They called it gunk and I felt like I should act as if I’d won the booby prize in a seventies kids TV show. So I did. I pretended to be lightly entertained. Appeared grateful for the levity introduced to the situation, even though I wasn’t. I wanted direct injections of serious honesty into my brain. Needed it to start processing and begin protecting me from conjecture and false hope with facts and truth. Instead I had to play the part of the person who still believes that science can overcome, that human wanting is enough. I allowed my thoughts to melt into gunk as I felt the gel spread over the baby bump that now seemed to hover over me as a question. I can’t remember if the gel was my favourite Yves Klein blue in an abstract mood taunt, or if it was dark with the sparkles of being face down staring into a concrete abyss after passing out at overwhelming news. It felt cold. It felt warm. It felt familiar. I could cope with the gunk. I could slither with it to a point of knowing.
Except I didn’t. I tried but the thoughts wouldn’t allow themselves to be diluted or evaporated by the frivolity of nicknames or make believe. With the first slap of gunk existing thoughts were confirmed. It filled the mould of words that spelled out there was a problem but they couldn’t say what it was for sure yet. It ran down my sides and froze. Just a bit. Not so much that I couldn’t move or speak or appear to be coping. The cardiologist was used to problems and gave little away. I was used to other people’s problems and also skilled in my friendly poker face.
Whilst they discussed the scan results in a huddle of white coats that whooshed with excitement, we waited in the bunker of the special news room and I felt the traces of gunk slide about and mingle with my sweat of dread, making new shapes on my stomach. A slow reforming of thoughts as traced by a snail trying to find its home in me, wanting to be safe inside before the gunk could hit the right spot and explode the truth all around us, smashing us from inside out to be nothing but broken shells and empty homes. My maternal woundings could not be salted or drowned into nothingness.
The gunk hit again, it felt commonplace now, like I did this every Saturday morning for the amusement of children sat in pyjamas and slippers, whilst their parents lay in bed confident that their happy family was safely ensconced in front of the television. With each slide of gel that took me further to the void of knowing I was slicker, more natural in my role. With each scan and each conversation that stuck to my stomach in layers of petrified life preserved in gel, I counted the audience. It grew and grew in a way that my stomach would now not do.
I stared with apology into the eyes of the young doctor who searched my face for how I was feeling. She wondered if I knew, if something deep within me had risen with instinct activated by the gunk and the speed of our appointments at this the second hospital of scans. She looked kind, she looked like she cared about how I felt but she looked like she knew. She moved onto a different stool to allow a newly arrived colleague to see the screen. It was a conveyor belt of knowing and I just had to lie and be scanned for the faulty barcode within me and wait in the queue. They had to be sure. I understood that. Yet I had to be certain expelling all hope was worth the effort I was exerting behind my eyes. I started to look for signs in the gel. Maybe the gunk was dynamic. Maybe it would change colour and flash and flare and have sparkles of red or some other cliché when it made contact with my danger zone. Maybe.
They could hardly contain the tremors of something new thrust into their plateau of knowledge. I felt moulded in ancient and solidifying layers of wisdom from somewhere deep within that I would never unknow, expressions that I would never unsee. I listened to the jargon and the medical terminology and felt guilt at being objectively interested in all the science talk. I too would have wanted to see what this particular anomaly presented like. I too would have felt sorry for me. I too would have tried to cover my professional wonder with averted gazes and talk of gunk.
I wasn’t them. No matter how objectively intrigued I was by the wonders of the human inside. I was the patient. The mother that wasn’t to fully be. I would have like to known first though. To have exercised my mother’s prerogative to be the first to feel that I was pregnant, and the first to know that I wouldn’t at any point be taking home a baby from this slapstick bump of that which cannot be fixed.
To be a doctor is to act in more ways than one. The eyes of any doctor will tell what the discovery of new ways of seeing means to them. How life can mutate, how it can overwhelm and how it can terminate. How they can feel a multitude of emotions and still get the job done.
Dr Gunk, the medical John Doe we meet again. May I lie on your glittery road of liquid bitumen and cry my tears. Or were you really blue and should I swim through the viscosity to reach clear waters that will be broken for me?
I wanted them to know that I was up to their job. I wouldn’t cry or allow the hysteria to weep from my womb. I would not rant or accuse them of allowing my baby to disappear from my reach of bonding. I would not falter over my words as I embraced new vocabulary. I would understand that we choose from the options and don’t get to pick the choices themselves. I would be controlled as chaos silently filled the recently embedded grooves in my being, waiting for the appropriate moments to spin and howl and lacerate with wild newly knowns. I would be polite and I would have my dignity commented upon. I would fail to understand how I could not dignify my dying baby. I would falter, I would fail, I would die inside, I would refuse to choose, but then I would remember the gunk and find my way back to root around my chest for reasons and sustenance to live.
I would find myself not in the same waiting room but in a bigger, emptier chamber filled with the many staff bearing witness to my attempt to stake my claim to the new version of my motherhood. The remnants of gunk soothed my bump that now pulsated with my fear and sorrow as much as her feet. I collected my mind from my womb and made sense of the choices. There was no television. No long haired men in seventies style dungarees. No children pouring hot chocolate on cornflakes. No lightness. Only my breaths that filled the room with their futile attempt to fold the air with controlled silence so that the words that I needed to hear were not spoken. I needed to hear them but could not bear to have them drop from eyes to tongue, to have them roll them around and be real. As I dripped the bitter choices on my tongue to test them out I heard myself say “this is my last child”.
I saw the cast of professionals exit the room to leave us with the knowledge imparted. I watched their faces reflect my feelings and wished I had a layman’s equivalent of gunk to offer them in place of my sunken grief that would now swill through their day. I scanned their faces, let the words slide into my ears and allowed the gunk to finally subsume me and cover all that had been me.
Clare Archibald is a Scottish writer interested in the interplay of forms and the potential of collaboration. She was long-listed in the 2016 Lifted Brow International Experimental Nonfiction Prize, and has previously been selected to read at Storyshop for emerging writers at Edinburgh International Book Festival. She is widely published and has worked with a range of collaborators in producing a diverse body of work. Clare can be found at https://clarearchibald.wordpress.com/