When you first see the signs, a handful of possibilities present themselves to you encouragingly, though you know in your gut the only thing it can be. Still, dutifully, you call your doctor and tell him your concerns and symptoms. Dutifully, you show up for an ultrasound, and even though you see with your own eyes all of your anxieties confirmed, dutifully, you wait in a room with a closed door for the doctor to come and put his stamp of authority on it.
You want to have confidence in the intuition of your body. For the larger part, it knows what it's doing when it comes to things like breathing, digesting, and reproducing. But occasionally, right now, you want your body to be joking. You want the wonders of radiology to reveal some deeper mystery going on in there that a layman can't interpret.
But no one will deliver today. The doctor explains procedures to you--procedures being the last thing you want--procedures designed to diffuse the smallest remaining granule of hope. You'll hold, for now, thanks.
He gives you a pat on the shin as he says, "Let us know if we can be of any assistance to you. You can call us 24 hours a day if you need anything at all." You instinctively pull your shin away from the therapeutic shin pat and tuck it under the leg of the chair, and wait, arms folded, for the doctor to leave the room before rushing the Kleenex box. You've got to dry up, make it down the hallway, to the elevator, and all the way out to the car before you can fall apart.
The elevator won't come--and where in the hell are the stairs? Visitors in the waiting room have just held strapping new grandbabies. They are ebullient and loud, but they avert their eyes while you press the down arrow, again, again. They've let you have the elevator to yourself. "Poor thing," they say as the doors close on you.
Second to tears, my instinct is to burn something. All the candles in the house are lit, but it's not enough flame and little smoke to do the job. What job? What am I trying to accomplish as I gather the palm branches from last Sunday, the corkscrews and curlicues that the kids have peeled off the edges of their palms. They're everywhere. I put them in a grocery store votive with an image of Our Lady of Guadelupe on it. Smoke fills the kitchen, smells like Paschal fire, and somehow, this helps.
I wash the dishes, vacuum, change the bedsheets. I would like to bag up the maternity clothes and put them away, but I'm not sure how much longer I may need them.
It's a mercy that the sun is out today (though for a long time after, it will rain). The Magnolias and Plums have dropped their petals, but the lilacs are just about to burst. All of us carry the prospect of death around with us, to work, to the grocery, to bed--it's a someday certainty that we have the luxury of ignoring.
Mothers occasionally carry death more concretely. I can lay down and cradle it. I can lie here for days.
Or I can prepare an Easter for the other kids. They will not tolerate the Passion going on forever.
Motherhood is a job with its own particular tools. Mothers must be on terms with the body, with its issues and outputs. And so there are a number of reasons why a mother might find herself hunched over a toilet, squinting her eyes into its contents. She searches for lost objects, for parasites, for socks, for sickness, for babies.
One would rather perform this work in her own bathroom--no one else's. One doesn't like to travel with a slotted spoon in her purse, with tupperware containers or plastic bags. Because when she considers the issue philosophically, she's horrified by the way she reaches for kitchen tools to accomplish this work.
At the same time, a delivery room at the hospital is full of similar tools: forceps, plungers, needles, scissors, scalpels, pans--women's tools. Also, oxygen masks--women need oxygen masks more often than you might think.
In any case, when labor begins, in pain, on Holy Thursday, and when the baby arrives, painlessly, on Easter morning, after three days of contraction and self-induced isolation, she will reach in with her bare hands and lift it out.
A week ago, I was rounding the kids into the car for Mass, chasing them on tiptoes, so as not to sink into the wet grass, with a hairbrush in my hand. I'd recently purchased a new maternity dress for myself, which I had on, and planned to wear for Easter as well. I felt lovely, charmingly incompetent, as pregnant women are wont to feel.
At the Parish penance service, it first occurred to me that I might be harboring an air of entitlement, by which I deserved everything that Heaven and Earth had to offer me because I was doing this phenomenal work of being pregnant. Leave my presents on the table, Folks. I'm not getting up--mind you, I'm with child.
Miscarriage inevitably provides the opposite internal angle: unworthiness. That lovely swelling under my clothes dissipates a little each day, and eventually I have to face people with its absence--an obvious and senseless absence akin to having cut off my own nose.
I've long known I don't handle compliments well--but I am worse, far worse, at handling condolences. I'm not accustomed to them, but what they bring to light is exactly how unearned any former congratulations had been. I did nothing differently between this pregnancy and the last, and by chance or Providence, the last ended with a baby, for which I took all the credit--while this one ended with a loss, for which I am also dangerously tempted to take all the credit.
So I go into hiding--leave the condolences on the doorstep, Folks. I'm not getting up. I've lost a child.
"Call me if you need anything." -- If only one could pinpoint exactly what grief requires, supply it, and be done.
"You were generous with God, and God gave your life back to you."
A worthy thought, but, no.
When you find out you're having a baby, whether it is your first or your fifth, you change. Your body changes. Your disposition changes. You were moving in one direction, and you changed course. When you find out that your term of pregnancy will end without a living child, you don't just go back to how things were. You change course again. There's no going back to how things were.
After nearly 48 hours of what felt like strenuous labor, I thought to myself, "I want this to be over. Why didn't I get the D&C?"
It's there if you need it. If the bleeding hadn't slowed when it did, if the pain hadn't subsided, at least a little, if my emotions had ceased to ripen through that process and had begun to inflict violence--yes, there's recourse.
But now that it's over, I'm glad I allowed my body to bear the brunt of processing the loss. Having felt the pain in my body, when it was over, the relief was so overwhelming, it couldn't help soothing the spirit.
If I had gone to the doctor, been put to sleep, and awakened to an empty womb--I'm not sure I could have thought myself through, and out of, the whole experience. I know that many women do--and feel relieved not to have to add the insult of bodily suffering to the emotional impact of losing a child.
I would be tempted to think that God just needed another angel in Heaven, even though it contradicts my previously held notions of an omnipotent God. God doesn't need anything. We are the ones in need, and if we need an advocate there, so be it. I am grateful. Still, a God who creates life just to take it away doesn't sit well, no matter how many Heavenly spins I can put on it. And to think that God created an angel, just for us, seems to imply that our family and our sins are so exceptional that we need more than Christ's ultimate sacrifice to redeem us. I doubt it.
And if miscarriage is just nature's way of cleansing the human race from genetic malfunctions--then what function could the pain and emotional upheaval possibly serve? Nature is a sadist.
The only thing that makes sense to me, is some combination of the two. I am both soul and body. My personal physical and emotional pain must have some spiritually redeeming function.
Several women have written to me to share their experience of having also lost pregnancies, some during Holy Week. Kate Wicker noted that you know you're having a challenging Lent when you don't get to choose your sacrifice. Though losing a pregnancy is a difficult experience any time of year--in Holy Week, any meaning I might have sought from suffering was handed to me on a platter. It cannot help mimicking the suffering and loss of our Savior
To participate in the Cross we venerate on Good Friday, even in the smallest capacity, is a sacrament and a love offering. Whenever I try to avoid physical suffering, to take a pill to lose weight, to find an easy way out of self-sacrifice, I deprive myself of redemptive graces. These graces are not just little ray guns I can aim at my troubles and worries, but deep interior healing, deep peace, deep union with the one who suffered all.
Joseph, we fell in love with you. We'll love you forever.
I wrote about my first miscarriage, briefly, here.