A family recipe, a childhood memory, a Depression-era handout
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IN OUR late twenties my husband, John, and I purchased a small house with a big yard in Portland, Oregon. The property came stocked with fruit trees and vines: apple, Asian pear, persimmon, fig, kiwi, grape. It had a vast assortment of berry bushes, too, and exotic, riotous flowers. Instead of approaching the yard with the humility appropriate to our knowledge of gardening — none — we leapt spade-first into the dirt, planted new trees, packed the four raised beds with vegetables, and built a chicken coop.
Our third summer in the house, we decided it was time to cultivate a family. But John and I didn’t have the same success we’d had with our bountiful garden. It took six months of trying for me to realize how chancy getting pregnant can be. It turned out that there is a window for conception, and for us it was much narrower than our high-school sex-ed teachers had led us to believe.
In February I found myself knee-deep in mud in the woods near the college where I work. I was digging up trilliums, a flower with a singular blossom that looks like the white cornet of a nun’s habit. A thriving trillium is as large as my hand. The species name of these particular plants, ovatum, is related to the Latin words for “egg” (ovum) and “exult, rejoice” (ovō). I took twelve and carefully transplanted them to the darkest, wettest spot in our yard. It was my first attempt to bring anything wild into the garden. I fenced them off from the chickens and crossed my fingers.
That spring John and I resolved to be more attentive: We examined cycles, charted temperatures, and tracked hormonal fluctuations. We figured out that I ovulate late in my cycle, around the twentieth day. I learned that I could feel when an egg released — a slight cramping pain called mittelschmerz (German for “midcycle pain”) — which I’d always vaguely wondered about. I was amazed at how little attention I had paid to my body all these years, how little I’d known about its rhythms, just as I’d been amazed the first time I’d plucked a tomato I’d grown: so that’s how it happens.
BY AUGUST, when the garden had reached its peak of abundance, I still wasn’t pregnant, though we had been trying for a year. During that time more than one couple we knew celebrated the imminent arrival of an infant. A resentful twitch of jealousy took hold of me whenever we received a new birth announcement in the mail.
Increasingly I worried we couldn’t have a child at all. What then? The day John had asked me to marry him, we’d had a long conversation about children — how many we might want, when we might have them, how we might raise them. Satisfied we had a shared vision of the future, I’d said yes. The one thing we had not discussed was the possibility of spending our lives together childless.
We decided to find out if there were obvious reasons we weren’t producing a child. And if we needed a backup plan, could technology help us? Would we want it to?
In the fall we received a murky diagnosis: “unexplained infertility.” Nothing was identifiably wrong with either of us, but still, inexplicably, our efforts were futile. The doctor offered up a drug called clomiphene, which causes the female reproductive system to “superovulate,” wreaking havoc on a woman’s hormones and increasing the chance of twins or triplets by 10 percent. It’s effective, but I wasn’t willing — yet — to take that on. Instead we opted for acupuncture. Once a week, starting in January, I lay on a cot while a woman stuck tiny needles into my belly and nose. I felt hopeful.
The winter garden is a good place to incubate the idea of a child. It is all potential, like an empty house waiting to be furnished. Just as I imagined the chickens laying, the now-dormant bulbs blossoming, and the grapes ripening in the sun, so too I dreamed of buying maternity clothes and onesies, feeling euphoric after giving birth, and feeding an infant from my own body. Even the prospect of sleepless nights with a crying baby seemed enticing.
THE FIRST purple crocuses bloomed the day I found out I was pregnant. It had taken eighteen months. We cried and hovered over that little pee stick as if it were the loveliest piece of pink plastic in the universe.
The timing — just at spring’s emergence — seemed perfect. My belly would grow along with the garden. The baby would be born in late October, after the leaves had fallen and only the orange persimmons were left dangling like lanterns to light the winter.
Pregnancy immediately upended all sorts of assumptions I’d had about myself, such as the idea that I never wanted to be a stay-at-home mother. I started daydreaming about being at home all day with my child, how challenging and fulfilling it might be. I had thought I’d be hard-pressed to give up certain habits, but my body seemed to guide me effortlessly: My desire for alcohol vanished. I was ravenous for sleep. I stopped caring about the small things that used to make me anxious. I was hungry, I was sleepy, and I was mellow. I was basically becoming my husband, but with a better ass and bigger breasts.
Even so, I had lurking doubts. After I’d taken the pregnancy test and wept at my good fortune, a thought crept up: I cannot lose this baby. I reassured myself that it was the nature of motherhood to consider, even rehearse, the loss of your creation. You make a life, and then you try to protect it with everything you’ve got.
INSTEAD OF taking weekly pictures of my belly, we snapped photos of the garden. Here you are: At six weeks, a crocus. At seven weeks, a hyacinth. At eight weeks, we photographed the Trillium ovatum. They had survived, but they had come back timidly, half the size of the hulking wildflowers I had dug from the mud more than a year before.
The next morning I woke to a spot of blood. My doctor suggested I come in. She drew three red milliliters from my arm, then did a transvaginal ultrasound and showed me the grainy image on a black-and-white screen. I couldn’t tell what I was looking at. She seemed cautiously optimistic and advised me to return in a week.
The following day my mother and I left on a trip, a semi-annual weekend gathering of aunts and female cousins at which we get drunk, play naughty board games, and laugh in the absence of men. As we got near the cabin where we were staying, I began to cry. I was afraid to see them — afraid of how happy they would be for me, and afraid there might be nothing to be happy about.
“I’m pregnant,” I told them hesitantly. They were all squeals and hugs, and their enthusiasm quickly overcame my worries. Suddenly I was no longer the quiet child, listening in on the troubles of women. I was a maker, like them. Every person in our cabin became someone new by my announcement: my mother became a grandmother; my aunt, a great-aunt. It turned out that my cousin Nicole was pregnant, too, just a few days behind me. We called my grandmother — soon to be a great-grandmother twice over again — to let her know. “Wonderful!” she said. “A baby race!”
Back home, bolstered by the support of these women, I tried to ignore my fear. I went in for a second ultrasound. On the screen there was the same ghost image I had seen before: a shadowy oval with a white tendril in the middle. It hadn’t grown. There was no fluttering heartbeat. A filament had flickered into being and then gone dark. A cruel term from the nineteenth century described it: “blighted ovum.” Rotten egg.
I had irrational, sometimes violent thoughts: I wondered if one of the trilliums had stolen my child, if my blighted ovum had tunneled through the floor of the house and out into the garden to become Trillium ovatum. I imagined mauling a woman who was breast-feeding in a parking lot. I imagined clawing out my own stomach. I dreamed I was tearing through the garden, breaking saplings, ripping plants out by their roots. In the dream my fingers bled, and, sitting in the wreckage, I ate handfuls of dirt. When I woke, I hated the garden. The trilliums had survived, but the life in me had not.
MY BODY still thought it was pregnant. I was round and tired and sore. The doctor explained that, after the fertilized egg had implanted in my uterus, cells that would have become an embryo had failed to develop, while those that form the placenta had continued to grow. The medical term was “anembryonic pregnancy.” I was told my body would likely reject the tissue on its own.
While I waited to miscarry, I read all the information I could find. John would return home from work each day to find me sitting on the couch, surrounded by crumpled kleenex and open books. I learned that up to half of all pregnancies end spontaneously — and more than half of those are anembryonic pregnancies. Most of these early losses happen so quickly and quietly that the woman doesn’t even know she was pregnant. The difference between just being pregnant and knowing you are pregnant changes everything.
After a week I put down my books and gave up on waiting. I started to take misoprostol, a drug that makes the uterus contract as it would during labor or a natural miscarriage. I suffered painful cramps, but by the time they stopped the next morning, they had produced nothing — no blood, no tissue. I was devastated. I didn’t want to go through the procedure that came next: a D and C, a scraping and scooping of my uterus.
John and I waited at the clinic while the pain medication I’d been given took hold. In the operating room they laid me down and situated John so he could see my face but not what they were doing. I remember the medical staff putting on surgical masks. I felt a bright, hot pang, then a sharp contraction. When it was over — the procedure took ten minutes at most — I turned on my side and wept against John’s hand, which was cradling my cheek. The nurses took me to a recovery room and helped me onto a bed from which I could see out over the city. Clouds drifted above the buildings. The pain ebbed. On the wall there were pictures of wildflowers. In one I recognized Trillium ovatum.
BETWEEN US, John and I had already lost a father, a brother, and several grandparents. We were, or thought we were, old hands at mourning. But this was new: We had lost something, yet we were reminded over and over again how insubstantial that something was. We were mourning mostly an idea, the loss of imagined memories we had started advancing into the world before their time — first smiles, first shoes, first words.
I was told repeatedly that most women go on to give birth successfully after their first failed pregnancy. I hadn’t lost the potential to have a child; in fact, the thought of myself as a mother was more sharply defined than before. But I couldn’t make sense of what I was mourning. There was no embryo, no fetus. So what had I lost? What is a life?
At times I felt I had no right to lament the disappearance of a few cells. Other times I was grief-crazed, a woman who believed her child had been stolen by a garden flower. I felt trapped in a technicality: if there had never been a “real” baby, why was I haunted by destructive dreams?
I NEEDED to escape myself and the lush green world around me. I wanted vastness and emptiness. I wanted a landscape that didn’t depend on me to nurture it. I craved the desert. John agreed to drive. We set out with music, podcasts, a map, and a destination: Joshua Tree National Park, more than a thousand miles away.
For the two days we drove, everything seemed to reflect my feelings. A big red truck hit a swallow at seventy miles per hour; the bird careened in the air before thumping to the road in front of us, and I thought, That’s my grief, landing mangled on the ground. The highway we were on, U.S. Route 395, threads through dramatic landscapes — the Sierras and Mount Whitney (the highest peak in the lower forty-eight states), Death Valley (the lowest elevation in the Western Hemisphere and the hottest place on earth), and the White Mountains (home to five-thousand-year-old bristlecone pines, some of the oldest living trees in the world). I identified with those extremes: high, low, hot, cold, ancient.
We arrived just after sunset at the dusty homestead where we had rented a cabin. The wind was up. I hadn’t expected wind. Stepping out of the car in the dark, listening to the cabin doors rattle, I thought that maybe the wind could carry my sorrow away. I leaned on John’s chest and whispered a thank-you.
We went to bed under a white down comforter. The next day we drove through Joshua Tree. My body was still recovering, so we restricted our excursions outside the car to short paved trails and roadside turnouts. The wildflowers were slow in blooming this year. Rain hadn’t fallen since the previous August, and the plants were too busy surviving to show off.
It’s estimated that one-quarter of all women experience at least one miscarriage. For something so common, it is a profoundly lonely experience, in part because the hiddenness of miscarriage gets in the way of how it is grieved. The life lost has not fully entered the world, so what language do we use to say goodbye? There are no cemeteries for unborn babies. We don’t send cards to honor their brief existence. I’ve heard that the Japanese have gardens of baby statues onto which women who’ve miscarried place tiny knit caps. I wanted something like that.
I began to consider that what I was holding on to wasn’t just what I’d lost. It was the grief itself I didn’t want to let go of.
On our second night, crying with my face in my hands as the cabin doors clattered in the wind, I finally said the words I’d been avoiding: “My child.” Speaking the phrase out loud changed something. For the first time I thought that maybe I could get past this sadness.
Unlike the wildflowers, the Joshua trees were in full bloom, and their towering tufts of white petals looked like Easter hats stuck on pineapples. The spiky yuccas appeared to have leapt from a Dr. Seuss book. Piles of bedrock reminded me of Flintstones cartoons. Who says nature has to be serious?
I started to feel a flicker of happiness: laughing at John’s jokes, driving with the windows down, feeling the sun on my skin. The desert was endless and quiet but far from empty. It was full of tenacious life. I thought of all John and I still had, and everything yet to come.
BACK AT home it was brilliantly spring. The trees were leafing and the flowers blossoming. Six more trilliums had popped up. As my body healed, I took out the trowel and weeded around the flowers and the ferns. Under our bedroom window I dug a hole into which we planted a cutting from a black rose that my grandfather had given me, from a plant his mother had given him. We laid a small strip of paper in the dirt, where the roots would take hold of it. On it I’d written a message to our child: “For as long as we had you, we loved you. Wildly.”