For weeks, ever since you slipped out of me more easily than a sigh, I have been trying to write. My sentences begin with purpose and then trail off into nothing; I want to write the story of your life, not just the fact of your death, but what is there to say about a life so small that I barely felt it; a life that was over almost before it began?
I still have the pictures from the eight-week ultrasound―gray and grainy, you are a half-moon smudge. They don’t show the white flutter of your beautiful beating heart, or the painful clenching of my own heart when I saw yours.
I’m not sure what to do with the pictures. I couldn’t bring myself to throw them out, but I couldn’t keep looking at them either, held in place on our refrigerator by two of your sister’s zoo animals magnets. I put them in a cupboard in the kitchen, one I rarely open. I know that someday I will find them again and they will have faded, your image bleached white.
This is why I have to write―because I am so afraid I will forget, and there will be nothing left of you at all.
Though it is easy enough to describe the days since we lost you, your own life is a harder thing to write. It is a mystery, life inside the womb. Farther along, I imagine watery warmth, gentle rocking, the first muffled sounds from outside. But you had only just started to become something resembling a baby―tiny limb stumps, eyes like poppy seed specks―and I suppose your existence was mostly one of sensation-less growth, cells multiplying and morphing. Irrationally, I like to believe you knew how wanted you were, but really, I know you never knew anything, never heard my voice telling you how much you were already loved.
That’s the problem with your story―it lacks narrative. It is a series of nevers.
The night after the ultrasound, I dreamed I miscarried. There was blood in the dream, and a mass of tissue, and my dream-self couldn’t determine what was what, only that it was all wrong. I repeated, over and over, We just saw the heartbeat, we just saw the heartbeat, and tried to put you back.
When I woke, disoriented, it took me several long moments to realize that you were still safe inside of me. I remember putting my hands against my body, just above the pubic bone, and sending the universe a prayer of thanks.
I thought I might get to see you again when we went to the hospital. It’s a strange truth, how we can viscerally know one thing―I knew you were gone, I knew it, we were just waiting for confirmation of what I was already sure of, deep in my bones―and yet still hope so strongly for exactly the opposite. We would have an ultrasound, and I thought, whether you were alive or dead, that I would be able to see your image on the screen. I wondered whether you would have grown at all since we saw you the week before, or if, as in my dream, your heart had stopped beating just after we saw you last.
There was a surreal quality to being wheeled through hospital corridors wearing nothing but an open-backed gown, sitting on a disposable pad so I would not bleed on the chair. No one met my eyes, not even the ultrasound technician when she put the wand inside me. And after the first couple of minutes, during which I couldn’t make out what was you and what was not, only that there was no white flutter, nothing to indicate you were still there, your heart still working, she turned the screen away.
In the day between learning you had died and your actual passing from my body, I worried about how long the process would take and where I would be when it happened. I put a plastic freezer bag in my purse, knowing that miscarriages can sometimes take weeks and having no idea what else to do with you if you came out of me in a bathroom stall in Target.
I was lucky―though that word feels like a mockery―in that I didn’t have long to wait, my labor was short, and I was at home. The intensity of the contractions drove me to the bedroom floor, where I curled into the fetal position―curled up like you. I kept thinking how different it was from when your sister was born; then, I had family members across the country eagerly awaiting news of her arrival. Waiting for you, hunched on the floor by myself―your dad was in the living room when the contractions started, and I didn’t want to wake your sister by shouting for him―I felt achingly lonely. Few people knew of your impending arrival into the world outside, or that you had ever existed at all.
It is the fact of your existence that I cling to fiercely, that I want to throw in people’s faces at inappropriate times. I wanted to throw a lot of things in the days after you were gone, actually; the urge to hurl objects at walls was sometimes overwhelming. But most of all, I wanted to talk about you―still want to talk about you―as if words could tether you to the earth. I need you to be as real in others’ minds as you are in mine.
I worry, sometimes, that I am going to forget you. And then I am gripped by the memory of you sliding from my body, of the splash of toilet water. The placenta, almost obscene, red and bulbous and as big as my hand, and you, attached to it, so very small, still cradled in your sac.
I wanted to slit that sac open. It felt very important that I see you without the veil of it between us, as if in doing so I would be acknowledging you fully. But it also felt illogically important that you not be disturbed, so in the end I just stood there, fingers tangled together to stop their shaking.
Your dad fished you out of the toilet, first using a slotted kitchen spoon and then, when you proved too slippery for that, reaching in and cupping you in his warm, square palms. I was choked, then, by the feeling that I should have used my own hands to lift you out. I should have touched you, just once.
Physically, what’s left of you is buried in our backyard under the newly-planted chokecherry tree, purchased a week after I miscarried. I wanted a pussy willow―the softness of its little grey buds reminded me of childhood, and of your fuzzy ultrasound picture―but it was mid-April in northern Michigan, and most of the nurseries wouldn’t have new stock for several weeks. We finally settled on the chokecherry, a remnant of last year’s stock, 12 feet tall with lovely red, ringed bark. It is just now on the verge of blooming, and I like the old clichéd symbol of yearly renewal.
Before we buried you, we kept you in the freezer, in a shoe box that also served as your coffin. Not long before, the box held your sister’s new summer shoes, but now it holds you. There is a picture of tiny baby footprints on the lid.
For a week, I braced myself against seeing that box every time I opened the freezer door to retrieve a pound of ground beef or chicken or salmon. I wished I’d had the foresight to plan more vegetarian meals.
“You must know that this is not your fault, ” the emergency room doctor said. She had pushed aside the curtain that separated the cubicle where your dad and I waited, him on a stiff-backed plastic chair, me perched on the edge of an examining table in my open-backed gown, to find out the results of the ultrasound. There was a cup of my urine sitting on the counter that the nurse had not collected yet; large clots of blood bobbed within the yellow.
I heard this many time over the next few weeks, from friends, from your dad, from doctors. It’s not your fault, they all said, and I wanted to scream, How can you possibly know that?
I spent the first hard months of your sister’s life in a state of vague despair that, from a distance, I realize must have been some form of postpartum depression. I sobbed when she refused to sleep; I was existing on an hour or two of rest each night and dark, frightening thoughts cropped up at 3:00 in the morning so that I had to clutch my pillow with both arms to keep from picking her up and hurling her tiny, constantly-crying body at the wall so she would be quiet.
Under the joy I felt about being pregnant with you was a faint, buzzing panic about how I would handle your first few months, this time with a toddler to care for, too.
A well-meaning friend loaned me a book a week or two after we buried you. She knew your dad and I wanted to try for another baby, and the book was about the mind-body connection and how it pertains to fertility. In it, the author said that in utero a baby can sense its mother’s emotional state. If the mother is stressed, the baby will get a negative impression of the world outside and might feel frightened or even unwanted, causing miscarriage. I read those words and huffed a laugh that felt more like a sob, then closed the book and set it aside.
That night, I lay curled up in bed, your dad sleeping beside me, and spoke to you in whispers. My fingers found their way automatically to my empty belly. “I’m sorry, ” I said, again and again.
I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.
I keep searching for rituals and coming up empty. There is the tree, of course, but now that it has been planted, I find myself at something of a loss. Do I kneel beside it? Talk to you? Statues of the Japanese Jizo suddenly seem to be everywhere, and I think, sometimes, that I should buy one and put it under the tree. Not being Buddhist, I know I don’t truly understand the tradition, but I keep mentally clutching at the bits that appeal to me―protector of children, including those miscarried―because my own culture doesn’t have any means of coping when these things happen. Which, I suppose, explains why people tend to be uncomfortable when I insist on talking about you; we have no room in our collective wisdom for the netherworld you occupied.
I did get a new tattoo, a forget-me-not etched out in intricate detail on my wrist. My other tattoos are all easily hidden by clothing, but I wanted this one where I could always see it. I felt an urgent need to get something permanent scratched into my skin so that I couldn’t forget you, so that you couldn’t slip away from me for good.
I said before that I hardly felt you when you were inside me, but that isn’t the whole truth. Your life, while you lived it, informed mine.
Parenthood begins at the beginning―not at the time of birth, but from the first decisions we make when we know we are expecting a child. We had been expecting you for more than two months before we lost you.
And I did feel you, sometimes. It’s difficult to admit it now, but I felt you more than I realized. Even in those early weeks, even in a pregnancy like this one, which lacked the most obvious symptoms, there were subtle differences in my body. Moving felt different―bending, stretching. There were tugs and twinges as you settled in and began to grow that are absent now. This is what hurts, I suppose―that I felt the physicality of our bond most keenly after it was no longer there.
I do remember, very clearly, being aware of you when I rocked your sister at night before putting her to bed. I felt the pull of your existence then in the way my lower belly tightened, in the ache at the small of my back that would not rub away. Her head heavy on my shoulder, my back arched to support her weight, I sang her old folk songs as lullabies.
I stand alone without beliefs. . . . The only truth I know is you.
I like to imagine that you could hear them, too.