I have made a few changes to the article. I think it is ready... let me know. It comes in at 3,900 words. 4,000 is the max, so it is just under the wire.
Fire & Ashes
Today is an important day in my life. A big, red X on the calendar marks it as such. It’s my due date, the day our third child was supposed to join our family. But nothing monumental transpires. A typical day rises and falls in a very ordinary fashion. I wake up, go to work, come home, eat supper, clean the kitchen, bath the kids and tuck them in. As night descends, I lie awake in bed, filled with a sense of longing and sadness. For though today is my due date, one crucial fact remains: I’m not pregnant. I reflect back to the dawning of a summer morning just eight months before. A sleepless night had passed, the question of whether or not I was pregnant weighing heavy on my mind. It seemed too good to be true. After all, we had only started trying a mere month before. But, a home test the previous evening had suggested the faintest impression of a positive result. So I woke early, intent on testing my morning urine, hoping for a stronger indication. Anxiously, I repeated the test, and this time it was clearly positive. When I emerged from the bathroom, I was filled with a sense of wonder and excitement. We were having another baby. The world was full of hope and possibility. I was naively unaware of the way my life was about to be profoundly and forever changed, not once, but twice.
Without warning, the pregnancy ended at seventeen weeks. Up to that point, things had been progressing normally, with no indication of impending disaster. No spotting. No cramping. Nothing. Okay, maybe in retrospect there was some warning. Suddenly I wasn’t nauseated anymore, a fact which I was elated about. And I had so much more energy. My pregnancy had taken a sudden turn for the better. Or so I had thought.
At the time I didn’t question the loss of the symptoms. At seventeen weeks, it seemed reasonable at that time that those symptoms would disappear.
So there was no obvious warning. I don’t know why that matters so much. If I had had warning, would I be happier now? I doubt it. I somehow don’t picture myself sitting here saying ‘oh, well, at least we had warning, I guess we can’t complain.’ I can’t figure out exactly how it matters that we had no warning, but yet, somehow, for some reason beyond my comprehension: it does.
It was just at a regular prenatal check. I remember sitting in the waiting room, flippantly reading this cheesy romancy novel. My mood was light, like the book I skimmed, and I waited patiently for my name to be called, not anxious or fearful in the least. After all, there was nothing to be fearful of. Just a routine check. Weight, blood pressure, and a quick listen to the baby’s heart.
But a quick listen to the baby’s heart took a lot longer than it should. For the first ten or twenty seconds I was not alarmed when the doctor struggled to find the rhythmic lub dub, a simple sound that conveyed so much. But as the seconds ticked by, a growing dread mounted. The doctor repositioned the Doppler several times, each time turning up nothing but the sound of my own heart beating and a bunch of static. After a few minutes, the doctor turned the Doppler off. She stated the obvious, that she was having a hard time finding the heart beat. But obvious though it was, hearing the words spoken out loud changed everything. It brought the gravity of the issue into startling focus. And though I tried to tell myself that these things happen, that fetal heart rates can be hard to find and it doesn’t necessarily mean anything, I couldn’t help but recall my previous appointment, where the heart beat was instantly audible. Within minutes, I was in another waiting room, more than slightly shaken. It wasn’t so much a room as a small antechamber with three folding chairs lined in a row. Two other people sat, awaiting ultrasound. They glanced surreptitiously at me now and then but said nothing. A part of me couldn’t wait for my name to be called. I needed to know. Another part of me wanted to give up my turn to someone else when my name was called. I didn’t want to know. My stomach flip flopped with my mind. I felt sick, I felt okay. My name was called. I found myself standing up and being led to a small exam room. It took but a moment for the ultrasound to simultaneously confirm my worst fears and obliterate my highest hopes. The baby was dead. I cried and cried. None of it seemed real. This couldn’t be happening.
After all, we’d had no warning.
They had to induce me into labor. It was a weird feeling, being in labor at seventeen weeks. I could feel my stomach hardening. I would put my hand on my stomach and feel my tiny baby. And I always felt this urge to try to protect this baby, this perfect person whom I had loved from the beginning. From the very moment that I saw the pink line begin to form across the home pregnancy test. I didn’t want my body to expel it, though I knew intellectually that it was dead no matter what. Dead if I expelled it, dead if I defied my body and kept it tucked away inside me. Anyways, it was a feeling I can’t quite explain. I wanted it to be over. I didn’t want it to be over. I just wanted to be back in that waiting room. Reading that dumb book, innocently unaware of everything that lay ahead.
It took a long time. Throughout the night the pains would come. I would wake up, shift around, fall back asleep. I didn’t try to time the contractions. It wasn’t a happy labor, like in the movies when the wife wakes up and nudges her husband “I think it’s time”. It wasn’t like that at all. I think I wanted to ignore the fact that I was having contractions. I just wanted to be asleep, adrift in some alternate reality where none of these things were really happening to me.
In the morning I woke up to go the bathroom, which brought with it a certain amount of dread. The nurse had put a hat in the toilet the night before “just in case”. The silent implication of that stared at me every time I went into the bathroom. But I told myself there was nothing I could do. It was going to be traumatic. Whether it happened in the hospital bed or in the toilet, the baby would come one way or another.
I went to the bathroom rather uneventfully, though I did notice some blood in the hat, which hadn’t happened before. I stood up to go back to bed. Water trickled out and formed a little pool on the bathroom floor. My water had broken. I shuffled back into bed, startled and scared. I woke up and told my husband, Geoff.
“That’s a relief,” he said.
“Well, finally, things are starting to happen.”
We had been in the hospital now for about sixteen hours. I understood what he meant, but certainly I did not share in his relief. I sensed that things were about to get intense. Was I prepared for what lied ahead? Could one ever be prepared?
We had talked last night, Geoff and I. It would have been almost cozy, had the circumstances been different. His small cot was pulled up against my hospital bed, and together we lay, whispering to each other by the low light of the hospital hallways. I decided that I wanted to see the baby afterwards. Geoff decided emphatically that he didn’t. We respected each others choice. For Geoff it was like the less he knew about the baby the better. But I wanted to know everything that could be known. But now I was second guessing myself. Did I really want to see? And would I really be able to face it alone?
The pains got steadily worse. A resident examined me. Snapping her gloves off, which I couldn’t help but notice, were now heavily soiled with blood, she said that I was sufficiently dilated to deliver the baby, but the baby was still really high up. As soon as it came down a bit, it would be over with. In the meantime they offered me morphine. I waited for them to hook up the IV and the tears streamed down my face. I was crying because of the pain, first and foremost, but also because of the sadness. I was delivering my baby. What I had anticipated as such a happy moment in my life was near at hand. Except it wasn’t happy. I would leave the hospital with empty arms and a flat stomach.
It happened fast after that. The baby came quickly and quietly. Indeed, at the time I wasn’t even aware of it happening. A doctor came in to examine me again, a different doctor this time. I felt a kind of gush as he removed his hand. He informed me that the baby was passed. And with that it was over.
Later on, the nurse brought the baby to me. Though I was scared for this moment, I knew that I needed to say goodbye. And to know everything that I could know about the child that I had carried. The child that I had lost, who had once surely moved within me, little hands clenching and unclenching, little legs kicking. Perhaps he once sucked his thumb, lulled to sleep by the steady rhythm of my own heart beat. He was brought to me in a little wicker basket, which had been made up with yellow blankets. His whole body fit into a bootie, and only the little face peered out. What I can mostly remember was how he had his one hand curled into a fist and tucked neatly under the little chin. I remember him that way. Little fingers the size of spaghetti strands. And it gives me a good feeling. He didn’t look cute, objectively speaking. In fact he was down right alien looking. But he was posed in a cute way. And that is what my mind has chosen to remember. That tiny ball of a fist.
The decision to try again was a simple one. I had inside me an intense and almost primal urge to carry another child. My husband was a bit more reticent, in light of the physical and emotional blow we were still recovering from. But I was insistent that what had happened was a freak thing, and that certainly we would not have the misfortune of experiencing anything like that again. For me, the thought of seeing another positive pregnancy test was like the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. My healing from the loss of one pregnancy seemed contingent upon embarking on another. The time that elapsed between pregnancies was a blur of marking my cycle, counting days until I was fertile, and endless pregnancy tests. It took three months, but alas, finally, a positive result. I was elated. I wasn’t nervous in the least about the fate of the baby, as I held such a strong conviction that life could not be so cruel as to take from me once again the one thing that I wanted the most in the world.
But I was wrong.
Flash forward three weeks later and I find myself poised at the pharmacy counter, slightly nervous at the prospect of buying Tylenol #1’s. I made a concerted effort to keep my eyes on the level. Avoiding eye contact could make me seem suspicious. The urge to spew forth an explanation was almost overwhelming. I practiced it in my mind’s eye. “I don’t normally take these things. But I’m having a miscarriage and I’m worried about the pain, so that’s why I need them. I’m not a crazed drug addict or anything like that. You could call my doctor, name’s Shanna and I now know the phone number off by heart. It’s all legit. Too legit to quit, in fact.” Okay, so that last bit was unnecessary, I reprimanded myself inwardly. But she nary batted an eye as she handed over the bottle of 50 codeine pills. Feeling triumphant, I left the store, intent on beginning my next, and perhaps less exciting mission.
Necessity does the work of courage, or so I had once heard. And I do believe this to be fundamentally true. We do what we have to do when we have to do it, simply because we have to do it, not because we are noble or great or otherwise of above average virtue. Even at the tender age of six, my younger brother alluded to this, commenting “sometimes a mans got to do what a mans got to do’ when facing the rather grim task of removing our dead rabbit from its’ hutch, its’ cold and lifeless body solid from rigor.
And sometimes a woman’s got to do what a woman’s got to do, I thought sardonically, brining myself forward to the present.
I’m not sure what was more daunting: the fact that I had to insert the medication my doctor had given me into my vagina “as far up as they will go”, or the knowledge that once in there they will set to work immediately at forcing the contents of my uterus out. And though neither notion particularly appealed to me, I nonetheless found myself inserting the tabs with the same detachment and aloofness one might expect when applying bug repellent or taking a cold pill, simply because I had to do it. And then, all that was left was do was wait.
It had already been a full week of waiting, so I was intimately familiar with the concept. I had my first ultrasound ten days previously. It was intended only to reassure me, because of what happened last time. But reassuring it was not.
Immediately it seemed that there was a problem. The radiologist pointed out the gestational sac, and even my untrained eye could see that it was lacking a rather crucial element- the embryo. But that was that. The radiologist suggested another scan in a week or so to see if anything would grow, which he said was possible because at such an early stage things could change drastically even from one day to the next.
The next five days passed too slowly. Part of the time I was optimistic. But most of the time I was inclined to think the worst. It just didn’t seem possible that I could be losing another pregnancy. And yet, it was difficult to convince myself otherwise. The day of the scan arrived. I prepared myself for the worst, but had a brief moment of elation when there was a little squiggle of a person visible in the sac. The unthinkable had happened. The baby had begun to form. But in the radiologists’ next breath, my hope was stolen back. He didn’t like the look of the heart beat. He zoomed in and it became clear that the heart was beating, only very slowly. Too slowly, in fact. The heart rate was 85. It should have been 120-160. It was not a good sign. The uncertainty that I had been living with had made a rather unwelcome comeback.
It didn’t take too long to learn from the internet that a fetal heart rate of less than ninety on a six to eight week scan is a dire finding, usually resulting in imminent fetal demise. Though no one had straight out given me any odds, I estimated them to be at less than ten percent. But, even as bleak as that was, I refused to give up hope. Even any chance was better than no chance, after all. I had my blood taken every 48 hours to check my hormone levels. If they were going up, that was a good sign. But if they started going down, it meant that the baby was gone. It was a long and difficult wait for the news to come, though in reality it only spanned three days. At one point, I was so desperate for an answer that I contemplated presenting in the ER with vague abdominal complaints so they would have to perform an ultrasound. What dissuaded me was the fact that vague abdominal complaints would, in all likelihood, only result in a seven to fifteen hour wait in any ER. At times I doubled up on my Materna, rationalizing to myself that this would make my baby stronger, though I knew this intellectually to be pure superstition. I told myself that all I wanted was an answer. Whichever way it went, I would deal with it. But the waiting was more agonizing than any bad news I might (hypothetically) receive. Or so I had once, (naively) believed.
“I’m afraid I don’t have good news for you,” began my doctor once the results were in. I felt as though I had somehow inadvertently walked onto the set of some twisted reality show. “Randine Sorowski, please join me at center stage. The results are in. Was your HCG in the top three or the bottom three?”, the host would say as harsh, purple light blind me before a rapt audience. Except that there was so much more at stake than a mere recording contract or monetary prize. This was life, delicate, precious life that hung in the balance. I cannot recall the exact substance of the conversation, because I felt rather than heard her words. They came at me like a physical assault. And though I knew that this was happening; knew that I had this date from that first, ill fated, ultrasound; it came as a horrible shock somehow still.
The following day found me in a busy OBGYN office downtown. If there’s anything worse than being in the throws of a miscarriage, it’s being in the throws of a miscarriage and sitting amidst a crowd of obscenely pregnant women. Everything that I had lost seemed to be staring me in the face as they patted their swollen bellies, too smugly, it seemed to me. Angrily, I swiped tears away, while erstwhile trying to appear immersed in Today’s Parent. I began to worry that my tearfulness and obviously unpregnant abdomen would peg me as an abortion seeker, which in a sense I was, though certainly not through my own choosing. This was the same office that I had sat in five months earlier. Sitting in that room again made my stomach swirl with familiar emotions, not forgotten but merely stowed away. It was like bad deja vu. Except it wasn’t deja vu. This was really happening.
That was the first time that I really felt a deep loss of personal control. We plan our lives to happen a certain way. Stop taking the pill, monitor your cycle, take the folic acid, controlling things every step of the way. But it was all an illusion. We control none of it. The fertilization of an egg is a chance occurrence. It’s very survival is a chance occurrence, despite our best laid plans. And in fact, aren't we all dying since the day that we're born? Or perhaps, more accurately, since before we're born? In a way, we are all just rabbits in the hutch, our destinies far beyond our own control, just waiting passively for our time expire. I felt that loss of control in a broad, cosmic sense, as well as in smaller, more minute, ways. Sit here, wait her, sign this, stand up, sit down, wear this gown, put your feet here, etc, etc. I was being prodded along like a beast of burden. These things were happening to my body, and I had absolutely no control over any of it. I was merely a silent witness to what was happening inside of me. That realization was both madly infuriating as well as deftly saddening.
It was at that appointment where I received the pills which were to cause the miscarriage to happen. But the pills did not work as they were supposed to. Every day that passed without bleeding, I felt strangely relieved, though I knew intellectually that the baby was not viable whether I bled a lot, and just as non viable if I bled none at all. They say that denial is the first stage of grieving, and perhaps it was all too easy to deny the loss when there were no outward signs of anything happening. I could almost convince myself for a second that ‘maybe the lab just made a mistake’, or ‘maybe the radiologist simply looked away and didn’t quite catch the heart beat.’ But in my heart of hearts, I did understand the finality of the situation. It was in being able to accept it that I struggled.
The following week, they performed a D&C to remove the ‘products of conception’ from my uterus. And though it was a difficult time for me, I could not help but feel a sense of relief that it was all over and done with. I have few reminders left of that pregnancy. One ultrasound picture, a hospital band and a single appointment card with the obstetrician. It is all the concrete proof I have that, indeed, I really was pregnant for a time.
And now here I sit, asking myself unanswerable questions at a time when I should be rejoicing in new life, but am instead grieving for it once again. I guess it is at this point where I’m supposed to conclude with something profound about what I have learned or how I have grown. And though I’m sure that these experiences have changed me as a person just as certainly as I know they’ve changed the course of my life, I’m at a loss as to how to accurately and concisely convey this on paper to you, my reader. Is my heart broken? Yes. But as Celine taught us, the heart does go on. The fire that I had within me to have another baby is now extinguished, the ashes merely smoldering. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Or say they say at funerals. Except there will be no funeral to lay my broken dreams to rest. And yet, I know that the hope and potential that I sensed in the world eight months ago still exists. It is simply of a different nature now, rather than gone altogether. I see that hope and potential every day in the lives of the two children that we already have, and I draw pleasure out of the simple moments with them. The feel of my daughters’ small hand entwined in mine, or the adoring gaze I sometimes catch her giving her big brother. The sound of their laughter. Blowing bubbles in the sunlight. These small moments, these idle moments, are so stark in their simplicity and yet, so brilliant in their power to uplift. They are precious, delicate, though, as they are too easily taken for granted.
Life is precious.
And I guess, this is the lesson I have learned.
Now I need but to live it.