I lie back against the paper-coated examination table, alone at my first appointment, eight weeks pregnant. I’m thankful that I’m not violently ill like in my last two pregnancies. I look up at the ultrasound screen with an unhindered joy — soon, I will berate myself for it. You should have known better than to be happy.
Instead of finding a peanut-sized body on the screen, I see nothing. Emptiness. I watch reality flick across my doctor’s face. She gathers herself to say the words I know are coming.
“I’m sorry. I can’t find a baby here. It looks like the embryo just never developed.”
The day is lonely. I call a friend to pick my oldest son up from camp. I barely breathe the words to her: No baby. More tests. My husband, Chris, is working from home, watching my other son, who’s sick. I drive from the doctor’s office to the hospital. Another ultrasound. More emptiness. Another blood test. More bad results.
What do you really lose when you lose a pregnancy? Did I lose a child? Can you lose a child that never really existed? A child that never developed?
* * *
A friend recently sent me a note after hearing about my loss: “Miscarriage is the strangest grief, ghostly but intensely embodied.” That word, ghostly, has stayed with me. What is it to lose a child who never became? What is it to host death in your own living body? In the womb that always before gave life? Ghostly grief. Ghostly sorrow.
* * *
The day after the ultrasounds, I’m still pregnant. That is the part no one warns you about. That you’ll still feel exhausted, you’ll still feel burdened. When there’s nothing in the ultrasound, you either wait for your body to get the memo or you schedule the procedure to rid yourself of the leftovers, your body’s failed attempt at giving life. Either choice demands waiting, days of carrying the lifelessness inside you.
I choose the procedure. I want it out of me. I feel betrayed and embarrassed by a body that lied to me.
I schedule the D&C for Tuesday, five days from now.
The boys have one more day of camp. All week, I’ve been working. But the day after the terrible news, I decide to take a break. I’ll shop. I’ll get a manicure.
I force a smile for the nail technician. She says, “Oh, you’re having a nice day today, getting your nails done.”
“Yeah.” I say. “I don’t do this often, but the kids are at camp and I’m trying to enjoy my time without them.”
“Oh, how many kids do you have?”
“Two,” I say. And breathe deeply. Thank you, God. For two healthy kids.
“More for you?”
“What?” I look up from my nails. I stare at her eyes, willing her to unsay her words.
“You want more? More kids?”
I want this conversation to stop. I ask God to zap our mouths so we don’t have to finish. I think: This was a bad idea, getting your nails done. You should be working. I feel my nerves light up along the base of my womb where NOTHING and everything lives. The place that formed my living babies and let this baby die. Or did it ever exist at all?
I look at this woman, whose eyes are cast down on her work, my fingers. I try to gather grace for her. How could she know the sharp stab of such a question?
“Yes.” I say. “I do.” I look back down at my nails and try not to tremble the words. “Want more kids.”
“Oh, yes. Maybe someday, huh?”
I nod my head. Yes, maybe someday.
* * *
Chris goes with me to the D&C procedure. We sit in the waiting room until they call my name and walk together into the clean, white room. It looks just the same as the room I sat in last week. The room I walked into with plans for a baby in January: a new year, a new life.
I change into the white robe and lie on the table. Dr. Lam opens the door, his face already set in compassion. He’s an older, gentle man with kind eyes. He grabs my hand. “I am so sorry.”
And then it starts. The drug shot into my arm sends me whirling. They said I would feel drunk. What I feel is a spinning white room and a much-too-conscious mind. I keep my eyes closed so the ceiling stops moving. I was hoping for happy gas, the childhood cavities stuff that left me giggling all the way home.
I’m not drunk, not giggling. There’s the first sting. And the “pressure,” they call it. It feels like a shove, an internal punch. I dig my nails into Chris’ hand while the whoosh of pain shoots through my lower body. That’s when they turn on the vacuum.
A vacuum made for a vagina, I think. The pain rolls in again, too reminiscent of childbirth. I grip Chris’ hands and let my tears escape in silence, except for the vacuum sucking out eight weeks of life-giving. Am I crying because of the pain? The sadness?
I think to myself: This is what abortion feels like. And I think of all the girls who do this alone. All the women in the world who have lost a baby or chosen to lose a baby. All the women who have dug fingernails into the table, and not into the hands of someone who loves them.
When it’s over, blood drips onto the paper beneath me. My blood, remnants of the life that didn’t make.
I’m too woozy to stand. I lie still in silence while the doctor and nurse put away the equipment. They turn the lights low for me. I open my eyes and look for where the vacuum is kept, where the pregnancy my body made has been neatly disposed of. I see a box. In there, I think. And I tell myself that there is no baby there. It never developed, I tell myself. It never really happened.
* * *
What I didn’t know about miscarriage was the power of the passing months. The seasons of internal lifelessness gathered and charted. I’d never watched from this vantage point, where time passes and I remain empty.
The Internet makes it harder, of course. Always there are pregnancy announcements, women due at the same time I was due. I ache for the baby that never was.
Ghostly grief, my friend said.
* * *
In the weeks that follow my procedure, I travel with my children to Texas and the mountains and the East Coast. I walk by myself on dirt roads and watch sunsets. I tell my story to friends: the sound of the vacuum, the mysterious sorrow of losing a child that never actually lived.
“You want more kids?” Everyone asks this: strangers at the grocery store and the post office and well-meaning friends at the park. What does it mean to want? To make space for life in a place that carried death?
“I do,” I whispered to the woman at the nail salon the day after my baby wasn’t there, the day after I learned of its life undone, its life dissolved into my body.
“I do.” Like the vows I took before my husband 10 years ago in that white fitted dress, in my toned, younger body that had never given nor received life.
I’ll say it again. I do, I will. Vows, all of them.
Image courtesy of Volkan Olmez.