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Circling Loss

Posted Apr 23 2012 10:17pm
Creative Non-Fiction by Amber Jensen

Sunday, March 9

I thought the process of bleeding away my second pregnancy was over.  Dressed in dark jeans, wedge heels, and a fitted black v-neck that exposed the freckled skin of my chest, I bounded down the stairs in my mother’s house, surprised at the easy flight of my feet over carpet.  I can do this, I thought to myself.  I can be happy. 

But then, as I hopped down to the final stair, a clot of blood plummeted from somewhere inside me, stopping just before it escaped my body.  This isn’t over yet.  I felt my body reel back against the momentum of acceptance I had been trying to build.  My belly hung heavy, throbbing, and empty. 

With thick red threatening the fresh denim that hugged my hips, I froze at the bottom of the stairs facing a framed collage of photos from my wedding day.  I pleaded with my husband’s dimples, his squinting, cloudy eyes.  When can I leave this behind?

Then from my left I heard a deep, primitive yowl.  I turned to find the tiger eyes of my mom’s large ginger cat peering at me from his lowered head.  His whiskers extended towards me as he tracked the scent of blood. 

 

Thursday, March 6, morning

Having called the doctor, my sister, and Blake, I replaced a heavy, red maxi-pad with a weightless, white one.  I changed from blood-stained grey cotton into fresh, black lycra pants.  Then I waited.  For my sister.  For the doctor.  For Blake.  For the news.  But I already knew.  Nothing so small could survive this. 

I crawled into the living room and lined the seat of the recliner with a tan towel before climbing in.  Then I covered myself with the quilted patchwork of pink and blue calico my grandmother made for my high school graduation.  When I closed my eyes, I pictured Blake, driving home from work after receiving my call: “Can you come home?  Something’s wrong . . . Erin’s taking me to the doctor.”  His response had been simple—“I’ll be there soon.”  He didn’t ask any questions or make me say, Blake, I’m losing the baby.  He just came.  He couldn’t have known what was wrong, still, I imagined his eyes following the painted white border of the interstate over hills, around curves, and beyond the horizon, squinting toward a place in the future where everything will be all right, seeing that place like he always does, even when I don’t believe it exists.

When I felt my two-year old son squirming up under the thin weight of the quilt, I discouraged him, saying “Mommy feels sick.  George, please . . .” Then I gave in, slid my hands around his chest, feeling the ridges of his rib cage as I guided him up unto my lap.  He squeezed out from beneath the blue floral border, nestled his blonde head against my shoulder, and raised his thick-lashed brown eyes to meet mine.  Forcing a giggle, he said, “See mommy, we are happy.”  As I drank in his expression—his dark eyelashes, raised eyebrows, lips pressed into a smile—I knew he was right.  But I couldn’t admit it yet, so I closed my eyes and watched spots of light dance behind my eyelids.  I envisioned the black, plastic bag slouched beside the dresser in my bedroom.  I remembered what was inside: maternity clothes, still dangling price tags.  I told myself, We have GeorgeIt will happen again.  And even if it doesn’t . . . we have him.  I closed my eyes and rested against his small strength. 

 

Thursday, March 6, afternoon

By the time I heard the words—“we can’t detect a heartbeat”—I had already begun to move from mourning to acceptance.  Maybe this is best, I told myself.  Maybe something was wrong with the baby. 

I lay back against a stiff mattress, abdomen exposed, eyes closed.  I imagined George sleeping over Blake’s shoulder in the waiting room outside, his body ironing wrinkles into his dad’s button-up plaid.  I summoned the soft static of Blake’s fingertips circling the surface of my skin to replace the hospital sheets scratching my lower back, the hot weight of George’s sleeping body to protect me from the cold air that poured from a vent overhead.  I tried to imagine away the steel and ceramic, machines and measurement, but the slather of thick gel, the shocking cold of plastic, and the smell of sterilization grounded me there.  Eventually, the even voice of an ultrasound technician, barely audible above the hum and click of technology, commanded my attention.  “The fetus stopped growing at about five weeks.” 

Five weeks.  I inhaled the reality, felt it echo in a hollow space at the base of my throat. 

I heard the crackling static of the black and white monitor to my right and couldn’t help but look.  Its glow reminded me of my first ultrasound and the pixilated image of George’s fingers flexing across the screen, but this time I saw no hope, no miracle there.  Only fuzzy, grey flecks spitting shadows. 

When I closed my eyes to the eerie darkness of the room, my mind traveled backwards.  Five weeks.  Was the baby was still alive those nights in February, when I fell asleep under the weight of my Shakespeare anthology, when I worried that I couldn’t keep up with work, school, and pregnancy?  When I finally started dreaming about a baby girl with my dark eyes and Blake’s wide grin, was I picking out names for a lifeless child? Then as my memory moved forward, I remembered the muscle-wrenching that I shrugged off as morning sickness, the relief I had felt that my breasts weren’t swelling so much this time.  Maybe my body had been preparing me all along. 

Still, I doubted myself, wondering, Was it my fault somehow?  Should I have known something was wrong?  Then a whispered thought: Would it have mattered if I did? 

Ever since I had seen the cotton fibers of a pregnancy test swell, watched a pair of pink lines sweep across a plastic window, I had been telling myself that it was the second baby, that I was under a lot of stress with graduate school, and that it just didn’t feel the same.  Now I began to wonder, had it ever seemed real?  My stomach fluttered.

 

Saturday, March 8

For two days after the miscarriage, I perched in a nest of blankets and pillows, pressing a heating pad into my stomach as my body anchored me in loss.  As long as I had to sit still, muscles twisting around a void inside my abdomen, it was impossible to move on.  While my head moved back and forth to maintain the steady rocking of the recliner, my thoughts rolled between acceptance and guilt.  I fixed my eyes on the tan walls, striped curtains, and shadowed blinds of my living room.  I fixed my mind on facts and statistics.  Seventy percent of women who miscarry go on to have normal, healthy pregnancies.  Now, with early home pregnancy tests, we detect pregnancy so soon—before, women probably didn’t know when they lost early pregnancies.  I returned to the idea that something must have been wrong.  Maybe this was never a viable pregnancy.  Still I asked myself, shouldn’t I feel sadder?  What kind of a woman, what kind of mother, am I?

When Blake talked to his boss, his end of the conversation comforted me:  “No, actually, she’s doing all right, really good, I think . . . but you know, this happens sometimes, and really, we’ll be fine.”  It made me believe he understood, that he wouldn’t blame me for being ready to move on.  But when my own phone rang, I ignored it, trusting that my sister would tell anyone that needed to know, not wanting to convince anyone that I was fine, doing well even, not wanting them to know that my only wish was for the cramping and bleeding to end. 

You should feel sadder.  Mourn longer, I told myself.  It had only been a few days and I already felt myself wanting to move out of my chair and leave this loss behind.  I remembered my friend, Angie [1] .  It was the first week of our Intro to Graduate Studies class, when we knew each other only from in-class introductions and a few minutes of casual conversation, when she scooted her chair around the corner of the table that stretched the entire length of the classroom and asked, “So, how old is George?”

“He’s almost two.”

“That’s great,” she smiled.  “Tom and I want to have children, but we lost our first baby.” 

Her voice quivered and she lowered her eyes, but she went on to explain that after the miscarriage and after beginning graduate school, she wasn’t sure when she would be ready to try again.  I felt uneasy about the personal conversation I had just shared with a near stranger, guilty about having shared stories about my son—his love of books, baseball, and trains—with a woman who wanted but had been unable to experience motherhood.

But now our roles had reversed: Angie was five months pregnant, and I couldn’t help but wonder if now, when I returned to work and met Angie in the hall, she would feel ashamed of her pregnancy, the way it might remind me of what I had lost.  I wanted her to know that the promise of her bulging belly wouldn’t bother me, but I knew I couldn’t explain.  I was afraid to discuss it because I feared my eyes and voice would betray my secret—that I didn’t feel like crying, that I really thought it was better this way. 

 

Tuesday, March 11

            It’s Tuesday, and I’m back at work.  On my desk, I discover a bulky manila envelope—sealed, no name written on it.  I pry open the metal fingers, tear back a layer of yellow, paper skin, and tip the envelope over my desk.  Out falls a lavender book.  On the cover, above the fringe of a plaid baby blanket, the title reads:  When Your Baby Dies: Through Miscarriage or Stillbirth.  A green sticky note matching the book’s soft colors carries a message from Angie. “Here is a little book that may or may not be of some use to you.  May God comfort you in your time of grief.” 

I don’t cry.  I don’t smile.  I don’t open the book.  I tuck it back into its envelope, seal it up again, and slide it under a pile of scratch paper and junk mail in my desk.  Closing the cold metal drawer, I pause to think about Angie.  Even now, five months into her second pregnancy, she mourns the loss of her first one.  Only five days have passed since my miscarriage, and I no longer think of the pregnancy I have lost as my second pregnancy.  I have erased it.  This one doesn’t seem to count.  I’ve only had one. 

It must have been different for her, I think.  She didn’t have another child to give her hope, to make her believe it could happen again, to console her in case it didn’t.  I try to imagine the desperation I would have felt if this had been my first pregnancy, but I can’t.  Maybe she needed a book to give her hope, needed to talk about it, needed to remember the baby she never knew, but I don’t.  I have George.  George, whose heartbeat echoed through a Doppler monitor, making my skin tingle months before I ever heard him cry or saw his lips opening in an awkward smile.  I can’t equate the loss of a pregnancy to his life, this emptiness to his presence.  I don’t need a book to tell me the difference.  Without opening the pages of the book or acknowledging Angie’s carefully chosen words, I wrap a fleece scarf around my neck, button out the cold, and race to class feeling convinced that no one understands, that everyone expects me to be broken, that no one believes I can be happy with what I have.

            Not until almost a year has passed, not until I have begun to write about the experience of losing a baby will I open my drawer, notice the corner of the manila envelope hidden beneath a pile of junk, and pull it out.  When I slide the book out and begin to turn its thick, waxy pages, I will find a series of prayers and stories meant to encourage and comfort me.  And I will be glad I waited to open it.

            The book outlines the “painful clichés” people fall back on when trying to comfort women after a miscarriage; these clichés—it’s for the better, there was probably something wrong, you can always have another—are the things that continue to comfort me.  The things I continue to believe. 

The book also suggests that mothers who miscarry “view the remains” whenever possible.  View the remains.  Ask a medical professional to help search for these remains.  If no remains can be found, look at pictures of a fetus at that stage of development.  This will encourage acceptance and aid in the grieving process, the book says.  When I read this, the first thoughts that enter my mind are, I didn’t need to view the remains.  I felt each clot of blood as it escaped my body and imagined in it a small mass of tissue, an undeveloped face, limbs that would never grow.  But eventually, I will become curious and search the Internet—first for information, then for images.  I will find some form of comfort in learning that the baby that passed from my body was the size of a raisin; that its heart may never have begun to beat; that like most early miscarriages, this one probably resulted from chromosomal abnormalities.  And I will allow myself to continue believing in what others may see as painful clichés.  I will not insist that others believe them, but I will hold onto them myself. 

Only then will I reread Angie’s words—“a book that may or may not be of use to you”— and realize: we doubt ourselves enough; we have no need to start doubting each other. 

 

Saturday, July 12

I am leaving the screaming, splashing chaos of the public pool with my red-cheeked son hanging limp in my arms when I see Sasha, a high school friend, emerging from the bathroom.  The olive undertones of her deeply tanned skin and the waves of blonde hair that she flips onto her back remind me of cheerleading and math class.  I begin to smile.  But then her cute paisley sundress stretching over her round belly catches my eye, reminds me that I was pregnant, that I would have been that big by now, too.  I feel a throbbing sensation in my ears. 

As Sasha beams towards me, I shift George from one hip to the other, preparing my escape.  “Look at him!  He’s getting so big,” she begins.  “Yeah, he’s wiped out—the sun and all the swimming,” I explain.  “I better get him home, down for a nap.”  We say goodbye, promise to get together sometime soon, and then I set out across the park toward home, running away from something I thought I had forgotten.  Maybe too easily, hisses a voice inside my head. 

I recognize the pursuit. 

Suddenly, I find myself back at the bottom of the stairs, sense narrowed eyes upon me, see the cat with its weight balanced on thick pads of paws, whiskers tracing the scent of my loss.  For five months I have hated that cat, but this time, as I replay the scene in my mind, I watch his muscles flex as he stands from his predator’s crouch and skulks away.  This time I realize that it is not the cat, but the woman at the bottom of the stairs that terrifies me: the way she hesitates, holds herself back.  It is the woman who pursues me, seething with self doubt. 

Not today, I tell myself, and I slow my steps until I can feel the tickle of grass reaching up over my flip flops.  I concentrate on the sleepy weight of George’s head on my shoulder, his dangling limbs bouncing with each of my strides. 

As I pass the steel structures of a play area, our duplex comes into view across the street.  I notice Blake’s car in the driveway and feel myself eager to get home.  When the gleaming yellow plastic of George’s toy loader and flat bed on the front step catches my eye, I quicken my pace.  I leave the dizzying swirl of voices, the screech of swing set chains behind.  I allow myself space.  A warm breeze rustles the leaves of the cottonwood trees, George’s soft hair flutters on my cheek, and I relax.  I am happy. 

Amber Jensen is a wife, mother, teacher and writer.  She will graduate in May with a MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Orleans’ low-residency program.  Her essays, poetry, and reviews have been published in  North Dakota Quarterly, Ellipsis, Assissi, and  Terrain.org .

 


[1] The names of people outside my immediate family have been changed to protect their privacy.

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