The first time I was pregnant, I had no idea what was going on. I was weepy over commercials, shaky and dizzy if I skipped breakfast, prone to sobbing over a paper jam in my printer or a fax that failed to go through. Finally, realizing that in addition to all the hypersensitivity I had also missed my period, I took a home pregnancy test: two lines. Positive. It felt reassuring to know I wasn’t crazy, just pregnant.
I was elated. We had just moved from New York to Philadelphia, where my husband was beginning medical school after a career on Wall Street. We had found a spacious apartment with a wonderful view. I had somehow managed to convince my bosses to let me continue my New York work from Philly, telecommuting from the comfort of my new bedroom. And now a pregnancy. It seemed perfect, all these new beginnings at once.
Just days after taking the test, my body already seemed to be changing. In addition to the emotional sensitivity, I was queasy, yet hungry — no, ravenous — all the time; my breasts were incredibly sore; I was already gaining weight, changing in shape. I felt as though I was carrying a secret inside me. After a week or two we told my husband’s parents. The next day, I lost the baby.
I have always been terrible at keeping secrets.
I woke up that morning and discovered I was bleeding. Even though I had read that some bleeding could happen and that everything still might be fine, I was sure it wasn’t a good sign. As the morning progressed, the bleeding became worse, and I knew in my heart it was over. I sat on our new bed, in our new apartment, looking at our new view, crying my eyes out and wondering what, if anything, to do. New to town, I hadn’t even set up an appointment to see an OB. New to the endeavor of pregnancy, I had no idea whether I needed to go to the hospital or simply let things happen as they happened. My husband was unreachable, sitting in some classroom somewhere, diligently scribbling notes as he listened to his professor lecture on embryology.
I managed to remember, in my confused and sad state, that one of his good friends from college, who had taken the direct route to becoming a doctor, going straight through school instead of detouring through another career, was working as a physician somewhere in town, so I tracked her down. I called the hospital where I thought she worked, somehow managed to talk a nurse into giving me her emergency pager, managed to wait until she finally called me back and then choked out the words to communicate to her what was happening. She told me what by then I reluctantly already knew: that I was losing the pregnancy, that there was nothing I could do. She told me to rest, to call her back if the bleeding got worse. I cried to her over the phone, telling her I couldn’t understand what was happening, why it was happening. I told her that even though it had only been a few hours since the bleeding started, I was already starting to lose my “pregnancy feeling” — no more swollen breasts, no more nausea, no more.
“I know,” she told me. And as it sunk in that she meant more than just sympathy, that she really knew, she repeated it. “I know.” How could she know? Until I experienced it myself I had no idea miscarriages were so common. True, I had leafed through Gil’s embryology textbooks and marveled that babies were born at all, given every minuscule thing that had to go right in order to create human life. But still I hadn’t realized how, for lack of a better word, ordinary it was for an early pregnancy to end in miscarriage. My husband’s friend and I shared our stories with each other, and though I still felt sad and confused, I felt a little less alone.
As strange as it had been to be pregnant — with my body taken over by uncontrollable urges — it was stranger to no longer be pregnant. The bleeding continued like a long, heavy period. Every once in a while I would feel nauseated and it would hit me that it wasn’t because I was growing a life inside me but because I was losing one. Every once in a while I would get a hunger pang and it would remind me of the intensity of my hunger during those few fleeting weeks. Yet I do admit to feeling a guilty relief at being back to myself.
I was still sad, though. Even though I knew intellectually that I hadn’t lost an actual baby — a moving, thinking, feeling thing — but merely the beginnings of such a thing, I still felt grief, I still felt loss. I was somewhat jarred out of this when my boss happened to call me during one of my weaker moments. I told her, through tears, what had happened, and her upbeat response was, “That’s great — at least you know you can get pregnant.” What was she talking about? I thought. But then she told me: she had been trying to conceive for years with no luck. From her perspective even a spontaneously aborted pregnancy was a positive sign. “This one wasn’t meant to be; it was off; there was something wrong with it. It was a misconception,” my boss told me. “Just be glad your body knew what to do with it. Don’t be sad about it, just try again. Really, it’s for the best.”
I remember being struck by two things: one, the marvel of our bodies’ secret lives, the personal revelations I suddenly heard as a result of my own loss, the stories everyone seemed to have that I never knew before. And two, the dawning realization that things might not be as simple as I’d imagined when I first thought it would be a fun thing to get pregnant and have a baby. What if it happened again? What if I did manage to get pregnant again only to miscarry at eight weeks, just like this time? What if, like my boss, I found that I was unable to get pregnant? What if I was infertile? What if my best efforts at motherhood were effectively thwarted by my own body?
A week after my miscarriage, a friend came to visit. We spent a lot of time just walking around town, exploring the neighborhoods, talking about people we both used to work with and the restaurants we used to go to. I spoke a little about what happened with my brief foray into gestation, and she reassured me the way a good friend does, offering sympathy and a completely unfounded assurance that next time everything would work out fine. Our long walk through town took us to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where we admired the Van Goghs and the Eakins, and I lost myself for a little while in the satisfaction of looking at beautiful things. Before we left, we hit the contemporary wing, where there was an installation on display.
“Oh my god, look at that,” my friend pointed, and, obediently, I did. I was caught off guard by what I saw.
It was a room full of what looked like fruit, oranges and bananas and grapefruit carefully laid out on the floor. Museum patrons were allowed to interact with the exhibit, and the sight of casually dressed tourists tiptoeing around the fruit, careful not to disturb it, peering closely and in some cases taking pictures, made me laugh out loud. Then, as we came closer, I saw that it wasn’t just fruit strewn about the room, it was dead fruit. Rotten bananas, oranges and grapefruits gone soft. As I walked even closer, I saw that the fruit was not merely decayed: each piece had been carefully hollowed out, the rotted inner flesh scooped and scraped away, and the outside peels stitched up to make the fruit appear whole again. Some were sewn up with thick, brightly colored yarn, the kind used to tie bows in little girls’ braids. Some were held together with thread in fanciful cross-stitch patterns. Some were laced with surgical stitches. Some had glittery buttons, some had jaunty bows. As I finally came into the room, I found myself crouching to the ground with the rest of the tourists, unable to stop myself from touching the yarn and bows and buttons, the futile attempts to infuse the dead things with life again.
My friend put her hand on my shoulder as I sat on the floor of the exhibit, unable to stop myself from crying. She told me, “It’s called ‘Strange Fruit.'”
Two weeks after my miscarriage we went to a friend’s voice recital. I said hello and made small talk with everyone, never letting on about the truth of what had happened inside my body. I scanned the crowd for women, mothers, grandmothers, wondering how many had a story like mine. How many of us had invisibly nurtured our own strange fruit? How many of us had stitched up our grief with optimism? On the way home, I helped Gil study histology by reading him his lecture notes, a strange, polysyllabic vocabulary of reticula and haemopoiesis and mesenchymal something-or-others.
I read aloud for the entire two-hour trip, and at some point in the middle of the B-cells chapter I felt a distinct pain on the lower right side of my body, near my hip about where my right ovary would be, according to the pictures. I’d never had pain around the time of ovulation before, but I’d read about mittleschmerz and I had a fair idea that this dull aching, this tightness, was the sensation of an egg’s being released, a message from my body that it was time again. The sensation lasted almost the whole evening, through the rest of the car ride, through our having sex, through dinner with a friend, through the walk home. I felt like the pain was deliberate, a message, someone tapping me on the shoulder and whispering, “It’s time for me to be born.”
Two weeks later, I was pregnant again. At my first ultrasound, at seven weeks, roughly around the same time I had miscarried the first pregnancy, I was halfway convinced they were playing a videotape of someone else’s visit, so foreign did it seem that there could really be a living creature inside me. I was so worried there would be only an empty sac there, and at first that was all I could make out on the little screen, without my glasses. But then as the picture began to take shape, I could see a little piece of fuzz clinging to the top of this blob, which they informed me was the gestational sac. The doctor said, “There’s your baby!” and zoomed in closer. Then all of a sudden that little fuzz was pulsing with life; we could see the whole shape of it flashing with its heartbeat. My husband squeezed my hand hard and I started to get a little choked up, from realizing it was real, from the relief of finding it to be real, from the sheer terror of it being real.
Then the doctor asked us if we wanted to hear the heartbeat. At first, there was just silence as the tech tuned the equipment, and I was sure I wouldn’t be able to hear anything over the sound of my own heart, but after a few minutes the whole room was enveloped in sound: whoosh-whoosh, whoosh-whoosh. The doctor took some measurements and then looked around inside, checking my ovaries. He found the corpus luteum on the right, which meant that the egg came from the right ovary, exactly where I’d felt that surprising pain. We left the appointment with our little shiny ultrasound picture, our first picture of our first baby, proof that it had really happened, that it was really there.
I kept that picture with me like a talisman, looking at it every time I was dogged by the fear that this pregnancy, too, would be lost. This time I felt the tenuous nature of my endeavor, the unsettling knowledge that at any moment it could be taken from me. My misconception, my miscarriage the first time around, was an abrupt introduction to the pure essence of parenting: the intensity; the joy; the grief; the fear of loss; the surprising connection to other people; the incontrovertible fact that the life you have created is simply out of your hands, beyond your control, beyond the scope of any other experience. It readied me, in ways I could not know until I was finally there, for motherhood, for the powerful rush of love and other overwhelming emotions, the depth and breadth of which I mistakenly thought I already knew.
From Mother Shock: Loving Every (Other) Minute of It, copyright 2003 by Andrea J. Buchanan, published by Seal Press.