I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.
—Mary Oliver, A Thousand Mornings
This is the exact way the world moves forward:
How three weekends ago we were in Tampa—a trip booked the day we discovered our babe had no heartbeat and begrudgingly changed our pregnancy-announcement-to-dad weekend into a spring getaway with lots of booze.
How two weekends ago, we had planned to surprise my mom on her birthday with our 12-week announcement, but instead shopped and ate and celebrated with regular old birthday gifts.
How the week of Mother’s Day— during which I had planned to anticipate all the complex feels and process them in advance—a school I work at experienced the sudden death of a teacher and I spent the week scooping up wailing 6th graders, in addition to my own regular caseload.
How on Mother’s Day weekend we had planned to share the news with Jeff’s family, which would have been so precious on Mother’s Day, but instead carried out business as usual with birthday celebrations and brunch and stories around the table of our own moms.
How a handful of cards and two perfect ultrasounds are tucked into the top drawer of my jewelry box underneath a pile of bracelets and watches I’ve worn since then, underneath the laundry card and the Hartman Inn & Sweets sign we use for visitors—evidence of all the life that has happened since.
How I’ve walked back into the apartment every day since our loss to the same old prayer card sitting on the kitchen table from a dining out group we joined back in January during which each person wrote their prayer onto an index card and passed it to the person on the right. The card I recieved? “Prayer for my friend to get pregnant and have a healthy baby.” OK God, her baby.
How friends who have made it to their own 12 and 13 and 14-week marks are posting their baby announcements and belly pics online with my same due date, holding a mirror to our exact loss.
Life goes on, yes.
But death goes on, too.
A person who is dead is a long, long story (Elizabeth McCracken).
In four years of infertility, I’ve always been able to separate my life from other people’s lives, making sure my baggage didn’t make others feel uncomfortable. For me, other babies were other babies. Other moms were other moms. Nobody’s anything cost me mine.
Also, I have a pretty durable sense of humor.
Elizabeth McCracken writes in her memoir An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, “The frivolous parts of your personality, stubborner than you’d imagined, will grow up through the cracks in your soul.”
Yes. So many cracks. So much humor. Enough grace to feel undeservedly happy about life 95% of the time.
Also, like her, I felt a strange responsibility to make sure everyone knew I was not going crazy with sorrow. NOTHING TO SEE HERE. EVERYTHING IS FINE.
My biggest fear (put into words by my friend Kim) has been the assumption that the heart is a zero-sum game, capable of holding only so much emotion—that if our hearts are split between happiness and grief, there must be less happiness. But it’s not true. It’s possible to hold both all the happiness for others and all the disappointment for ourselves in the exact same space. God grants us that gift, somehow.
Kim once wrote about “living in the tension” as sitting in the discomfort of two conflicting thoughts or feelings and refusing to try to rationalize one away or reconcile them dishonestly.
I manage almost all the tension almost all of the time. But on Mother’s Day this year, as McCracken put it, grief came unexpectedly knocking, compounded with interest. PAY UP, it said. I didn’t know what to do. The sadness actually got me by the throat.
It all came down to the one question I couldn’t definitively answer: Was I a mother or not? Did I count or not? Was this day for me or not?
On the one hand, I wanted to tell myself: Of course you’re a mother. These lives are never ours to make or keep. We are not in charge of whether we have them for days or weeks or months or years. In fact, when I first discovered we were pregnant, our odds were so precarious I thanked God for 3 days with that little embryo inside, and then 15 days, and then 25 days and 50 days, because I understood it could be gone at any moment. Even after the kid is born, nothing is guaranteed. Anyone with living children knows this fear.
One of the hardest things for me to accept is that while Jeff and I were laughing about the ridiculous things we’d name the baby and saying goodnight to it and trying to figure out how we’d fit another person into our 700 sq. ft. one-bedroom apartment, our baby was already dead, and our hearts were already broken. We just didn’t know it yet. I’ll never know what happened. The chromosomal analysis came back normal. “I just wish we had something to hang our hats on,” the doc had said.
Jeff once asked if I felt attached to that specific baby, and I said no. I never even knew that baby. But I miss that baby’s ghost. There’s a hole. It’s person-shaped and it follows me everywhere, to bed, to the dinner table, in the car (McCracken).
Maybe on November 4th, I’ll miss that exact baby. In November I’ll think about how everything in our life is supposed to be different. On Thanksgiving and Christmas, it will be me, Jeff and the baby that was never born.
On the other hand, I tell myself (word-for-word from McCracken’s painfully accurate memoir) I’m sorry, no, it’s tough luck, he died before you met him, people keep track of such things, and if we call you a mother, then where does it stop?
I never physically cared for the baby one could argue, not really- though every decision I made about what to eat or drink or exercise or sleep revolved around the protection of that life for a short time.
Sometimes I wonder if it was even real. If there was really life in those first ultrasounds. If I’d really puked and had heartburn and stopped eating bananas and coffee and chicken.
But then people in my life—many who have suffered their own losses, living babies, pre-term babies, husbands, parents—reached out on Mother’s Day and made it real, offering proof.
They said Happy Mother’s Day, and I’m thinking of you, and I’m so sorry—words that will always lift some of the weight. To know that other people were sad made our baby more real.
One friend right after the surgery, understanding the feeling that the whole world was spinning and I was just standing still said simply, “I am stopping right now with you.” The sentiment took my breath away. I imagined the two of us in two different cities standing still together.
This is why you need everyone you know after a disaster, because there is not one right response. It’s what paralyzes people around the grief-stricken, of course, the idea that there are right things to say and wrong things and that it’s better to say nothing than something clumsy (McCracken).
Saying nothing is the worst thing.
But even for that, there can only be grace. You would not believe how many times I’ve shied away from someone’s intense grief because I couldn’t understand it, I didn’t want to make it worse, and I had no idea what to say.
If that was you, I am so sorry.
Last night after a long break, I started back on meds in the hopes that we’ll try again at some point. Miscarriage after IVF is so complicated and exhausting. It took us four years just to reach this point.
I cried the entire time I was laying all the meds out because I am terrified. I am terrified the exact same thing will happen again. I am already right now afraid for next Mother’s Day.
And it’s in such stark contrast to the same journey’s beginning last December, when we felt excitement and hope and thrill. But as I’m going through the process with docs and nurses and techs like I have for the last several years, my history has changed. This time when they ask, will this be your first pregnancy? I’m like, No. I was pregnant once before.
McCracken writes, after the stillbirth of her son, “I want a separate waiting room for people like me, with different magazines. No Parenting or Pregnancy, no ads with pink or tawny or pearly smiling infants. I want Hold Your Horses magazine. Don’t Count Your Chickens for Women. Pregnant for the Time-Being Monthly.”
I get her.
My impulse here is to spare your feelings, the twelve of you who are reading this, by ending with a bright and hopeful redemptive point. Something more than The Hows and Whys of Losing One’s Shit on Mother’s Day.
But sometimes sharing our own story is the point.
*Much of what I reference in this post is from Elizabeth McCracken’s memoir An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination. Her thoughts and sentiments after the stillborn death of her son put such accurate words to my own feelings and confusion, I’ve incorporated them into my own sense-making. Suffering can be so poetic when transcribed, and then the poetry so healing.