Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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I was alone with the doctor when I found out. I had come in for an emergency appointment because that morning I’d happened to notice the tiniest of smears on my toilet paper: a light brown smudge. Scott had asked if he should come with me, but I’d said no; it was nothing. If I hadn’t glanced down at the paper, I wouldn’t have known. I was eleven weeks along. There had been no problems before this. It was my second pregnancy. I knew that strange fluids and sensations were the order of the day. Who goes to the doctor because of a smudge she can barely see? I called and said, “I’m sure it’s nothing. I’m sure I’m being silly. I should just calm down, right?”
“It’s probably nothing,” the nurse on call said, “but come in, just for your peace of mind.”
I’m sure I’m not the only woman out there who has a problem with the word miscarriage. It sounds like a mistake I made: Whoopsie, I dropped the baby. I was carrying her all wrong. Forgive me. But what are the alternatives? “I lost the baby”? How bad a mother do you have to be to misplace a baby who’s inside you? “The baby died” is a little too direct for most people. And let’s not be dramatic about it; it wasn’t quite a baby yet. Almost. But not yet.
The doctor — she wasn’t my regular doctor, just the one on call the day I rushed in for my peace-of-mind ultrasound — said that nothing I’d done could have caused this miscarriage. That’s the first thing she said after she’d told me the baby was gone. It hadn’t even occurred to me that it might have been something I had done, so my mind raced with the possibilities. Had I done something wrong? How many ways could I blame myself for this?
The very first thing the doctor said was “I’m so sorry.” I didn’t understand. What was she sorry about? Was she sorry that the ultrasound machine wasn’t working correctly? Wasn’t that the reason the baby hadn’t seemed to be doing much of anything? But of course I did understand. I knew perfectly well. After she left the room, I called Scott and repeated her words: I’m so sorry. The nurse brought in a cup of water and said sorry again to me as I sobbed and sobbed, and I apologized back for making so much noise. We echoed, I am sure, a chorus of voices throughout time saying the same thing for the same reasons: I’m so sorry; so, so sorry. So many voices apologizing for something none of us have any reason to be sorry about. I’m looking right at you, God, you jerk.
The doctor gave me the news while the ultrasound wand was still inside me. That alone can be traumatic. You are not supposed to be given bad news while you are being penetrated. To the doctors reading this: Remove the well-lubricated instrument before you tell the patient her baby is dead, especially if you care at all about her ever having sex again. That’s a tip for you. You’re welcome.
Someone told me about the Jizo bodhisattva in Buddhism, who serves as a guide for lost and unborn children. A few days after the miscarriage I found that I couldn’t cry — I needed to, but when I tried, I could manage only a dry whimper, which was unattractive as well as unsatisfying. So I went online to search for a Jizo figurine to purchase. A little moon-faced icon to hold, I thought, would surely bring on the tears. But most of the statues I found were jolly, roly-poly ivory figures — completely wrong for the occasion. Then I found the Jizo I needed: a four-inch-high cast-iron statue, his hands clasped, his eyes cast down. Small, dark, tasteful. He showed up, and instantly I hated him. But I can’t get rid of him, so he sits on my dresser, inviting my wrath. He is hard and cold, no matter how long I press him between my palms, and he leaves my hands smelling like blood. He seems the right weight for bashing in someone’s skull. I’ve tried to think of him as my ally, but he just feels like the world’s crappiest consolation prize: Hey, you lost a baby, but at least you can have this iron cudgel. I told all this to a particularly contented Buddhist friend of mine, who laughed and said the Buddha would approve of my hating him, that he could handle it. “Yeah, well, I hate you too,” I said, and she laughed some more.
At the moment I found out I had miscarried — April 28, 2008, 2:15 P.M. — time itself split into two paths. The timeline I was supposed to follow veered one way, and I went in the other, ridiculous direction, this road down which I wouldn’t have a baby in November. I shouldn’t even be writing this, you see, because I’m not supposed to be here. Two roads diverged, and I took the one I didn’t want to travel, because the other had a ROAD CLOSED sign across it. I continue farther and farther down this road, and the longer I go, the angrier I get. But, of course, there’s no way back.
What I did that may have caused this: I ran for the train. I drank a Coke. I had a sip of coffee. I had two sips of wine. I ate way too many cookies. I didn’t eat enough fruits and vegetables. I forgot to take my prenatal vitamins six times. I never did take those omega-3 capsules. (I was more concerned about the fishy aftertaste than about my baby.) I petted my cat right after she used the litter box and probably didn’t wash my hands. I took Tylenol three times. I wasn’t sure I wanted another child. I laughed too hard.
The day before I found out I had miscarried, I was murdering day lilies. They had propagated all over the damn yard, shamelessly spreading from our neighbor’s property into ours, the showoffs. I hacked away at their extensive underground root system and pulled up lily after lily. I was sweaty and tired, but I really wanted those lilies gone, so I kept digging and pulling. A vague worry crept over me about the baby, but I didn’t think too much about it. The sky was gunmetal gray (almost as dark as the Jizo I would own two weeks later), but it never did rain. I was in a bad mood and enjoying hacking at the roots. A deep, pulling ache kept spreading across my abdomen. The baby had already been dead for a week.
There’s so much I’m grateful for, of course. I’m grateful that I already have a child, a beautiful six-year-old boy named Henry. I’m grateful that my husband and I are healthy and young(ish) and can try again, if we ever manage to have sex without my crying. (Someday! Cross your fingers!) I’m grateful that it didn’t happen later in the pregnancy; that I didn’t get even more attached, if that would have been possible. (I was already talking to my unborn fetus every day, gazing at the ultrasound printout, coming up with names.) I’m grateful that I didn’t have a stillbirth. I’m grateful that Henry didn’t know about the pregnancy, that we didn’t have to deal with his heartbreak on top of ours. I know all the reasons I should be grateful, but if you try to remind me of even one of them, I will punch you right in your head.
I had miscarried a full week before I found out. The life inside me had ended, and I didn’t even know it. It took a doctor to tell me. For one whole week I was conversing with someone who wasn’t there. It’s like being on the phone, and the call gets cut off, but you’re still gabbing away like an idiot. It’s the sort of thing you should notice: that there’s something dead inside you. Your body really should let you in on that information. Actually I had started to feel a little different: less nauseated, less headachy. I had felt the same way during my first pregnancy, at around the same time. I had panicked then, but now all I felt was relief that I was entering the “easy” part of pregnancy. I had no suspicions, no premonitory dreams — just a pain as I attempted to garden, and then the most insignificant spotting you could ever imagine.
When I was pregnant with Henry, I would announce to Scott on Monday what part of our son I would be forming that week. “My project for this week,” I would say, “is fingernails.” Or during dinner I would pause and say, “Shhh, I’m developing his spinal cord.” I would clamp my eyes shut, and then open them. “Done.” It was a joke, but I also sort of believed it. I engage in this kind of magical thinking quite often. I keep planes aloft with my thoughts. I can’t let my mind wander during a root canal because if I do, the dentist will forget his years of training and accidentally remove my tongue. (“Why weren’t you paying attention?” he’ll cry, and I’ll respond, “Agh.”) So when the ultrasound showed the baby just lying there at the bottom of my uterus, I thought, I forgot to keep his heart beating.
I never quite understood before why women who’ve miscarried find the sight of pregnant women so upsetting, but now, of course, I get it. It’s not that I begrudge them their happy pregnancies: Who knows how many losses they’ve been through? Who knows what it took them to get there? No, I have a hard time looking at them because I think, That’s what I should look like now. That’s how pregnant I should be. Soon I’ll see babies whose ages will coincide with the age my baby should have been, and I won’t be able to look at them, either, which seems a shame. Two months after I miscarried, I went for a pedicure with my mom and my sister, and the woman who sat down to tend to my mother’s feet was pregnant — as pregnant as I would have been. I didn’t want to look at her, but I couldn’t look away. She had just entered that noticeably pregnant stage: a couple of weeks after you look as if you’ve simply let yourself go, and a month or two before people begin to snicker as you waddle down the street. She looked so comfortable in her pregnancy, so secure. My heart began to race, and my insides shredded themselves into confetti. “When are you due?” my mom asked, and the woman said, “November.” She smiled at my mother, her cheeks flushed. I got up, which was awkward, because my feet were still in their sudsy bath. “I just remembered something I have to do,” I managed to say. My mother and my sister both looked at me as I dried off, put on my sandals, and ran out to the street to hyperventilate for a while. But then I was OK. More or less.
Here’s something I will now admit for the first time: right after the doctor removed the dead fetus, while I was still loopy from painkillers, I asked if it had been a boy or a girl — as if a tiny, complete baby had come out of me and not something that resembled a shrimp. I don’t remember asking this; my doctor told Scott, who relayed the story to me. I wish they had both spared me this little tidbit. It broke my heart. Not to mention, how much more pathetic can you get?
At the eight-week appointment my doctor announced that everything was perfect, and I didn’t worry even once for the following three weeks. The ultrasound picture we took home showed an acorn with a berry for a head. I think I can see two eyes (I’m looking at the picture right now), but the clearest detail is two outstretched arms. I’m glad I have this picture. I wish to God I’d never seen this picture. And I’m so afraid I might lose it.
I wonder a lot about its soul. Maybe I should know better than to believe in a soul, especially the soul of an eleven-week-old fetus, but I do, and I’m not taking it back. Does its soul need to return to earth in another body? Is it waiting for me to quit whining and get it back here?
Today I forgot when the baby had been due. I felt as if all the air had been sucked out of the room for a minute. In November, I knew, but what day? Then I remembered, and I’m going to put it here, so I’ll never forget: November 21, 2008. There it is. Good.
I’m getting better. At least, I think I’m getting better. I don’t want to say that I am, though, because I do not want to get better. I do not want to work through this. I do not want to journal my way to healing. I do not want to talk it out. I do not want to try again. I do not want to have to try again. I do not want to be sitting here writing this stupid essay. I certainly don’t want you to be reading it. And if I have to come up with a tidy ending right now, I will hurl this laptop across the room.
Alice Bradley’s essay so closely mirrored my own experience that I held my breath until I reached the end. Thank you for publishing such an honest piece about a topic that is one of our society’s last taboos. There is no announcement of or public mourning for a miscarriage; it is a deeply personal, internal pain in spite of how common it is. Over and over, as I became more open about losing my embryo/baby, so many other women would tell me, “I had one too.” I have found that sharing experiences with other women who have gone through this loss is the way toward healing.
As a therapist I have sat with many women as they grieved the loss of an unborn child. I find that a large portion of the mother’s grief seems based on medical misinformation. Alice Bradley is no exception.
Our culture has an unrealistic and idealized view of pregnancy. We have forgotten that nature is never perfect. The truth is that 20 to 25 percent of all pregnancies spontaneously abort — i.e., miscarry — in the first trimester. To repeat: about one-quarter of all pregnancies. Many miscarriages occur so early that the woman may not have suspected she was pregnant. We focus only on the miscarriages that occur later, after a full pregnancy has been anticipated. So, if this happens to you, remember: you have not been singled out by God or Fate, and there is probably nothing you have done that caused the loss of the pregnancy.
Miscarriage is, indeed, a profound loss, but no woman who has miscarried is alone.
I can’t say I enjoyed Alice Bradley’s essay “Eighteen Attempts at Writing about a Miscarriage” [December 2009], but it sounded as if I were writing it. I have had seven miscarriages, with no children at the end of it all.
I feel cheated that I never had kids. It was like some sort of evil joke to give me each pregnancy and then snatch it away — especially the second-trimester baby. Like Bradley I thought of all the things I had done that might have caused the miscarriages. (I, too, worked in my garden quite a bit.) I even thought my Husky could have brought on one of them by jumping up on me.
I have since found out I have lupus and a rare blood disease, both of which frequently cause miscarriages. So nothing I or my silly Husky did was responsible. The miscarriages still hurt to think about, but not as much. I am glad that Bradley didn’t end the essay on a feel-good note or say something about God’s will. I never wanted to make my miscarriages less than what they were: a loss of the life I’d once planned.
I was instantly put off by the December 2009 issue. A vegetarian and pregnant for the first time at thirty-nine, I was horrified to see an interview with David Petersen about killing animals for food [“The Good Hunter,” by Jeremy Lloyd] and an essay about a miscarriage [“Eighteen Attempts at Writing about a Miscarriage,” by Alice Bradley]. Was The Sun deliberately out to kill my Christmas spirit? I put the issue down and vowed not to touch it.
Until I had a miscarriage.
Grudgingly I picked it up and read every word. My miscarriage had begun the same way that Bradley’s had. (I still disagreed with every word Petersen said, but that’s a different letter.) At the end Sy Safransky reminded me that suffering can be a great teacher. As usual The Sun gave me exactly what I needed, even if I didn’t want it.