A noted poet, professor, and essay writer describes the loss of her first pregnancy. Now, years later, this mother of two happy, healthy children recalls the feelings that accompanied the miscarriage . . . and are with her still.
Unlike some of my friends in high school and college, I always knew I wanted to be a mother. I felt I was born for it: I made homemade yogurt, for Pete’s sake! So there was never any question about if; the only question was when, as my husband, Tommy, and I spent the first few years of marriage moving too often from one temporary teaching job to another. Finally, I landed a tenure-track job at a small liberal arts college in Illinois, and I was eager to start trying. Maybe too eager—I remember once Tommy was about to go out on book tour for a week when I did the math and realized I was ovulating. He was packing his toiletries when I cornered him and barked like a drill sergeant, “Get in bed and get your pants off! And I mean now!” Not my sexiest come on.
Concentrating on trying to make a baby distracted me from thinking about my father, who had just recently passed away. Instead of focusing on the withering of my family, I fastened onto the hopeful future. Yes, Tommy and I conceived a new life, and I would blossom forth. I would be great with child.
When I was just six weeks into the pregnancy, we went on a trip to New Orleans for a conference. While we were there, Tommy and I volunteered to teach poetry to fourth-graders at an inner city school. I was at the blackboard talking about using concrete words instead of abstract terms—“Can you pour gravy on it?” I asked, so the students could see that “sad” was abstract, “sandpaper” was not—when I felt a sudden slash of wetness between my legs. I was wearing a long skirt and I put my fingers in my pocket, felt my underwear. I took my hand out of my pocket, and my fingertips were smeared with blood.
Tommy took me back to the hotel and paged the midwife. I was crying and bleeding and whimpering on the bed. I remember a maid knocking to see if she could make up the room and Tommy roaring “NO!” at the closed door. When the midwife phoned, she said with a worried voice that I shouldn’t worry—as many as 40 percent of pregnant women spot. Blood thick now on the white hotel sheets, blood bright as Mardi Gras, more blood than I could imagine holding in my body. And cramps like someone grabbed a fistful of my guts and twisted. She told us then that if I started passing clots of tissue—God, it is awful even now to write this—to bring them in a cup to the hospital. Doctors could test and see if I had miscarried, or if I’d need a D&C (dilation and curettage) to remove the remaining “fetal matter.” It’s my baby, I wanted to shout, not fetal matter.
The bleeding and cramping stopped, so we didn’t go to the hospital. We left New Orleans the next day. Back in Illinois, I went straight for an ultrasound. While the they couldn’t see the baby, they told me not to worry, because they saw a very healthy placenta, and good fluid, and also “Brandal’s Ring,” a positive indication of pregnancy. My bloodwork was perfect, as were my hormone levels. So I went home consoled—everything was okay. This child was loved, and I would not allow anything to harm it. I swallowed my fears and my vitamins.
We were scheduled for a follow-up ultrasound just a few weeks later, and Tommy and I drove to the hospital chattering and laughing, excited to hear the baby’s heartbeat. In the ultrasound room I reclined on the cot while the technician shook a squeeze bottle like one you’d use for mustard and squirted the warm gel on my belly. The midwife was there on one side of me, Tommy on the other, holding my hand, and we all turned expectant faces to the screen. The technician rubbed the wand all over my stomach, circling and circling, and we watched the magic mirror of the screen swirl with snow. Somewhere in that fuzzy cloud was our baby. I knew the ultrasound works by echoes, that the waves bouncing off my baby’s body would form a picture. “Where’s the baby,” I said, confused, thinking they must be able to read the screen in a way I couldn’t. The wand pressed harder on my stomach. The technician dodged my question, dodged my eyes, the wand pressing faster its figure eights, infinities. There was no heartbeat, no heartbeat, no heartbeat. The silence grew deafening. Then I was shattering it, shrieking, “Where’s my baby? Where’s my baby?” And that was the only echo in the white-tiled room, four heads turned towards the blizzard on the screen, hot tears running out of my eyes into my ears as we all watched the monitor where nothing kept appearing and appearing in the gray yawning swirls of static, constellations without stars, heavens without a God.