I know I am home as I walk down Columbus Avenue in North Beach, the city’s contours aglow from the just-settled sun. It’s not the neighborhood I used to live in or one that I frequent very often, but it is quintessential San Francisco. My husband, Ryan, and I flew in this afternoon from Chile and it’s our first time home in nearly a year. We are in town for my cousin Christina’s wedding, and I’m on the way to her bachelorette party now. It’s late May, like the last time we were here, and there’s that familiar bite to the air. I pull my black scarf tighter with one hand and hold my blazer closed with the other as I look up for the street sign where I’ll need to turn. The Transamerica Pyramid Building hovers in view like a chess piece waiting for me to pluck it from the skyline and make the next move. There is power in being back on your own turf, and it’s refreshing to feel powerful after two years of getting lost and fumbling with Spanish in Santiago.
We moved abroad as newlyweds for Ryan’s work in engineering and the opportunity it afforded me to write and, soon, we thought, become a mom. I didn’t know Spanish because I’d decided to take four years of Latin instead at the high school I attended not too far from San Francisco. I liked mythology and story and history. However, mythology did not help much in the checkout line at the grocery store or while directing taxi drivers to our two-block street none ever seemed to have heard of. But it did engrain in me the tragedies and triumphs lining any epic voyage.
Outside the dance club, the bouncer cards me, which I find almost flattering until I realize I easily have a decade on the majority of the clientele. They are drinking and dancing and disappearing into themselves in ways I can remember doing—when all kinds of possibilities feel wrapped up in the night. But I am no longer that girl. I want to be back at the hotel with my heels off, the television on or my book open, and my husband next to me. But this weekend is about Christina, who looks so happy at the center of the circle we’ve formed around her on the dance floor. I tell myself to hang on for one loud, unfamiliar song, then another.
“You aren’t drinking?” our other cousin, Ginger, states as a question. Her hair is dark like mine and it feels good to stand next to someone I’ve known since childhood even if I’d rather be somewhere else. A little over a year earlier, we were pregnant at the same time and used to talk about “our boys.” She had her son a year ago, just a few weeks before I delivered my own son stillborn, three months early. His eyes were closed. His diseased heart suddenly stopped. All one and a half pounds of him named Lorenzo.
“We’re trying again,” I have to practically scream. The bass is so heavy I can feel the vibrations in my stomach. The beat spikes higher and higher in my chest as the tempo escalates. It feels like an invasion.
She hugs me, shouting in my ear as if in whisper, “I won’t ask, but I hope that’s a bullshit excuse and you’re already pregnant. I think about you guys all the time.”
“I’m not taking any chances,” is all I’ll say, though I wouldn’t mind shouting that I’m absolutely terrified. Once things have gone horribly wrong, you no longer take for granted that they will go right. I’ve already lost a second pregnancy, early, before we dared to start dreaming or naming.
“Well, we can at least get you a club soda.” Ginger leads me by the hand to the bar and I am grateful when the speaker’s vibrations leave my body.
The morning after Christina’s wedding Ryan and I drive down the Peninsula to my mom’s home in Portola Valley, ten minutes from the hospital where I was born and where I delivered Lorenzo. Away from the city’s chronic wind chill, my braced exterior softens and I feel it in the air again. I can almost taste the clinical, wrenching, near unsurvivability of that week of our lives.
I look over at Ryan, his lean arm draped across the wheel and his light brown hair cut short. He seems to be doing better with the reminders. Looking at me, he starts off our refrain, “Lover, what’s the plan?”
I don’t feel like saying it, but I do because that’s how this has gone, both while I’ve been pregnant and while I haven’t. “We’re having a baby.”
A year earlier, it was also May, the very last days of the month. This was the time we were talking to the specialists in California, who were confirming what the specialist in Chile had told us 48 hours prior: that our son had just half a heart. Two chambers instead of four. An aorta that wasn’t visible. This was almost to the day a year ago we were trying to make a decision about whether to fight with him through several open-heart surgeries and countless complications and near constant discomfort and pain. Eventually let him go, or let him go right then and there in the hospital where I was born.
Ultimately, I held my beautiful son for the most important hour of my life, going over every inch of him, imprinting that face that looked so much like Ryan’s, marveling at how his second toes were longer than his first. Somehow, I handed him back to the nurse.
How did I ever let go?
It was the second day of June by then. Afterwards, the sliding glass doors to the hospital opened and I rose from the wheelchair with the green-ribboned memory box of Lorenzo’s few things — an ID bracelet he never wore, a small gown and pillow, a card with his tiny handprints and footprints, a poem about the babies we lose before we know them, and four photographs, the only ones we will ever have of our first child. We sat silently on a nearby bench, waiting for my mom to pull the car around and take us into the rest of our lives without our son.
When we returned to Chile two weeks later, I quit my job teaching English and we got the dog, Ruby. It was a good day if I wrote some of the story and made dinner. When I would break down, Ryan would often say, “His heart wasn’t designed for our world.” I also stopped my Spanish lessons because I found I couldn’t remember anything, like the house keys or if I’d eaten lunch, much less foreign words for the objects around me that now seemed just as unfamiliar. Magazines? Traffic? Make-up? I also stopped noticing the differences between my two homes because my mind would often be elsewhere, buzzing with the electricity of turning so hopelessly into a mother without a child.
I was shocked then and I’m shocked now. Shocked that we have to be here again at the same time. Shocked that it’s such a stunning time of year in this part of the state. The sun is out but not overbearing, breezes are left over from the spring, and the daylight starts to stretch out further and further into each evening. The seasons—their scents, their degrees, their coloring—repeat, but pass over us living different versions of our lives.
My mom greets us at the door, as does her puppy. She got one soon after we adopted Ruby, just three weeks after we all lost Lorenzo. It helped to have new life in our homes. I bend down to snuggle the tiny black-and-white fluff, and miss our long, lanky, blonde mutt back home, which is what Chile means now.
The next day, Ryan drives back up to the city to meet his cousin for lunch and my mom has to take care of some things at her office, so it’s just me and the puppy in the house. The regression feels almost natural. I stay in my sweats until 11 AM. I flip through the clothes in my closet, but decide to keep the leftovers just where they are. There is a silver box across the room with a smaller white box of ashes inside. Right afterwards, Ryan and I thought we’d drive down to Carmel, where Lorenzo was conceived that first Christmas we came home to California, and release him off the rugged cliffs above the Pacific. But my milk came in and my hormones crashed and I couldn’t leave my mom’s house, except to sit on the back deck in the sun with an ice pack on my chest. We accepted that there was no rush. Maybe we would wait until we had another child. Maybe I’d never let go and insist that his ashes be mixed in with mine one day, the only way for us to physically be together again.
The puppy follows me into the kitchen and I make a second cup of tea — decaf just in case. When the sun is high, I put on my bathing suit and goggles and go for a swim in the lap pool.
On the rise of my breaststroke breaths, I see the lush hillside where the deer like to graze, the puppy lounging in the shade created by the patio furniture, and the straight line of redwoods that separate my mom’s property from her neighbor’s. When I float on my back, I see the clouds moving across the sky and the twisted, knuckled branches of the oak tree that hangs over the single-story roof.
I am spending time alone for the first time during the entire trip and likely for the remainder of it. While Chile has become a quiet place for us, California rarely is now. It is a time to put on smiles and line up lunch dates and family barbeques. It is a time to visit my mom and then Ryan’s mom up in the North Bay. It is a time to sleep in different beds and repack the suitcase after each stopover. It’s “home,” but it isn’t. I’d gotten a hang of those aspects of the re-entry, but now there is that taste to the air. Grief sticks to all of it because it happened here, just down the road. Really, the whole story, Lorenzo’s beginning and ending, unraveled right inside me, this body floating in a pool. It’s like that saying about mindfulness: “Wherever you go, there you are.”
Ryan and I are sitting in the rental car, parked at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, burritos from our favorite taqueria on our laps. We do always miss the food here. We are in between our moms’ homes and only a few blocks from where we used to live. The sun reflects off the flat, wet sand. I see a lone walker with a dog and a fisherman standing still further in the distance. We crack the windows and listen to the whistle of the onshore winds, giving way to water that is all chop and white froth. I always liked the beach better this way, when it felt like mine alone to stitch with footsteps.
I still have to do my homework assignment for the support group for mothers like me. On Wednesday nights, we each call in from our different homes in our different cities and try our best at healing after our losses. This week, we’re supposed to think about how we grieve, how our partners grieve, and ways to come together in our respective styles. I pull out my notebook and read a list about how I talk about it and write about it and ritualize it and sometimes wallow in it, and Ryan looks to the future and stays optimistic in the face of it and how much strength I think that takes.
“Do you agree?” I ask.
He is looking out at the ocean. An avid surfer, he will always watch the waves, no matter what they’re doing. We’ve had many of these conversations, both when we lived here and now that we don’t, while we gaze at this specific stretch of water but tell it to each other straight.
“You say I’m strong? I think that comes from understanding what happened. Sometimes that means trying to understand the sadness and the guilt and what could have been.”
Of course, his sadness is there, right behind the optimism. “I didn’t realize you worked on it that much.”
“If I understand it, I can accept it. But I think you do more to process it, day by day.”
How do we process life without Lorenzo? How does either of us ever truly understand why only half of a heart grew in our otherwise healthy baby? You can’t live unencumbered with only two chambers, but your life can be painfully prolonged. We were told there could be a genetic component, but we don’t have any heart defects on either side of our families. We were told it was nothing I ate or drank. We were told that this just happens to two or three or four out of every 10,000 babies the world over in equal measure. It’s one of those things that you can only ever see so much of, like this vast ocean that has bordered both parts of our lives together, but here are Ryan and I doing our best as we sit on its edge. The same body of water runs for thousands of miles down the west coast of Chile, where we’ll return in a few days.
“What can we do to come together?” I ask, remembering the assignment. But as we stare at those waves, I know we are already doing it.
Back in Santiago, June 2 passes, as well as the exact hour when I held our son. I undo the green ribbon on Lorenzo’s memory box, pull back the two thick sides of the lid, and gently lay each item out on the bed. I’ve added things over the year: seashells from northern Perú, a necklace Ryan gave me while I was pregnant, a heart-shaped keychain. I look at the four photographs. I see his face, free of pain, the cheek I kissed while he was still warm from my warmth. I see the close-up of his fingers, which I’d looped over mine when really I was the one trying so hard to hold on. My wedding band glints in the corner of the photo, a promise made long before our lives changed. I look again at the photo of Lorenzo’s face and fall right into it.
Later, we take Ruby to the dog park because it helps to make her happy.
I see a mother and her two children gliding down the walkway towards me, one unit. The older one, a boy, is perched on the back of the stroller, his blond curls propped between his mother’s slim arms as she pushes the baby bundled in pink. I am mindful of Ruby so she won’t sniff too closely to the children and startle them or alarm their mother, who might look at me and size up the comparable value of our charges. Passing me, she’d have no idea that I also had two.
With the second, it happened as these things often do, making it somewhat easier to understand. Too many chromosomes. A heartbeat for a few weeks, then a quiet slipping away on its own. I’ll never know exactly when it happened, either sometime in the eighth week or early into the ninth. While I was doing laundry or Ryan was playing the guitar or we were sleeping unaware. There were indications… cramps one night, the nausea’s fade, that last weekend of re-energized organizing. But no blood. No sure sign until that white wand searched the small dome of my belly and came up silent.
We named the boy out loud, but we never named the second, whom I always thought of as a girl. We never even told a soul that she was happening. The last girl’s name we’d both agreed on was Giuliana, so I name her as the mother and her children roll away.
Ryan throws the tennis ball and we watch, transfixed, as Ruby runs and runs.
Originally from California, Jennifer Massoni Pardini has most recently written from Santiago, Chile. A longtime magazine editor and contributor, her work has appeared in various publications, including The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and Literary Mama. In 2011, she earned her M.F.A. in English and Creative Writing from Mills College. She blogs at http://www.jennifermassoni.com/ and collects hearts in her son’s honor with The Chain-Link Heart Project.