book excerpt

The Life I Grew

Doctors said my disability would make it impossible to get pregnant. I was 5 months along when I realized the truth.

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos: Getty
Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos: Getty

Four months after I met Andrew, I threw up in his car. This didn’t concern me. Chronic pain often left me so exhausted that I got sick. I’d never had a regular period, so skipping several months was more normal than not. I threw up every day for the next three months, but also I was gaining weight. I blamed this on Andrew who kept bringing over Neapolitan ice cream bars, my favorite, and leaving them in my freezer. I kept feeling ill. I was tired all the time. This was normal.

People sometimes ask me, How could you not have known? But how could I have known? I’d been told my whole life I could not get pregnant. The brain takes the facts it is given and from them forms reality. I believed it to be true and so it was definitively true. Until it wasn’t. At seventeen, when I had my first boyfriend, my mother took me to have some tests run so that we could be certain. The doctor explained that my disability rendered my body inhospitable. My mother had objected to his choice of the word “inhospitable” and the doctor had said, OK, so how about “incompatible for growing a life”?

I peed on a stick and Andrew set a timer. We danced in the kitchen, laughing, letting the timer run down. We sang in silly voices, Our lives are over, our lives are over, one more minute of freedom, thirty more seconds of happiness, ten, nine, eight, we sang the seconds, never thinking for any one of them that the test would come back positive. Time ran out.

I went into the kitchen. I ripped an ice cream sandwich from its wrapper. Andrew did not follow me or try to talk to me. He stayed behind, in the other room, holding the pregnancy test. I began to eat the ice cream. I could only think, But I’m incompatible for growing a life. I kept eating. We had no money. Andrew had dropped out of college and was driving a city bus. I was a grad student. Our combined bank accounts totaled $257. My cat strolled into the kitchen. I looked at her and thought that if our fates were reversed, she’d just disappear under the porch and push her babies out without making such a fuss. I’d like to say I then had bigger thoughts about how people in the world wanted babies and couldn’t have them, people had babies and lost them, but mostly I focused on my cat and her self-sufficiency. I said to that cat, mouth half-full of ice cream, “I’m smarter than you—if you can do this, so can I.” She yawned and licked her lips, unconvinced. I started to panic.

I’d been born in Bangkok and my parents had hoped to stay abroad and raise me in Nepal or Thailand or Japan or Australia. Many of the friends they’d made while traveling planned to do the same. Children were no reason to break up the party. But I’d been born with a disability and this unexpected reality forced my parents to make new choices. The grand travel adventure my father had started with my mother had ended with him in a suit, in a cubicle, in Kansas, the father to a daughter who needed more care than he knew how to give.

The day after I was born, a physical therapist came to the hospital in Bangkok and showed my parents how to gently stretch and massage my folded body. This therapist’s rough touch made me cry and my father hated her. My mother did as the therapist instructed, stretching me, trying to unfurl me, and it made me cry again and my father felt angry at my mother and yet needed her so much. The therapist explained that my pain now meant less later, but that wasn’t something my father could accept at that moment. He just needed me to stop crying. I did not stop. I was this unknowable creature screaming in pain.

Underneath fear and his instinct to escape, my father experienced, he told me, a rush of love for my mother that made him feel ill, lost to the depths of a new knowledge: that love and fear got all tangled up, and I thought of my father when I heard Wolfgang scream into existence, into my arms, his body wet and heavy, as I lay on the surgeon’s table, my center cut open, and I listened for the first time to the sound of my son, this destroyer, and my world was undone by his voice.

My father tried to stay with us, to remain a part of a family, but he was restless. He tried to blunt this restlessness with books. He escaped into books. He read a book a day. The real world with its hard facts blurred, slipped away, but never entirely, never enough. Drinking helped. Other women helped, too. Weeks after I was born, he left my mother for a young lady in Japan with whom he chose to start a new life, a lighter adventure.

We had a small house in Kathmandu and my mother stayed there with me alone. She laid my infant body on the concrete ledge of a fountain near our house and massaged me with oils all day in the sun. For hours and hours, she kneaded my shriveled limbs, letting the sun thaw my awful muscles.

In Japan, my father sat in a restaurant and watched a man put a live eel into a bowl of boiling water. In the center of the bowl was a block of tofu. To escape the heat of the water, the eel burrowed into the block. The man lifted the tofu with the living eel inside, sliced it up, and served it to my father.

Eventually, I needed surgeries on my legs and clubbed feet. My mother took me back by herself to the United States where there was an orthopedic surgeon in Kansas City, Dr. Asher, who specialized in spinal abnormalities. The painter Frida Kahlo made a portrait for her physician, Dr. Eloesser, to thank him. Van Gogh made Portrait of Dr. Gachet as a gesture of gratitude. My mother took a thin strip of metal and shaped it to look like my foot. With it, she made foot-shaped sugar cookies. She painted each toenail with a thin frosting. She brought the cookies, her little portraits of me, to my nurses and doctors.

After my many surgeries, we stayed in Kansas, close to my mom’s family, and close to the orthopedic surgeon who understood my disability.

My mom got a job teaching third grade in Tonganoxie, a small, rural farm town an hour from Kansas City. Eventually my father returned from Asia, wanting a life with us. He’d come and go for the next decade, then he’d leave us for good. I’ve asked my mother many times why she took him back and she always says the same thing: I thought you needed a father.

My mother never made much money teaching, but her eye and effort doubled our wealth. She embroidered flowers on my clothes, painted a sunset on my dresser, carved animals into bookshelves and the headboard of my bedframe. She was an impatient and creative cook who glanced at recipes, then riffed, making them her own. She couldn’t make the same dinner twice. She wrapped every present she gave with care. Her steady hand ran scissor blade on ribbon, curling it. She layered our lives in the Kansas farmhouse with light and color. She gave me my first working theory of art — that it was personal, that it could spring from junk, that it could be present in the dull, quotidian corners of a life. She was and is a gifted painter. Her exclusive subject was horses. This stayed true until Wolfgang was born. Then she’d paint Wolfgang sometimes, but still mostly horses. She framed her best paintings but never hung them in a place of prominence in our home. One was on a bathroom wall and another sat on a windowsill in our basement. Her work was visible but barely.

My father set up a room in our house that was his and when the door was closed, no one was to disturb him. He wrote songs on his guitar, typed stories on our one computer, and read. His room was lined floor to ceiling with books. In the mornings, he took his tea and drank it in that room alone. In the afternoons, when he came home from work, he immediately retreated into that room. The walls were white and his bookshelves were gray.

He also gave me an early theory of art — that it came from the act of wresting one’s singular genius out from the self and into a form made apparent to others. But he was never happy with what came out of himself, it never matched the ideal form of the thing in his mind. He wrote and rewrote the same songs over and over. He told me his plans for the many books he’d write. He started some of them, finished none. He liked the beginning of things best. The beginning was a fever. He liked possibilities. And so do I.

I sat in our kitchen, holding the positive pregnancy test in my hands, and I counted back the days, weeks, months from when I’d thrown up in Andrew’s car and I knew right away that it was too late, that I would not legally be able to have an abortion, that I had no choice, that my choices had been taken from me, and Andrew came and stood near me, silent and pale, and I cried until I was dizzy and I then opened my eyes and tried to look into the room, but I couldn’t see beyond my hands, beyond them there was nothing, only the empty space where my future had once been and I felt only the sensation of time moving, seconds ticking on into the void.

And then, in the most surreal experience of my life, the kitchen disappeared.

Andrew disappeared.

The singing of birds outside stopped. Street noise ceased. Time slowed, and I heard a voice I recognized but could not place. It said, Well. What are you going to do now?

A feeling of calm. It was time. No choice left but to leave childhood behind.

I looked up and Andrew was standing above me.

“I think we can do this,” I said, and the color came back into his face as if he believed this were possible, that we, near strangers, with no money, could take this on, and he nodded, and we held each other for a long time. I was five months pregnant.

My mother has always been a beautiful woman and her beauty brought her other people ’s attention, projected desires, and jealousies. Her Asian features prompted a fetishizing gaze. She was sometimes treated like a delicate object, docile and meek. It didn’t help that she was quiet by nature. She didn’t like talk for the sake of talking and she saw through people who hid their inaction behind it. I learned to arm myself against the eyes of others by watching how she armed herself. She downplayed her beauty. She never wore makeup, cut her thick hair short, and wore oversized farmers clothing that stank of horses.

She was focused and efficient in all she did, working with force and urgency, pushing past people she didn’t need like so much debris. If she was going to be mistaken for an object, better to be a bulldozer — solid, impermeable, powerful on the move. She saw her authentic self residing in the concrete realm of tasks; the walls of her neutral room, papered with lists of chores.

She did not show off or brag except once. Just this one time.

Andrew and Wolfgang and I were in from New York, visiting Kansas over a holiday. We walked with my mother out to the pasture and watched her horse Echo rip and gnash up patches of clover. She focused her eyes on Echo’s neck and he raised his head, alert. Then she turned her gaze into his unguarded flank, and he moved until he was facing a different direction. He looked at her. She could control him completely with her stare. We were impressed.

“Wait,” she said. “Watch this.”

Again, she looked at Echo’s neck and he turned his head. She waved two fingers in the air and said, “Side, side,” and Echo crossed his hoofs and glided sidewise away from her. “Come on back,” she said, and he moved sidewise back to her. “Take a bow,” she said, and he politely extended one front leg and dipped his head low. She was a horse hypnotist! She was pure magic. We clapped and oohed and hooted and a glimmer of a feeling flickered across my mother’s face and she almost smiled but caught herself. She went red, and she turned her back on us, but it was too late, we’d already seen her.

From EASY BEAUTY: A Memoir by Chloé Cooper Jones. Copyright © 2022 by Chloé Cooper Jones. Reprinted by permission of Avid Reader Press, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

The Life I Grew