I always think about that loss, even though it was early, when I hang that ornament every year close to the top of the tree. But this year, maybe because I’m back to writing in a way I haven’t been since then, I resurrected this essay I wrote back then, as a way of dealing with my grief. It’s call First Anniversary of a Child Unborn:
I was glad to be drifting in and out, buoyed along on some small wake, that swell of water lapping against a lake shore. Marveling at what I could not feel, my feet lifted into metal footrests, my legs spread, I would remember asking for more sedative to be added to my IV drip – I wanted to drift farther out, away from the shore, to peer down at the lake bottom, at fish darting, streaks of lightning as the sun glanced off their scales. Where I could see even our child, lithe and iridescent, undulating through that underwater deep green. He (or she) receded into the shadows, and I strained to catch his glint.
That was the way I would always imagine our baby, iridescent and fluid, even as the doctor had explained to me that the thin tube inserted into my uterus would be suctioning out only “tissue.” Before the procedure, she had sat on the edge of my hospital bed, in a room that might as well have been windowless with the view it afforded onto a rooftop. I was relieved to have the waiting over, what finally had seemed more interminable than if we had chosen to wait for the tissue to dispel itself naturally; since the procedure was to be performed in the maternity ward of the hospital, we’d had to sit in a tiny waiting room, surrounded by women in various stages of labor. They sat arching back against each contraction. They moaned quietly, and for an hour, I clutched my husband’s hand. I focused on the television suspended from the ceiling, on a cooking show about how to make a perfect soufflé.
I was thirteen weeks when my obstetrician couldn’t detect the heartbeat. “It may just be still too early,” she said, still moving the doppler around my belly. But if I’d glanced at her face, I would have seen her concern. She resorted to a transvaginal ultrasound so that she could at least glimpse the heart, to see that black and white flickering I had witnessed only a month earlier.
The flickering was gone.
She pointed to the image of my enlarged womb, black and empty except for a tiny kidney bean with the yoke sac still attached. “By now, the fetus should be filling this,” she said, with her finger tracing the hollow shadow of my uterus.
I stared at the screen. At the image too similar in size and shape to the one a month earlier.
The doctor tried to explain that there may have been an extra chromosome or one that was actually missing. She explained something about those hormonal surges so powerful, they were able to trick the body into thinking it was still carrying a viable fetus, the reason my womb had continued to expand. She explained all of this to me in the gentlest of tones, her voice reaching me as some distant rumbling of an approaching storm.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
I squinted at the screen. I tried to make out something, some small movement, that flickering the doctor may have missed.
She left me alone to get dressed. Alone with that last image of my child frozen on a monitor screen, looming blue against the stark overhead lights.
It was at eight weeks when I first saw that flickering heartbeat, as tiny as a bird’s. I kept that little black and white image in my wallet, and began to follow our baby’s development religiously, logging onto internet sites that sent me weekly updates of his steadfast growth, in those very early days, his cells dividing hundreds of thousands of times a day. A little later, his spine, however delicate, began to form and his fingers began to bud. But on that day when there was no flickering heartbeat, there also was no skeleton, no budding fingers – at thirteen weeks, our baby hadn’t developed past his eighth week. There was the mere translucent, tentative beginnings of our child.
After the D&C, I could only imagine our baby as depleted, drained of that iridescence. I no longer could glimpse him through that underwater deep green. When I would think about my womb, it was light pink and hollow, no longer clouded with amniotic fluids and the translucent beginnings of our child. I actually did feel lighter, though it was the weightlessness of having become untethered, a balloon snapped up and hurled mercilessly. Unlike the weightlessness of sparrows I’d watch flit past the window, and I would marvel at that, how birds could orchestrate the wind. But I was thinking too hard as you can in still moments; recuperating in bed long after I’d finished my prescription of Codeine tablets, I whiled away days watching the weather channel, reruns of clouds passing over the United States, distracted only by those quick movements of birds outside the windows, what sometimes seemed nothing more than fleeting reflections across the glass.
“We can get pregnant again. I mean, at least we know we can,” my husband said one afternoon, rubbing my feet as he sat with me in our bedroom; I’d taken to bed as if I had the flu.
My husband’s hurt and disappointment ran as deep as my own. But I was grateful for his rallying himself out of his own hurt, to try and comfort me. Perhaps our miscarriage really had just been a mere fluke of nature. I was reminded of what the doctor had said, that some chromosome may have been missing, the ceasing of that heart nature’s way of telling the body that this embryo wasn’t meant to be.
On some level, I had to believe that my doctor were right -- maybe it had been, essentially, only “tissue.” So with what I thought was a changed perspective, I gathered up all my hope to begin anew. I resumed an exercise routine so that I could fit back into my jeans, all those pants that had just begun to feel too tight. I packed away the maternity clothes I’d bought too soon.
As instructed by my doctor, we waited three months before trying again. But the months passed, and by the fall, I found myself having to resort to charting my temperatures and ovulation kits. I came to know more than I ever cared to about my reproductive system, watching for all the signs of ovulation, even examining my cervix which felt nothing like the tip of a nose, as described in fertility pamphlets. I imagined what I could not see, some sea crustacean, an underwater cave reef, and I was reminded of one of my husband’s scuba diving stories, of having to fight his way through a cave, against the current, digging his elbows into the sand, struggling through a murky darkness. My imagination could stray no farther than that; my uterus now was a black hole. The dark of moonless nights when you can’t see your hand in front of you. I didn’t know I could become so fixated, but I began to feel embarrassed by our assumptions, our buying a house large enough for a family.
By Christmas at least, I had thought we would be pregnant again, so that I could forget that our first one was to have been born around the middle of December. Two weeks before Christmas, I hadn’t even put up the wreath. But just as my husband had been the one to finally get me out of bed after the D&C, so was he the one to bring down all the decorations from the attic. The tree ornaments were kept in an old torn cardboard box, and there was even the bell, a painted over-turned paper cup I’d made in kindergarten. I thought of all the times it had been wrapped and unwrapped from the old yellowed tissue paper, from that first Christmas when I’d brought it home from school, thirty-odd years ago. When I was still too young to foresee the future, to even think about what I wanted to be, what I wanted to do, when Christmas had been simply about this, unwrapping all the ornaments like new fresh surprises.
This year, the ornaments seemed old and shabby, the glazed angel’s wing chipped, and I was already dreading having to rewrap them all, when the house would be littered with dried pine needles from the tree and greens. I would have to cut the greens from out back, and for a moment, my gaze was pulled to the window, to the white humid haze drifting through our spruces; for December, the weather was unusually warm and humid, and confused robins flitted from branch to branch. I would fancy myself one of them, like the one perched on the deck railing, looking up and around, perplexed at finding himself in an unfamiliar climate.
The closer we got to Christmas, the less I was looking forward to it, and I would be up nights after dreams I couldn’t remember but feel, as if they’d brushed up against my skin. Sometimes it was the heat that would wake me up, clanking up from the basement and swooshing through our new pipes, and I would wander the house. On one of those nights, I wandered into the room that would have been the nursery.
Since my miscarriage, I hadn’t been in this room, and was somehow surprised to find it still in disarray as we’d only started to get it ready. On a wall, beneath old paint, were hints of old wallpaper, and I stared at the layers, shocked suddenly, to be reminded that the house was harboring a past other than our own. The paper was so faded, I could barely make out its pattern – tiny yellow butterflies. The butterflies were sweet and delicate, and I had to lean my head against the wall. How, after so many months, could the pain be building rather than diminishing? Like labor pains. As if I were readying myself for birth.
If we had been able to get pregnant again as quickly as we had the first time, perhaps the pain of our miscarriage would have been completely dissipated. As if our baby really had only amounted to so much tissue. But at one time, within that tissue, within that blurred imagine on a monitor screen, I had witnessed that beating heart, that rapid flickering like some tiny bird’s. I had imagined the evolution of our child, that unfolding of one cell into another, into a completed skeleton, however fragile. A mere sketch rendering yet to evolve into actual cartilage and bone, but I had been able to imagine our baby as whole and substantial, ready to be pushed out into the world. I had imagined its entrance as one to be heralded. And because of that, now I was missing something else, its departure as one to be mourned.
All these months, I had tried to do just that, to diminish my loss. That had left me yearning for more to hold on to, not less. I wished now that we’d had the chromosomal test done on the tissue. I wished that I knew whether it had been a boy or a girl. Because now I was wondering about that, my baby’s soul, if that wasn’t what I was seeking when I’d squint, trying to trace the trail of some bird rising up against the sun. As if I’d imagined that flight. As if I’d only imagined my child.
Months would pass before I would venture into that room again, before I could face repainting those walls. And I would not be preparing it as a nursery, but as an extra guest bedroom; we still would not be pregnant, and would be entering the arena of fertility treatments. But I would have moved onto a greater acceptance. Because on that first Christmas after losing our baby, that first anniversary I did not allow to pass without some recognition. On an unusually warm day, a week before Christmas, I didn’t know that I would stop into a gift store to buy an ornament. But once I was in the store, I knew exactly what I was looking for. The small one I found in the back: dangling from a tiny rose, a glass snowflake. Clear. Iridescent.
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