The sneaker salesman asks me about my exercise preferences -- aerobics? running? -- and I'm halfway through a detailed history of step classes and speed walking before I realize how ridiculous the regimen must sound considering the heft I'm carrying around. I want to explain that my excess flab is the product of recent childbirth, but stop myself midsentence.
I can't tell the sneaker salesman that I'm shaping up postpartum because, unlike most new mothers, I don't have a baby. One day after my son was due, his umbilical cord became entangled around his neck. He died, still snug in my womb, before he could be born.
It's just not a thing you toss into casual conversation. Yet, this self-imposed, socially correct silence is painful to maintain. I attend showers and cocktail parties, where women I've never met are talking about their pregnancies and their kids. I don't want to impose the burden of my personal tragedy on strangers, but I also don't want to have to stand in these circles denying who I am.
I craved oranges and had burning pelvic pain, too. My epidural also didn't take on the first try. But, of course, the natural progression of such remarks -- Congratulations! Did you have a boy or girl? What's his name? How old is he? -- makes such contributions impossible. So I stay quiet. And with each incident of forced, unnatural muteness, of pretending I did not have a baby, I lose my son all over again.
You don't realize how many strangers you chatter with each day until you must guard each word to avoid mentioning the most significant event of your life. You do not appreciate how many acquaintances you can go a year or more without contacting until the specter of a chance encounter turns routine functions like grocery shopping or visiting the local pub into perilous exercises of anxiety and avoidance. You cannot know how important your physical appearance is to you until you cannot provide every person you meet with the excuse of pregnancy for your fat.
My husband refuses to be robbed of the heartbreaking pride he still takes in having sired a child. I watch him tell old friends and associates. I watch his face contort with the effort of reconciling stubborn traces of joy with the awkwardness and discomfort that comes from sharing this information. But my husband keeps himself in a pretty tight orbit of friends, family and colleagues. If my world is to extend beyond the safe cocoon of people who know what happened -- and for me, it must -- I have to be prepared to suppress the most distinct part of who I am.
A full-term stillbirth is not the worst-case scenario in pregnancy; it is the unfathomable. You skip that chapter in the pregnancy book, not so much because the idea is too awful to consider but because it is too improbable, too horrible -- you think -- to actually happen. When it does happen, you learn that the unimaginable does indeed happen, that there is no reason to really believe that it can't or won't. The basic human inclination to hope for the best -- in times of eager promise or fearful anxiousness -- is not only exposed as a sham, it is also no longer available to you. You become proof of the foolishness and naiveté of such faith.
My son did not look dead. He was pink and round and perfectly formed and appeared only to be deep in a peaceful baby slumber. His eyes were closed, but there was an expression on his face, a thoughtful one, as if he had spent some time pondering his future, planning his entry into the world. The secret of who he would have been was permanently trapped inside him, but its presence was unmistakable. Personality, humor, intelligence, talent -- potential my son would never have the chance to realize, potential from which the world would never benefit.
I see his face every minute of every day, and when I see it -- when he was born, and now, in my memory -- I think of what happened as some sort of payback, a restitution for past sins or transgressions. Yet I have no sense of any cosmic debt being paid, of karmic accounts being settled. Instead, my little baby hovers above me like an angel of foreboding, a warning to heed the message of his death. I cannot figure out what that message is, what lesson I was supposed to learn, and the fear that these lessons will keep coming until I decipher the meaning of my son's death is paralyzing.
I had been very proud, almost cocky, about the speed with which I had conceived and the ease with which I carried this baby. For so many of my closest friends and relatives, procreation had become an exhausting medical process resulting from infertility and miscarriage. My pregnancy was romantic, natural. My son was going to squeeze into the world two months before my 34th birthday, six weeks before my first wedding anniversary. I had beat my biological clock and breezed through 40 weeks of tests and examinations without a complication or concern.
Pregnancy, for me, was a process in which I cast off my old self, with its mundane inadequacies and failings, and regenerated a spectacular new me in its place, a me empowered with awesome, preternatural capabilities. By the end of my pregnancy, I could not remember or imagine the reliable efficiency and functionality of my pre-pregnancy body. I could not recall an intellect that could be engaged by any subject other than the baby I was carrying. I spent the last six weeks of my pregnancy in severe, immobilizing discomfort, but that only seemed to reinforce the importance and seriousness -- the privilege -- of the condition. I could not imagine a life that was not defined by this experience.
Instead I am distinguished by a grotesque mutation of the experience. What was to be my ultimate triumph is now my most abject failure. The onset of labor did not send me to the hospital; the eerie stillness of my child, the absence of his familiar squirms and kicks, did. A team of nurses and doctors frowned at the screen of a sonogram scanner with mounting dread and alarm, and some essence of myself, something innocent and optimistic, drained away. Whatever my pregnancy had been or meant, whatever memories or expectations it had brought into our lives, collapsed into a mangled pile of useless rubble in the few seconds it took for an obstetrical resident to look up from the sonogram screen and say, "I'm sorry. There doesn't seem to be a heartbeat."
Whether a woman believes motherhood to be her most significant experience, or mothering to be her most important role, she is redefined, her identity permanently altered, once she gives birth. I am stranded in a lonely purgatory between the worlds of motherhood and childlessness. I carried my baby inside me for nine months and pushed him into the world. I know the surge of all-consuming love and pride that rushes into every cell of a person's body the instant her child is placed in her arms. But I never fed my son or changed his diaper. I never heard him cry or saw him smile. I have not had to adjust to the stress and exhaustion of this awesome new responsibility.
Everyone I know is having babies and I imagine I can hear the cliquish scorn of the other mothers I thought I'd be joining: "You're not really one of us. What ever made you think you could be?" I had been the dutiful and faithful pledge of this elite sorority, but ultimately I was only permitted to push my nose against the glass. I've had a child but I don't have my child. I fit in nowhere.
Sometimes it does feel as if the pregnancy did not actually happen, as if the whole ordeal was simply a disturbing, vivid dream or the product of my own imagination. I could be the protagonist of a science fiction thriller, my identity stolen, the last year of my life erased by mysterious evil forces. I can remember nine months of pregnancy, but other than some medical bills and excess weight, there is no real evidence of it. Sometimes, for a second, I think I'm still pregnant and just haven't had my baby yet.
Sometimes, however, my whole body will just ache for my son, a ravenous craving. I find myself at these times taking huge, deep breaths, as if I could catch a whiff of his essence in the air. I know what my husband smells like. I know the comfort of being able to summon a memory or a place, or the spirit of someone, through the power of a familiar scent. I hold the blanket and knit cap my son was wrapped in at the hospital up to my face and I inhale until my lungs are bursting; but these remnants of my baby are eerily odorless, not the faintest trace of olfactory evidence remains. Everything else in the world has a smell, or at least a scent that evokes presence, but my son did not leave one behind. I cannot even have that simple connection with him.
I sometimes see myself as a freak, the pathetic subject of a nature documentary, the slow, sad female of the species who, tricked by a cruel twist of biology into believing she has reproduced, spends her life roaming her habitat in search of her phantom offspring.
My son was born at 1 o'clock in the morning, an induced labor fast and painless under heavy dosages of epidural medication. My husband and I named him Luke Michael. We were able to hold him and kiss him and baptize him and keep him with us for hours after his birth.
They were agonizing hours, filled with fantasies that Luke's eyes would open, and punctuated by a horrible sound that I later realized was our wretched, unhinged wailing. But Luke was beautiful and he was ours; there was still a joy in holding him, still a thrill in seeing him for the first time.
I spent the next days, even the next week, trying to celebrate Luke's birth while simultaneously mourning his death. I could not stop myself from brimming with the pride of a new mother. It was a part of me that could not be kept down. Hours after I held him in my arms for the first time, I showed off my son, taking extreme advantage of a hospital policy that allowed families unlimited access to their dead newborns. Luke was held by his grandparents and aunts, passed around my hospital room in a ritual that seemed perfectly sound to me at the time, but that probably permanently traumatized my ambushed relatives. They saw his long legs, his giant feet that had jabbed my ribs, his full head of red-brown hair (light like mine, not dark and thick like his father's).
My husband and I have photographs of ourselves holding Luke; we have his lanky footprints and a lock of his hair. I sent clothes to the funeral parlor -- a diaper, an undershirt and the special homecoming outfit I had chosen for him -- to make sure he was dressed properly when he was buried. We honored him with a formal funeral, and laid him to rest in a small white casket covered in downy feathers like angel wings. I tried to be as much of a mother to my son as I had the chance to be.
But all we really have of Luke is this suffocating sadness. The hospital professionals -- the counselors and nurses and clergy -- tell us that we did know our baby, that we do have memories of him, but it's just not true. As time has passed, Luke has become more real to us, more of a presence in our lives, but what we have bonded with is the sadness, the emptiness that, like a growing child, keeps taking up more and more space in our lives. All we have to remember Luke is sadness, so we cling to it so as not to abandon our son.
We are not so selfish or self-absorbed not to know that our pain is barely a blip on the meter of world suffering and tragedy. But our small world revolves around our missing baby. Even as I struggle with the sadness that the loss of my son has unleashed in my life, I am comforted by the way my grief returns with faithful potency every time I fear I may be forgetting. It is the gaping hole in my life, where my baby and I were supposed to be together, that reminds me that I am still very much his mother. Whatever I fear now, it is not that my grief will never heal. My greatest fear is that it will.