No one ever expects to lose a wanted pregnancy at any stage. Women are, however, cautioned to not tell people about the child-to-be until the first three months of pregnancy have passed. I don’t know too many people who wait this long; most of the time, I’ve known about someone’s pregnancy within minutes after the second line appears on their pregnancy test. Yet there was a time in my life when I hid a pregnancy for many months, not really knowing why, as if a secret part of my heart knew that something would go wrong.
In March of 1986, I was raising two young children in a small cabin just above the San Lorenzo River in my hometown of Santa Cruz, California. Pregnancy had been easy with my first two children, but, when my daughter Alyssa was two, I had a difficult early miscarriage, the first time I had ever experienced pregnancy loss. Many months later, in the time of year that the baby I’d miscarried would have been born, my period did not arrive.
I took a pregnancy test, which was positive, then told my husband Tom that I wanted to wait to tell people. One reason for this was because my sister-in-law Gillian was just coming to terms with her infertility, and, instead of seeking effective counseling or any form of help with her anger, she chose to take it out on pregnant women everywhere. When I miscarried, her only comment was, “Well, at least you can conceive them.” I was not strong enough then to set limits with her, and passively accepted her anger as my lot in life for being able to have biological children.
After three uneventful months, a time in which I heard the baby’s heartbeat, experienced the worst nausea of all my pregnancies (a sign that my hormones were very strong, the doctor assured me), my husband suggested we tell people and make plans to rent a bigger house.
“No, I need to wait a little more,” I told him. We did start to let our other children know that there would be a new little baby in December. I told my mother and a couple of close girlfriends, swearing them to secrecy from Gillian. The last time she had found out I was pregnant, Gillian had barged into my home, flopped down on our couch, and sighed for a good fifteen minutes as she stared at my still-flat stomach. I realized the infertility was horrible for her and tried to be compassionate, but I also felt the need to protect myself in some way from her negativity.
So, the months went on, and still I told no one. I took my vitamins, drank milk, even bought a couple of maternity outfits; I felt as if the baby was a sweet secret known only to my small, immediate circle of trusted loved ones. Only one disturbing thing occurred during these months, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in April 1986. Even though the newspapers said that people in the United States would not receive any significant dose of radiation, I was afraid. I sat on my couch, hand protectively over my belly, watching my two little kids play with blocks on the floor. The day was beautiful in the way that Santa Cruz spring days always are, a drench of blue sky, white clouds, sunlight reflecting off every green leaf. Yet I had the terrible sense that my little house was no protection if the news was wrong and radiation really would reach us-and, I wondered, how much radiation was safe, anyway, to a first-trimester fetus?
By late August, I had pushed away any disturbing thoughts surrounding the pregnancy. Though tired much of the time, my doctor said the baby was growing well and the heartbeat sounded strong and healthy. Still, I told no one beyond the small group of people who already knew, even though my husband said I was beginning to show and that everyone would soon figure it out.
On August 25th, I lay out my clothes for the next day’s doctor visit: a pair of maternity jeans and an oversized pink sweatshirt with blue and pink rhinestones scattered over it, just enough to give it a bit of sparkle (this was all the rage back in 1986). I dropped my son Michael off at preschool, and took my daughter Alyssa with me; she always liked the big basket of toys at my doctor’s office. When we got there, the nurse handed me the obligatory bottle for a urine sample, checked my weight-I’d gained steadily since the last visit–checked my blood pressure, then let me into an examining room. I always liked this particular room, decorated with pictures of flowers in baskets and mothers with children.
Today I would be seen by Paula, the nurse-midwife working with my doctor. She came in and asked me to lie down, so she could check to see how much my uterus had grown (this was accomplished using a tape measure, as if fitting me for a vertical belly garment). Paula said my uterus had grown normally since the last time and was exactly where it should be, now that I was just over five months pregnant. She then took the Doppler scope and pressed it to my abdomen, looking for the fetal heartbeat.
How many women have had to wait through excruciating minutes as a doctor or midwife searches desperately for that watery rhythm? How many times-as was the case with one of my children-is the baby just in an odd position, and it takes a few repositionings of the scope to find it?
Paula searched and searched, pressing the scope at different spots on my stomach, but there was nothing, just the rushing sound of my own circulation.
I broke out into a cold sweat. Paula removed the scope from my stomach, shook the scope, checked the wiring, and then pressed it again to my belly. She gave up after trying again after seemingly endless minutes.
She told me I had a few options. I could go away and come back again in a few days. I could wait for my obstetrician to arrive and check the baby with an ultrasound, but that it would be in an hour or so. I told her I could’t wait a few days, that if there was something wrong, I wanted to know. I told her I had been feeling the baby move all night last night, so much that it was keeping me awake.
“Then everything’s probably okay,” she said. I was told to drink lots of water and come back in an hour. Somehow I located my husband at work; he had enough time before my son’s preschool let out to accompany me for the ultrasound. I prayed more in that hour than I ever had in my life, stroked my belly, begged every deity I knew to make my baby be alive. I did this silently so as not to upset my daughter, who sang happily in her carseat and had no idea what was happening. My husband took her to my son’s preschool; we had explained what was going on, and they agreed to watch her until the end of the day.
I met Paula back at the office; she ushered me into the ultrasound room, which was cold and gray, everything sterile and utilitarian. My doctor bustled in with his usual cheerful attitude; he was one of the most positive people I had ever met, and he maintained this when he said, “I’m sure everything is just fine.” He squeezed icy gel on my stomach, turned on the ultrasound monitor, and put the probe on my stomach.
My baby lay as if in the center of a fogbank, the amniotic sac clearly defined around him. He was silver, as if made of light, and perfectly, terribly still. “Perhaps he’s just asleep,” I thought, marveling at his absolutely clear form; I could even make out his tiny hands, clenched into fists. My doctor looked at the image, moving the probe back and forth; then he took a measurement of the baby’s head, and said softly, “I’m sorry, Zoe. I don’t think the baby is alive at this point.”
I began to cry and Paula grabbed my foot, the only part of me she could reach in that equipment-crowded room. My doctor quietly put things away, then sat down with me and began to talk about what to do. He said I had several options, none of which I really heard. I finally told him that I wanted to go home for awhile, to see if labor would begin on its own.
“I don’t want you to go any more than a few days like this, though,” he said. After agreeing to check in with him every morning, my husband and I left, picking up our two children from the preschool. The rest of the day is gone into the black hole of memory, except that I hid in our dark, narrow bedroom and cried, hour after hour.
My husband began to call a few relatives; it must have been terrible for them to find out both that I had been five months pregnant and that the pregnancy had ended. My mother-in-law was very sad and offered to watch her grandchildren when I went to the hospital; she didn’t offer any pat phrases, such as “It’s for the best.” My own mother went wild with grief, and phoned my uncle, a prominent Boston physician, for a “second opinion.” He ended up calling me; I said, with a bit of gallows humor, that unless he could raise the dead, I didn’t think he could help me. Uncle Leo chucked a bit, then said gently that a loss at this gestation could mean that there were subtle things wrong with the pregnancy, but not to be surprised if a cause could never be found.
My sister-in-law Gillian went predictably crazy. She told me of women she had known who had lost babies at term, and that my grief was out of proportion to the small size of the fetus. Gillian demanded to know why I hadn’t told her I was pregnant, but I refused to talk further with her. My husband and I tried to find out what we could do about burying the baby; after a few phone calls, Tom retreated into stony silence and said we could not afford a burial plot or cremation. We needed to keep every cent, he said, for the children we already had. I got a call from my father, who did not offer any help when I asked him to help us bury his grandchild. He said it was best to forget and move on, that the hospital would take care of everything. My sister called and, though she expressed her condolences, told me that I was going through nothing more traumatic than a late-trimester abortion. Years later, another sister told me, “We just didn’t know what to do.”
I learned in those weeks that death brings out the worst and best in people. There was my friend Maureen, a woman in her sixties who told me of the loss of her first pregnancy, a girl, in her sixth month of pregnancy, and the tragic death of her baby Mark from SIDS a few years later. Maureen told me I was a strong person and I would heal, but that the road back would not be easy. As I spoke with her on the phone, I saw something happen outside my window that made me tell her I needed to hang up. Outside my kitchen window, I saw my landlord’s son take an axe to a small maple tree that had been my sentinel of the changing seasons, year after year, its leaves passing from deep green to burnished, sunlit gold. My landlord said it was too close to the house; when the tree came down, I curled up on my couch, afraid my mind was just on the edge of slipping its tether to sanity. Only my two children kept me linked to this world; I still had to feed, clothe, and care for them. Finally, after a few days, I called my doctor and said I’d felt a few small contractions throughout the night, and that I couldn’t stand carrying the baby anymore. He told me to come to the hospital the next morning.
Tom and I checked into the maternity ward; directly across the hall from us, a group of nurses, clustered around a door, looked in my direction; I heard one of them say, “That must be her.” The male nurse walking us into the ward took us right by the nursery before we went into a labor room, and all the babies seemed to augur the loss deeper into my heart.
The nurse started an IV and my doctor slipped lozenges of Pitocin up against my cervix to start labor. I told him I did not want to feel the labor, and he said they would give me a morphine drip. The morphine put me into a timeless, airless cloud which wrapped gauze around my memory of that long morning; I remember my husband crying softly next to me, and the nurse coming in and out of the room. She was brusque and indifferent, but concerned when she said someone named Gillian was out in the hallway, demanding to be let in. I told them to keep her away, but when I began to bleed, suddenly the nurse had a lot to do and I saw Gillian standing at the side of the bed, just behind Tom, who was holding my hand.
The nurse examined the tissue I had passed-an amount like heavy menses-and said that the fetus was probably in it. As she gave me a shot to help my uterus close up, I told her to stop, that the fetus I’d seen in the ultrasound was large and could not possibly be in that small amount of stuff. She just ignored me and took the pad with the tissue to my doctor down the hallway. Gillian said, “Huh. I thought there would be more than that.”
Suddenly my doctor burst into the room, three nurses behind him. He berated my nurse for giving me a shot to contract my uterus, apologized to me, then, in a gesture that caused me the most excruciating pain of my entire life, he told me to push. As I did so, he reached all the way up into my womb and delivered my son. I felt his birth as an exact miniature of my full-term births, the small, slippery body leaving mine, the umbilical cord connecting us. My doctor cut the cord; apologizing again, he reached back up into my uterus and removed the placenta. I saw the nurse carrying a basin away from the bed.
My doctor looked into the basin and told me the baby was a boy when I asked. Tom encouraged me to look at the baby, even though initially I refused, wanting to keep the terrible reality at bay for as many moments as I could.
“Please, I want to see him after all,” I said.
The nurse whisked the basin over, holding it out with a look of disgust on her face, as if I had asked to view my own bowel movement. My son’s tiny face was turned from my husband and me, his head covered by the caul-a spiritual sign of psychic wisdom in some cultures. He had long arms and legs; I could see a tiny ear, but I had grown so numb and so afraid of the nurse that I did not ask her to turn him over so I could see his face. She whisked the basin out of my hands and said, “I need to get this to the pathology lab.” I asked someone in the room to baptize him, and, strangely, she offered to do so. It had taken six hours of labor to deliver my son. We named him Jamie.
The room soon cleared out, a sad procession, and I was left alone after the nurse injected a small amount of sedative into my IV, as well as a drug to dry up my milk. I slipped in and out of sleep; in one of my waking moments, I found my doctor next to my bed. I had protested about being kept in the hospital overnight; all around me, I heard women giving birth, babies crying, and I could not bear to be there any longer that I had to.
“You really should stay one night,” he said. “There could be bleeding or other complications.” I told him I wanted to go home. He agreed as long as I rested for a few hours.
Sleep opened and closed like gray petals over me; struggling out of unconsciousness, I became aware of strong hands holding mine. I thought it was Tom, but when I opened my eyes, no one was in the room. Twice I fell back to sleep and twice I was awakened by those hands.
Nothing can describe the emptiness I felt when I got into the car with Tom that night. The only physical reminder we had that our son had ever existed was my hospital bracelet, which I keep to this day. Tom put me to bed after helping me bind my breasts with an Ace bandage; the nurse told us it would help keep my milk from coming in. Still, my milk filled my breasts with aching heat, hardening them to stone for several days.
My doctor met me for a checkup a few weeks later. After telling me it was okay to try and conceive again in a few months, he looked over the autopsy report and told me that both the baby and the placenta were normal, that the bloodwork they had ordered while I was in the hospital came out normal as well. He told me he was baffled that this pregnancy had ended.
“There have been a rash of second-trimester miscarriages in Santa Cruz in the last few months,” he told me. “Losses after the first trimester are extremely rare. It makes me wonder-was it the Chernobyl nuclear accident, or a bacterial or viral infection?” Not knowing any real answers made the loss even more difficult.
I am happy to say that I went on to have two healthy pregnancies after this loss. My daughter Kat was born exactly a year later, on the very day I gave birth to Jamie, almost to the hour. A few years later, my son Nick was born on Christmas Day. My sister-in-law Gillian never was able to have a biological child, but she adopted four beautiful children, my beloved nieces and nephews.
I found that giving myself permission to grieve, to make the loss real and work through it by journaling and by attending a miscarriage support groups, helped me to come to terms with what had happened to me. I regret not finding a way to bury Jamie and that I blindly trusted the hospital when they said there would be a compassionate disposition of his remains. A hospital administrator I contacted a few years later told me that she believed they put miscarried fetuses in with the medical waste and incinerated them.
I have one thing beyond my hospital bracelet to remind me now of that difficult time, and to mark the fact that I spent many months carrying a baby who did not live. My friend Devorah started a small, successful business making ceramic pins and jewelry, which she sold through local clothing stores. I mentioned to her that I was sad about not having a resting place for my son, and one day, she came over to my house with a little box.
“It’s a gift for you,” she said. I opened it, and saw a beautiful ceramic scallop shell, glazed with a pearly finish. I turned it over and saw my son’s name in tiny gold letters, and the date of his birth. Devorah had looped wire through a hole at the top of the shell, strung with tiny blue and green Swarovski crystals, the color of the sea on a sunny day.
“If you hang this in your window, the crystals will become like a prism,” she said.
I have kept this shell over two decades; it fell during the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 and chipped, but it’s otherwise as beautiful as the day Devorah placed it in my hands, its finish still smooth and intact as the passage of time which allowed me to heal from this sorrow.