Pregnant with another girl I stared hard down the barrel, my options nothing but a couple of hollow point rounds, any one of which was gonna blow a messy hole. I was told to expect this, that this would be the hardest decision. Not the name or curfew times or which college. This. The one that would gut me. The one with most consequence. The law hadn’t even been passed yet back in 2348 when her sister was born so I never had to decide with her. ‘Course that complicates things too this time around. One life lived in total oblivion, the other . . . .
I wiped off the ultrasound gel the technician missed and buttoned the bottom of my shirt. Looking around the cramped exam room I noticed the quote on the framed print mounted above the desk in the corner. In white script under a lone wood duck floating on a dark lake, Thousands have lived without love, not one without water. –W.H. Auden. I re-read it at least ten times as anger overtook sadness. Them politicians know the technology for predicting when our kids are going to die still isn’t perfect. But close enough, they say, to manage our water rations. That’s why they make us all ink our kids now when they’re born. Them politicians made a couple concessions while the bill was still up in the legislature, like people with shorter lives get to have pools and join golf clubs in the desert. Things like that. Live life to the fullest because you’re gonna die young, kinda thing. But it was all just lip service because it was an election year for most of them, trying to get it passed back since I was skipping fourth period in high school. At least I think so. Hard to say. Teens don’t pay attention to laws. Not until they break one, anyway. Different versions simmered for too long and when it came down to it, no one thought it would ever pass. Then it finally did at the end of last year when I was too busy clawing my way back from morning sickness to notice. I would’ve been more careful about getting pregnant in the first place if I’d known it was actually gonna pass this time.
I overheard someone at the salon say the original drafters of this shit law are all dead now. Funny how they don’t have to live under their own clusterfuck regime or answer to their grandchildren. When they came up with the idea most of them had children who were already in their 30s, or none at all. They forgot—or couldn’t possibly know—the torment and second-guessing that would result from what we’re now being forced to do. So different from all the other crap you have to decide when you raise kids. At least before we did a lot of it in the dark—like with her sister—not knowing how it will all end up. Not really, anyway. There was grace in the margin of error that ignorance offered because none of us could be blamed. My cousin says it’s all post-modern Malthusian scare tactics, some revisionist bullshit to keep us in line and it’s not really about the water shortage. ‘Course he’s gotta secret well out back and no kids of his own so he don’t care one way or the other. He says there still won’t be enough water to go around no matter when you’re gonna die. Doesn’t matter what he thinks though ‘cause everyone born now gets inked, like they’re bread crumbs or canned beans and you gotta use ‘em before it’s too late. The first round of kids just got inked a few months ago . . . it’s too early to tell how they’re doing yet. Or their parents. The clinic gave me the information booklet at my first appointment after I tested positive on the clinic’s pregnancy test. Guess it makes the doctors and midwives feel less guilty. They tell us early on that it’s the government that’s in control, not them.
Not that many words on the cover of the booklet. Just a few pictures. A smiling baby playing by a shallow pebbled stream. A single glass of water, backlit to show its clarity. A lush field of strawberries under an arc of water. Trying to convince parents it’s all for an important reason. That’s how they get you. You start thinking about your own baby growing inside you, how you’re gonna mix that formula or give ‘em a bath in the kitchen sink if there ain’t no water.
At the back of the booklet there’s some kind of glossary in tiny print: current medical technology, family history, genomic sequencing, high-risk activities, life altering events, sovereign immunity, standard deviation, phrases like that. I skimmed it. Too much legalese for me. But it’s clear they knew it wasn’t a perfect system to begin with. Disclaimers everywhere. Especially about the false positives and false negatives predicting when our kids will die. Even though the government says it’s rare, it don’t really matter anyway. They made sure about that; can’t sue if they make a mistake. But we all know the dates are gonna be pretty damn close. ‘Course that’s what terrifies us most.
The midwife knocked on the exam room door before walking in. My heart raced and I banged my ankle on a stirrup as I crossed my legs to sit up straighter. She winced and gritted her teeth with sympathy.
“OK, just a few more things to cover and then we’re all done here,” she said without looking at me.
A corner of light purple paper fluttered on her clipboard as she closed the door behind her. The other mothers told me it was printed on something between a lilac and lavender. A color you’d never forget, they said. A weak current of air blew down from the ceiling. Jagged strands of dusty cobwebs jittered around the openings of the plastic vent. My breaths were too shallow. I couldn’t get enough air. It wasn’t the baby pushing her feet against my ribs because she was bunched up down low today. I tugged at the waistband on my pants, trying to fill my lungs with the antiseptic-scented air but I couldn’t feel my diaphragm move. Vertigo swept over me and I braced my hands on the side of the padded exam table.
“You remember we talked about this at your last appointment, right? Hopefully you’ve had a chance to look over the information in the booklet.” Her tone was serious as she looked at me with stoic eyes, waiting for my answer.
“A little bit,” I said.
“The U.S. Department of Water Resources requires you to complete this form before the baby is born. We like to file it as early as possible, especially now that you’re at 36 weeks. Do you have any questions before you fill it out?” She shifted her weight from her front clogged foot to the rear, sinking slightly deeper into her sagging navy corduroys.
“No,” I whispered.
She handed me the clipboard and I glanced down at the form. There were only two questions.
Indicate whether you want the expiration date (MM/DD/YYYY) marked in a location easily visible to third parties? YES NO
Circling YES will result in date tattooed on inside of your child’s wrist or along the fourth proximal phalanx (“pinky finger”).
Circling NO will result in date tattooed along your child’s upper gum line.
Please select an ink:
___ VISIBLE (permanently visible black ink)
___ INVISIBLE (UV-sensitive ink visible only to physicians and approved U.S. government contractors licensed to operate the 3400XT-InvisaReader. Parents will not be informed of their child’s expiration date.)
___ TIME-SENSITIVE (ink will slowly transition from UV-sensitive invisible to visible black, fully darkening one year before the projected expiration date.
NOTE: In some rare cases, time-sensitive ink will fully darken within 30 minutes of your baby’s birth. This may indicate a fatal but potentially correctable health issue which should be discussed immediately with your child’s physician. Please initial here ______ indicating that you understand these terms.
The pen dangled from the clipboard on a dingy looking string. A deep violet constellation of tears dotted the page.
“I can’t do this.” I couldn’t swallow and I started to feel faint.
The midwife pulled a chair closer to me and sat down. Patience had eased into her shoulders. Lines etched around her eyes revealed she’d witnessed things that no one ever should. “Do you need some water?”
I shook my head, then laughed at the irony of her offer.
“This is so hard for you mothers now. As if bringing a new life into this world isn’t difficult enough . . .” She shook her head and reached behind her to lift a beige tissue box from a wheeled cart. As she handed me the box, she looked me straight in the eyes. “What’s going through your mind?”
I wiped my nose as I began talking. “How can I possibly decide this? Is it better for her to know when her life will end? Is it better for me? What if she’s on a job interview and they see that? What if someone won’t fall in love with her because they can see the when it’ll all end, even if it is decades ahead? What if she holds back or … or goes too far because she knows…or worse, because she doesn’t?” I spit the questions out in one breath to hold back more tears.
The midwife inhaled deeply and her gaze hardened again. “I wish I could help you make this decision. I’m sure you understand why we can’t counsel patients. I’m sorry.” She stood up and put the chair back against the wall. “If you’d like, I can give you a few minutes . . . .”
I wiped the corners of my eyes. “No. It’s alright. Not going to be any easier no matter how much time I have.”
The midwife turned around to the cabinet above the sink. She turned to open a new box of rubber gloves and replenished the supply of cotton gowns on the cart. My hand hovered above the clipboard, the pen shaking in my grip as a wave of nausea coursed through my body. The ink didn’t flow at first. I tapped the tip of the pen hard against the clipboard and then scratched a circle around my first answer. I tried a second time until the blue ink circled ‘NO’.
I stared at the second question. New tears blurred my vision and fell onto the page. With a deep breath I quickly marked my X then signed my name at the bottom and stood up.
“All set?” The midwife turned toward me and reached for the clipboard.
Without answering, I bit my upper lip and put on my coat. As the midwife silently walked me down the corridor toward the reception area, I stared at the linoleum floor wondering whether it was a gift or a curse that I had just given my daughter. Whether I had just made the worst decision of my life, and hers.