“Be mindful,” Rebecca had said, time after time, as I slouched in her office waiting for answers. Her words infuriated me. I only wanted a miracle.
It was hard to have a conversation whilst I was sitting that way, my body swallowed up by the sagging blue two-seater, knees almost level with my chest. How I hated that couch. Its scrubbed and faded stains reminded me of all the precious moments I would never know—muddy feet, grubby fingers, chocolate-smeared mouths at Easter. Rebecca had smartened it up with bright cushions, now squashed and misshapen by the rage of her clients.
“Go on,” she said to me. “This is a safe place. Just let it all go. The past is nothing more than an echo,” she told me. I didn’t need to hold onto it anymore.
A few times I cooperated and punched at the blue and green stripes of the cushions, my fingers clenching weakly, always conscious of how foolish I must look. It didn’t feel nice to hit like that.
Behind the closed door, I heard the stomping feet and loud voices of Rebecca’s own teenaged family. What did she know about all of this, anyhow?
“I think it’s helping,” I would say, prompting Rebecca’s encouraging nod. Then I would go home to sit on my own couch (not a fingerprint marring the perfect white leather), drifting disconnectedly through a tunnel of empty hours, the misery of the past reverberating around me.
Be mindful, I remind myself now, as I try to focus on the scrunch of my feet pounding the gravel path. For a while it seems easy to let myself be soothed by the rhythmic sound on this autumn day, when the sun is warm and the hills are radiant, and the grass and trees are still sparkling with dew. I am present, I think to myself; I am in the moment. The echoes of the past are very quiet right now. How proud Rebecca would be.
On the other side of the dunes, the sea is a whisper, so unlike the almighty roar that seemed to repel me two nights ago, the night of my 41st birthday. Already my ceaseless thoughts are growing louder. I try to listen to the present, but now the echoes are all I can hear.
Joel and I had driven out of the city for a meal, and then come down to the beach to admire the waves in the moonlight. It was a clear night, but the wind was ferocious, gusts you could lean into. They seemed to hold me, only to fall away, leaving me stumbling into nothingness. We had to shout to be heard above the ocean, but that wasn’t difficult for we were arguing.
“It’s too late!” I sobbed. “I’m over 40 now! I’m tired of this. I can’t go through it all again. And anyway, even if we did try, I’m too old. We’re running out of time, Joel.”
“It doesn’t have to be the end though. Lots of women have babies after 40. And there are other options. There’s adoption.”
“So you think I’m useless? You think there’s no chance!” I couldn’t seem to stop.
Be mindful. Be mindful.
The sun, warm on my face and shoulders. Tension that dissolves in its glow. Overhead, a small plane hums like an annoying insect.
“Tell me about the first time,” Rebecca said yesterday. My head aches just thinking about her.
I told her. Again. It still hurt just as bad.
I told her how, after it happened, Joel had taken me away for a break on the Gold Coast. He still thought that he could fix me. He spent the whole week trying to entice me out to lie on the beach, or by the swimming pool, to get drunk at the bar and forget all our woes. I had refused. I stayed there all week, sat on our bed, wrapped in cotton sheets, remembering: the slow-dawning pain, the bleeding that just wouldn’t stop no matter how many times I checked, the aching emptiness.
“I can’t just sit here,” Joel said in the end. “I’m going out. Please come with me.” And he had pulled on his shorts and his holiday shirt; he grabbed his sun-lotion and lingered by the door. I didn’t look up. I didn’t want to feel better. My body had killed our baby.
That was just the first time. Each silent unformed baby was beautiful. Each one was terrible—a reproach against my body.
Rebecca didn’t say a word as I told her all of this, again. She just sat there and watched me, as if she were waiting for something. I stared right back up at her from amidst the cushions, making my eyes hard, the way I do when Joel tries to talk to me.
The scrunch of my feet, pounding of my heart, my breathing harder now, as I march away from my car. For a while, my footsteps lose their rhythm, become frantic and erratic, as if I were running away from something. I focus my mind, the way Rebecca taught me. Recognize and acknowledge the feeling. The clench at the center of my heart. I stamp harder now. A growl rises to a cry in my throat, ringing out in the silence that surrounds me, sending birds flying up into the far-off sky.
There is no one to hear but me. My voice is swallowed by the emptiness.
Then I listen, the tears dripping off my nose. The world is not completely silent. The ocean is closer now, its sound easier to focus on. The odd cicada still chirps in this sun-warmed hollow, even in May; the warmth of summer not entirely lost, the world not entirely barren. The soft breeze strokes my cheek, drying my tears even as more fall. Ahead of me, two myna birds sing in a great kahikatea tree, their warbles and trills ringing out in the blue of the sky. The tree reaches high, its shadow stretching far ahead. It is strikingly precise, sunlight illuminating its leaves, and exposing the lichen and flaking bark of its trunk in perfect intricate detail. I look back when I have passed and the sun through the branches is dazzling, the tree becomes no more than a black silhouette.
“How is Joel doing?” asked Rebecca. “Would you like to bring him along to one of our sessions some time?”
“He’s fine. He wouldn’t want to come anyway. He hates this sort of thing.” I thought guiltily of his sad eyes earlier that morning.
“Why won’t you talk about this, Karen?” he had asked me. “Think about it, please. We can explore our options. We can adopt. We can learn to be OK just the two of us. We can be more than OK, but you need to try, Karen. You have to learn to live with yourself.”
I had not replied. I sat silently scrolling through pictures of my friends’ chubby-faced babies on their Facebook pages. I refused to look up until at last he walked away from me, closing the door very quietly.
“It’s not your fault,” Joel had told me more than once.
“Not your fault,” repeated the midwife, my friends, and my mother. Their voices chorus around me. They meant well, of course.
“What do you think?” asked Rebecca. “Was it your fault?”
Then I had raged, I had punched those cushions as if they were the midwife’s sympathetic face (“For the best,” she had said mildly). I had shouted, not caring what Rebecca’s teenagers would think of me.
“Of course, it was my fault! It’s my body, isn’t it? My stupid, useless, fucking womb!”
I wanted her to flinch, but she didn’t. She just sat and listened, while I ranted like the madwoman I must be.
When I had finished and sat there panting, she said very quietly, “But you did not want it to happen, did you? In fact, you told me you did everything you could to stop it from happening.”
Rebecca was right. I had stopped work, spent hours with my feet up, avoided raw fish, then all fish; unpasteurized cheese, then all cheese, just to be safe. I didn’t drink a drop, wouldn’t let Joel near me; my friends gradually fell on the wayside of my single-minded pursuit—they were all busy with their own beautiful babies. Even when not pregnant, my uterus was an obsession. It wasn’t as if I had to look far to feed my preoccupation. Every magazine I opened was full of pictures of celebrities and their adorable children, rejoicing in their fecund female bodies. Every time I logged onto Facebook I was greeted by links to various stories about the trials and tribulations of motherhood: a club from which I was excluded. Of course, no one actually said it—everyone was far too careful for that—but I was not stupid, I knew what they thought: I had failed.
At some point, I missed a turn, too focused on all that I thought I should be. Instead of pausing to find my bearings, I rushed on and on, frantic and anxious, in pursuit of a life that was no more than an ideal. I scoured Google for advice and information, took all the right vitamins and minerals, dieted; I rested, took gentle exercise. I forgot to have fun. I forgot to notice all that I already had. Then I fell pregnant again and I lay very still and I waited.
“But nothing worked. Because I’m useless. And now I’m over 40 and it’s all too late.” I cried, and I cried.
“We’ve done some good work today,” Rebecca said when I left. “Great progress. Be kind to yourself.”
It didn’t feel good.
“A mindfulness walk,” she suggested. “Just listen. Just be.”
I am approaching the beach now, my feet sliding on warm sand, my eyes squinting against the light that bounces off the water. It is now, when I have given up on the answers, that I hear it: my own heart beating at the center of my chest. It is not going to stop any time soon. If this were a picture, I would be part of it, my body entrenched in the landscape, supported by the sand and soothed by the ocean, bathed in that piercing sunlight.
I pull off my shoes, sliding my feet through the sand as I make my way to the water’s edge, where I stand very still, trying to decide which way to go. The tide is low, the ocean calm. Further up the beach, it is dry and hot, littered with seaweed, driftwood, the odd bottle and unidentifiable pieces of plastic flotsam. Down here though, close to the shoreline, the sand is smooth and perfect, imprinted with delicate pink shells.
I could keep on walking into my grief, grasping frantically for a miracle, until I am swallowed by the distance, my very self vanishing without a trace. I realize that’s not what I want. I need to find another way.
I do not want to sob alone any longer. I want to cry with Joel, in his arms. I want to swim in the ocean, to feel it cradle me, and welcome the sensation that the water brings to my skin.
All I can hear is the ocean. I give up. I stop resisting. The echoes fade away, until only the present exists.
Carefully retracing my path along the beach, I walk back toward my life.