At the church our family attends, there is an elderly married pair who always, when I see them, cause me to make little inward vows to strive for poise and elegant dress no matter how decrepit and antique I eventually become. Each Sunday they totter slowly and with great dignity up the aisle and into their pew, where they lower themselves stiffly into place and remain, faces forward and backs erect, until the liturgy calls upon them to rise or kneel or go in peace. She is the sort of woman who would have been among the last to relinquish white gloves; he still wears a trilby. They are, in short, relics of a mostly vanished Washington of formality, sobriety, and ageless chic; people who would rather die than read about themselves in a gossip column or kibitz loudly about their arthritis pains.
One recent Sunday, as I lowered myself painfully into our pew, letting out little gasps from the third-trimester sciatica shooting down one leg and the weight of the child within, I happened to glance over at these people whom I so admire. The man was struggling. The kneeler from the pew in front of him was already down, and he was trying in vain to get one foot out from under it so that he could rest that foot on top to take the pressure off his hips. Being pregnant, I could see immediately what he was about; I need to sit that way, too. But his enfeebled leg muscles wouldn’t let him do it. He’d pull back his calf and lift his knee, but the tip of his highly polished shoe kept catching on the kneeler, and his foot kept ricocheting back onto the floor. He tried again and again. His wife then leaned over and gently pulled his foot back while he lifted his leg–the coordination of these complex movements was clearly a strain for both of them–until, at last, he was able to maneuver his foot up and out and into the open air, as it were. The two of them sat back, unruffled, and again turned their attention towards the altar.
As I shifted and fidgeted to ease the discomfort in my hips, while hypocritically poking the children to stop them from fidgeting, it struck me just how similar the final phases of pregnancy are to old age. It is like occupying for a few months the body you will someday have.
For really, we late-term gestators resemble geriatrics to an alarming degree. We nap. We cannot hold liquor (indeed, like our much-medicated elders, we dare not). We walk slowly, careful not to jolt our fragile selves. Our backs and feet ache; our footwear is practical, supportive, and dowdy. It’s impossible to make our torsos torque nimbly when we’re backing our cars out of driveways, so we find ourselves reversing with absurd, halting caution like those hunched blue-rinsed individuals you see behind the wheel of late-model Cadillacs.
We approach stairs with the apprehensive mien of Zimmer-framers: Up a couple of steps. Stop. Rest. Gasp. Up a few more steps. Stop. Rest. Puff. Bend slightly at the waist, grasp newel post for support. Then up a few more steps. Stop. Rest. Etc.
Those AARP restaurant early-bird specials? We need them too! Early supper is essential lest we be devoured by heartburn at bedtime–and our bedtime is, of course, straight off the nursing home schedule.
Then there is the mental fogginess: The walking into a room and forgetting why one has come in to it; the hasty writing-down of stray thoughts before they pop like tonic water bubbles and are gone. I got a lesson in this the other afternoon, when my husband took the children to lunch while I went for a sonogram.
“Where are you?” I inquired into my cell phone, when I finished with the technician.
“At the Cosi café on the southeast corner of 19th and L Streets,” replied my husband.
I was already standing on 19th Street; it wasn’t far. “Okay, see you in 5 minutes.”
Yet it was a long and weary walk, my friends, a slow and painful trundle through milling crowds of handsome, fleet-footed persons with pointy shoes and concave abdomens. I arrived at the café named by my husband. There was no sign of my family. I fished out my cell phone again, and complained into it.
“I told you, darling, we’re at the southeast corner of 19th and L.”
“Well, I don’t see you. And I’m on 19th Street at Cosi.”
“Are you sure you’re on the southeast corner of 19th and L?” He spoke kindly, with only a hint of condescension, as one accustomed to dealing with a cantankerous grandparent.
“Listen, I can see Dupont Circle and I’m at the Cosi, so duh, of course I am.”
“Meg,” said my husband, and I could hear him smiling. “L Street is much farther south of Dupont Circle. There is a Cosi up there, but not the one we’re sitting at. You walked in the wrong direction, sweetheart.”
There was a long pause. “Oh. Then I suppose I’ll have to walk all the way back down again,” I said gracelessly. “That’s where my car is anyway.”
“Take your time, the children are still eating,” said my husband, with obvious amusement, and rang off.
It takes a mammoth effort to keep one’s joie de vivre, one’s savoir-faire, one’s sang froid, when one is heavy and footsore and inescapably frumpy. One’s horizons close in; one begins to hear the siren song of TV dinners. Everything is too much trouble. If you accidentally spray a bit of dry cereal on the floor when making breakfast, it’s too fatiguing to bend down and tidy it up. Overnight your household begins to take on that sheen of grubbiness all too common in places where eyesight is poor and old bones are fatigued.
Through bringing new life into the world, we heavily pregnant dames are vouchsafed a glimpse of the end of our own lives. And I have to say, it ain’t pretty.
Put a couple of us together, close your eyes, and you might be forgiven for thinking you’ve stumbled on a gathering of denture-wearers for all the revolting, detailed tales of bodily functions gone wrong and hospital horror stories. Gas! Heartburn! Stitches! Distended–forgive me. That, surely, is enough.
Which brings me back to that elegant couple from church. In these final weeks before the fifth baby comes, I find myself making more inner vows. To keep making an effort to be poised and pleasant, even when everything aches. To stop talking about swollen ankles and creaking pelvises–ick, to eschew even saying such words as “pelvis.” To practice, in short, those old-fashioned virtues of rectitude, formality, and ageless chic–if not, at all times, sobriety.