By Mallory McDuff
I waited until I was three months pregnant to tell him about the baby. Then he died three days after my phone call, when my six-year old daughter shared the news of a baby sister in her future, squealing her delight in a high-pitched voice that sounded like a toddler, although she was quite pragmatic and focused for a first-grader. What drove me to call on that day rather than later in the week, when it would have been too late? And why was I devastated by his sudden death but comforted by his support of this unusual pregnancy?
“The Lord works in mysterious ways,” my mother always said, describing the twists and turns in our lives that both confound and amaze us. This phone call to my father was definitely a mystery, one of those encounters I could never have predicted, even if I’d written the script in advance.
For starters, I’d gotten pregnant while separated from my husband, separated for nearly three years, as we avoided the eventuality of the end of our marriage, much like we often waited until the last minute to do our taxes. While we waited for something to happen (a move, an affair, a sudden desire to teach English in Japan?), I got pregnant, much to my joy-filled delight. We were separated, but not separated enough, I learned to say to anyone who questioned the timeline. Hearing that quip, people stopped asking questions, which was the intended outcome. This conception came several years after we ended a second pregnancy due to a genetic disorder affecting the baby, a gut-wrenching decision made from a foundation of love in the midst of a crumbling marriage.
So I waited to tell my father until I had every prenatal test that my insurance would cover, from a high-frequency ultrasound to amniocentesis. Although it’s been more than a decade, I remember standing in the cramped laundry room, shared with our duplex neighbor, with its light blue walls and black and white checkered linoleum. While pulling clothes from the washer, I cradled the phone between my shoulder and my ear, but dropped the wet clothes on the floor when the nurse told me that she had the results from my prenatal tests. The pause between her greeting and announcement tightened my chest in the constricted space of our laundry room, smelling of wet clothes and dry lint.
“Your baby is healthy,” she said, “according to the tests we conducted.”
“Wait, are you sure?” I said. “Tell me about the chromosomes. What do you see exactly?”
After my line of questioning, I let the news fall over my body, like a protective blanket that gives warmth and releases anxiety. The next day, after telling my six-year old that she would have a baby sister, we talked about when to tell my father, who had spent the past two years learning to live alone after the sudden death of my mother. In my mind, news of a baby seemed like a balm.
Like most families, we’ve had our share of losses. If we live long enough, I believe that’s a part of the score, although I would give anything for my mother to see my youngest daughter, who looks just like her. But at the time, my only challenge was summoning the courage to tell my father about this baby that my daughter had been anticipating since the death of Faith, the name we gave to the child who only lived inside my body for several months.
Before dialing the number, my heart seemed to rise a few centimeters in my chest, as if I was giving a speech to a packed stadium. I was 39-years old at the time, but felt like a teenager, worried about a negative reaction from a parent. For my father, life existed in discrete categories: right and wrong; good and bad; vegetarian and carnivore. In his mind, a marital separation was a separation, not a fuzzy agreement involving periodic sleepovers. I feared he might assume this baby was a product of immaculate conception, rather than a delayed divorce. But my first-grader was holding the phone in her hand, urging me to dial my father’s number. Since I couldn’t wait any longer, I placed the call and prepared to listen from the sidelines.
My daughter shared the news and then quickly lost interest in the call after the drama of the delivery. When she passed the phone to me, I released my breath in an audible sigh.
“I’m so happy for you, Mallory,” he said. “This is wonderful news!”
“You are?” I asked, my voice rising to the pitch of my daughter’s.
“Well, you won’t believe what just happened yesterday,” he said. He proceeded to tell me about his conversation with one of my mother’s best friends, Susan, who had known me since I was my daughter’s age.
“We were talking about Mom, and Susan told me that she wouldn’t be surprised if you had another baby, and if that happened, you might even name the baby after Ann.”
According to my father, he was shocked at that possibility: “But they’re separated,” he told her.
“Come on Larry,” she said. “They haven’t gotten divorced yet, and they haven’t dated anyone, and Mallory has wanted another baby since she lost baby Faith.”
So my mother’s friend, the person who shared her passions for sewing baby clothes, knitting blankets, and worrying about children, had paved a way for my father’s acceptance without my intervention or knowledge. How did she know the time was right before we knew what was going to happen?
Three days later, the phone rang, and I learned that my father had been killed by a teenage driver while he was cycling, the same exact way that my mother had died. They were both in the best shapes of their lives, having hiked the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and most of the Continental Divide Trail. My parents were not waiting for the rest of their lives: They were living with minimal impact on the earth, biking to an organic farm where my father worked in exchange for their food, when they were both killed.
After the funeral, we gathered at my parents’ house, surrounded by that buzz of extreme fatigue, deep shock, and buoyant love of lifelong friends, a cocktail that enables families to pretend that loss is temporary, even though grief remains forever. From the corner of my eye, I saw my mother’s friend on our deck. When I walked over to give her a hug, her body melted into my arms, as she whispered into my ear, “You wouldn’t believe the conversation I had with your father a few days ago.”
She replayed the entire dialogue in more detail than he had shared. She told me that he couldn’t believe that I might actually have a baby, until she laid out the possibilities to him.
“Oh you know men!” she exclaimed with her rich Southern accent that matched my mother’s in its depth and nuance. “Sometimes they don’t have a clue!”
Looking into her face, mascara streaked with tears, I still expected my father—and my mother—to walk behind me at any moment and lightly touch my arm.
“Before I talked to him, I decided to name the baby Annie Sky,” I told her.
She reached to hold my hands in hers.
“When I told him that you might even name a baby after Ann, he got the biggest smile on his face,” she said.
“But how did you know?” I asked her. “I haven’t seen you in two years since Mom’s funeral.”
With a soft gaze, she told me that it might be a mystery, something we don’t have to understand to accept. One year later, she saw my new daughter, with her bright blue eyes and dark brown hair, and said that the baby looked just like my mother. The presence of my daughter will never replace the absence of my mother, but the mystery makes me feel a part of something larger than myself, something waiting right in front of me, regardless of what happens next.
Mallory McDuff, Ph.D. is the author of ‘Natural Saints’ (OUP, 2010) and ‘Sacred Acts’ (New Society Publishers, 2012) and co-author of ‘Conservation Education and Outreach Techniques (OUP, 2015). Her essays and op-eds have appeared in The Rumpus, BuzzFeed, Full Grown People, U.S Catholic, The Manifest-Station, Sojourners, USA Today and more.