I found out I was pregnant during rock-climbing season. The weekend before the test showed positive, I was clinging to the stone faces that flank central Oregon’s Crooked River. That weekend, like most weekends in the late spring and early fall, my husband, Stefan, and I climbed in the high desert landscape, where outcrops of terracotta-colored tuff weather in the shadow of the Cascade Range. This is where we met and courted, where we—literally—held each others’ lives in our hands at the end of a rope.
Stefan and I had just started trying to get pregnant, so in a way the news didn’t come as a surprise, but the timing did. We knew from friends and books that it could take months or, in some cases, years to conceive and were unprepared when, after only a few weeks of trying, the pregnancy test signaled we were going to be parents much sooner than we’d anticipated. Had I known that that pregnancy test would mark the end of my climbing for almost two years, I might have paid closer attention to the last routes we scaled that weekend. I might have better appreciated the way a slim lip of stone can support your weight, the way your body is made longer by turning into the wall and reaching up on the diagonal. I might have taken more time to notice the rough scrape of the rock’s surface against my hands and paused longer at the top of each climb to admire the view of undulating spires. If I had I known that weekend that something timeless was taking shape in me, I might have taken greater care in observing the minute characteristics of the climbs—the pockets, rails, and shallow dishes, the edges I gripped and pushed off of, and the ones I skipped. But I thought I would have plenty of time to relish each route because I had planned on climbing to the end of the season.
Some women climb through their third trimester; they make special harnesses for pregnant climbers, ones that loop over the shoulders and under the belly instead of cinching around the waist. Because climbing demands keeping your hips close into the rock face and engaging the core muscles of the belly and the back, I imagine a swelling middle and spreading pelvis requires a pregnant climber to learn to work her hands and feet in new ways to compensate for an altered center of gravity. A pregnant climber needs to avoid falls that exert sudden force on the abdomen and take special care when belaying. But no special harness could have swayed me from what I felt was a primal, protective instinct: When the body is weighted with new life, it shouldn’t be drawn up off the ground. Deciphering what you can and can’t do on the rock is always an individual decision; it’s a negotiation of strength, tenacity, and risk. This triangulation of concerns is no different for a pregnant climber, who must also factor in possible harm to the baby. But as soon as I found out I was pregnant, I needed no time to calculate potential hazards or shop for a special harness. My choice was simple: I decided to alight, not ascend.
The weekend before my attention turned inflexibly to my belly, I rehearsed the moves on Vomit Launch, a beautiful climb with an unfortunate name that combines balance and finesse on the lower section, and tops out with a long series of strength moves to the final anchors. Each season, in addition to climbing a variety of routes on top rope, I selected a few challenging ones to lead. The difference between top roping and leading is the difference between hazarding a short, harmless sink into the rope and taking a long, mid-air drop that can result in hitting the ground. On top rope, the climber is part of a closed system in which the rope is threaded through anchors at the top of the route and the belayer takes up the slack to keep the climber on a tight line. But it takes a lead climber to get the rope to the anchors in the first place. When leading, a climber ascends the route with the rope trailing behind her, clipping into bolts for protection along the way. If she comes off the route while on lead, she’ll fall the distance to the nearest clipped bolt below and then past it that same distance. When a leader falls, she is dependent on her belayer’s immediate reaction to block the rope in his belay device and halt her mid-air descent. It happens at the speed of instinct.
The most challenging section of Vomit Launch—its crux—was a graceful balancing act of footholds. If I peeled off the rock at the crux, I would drop until the slack in the rope pulled tight between Stefan and me, and set our harnesses biting across our middles and around our thighs. In that breathless moment tumbling through the air, I would have a split second to calculate the distance between my fear of hitting the ground and my faith that Stefan would brake the rope and catch me. Then coming to an abrupt stop, panting and blinking, I would look up to measure how far I’d traveled, pausing only for a moment to consider the spectacle of dangling mid-air at the end of a rope. And then I would try the moves all over again. Because I had an acute fear of long falls, I first practiced moves on top rope to get them “dialed in” before trying the climb on lead.
In the back of every climber’s mind is the fear of a ground fall. I had seen many climbers come loose from routes and drop into the spring of the rope, but I had never seen anyone hit the deck. However, one day when Stefan and I were climbing in central Oregon, a Life Flight helicopter circled and landed to rescue a climber who had fallen thirty feet to the ground and lay in a broken pile. Remarkably, he regained consciousness and talked calmly to a small group of friends as they waited for the medics to come and carry him out. But all along he was bleeding into his belly and lungs, his organs shaken and split.
“I don’t understand it,” someone told us later in the parking lot. “He was awake. He seemed fine.”
But really he’d been slowly dying before everyone’s eyes.
“We got him to the helicopter and it seemed like everything was going to be fine.” He stared at the ground as he spoke, as if he were looking for something he’d lost.
Although I’d decided to temporarily give up climbing and stay grounded during my pregnancy, I kept active—biking and hiking—for the first twenty weeks. But sometime at the beginning of my second trimester, in a manner both painless and surreptitious, something started to go wrong. I would have stopped biking if I’d known there was a problem. I would have stopped hiking if I’d known the baby was in danger. And I certainly wouldn’t have flown alone across the country to visit my family for Thanksgiving if I’d known I was risking a miscarriage.
“They found something wrong,” Stefan said over the phone from three thousand miles away, the morning after I arrived at my parents’ Manhattan apartment. I took the call in the kitchen and leaned into the receiver, trying to bring his voice closer. I had had an ultrasound just a few hours before boarding my flight and went straight from the doctor’s office to the airport before receiving the test results. Because the ultrasound was part of a routine check-up and there had been no prior signs of problems, Stefan and I didn’t consider that the test might suggest a reason to cancel my trip. But while out for a walk the morning after I arrived, a volley of phone calls started—from the radiologist to the obstetrician, the obstetrician to my husband, and then finally, from my husband to me.
“But I feel fine,” I said.
“I know,” he said. “You can either stay there until the baby comes or come home.”
“I mean, I really feel fine.”
“I know,” he said. “But it could be dangerous for you to fly back. We have to decide.”
In those brittle moments of our phone call, I anchored my focus on Stefan’s voice. One of the most important elements in climbing is the communication between climber and belayer. When I told my parents I’d taken up climbing, my mother’s greatest worry was that the rope might snap. But rarely is equipment the cause of climbing accidents; most often it’s human error, and at the root of most of those errors is miscommunication between the climber and the belayer. In climbing it is important, although not always possible, for the belayer to see and hear the climber; visual cues and verbal commands help guide a safe ascent. When a climber reaches down to pull rope to clip a bolt or calls “Slack,” the belayer responds by letting out line. When a climber’s legs start to tremor, or when she says, “Watch me,” the belayer responds by bracing his body and narrowing his attention. But these are only the basics. Any two climbers who have logged long days together learn to read the subtle signs of stress and confidence without exchanging a word or glance. When I belay Stefan, I am sensitive to an almost imperceptible quiver in the rope. If I look up, I might see that his body is still, and yet there is a quaking in the line, as if his core muscles are vibrating. It is almost always a prelude to a fall. And when he sees me quietly, almost unconsciously, whispering to myself, he knows that I am starting to panic. “You’ve got this,” he’ll call up after me. “You’ve got this.” After so many years and so many routes, we know by the way we hesitate, shake out our arms, or charge up without resting, what is needed. This intimacy of signs and signals was on my mind as I tried to imagine being away from Stefan for the remaining twenty weeks of the pregnancy.
“I can’t do this here,” I said. The line went still as we listened to each other breathing. “I want to come home.”
We hung up so he could arrange a flight back for me on the following day. After I set down the phone, I curled up on the living room couch, holding my belly. I had only just begun to really show. My mother brought me a cup of tea and sat beside me. She stroked my hair and reassured me that everything was going to be all right, but her words rose in a swirl like the steam coming off my cup and faded into nothing. I didn’t tell her that I had decided to go home, because as far as she was concerned, I was home. Instead I told her that I thought it would be better for me to see my own doctor right away and not waste time trying to find a specialist in the city. Her first reaction was adamant: “You should be here, home with your family.” But when I repeated my decision to fly back to Oregon, this time with a quaking voice, she softened her tone: “I just want you to know that we can take care of you.” She kept stroking my hair but stopped lobbying her point. We sat quietly for a while, and then she helped me pack.
In the years after college, when I moved and settled in cities and moved again, home had always been my parents’ apartment. Even when my brothers and I flexed through relationships and marriages, my parents’ apartment was where holidays and birthdays were celebrated; it was where we played competitive Scrabble, watched weekend championship tennis, and sat around the kitchen table arguing. During the handful of years when my brothers and I had our own apartments in New York City and lived less than a mile apart, we rarely visited each other, instead running into one another a few times a week at my parents’ place. The two years that I lived six blocks from my parents, my mother visited me exactly once to bring me bread, salt, and matches—traditional symbols of bounty, light, and flavor. She arrived at my door two months after I had unpacked my last boxes because she hadn’t been able find the coarse, pink sea salt she liked. When I called to tell her to just get any salt and come over, she told me she’d think about it and that I should remind her the next time I came home. Home can be defined as place of residence, but its real meaning is far more personal and subjective. So in telling my mother why I was risking the flight back across the country, it didn’t seem the time to explain that her apartment, the place where I’d grown up and always returned to, no longer felt like home. Home was now three thousand miles away where I was building the promise of my own family and living a life very different from the one I’d grown up with.
My decision to move to Oregon had mystified my parents, who didn’t understand a seemingly sudden desire to reside in a small town with vistas of wide horizons. But they had either missed or chosen to ignore the fact that, over the course of many years, I’d moved to increasingly smaller locales with stronger connections to the outdoors. It was in one such place that I met Stefan, climbing for a weekend in Oregon’s sage-strewn high desert. I was a beginner climber when we met and spent most of my time belaying him on lead and climbing on top rope. I learned quickly that a good climbing partnership takes a dual sense of faith—faith that the climber will reach the anchors and faith that the belayer will catch any fall. It was a lesson we would learn over and over as we expanded the boundaries of our relationship and eventually married.
While I had no doubt that my parents and brothers would have done everything in their power to find the best doctors and make me comfortable through the second half of my pregnancy had I decided to stay in New York City, I worried that by being away from Stefan my state of mind might kink and unravel without warning. In the years when the apartment in New York City was the center of my universe, my parents and brothers had known me better than anyone in the world. But when I moved to Oregon, when my life began to rotate around new landscapes and new interests, I changed faster than my family was aware. My mother knew that I now liked to rock climb, but she could only imagine in the abstract a vision of me scaling stone towers. My husband, on the other hand, knew, based on how often I dipped my hand in my chalk bag, if I was nervous about making the next sequence of moves on a route. It was similar to how he knew by the way I would clasp and unclasp my hands that I had made a decision—about a project for work, a vacation itinerary, a new haircut—but still needed time to commit to it. He was privy to my quiet ways and quirks, which was why, with our first child on the way, I didn’t want to lose precious time explaining myself. When Stefan and I climbed together, he could sense when I was about to let my body tension slacken. “You’ve got this,” he’d shout, answering my unvoiced questions about whether I should give up and come down.
When I arrived back home in Oregon the following day, Stefan met me at the airport, and we drove straight to the hospital. The doctor explained in detail what Stefan had only been able to outline over the phone. My cervix was too weak to sustain the pregnancy; miscarriage was inevitable without surgery to stitch the cervix closed. The doctor described how my body could not contain the downward pressure of the baby and drew diagrams to illustrate the suturing technique he planned to use. I tried to focus on the details, but little penetrated the dull hum in my head. No matter what the doctor said, all I could hear was that I had failed, that my body had failed, and that because of these failures I’d almost lost the baby. I turned to Stefan for comfort and was alarmed by how frightened he looked.
Because we had discovered the problem so late, the surgery held a higher risk of pre-term delivery. And if the baby came early, it could be born with any of a number of lifelong physical or cognitive disabilities. There was a lot to consider.
“If you don’t wish to take the chance with the surgery, you could opt to abort the pregnancy,” the doctor said.
I must have looked dumbstruck because he quickly clarified his meaning.
“That is, because we are now aware of the problem, with another pregnancy we can deal with it earlier and better.”
I tried to remain absolutely still to prevent any small movement of my face or hands from being interpreted as a response. I held on to the sides of the chair.
The doctor left Stefan and me alone to discuss our options. Stefan found my hand and took it in his. I couldn’t look at him because I knew I would see in his face what he thought we should do, and I worried we weren’t thinking the same thing. Finally I turned to him with tears and said, “It’s our baby, and we’ll try.”
“Yes, and we’ll try.”
In that rudimentary call and response, we decided to schedule the surgery immediately. I settled into the calm of the decision, not because I was sure everything was going to be all right, but because I knew that whatever came, I wouldn’t have to face it alone.
A Nigerian proverb says: “The world is a pregnant woman.” It means that the world, like a pregnancy, is full of unexpected events whose outcomes are unknown. Some babies are male, and others are female. Some are healthy, and others are sickly. Some labors are easy, others are difficult; sometimes the mother dies, sometimes the child. All the books tell you that things can go wrong in a pregnancy, but the language of caution always seems remote when you are in the bloom of expectancy. You convince yourself that those other women, the ones who have complications, are not like you. Your pregnancy is going to be textbook perfect. You’re going to have the innate strength to do what women have been doing for ages. But that kind of self-confidence has its roots in fear, not arrogance, because it is too terrifying to think that we might tumble from the grace of nature.
After asking a few logistical questions, Stefan and I signed the consent forms, and I was in surgery by the afternoon. In the operating room I was laid out on my back with my feet in stirrups. The table was set on an angle with my head down and all the pressure of the pregnancy pushing toward my diaphragm. It felt like I was suddenly carrying the baby in my throat. Stefan sat beside me dressed in a sterile gown and mask, and held my hand in his.
“Tell me a story,” I said.
He looked flatly at me.
I knew that look. It was the same look he gave me when I would ask him if we could drive back to the house because I wasn’t sure if I’d shut off the oven. It was the look he gave me when he wanted to say no. I started to get a small headache from the incline of the operating table. I couldn’t see much of what was going on around me, but could make out what sounded like a scene of activity as the nurses and the doctor prepared for the surgery. Despite the bustle, Stefan kept his eyes fixed on me.
“Then tell me all the moves I have to make to lead Vomit Launch,” I said. “Tell me over and over until the surgery is done.”
I saw the small creases of his forehead lift, the way they do when he’s smiling.
“Lean into the bowl, off the deck,” he said slowly. “Take the side pull and scramble your feet up.”
“Okay,” I said, closing my eyes.
“Can you see it? The light stripe running along the good foothold?”
“I see it.”
“Now reach out high and right. Don’t forget to swap your feet.”
I remembered this early set of moves. The bowl was slightly overhung and I always wanted to move quickly to get on to the vertical face of the climb.
“Just a bit higher and you get a good rest.”
Before moving to Oregon, I never imagined I could be happy anywhere other than in the anonymity and chaotic press of a big city. But the volcanic grit and high desert sage captured my imagination the first time I ventured to the east side of the Cascade Range. With my eyes closed, the holds on Vomit Launch materialized one by one, and I rebuilt the landscape a body length at a time as I ascended the climb in my mind. I didn’t look down. My breathing slowed. My grip on Stefan’s hand softened.
I managed to stay focused until the sound of clinking metal broke my concentration. When I looked over my curtained knees, I saw the doctor reaching for an instrument; it pulled me loose from the image of the climb, and I landed rudely in the here and now, laid out on the operating table. Deep in the center of me needles were turning; a series of carefully placed knots and stitches were keeping the baby from falling from my grasp. I felt dizzy and sick. I was losing my grip. I wanted down off the table; I wanted to leave. The spinal block they’d given me made it impossible for me to move my lower torso and legs, but I started to shake my head from side to side, pinching my lips and crying.
“It’s going to be fine,” Stefan said, squeezing my shoulder to get my attention. “Don’t look around. Just watch me.”
When I turned to face him, I saw in his eyes a willed calm.
“Let’s keep going,” he said. “You’re almost past the bowl and then you come to the good holds and a rest before you get into the real business.”
He talked me through Vomit Launch’s sequence of moves a dozen times, adding more detail about the rock and the scenery with each ascent—the coarse sand of the high desert stone rubbed into our hands and knees, the intoxicating fragrance of juniper and sage radiating from the surrounding hills, the views looking down on the lazy wind of the river.
“It’s so beautiful up here,” he said.
When the surgery was done, the doctor came around to the side of the table to explain how everything had gone. He gestured casually to illustrate how he had pulled and stitched. His gloves were covered in blood, beaded in patches on the latex. My first thought was that the blood was my blood, and then it flashed through my mind that it might be the baby’s. I felt weak at the sight of his hands, red and working in the air. What if, after all of this, we still lost the baby? What if I carried him a few weeks longer and he was stillborn? Or what if he came so early that he was sick all his life? Or too sick to survive? A shaking fright came on. My throat pursed. Stefan, still with his hand on my shoulder, stood up to focus on what the doctor was saying. I took in the conversation in pieces: The surgery had gone well; the prognosis was good. But I couldn’t distill the details and struggled to steady my thoughts. I felt myself falling, unable to find anything to hang on to in the sterile, whitewashed operating room. So I shut my eyes again and pictured the sun-burnt stone in my hands, and imagined the caress of hot desert wind on my skin. I envisioned the climb, starting the sequence of Vomit Launch’s moves from the ground. I remembered that a good climber stands up more than pulls up, setting strong feet and pushing with the legs; a good climber keeps hips close into the wall, running fingers and palms along the rock surface in search of pockets, cracks, and edges. I was a good climber. I told myself to stay focused and took a deep balancing breath. Stay focused and don’t look down.
I gently rested my hand on Stefan’s hand but did not interrupt him as he continued to talk to the doctor. I needed him to find out everything he could now, while it was fresh in the doctor’s mind, because we would need those details later to reassure us that the surgery had gone as well as it possibly could have. I knew that the information he was gathering, the questions he was asking, would be important on the nights when I woke in a cold sweat, worried that every small cramp was a sign that the baby was in distress. I tried to remain absolutely still and prevent any small movement from being interpreted as panic. “You’ve got this,” I told myself over and over, working hard to believe it, “You’ve got this.”