What does it mean when you’re pregnant and there’s no baby? Each day that week we sought the answer from specialists in Peoria and Iowa City. Tests, bloodwork, cells from my womb walls smeared between finger-long panes of glass. Finally, a doctor coming into the room where Tommy and I sat, silent, gripping hands. The doctor shutting the door behind him. We had, he believed, a rare kind of pregnancy called a “blighted ovum.” He explained it using his hands and choosing small words, like you’d explain something to a scared child, which is what I was. “After the egg is fertilized,” he began, “it divides, and half of the cells form the baby, and the other half form the baby’s food and shelter, its placenta, yolk sack, etc.” He went on to tell me that he believed there had been a problem with the division of the fertilized egg. The half that made the placenta was thriving, but the half that was to make the baby never developed, or never developed very far. The doctor said he couldn’t give us complete assurance that he was right. Nor could he guarantee that there was no baby inside me, though he did say that no baby had ever been born successfully when the yolk sack was so much more developed than the fetus. He told me the best thing for us to do would be to terminate the pregnancy, but that it was up to us.
“And one more thing,” he said, rising gravely from his chair. “Your ovaries look abnormal. They are enlarged and peanut-shaped. There’s a possibility that you might have ovarian cancer.” He wouldn’t know anything definite until the pregnancy was terminated.
This was on a Thursday. The D&C was scheduled for Monday. I don’t remember much about those days in between. And I don’t remember being worried about the cancer. My baby was dead. Or there was no baby. I couldn’t get past that to thinking about anything else.
On Monday, they gave me the D & C. On Tuesday morning, I taught my class. Near the end of the class hour, I excused myself to go to the bathroom because I was having cramps. When I stood up from the toilet, a piece of tissue, gray and rubbery, fell from my vagina onto my shoe. I knew this was part of the blood-rich placenta that I’d been growing to nourish the baby. With a piece of toilet paper I picked up the shrapnel of placenta and flushed it. Then I washed the black leather toe of my pump at the sink and touched up my makeup in front of the mirror. Then I locked myself in the stall and wept until the building closed. I didn’t tell my students, or my colleagues, or my friends. I felt like I was harboring a shameful secret. I was in a brand new town in a brand new job; I had a newly dead father. Tommy and I were alone in the world.
In the weeks to come, there were many follow-up visits in which it was revealed that my ovaries had shrunk back to their regular size. I was assured that I could get pregnant again, although we had to wait three months before we could even try. Those months were made of weeks and the weeks made of days and the days made of eternities. It seemed as if everything I did reminded me of the baby we didn’t have. Where did we put the tiny onesies we’d already bought for the child? The plush caterpillar rattle my Mom sent? I don’t know. Maybe Tommy threw them away while I was teaching. My mother and Tommy’s mother were the only people who knew about the pregnancy, and they both said the same well-meaning thing when they heard about the blighted ovum, and that the half of the cell that was supposed to become the fetus didn’t progress: “At least a baby didn’t die.” But to me of course, a baby DID die: my baby, my first love, to whom I had been reading Shakespeare’s sonnets every morning. Yet I knew these two women whom I love so much were speaking kindly, reasonably.
I kept thinking about the ultrasound and the X of the technician’s cursor skimming over the screen. I was reminded of how actors know to find their places on the dark stage by finding the X of fluorescent tape which shows them where to stand. But this time, the star didn’t show. There was nothing. I’m upset over nothing, I kept telling myself in the weeks that followed the D & C. At least a baby didn’t die. I thought of people I knew who’d had miscarriages late in their pregnancies. Or delivered a stillborn. My friend David had told me about “the presentation” of his stillborn child—how the doctors and nurses brought the dead infant to him and his wife in the hospital room, wrapped in a receiving blanket and wearing a thin cotton cap. Then they rolled the brim of the cap off to show the soft, crushed skull. And drew the blanket down to show the spinal column on the outside of the baby’s skin. The presentation is supposed to help the couple grieve. Perhaps it does. It’s the most awful thing I’ve heard, and when David told me, he started crying—my big-shouldered, rugby-playing friend—yet David and his wife got on with their lives. I’m weak, selfish to be so upset, I told myself. Nothing even close to that happened to you. You have nothing to be upset about, nothing.