"Am I dying?": The miscarriage that leveled me, and brought us closer

I thought when tragedy struck I’d lie in bed, unable to move forever. But love is more durable than that

Published August 14, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

  (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-2632795p1.html'>Volt Collection</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>)
(Volt Collection via Shutterstock)

This story was originally published in "The Double Dealer."

There were bad times in our first year of marriage, mostly my fault. I was jittery. Before Craig there had been a series of bad relationships. Like a cat from the pound, I flinched at phantoms, so convinced that Craig would cheat on me, or leave. I saw betrayal everywhere.

We fought about joint bank accounts (I didn’t want one). I was furious at him, poor guy, when the first piece of mail arrived addressed to Mrs. Craig Lombardi. Not one piece of my name was on the envelope. I had been subsumed by his identity, or that’s what I feared.

One morning as I was leaving for work, I sneezed, and instead of saying ‘bless you,’ Craig said, “Four.”

“Four?” I asked.

“Four sneezes.” He was tying his tie, looking in the hall mirror. “When you sneeze,” he said, “you sneeze four times. I wait to say ‘bless you’ until you’ve finished. I thought you should know.” It was such a delicate expression of surprising intimacy, of how closely he was watching. I felt like a thirsty flower, Craig’s attention a jar of water soaking my roots.

At night, when I came to bed, even if I had just come from the bathroom at three in the morning, Craig held up the corner of the blanket for me to get under. Every single time. The tiny gesture hit me so hard, made me so suddenly forgive everyone who had ever hurt me, that I didn’t tell him how much I liked it. Craig was afraid of jinxing Notre Dame football and so when they played, he wore his lucky underwear. It was for fear of jinxing my good luck that I never mentioned the lifted corner of the blanket to Craig.

By the end of that first year, as we set up a joint account (I kept my own as well), I began to relax. We settled into a peaceful rhythm of getting to know each other, the sounds of our old farm house at night, and getting to know ourselves as these new people with titles that belonged, still, more to our parents that to us. Eventually, it became clear that we were OK at marriage, that the fears I had brought with me like bags from another life had nothing to do with us. Our happiness slowly piled on top of our sorrows and fears.

Then I got pregnant. We hadn’t planned to have kids. I had no expectations about being a mom, thought it would be ok whether or not we had children. But getting pregnant changed that. The world celebrated. My body hummed. I called my best friend in Chicago and she was beside herself. “You’re going to be a great mom,” she said. I believed her.

When Craig got home from work that day, we sat there, staring at the little stick. We laughed and then we panicked. “When are the adults coming home?” he asked.

“Hell if I know.”

My family was happy, too.  Mom said she’d come help if I wanted her to. Dad, who liked to burst into song anyway, couldn’t stop singing songs with the word “baby” in the lyrics. Because his hearing aids were never turned on, he sang loudly.

Their joy and my hormones made me suddenly and deeply invested. I wandered through the baby department at Target looking at tiny outfits the color of candy. Friends advised me what strollers to buy and parties they’d throw for us. It was exciting.

Craig was levelheaded and baby-proofed the kitchen. He took personal days to come with me to doctor appointments. He framed the sonogram that confirmed the baby’s heartbeat and put it on his desk, where it sits even now. At night I read to him from pregnancy books. When I gave up wine, he gave up beer, and we steered well into the second trimester.

Then, like that, I started to “spot,” which sounds harmless, like “spotting” a snowy egret. When I called, Dr. Abramowitz said, “Wait 24 hours. It’ll probably stop on its own.” But it didn’t stop, so Craig took the day off and we went for another sonogram.

I had learned sonogram technician etiquette. When the news was good, she turned the monitor to show us the peanut-size fetus, and then later, to let us hear the thrum of its heartbeat, like a handful of lightning bugs buzzing in a jelly jar.

When we went this time, though, the technician wouldn’t look at me, and said, “I’m not supposed to interpret the sonogram for you. You’ll have to speak with your doctor.” Well, I knew what that meant, and when the technician left the room, I told Craig that the pregnancy was over.

“We don’t know that,” he said. He was looking out the window at the bare branches of a birch tree against the sky. There were crows there, irritating one another. One landed on a branch and bent it slowly down. When he lifted off, the branch lifted up under him. “Everything’s fine,” Craig said. “Everything’s fine.”

We waited under the fluorescent lights for Dr. Abramowitz, who opened the door, looked me in the eyes and hesitated, his hand still on the doorknob. “You can say it,” I said, trying to be kind. “It’s OK. I already know, anyway.”
“There’s no heartbeat,” he said, closing the door.  Craig, who had been rubbing the same spot on my shoulder for five minutes, sighed and his hand dropped to his side.

We made an appointment for the next morning for a DNC at the Wayne Surgical Center behind Trader Joe’s. They would dilate my cervix, Dr. Abramowitz said, and scrape out whatever was left so I wouldn’t get an infection. I would be uncomfortable tonight, he warned. “Get Kotex on your way home.”

When we neared the house, I began to cramp. “I’m getting into bed,” I told Craig; the persistence of what was happening to me physically pushed off the emotion. Craig let me out, and as I stood, I felt the blood soak the pad I was wearing. “Get me the biggest Kotex you can find, OK?” I supported myself on the car door. “Are you crying?” I asked him. His eyes looked red.

“No,” he told me, “I just have dust in my eyes.”

I was going to feed my cat Rosie, who was circling my feet inside the front door, but the cramps were changing to something I couldn’t recognize, and I wanted to get into bed while I still could.

The coming night seemed ominous as I walked up the last few steps bent over.

I lay in bed then, cramps coming in waves, and called my parents.  Dad answered the phone. “I’m having a miscarriage,” I told him.

“Wait,” he said, “I don’t have my hearing aids in,” and he handed the phone to my mom.

“We just got back from the doctor,” I told her, pausing so that she could repeat each sentence for my dad. “We’re having a miscarriage. No heartbeat.” I could hear my big sister say, “Oh no.” I wished I was home. I wanted my mom.

As I hung up, the cramps got stronger, weird – like there was a hallway yawning open inside of me. I called Craig’s cell and said to his voice mail, “Forget the pads. Just come home.”

I felt the warmth, then, of a lot of blood soaking the pad and maybe the mattress beneath me. I couldn’t stand, so I slid onto the floor and yelled Craig’s name as I crawled to the bathroom, the cellphone in my hand in case I needed an ambulance, continuing to shout.

Rosie ran up to me, first by the bed, then as I crawled down the hallway and finally in the bathroom. She meowed in my face as I shouted Craig’s name, and then she ran back a few steps to wait, and then she ran back to me. I thought about childbirth in the movies, how people run around and tear up sheets, and I thought, “Rosie would boil water for me if she could.” I remember being grateful to have a witness.

I climbed from the floor onto the toilet and called Craig’s cellphone over and over. Once I yelled, “Hurry home!” and once I asked, “Where are you?” and once I just said, “Please.” How long had he been gone? As the cramps subsided, I called Dr. Abramowitz who said, “We can get you an ambulance if you want, but you’re miscarrying right now. By the time we get you here, it’ll be over. Do you want to be at home for this or in the hospital?”

There was a lot of blood. “Am I dying?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “You’re going to be all right. It just feels like you’re dying. Your body is doing what it’s supposed to do, expelling the dead tissue.” He gave me his home and cell numbers, which I wrote in eyeliner on the back of an ESPN magazine next to the toilet. Once I knew I’d survive, I wanted to be home for this, and in our bed when it was over.

I allowed my body to take over, petting the cat when my body was still, and shouting for Craig when the waves resurfaced. I called him one last time, and said, “It’s happening right now.” It was hard to separate out the emotion from the fear, and the fear from the actual miscarriage. I wasn’t able to think beyond the next second.

Finally, the inside of my body, from up under my ribcage down to the bottom of my spine heaved and shivered, and out slipped something that, when I looked in the toilet, was like a crescent moon carved from soft opal. My body relaxed.

I cleaned the bathroom and myself, and crawled back to bed. Rosie climbed onto the pillow next to my head. I half-realized, as I drifted off, that I had been in labor.

By the time Craig rustled in with plastic grocery bags full of supplies, the room was dark. “How long have you been gone?” I asked.

“I don’t know, half an hour?”

He sat on the bed. “I think it’s over,” I said, sleepy, sorrow creeping into the space left by the retreating fear. “I think I had the miscarriage already.”

“I got your messages,” he said, lying down on the bed and petting my hair. “You called 17 times. I listened to the first one in the driveway and then just ran up.” He lay there and listened to all of the messages then. He saved them too, for a while, before he deleted them. He said he couldn’t listen to them without his heart racing.

I thought that when tragedy struck that I’d lie in bed, unable to move forever. But it wasn’t like that. “I’m cold,” I said, so Craig pulled the blankets up, “and Rosie needs food.”

Later, Craig said, “I found some old video I made of an ‘Odd Couple’ marathon. Let’s have ice cream for dinner and watch ‘The Odd Couple.’ How does that sound?”

“Sure,” I said, taking a plastic bag with me into the bathroom. “That sounds fine.”

He brought me up his Notre Dame ski cap. “To keep you warm,” he said. We watched ‘The Odd Couple’ and ate bowls of chocolate ice cream, and we laughed, just like that. I didn’t expect to laugh, to feel OK for even a second, to notice how good the ice cream tasted.

“I’m sleepy,” I said, “but leave the tape on, OK?” I wanted to listen to Oscar and Felix argue, wanted to hear the laugh track from 1972 as I fell asleep.

We went for the DNC in the morning. They put me on a table, my arms strapped out in a cross, and clipped a plastic hose to my nose. The gas smelled bitter. I winced and then nothingness. At home, later, I watched “The Odd Couple” and ate ice cream all day.  Craig put Rosie’s dish by the bed so she would eat.

By the next morning, I was sick of “The Odd Couple” and even of the ice cream. My sister was coming to visit so I made a pot of rosemary stew, like Mom used to make. There was old snow on the ground. I wanted meat and carrots, wanted to fill up my belly with something that would heal me.

By the time she arrived, the house was steamy from the stew. I had Craig’s ski cap on, would keep it on all weekend. My sister made the calls that had to be made. I couldn’t do it, wasn’t ready to tell people the bad news, over and over, and console them for our loss.

We got pregnant again twice, but never told anyone, never made the mistake of telling people and then being forced to break their hearts. It made subsequent losses easier on us.

Our pond has a willow tree growing on its banks, and my cat Rosie is buried there now. There’s one window in the house high enough to look down on the pond. In summer I can’t see the water at all, hidden behind the willow’s pale green leaves. But in winter, I can see through the bare branches of the willow to where Craig skates slowly, using his hockey stick to push a tiny black puck back and forth. The way I feel about Craig when I look down at him, so far away from me, brings me to my knees. It’s a love made up of the things we couldn’t give to one another, but also full of how hard we tried.

Marriage, it turns out, gets stronger in winter. I thought Craig would eventually stop holding up the edge of the blanket for me, that it had been a courtship thing, but it has been years now, and he still does it. He lifts the corner of the blanket up for me at night and reveals the heartbeat of our small world, lets the cold air rush under the covers for a moment while I climb into that one spot on earth that is mine.

By N. West Moss

N. West Moss has written for The New York Times, TheSaturday Evening Post, The Irish Times (forthcoming) and elsewhere. She has completed a collection of short stories set in Bryant Park in New York City, and is working on her first novel, set in New Orleans during a yellow fever epidemic.

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