In the sterile triage room, a nurse began hooking me up to the fetal monitor. Without really expecting me to respond, she chattered away in a kindergarten teacher’s gentle voice; she had no idea why I was silently weeping on the inclined bed. When she couldn’t find a heartbeat, she softly told me not to worry, then made a brisk exit. The doctor strode in almost impatiently and sat down next to the ultrasound machine. I wanted desperately to tell her not to look, that I couldn’t bear the verification of what I already understood. But it came anyway.
“I’m sorry,” said the doctor, squinting at the ultrasound screen. “I don’t have good news.”
The nurse returned with a phone and a freshly opened box of tissues. I stared at my hands that rested on my belly as they had, instinctively, for months. The nurse paused, then set the phone and Kleenex on the bed next to me. She patted my hand wordlessly before walking out. I sat listening to the muffled chatter of voices in the hall.
I was going to have to call my husband at his office. I was going to have to tell him that the baby girl we had named Ella Ruth, “beautiful friend”, was dead.
On this autumn day, we walk down the groomed trail from the parking lot, listening to young voices floating over the waterfall from a nearby playground. Our own voices are subdued as we pass over the stone bridge. The stream is low this time of year, the waterfall itself barely more than a trickle. Sunlight streaks through the leaves overhead, causing shadows to flicker across the path. We love this woodland park that sits peacefully in the middle of the city. Within its boundaries we feel as if we could just disappear from our life for a while.
The air in the park is warm today. Weather in the Pacific Northwest is unpredictable in early fall; one day is still infused with summer warmth, and another is cool and filled with a fine gray mist. Today we are lucky; it is already in the 70s at midmorning. We stop in the middle of the bridge to admire the waterfall and the smooth stones below it. A middle-aged woman crosses the bridge on her morning walk; we ask her to take our picture. This is part of the ritual. Two teens sit on the largest rock below us, carefree in their flirting. It strikes me that love and happiness, despair, grief and contentment can easily coexist in the same space and time; that one person’s most painful and desperate moment can be someone else’s most joyful.
I can see now that I had known all through the pregnancy that something was wrong. I never really showed, even when approaching my third trimester. I never felt more than a small flutter within my abdomen. A week earlier, my breasts had leaked while I was at work. I knew something was wrong, but I denied it. I wore maternity clothes though I didn’t have to, lied to well-wishers who asked how often she was kicking, and allowed myself to be convinced by the nurse on the phone that leaking milk in the sixth month was uncommon but nothing to be concerned about. And that last day, I continued teaching unaware fifth graders, even when the pains were coming at predictable intervals, so intense that I had to stop talking and steady myself with a hand on a student’s desk. Even then, I told myself it was nothing.
My OB-GYN, a well-loved local doctor with a bow-tie and twinkling eyes, was on vacation. After school I drove to the office of his colleague, a woman I had never met, my knuckles pale from gripping the steering wheel tightly to avert the pain and panic. After fidgeting in her beige and brown waiting room for half an hour, I was informed that the doctor was headed to the hospital to check on a patient in the throes of labor. I would need to meet her there, and she would see me when she had a minute.
“Just come,” I wept to my husband on the phone. “Don’t tell anyone, please. Just come.”
When he walked into the room, pale and wide-eyed, all I could say was, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” My body had failed us. And now I was going to have to deliver the baby girl who hadn’t had a heartbeat in over a week.
Two hours later, the contractions that wracked my uterus ended anticlimactically when my daughter’s body slid from mine without effort. As the doctor performed the D & C, my drifting gaze settled on a small steel bowl covered with a cloth. I stared at that bowl until the cart it rested upon was wheeled out of our room. I wondered what she looked like, curled up in there. I hoped with all that was left in me that she had been tucked into that bowl gently.
We cross the bridge and walk slowly up the path. When it splits, we turn north, heading into the less-traveled area of the park. The stream flows slowly on our right as we head up the hill, now above the waterfall. The trees are thicker here, and we are quiet. We stroll, each moving slowly for our own reason, admiring rocks and the greenery that surrounds them. I pick up a small wrapper tossed carelessly on the path. This is sacred ground to us.
Our destination is a small bit of land that protrudes into the stream, hidden from the surrounding trails. Four years ago, we opened a tiny white plastic box and released Ella’s ashes into the water here, sending them to the bay and beyond, into the distant ocean. Four years ago, we were broken. Now, we step carefully, my husband first helping our two-year-old daughter down the steep decline, then reaching up for the baby boy in my arms. We drop flowers into the stream and watch them float toward the waterfall, catching briefly among rocks or in currents before continuing on their way.