As the baby was growing inside Natalie’s uterus, her aunt Dina was dying. It became an awful race: which would happen first, the birth or the death? If the baby came first, that meant Dina could see her, the new life dandled before the one on the way out. Natalie’s mother expressed a tearful hope that Dina would hold on long enough to meet her grandniece. Natalie secretly preferred the death to come first, not so it could be followed by a joyous event, but because she didn’t want the baby to detract from it. She wasn’t a practicing Jew, but she wanted to go into mourning in the old Jewish way: stop everything, tear her clothes, sit around all day for a week with relatives she didn’t much like, and accept plates of heavy food she didn’t want to eat. How could a newborn fit into that ritual, with the round-the-clock nursing, and the adorable outfits, and the congratulatory emails?
Up late with nausea and worry during her pregnancy, Natalie considered these two lives—Dina and the baby. Which one would she choose? She’d played games like this as an only child in the back seat on long car rides. If just one could be saved—the dog or the cat, her gymnastics team or her Hebrew School class, her mom or her dad—which would it be? While her parents talked to each other about work and bills and other people’s problems, she deliberated. By the time they got to Cape Cod, or Ithaca, or Bennington, she had to decide. The dog, the gymnastics team, her dad, Dina.
Dina’s son Matt had been born on May 10th, Natalie’s half birthday. She was six-and-a-half that year. It was a strange and fascinating fact that on November 10th, when she would forever be turning another year older, Matt would forever be having his half birthday. Maybe, Natalie thought, Matt was a kind of half twin. A woman at the supermarket had asked, wasn’t she lonely with no brothers or sisters, and Natalie supposed that she was. She made her new cousin a card with a joke in it. WELCOME MATT, it said, with a picture of a baby boy lying on a rug in front of a red door. She helped her mom pick out a miniature pair of pajamas and a purple stuffed monkey and wrap them in polka-dotted paper. She ran up Aunt Dina and Uncle Rob’s driveway with the card and the package in her hand. Dina opened the door, the baby hiding in a blanket against her chest, and Natalie felt suddenly shy.
“Isn’t he funny-looking?” Dina asked, tilting the bundle in her arms so that Natalie could see.
“Yes,” she said.
“He’s precious,” her mom protested. But Matt looked more like a shrunken Charlie Brown than a half-twin.
In the living room, Dina asked Natalie if she wanted to hold him.
“Oh, not yet. He’s so tiny,” Natalie’s mom said.
“She can handle it,” Dina said. “What do you think, Natalie?”
“I’ll sit on the floor so I don’t drop him.”
“Good idea,” Dina said.
Natalie made a nest with her lap and Dina lowered the baby into it. When Matt began to fuss, Natalie put her finger up to his mouth. Matt sucked on her nail, his weird, no-color eyes crossing.
“You know just what to do,” Dina said. “You’ll be like a big sister to him. You’ll be better than a big sister.”
Later, in the kitchen, Dina asked Natalie if she would help her take care of Matt. “I don’t know if I can do this on my own,” she said.
Natalie didn’t like helping out at home: clearing the table, weeding the garden, keeping her room clean. But this was a different kind of help. Her aunt hadn’t pleaded, bribed, nagged, or demanded the way her mom did. She had asked. Of course Natalie would help. She fetched baby bottles, retrieved dropped toys, pushed swings, wrestled on jackets and shoes, soothed hurts. She and Dina sat on the bench under the trees at the playground and talked, while Matt ran around and shouted and flung sand out of the sandbox.
Matt was twenty-four now, living in Manhattan and working as a production assistant at an independent film company. Natalie worked at a law firm in Midtown; she took her cousin out for lunch sometimes. Though she and Matt were technically of the same generation, Natalie still felt maternal toward him. She was Dina’s friend first, then Matt’s cousin. It had always been that way. And now she was even more Dina-like. They were both lawyers, with houses in Connecticut, fifteen minutes away from each other. When Natalie was Matt’s age, to work in the city and live outside of it seemed ridiculous. Why spend your free hours in the suburbs when the city itself was freedom? But her husband Ian didn’t love it the way she did. He’d gone to work for his dad’s business in Stamford, and so they’d bought a house close to his office, rather than continue renting in New York.
Now that Ian was comfortably stationed on a street where the trees formed a canopy overhead, the neighbors tucked away inside stone and brick mini-fortresses, the city was hers again, if only in a piecemeal way. She had the twelve-block walk to and from the train station to her office. She had the view of the Chrysler Building and Bryant Park from the conference room window. She had her lunch hour. She had the occasional night out with friends after work. The commute was its own daily pleasure, arriving in Grand Central Terminal in the morning and returning to it in the evening. Gazing up at the dreamy green ceiling with its gold-etched constellations was like falling into the sky, if the sky, instead of being changeable and fathomless, was something over which human beings had achieved a triumphant mastery.
Just after Labor Day, Natalie stood in Grand Central and answered a call from her mother. It was six o’clock and the high windows still pitched out bands of light. With the train not due to leave for fourteen minutes, she was in the serene position of watching others scurry.
“You’re on your way home?” It sounded like her mother was trying not to cry.
“I have a few minutes. What’s going on?”
“I can’t discuss it. Not on the phone. Come by later.”
“Tell me. I’ll worry all the way home. “
“You should worry.”
It wasn’t what Natalie’s mind had leapt to: something had happened to her dad at work, to her grandfather in the nursing home. It was worse than that. Dina, stomach cancer, stage 4.
With its columns and arches, its marble floors and domed ceiling, Grand Central Terminal had a way of drawing everything into itself. Standing there, surrounded by so many sources of light—windows and wall sconces, display boards and information windows, chandeliers and illuminated clocks—one could pretend that grandeur was all. Forget other people. Forget the mind’s tedious habits. Forget time. Except that time was master here; you couldn’t outwit it. Natalie’s train would depart in thirteen minutes, and even if she willfully missed it, another train would arrive in thirty-seven minutes, and another one fifty minutes after that, and then another one, all going to the same place.
Two pink lines you were pregnant, one pink line you weren’t. The instructions didn’t say how to interpret a second line so faint it barely seemed to constitute a line at all.
“So you’re half pregnant,” Ian said.
Unlike the bathroom in their old New York apartment, this bathroom provided plenty of room for two people to deliberate before the sink. The box with the second pregnancy test stick could be easily concealed inside the built-in cabinet. In a few days, Natalie could test herself again. She felt sick enough to chalk it up to pregnancy. It would be a handy excuse to employ for the next eight months. People had to give a pregnant woman a break. Menstruating women were unclean, grouchy, depressed, temporarily insane. Pregnant women were glowing, queenly, care-worthy, life-giving.
“We should celebrate,” Ian said.
“I’m really not sure that counts as a line.”
Ian took her hand and led her to the living room couch. It was an early October evening, the hour between the sunset and the street lamps. Most of the leaves still clung to their branches; a few weeks of daylight savings time remained. The brown microsuede couch faced the glowing trees. Natalie had spent a lot of time here in the past month, angry not at god but at the idea of god: old man, earth mother, skinny suffering dude, rotund lotus sitter. For seven years, she’d attended Hebrew School twice a week at the Beth Davidson Reform Synagogue, and that hokey-liberal Jewish education had taught her that god was a name in a song, a word in a prayer, a character in a story. He could be conjured up at will. He could also be dismissed. From the cozy couch, Natalie raged silently against the foolish billions who believed in things like transcendence and the afterlife. Why couldn’t they see? You could never defeat death.
Ian stroked her feet in his lap. “So, if you are, the baby would come in June. That’s a good birthday month. The end of school, the beginning of summer.”
“It’s not a good time right now,” Natalie said.
“It’s never the perfect time. That’s what everyone says.”
“You mean it’s always something: a new job, a leaky roof, a little cancer in the family.” The foot stroking stopped.
“Don’t you think this would be a happy thing? Don’t you think everyone would be happy for us?”
“Sure they would.”
“Then let’s be happy for a minute at least.”
Natalie knew Ian would make a great dad. He had this purple terrycloth bathrobe that a dad would wear. He liked to speak in funny voices and talk people through doing things they didn’t want to do. And she did want to have children with him someday—when her head was clearer, her nerves calmer, her arms wide open and ready to receive.
The hospital that had removed the tumor in Dina’s stomach and was now dispensing the cell-crushing poison had a fancy Manhattan address. A few blocks away, a gallery displayed four floors of Expressionist masterpieces, a shop sold Turkish rugs, a restaurant served truffles and filet mignon. Dina’s condition was too critical to allow her to go home between chemo treatments; she was stuck here. Wednesday was Natalie’s regular night. Her mom, Matt, and Dina’s two closest friends each had theirs. This way, Dina could count on a dependable retinue of visitors, a network, a rotating team. And this way, they didn’t have to see each other: the healthy, ill-at-ease loved ones clustered around the sick one. They could each come to her on their own terms, like Catholics in a confession booth. Dina’s room overlooked an elegant brick building across the street, with gargoyles minding the cornices. When the nurse came to check Dina’s vitals, Natalie stood by the window and studied the gargoyles. They were bug-eyed, open-mouthed, hunched over, as if the weight of the building heaved onto their backs. In medieval times, people thought gargoyles had the power to ward off evil spirits. This seemed like the right idea. Fight ghoulishness with ghoulishness; give fear a suitably fearful shape. Natalie wished the hospital itself were filled with gargoyles rather than with soft-focus paintings of flowers and shorelines, posters printed with inspirational quotes, helpful signage.
December now, holiday time. As she walked down the corridors, Natalie glimpsed wreaths, shiny packages, colorful lights, and cancer patients with all of the fat sucked off their bones. In Dina’s room, a rusted gold menorah teetered on the radiator. It had belonged to her mother. As children, Natalie and Matt always went to their grandmother’s crumbling apartment in Washington Heights for the first night of Hannukah. They ate latkes fried in pans on all four burners of the stove and jelly donuts plucked from a white bakery box. They made their tuneless way through songs about Maccabees and dreidels. They tore open sixteen packages wrapped in The Jewish Week and tied with yarn, eight for Natalie and eight for Matt. Though Natalie’s mom would suggest they open one present then and bring the rest home to open one each night, her grandmother would say no. They’d do it like the Christians: everything at once, so you felt like you were rich, for an hour or so anyway. Her grandmother had been dead fourteen years, such a long time it wasn’t painful to think of her being dead anymore, though Natalie had loved her, and had run out of the house, away from the family gathering after the funeral, because everyone was just eating banana bread and talking about stupid things.
Dina was sitting up in her hospital bed, wearing the wig Natalie had helped her pick out. It was nicer than her real hair, which had been scrub-brush coarse and shot through with graying frizz. The silky wig hung in soft waves to Dina’s shoulders. “I used to spend a lot of time trying to make my hair look like this,” she’d said to Natalie when she tried it on. “It never worked. I guess this is my chance to have the hair I always wanted.”
Natalie produced a blue box of Hannukah candles from her briefcase and handed it to Dina. “You got the good ones,” Dina said. “That sweet Israeli family on the back.” A woman with a saintly glow was lighting a giant menorah, while two beautiful boys appeared entranced by their mother’s magic. The Western Wall gleamed gold behind them.
Dina opened the box and fingered the wicks. “Do you know why lighting candles is considered a woman’s job? Because a woman was responsible for dimming the world’s light.”
“Jesus. Maybe we should refuse to light them. Is there some male orderly we can call in?”
“Nope. It’s all women on this floor at night. Female nurses. Male doctors. You have to wait until morning for your doctor man to breeze through.”
Tonight Natalie was supposed to tell Dina that she was pregnant. The first trimester had passed, and Ian had called his parents, his brother, and his best friends with the news. From the couch, Natalie listened to him in the kitchen, where he was preparing a healthy, protein-rich meal, as he’d taken it upon himself to do these days. In the reverential tone of the pregnancy magazines in the obstetrician’s waiting room, he reported on Natalie’s morning sickness, the prenatal tests they had scheduled, the delivery options they’d discussed.
They told her parents at Sunday brunch, which Natalie wasn’t eating, because omelettes smelled like unborn chicks. Her mom squealed, teared up, rushed about making Natalie a made-to-order breakfast. Her dad said he would build the baby a crib.
“Let me tell Dina,” Natalie said.
“Of course,” her mother said sharply, acting offended at the suggestion that she might spill the beans. Natalie spent the next week wishing she would.
Natalie had put off telling Dina about other important life events, too: her decision to go to law school, her engagement to Ian. It wasn’t that Natalie thought her aunt would disapprove. Dina liked being a lawyer herself; she liked Ian. But Natalie was wary of her own good news, of the way one decision shut down the possibility of another. Dina, more than anyone else she was close to, seemed in some unspoken way to feel that too.
Natalie lit the shamas, the servant candle, which was used to ignite the other candles on the menorah. Over the course of eight nights, the shamas lit one more candle than it had the night before. Tonight was the first night: two flames. “Let’s turn out the light,” Dina said, and the two of them sat in the almost dark, with the sounds of creaky carts and cheery nurses.
“I want to tell you something but I’m nervous,” Natalie said.
“Okay,” Dina said.
“It’s silly that I’m nervous.” Her mom would have said Don’t be. Dina would not say that. “I’m going to have a baby.”
“That’s wonderful.” Natalie could feel Dina looking at her carefully, and she couldn’t look back.
“I don’t feel that,” she said. She was embarrassed to be crying. It was the first time she could remember crying in front of Dina since she was a little girl. She hadn’t cried in her presence this entire fall. The doctors had said that even with aggressive chemo, the odds weren’t good. The odds of living. That was understood. And Natalie was crying over something else, over something that was supposed to be wonderful.
“I didn’t feel it,” Dina said. She pulled a tissue from the box on her bedside table and handed it to Natalie. “Not till Matt was more than a month old. I was sick the whole pregnancy. I wanted the baby out of me, but I wasn’t ready for him. After he was born, the little sleep I got, I had these nightmares. Somehow we’d left him alone in the house. We were neglectful, or maybe we were dead. Here was my son, completely alone, with no idea what was happening. I could feel his terror as if it were my own. It was, of course.”
Dina’s voice was Dina’s voice, thoughtful and calm. “What was scaring you so much?” Natalie asked.
“You know, in the beginning, there’s crying and not crying. There’s distressed and there’s neutral. I guess I couldn’t deal with the lack of positive feedback. I remember when I first felt we had something that might be mutual. Matt was lying in his bassinet, about six weeks old. Suddenly I wanted to sing to him. You know I can’t sing. Even ‘Happy Birthday’—I move my mouth, but I don’t let the sound come out. Man, that day, I sang all the songs I can’t sing. ‘Whole Lotta Love.’ ‘Very Young.’ ‘Heart of Gold.’ Matt started making this amazing surprised sound: Oh, oh, oh. He was six weeks old, and he liked my singing. I’d been waiting my entire life for someone to want to hear me sing.”
It was getting late. They were through with talking. But Natalie didn’t want to leave Dina’s hospital room until the candles had melted all the way down. One Hannukah night, years ago, Natalie and her mom had to make a semi-emergency trip to the drugstore. As they prepared to leave an empty house behind, the candles in the menorah stood at half their original size, the flames still going strong. Herding Natalie out the door, her mom blew out the candles. By then, age ten or so, Natalie had already considered the existence of god and found him absent from the heavens, but to extinguish the Hannukah candles rather than letting them burn down naturally felt like a great sacrilege. And yet her mother seemed to do it without a second thought.
Complaining of itchiness, Dina removed the wig. She was completely bald. The muscles in her neck bulged; her face was in retreat. Natalie was relieved to have told Dina about the pregnancy. She was’t worried anymore that her body was about to betray her. But Dina’s body was betraying her at every moment.
Natalie’s sophomore year in high school there was another kind of betrayal, a beginning for Natalie, an ending for Dina. One morning at breakfast, her dad mentioned the new casual Fridays policy at work. He looked good, wearing a pair of khakis and a soft blue shirt that matched his eyes, instead of the usual grey suit and white shirt buttoned up to his chin. After he’d left for the office, Natalie changed into a clingy sweater and a jean skirt. She put on mascara and eyeliner and two coats of rose-brown lipstick. Made-up Fridays: it was worth a shot.
When the bell rang at the end of English class, her crush since fifth grade turned around and asked her out. He used to be Billy. Now he went by William. In middle school he teased her for getting good grades. Now he wanted to hear her thoughts on The Odyssey. She spent the rest of the day in a white heat underneath the clingy sweater. Instead of taking the bus, she walked home from school: an hour’s trudge through winding streets with old stone houses and scarlet foliage. Her surroundings registered vaguely as beautiful and boring. She was caught up in a meandering fantasy, not about her impending date with William: sitting next to each other in the movie theater, his hand grabbing hers in the dark. There was excitement in that, but it wasn’t the real excitement to come, the excitement that the first date of her life would set into motion. She was imagining being older and living in New York City, shimmying down Fifth Avenue on a snowy evening, her long wool coat brushing against the long wool coat of some man, not William, not anyone from Chesterbrook High, no matter how cute he was. They would climb the stairs up to the roof of an apartment building and stand there embracing, pressing all of their heat into each other, while thousands of lights glowing softly in the snow kept promising: more, more, more.
When she arrived home, her mom was on the upstairs phone, shouting about some bastard, some unbelievable bullshit artist. It took Natalie a minute to realize she was talking about Uncle Rob. He’d been having an affair with some woman, cheating on Dina. The kitchen stewed in a mid-dinner preparation mess: chicken breasts half-breaded, boiling potatoes popping out of their red skins, a cutting board full of green beans not yet severed from their pointy ends. Natalie turned off the potatoes and stood by the sink, sneaking slivered almonds. Was it unbelievable that Rob had turned out to be a bastard and a bullshit artist? He was her uncle. He lived a short car ride away, and she had known him all her life. But since she’d developed breasts, he shook hands instead of hugging her. He asked about her grades, and when she started mumbling about A’s and A-’s, he boomed, “Excellent, excellent. Keep it up.” He was good-looking, with the dentist’s requisite gleaming smile and the lean physique of a former college tennis player. He was better looking, more energetic and jovial than Dina, with her serious eyes, her refusal to smile when she didn’t feel like smiling. Natalie knew that most people would consider him the better catch. If she thought of him as a man, rather than as her uncle, the truth was she had never much liked him.
When her mom finally came downstairs, she went straight to the refrigerator and pulled out a beer.
“I guess you heard,” she said, grimacing, as she popped off the top.
“What’s Dina going to do?”
“Smart lawyer—she’s already had the divorce papers drawn up.”
“How did she find out?”
“Oh, these things leave a trail.” Natalie wasn’t sure if that meant her mom didn’t want to disclose the details, or if she wasn’t clear on them herself.
“Does Matt know?”
“They’ll tell him tomorrow afternoon, poor boy. What a father. It goes without saying, no New York trip this weekend. You and Daddy and I can go to the movies.”
Every other Saturday, some familial combination of Newbergs and Goldmans took the train to Grand Central. From there they went to a museum, or a show, or a street festival, or just out for Chinese food at Ollie’s, followed by a long walk. When William had asked Natalie out for this Saturday, she timidly proposed the following Saturday instead. She could have skipped the family outing, but not without making a bigger deal of this date than she’d felt prepared to do on a day’s notice.
“What other questions do you have, Honey? I know this is so hard to process.”
After the phone tirade, her mom’s good mother persona was kicking into gear, that tone of exaggerated sympathy that never made Natalie want to confess to anything. She wanted to hear about the situation from Dina herself, but she was also afraid to hear it. She had seen her mother hurt many times: crying, shrieking, bearing a crumpled look that made Natalie ashamed for her, rather than compassionate. Though she’d heard Dina speak harshly at times—to Rob, to Matt, to someone at work who was driving her crazy—it was a kind of controlled anger that seemed warranted, even admirable. Natalie didn’t want to find her aunt transformed into a pitiable creature, a cheated-upon wife, whether raging or weeping.
“I’ll help you finish making dinner,” Natalie said, snapping the ends off the green beans.
On Saturday afternoon she sat between her parents at the local movie theater, watching a documentary about the migratory patterns of birds. It was a compromise. Her mom wanted to see a Holocaust drama. Her dad wanted to see a Sci Fi thriller. Natalie wanted to stay home and lie in bed, maybe read The Odyssey. The birds on the screen rose up in flocks, circled the skies, voyaged heroically to distant lands. There weren’t any people in this movie, just birds: goofy and elegant, striking and plain. To see them going about their lives was a kind of relief.
The next day Dina called and asked Natalie to come over. Rob had taken Matt out for pizza and bowling. Natalie and her aunt sat on the couch eating donuts and watching the wind round up the autumn leaves outside. Dina looked the same as she always looked on a Saturday: her angular frame softer in comfort clothes rather than lawyer clothes, her hair fanned out in a frizzy ponytail, her face sleepy and kinder without makeup. You couldn’t tell what had happened by looking at her. Somehow, Natalie had imagined that you could.
Dina asked about the history paper due next week, the debate club Natalie had recently joined. Then she said, “We should talk about what’s going on.”
“Okay,” Natalie said.
“I’m really angry and I’m really hurt. But I’m alright.”
“I know.” Natalie couldn’t think of what else to say.
“Cheating on a spouse is more common than anyone wants to think. Almost half of married couples get divorced. I feel awful, but I’m not special. Do you know what I mean?”
“I think so.”
“Some milk would go well with these donuts, wouldn’t it?” Dina went into the kitchen and came back with two glasses. She sat back down on the couch and redid her ponytail.
“I’ll be a single mother now. I’ve always thought that would be the hardest thing.”
“I’ll help you. I’ll babysit more. I mean, if you want me to.”
“Thanks.” Dina sighed. “People expect me to fall apart. They expect me to rail about what pigs men are, to break down in public, this pathetic woman, this poor mother, this tough lady lawyer—look at her now. I won’t do it. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Natalie said. She wasn’t sure that she did, but whatever Dina wanted her to understand, she wanted to understand it too.
Just before Natalie’s mom came to pick her up, Dina suggested that next Saturday she and Matt and Natalie could go to New York, maybe stand on the half-price ticket line and get tickets to a show. Natalie hesitated. She hadn’t planned to mention William, felt ashamed to, especially now, but she couldn’t not tell her aunt.
“I’m supposed to hang out with this guy next Saturday.”
“He asked me yesterday. But we could go another time.”
“No, no.” Dina smiled. “Come here.”
She gave Natalie a hug. Dina’s hug was like no one else’s. It wasn’t the kind of hug you could just lean in for and shimmy back out of. Dina gripped you so hard you had to remember to breathe, had to remember that your body existed alone in space almost all of the time.
“Dating,” she said. “I’ll have to do it again, I guess. You’ll have to tell me what to do.”
Since then, seventeen years ago, she’d had many dates, a few of the relationships lasting for a year or more. Rob got married to a hygienist and had another son. But Dina had never married or lived with anyone again. The weekend before the test results came back showing Stage 4 stomach cancer, she’d gone on a first date with a man she’d liked instantly. While she was prepping for surgery, he called and left a message asking her out again. She didn’t call him back.
“I’ve never blown someone off like that,” she told Natalie during the first round of chemo. “I feel bad about it. But what could I say? I’m sorry, I’m having cancer right now. Come see me in the hospital.”
“You could still call him,” Natalie said.
What if—as in one of those romantic cancer movies—Dina had a real chance at love now, sick as she was? Maybe this man would cling to her bedside, worship the beautiful soul beneath the failing body.
“No,” Dina said. “No one wants that.”
The heartbeat, called up from its inaudible realm, filled the room with a whumping sound. Outside, it was February, the kind of record-breaking winter that provided a steady source of material for conversations with people in waiting rooms. So cold, so much snow, so many days without sun. The baby would be born in a kinder season.
“140 beats per minute,” the technician said. “That’s perfectly fine.”
A fetal ultrasound was perhaps the only medical procedure that might be seen as joyful, though of course it could reveal terrible news too. But things seemed to be going well. The fetus was projected on the screen, its organs and appendages announced and praised.
“You said you want to know the sex, right?” the technician asked.
“Yes,” Natalie said. Ian took her hand. He’d told her he didn’t have a preference. She was hoping for a girl, not because of the so-called mother/daughter bond, or because she liked girly things, but because as a girl herself she’d imagined having a girl one day, and it meant something to have that wish fulfilled.
The technician zoomed in on an area, rendering it inscrutable to Natalie. After the birth, they would never want to see inside in this way again. The kid should be all smooth skin and ruffled hair, baby-plump flesh and solid limbs. Never the white bones, the pulsing organs. Never the body beneath its protective layer.
“Definitely a girl,” the technician said. “See those three dots? Those are the female genitals.” Natalie nodded, though she hadn’t really seen them.
“We’ll get pictures of this?” Ian asked.
“The radiologist will bring them in. She’ll look over the results, but I don’t anticipate anything out of the ordinary. Congratulations.”
The technician handed Natalie a paper towel to wipe the goop off her belly and left to find the radiologist. It was pleasantly warm and cave-like in the room, the light a muted purple, as if a nearby lava lamp was oozing out blobs of wax.
“A girl,” Ian said. “Her features looked kind of feminine, don’t you think?”
“Sure,” Natalie said.
They hadn’t decided on a boy’s name. Devin was one idea, Daniel another. The Jewish tradition was to name a child in honor of a relative who had passed away—none of this goyish So-and-So-Junior stuff. A shared first letter would suffice between the namesake and the baby. Natalie wondered what the Orthodox rabbis would say if the relative’s death hadn’t happened yet. Would they adjust the rule considering the context, sign off on a couple’s choice to name a baby after a dying woman, or would they, in their stickler rabbinical way, insist that not taken by God yet was as good as alive?
Craggy and steep on a cliff above the Hudson River, Fort Tryon Park was wilder than Central Park, less cultivated by picknickers and bicyclists. Natalie’s mom and Dina had grown up in an apartment a short walk away from the Heather Garden entrance to Fort Tryon. This park had been Dina’s escape when she was feeling angry or depressed. She came to see the fortress of trees and the boats inching down the river. She came to see the Cloisters, the medieval branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, built from the imported remains of French abbeys: a museum packed with so many centuries-old treasures, it was impossible to remain stuck in twentieth-century gloom.
She was about to go into a hospice in Connecticut, and Natalie had driven the two of them here first. She unpacked the two lawn chairs from the trunk of Ian’s car and set them on the grass near a patch of daffodils. The shiny trees all boasted new leaves. It was the first week of April, stunningly pretty and warm after the crushing winter. The turning of seasons felt oppressive to her now. If this was to be Dina’s last spring, better that it had stayed winter. She opened the car door and helped Dina over to the chair. At seven months pregnant, Natalie knew she shouldn’t try to bear the weight of another woman, even one as skinny as Dina was now. At seven months pregnant, she would do what she pleased.
From her lawn chair, Dina asked, the way she spoke now, with all of her breath, “How are you feeling? About the birth.”
“I don’t know. Weird. I told you we’re taking a class? Every time the teacher proposes one of her ‘journey to birth’ exercise, I can’t help groaning. Ian gets annoyed with me. And we have silly homework. For next week we have to bring in a song that somehow embodies our vision of the birth experience.”
“What will you bring?”
“‘Billie Jean,’ I think. Just to needle the teacher.”
Dina smiled her cracked smile. “I barely remember what it was like with Matt. Such pain. But I wasn’t there somehow. Not the best day of my life. Oh well. The birth is just what has to happen.”
What had been the best day of Dina’s life? Natalie couldn’t bring herself to ask that.
“I can think of a song,” Dina said. “For my journey, not yours.”
For a moment, Natalie had an impossible thought: Dina was going on a trip. But no—she was just being ironic. She was DNR. She planned to be cremated.
“Pink Floyd, ‘The Great Gig in the Sky.’ You know it, right?”
“It’s a beautiful song.”
“That male voice, so calm: ‘I am not frightened of dying, any time will do. Why should I be frightened of dying?’ And then that woman, just wailing. I always wanted her voice.”
“I wanted to tell you.” Natalie stopped, sunk her head in her hands, forced herself to keep speaking. “We’re going to name her Dahlia. Her Hebrew name will be Devorah—for you.”
Natalie lifted her head, opened her eyes. Grass, trees, river, people.
“I like that so much,” Dina said.
It happened the way Natalie had hoped, if you could hope for such a thing: Dina going quietly, with Matt by her side, a few days before Natalie’s due date. Natalie hadn’t really wanted to be there at the moment of the death, and yet, when the call came, she felt that she’d missed something it was unforgivable to miss, though she couldn’t have done anything. She couldn’t have changed anything.
Then the funeral, the week of sitting shiva at her parents’ house. When her grandmother had died, Natalie ran away from the guests and their eating, their useless talk. Now she did as the others did, sat in a chair and listened politely.
She was so smart.
What lovely June weather.
She was so independent.
Did you know Arthur is going to France?
She was so strong.
Have some more potato salad.
People hugged her gently and said reasonable things. “I bet you’re ready for that baby to pop out already,” and “What a shame your aunt didn’t get to meet her.”
Natalie said, “Yes.” She said, “I know.” If this world without Dina seemed a fake, why not be nice, why not be agreeable? Why not let Frank get her a pillow to ease her neck, a footstool to rest her legs? Why not smile when Ethel said that having a child was the best thing you could do, the best thing she’d ever done?
At forty-one weeks, Natalie went in to the hospital for a stress test. If she passed it, her doctor was willing to let her keep going for another week. But the nurse came back with the test results; she’d failed. Her amniotic fluid was too low. Natalie hadn’t been able to imagine what the pain of labor would be like. Now she didn’t have to.
“Tell me when you can’t feel any pressure here,” the surgeon said, and a minute later, Natalie couldn’t feel anything. Ian sat in a chair by her head, the curtain shielding below her waist. He’d been excited to watch the baby being born through her legs. This he didn’t want to see. After a while the surgeon said, “Would you like to meet your daughter?”
Looking at Ian’s glowing face beneath the surgical cap, Natalie felt as if it were really to him that this inconceivable thing was happening. The doctors pronounced the baby in perfect shape and delivered her to her father. Natalie’s arms were shaking too much from the epidural to be of any use. Ian cradled Dahlia, holding her up so that Natalie could see. She looked rosy and peaceful, with dark brown tufts of hair and blue-grey slanted eyes. It wasn’t then—touching the tiny hands with trembling fingers, or fitting the pursed lips around her nipple, or seeing her mom weep, her dad kiss Dahlia’s forehead—it wasn’t until late that night, when Natalie lay in the hospital bed, a patient recovering from abdominal surgery, that she knew she’d been wrong.
Ian was asleep in the armchair by the window. Dahlia was asleep in the bassinet. There they were: her family. She’d been acting as if her whole family was dying, her whole family was gone. It was wrong to have built a scale with her own hands, set Dina on one side, the baby on the other, and then backed away, giving in to gravity. It wasn’t her choice to make, but she should have chosen, in that terrible game, to bring her baby before Dina, just for one moment, and let them breathe the same air. Not that it mattered now. There was no god granting her wishes, or punishing her, or trying to teach her a lesson. It was just one death on one June morning, one birth on another. For them, Natalie would sing all the songs she couldn’t sing.