Read What Was Mine Online

Authors: Helen Klein Ross

What Was Mine


what was mine

“In a tale ripe with opportunities for drama, Helen Klein Ross never puts a foot wrong. She lets the story tell itself, and in so doing heightens both suspense and emotional impact. Readers will be moved to understanding, but never to judgmentalism. A stellar performance, and highly recommended.”

—Ann Arensberg, National Book Award winner

“Sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes joyous, and always riveting,
What Was Mine
masterfully makes you question where your sympathy should lie at every turn. I couldn't put down this fast-paced, fascinating psychological study of motherhood.”

—Lynn Cullen, bestselling author of
Mrs. Poe
Twain's End

“Helen Klein Ross has written a truly brilliant book. I'm obsessed by the change this book made in my thinking of what is, and what is not, forgivable.”

— Abigail Thomas,
New York Times
bestselling author of
A Three Dog Life

“Helen Klein Ross—like Amity Gaige with
, or Emma Donoghue with
—takes a shocking premise and uses it to illuminate our human condition. A writer of compelling lucidity and vivid precision, she has compassion for all her characters.”

— Claire Messud,
New York Times
bestselling author of
The Woman Upstairs

“Not only a terrific, spellbinding read but a fascinating meditation on the choices we make and the way we love.”

— Elin Hilderbrand,
New York Times
bestselling author of
The Rumor

“Helen Klein Ross pulled me into her intimate tale of loss, love, redemption, and forgiveness that had me turning pages long into the night. You'll fall in love with
What Was Mine

— Marci Nault, author of
The Lake House

“Ross's prose is both readable and enjoyable, and she touches on interesting ideas about identity, family, and the malleability of the human psyche.”


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For my mother, Margaret Whelan Klein and in memory of her mother, Helen Callaghan Whelan


Fhuair mi lorg and eich's a phairc

Fhuair mi lorg na h-eal' air an t-snàmh

Fhuair mi lorg na bà 'sa pholl

Cha d'fhuair mi lorg mo chubhrachain

I found tracks of the horse in grass on the hill

I found tracks of the swan on the shore of the pond

I found tracks of the cow in the daffodils

But I found no trace of my fragrant wee one


I looked around, as anyone would, for its mother.

Nothing was there. What did I know about lambs?

Should I pick it up? Carry it . . . where?



idnap. Parse the word. It ought to mean lying down with baby goats. Words can be so misleading.

I can't tell my story straight. I have to tell it in circles, like rings of a tree that signify the passage of time.

Shall I start with how badly I wanted a child?

I did try to have a baby the conventional way, although Warren and I didn't pursue parenthood in the first years of our marriage. When we married, I was twenty-five, he was twenty-six. We thought we had all the time in the world.

At first, we devoted ourselves to our respective careers. He: jostling ahead of other associates at a consulting firm; I: spending long, fluorescent hours at an ad agency searching for selling propositions unique enough to propel me from a drywall cubicle to a windowed office.

After three years, Warren had secured a place toward the top of his “class” and I had been promoted from a cubicle to an office with a small but undeniable window. My name was etched in a metal bar affixed to the door, and sometimes, finding myself alone in the corridor, I'd polish the bar with the end of a sleeve, shining it as if it were a medal, which indeed it was.

We lived in the city, which in that part of the world, in that century, meant Manhattan. We rented half of the top floor of a narrow
brownstone only blocks away from the Central Park Zoo. East Sixty-Fourth Street was a perfect location in which to raise a child, I'd think on early-morning runs under the zoo's clock tower. It marked the half hour with musical chimes and the twirl of bronze goats and bears and kangaroos. Perhaps it still does. I'd sometimes stop running to take in the show and imagine watching it someday with a baby in a jogging stroller. But we weren't ready for babies, not yet. We couldn't have a baby in that apartment. It was a fifth-floor walk-up and I couldn't imagine being pregnant and walking up five flights of stairs several times a day. And no way could we make 540 square feet include life with an infant, or the well-appointed life with an infant we projected on mental screens constantly running the movie of our future selves.

The suburbs were a better place to raise a baby, Warren insisted. He was from the Bronx, but spoke authoritatively. I had my doubts, having grown up in a suburb, but was eventually swayed by the abundance of space and natural light we discovered answering ads for houses for sale outside the city. Space and light were things we couldn't afford in the heating-up market of 1982 Manhattan real estate. I assumed space and light were prerequisites for a happy childhood. But that was before I had a child.

What made us ready to have a baby was that we both turned thirty and Warren lost his dad. We stopped feeling like kids ourselves and started wanting to have them. Also, ridiculous as it sounds now—Prince Charles and Lady Di had just had a baby, which added to the zeitgeist of procreation.

We started to shop for houses in Westchester, but one train trip to Bronxville convinced Warren to switch our sights to New Jersey. “Everyone on the Metro-North platform wears the same raincoat,” he said. This surprised me. In fact, Warren wore the same raincoat they did, and the same ties, too: dark-colored silks striped or specked by rows of tiny geometrics. But I understood then, as I hadn't
before, that he wanted to be seen as a man who marched to a different tune. This should have been a warning to me.

We bought an updated colonial in Upper Montclair, paying extra because the yard was just inside the preferred school zone. We celebrated the signed contract with a champagne-soaked dinner in Manhattan and took the subway back to our apartment, which now seemed even smaller. We began that night pursuing parenthood with purpose and exuberance. How freeing it felt to let what we called my Frisbee idle inside its pink plastic clamshell as we made love without it. Soon we were happily trying new things on our new king-size mattress in our new king-size bedroom in New Jersey. We had a goal and this suited both of us. We were goal-oriented people, it was one of the traits that had attracted us to each other in college. We'd met at Cornell, in a co-ed dorm, a new housing option where sexes were segregated by floor. There was a snack machine in the basement and all I first saw of Warren was his blond hair tinged green by its neon light. We were both taking breaks from all-night cram sessions. He kicked the machine into releasing a package of corn chips for me. Seven years later, we married.

We assumed that having a baby would simply be a matter of trying. In fact, we'd gotten pregnant before without trying. I'd been “in trouble” with Warren during our senior year of college. It wasn't a question for either of us whether or not I should keep it. We didn't have money for a baby then, nor the inclination. He'd borrowed money from a friend who gave him the name of a doctor. It was 1975, abortion had only recently been legalized, and it still took care to find a doctor who wouldn't kill you along with your unwanted baby. I was grateful to Warren for making the arrangements, but we were both surprised that, in the days leading up to my appointment, I began to wonder if I'd be able to go through with it. My second thoughts didn't come from fear of the doctor or from my being religious, though I'd been raised a Catholic. I'd chuffed off religion while still learning it
from the nuns in convent school. My change of heart about having an abortion came from a growing sense that something human was flourishing inside me and that I did not wish to assert dominion over the life of this other, no matter how small and nascent its stage of development. I'd been mesmerized as a child by photos of an embryo in
magazine. The thing inside me had lips and toes and a brain.

“It's not a baby, it's a lima bean,” Warren protested, pointing to a drawing in his premed roommate's biology text. But I couldn't think of what I was carrying, no matter how small, as something inanimate, a disposable object.

Yet—what else could I do? I couldn't take care of a baby and knew I wouldn't be able to give birth to one and open my arms and give it away. I wasn't that generous. I apologized to it for what I was planning to do. I spoke to it silently, words that I passed from my brain through my heart. “Come back in a few years,” I whispered again and again.

Then, the day before my appointment, the baby came out of its own accord. There was blood in the toilet. It didn't look like a baby, it looked like a clot, but I knew what it was and left it for Warren to see when he came over. We stared at it silently for a while, then flushed it together, his fingers curled over mine on the handle. As the swirl of red disappeared into white porcelain, I felt a cavern of sadness open up in me, which didn't make sense, as what happened was the very thing we meant to have happened, only now we could cancel the expensive appointment.

fter some months of trying, Warren and I were both surprised that zealous effort hadn't resulted in my getting pregnant again. I faithfully popped vitamins, gave up alcohol and sushi, swam strengthening laps at a health club before getting on the bus to work. Sometimes I'd feel a twinge deep inside when we made love, and be
certain it was the feel of a baby being implanted. Afterward, I'd will myself not to move on the bed, so as not to dislodge the bud of our baby. But month after month, my body betrayed me.

Books advised buying certain equipment and soon our bedroom resembled a chemistry lab: graph paper, colored pencils, a thermometer to take my temperature before I got up. Our experiments failed, though we didn't know why—they always proved successful on paper. I began to fear something I never shared with Warren—that our lost baby had somehow warned others off me, spreading word that I was a hostile environment.

After a year, we went to a fertility clinic and soon became fluent in its harsh language: harvested eggs, assisted hatching, embryo selection. The whole thing was ugly and complicated and hard on us both. Warren had to work himself up to giving me injections, which he learned how to do on an orange in shot class. I'd lower my pants and curl against him on the bed, closing my eyes and bracing myself for the jab. The first time he did it, the shot took so long in coming, I looked behind me to see what was the matter.

After two tries at the clinic, Warren insisted we stop going because insurance wouldn't pay anymore. Without insurance, the treatments were prohibitively expensive, more than we had put down on the house. Warren wouldn't consider adoption. He said he didn't want to inherit someone else's problems. Problems are just as likely to happen to kids you give birth to, I told him, reminding him that plenty of people had problems with kids they hadn't adopted. Agencies screen for health problems, I assured him. But Warren wouldn't listen.

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