The first miscarriage was the one that destroyed me.
I lost four more babies; suffered a failed adoption; and barely saw my first born before she was yanked from between my legs – limp and drenched in a dark, life-sucking coat of meconium – then rushed to specialists trained to cheat death.
But that first loss, when my body cramped and convulsed and spit out a baby we so desperately wanted, is what shattered my heart. It robbed me of hope and started a years-long spiral into grief, despair and, ultimately, nothingness.
Exhausted by the anguish and terrified of feeling it again, I turned off as one loss became two. I numbed myself as two bled into three, and the doctors called me infertile. I became a shell and didn’t feel the fourth miscarriage or remember the fifth. I disassociated from my body when the doctors told me they intubated our first born and knocked her out after she had an eight-minute seizure. That person, sitting speechless and alone in the hospital room after they rushed our baby to a first-rate NICU at a different hospital in another city? That wasn’t me.
But it was.
I was 30 and married just a few months when I first got pregnant. I didn’t know much about babies, didn’t have friends who had them – or lost them. And I certainly never heard the statistic that as many as 1 in 4 pregnancies end in miscarriage.
We pored over baby name books at the bookstore and delighted my parents with the news. We heard the baby’s heartbeat and marked the due date on the calendar.
Then we saw blood. Just a spot. “It’s common in early pregnancy,” the nurse told us over the phone. “Try not to worry.” So, we didn’t. We believed her. We didn’t know enough not to. Idiots.
Then I bled more and they asked us, ever so calmly, to come in to the office. “Let’s just take a look.”
I sat in the passenger’s seat while Kent drove down the interstate and I tried not to think this was anything more than typical bleeding. Truthfully, though, I feared otherwise. Kent excitedly pulled an ultrasound photo from his suit pocket as we readied for the doctor; he couldn’t wait to compare the growth from the last appointment to now.
Ten years later, I can still see the inside of the car and the exit from the highway as it was that day that changed everything. I see the inside of the doctor’s office and Kent fiddling with the black and white photo.
“Put it away,” I snapped nervously. Sure he was jinxing the luck we needed.
And then, quick and impersonal as a business transaction at the bank, the doctor inserted the ultrasound wand, marked the top and bottom of the little bean with an X and explained that he didn’t see a heartbeat.
“Put your clothes back on and when I come back in we’ll talk,” he said.
We left the office in silence, a short, poorly-written book about miscarriage in our hands and an appointment for a D&C on the books. The tears started in the car and rushed with scary abandon once I crumbled on to the couch at home. I hid my face and howled into a pillow. Angry, terrified, lost.
Kent made phone calls to my family, talked to my boss. He tried to explain what we didn’t understand. How it happened. Why? When.
I agonized over the “when,” made myself sick flipping through the calendar as I tried to imagine what I did the day our baby died. Because, of course, I killed the baby. We went camping a few weekends before: did scrambling over rocks and hiking to exhaustion kill the baby? I spent too many hours at the newsroom: did I drown the baby with the stress of deadlines, interviews, and vapid politicians?
The baby fell out of me in horrifying pools of blood and fluid and mangled clots the night before the doctors planned a sterile procedure on a cold operating table. I was alone in the house, doubled over with cramps when the first gush sent me running to the toilet. Over the course of the night, Kent phoned the doctor several times to ask about the shocking volume of blood spilled in the tub, the toilet, the bed, on the floor.
We left the doctor’s office the next morning in silence. We stopped for bagels – because I was famished after losing so much blood – and ate without a word: chewed food, swallowed milk, stared past each other. Like robots, if robots could eat.
Kent went to work while I called in sick the next few days, stayed home and wept with little reprieve. I listened to angry, pulsing music at deafening volume to drown the mournful wails of my heart. And I wrote a letter to the baby I held in my belly but never felt in my arms.
“Today we were supposed to see you once again, all flickers and squirms and holy, miraculous life,” I wrote. “Instead, we shall say goodbye. We came to church to do it. We had hoped the baptismal waters would rush one Sunday morning in June as the priest held you aloft and the congregation craned to see your pink body and dark hair. God would welcome you then, we thought. We didn’t know He’d want to take you now…
“Now, we entrust you to Him. Though we wanted so desperately to hold you and touch you. Love you. Watch you. Clothe and bathe and feed you. Nibble your feet and tickle your ears. We couldn’t. But we did love you. And we will miss you. You can be sure.”
I signed the letter, then Kent did too and we traveled to church to leave a pink tulip at the base of the baptismal font, a symbolic gesture to signal the start of our healing.
Ten years later, I pulled the letter from the envelope and found a leaf from a Japanese maple and a helicopter seed tucked in with it. Signs of life lost, just like our baby.
I changed, but I am not healed.