After seven years as the parents of one child, my husband and I decided to shoot for two. We consulted with Rob, our friend and obstetrician, who blessed our intentions and warned us to expect it to take six to eight months to conceive. It took about 10 minutes. The pregnancy technology had advanced over time, so we knew early that we’d hit pay dirt, leaving us completely floored. Our second appointment with Rob resulted in great test results, huge horse-pill prenatal vitamins, and a definitive due date. We made a family appointment, for when we’d all be able to see and hear images of our new baby.
Not only were we loving and indulgent parents, we were both psychotherapists. We shared an ethos that people have feelings about everything, that it’s important to acknowledge and experience those feelings, and that it’s critical to talk about all of them. One of the greatest tensions in our small family was that our daughter, Keara, thought this was total bullshit. On a day-to-day basis, we were learning to accommodate her, but we were undeterred this time.
I bought a psychologically sophisticated, seven-year-old-appropriate book about becoming a sibling, while my husband, Brian, grabbed up all our favorites from the Lebanese place down the street. Keara looked suspicious and started squirming as I lit candles and sat us down. “Keara,” I announced, “we’re having a special dinner because we have some special news.” I slid the gift-wrapped book toward her.
She looked at us both, clapped her hand over her forehead, and moaned, “Oh no, we’re moving again!”
“Well, no, honey,” Brain said. “We’re going to have a baby! You’re going to be a big sister!”
She gingerly poked at the book like it was covered in plutonium and slid it away as far as her arm extended.
“Will it live here?” she demanded.
Okay, now we’ve got a conversation going! Brian and I nonverbally messaged each other.
“Yes. So what do you think of the news?” I inquired.
“Can I name it?”
“Well, we may want to wait until . . .” Brian started.
“Gonzo,” she interrupted. “I name it Gonzo.”
“Well, I guess for the time being we could call it Gonzo,” he stammered.
I glared at him and turned to Keara. “You know, honey, having a new baby in a family brings lots of questions and feelings. Would you like to talk about them?”
“Maybe we can just sit down and read the book together,” I pressed.
“No thanks,” she declined in excruciating politeness. “Can I be excused?”
“Yes,” we responded, beaten once again.
The book remained in the exact same place on the table for weeks.
I quickly succumbed to one of the great scourges of pregnancy: morning sickness. Nausea is entirely too benign a word to describe it. It’s not the queasy feeling you get when you eat something bad and feel a little “off,” or maybe hit the sauce a bit too hard the night before and awake to the consequences. Morning sickness is actually morning-noon-night-and-any-other-moment-you-draw-breath sickness. You’re caught in a vicious storm in a tinfoil boat, which registers the full force of turbulence. You can’t shake the haziness, the dizziness, and the general disorientation you feel. You don’t throw up, you spew, despite the fact that you’ve eaten nothing. And you get less than a two-second warning that it’s going to happen again.
I was an Olympic vomiter. We all had to endure my sprints to the bathroom and my pathetic moans as I ended up prostrate on the floor. But it got worse: Keara had to deal with the public humiliation of my lack of control. First, when I threw up in the grocery store, she looked stricken, pushed aside the half-full grocery cart, and sprinted for the door. It was too bad, because I thought she’d be slightly amused by hearing someone actually yell, “Cleanup on Aisle 5.”
The deal breaker came a few days later. I was picking her up from school and got a great spot close to the building. It was one of those gorgeous afternoons when the colors of fall are making their last stand. I got out of the car to soak up the sun, and just as she and her friends were walking toward the car, I started barfing in the bushes. Keara came rushing over to me. “Stop it! Stop it! You’re embarrassing me!” she hissed.
On the way home, I tried to explain that I had no control, and I didn’t want to embarrass her. She then suggested I park down the street from the school next time, at the corner near a huge oak we always admired. . . . So I did.
Brian and I were considerably more excited about our family obstetrician appointment than Keara.
But she immediately warmed to Rob. When he asked how the nausea was, she instinctively blurted out, “It’s disgusting,” before I’d even opened my mouth to answer.
I was weighed and measured. Brian helped me hop up onto the exam table. Keara looked apprehensive. With the usual frigid gel on my abdomen, Rob began to press down with the ultrasound wand, and suddenly there it was. The Sound. The ten-thousand-leagues-under-the-sea, rapid-heartbeat sound. Rob gestured toward the monitor. Keara squinted and looked disappointed until he pointed out a blob with an on-off action that matched the amplified noise of the heartbeat. “That’s not a baby,” she challenged him.
“It’s the beginning of a baby,” he said as he handed her the printed image from the sonogram. On the back he wrote, “Baby will come,” with the due date.
We went out to lunch and, mercifully, I kept everything I ate to myself. There are precious few times when each person in a family is fully in sync with the others: when each person is simultaneously and equally happy, where one person’s joy bounces off the others’, and the family is embraced in complete contentment. This was one of those times. We were united in an adventure, one that would change each of us, forever. It was a mysterious and exciting journey, in which we were fearless. We were on the verge of something cosmic, something that defied conscious thought or language. It just was. And it was ours alone.
When we got home, Keara ran to the refrigerator and attached Gonzo’s image with a magnet. She flipped the pages of the calendar until she found the due date and wrote in the box, “Baby Is Due.” Over the next days, when Brian would casually pat my belly and whisper, “Hey Gonzo, how’s it going?” Keara would follow suit.
By the next week, I was having to suck it in a bit more to fit into jeans that were already pretty tight. It was a good excuse for buying some maternity clothes. I was feeling better and really needed some things to wear for work. I bought two of the least maternal dresses I could find, which I wore with the long, black, sexy suede boots I had no intention of giving up.
Our lives settled into regular rhythms. No one asked anyone else to talk about their feelings. We only answered what we were asked. Our families and friends were delighted and gave Keara little stuffed animals, a real-looking baby doll, and a T-shirt that read, “I’m the Big Sister.” She politely but unenthusiastically gave thanks, and tossed them on the floor of her room.
Rob had suggested that I have a routine test for detecting fetal anomalies and other genetic problems. I was afraid of the needle into my belly, but more disturbed when I realized that neither Brian or I had a clue about what we’d do if the tests yielded the wrong results. While I didn’t really want to know, I acceded to Rob’s request, basically, because I was sure that we’d escape all of those scary outcomes.
On the day of the test, I wore one of my new dresses. Because the lab was directly on the way to my office, we decided that I’d just drop by before work, so I’d still have time to prepare for my seminar that afternoon.
The staff promptly ushered me into the long gown tied in the front. They gave me fuzzy socks and a warm white blanket because the room was so damn cold. Jenny, the chatty technician, helped me up onto the treatment table under huge hot lights. She cleared my abdomen, did the familiar squirt of gel, and pushed it around with the wand. She went back and forth several times, then looked at me and asked, “Could you just hold on a sec? We’ve been having some trouble with this machine. I just want to have my supervisor take a look.”
“Sure,” I answered, glad for the chance to plan my lecture as I lay there.
The supervisor turned out to be a very serious person, who stood over me and covered my belly with the wand like it was on a grid. The woman didn’t miss a centimeter. She finally announced that she was going to check with the doctor. Jenny the technician stayed behind and hung close by.
Then, a white-coated man entered and introduced himself as Dr. Flaherty. “Let’s see what we’ve got here,” he said as he skated the wand up and down the hills of my abdomen. He looked at me somberly and admitted, “I can’t get a heartbeat.”
I was unfazed. “Oh, that’s okay, I already heard it.”
He came a little closer. “No, I can’t get one at all.”
“Well,” I reminded him, “maybe we should try one of the other machines.”
He rolled up right next to me and took my hand. “I’m so sorry. The baby is dead.”
In situations like these, when you’ve just heard something terrible, it’s like you’re walking through a series of doors. Behind the first door is a distant haze. The words are foreign and distant. With each door, the focus sharpens, until you finally hear it as it was told to you. In my case, I didn’t know if it was seconds or minutes, but I emerged stunned. “You can’t know that,” I cried to him.
“Yes, I really can,” he said softly. In the middle of these three strangers, surrounded by machines with a dead baby inside me, I began to whimper. I was alone. What was going to happen now? Dr. Flaherty got Rob on the phone and handed it to me. “It’s your doctor.”
“Rob, the baby’s dead.”
“I know,” he replied. “I’m so sorry that I can’t be there right now to put my arms around you.”
“But what do I do now?”
“We need to get it out, which means I’m going to do a procedure tonight. I have an OR at Arlington for 6:00. It won’t take a long time, and we’ll be giving you a sedative so you’ll be asleep.”
As the technician retrieved my clothes, I stared out the long windows. Cars were stopping at lights. People were standing at corners on their way somewhere. How strange. They were going about their business when I had a dead baby inside me. She helped me get dressed and walked me to my car. My keys felt like they would break in my hand. My car was so blue. Like the sky. Did I always know that?
I didn’t know where to go. I couldn’t go home. I just couldn’t. Keara would be waiting at school at 3:30. I turned into the local mall, a place I despised, but somewhere I could disappear while I waited. I passed rows and rows and rows of stores. I studied their windows as if I was going to be tested on them. My hands fluttered to my abdomen as I wondered how I was holding a dead baby. I wandered, studied my watch, and wandered some more.
When it was finally time to get Keara, I swore that I’d keep it together. As I pulled up to my assigned corner by the oak tree, there she was, huffing and puffing with all her stuff. (What did second graders do these days?) She opened the door, threw her backpack on the seat, and leaned back to catch her breath. Before I could get a word out, she asked loudly, “Can I go to Kate’s?”
“Well, before we get to that, I have to talk to you about something.” Instantly, she got that Oh-God-what-does-she-want? look on her face. “You know how I went to the doctor’s for some tests today?”
“Yeah, but not Rob’s,” she added.
“No, a different doctor. Anyway, he did some tests and it turns out that . . . Gonzo died.”
“Why?” she pleaded.
“No one is really sure. They just told me that some babies aren’t meant to be born.”
“Does it hurt?”
“No, but Rob has to do a small operation later. It’s really short, and I can come right home. Dad’s going to be with me at the hospital, so I was thinking maybe you could eat over at Kate’s and maybe sleep over too.” There was no question: Keara would’ve burst out of the car and sprinted to Kate’s right then if she could have.
As we drove up to our house, Brian pulled into the driveway and emerged from his car with groceries and a gorgeous bouquet of cream-colored roses. For a moment, I wondered why. Then he dropped everything and hugged me, whispering that he felt so, so sad. Keara couldn’t bear the scene, darted into the house, and started packing for her overnight at Kate’s as if she’d been invited to stay for two weeks.
I remember nothing from then on, until I woke to a nurse moistening my chapped lips. I was totally disoriented, and she just sat still with me until I turned to her and asked, “There’s no more baby?”
“No honey,” she answered. “The baby’s gone.”
My silent tears and runny nose made a mess of my face, and she gently wiped it dry. Then she took tiny spoonfuls of ice chips and fed them to me one by one. Maybe it was the pain meds, but nothing had ever tasted so good. Brian got me dressed and home and into bed. Somehow I got through the next day, and the one after that. I joined the real world, while still nursing that hollow part in me that I simultaneously wanted to erase and keep.
Always the optimist, Brian focused on the future and the fact that we’d just try again.
Two weeks later, he was carrying the kitchen trash to the garbage cans out back when I heard him call my name. I rushed outside, but he was just standing there, looking into one of the cans. He lifted a large cereal box, and under it were Keara’s little stuffed animals, the real-looking baby doll, and a crumpled “I’m the Big Sister” T-shirt. Underneath, still wrapped, was the baby book we’d given her that first night at the dinner table.
What should we do? Rescue them from the trash? Bring them to her so she could get out her hurt feelings? I think we realized that this was her way through her pain. Who were we to inflict something we thought was better? We left those small treasures in the trash for the early morning pickup and said nothing.
The loss of a pregnancy begins the reversal of the all-out effort your body had been making. You aren’t restricted from certain foods anymore. Your breasts no longer feel like someone punched you, and you climb back on the menstrual carousel. You’re back on terra firma. But sometimes your hands rest on your flattened abdomen. Your mind lags far behind your body.
The loss, for me, was a little death in the universe. Months earlier, the future had granted me a gift. Despite the high price of the ticket for admission, my pregnancy had catapulted me into a world in which my body routinely changed every day without my having to do a damn thing. I found myself lost in the reveries of prospective parents: Who will you be? How will you look? Who will you become? How will I know how to be the right mother for you? Sometimes in a crowd, I had to suppress the urge to yell out, “I know I look ordinary, but you wouldn’t believe what’s going on inside me!”
Then, the door to the Magic Kingdom had slammed shut, and a quiet, private sorrow set in, big time. I felt hollow and useless. My body had betrayed me. I was pregnant without the baby. I operated on two clocks: the usual reliable one, which helped us proceed with the hours of our days, and a sort of ghostly timetable, left over from the pregnancy, with different intervals of days and weeks, culminating in a due date. No matter how well I was getting on with my life, there was still the quiet but insistent whisper, “Four months left.” “Two months.” “Homestretch.” I came to see my previous due date as a combination of an occasion for sorrow and a get-out-of-jail card (not for free). In many religions, times are appointed for mourning like this. It made sense, but where would this grief go afterward?
With the new month, I turned the calendar page, and there, three days in, was the box in which Keara had written “Baby is Due.” It was now covered over with at least three different crayon colors, but I could still see the imprint.
The night before the due date, after I thought Keara had gone to bed, I crept downstairs, put on music I knew would make me cry, and rocked in my chair. Keara tiptoed up to me. Just out of the bath, she had that delicious clean-kid smell. She climbed her seven-year-old body into my lap, leaving her legs dangling over the chair. She put her arms around my neck and rested her cheek on mine. “Mama?” she said with hesitance. “Mama, aren’t I enough?”
Bam! My heart cracked open. “Keara, enough isn’t even a word that applies to you. You are magnificent.” I hesitated. “Do you know what that means?”
She gave me one of those Are-you-kidding-me? looks. “Mom,” she sighed, “I know a lot of things you don’t think I know.”
“Well, I guess I’m trying to say that sometimes sadness hits you, and you forget how to be happy with everything you’ve got.” I buried my face in her neck. “Keary, you made me a mother. You gave it to me when you were born. Being a mother is the best thing I am.”
“Really?” she asked.
“Yeah, really.” I kissed her. “Now unless you want to start talking about your feelings, you need to get into bed.” She laughed and dashed up the stairs.
The next day, I sat under the assigned oak tree and waited for school to let out. I tried to focus on the new green of the monster leaves and the vines of tiny wildflowers at its base, but then the guy on the radio mentioned the damn date, and I was overcome. I rested my head against the steering wheel and ordered myself to pull it together. Keara ran toward the car, dropping the many things she was carrying. When she got in, she threw them across the seat and handed me a bunch of raggedy papers I was supposed to sign. “Mom,” she said breathlessly, “I’ve got an idea. I think we should do something really good.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“Bowling. We should go bowling!”
“But Keara, we don’t bowl.”
“So what? We can go duck-pin bowling, and you probably wouldn’t be so bad at that. I did it with Kate. It was awesome!”
“We’ll have to talk to Dad about it when he gets home.”
“No, Mom! We have to go right now. Just us. I know the way. . . . Please!”
I turned to her in the backseat. She looked excited, determined, and a little afraid. I glanced in the rearview mirror, and the road was clear. “What the hell, let’s go,” I said, turning the key in the ignition, and she lit up like the angel on top of a Christmas tree.
For the next two hours, we wore silly, smelly shoes as we tried to dash small pins with a ball the size of a grapefruit. She painstakingly instructed me on my technique and kept asking, “Are you having a good time?” to which I nodded mechanically. Then, finally, when I knocked one of those suckers down, it kicked in. I felt it. “Keara, this is magnificent!” I yelled over to her.
“I told you so,” she beamed.
We played the jukebox and sat at the snack bar to eat a totally crappy dinner, which was covered with melted orange cheese product. On the way home, Keara grabbed a Hall and Oates cassette and we wailed, “You’re a rich girl. . . . It’s a bitch, girl, but it’s gone too far.”
As we pulled into the driveway, she leaned across the seat and asked, “I was right, wasn’t I, Mama?”
“You absolutely were, baby.”
She danced up the steps, yelling, “I gotta tell Dad.”
I lingered in the subsequent silence. It was probably the first time an ‘82 powder-blue Volvo sedan qualified as a sacred space. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. But as Joni Mitchell sang, “Laughing and crying, you know it’s the same release,” I felt something that came to me too rarely. I was exhausted, I ached, but down to the very bottom of my being, I knew I was all right.
That day was supposed to end so differently, with an outcome I dearly longed for, but I ended up surrendering the remnants of my grief to the wisdom of a seven-year-old. My first child delivered me of my second. No words were necessary. It was a perfect benediction, all on its own.
PHOTO © ISTOCK/MILANVIRIJEVIC
PHOTO © iStock/maunger
Martha Manning, PhD, is a writer and clinical psychologist who has written five books, including Undercurrent: A Life Beneath the Surface. She has published frequently in the Networker as well as other magazines.