How do you say goodbye to someone you never met? How do you end a story with no beginning?
The car is moving and I’m quietly dying. Vehicles speed by with faces in windows—ordinary, content, smiling big American smiles. Going to brunch with friends or taking kids to soccer. Just another summertime Saturday. I try to remember what it’s like to not wake up panicking, to not be consumed by dread and guilt. To live like these people.
I close my eyes, overwhelmed by the desire to cease existing, painlessly slip away into nothingness. If only I could summon up my own Clarence and declare, “I wish I was never born.”
But I did wish someone else had been born.
For three days, I pace back and forth in the dining room. Please God not now. We’d tried once three weeks before, just to see what happened. I’m 41, for goodness’s sake, isn’t it supposed to take months? The media delights in reminding us that our eggs start dying after age 30. Great timing. A few nights before we had a party, and we all drank. That’s not how I want to start a pregnancy—thinking I may have harmed my baby.
But God doesn’t hear me calling and I break down.
The anxiety is all-consuming, so bad I can’t keep still. My mind races, dominated by one thought. I need someone to reassure me that drinking this early on didn’t harm the tiny being growing inside me. I have no health insurance and no doctor, nowhere to go and nobody to ask. My panic and fear are so profound I beg my husband to take me somewhere, anywhere. We go to some place I guess poor people, or crazy people, or people with problems go to. A place for the uninsured and the unhinged.
“Don’t worry, this happens a lot, and zygotes are resilient,” a woman there tells me. “Someone else was worried about taking strong medication before she found out.”
Friends tell me they too drank in those first few weeks. Some chain-smoked. No big deal, everything turned out fine. But no amount of reassurance helps.
I go looking at baby clothes, delicately fingering tiny pink onesies somehow knowing my baby will never wear them. I talk to her a lot between panicking and hyperventilating (I’m sure it’s a girl). I go walking in the woods and lose my way, eventually stumbling upon an old graveyard where I see a tiny headstone. Another time I feel a shooting pain in my side. I Google it and cry for hours.
It’s the day of the ultrasound. Maybe everything will be okay now. Scrutinizing the screen, the technician shows me the baby, but then mumbles, “Where’s the heartbeat?” before rushing out the door. We sit there confused. Someone finally ushers us into another room. A nurse comes in and says, “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry about what?”
Finally, a doctor enters and tells us in a cold voice that the pregnancy is not viable. Sobbing I scan the piece of paper she hands me, explaining all about a missed miscarriage and the possible causes. Alcohol is right there, screaming its accusation.You did this.
“Can drinking cause a miscarriage,” I ask. Shrugging her shoulders, she says nonchalantly, “it could.” She may as well have stuck me with a scalpel. We’ve never met, she doesn’t ask about my health or circumstances, or how much I drank. It was only one night. Maybe she was thinking it was every day.
But she doesn’t care. To her, I’m just an irresponsible, uninsured foreigner. She doesn’t know I sometimes experience OCD episodes where I believe I’ve caused harm and that this condition can manifest in many ways. A hit and run while driving, leaving the stove on, and burning down the house, drinking one night shortly after conceiving …
But we’re taking up time and they’re concerned about how we’re going to pay for this visit. I had applied for Medicaid for pregnant women but hadn’t heard back yet.
Not wanting me to suffer the trauma of the baby passing, my husband enquires about a D&C. The hospital charges too much so he calls Planned Parenthood.
We’re almost there. They warned us about the possibility of protestors outside but thankfully the parking lot is empty. But the waiting room is full. A twenty-something fills out a form, long blond hair obscuring her face. A young girl and her mother sit together. She’s just 15 and they’ve told daddy they’re at the dentist. I like the mom. Strong and capable. She smiles at me, and I feel less alone, comforted beyond measure.
I wonder how all the girls and women here are feeling. Are they sad? Worried? Scared? Guilty, like me? After her procedure, the young girl returns, collapsing onto the floor. Concerned, I forget about my own worries for a moment. It turns out she’s okay, just a little dizzy. Everyone’s relieved.
It’s my turn. I beg the nurse to check in case my baby’s actually alive, and it’s all been a terrible mistake. “There’s no activity,” she tells me gently as she watches the ultrasound monitor. My last hope is gone as the doctor approaches. To me he looks like Mengele. I clutch my husband and call out for my baby. In no time he says, “it’s done” and walks away.
In the recovery room we’re given ginger ale and plain cookies. The lady next to me chats with the nurse. She’s plump and appears older than me, with short dark hair. “We can’t possibly afford another child,” she says in a firm yet sad voice.
Earlier in the waiting room, I wanted to blurt out: “I’ll take your baby, give it to me, mine’s already dead, not fucking viable,” but I don’t know their story. They don’t know mine. It doesn’t matter. In this other room, the dreaded deed done, for now and always we’re bonded together in a sisterhood few can understand. Whether it’s from loss or relief, we’re a mass of emotions, the air is thick with it. I’m sure others are as weathered and battered as I am.
Wrong time. Wrong place. Wrong guy. No insurance. Party three weeks before. No gender reveal balloons for us. Our dreams or mistakes die in the womb, on an operating table or the bathroom floor. I call her My Potential and light a candle. When the flame is extinguished, like her short little life that never really was, I bury the candle in the front yard near some flowers.
In time pain subsides and we get back to living. Grief is a lonely journey. Nobody can travel with us, they can only hover nearby, offering kind words and a strong hand to pull us out when we’re ready. A famous spiritual teacher said it best: “This too will pass”—and it does, mostly.
I’m now the mother of an 8-year-old daughter, who, like most kids, is inquisitive and strangely perceptive.
“Is there a baby that died?” she asked me. “Did I have a brother or sister?”
One day soon I’ll tell her about My Potential and the part of my soul forever missing. But not now. I’ll save it for when she’s much older and beginning to understand that it’s often very hard to be a woman, but if we take care of ourselves and each other, we almost always pull through.