Boeuf Bourguignon takes more than an hour to prepare and four hours to cook, an endeavor I wouldn’t even have considered had I not seen a chef make it on television yesterday – in fifteen minutes. It was New Year’s Eve, and it was just going to be me, Bruce and the cat. I thought why not try something festive.
Boeuf Bourguignon was one of Julia Child’s signature dishes, but rather than using her version, I opted for the adaptation I’d seen on Martha Stewart’s “Everyday Food,” a show that dumbs down recipes so even a caveman can make them. That was my first mistake. The second was failing to use dry red wine, like a Burgundy or Chianti, as the recipe called for, and instead substituting Beaujolais Nouveau – from 2009. I had found the bottle in my basement about two weeks ago and thought, “If I give this to someone, I can say goodbye to the friendship. Better to use it as cooking wine.” Unfortunately, the recipe called for an entire bottle. In retrospect, I should have known better. You can’t make good French toast with bad bread, or good apple cider out of bad apples. “Garbage in, garbage out,” as they say.
I tried to redeem myself by making hot fudge sundaes from coffee ice cream I found in the freezer and heath bar I discovered in the cabinet, but the ice cream had freezer burn, and the heath bar was old, making the toffee stale and the chocolate coating fall right off, like underwear whose waistband has lost its elasticity.
At about 11:30 p.m., I pulled out two pads and pens, and Bruce and I wrote down our resolutions. It was hard for both of us to get our hands around what the new year would behold, given how dramatically our lives were about to change with a new baby coming. But we worked around it. Bruce resolved to look for teaching opportunities on the side and to call his parents more often. I resolved to take on at least two writing assignments that truly inspired me. I also promised myself that every time I had a dire, fearful thought — which happens about once an hour — I would counter it with a positive one.
“Tell me a positive thought,” Bruce said as he read my list.
“Okay. It’s possible I won’t die during childbirth,” I said, and I began to cry.
“You’re not going to die,” Bruce said, with the empathy of a Protestant.
My fear is not as farfetched as it sounds. I had open heart surgery when I was 11 years old to repair a small hole in the wall between the upper chambers of my heart, and at the time, my father told me I didn’t have to have the surgery. But if I chose not to, I would never be able to have children because childbirth would put too much of a strain on my heart. Of course my father wasn’t really leaving the decision of whether to have surgery up to me. He just wanted me to think the choice was mine. I’m not even sure his explanation of what would happen if I didn’t have the surgery was medically accurate. But it doesn’t matter. I’ve now got it in my head that I could die on the delivery table because my heart won’t be able to withstand the strain. Nor does it matter that I actually had the surgery as a child, and that my heart, according to my cardiologist at the time, is now perfectly fine.
I’ve feared giving birth from the moment I was told I was pregnant –- not just the dying part but the pain. It’s as though I’ve been on line for a scary ride at an amusement park — one of those rides that lifts you high up in the air, shakes you up and down like a salt shaker, and then revolves like a plane propeller — and each month that goes by, I inch closer and closer to the front of the line.
I’ve tried to avoid hearing people’s birthing stories, but women can’t seem to help themselves.
“Thirty-six hours,” one woman said
“Please. I don’t want to —“ I said.
“Thirty-six hours of labor. Can you believe it? And–”
“Really. I don’t want to—“
“Without anesthesia. They told me the anesthesiologist went off duty for the night,” she said.
“Sounds awful. But—“
“And the pain? Particularly once they gave me Pitocin to speed up the contractions. I’ve never felt cramps like that!“ the woman said. “Do you know your hip bones actually have to move apart? You can almost hear a grinding sound.”
Even before I became pregnant, I used to have visions of myself bleeding on a metallic table in an emergency room, and I was surrounded by doctors who were using sharp instruments to try to save my life. I’d wound up there because of some unintentional accident, like being stabbed by a crazy person who hates white, Jewish women with curly hair, or perhaps I intervened in a situation that was bigger than I anticipated. I wouldn’t call it a prophesy, though I’m not sure what to call it. It’s just an image that’s come into my head a couple of times. One day I mentioned this vision to someone, and she noted that an emergency room operating table would be covered in cloth. If it was a metallic table in my vision, it was more likely a morgue. People can be so helpful.
Well, if I die in childbirth, I thought, Bruce will at least have the baby to remind him of me. Every time he looks down at the baby, he’ll see a piece of me. And then I remember that I used a donor egg, and the baby isn’t going to resemble me at all.
I’ve always had what I’d call a doom complex, my mind gravitating to the most dire place. The other day, I was standing in my office when I heard a high-pitched squeal, almost like a teakettle, coming from beneath my legs. I feared I’d sprung a tiny little leak in my placenta, and the pressure was pushing the air through, and soon the baby and some water would follow. And then I realized I was standing over a heating vent, and when the heat went off, the sound stopped (I’ve also since learned the baby isn’t actually inside the placenta). This morning, as I drove to my OB-GYN, I felt some dampness between my legs that I feared might be my water breaking – until I remembered I’d just gotten out of the shower shortly before I left, and it was likely water leaking out of parts I didn’t dry properly.
The problem with dire thoughts is that they are so irrational, you can’t address them with reason. It’s like trying to use logic to talk someone down from a ledge when they have their hands over their ears, or they don’t speak English. My husband once got on a streetcar in Warsaw and failed to validate his ticket, something you do by sticking your paper ticket into one of the plastic devices located in each train car. The device can be clamped shut onto the ticket, making little holes in it, an indication the ticket has been used. No amount of explaining on Bruce’s part would satisfy the ticket conductor, who spoke only Polish.
“I didn’t realize I was supposed to –“
“No perforation. No ticket,” the conductor said.
“But I just got on, and I hadn’t had a chance to—“
“No perforation. No ticket,” the conductor said.
“No perforation, no ticket.”
Of course Bruce was trying to beat the fare, but the point is even if he wasn’t, his explanations would have fallen on deaf ears.
Rather than using reason, I resolved this year to simply counter my dire thinking with more optimistic thoughts. So for each and every negative thought I have, I will counterbalance it with a positive one. That way at the end of each day, when I empty my mind of all the coins and lint that accumulated there and do an accounting of my daily thoughts, there are just as many hopeful ones in the ledger as there are cataclysmic. I figure if all I feed my mind all day is a diet of doom, it will only foster a feeling of doom. Garbage in, garbage out, as they say.
So if I’m afraid to drive into New York City because I fear I won’t get a parking spot, I’ll consider the possibility that maybe I will. And when I wonder whether the sharp pang under my arm is breast cancer, I’ll think it’s probably not. And what if my heart gives out during childbirth? Well, what if it doesn’t?