Authors: Sarah Gray
For everyone who has ever donated their body for the benefit of others, and for their families
For the trusted stewards of these precious gifts. For the researchers who help those they will never meet
And for Thomas
The child we had, but never had,
And yet we'll have forever
decided to give it one last shot. If I was willing to make one of the weirdest calls of my life, maybe something would happen.
I paced the skywalk of the Hynes Convention Center as I imagined how the call might go: I would explain the whole story, and they would tell me it violated some confidentiality thing. Or that it wasn't allowed. Or it wasn't within policy. But I thought,
I have a personal connection to this place. I gave them something they needed. I'm sure they have wondered, at some point, where the donations came from. I'm just going to call. I will feel awkward. Maybe they'll feel awkward, too. If I could just get past the part of talking about the death of a child to a complete stranger over the phone, something powerful might happen. I have to at least try.
My heart raced as I clicked “Dial,” and I gripped the phone hard.
Here goes. I am doing this.
“Hello,” a woman's voice said.
Adrenaline shot through me. I tried to play it cool: Shucks, I'm just a regular old girl next door looking for her deceased child's cornea researcher. Just like everybody else.
“Hi, my name is Sarah Gray. I have a kind of unusual request.”
It Wasn't Supposed to Happen Like This
I found out I'm pregnant on August 9, right after our vacation to Scotland and Italy. Found out it's twins on September 4. What a shock! We have ultrasound photos and look forward to getting more in 2 weeks. Praying everything is OK.
another heartbeat,” he said.
Dr. John Maddox, my OB-GYN, pointed at a flickering white blob on the plasma screen mounted on the wall.
“Ha, ha. Very funny.”
“It's twins,” he said, ignoring me. “See here?”
I looked at the screen at what appeared to be two pixelated white kidney beans. Ross and I gave each other a look. I smiled. Ross looked worried.
We had been trying to have a baby for two years, and at thirty-five years old I had been starting to worry it would never
happen. We were thrilled to see the positive home pregnancy test I'd taken a couple of weeks earlier, but we never expected twins. We didn't think of ourselves as twins people, whatever that means. “Can you tell if they are fraternal or identical?”
Was this really happening?
I looked over at Ross. His expression seemed to say,
This is more than I bargained for
“Can you tell the sex?” I asked.
“It's too early now,” Dr. Maddox said, “but we will be able to tell in another four weeks.”
The doctor looked at my chart for a few moments.
“Since you're over thirty-five, you might be interested in getting a first-trimester screeningâit's up to you.” He scribbled something down on his prescription pad, tore it off, and handed it to me. It was a referral to the Genetics & IVF Institute in Fairfax, Virginia. “You can schedule it in the next three or four weeks. They check for genetic defects.” Apparently, I was officially an MOAAâa mother of advanced age. (I couldn't help but think of the ROUSâthe rodents of unusual size from
The Princess Bride
As we left the office, Ross and I stopped and turned to each other. At eight weeks, it was too early to make any general announcements to family and friends, but we agreed to share this exciting development with the two people who would be the most thrilled: “We've gotta call our moms.”
On the way to the car I had a pregnancy craving, so we stopped by a nearby Wendy's for some chicken nuggets and an M&M Twisted Frosty while we called our mothers.
“How are we going to afford this?” Ross asked a bit later, when the excitement had died down. We already knew we'd have to struggle to afford one child, let alone two. “And where
are we going to put two cribs?” We lived in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom condo in Northwest Washington, DC. What could have been a cozy home for a family of three suddenly seemed too small for a family of four. It was a second-floor walk-upâno elevatorâso we were going to be carrying two children, plus a twin stroller, up and down the stairs every time we went out. It was often difficult to find a parking spot on our street, too, so we regularly ended up parking several blocks away.
Nevertheless, we spent the next few weeks getting used to the idea. We called a real-estate agent to talk about putting our place on the market and looking for a bigger house out in the suburbs.
And we decided to have the first-trimester screening. If more information was available, we would rather know it than not.
“What would we do if there is problem?” Ross asked one evening as he sat at the computer.
The last thing either of us wanted to do was terminate the pregnancy that we had been so longing for. It was too stressful to think about; and anyway, it was hypothetical. Why give ourselves heartache over a choice we might never need to make?
“I don't know,” I said. “Let's cross that bridge when we come to it. And hopefully, we will never come to it.”
We scoured the web in the days before the screening to bone up on the terms we might hear. We wanted to be able to ask the right questions during our appointment. We learned that the ultrasound technician would look for the presence of the fetal nasal bone and measure the nuchal translucencyâthe size of the clear space in the tissue at the back of a baby's neck. We knew that a measurement of 2.5 millimeters or more in
the nuchal fold could indicate Down syndrome. Since I was a thirty-five-year-old MOAA, I had a higher risk of having a child with Down syndrome. It's the most common birth defect in the United States, appearing in approximately one in seven hundred births every year. If we were going to hear any bad news at this appointment, I thought it would be that both twins had Down syndrome, since they were identical.
On the day of the test, per the doctor's request I arrived with a full bladder, which helps push everything into the right place and makes the babies easier to see on the sonogram.
During the sonogram, we could see everything the tech was looking at on a plasma screen mounted on the wall. I recognized the babies' noses, cheeks, arms, legs, and toes. The tech hit the print button a few times, and curling white paper hummed out of the machine. After one first-trimester miscarriage, two years of trying to conceive, and buying numerous adorable baby gifts for friends, finally it was our turn. I had been looking forward to this moment my entire life.
“So does everything look okay?” I asked.
“I'm not allowed to interpret results,” the tech said. “The doctor will do that when he comes in. Try to empty your bladder halfway. The restroom is the first door to the leftâand when you come back, the doctor will see you.”
When she left the room, Ross whispered, “I saw her do the nuchal fold test. The measurement was normal.” According to Ross's Internet expertise, we were in the clear.
“I counted the fingers on Baby B,” I confided. “Five fingers on the hand I saw.”
It was hard to guess how much pee was half the pee in my bladder, but I did my best. After I came back from the bathroom, a gray-haired man in a white coat opened the door and introduced himself as Dr. Stern.
Dr. Stern sat on the stool in front of the sonogram machine and pushed the wand across my belly for about five minutes from a variety of angles. He didn't seem to be getting the angle he needed. He looked concerned.
Then, he put down the wand.
He said, “I'm sorry to tell you that Baby A has a lethal birth defect.”
Did he just say that?
It felt like the floor had dropped out of the room. The babies we had seen on the screen looked fine: legs kicking, round little butts, cute button noses. The nuchal fold was fine.
“It's called âacrania,' which means the baby's skull was not fully formed in the early stages of development.”
“How do you know that? What do you see?” I asked.
“See how Baby B's skull is round?” Dr. Stern pointed at the frozen image on the screen. “This skull developed properly. Now, look at Baby A's skull. See these bumps? That is exposed brain matter. That shows us that the skull did not close. Also, see how Baby A's amniotic sac is cloudy? The brain matter has disintegrated into the fluid. Baby B's amniotic fluid is clear.”
Dr. Stern paused.
“Do you have any questions for me?”
I took a deep breath and collected myself. “What causes this?” I asked, my mind racing to all the things I might have done that could cause birth defects.
When I first stopped taking birth-control pills a couple of years earlier, I had expected and hoped to get pregnant quickly. I was diligent about following medical recommendations, common wisdom, and even old wives' tales about what to do for a healthy pregnancy. I took prenatal vitamins, cut back on alcohol,
switched to decaffeinated coffee, and avoided hot tubs, sushi, soft cheese, and lunch meat.
Eventually, however, after months of negative pregnancy tests, I slowly reincorporated caffeinated coffee and wine into my routine.
Then I remembered our vacation in Scotland and Italy two months earlier. In Scotland, I had been caught in a cold downpour without an umbrella and was chilled to the bone, so I took advantage of the hotel's hot tub and sauna to warm up. I knew that hot tubs often had warning signs for pregnant women, so even though I didn't know at the time that I was pregnant, I was careful not to stay in either very longâmaybe five minutes in the bath-temperature hot tub and another ten minutes in the sauna.
I'd compounded the situation in Italy when we toured Pompeii on a hot, dry August day. The temperature hit well into the nineties, and because of the devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius in
79, the site harbors little in the way of shade trees. Walking around the temples of Apollo and Jupiter, the Forum, and the House of the Faun, I was desperate enough that I drank out of the dilapidated brass water fountains; the water was hot. Maybe I was overheated that day?
Later on in the trip, we took a ferry from Naples to the island of Ischia and visited the Negombo thermal spa resort. There were signs about not entering the spa if you were pregnant. For two years, I had been in a state of possibly being pregnant. Most of the time, I wasn't. I decided to go in the cool and warm thermal pools but only dip my feet in the hot ones.
Now I wondered, was it the heat?
Or could it be alcohol? There was the champagne at Ross's sister's wedding. And there was the pub crawl with friends in Edinburgh. We won third place in a pub quiz, and the prize was a round of neon-colored test-tube shots. In Italy, we had
enjoyed the local wine and drunk the limoncello we made from the lemons in my friend's yard.
“It's a neural tube defect,” Dr. Stern said. “Low levels of folic acid in the diet can be a cause.”
Folic-acid deficiency? That's for rookies. Everyone knows to take folic acid. Doctors had been recommending it as a standard supplement since 1992. Even breakfast cereals and bread are fortified with folic acid. Folic acid I definitely did right. But even if I had been folic-acid deficient . . . why did only one twin have acrania? “I have been taking a prenatal vitamin almost every day for about two years now,” I said. “And I eat food that probably has even more folic acid in it. Could it be something else?”
Dr. Stern looked uncomfortable, as though he had already exhausted his knowledge of this topic.
“Are either of you from Belfast? There has been a higher concentration of incidences there.”
My mind was reeling. I had not read this on Babycenter. com. What did being from Belfast have to do with it? I had never been to Belfast, but I imagined the citizens as 100 percent having brains.
My cell phone rang in my purse. I fumbled to turn it off without taking it out.
“I have Irish ancestors, but none from Belfast. And that was two hundred years ago. Ross was born in Scotlandâ”
Ireland!” Ross interrupted, indignant.
“I used a sauna before I knew I was pregnant. Or could it be something I ate or drank? Like sushi or wine?”
I pictured myself on a bus poster with a serious face and the words
I ate a rainbow roll and it killed my baby. Don't take chances
“There have not been a lot of studies, and the ones that I have read are not conclusive.”
We were obviously asking for information that he didn't have. I felt sorry for Dr. Stern: he had to tell us the news with barely any knowledge of the cause.
“Have you ever seen a baby like this before? How often do you see this? Like, once a year?”
“Yes, about once a year.”
Okay, so this is pretty rare.
“What do the babies look like?”
He looked at the wall a moment before answering. He took a deep breath.
“The skull stops near the eyebrows.” He lifted his hand to his brow line, in a kind of salute. “The brain is exposed at the top.” He paused and lowered his voice. “Sometimes it looks like the baby is wearing a mask.”
I thought I knew about all the basic birth defects. This one sounded too bizarre and terrible to be true. How would we feel when we saw this baby? Would we be scared?
“Is Baby B okay?” I asked.
“Baby B appears to be fine. I don't see anything of any concern at this point, although things could change. But the nuchal fold looks good, so I'm not concerned about Down syndrome.”
Ross and I nodded.
“Is there anything we can do?” I asked.
“You have a few options. You can terminate this pregnancy and try again. Or you could carry both twins to term. Baby B would be born healthy, and Baby A will be stillborn or die within a few minutes or hours.”
“What will be the actual cause of death?”
“The part of the brain that regulates heartbeat and body temperature is missing. So the trauma of being born can cause the heart to stop. Right now, your heartbeat is keeping both babies alive. Once the umbilical cord is cut, Baby A will begin to die.”
Giving birth to one healthy baby and one dead baby seemed like a sick joke.
What kind of God takes away a child's brain? What kind of sicko makes a mother gestate a baby for nine months only to have the baby die at the moment of birth? Who came up with this? And are they ashamed of themselves?
And why me? Why my child? Is it something I did? Don't I follow the rules? God, if you are trying to teach me a lesson, and you are merciful and forgiving like I thought you were, why didn't you just send me a message in a dream? There are so many other ways of communicating. Killing a baby is not fighting fair. Take this up with me, not them.
“Should we look into selective termination?” I asked.
I remembered the phrase from watching the TLC reality show
John & Kate Plus
. John and Kate already had twins when they decided to try for another child. A round of in vitro fertilization (IVF) produced not one more, not two, but seven embryos (though one eventually disappeared). Before the treatment, the couple had expressly hoped for just one more child but had also stated that they would not selectively terminate; the procedure is used if there is a defect or to protect the health of the other babies and the mom. And the phrase, though horribly clinical, had stuck in my head, especially when their family of four had become a famous family of ten.
“You won't be able to do that, because these are identical twins and they share a placenta. What happens to one will affect the other.” Dr. Stern went on to explain that my babies were mono-di, or monochorionic diamniotic, twins, which meant that each had its own amniotic sac, but they shared a placenta.
Mono-di twins begin as a single sperm and a single egg. Together these form a zygote, which splits into two somewhere between four and eight days later and creates what we know
as identical twins. I sometimes think about those four to eight days. When exactly did the split happen? What was I doing when it did?
And then all of a sudden those what-ifs receded and I realized how lucky I was that we would possibly still have one healthy child. It was all we had hoped for in the first place. I had gone into this exam assuming that if we had a child with a birth defect, we would be faced with the choice we didn't want in the first placeâthe choice to terminate. But because that child had a healthy identical twin, we would not even have that terrible option.
My mind jumped ahead to the delivery. I had always hoped to become a mother. While I was scared of the pain of delivery, I looked forward to finding out for myself what it feels like to bring a new life into the world. I assumed that I would be excited and happy on the day my child was born. It started to dawn on me that it would be the opposite. I might actually dread the moment my children were born.
And right there, before I'd even left the sonogram room, I found myself starting to recalculate. A fuzzy plan started to form, which I hoped would lead to a way to cope with this new reality.
Perhaps the way to think of it was that we were having one child, which is what Ross and I had originally planned for. Baby B was the baby we always wanted. Maybe I could think of Baby A as a necessary complication. I didn't picture myself holding this baby or giving it a name. Since Dr. Stern didn't have much experience with this birth defect, maybe that was true of the medical community as a whole. I wondered if studying the baby's body might be helpful to scientists.
“Maybe after the birth, we could donate the baby's body to science?” I asked. I imagined birthing a healthy Baby B while nurses whisked away Baby A. I still hoped that this pregnancy
could be a happy one. And perhaps I could find a hidden reason for this terrible situation.
Dr. Stern hesitated. “I am not sure how that would work.”
“I would want to give the baby a proper burial,” Ross said. He had been sitting in silence the entire time, but now he looked a little offended.
It was clear that the doctor's job was done. My questions were multiplying in my head, but I had already asked more than Dr. Stern could answer. We would need other experts now: a genetic counselor, a high-risk-pregnancy ob-gyn.
A funeral director.
There was one last thing I had to ask.
“Can I keep the sonogram pictures you showed us?”
“Are you sure you want these? Some people don't like to keep them.”
These were the most important pictures that had ever been taken of anything in our lives. I wanted to keep them, so I did.
Dr. Stern offered to put us in touch with a genetic counselor, then left Ross and me alone.
Ross and I gripped each other in a hard hug and said nothing for a minute. I could feel his heart pounding in his chest.
It had been only a few days earlier that the real-estate agent had stopped by to talk about painting our condo to get it ready to sell because we'd need more room. . . . My brother Mark had emailed me the name of the paint color that I liked in his living room: Sandstone Cove. None of that would be necessary anymore. We went from expecting one baby, to twins, to a healthy child and a dead one.
My cell phone vibrated in my purse again. I reached in to see who was calling. It was someone from work. I hit “Ignore” and swore to myself that I would never again call someone who said he or she was going to a doctor's appointment.
Ross finally said, “I can't hold the baby while it dies. I can't. I know I'm not going to be able to do that.”
“Let's take our time and talk about it. Can you take the rest of the day off? This is a legitimate family emergency.”
And to think that I thought sonograms were supposed to be fun. This one had been terrible.
We hurried out of the office, past the modern decor and large fish tanks in the lobby, keeping our eyes firmly to the floor. I didn't want to make eye contact with any staff members, in case they knew.
That's them, the couple with the freak diagnosis
Ross and I got in our separate carsâwe had each come from our jobsâto email our bosses that we wouldn't be returning to work. Then I called my mom, a registered nurse. She knew what was at stake.
“How'd it go?” my mom asked me when I reached her.
“It's not good.”
I knew her heart was breaking, too. She was just as excited as we wereâprobably even more so. These were her grandchildren. . . .
When I got home half an hour later I parked in front of our building and called my colleague Susan, who works at the Pentagon, back to deal with the work issue that she'd been calling about. I had been working for six years in marketing at NISH, formerly National Industries for the Severely Handicapped. NISH supports a federal government program that helps secure contracts for nonprofit agencies that employ people with disabilities. In my communications and marketing role, I founded and managed a speakers' bureau and helped people with disabilities, mostly wounded veterans, become advocates for hiring people with disabilities. Susan was a client but also a mentor and confidante. Normally, I would have had a focused approach
to whatever was going on at work, but I felt like I was an astronaut floating in outer space.
I told Susan what had happened.
“Oh my gosh, Sarah. Oh my gosh.” Susan took a breath. “I am so happy for you, but so sad, too. I will be praying for you.”
When I walked in the door of our condo, Ross was talking on the phone to his mother in Scotland while looking up
on the Internet. I collapsed onto the bed.
Ross hung up the phone and came over to lie down next to me.
“What did you learn?” I asked.
“It will progress into something called anencephaly.” This was all so new he wasn't even sure how to pronounce the word. “Without a proper skull, the brain can't develop. . . .”
“That's what my mom said, too. I guess we should go over all the optionsâeverything we can think ofâthen take our time to make a decision. Let's just talk it out.”
Ross nodded. We lay there for a while, alone and together.
Eventually he said, “We could have an abortion and start over.”
“Yes, that's one option. The thing I don't like about that is I don't know when or if I will ever get pregnant again. But it's an option.”
Ross nodded again.
“Another one is to carry both to term,” I said. “We still have one healthy baby. That's all we expected to have anyway. So, technically, we are still getting what we were hoping for all along.”
“If we do that, I don't want to send the baby off to a lab. I want Baby A to be laid to rest in a proper grave, a place for Baby B to visit. I want the baby to feel loved.”
“Why are you so attached to Baby A?” I asked him. “I thought you were scared of having twins.”
Then Ross said, “I wanted both.”
We said nothing for a while. Then Ross got off of the bed and went into the living room. I heard him pour himself a single malt, which we reserved for special occasions.
It was autumn. The babies were due in the spring.
Sophie's Choice, Backward at 100 mph
he flight attendant put those little napkins on our tray tables, handed us our wine, and, thirty-five thousand feet above the Atlantic Ocean, my friend Kim and I clinked plastic.
As we drank, we devised a scavenger hunt for our ten-day vacation in England and Scotland. Among the things we planned, we were going to try to get our pictures taken with all the quirky stereotypes we could think of involving British people: someone who worked at a fish-and-chips shop; someone in a kilt; a bagpiper; a woman named Pippa; and a man named Nigel.
A week later, and with just a couple of days left on our itinerary, we realized we hadn't made much progress. After dinner in Glasgow, we stopped in at a place called O'Neill's Pub, in the Merchant City part of town, for a pint.
“Is your name Nigel?” I asked a tall, dark-haired stranger.
I started thinking it might be a good idea to recruit a local to help us.
“We're doing a scavenger hunt. We need to get a picture taken with someone named Nigel. Do you know anyone here named Nigel?”
“Nigel is an English name,” non-Nigel said with a burr. He yelled to a friend, “Paul! You know anyone here called Nigel?”
“Nigel? Naw,” he said.
“There's nobody named Nigel in Scotland,” the first non-Nigel said. “My name is Ross. That's a better name. A Scottish name. It means âa headland.' You should get a picture with me instead.”
“Ross? Like from the TV show
“Aye,” he nodded.
“Oh . . . sorry, we have the name âRoss' in America. It's not on the list. Thanks anyway,” I said.
Ross introduced Kim and me to his friend Paul, and they asked us about our travels. We told them about our visit to London, Edinburgh, Glasgow Cathedral, and the Necropolis.
“Do you like Scotland?” Paul asked.
“I love it!” I said. “I love the country. I love the people. I love to drink Scotch. I love Scotch tape. Masking tape is for fools.”
We soon realized that these men were extremely proud of their homeland and perhaps had been drinking all day. Ross even treated us to his rendition of the Scottish national anthem. “Ohhh flow'r of Scootlannd . . . when will we seee . . . your likes again? Who fought and diiiied for . . . your weeee bit hill and glenâ”
“Your what?” I interrupted.
“A glen is a valley.”
“What did you say before âglen'?”
“Before that . . .”
“. . . wee bit?”
“Did you say
wee . . . bit
?” His accent was a challenge. And there was a live band covering Coldplay loudly in the background.
“So, a âwee bit' means a âsmall bit,' right, like a small small thing? A small small piece
“It's a wee
. A wee bit . . . in your heart.” A noun was still clearly missing, and who knows, perhaps a bunch of other words. He made a pinching motion over his heart and smiled.
Ross was from Stirling (he pronounced it “Stun-lin”), a city halfway between Glasgow and Edinburgh, and he had moved to Glasgow to attend the University of Strathclyde. I told him I was from Falls Church, Virginia, and was getting ready to move to nearby Washington, DC.
“Actually, I have something to celebrate,” I said, as we lifted our pints in a toast. “This week, I officially bought my first home. I just faxed the closing documents from our hotel.”
It turned out that Paul was actually in town for his grandfather's funeral, and was sleeping over at Ross's flat. I could have talked to Ross longer, but I wondered about Kim. She lived in California; I lived on the East Coast. We hadn't seen each other in at least a year. This trip was as much to catch up with Kim as it was to see the sights. I wasn't there to pick up guys. I said to them, “Nice to meet you,” and we excused ourselves to the ladies' room.
“What happened? Didn't you like Ross? He's cute,” Kim said.
“Yeah, he is. But I didn't know if you wanted to keep talking to them or what. It's okay,” I said. “Let's get another drink.”
A few drinks later, Ross and Paul joined us at the bar and we continued our chat. Ross told me that he was a civil engineer and that he designed roads.
“I love roads. I am a big fan,” I said, because everyone likes when their work is appreciated. And anyway, where would I be without roads? I probably drove on roads every day of my life. My new house was even on a road! So I said, “If we got married, you could build a road to my new house.”
Ross didn't miss a beat; he laughed, then suggested a plan of his own.
“And if we have kids, can I name the girls? Because I already have two names picked out.”
“What are they?”
“Jacklyn and Jocelyn. I picked them out a long time ago. You can name the boys.”
I didn't really like those names, but this didn't strike me as a binding agreement.
“Okay, it's a deal.”
The bartenders yelled for last call, and Paul ordered four whiskeys.
“This is the kindy whiskey ma granddad used ta drink,” he said. “Here's a toast him!” he said as he lifted his glass. We raised ours, too.
“Slainte,” said Ross, toasting us in Scots Gaelic.
“To granddad,” Kim and I said.
Half an hour later we found ourselves in an honest-to-goodness Scottish apartment, or “flat,” as they called it.
We had spent almost all of our time on vacation in hotels surrounded by tourists, so it was an easy decision to hang out with some locals. And this being Britain, many of the pubs closed at midnight. It was still relatively early when you're on vacation time. After we left O'Neill's we'd walked two blocks down Bell Street to Ross's place at Parsonage Square, near the High Street train station.
Ross had two roommates, Katy and Web, who were a couple
. When we arrived at the flat on Parsonage Squareâacross from a stone castleâlike whiskey warehouseâWeb was sitting on the couch with a pint. He had been injured in a rugby game and was trying to drink away the pain. Web spoke in an accent that seemed part Scottish, part leprechaun, though it may have been the combination of painkillers, beer, and, well, pain.
Leaving Web to his sprained whatever, Ross gave me a tour of the flat. I was intrigued by the everyday household things that were different in the United States. He had a breakfast cereal called Shreddies (it seemed like a version of Crispix), and he had Saran Wrap, but he called it Cling Film. The dish soap was called Fairy Liquid.
And then there was the life-size cardboard Ginger Spice in the living room.
Forget Nigel. This was turning into scavenger-hunt gold.
I took a picture of Ross holding Cling Film and washing a dish with Fairy Liquid. Kim and I got photos with the Spice Girl.
There was a future ahead of us, though we didn't know it at the time. All Kim and I knew was that a night in a Scottish pub and flat could lead to some serious headaches the next morning. Oh, and there was a new email address in my contacts. Ross mentioned that a group of his friends were planning to visit New York City over the summer, and we agreed he and I would try to meet up then.
Emails turned to weekly, then daily, phone calls. The plans for a trip to NYC with his friends unraveled, but I offered to show him DC and NYC if he still wanted to visit.
“Are you sure you don't have a boyfriend?” he asked.
“Yeah. Are you sure you don't have a girlfriend?” I asked. “I don't want some Scottish lady with blue paint on her face coming to get me.”
And at that, Ross bought a plane ticket to spend a week with me in August. I thought we would get along for a week, but I didn't know for sure. We both secretly arranged another place for him to stay if it wasn't a good match. I decided that no matter how things turned out between us, I would at least show him some cool things in Washington and New York so he would have good memories of the East Coast. Who knew if he would ever be back again?
He arrived at Dulles International, and despite my fears, I recognized him. The next day, he insisted we visit a bar at 7
. to watch the Glasgow Celtic game, and I obliged. We visited the White House, the U.S. Capitol, and the National Mall in Washington, and the Staten Island Ferry, Central Park, and the Empire State Building in New York.
Despite the fact that we spoke the same language, I was surprised by how different our countries and cultures were. He was baffled that on a hot, humid August day when the temperature was over one hundred degrees, there were no patrons who chose to eat outside at the nearby Mexican restaurant.
“It's too hot and humid to be comfortable outside,” I explained, pointing out that it wasn't closed; there were customers behind the glass: “I guess they just want to be in the air-conditioning.”
He took a moment to collect himself.
“That would never happen in Scotland.”
He explained that Scotland gets so few nice, sunny days that Scottish people would never spend time in air-conditioning when they could be in the sunâeven if it was miserably uncomfortableâbecause they didn't know when another sunny day would come along. I remembered our Scottish neighbor from when I was a child who used to sunbathe when the temperature was in the fifties. The neighbors thought she must be freezing, but she would always say it was a lovely day.
I took Ross to a Redskins football game, where he was surprised that the Redskins fans and Panthers fans were not separated. “There is a guy wearing a Panthers jersey
right behind us
!” he whispered, incredulous, as we walked down the stadium ramp after the game.
When I mentioned that I needed to go to the DMV to renew my driver's license, he said, “Oh, where Patty and Selma work?”âreferring to Marge Simpson's gravel-voiced sisters on
. The week was full of moments like these that made me see my own country through the eyes of a tourist.
It was hard to say good-bye when he left, but he said he would come back soon. A month later, I was excitedly driving to the airport to pick him up again.
A transatlantic relationship isn't inexpensive or easy to maintain. After the second trip, we had to a heart-to-heart to figure out if we were both up for this.
“I think we have a future,” he said. “Do you?”
I said yes. He said that if it came down to it, he would be willing to move to America. He had lived in California briefly as a child when his father was a visiting professor at Cal State Sacramento. He and his dad had toyed with the notion of making the move permanent, but his mom missed her family back home. By the time we met, Ross had been living in Glasgow for seven years and was ready for a change.
Ross and I ended up dating across the Atlantic for a year and a half. He met my brothers, Mark and Ethan, and my parents. In Scotland, he showed me around different parts of the country and introduced me to a host of Scottish pastimes, including a Celtic football game, a ceilidh (pronounced
), and a gig at the famous music venue King Tut's Wah Wah Hut.
Though Ross grew up in Stirling, his adopted hometown of seven years had been Glasgow. Glasgow is Scotland's largest
city and is known for a thriving art and music scene, a unique accent, and colorful locals.
Edinburgh, an hour away, is considered more genteel and beautiful than its sometimes unruly neighbor to the west. We toured the famous castle there, and the Scottish Parliament building, where Ross helped build the first floor when he was still in university. He was working there on September 11, 2001; the building had been evacuated that day, like so many others.
A ceilidh is a traditional Scottish evening of music and dancing. The men wore kilts of all different tartans, and the women wore cocktail dresses. Some of the men sneaked pints of vodka under the table, which they mixed with Cokeâsomething I had never seen in America. Everyone seemed to know how to do special dances: “Strip the Willow,” the “Dashing White Sergeant,” and the “Gay Gordons.” It reminded me of an American square dance. Ross tried to teach me the moves, and no one seemed to care when I did it all wrong. The last song of the evening was “Loch Lomond,” and everyone joined in a circle to sing it together. I felt like I had gone two hundred years back in time.
Ross also introduced me to what I would discover is one of his abiding passions: soccerâor, as he calls it, football. He took me to see his favorite team, Celtic, who play at the hallowed Celtic Park. I'd been to sports events in America, but this was a whole other megillah. Fans actually kill each other over these games. Since guns are illegal in Scotlandâeven the police don't carry themâit's mostly stabbings, a crime that seems almost old-fashioned in America. While games in America can feature kiss-cams, dancing tacos, and prompts to get the fans riled up, games at Celtic Park are noticeably more serious and less organized. The atmosphere has an element of a heated political protest about it.
Most of the fans were male and over the age of fifteen. I don't think it's a stretch to say that many of them had had something to drink before they showed up. In terms of audience participation, it seemed to bubble up out of nowhere rather than being led by an emcee or piped-in songsâno “
” here. In fact, it seemed to be quite the opposite: no one was trying to get the fans any more riled up than they already were upon arrival. For starters, alcohol is not sold inside the stadium. The opposing team's fans are seated in a sectioned-off part of the stadium, with a cadre of police in stab-proof vests, and sometimes riot shields, escorting them in and out through a separate entrance. Fans have been known to throw batteries, small and undetectable by security, and plastic bags filled with urine at players during a game. Then there were the often-obscene chants about each other, the teams, the referee, and the players, and even bits of political history, not to mention incredible roars when goals were scored. It is fair to say that the harmless, dorky ribbing heard at American games (“Your team sucks!” “Ha, haâno, your team sucks!”) would be tragically misunderstood here. In fact, people have probably been stabbed for less. I think I enjoyed it; I was mostly happy to get out alive.