Note: this is a deeply personal story. I’m still struggling to articulate it – in real life and in words. As a writer, I find it impossible to not process my feelings in narrative form. As a journalist, I find it equally impossible to write only for myself, which is why I have a blog and not a journal.
On Dec. 1, I lost my second son due to (still mostly) unexplained reasons. He was 18 weeks old – too early to be considered stillborn, too late to still be a secret. The experience wrecked me in some way. Despite my attempts at maintaining a sunny disposition, I withered. Despite my naturally steely resolve, I withered. Despite having just grieved the death of my sister’s newborn, I withered. Despite knowing nothing good would come from turning to the internet, I Googled – and withered. The people who knew me best thought I was doing OK. How could I let them think otherwise? No one wants to talk about dead babies, so I put on a nice face, feigned levelheadedness and withered.
Each night, I searched the web for stories like mine in a fruitless attempt to find answers or peace or a crystal ball forecasting that this will never happen again.
Yet Google never brought me peace. It just made the situation worse. I cursed my luck. I cursed my body. I cursed the shitty misfortune of being born a woman and not a man. It’s always easier for men, or at least it is in the MINDFUCK that is reproduction. I cursed my genes. I held my sister as the doctors pulled her baby off a respirator. I watched in horror as my niece, born full term to loving parents, took her last breath. It was a moment so awful, so cruel and so sad that I vowed I would never write about it. Instead, I channeled this sadness into something positive – an online photo project that went semi viral. I wanted my sister to know that her daughter mattered. Now here I was, exactly six months later, curled up on my bathroom floor, moments away from delivering a boy who wouldn’t matter in the most literal sense. At 18 weeks, he wasn’t even old enough to warrant a birth or death certificate.
My sister’s loss felt exponentially worse, yet I couldn’t help but feel that her grief sickeningly prepared me for mine. How could two sisters lose two babies within six months of each other? What was the universe trying to tell us? And how self-absorbed was I to think the universe – or for that matter God, if that’s what you believe in – had a hand in this? I wanted what I couldn’t find on WebMd – a story by another woman who had been there. I wanted to feel less alone and less … withering.
I wanted a story, not a sad statistic. I wanted someone to jump out of my computer screen and say, CHIN UP. BUCK UP. IT HAPPENED. MOVE ON. YOU’RE STRONGER THAN YOU REALIZE. BREATHE. YOU’RE GOING TO BE OK.
So I decided to write this.
I cried the night I found out I was pregnant again.
It was a self-indulgent cry, shed by a woman spoiled by an uncomplicated pregnancy history and a healthy first-born child.
“How will I ever love another one as much as I love Henry,” I blubbered to my husband.
“You’re crazy,” Joe said. “You just will.”
I rolled over in bed and fell asleep on a tear stained pillow. Baby No. 2 wasn’t an oops or even a “let’s just see what happens.” Baby No. 2 was discussed and planned for. His conception was not an obsessive pursuit marked by ovulation strips and scheduled sex, but a laid-back experiment in “not stressing about it.” We were in a happy place. We wanted to give our kid a sibling, round out our clan and call it even as a family of four.
“Hell, maybe it’ll be a girl,” I said.
We wanted another. Especially me, which I found shocking given that my maternal instincts were tenuous at best when Henry arrived. I didn’t expect to love motherhood. It was something I wanted but didn’t know why, a gravitational pull in a perilous and exciting direction. Some women describe this pull as their biological clock ticking and maybe that’s what it was for me too. At the time I didn’t view it that way. I viewed it as an adventure into foreign territory, a navigational challenge without a real map, compass or guidebook, an exercise in fortitude and failure, strength and weakness, the ultimate human experience.
I suppose deep down I wanted to be a mother because I knew I’d love it. After Henry, it took me three years to grow comfortable with the idea of adding another. My son is a headstrong, hyperactive, strong-willed tornado of a human. As much as I would have loved to give him a close-age sibling, adding a baby to the mix always felt dicey and too expensive – until now.
Henry is no longer a baby, or even a toddler for that matter. He watches 1960s King Kong movies. He wears a tool belt and an old leather watch. He leaves the toilet seat up and knows the name of the original Star Wars sound engineer. He vacuums the house and pours his own chocolate milk. He walks the dog and signs for FedEx deliveries. He once successfully opened a beer bottle. He’s practically shaving.
I miss having a baby.
With the second one, I showed quickly and got sick immediately. I settled my queasiness with lollipops, Burger King breakfast sandwiches and Italian ice. I reunited with my midwives at the birthing center where Henry was born in 2011. We hugged and I caught them up on the last three years of his life and mine. We joked about how easy-going my second-born would be, how laissez-faire moms get the second time around. One day I made an appointment and then realized I’d have to move it back a week. “Ah, you’re a second time mom,” my midwife said. “What’s another week?”
I filled in all the holes in Henry’s baby book afraid that I’d lose those memories in the blur of tending to a second child. I muscled through 5K runs. I broke out my old belly bands. I cocoa buttered. I toyed with names. I read books to Henry about the joys of being a brother. I hid my bump under billowy tops and kept my pregnancy off Facebook, partly out of superstition and partly out of respect for my sister, who understandably had mixed feelings about my hormonal glow.
I entered my second trimester feeling healthy and strong. Nausea gave way to delight and nesting energy. Blood work looked normal. The baby’s heart sounded great. The weeks were unfolding as they should – a repeat of my first textbook pregnancy. After a long weekend away with my sisters, I returned home to find a surprise video shot by Joe, in which Henry revealed the baby’s gender.
It was a boy. (He wanted a sister.)
I showered my son with unbridled affection, afraid that my love for him would wane when his brother entered the picture. I took him to the beach. He ran head first into the waves, then curled up on my belly and asked me to describe what he was like as a baby. I told him he was fidgety and giggly and liked to be bounced.
“How long will my brother be in there?” He asked.
I told him five more months, then I snapped the photo you see in this post.
We shared the news with our family and friends. I told my editor. She told me she was glad someone was “fixing the declining birth rate.” Baby No. 2 would be born at the end of April, the beginning of May. The actual due date was May 5 – cinco de baby.
We couldn’t agree on a name.
I wish I knew why it ended the way it did – in an emergency room after an agonizing week of bleeding and cramping. I wish I knew what caused me to develop flu-like symptoms that seemed to trigger the whole damn thing. I wish I didn’t blame the flu vaccine, which I received exactly 10 days before the start of my miscarriage. I wish I didn’t believe that I developed an immune response to the vaccine – a category C drug that has never been tested in animal reproductive studies. I wish I hadn’t been told twice by ER doctors to go home and relax, that some women “just bleed when they’re pregnant.” I almost wish my ultrasounds weren’t perfect. They misled me. I saw my nameless baby boy twice on a screen in the ER and each time I asked the technician to turn the monitor so I could get a closer look. It just didn’t seem possible. Everything looked perfect. My son was fine, bobbing in utero like a buoy anchored to the ocean floor, oblivious to the storm brewing around him.
“He’s really active,” the technician said. “Whatever is going on doesn’t seem to be bothering him.”
I peered at this baby, his body bent in the shape of a floating question mark. If you survive this, I whispered, I’m going to name you Cool Hand Luke.
The next time I saw him he was wrapped in a handkerchief in a basket too small to hold half a dozen eggs. The sun was setting outside my hospital window, casting a pink hue over my room. As the light sliced through the open blinds, it flickered across a bundle no bigger than a robin. Watching the sunset at that moment felt both unsettling and reassuring. The sun will rise tomorrow, I kept repeating to myself. Babies die all the time.
I had been wheeled from the emergency room to the maternity wing, where I laid for six hours hooked to Pitocin – a drug they give women to induce labor, or in my case, detach a useless placenta. I was told the process could take hours, which seemed like the worst kind of salt in a wound. The contractions were worse than what I experienced with Henry’s drug-free delivery. I was too exhausted and angry to cry. A lullaby sounded over the loudspeaker announcing in harpsichord tones the birth of a baby two doors over. I begged for drugs.
A doula with hospice entered my room and sat beside me urging me to share my feelings. I told her I didn’t want to talk. I told her I wanted it to scar over. Can I just pretend it didn’t happen, I said. Leave me alone.
She left the room. I heard her whisper to Joe, “She’s in shock.”
And I was.
The sunset continued to haunt me until every bit of sepia drained from the room and only fluorescent light remained. It took me hours to muster the courage to actually look at my baby. You would have loved our family, I said when Joe finally peeled back the hankie covering his face.
The doula returned and we spoke for a long time. I told her I wasn’t in shock, so she didn’t have to worry about me turning into a loon – as if I had control over every emotion. She told me late miscarriages happen more often than we realize. She told me I did everything I could to save this baby, that some things are beyond our control. She asked me if we had picked out a name. I told her no.
She was great, but Joe was better: part rock and part quick-witted sidekick, sitting bleary-eyed by the bed, fetching me ice chips and making droll observations about the rotating cast of nurses and handsome Clooney-esque doctors sliding in and out of my room. When the Pitocin/placenta hell was over, we told sweet stories that transported us both to a simpler time and place.
“When was the last time you cried out of happiness?” I asked.
“After Henry was born,” he said, “And before that, at a Phish festival in 2003.”
“Tell me about it,” I said.
“I had been in such a bad place for so long. I just remember leaving the festival in a rental car, thinking everything was going to be OK. I felt myself coming out of something. It was more than happiness. Joy, relief, hope … “
In those sobering moments, I got a small glimpse of what they mean by “for better or worse.”
I was at my worst: powerless, weak, broken and blindsided. In the days leading up to this loss I had leaned on Joe more than ever before. “I’m losing this baby,” I had said. “No you’re not,” he replied, even though he feared it too. In the weeks following, I would lean on him even more. I would cry when he walked through the door after a nine-hour day at the office. I would struggle to stay upbeat for Henry and “normal” for everyone else. I would have panic attacks – my first real encounter with anxiety – and stay up all night afraid that I’d die in my sleep, that Joe would die in his sleep, that Henry would be orphaned at three, or worse – die in his sleep. I would chug iron supplements all day in an effort to replenish my hemoglobin, which was so low my doctor felt I might need a transfusion. I would force myself to walk, to run, to hold uncomfortable yoga poses simply because physical discomfort was better than mental anguish.
I would try to write, but nothing would come out. I would Google every ache and pain, read every miscarriage horror story and dissect every depressing message board until I was convinced I was a.) having a stroke and b.) never having another healthy baby again. My sister called me each night. “It’s OK to feel the way you do,” she said. “It sucks and it just keeps sucking.”
I hung up the phone. Six weeks had passed. Christmas had come and gone. The new year was here. It HAD to stop sucking.
I got a new doctor who managed to (finally) obtain the hospital’s pathology reports. “Both the baby and placenta tested positive for an acute intrauterine infection,” she said. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean that caused the loss. Infection could have set in after your water broke. It’s the chicken and egg theory: what came first? We’ll probably never know.”
This brought me closure for about 10 minutes.
I started training for a half marathon. I said yes to almost every writing and photography assignment that came my way. I closed my computer when I wasn’t doing work. I forced myself to listen to albums I downloaded when I was pregnant, something that for weeks filled me with dread. I ran seven miles one day – my longest straight run in two years. I passed a manatee in the bay. I sat on the seawall and cried.
It’s all such a mixed bag, I thought. I pulled off my hat – an aviation cap that once belonged to my Opa. I forced myself to remember the last time I saw him. A memory I had hoped to lock away forever suddenly bubbled to the surface.
He was a fabled man, a spritely tool and die maker who grew up in Germany during World War II. He filled my head with the kind of stories that over time make an ordinary man seem giant. When he died, he was tiny and no longer able to speak – the result of late-stage Alzheimer’s. I had never watched someone die before, and as it was happening I remember thinking, this can’t be what it’s all about. You’re here and then you’re not. What’s the fucking point?
I remember I felt useless sitting by his hospital bed, so I took off in my car and drove to his house. I pulled a beer out of the fridge, stashed it in my purse and returned to the hospital. I asked a nurse for a small sponge. She brought me one on a stick. My Oma’s face softened when she saw what I was up to. I poured the beer into a cup, dipped the sponge into the brown carbonation and ran it over his lips – his last Hefeweizen. As incoherent as he seemed, he could still taste it. He licked his lips. I dipped the sponge again and again.
His breathing was loud and labored. To muffle the sound I started singing The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine – the only tune that came to mind at the time. Looking back, it was a ridiculous choice. My Opa never listened to anything but German music. Why I picked The Beatles is beyond me.
I wedged myself close to his face and whispered the refrain. The simplicity and utter stupidity of the lyrics oddly resonated with me. As we live a life of ease, every one of us has all we need. Sky of blue and sea of green in our yellow submarine.
“I’m so happy you moved to this country and married Oma,” I said. “I’m so glad I had you for so long.”
I dipped the sponge again. He stuck out his tongue like a kid catching snowflakes. A drop of beer hit his lips and crackled. He lapped it up and smiled.