My flesh and blood

Nothing could have prepared me for the night when gravity loosened the grip of the fetus dying in my body.

Published March 11, 2003 4:31PM (EST)

When I was eight weeks pregnant, I visited my kooky OB/GYN for my first sonogram. She uses words like pee-hole instead of urethra and recommends heavy drinking during labor. As I lay back on the examination table, I felt giddy with the prospect of seeing my daughter for the first time -- I was certain that I was carrying a girl.

"See this black blob?" she asked and tapped the screen positioned between my knees. "That's your uterus." I had expected something bigger and brighter, pulsating like a disco ball, my tiny embryo shaking her groove thang to my amniotic beat.

"See this bright dot?" the doctor asked. "That's the embryo."

I squinted, disbelieving because how could some dot, however bright, be my daughter? In books, an eight-week embryo has form, substance, pizzazz. A kidney bean with great black eyes and a tail. This dot looked like nothing. A speck. A blip. Hardly something to pin all my hopes and desires on.

The doctor tapped the screen again and said, "It should be bigger by now."

When I decided to have a child, I read in books every glorious and gory detail of pregnancy, all of which was labeled the "miracle of childbirth." I followed the progression of my embryo on colorful charts. At four weeks she was tiny, nearly microscopic, with no eyes or fingers or toes, just a blob of tissue and a bundle of nerves. (I knew just how she felt.) At six weeks she was a quarter of an inch long with tiny buds for arms and legs. I wanted to take her out and dress her up as if she were an itty-bitty doll.

I had believed everything I read like a born-again Christian accepting the Gospel as truth. And, I was delighted at how easily I had attained the divine state of impending motherhood. So when my doctor told me there might be a problem, I refused to believe her. I chose instead to think that my wee girl was simply shy and did not wish to be seen.

At home I looked at my books but I didn't read the thin chapters called "Pregnancy Loss" because that's a stupid title. As if some negligent mother misplaced her pregnancy like an errant set of keys. As if she could look between couch cushions or inside her overcoat pockets and well, there it was! That darn embryo. Always getting lost.

Instead, I looked at the development charts again. I studied what my baby was supposed to look like. She should have been an inch long, the size of my thumb tip with a perfectly formed head and dark spots for eyes, even the beginnings of soft eye lids. She should have had elbows and wrists that waggled her tiny webbed hands while her feet paddled frog-like below. With her grape-seed lungs and miniscule finger buds she could play a tiny oboe as she somersaulted inside of me. I put my hand down below my belly button and told her silently that I loved her and hoped that she would stay with me, even if she was a little bit small just then.

Secretly I wondered if my baby was dying. This seemed egregiously unfair. I should have known if my daughter was alive inside of me or if I was carrying something dead. If she was in distress, I wanted to console her, take her pain for my own. Yet I wouldn't let my mother do the same for me. I avoided her calls, claiming that I was too busy or too tired to talk. In truth I was hiding. Not from my mother, but from the looming sorrow that I could never disguise if my mother were to hear my voice.

On the morning of the second sonogram, I woke early because I had to pee. (By then I always had to pee.) I stumbled sleepily to the bathroom, for a moment forgetting that I was worried until I saw a bright red stain of blood in my underwear and whimpered. I called my OB/GYN who said there was nothing she could do. That I was likely miscarrying and had to let my body take care of itself. She named my disorder "blighted ovum." I thought that sounded like a riot grrrl band so I said, "Oh yeah, I have their first album 'Spontaneous Abortion.'"

The phone was silent and then she said, "Do you deal with things through humor?"

"Rather badly," I admitted.

"Miscarriage happens to a lot of women," she said. "It's perfectly normal."

I wanted to ask her for a certificate to prove I was perfectly normal because at that moment I felt like such a failure.

That day, I read everything about miscarriage in my pregnancy books, which said to expect heavy bleeding and cramping and passing of tissue (as if I had been gestating a box of Kleenex.) My husband brought me five different kinds of sanitary napkins (with wings and propellers, parachutes and jump seats, but no escape hatches; I was in this for the long haul.) I napped often. Cried sometimes. Watched as much confessional TV as I could stomach. Occasionally the cramps took my breath away.

In the evening, I told my husband that I wanted to get out of the house. Go out to dinner and take a walk. Get my mind off of what was happening in my body because now I knew what to expect. I had done my research. I had read in books that a miscarriage was nothing more than a severe period. I could handle that.

But nothing could have prepared me for that full-moon night when gravity loosened the grip of the fetus dying in my body. And it plummeted in a sickening slide from between my legs to land in a quivering mess in my underwear. I was on the street corner across from my house with my husband when this happened. I squeezed his fingers until they were red then white and walked like an elderly woman with slow unsure steps because at that moment there was more death in me than there was life.

In my bathroom, I lowered my jeans with my eyes half-closed because I didn't want to see what had come loose from my body. I sat on the toilet and carefully pulled out the sanitary napkin. The books said that my embryo was an inch long. The tip of my thumb. The pictures made it seem as if the baby floated happily around inside of me like an alien astronaut attached to me by a long thin cord. But that wasn't it.

All kinds of extraneous material held everything in place and gave my daughter what she needed inside of me. And all of it had fallen out. Nowhere in that mess did I see the body of my daughter because she was packed inside a yellow orb. A spaceship built for one. Part of me wanted to touch the quivering glob in my hands. Break it open with my fingernail like a soft egg and expose her to the world. I wanted to see her, just once. Hold her minuscule hand and look into her eyes. But it seemed profane to disturb her cocoon so I didn't touch it.

Instead, I held it up with both hands as if it were an altar that I was offering to an angry God and I keened, a sound so desperate and sad that it even surprised me. I wanted to create some sort of shroud from gauzy fabric and carve a box from fragrant wood in order to bury what I'd lost. But when my husband knocked on the door and pleaded to know if I was OK, I panicked and quickly wrapped up the remains in wads of toilet paper to spare him the sight of my failure.

I wondered, how could I have lost this child? I was a healthy 33-year-old woman whose Italian grandmother had borne nine babies. My mother and her eight fertile siblings spent their reproductive years blissfully making families. Now most of my 20 or so cousins have kids of their own. Sixteen-year-olds could have babies. Forty-five-year-olds toted infants. Yet I could not even keep my pregnancy for 10 weeks.

My husband entered and gently took the bundle from me. In his confusion he placed it in an oversized trash bag as he gathered everything else from the floor around me (ruined underwear, tissues, unused pads) as if all of it had been contaminated. That part killed me. I didn't mean to dispose of her so easily, but I couldn't find the words to tell him to stop. That was our daughter.

For the next 10 days I cried and slept and bled. I could not believe how much blood my body could lose without killing me. Ropy red nodules fell out of me. That got old quickly. I wondered what would fall out next. A shoe? An old tire? Jimmy Hoffa? Nothing would have surprised me. I washed and washed the blood away. Watched it circle pink into the drain. I couldn't imagine what it would be like not to bleed anymore. And I was afraid of when the blood would dry up because then it would be over and I would have to move on.

My husband tried very hard to do things right. He asked me numerous times a day how I was. I answered each inquiry into my well-being with, "Feeling better" or "More like myself" or finally the biggest lie of all in which I claimed to be "fine" because really, by then, I should have been.

I asked him how he was, not because I wanted to know. I didn't. What I wanted to know was how he could be so damn cheery all the time. Why he hadn't missed any days of work when I hadn't been able to write a word for weeks. Why he refused to call what we lost a baby, instead always referring to it as a fetus. What I really wanted to do was kick him in the balls because he was not as sad as I was.

Since I couldn't do that, I picked fights with him. Small ones at first over who cleaned the toilet or how much to tip the slutty waitress at a diner. When that was not enough, I lay in bed and accused him of not loving me anymore or never having loved me in the first place (or some variation on this theme) until he finally lost his infinite patience and snapped, "When are you going to get over this?"

That was all I needed to scream, "I lost a baby and you want me just to forget about it! You never did love me! You are probably glad I lost it so you can leave me!"

This made perfect sense to me. I thought, of course, I will lose him now. I had a baby inside of me. I imagined her future. I loved her dearly. And she should have lived, but she died. That's not supposed to happen, but it did. So of course, it was entirely possible that my husband might not love me anymore, either.

I clawed at the sheets and wailed, "I miss my baby so much, I want my baby back," like some creepy doo-wop song. Hearing myself say it out loud broke my heart again because I remembered just how much I had wanted that pregnancy and how much I had lost.

My husband tried to console me. He kissed the top of my head and rubbed my back as I lay rigidly. Through clenched teeth, I told him that I was fine. That I shouldn't have gotten so upset. And I apologized for being hysterical. I said that he was right. None of this was such a big deal. I should have been over it by now. It was just a baby. Not even a real baby. A fetus. People lose them all the time. It was nothing. I could handle it. And I was sorry to be such a burden.

I heard myself say it all and I cringed with every word until my stomach squeezed and I thought that I might vomit. Who was this woman apologizing for grief? Who was this woman blaming herself for something beyond her control? Other women did that. Women from the 1950s who were unfulfilled and hid behind the identity of their husbands. Mrs. Bud Simmons from 15 Nutmeg Lane in a shirtwaist dress and Betty Crocker apron would do that. Not me.

I had lost myself, though. My vision of me as a strong, independent woman included the ability to bear children. My success in any other endeavor paled in comparison to my deficiency as a potential mother. I felt powerless. The urgent need to accept blame overwhelmed me. Most of all, I hated that I had reduced myself to this sniveling stereotype of a helpless woman.

Only, I didn't have to feel that way.

My husband wrapped himself around me and whispered into my hair, "You should write about this."

How could I ever do that, I wondered? How could I write about my miscarriage when I wanted the story of my daughter to remain interred? Wrapped in the gauzy fabric of my sadness. Enclosed in the intricate carvings of my womb. But my husband was right. The emotional devastation and physical pain of miscarriage stays hidden too often. No one ever talks about it, least of all the pregnancy books women consult.

So I grappled with my grief. Gestated it until I could smooth it black and white across the page, a story with a beginning, middle and end. I exposed myself in graphic detail in order to create this eulogy for my daughter. To give her the final and proper burial that she never received.

By Heather Swain

Heather Swain is a freelance writer who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her first novel, "Eliot's Banana," will appear in bookstores this September.

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