My grandmother died one month before I gave birth to my first child. She was 93 years old and passed away surrounded by her family at home in Los Angeles. My husband, Amir, and I named our daughter, in part, after her. This act, naming a baby after a lost loved one, is meant to reflect a more profound version of trite "cycle of life" platitudes nobody really wants to hear at funerals. The dead are still with us; our lives go on. It's a nominal reincarnation of sorts.
Two years later, I was pregnant again with my second child — this time, a boy. We shared the news with our family, and there was a week or two of conventional grandparent joy, the anxious anticipation of a growing family, and a heavy focus on the life to come. My parents were thrilled, as were Amir's — particularly his father.
When I was three months pregnant, we learned his diagnosis: acute myeloid leukemia (AML), one of the deadliest cancers. Amir, a physician, immediately understood the gravity of his father's condition. You cannot remove a tumor from a bloodstream. You cannot cut it out. You cannot necessarily radiate it away.
When I was four months into my pregnancy, I shared the news with select friends. This wasn't exactly a time to celebrate. I told friends I was pregnant in the same sentence I told them my father-in-law had cancer. Linguistic attachments, two halves of my life connected.
At five months, I underwent an ultrasound to make sure the baby was healthy. They found something troubling in his heart. I was feeling ill, breathless. I had stopped exercising because every time I moved, I felt contractions. My first pregnancy had drastically changed my perspective on gestation. My daughter, though born healthy, suffered a stroke at six weeks and spent significant time in the NICU. I couldn't have a second sick baby. One time, shame on fate. Two times, shame on you.
I called my mother-in-law from the hospital. I knew that she was in another wing of the same hospital at the same time with my father-in-law while he underwent chemotherapy.
"Do you want to take a peek at your grandson?" I asked her, hoping this might bring her joy, even if it was only momentary. After all, we almost never spoke of my growing belly. The topic, though visible to all, was toxic, as if discussing one discounted the other.
"Yes," she said. I heard the excitement in her voice. "I'm just sitting here."
"Will he be OK if you leave?"
"Yes," she said, and she walked several blocks to be by my side to watch a new life developing on a screen.
Within moments, the doctors told me that there was likely nothing to worry about. My son's heart seemed fine, but we should repeat the ultrasound again in a month.
Nothing to really worry about.
Words of poor comfort to a family whose emotions were split open.
At the six-month mark of my pregnancy, my father-in-law was getting sicker. He didn't want visitors anymore. His immune system was gone, and he was living in a bubble at his home. We didn't know how much time he had left but still held onto the desperate hope for a bone-marrow transplant, which offered him a slight chance at remission.
At seven months pregnant, we dropped by Amir's parents' house unannounced on a random Sunday afternoon. Everyone was in a particularly good mood. My father-in-law was laughing, my mother-in-law smiling with him, my sister-in-law and nephew making jokes. A house filled with life and laughter, frozen in a Sunday afternoon of nothingness.
But my father-in-law had just been disqualified from the bone-marrow transplant because he was too sick to survive the procedure. So with few options remaining, the bubble was disassembled. The gloves and masks were gone; there was no longer a need to keep the home sterile to make sure he would last until the transplant. The lack of human contact that had pervaded his existence for seven months was forgotten, and Amir walked over to his father and touched his skin for the first time since his diagnosis. I watched from afar as they embraced by the window, two figures still until their bodies rippled into one.