes with indecipherable ciphers on them.
She was not in a hurry but it moved fast. No talking at all, just the usual switch from Dutch to English, our request not to know the sex of the baby. But even before this was over, she had Amber’s pants rolled down a bit and was squirting huge gobs of cold silvery jelly on her stomach. Amber winced and giggled with the cold. We both looked up at the monitor on the ceiling as she applied a hand-held scanner hooked through a cord to her console. The screen suddenly flashed to life and there was instantly a sense of the organic, of the deep and aquatic. It is as if we were transported on a submarine. I felt sick, warm, overwhelmed. The screen seemed to loom larger. And then immediately recognizable not just a human, and not just a baby, but my baby, so personal so intimate (I had not expected that) there was a white-jellied head, a ghostly human form and then phosphorescent ovals in a perfectly curving row – “the ribs” she said in a sweet but matter-of fact tour-guide voice.
She was already seeing so much more than us…already diagnosing, but then again, we were seeing our whole world, and she was seeing just another patient. We toured back and forth across the body several times. I had not expected the omniscient gaze of the machine – on the screen we saw not just head to toe but skin through insides through again to the other side. We traveled not just up and down our baby, but through her – longitudinally, horizontally. There was the heart, an epicenter of activity and rhythm – we could pause like a crow perched just on its roof and then move in like a worm and see from the inside four chambers beating – the atria firing and rippling just before the ventricles, a four-chambered blackness pulsing with thin, wavering walls. And then suddenly colors, a magnetic blue and sharp red, were overlaid on the scene – “we can see how the blood is flowing” the voice came again from by the machine in my right ear. The baby was now squirming quite a bit so the red sometimes faded out into all blue or the red took over. It was like paint spatters or a fireworks display in shimmering, almost metallic light. The colors were piercing after so much absorption in the black and white-jellied baby. We saw also the incandescent femur, the glowing tibia and fibula and even the bright white specks of toes and fingers…a thumb stuck out at a different angle from all the rest. Our vision floated up and away as if we were pure mind, Godlike removal in a hot air balloon up past the wriggling toe bones until two dark velvet curtains of flesh, flushed with folded fingerlike villi, closed in from either side. And then back in, effortlessly.
Suddenly the background fidgeting stopped and we were looking at a frozen image of a skull. A watery, fuzzy container. The pointer, a little white clean-edged arrow, clicked on one edge and traced a line across to the other side. Then it traced a line the other way making an X across the head for a brief moment before pulling the second line out in an oval to measure the circumference. A brief moment of movement and frozen again on the belly to measure its dimensions, which seemed about the same size as the head. The voice, “a good size.” In retrospect, I thought about how this technique subjects the baby to a thorough diagnostic gaze of counting and quantification. The baby is thingified, a checklist and a collection of properties and pieces. Our gaze, intrusive and invasive. But at the same time she is untamable, a home already of a radical freedom and uniqueness, defying through fidgety movements of leg and forearm any technological rationalization. And defying too, through his unique face…maybe it is a he, he has a nose like mine. The eyes; bulging potentials of thought, memory, love at first sight. It was celebratory, a dark ritual in a living church. What was I to make of this technology? It gave me good news. The voice, “everything looks good.” That voice, that message, lifting away a burden. So, I am in love with it. The way we inhabit our technologies and they inhabit us. I thought back to the little babies borne aloft in massive jet aircraft, wrapped in compassionate metal, protected from vacuous nature. And now, how this technical vision was wrapped inside of our little baby. How thoroughly we are technical.
But also how natural. Life is a thing to be prized, not praised. We are not its makers, we are not responsible in the way an engineer is responsible. Caretakers, not managers. We do not orchestrate the embryogenesis, the differentiation of cells, their migrations, the folding of the neural tube, the branching limb buds, the folding organs, the vagus nerve and its traffic of acetylcholine. To see the baby is to know of a power that is in me, of me, but not my doing. It is to know that nature has taken hold. Affirmed my belonging to this species. But also set me on decline. To see the baby is to see again my own childhood – those bitter regrets and heavy longings. That time under the stars, lovesick, riven, torn at the joints and flooded. The universe of white stars in the dark sky above the darker form of mountains and now a constellation of shiny bones in the dark waters. A September leaf, gold and brown. The great wheel is turning me under.