Spring 2004 The Flicker of a Heartbeat Powerful emotions make for powerful stories. Good writing captures the elation or grief of the moment and places readers beside you as you tell a story. This is one of the most difficult articles I have ever written, and I still feel waves of emotion wash over me when I read it. By Doug Nairne Your life can change in the flicker of a heartbeat. One moment you know where you’re headed. The next you don’t. I was in a foul mood on the day my life made an abrupt change in direction. I had just escaped a 14-hour torment on an over-packed flight from San Francisco to Hong Kong. It was one of those time-bending, trans-Pacific journeys where you leave Monday morning and don’t arrive until Tuesday night. I was exhausted from jet lag. My body was stiff. My stomach was sore. I threw my bags on the living room floor, peeled off my clothes and pulled on a housecoat. I was sprawled on the sofa, rubbing my temples to ease a wretched headache, when my wife came home. Treena walked into the room smiling the way she does when she is about to do something nice. There was a small box cradled in her hands. “I was going to wait until Valentine’s Day to give you this, but I couldn’t wait,” she said. The date was Feb. 10 – the gift was four days early. Feeling less miserable, I sat up and took the box. The attached card had the traditional Chinese character for “love” embroidered in pink thread on the front. I ran my fingers over the soft, silky material. My day wasn’t so bad after all. My headache drained away. The message read: “For my husband, because he takes such good care of me when I am sick and because he knows a lot about diagnosing what’s wrong, I thought he may find this useful. Love, your wife, Treena.” She had been sick for the week prior to my trip. I was a medic in the army. But I was still not sure what she was talking about. I opened the box. Inside, embraced by puffy, little pink, white, yellow and blue cotton balls, was a clear Ziploc bag. Inside the bag was a white, plastic square about the size of a playing card. In the middle was a small window. Inside the window was the symbol “+”. “What is it?” I asked. “Don’t you know?” she replied. Hmmm. I pondered the plastic in my hands, turning it over, looking for clues. Then my heart flickered – I was going to be a father. The plastic square was a pregnancy test. Treena had passed with flying colours. *** Like many of our friends in their mid-30s, we put off having children until our careers were on track. But with several couples we know sporting cute new babies and 40 getting too close for comfort, we had been feeling a growing sense of urgency about starting a family. Having been part of the pre-baby festivities, I cannot claim complete surprise at the news Treena was pregnant. But you can never be fully prepared for life-changing events. And this was a life-creating event. I always imagined learning I was going to be a father would be just like it is on television, with elated hugs, a lot of jumping around, phone calls to our parents and living happily ever after. Instead, I just sat there. Stunned. Silent. Diapers. Screaming fits. Sleepless nights. How are we going to pay the medical bills? Good thing I was already sitting down. I had to lie down. My temples were pounding away again. “Don’t worry, I’m still a bit overwhelmed myself,” Treena said. Later, Treena let me read a journal entry she kept about her pregnancy. How should I tell Doug? I remember the episode of “I Love Lucy” when Lucy finds out she’s pregnant. She tries to imagine telling Ricky, but she doesn’t know how. In the end, she goes to the Club Tropicana and makes an anonymous request for a song for “a woman who’s going to have a baby but doesn’t know how to tell her husband”. Ricky, touched by the idea, starts singing and circling the tables, trying to find the couple with the happy news. Then he sees Lucy sitting at a table all by herself, beaming. It takes him a minute, but when he clues in, suddenly he’s the happiest man on Earth, shouting to the audience, “We’re going to have a baby!” and hugging and kissing his wife. It took me a bit longer to start singing the praises of fatherhood. But slowly, just as the baby was growing inside Treena, I began to accept – even welcome – my fate. Something began to change. After the initial shock wore off, Treena was happier than I can recall her being for a long time. She was radiant. It was like looking at the sun. I had to avert my eyes to avoid being burned. Her joy was contagious and I began to forget about changing diapers and late-night feeding. We didn’t tell anyone about the pregnancy at first. You shouldn’t say anything until after the first trimester, or so the conventional wisdom goes. About one in every six pregnancies goes wrong, and nobody wants to deal with the socially awkward situation of people asking about your baby when you are grieving its loss. We decided to break the news on April 3, our wedding anniversary. It’s also supposed to be bad luck to name a baby too early, so I did my best not to think about what he – or she – would be called. But our public silence could not suppress our private moments of glee. We were a couple of kids with the world’s most amazing secret. We were bursting with bliss and it took all our self-control to keep it inside. Treena wrote about the experience: We are going to have a baby. It is really coming true. I feel like I am about to become the person I’ve waited to be my whole life. Work doesn’t matter. Going out with friends doesn’t matter. It was all a front until I could be a mother. Suddenly, we aren’t just a couple. We are a family. We have a future to think about and a new life. When we were alone we joked about how our lives are about to change. I put my head next to Treena’s stomach and said, “Hello, baby.” In a child’s voice, Treena replied, “Hello, daddy.” I decided to start reading to the baby. You can never start grooming them for greatness too soon. It was bound to be a fine-looking offspring, we decided, if for no other reason than the exotic mix of genetics involved. Treena’s mother is from the Philippines and her father is from Bangladesh. My mother’s heritage is Irish and my father’s family is from Wales and England. Our combined gene pool is an international smorgasbord like no other. *** Two weeks later, we went to see a gynecologist to have an ultrasound examination. This would be our first look at the baby. Treena was 10 weeks into the pregnancy, and they say that’s far enough along that you can see the baby’s heartbeat. Dr. Sally Ferguson’s office has a bulletin board on the wall, filled with dozens of pictures of smiling kids. Happy, healthy children that she helped bring into the world. She’s done this a thousand times before. We were in good hands. Treena lay on the examining table. Dr. Ferguson dimmed the lights and began the procedure. There were two monitors for the ultrasound machine – one facing Treena and one facing the doctor. Suddenly aware of how minor a man’s role is in a woman’s pregnancy, I had to stand off to one side and look over Dr. Ferguson’s shoulder. Looking down at the carpet I expected to see a well-worn patch where all the other fathers-to-be had stood before me. The room was illuminated by the soft, grainy glow of the monochrome screens. The cooling fans hummed. The doctor placed an ultrasound probe on Treena’s stomach and the screens came to life. “Hey, look at that. There it is.” The words leapt from my mouth. My chest swelled with emotion. Treena later wrote that she could hear something special at that moment. Doug’s voice was filled with awe and wonder and I knew he was moved to finally meet our little baby. All I could do was look at the screen. “Hello,” I said silently. We were bringing a new life into the world and all the magic that such a gift entails suddenly became clear. Our baby was 1.9 centimeters long and looked like a peanut curled up in the kidney-shaped womb. Peanut. The baby – at least for now – was called Peanut. The doctor repositioned the ultrasound probe and the grainy image on the screen faded away. She pressed the probe back into Treena’s abdomen and the picture became clear again. There was Peanut. I smiled to myself and looked at Treena. In the decade I’ve known her she has never looked so astonishingly beautiful. “Hello, Peanut,” I said to myself. Peanut didn’t reply. The doctor worked the probe over Treena’s stomach as we stared at the monitors, captivated by the tiny baby that was going to be part of our lives. Was that an arm? A leg? “I should be seeing something in here,” Dr Ferguson said, rolling the pointer of the mouse across the monitor to a spot over the baby’s chest. “There should be a flickering of a heartbeat but I can’t see anything.” Something cold snapped open inside me and began to ooze through my veins. Dread. I looked at Treena. Tears pooled in her eyes. No. Please, God... “No,” Dr. Ferguson said, repositioning the probe again, leaning closer to the screen to get a better view. Nothing. The image faded out into fuzzy black and white snow. She changed probes, using a more sensitive device. The screen cleared and the picture became focused again. There was Peanut, looking alone and helpless. There was no flicker. “No…” She leaned a bit closer and squinted at the screen. “No…” Dr. Ferguson sat back in her chair and took the probe away from Treena’s abdomen. The two screens froze with a final view of the lifeless womb. The doctor sat for a moment, looking at the floor, perhaps searching for the right words to say next. She’s said them before, but it never gets any easier. “I’m so sorry.” Treena later wrote in her journal about what happened next: Doug came over and wrapped his arms around me. I felt tears on my neck and then I was crying too. After working in daily newspapers as a reporter and editor for 15 years, Doug finally went legit and obtained a master’s in journalism degree at the JMSC in 2004. He left the industry shortly afterward and started a risk-management company. On Sept. 19, 2006, Treena gave birth to a healthy baby girl named Mei-li. We love her dearly.