By Kelly Loy Gilbert
Pregnancy can make you deeply emotional, and by the time we touched down for a layover in Honolulu–a family trip with my husband’s family, whom we hadn’t seen for more than half the year–I’d cried three times already.
The first was thinking about the size of our tiny, tiny growing baby on the way to the airport, and picturing the family’s reaction when we told them. The second was seeing a family–mom, dad, brother–saying goodbye to their daughter; they’d waited with her through the security line to send her off to college in Montana and the mom was trying not to cry. The dad was stoic, but when they had to say goodbye at the security checkpoint the dad kept trying to take pictures of her with his cell phone. They were going to be terrible pictures, too far away and of the back of her head, but still, watching them do that I got all weepy, and I thought, Oh, God, 18 years sounds way too soon and we’ll be seeing our baby off to college! I remembered what a friend with teenaged children told me about how you have these children and someday they’ll leave you, and already my heart rebelled against it.
The third time I cried was when we landed, and everyone clapped. Which wasn’t even anything, I was just weepy. And happy, mostly. Thrilled. I whispered to my husband that everything made me cry, and we giggled together.
Our baby’s first trip.
This baby would be a surprise to the rest of the world but it was someone we’d longed for for a while, and I wanted to tell everyone right away. My husband’s stepmom asked me how the flight was and laughingly asked if I’d been sedated enough, because I am deathly afraid of flying and spend most flights holding perfectly still so as not to disrupt the plane’s balance, staring down flight attendants to watch for any looks of panic so I at least have a little heads-up about our collective impending doom. But this time I’d taken nothing because the doctor had told me to take nothing but Tylenol for the sake of the baby. I said no, I hadn’t, and I wanted to tell my mother-in-law about the baby then, but we were all veering off to different bathrooms, looking at gates, et cetera, so we held it in for the time being. And it was during that layover in Honolulu, right after we’d been reunited with the family, where I first started to worry.
* * *
Kauai was where we’d honeymooned four years ago, and for whatever reason, it more than almost any other place I’ve ever been stands out clearly in my mind. Maybe it’s the geography, how everything’s along one main highway on the island. We were thrilled to be going back, thrilled that it was going to be such a meaningful place for us: we went after we got married, and now we were back after we’d found out we were going to be parents. In the airport between flights, in limbo, I tuned out of the conversation with family we hadn’t seen in eight months and looked up everything I could to reassure myself. Plenty of women had had similar symptoms and gone on to have healthy babies, and really, my symptoms were so minor as to be nearly invisible–the biggest thing was the weight beginning to press against my chest, that sense that something was wrong, and there was no medical basis to believe that meant anything. Flying into Kauai, also without any kind of sedative, I closed my eyes and pictured my baby.
For dinner that night we all ate saimin at Hamura’s, all of us crowded into a hot, humid room where we lined up and sat at counter-like tables and slurped up our noodles. I was exhausted. I’d never been sleepy like this, and it was thrilling to realize it was from the pregnancy. There were two distinct times it seemed right to share our news about the baby, but it was loud and crowded and we were all eating in a line so we couldn’t all quite hear each other, so we waited. At night I took my prenatal vitamins and then collapsed early into bed like I’d been doing the past weeks, and, over sushi I didn’t eat, we shared the news at lunch the next day. We said we were excited, and happy, but in truth by then I was already starting to fear.
The few people who knew I was worried told me everything would be fine even as my symptoms increased. As things grew worse, we spent hours on the phone with doctors. My husband did, actually, not me, because I couldn’t. In Kauai there are very few OB-GYNs, and, it turned out, none who could see me. We called the doctors at home for advice, answers, anything. The first doctor we spoke to was reassuring, and we believed everything would be okay. It would be fine, we told each other–either way, it was going to be okay, and we were going to be okay, and everything would be fine. Over and over we said it, hugging each other and lying down together and watching the water and the sky out the window, repeating it like an incantation.
I am an anxious person by nature and I’ve learned that the worst-case scenarios my heart feels as truth are not always so; fear is not the same as fate, and it’s dangerous to blindly trust one’s worst forebodings. But I knew this loss already. Even as it was happening, even as maybe it hadn’t technically happened yet, I could feel what it was going to be like on the other side when we went through the rest of our lives without this baby. I entered a sort of parallel world, numb to the trip we were on and the people we were with. Mostly, I stayed inside–I never put on my bathing suit and barely unpacked. This is what I’ll remember of Kauai now: The Wal-Mart bathroom where I saw more blood after a night that had felt safe and solid and had given me more hope that things would be all right. The state park bathroom where we made a pit stop, less because I needed to pee and more because I was nervous. The bathroom in the Kailuea shopping center where a European woman complained bitterly to me about people using the air-vent hand dryers–it made everything take so long! she complained, looking to me for solidarity–where I went in and saw more blood. The National Park where we saw puffy baby birds and I broke down on the public path and cried. The surf gear shop where my husband held up a tiny, tiny pair of flip-flops for me to see.
What I hadn’t understood was that losing my baby would be a process, not a simple sloughing off or a fast exit or a sign that that was it, it was over now; but days of bleeding and cramping and–worst of all–hoping against hope that everyone had been wrong, that the lessening blood meant everything was better now. I lay in the rental bed with my hand on my stomach, resenting the layers of skin and flesh and muscle that separated me from my baby, and tried to stay very still and I prayed. First the prayers were that things would be all right and that my baby would be fine, and as the pain increased and the hope lessened the prayers changed. It was very painful on the worst night, but all I could pray was Please, please, please don’t let it hurt to the baby. Please don’t let the baby feel it. Please don’t let my baby be in pain.
We found an early flight and booked an appointment for my doctor’s office at home, and we left. I cried on the way to the airport and then in our four hours in the airport, thinking about abandoning our baby in Hawaii. I cried thinking about its remains somewhere in the sewer systems an ocean away from where we’d be. I cried taking off from Kauai, where we spent the last days with our baby. I cried and clutched my husband in terror when the plane rocketed in turbulence, the pilot coming on the intercom three times to apologize for the roughness. I hadn’t taken anything because I still hoped that maybe, maybe, just in case.
I cried landing in San Jose without the baby. I cried seeing my parents, who would not be grandparents, and my brother, who had been sending me excited text messages and who now would not be an uncle. I cried when we pulled into our parking lot when we were home without the baby, and we pulled our suitcases from the car and stood for a while outside the door to our apartment.
And then the two of us, no longer the three of us, went in to a home that felt so empty now, to a loneliness that was both hugely, gapingly cavernous and somehow at the same time needle-sharp precise.
* * *
In the morning there was an appointment–an empty uterus on the ultrasound screen, a few blood tests. There were cards and flowers and food and visits from friends, who rallied around us and made sure we weren’t grieving alone. There was my return to work, the private dismantling of all those cherished future plans. After that, for a long time, there were nightmares–not the kind that wake you up and leave you gasping and alone in the night, but the kind that linger and seep into your day. Mine involved travel or miscarriage, sometimes both.
And for a long time after that I felt I was residing in a strange valley of fear and doubt, a time of deep mistrust. When my husband left home, even for small errands or just to go down to the car, my mind, unbidden, ran through all scenarios in which something terrible would happen and he would never come back. When I felt odd twinges in my body I felt my whole spine seize up in anxiety and I thought of all the ways your body can betray you, all the insidious invisible dangers that might cause disaster.
But those were the easy parts, the more understandable ones. What was harder, and what took me longer to understand, was that for a while I no longer trusted myself. Because, after all, in a real and tangible way there was no baby. I had fallen in love with what was in the end a bloody, clot-like formation inside my body, indistinguishable to my eyes from any other clots or tissue I might pass. All those things I felt for my tiny little one: it was unfathomable that they would land on this, this non-child disintegrating inside me. I didn’t know, and perhaps still don’t, what it meant that I could so fiercely, so desperately love something that didn’t quite exist. What did that make me, and what might that mean of all the other things I loved?
How difficult it is to reconcile that amount of love given to something so small, so unformed, so inhuman. I’ve read often since then–perhaps it brings me some semblance of comfort, something like the feeling I get from hearing about other and often worse stories of loss–about fetal microchimerism. This is the phenomenon in which fetal cells are found to persist in a mother’s bloodstream for decades and decades after her pregnancy, and, when you are grieving a child you never held, it’s easy to romanticize the idea of these cells. It’s something to hold onto, at least, some tangible proof that my baby made me in some ways a mother.
It feels like a while ago now. But sometimes when it’s quiet around or sometimes when it isn’t, sometimes at the most inopportune times when a certain song or sight or feeling catches me off guard when I’m out, I am paralyzed temporarily by helplessness and guilt. Mostly, I’m haunted by the disconnect between myself and my tiny, tiny child, or not-yet-child–how unable I was to provide any sort of the mothering that I so badly longed to. Because your child then is both a part of you and still so wholly separate from you; you can whisper I love you, I love you, I’m sorry to your dying little one; you can lay your hand on your stomach and press as hard as you can; you can sing to your small one, or pray, and none of that reaches through, in the end. To miscarry is to love someone incapable of receiving that love, so it deflects back at you and comes back changed and twisted into something that in the end just feels a whole lot more like grief.
Kelly Loy Gilbert lives with her husband and newborn daughter in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her debut novel is forthcoming from Disney-Hyperion in 2014, and she blogs here and is on Twitter @KellyLoyGilbert.
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