Feb 1, 2014

Listen To Your Mother: First Un-born

The kidney-shaped hospital tray is a deep, cheerful red. It's a stunning mismatch with both its contents and this moment in my life. Empty and tired, I try to focus my bleary, post-surgery eyes on the advancing tray. Gripping the kind hand of Nurse Janice while struggling for clarity through the anesthetic fog, I peer into the tray. A single thought takes shape: who knew a two month young fetus could look so perfect? Whole. Real. And utterly unaffected by its own untimely demise.
Two months earlier on a sunny afternoon, the positive home pregnancy test had made my head boil with thoughts. “Already?” and “I'm responsible for another life now!” and “Wow!”
That last one bounced around quite a bit. “Wow”.

However I sagely resolved to shelf all dreams and plans for a while, well schooled as I was in the high miscarriage rate in the first trimester. Especially for 30-something's. I put on my mental armor and drew up the castle gate. No quivering mass of emotions or dewy-eyed delight here. A model of practical moderation instead, who ate well, rested some and exercised just enough. We even took a long planned vacation to Iceland with friends. Made some great memories.

So, I was all the less prepared for the bleeding soon after our return. When I showed up for a routine ultrasound scan - my third - I was calm. Excited even: another chance to see Baby after all! I did find it odd that the technician wouldn’t answer my questions about the baby’s health. Or even look at me straight. But when I got anxious, she did let me look at the monitor.
Baby had grown a recognizable head. And limbs were visible - even in the gray-toned confusion of the scan. But there was no flickering light, no jagged heartbeat graph. Just a flat line on a still screen. I won't ever forget Dr. Shakr, the grizzled, white-haired old soul who attended to me that day. Nor the gentleness with which he clasped my hands and told me he was sorry, like he really meant it. No-one knew why these things happen, he said. I was not to blame myself and remember that it might have even been for the best. Our bodies often abandon abnormal fetuses in a timeless survival reflex, one that has ensured our very existence today.

I floated through the next day in a bubble of suspended animation. The world felt like a cheap-print comic book: things had shifted just enough that colors spilled out of their outlines. People hurrying on the streets, gravel crunching underfoot, the weight of a morning bagel in my hand – everything LOOKED right but felt wrong. And all the maudlin sentimentality that I had resisted so far, caught up with me. The stillness in my core - where a baby still lay (not ‘lived’) - made the thrills of the last few months feel simply incandescent in comparison. With all signs of new life now gone, I finally realized just how much hope and pride I had accrued. I tried to heed my husband’s well intentioned advice to not “dwell” on it. But try carrying around - inside you - a person whom you have let down. Now try not to “dwell”. I know my husband and Dr. Shakr were right of course, it likely wasn’t anything I’d done. But the thing is, Baby had me, only me, to depend on for survival and I did not, could not, come through on that implicit promise.

And so, one span-less day and endless night later, we arrived at the hospital for the D&C surgery. My baby had been downgraded into “fetal tissue” and needed removing.

I expected to just be anesthetized and then wake up to cramping, bleeding and a fresh start. And I did, but with a bit of a detour. When I came to, I was asked and surprisingly, agreed, to see the fetus. They hadn’t yet let my husband in to the recovery room.

That’s when I met that red kidney shaped tray. It held a plump little bubble with hazy skin, the size of an apricot. It rolled a bit as the tray moved, letting me see through a translucent bit, like a little window. I can no longer use that clinical, impersonal term, “fetus” for the baby that nestled within. I found myself doing the instinctive inventory of a new mother. I counted a pair each of arms, legs and eyes. But it added up to just one. One baby.  I thanked my poor vision for the significant grace that I couldn't count fingers and toes.
Yet, it turned out to be an unexpected blessing: a child had existed and received the dignity of acknowledgement from the only person who’d ever known it. And I got to say good bye to a perfect little person who simply had a short stay. That last, obscene ultrasound is now almost erased from memory. In its place is the bittersweet image of a peaceful, perfect little baby.

To anyone who thinks there is no closure for the loss of an unborn child, let me assure you that there might just be. Or at least, there was for me. This much I know now: pain, when trapped in the dark recesses of your mind, assumes proportions way beyond its due. Release it into the light and watch it gradually fade.

We have a 7 year old son now. He was born in early November and lights up our lives. A few months after we celebrate his birthday, I mark another one. Our first child would have arrived in the middle of January, a winter baby like his or her younger brother. I sometimes wonder if the hair would have curled like my sons and if the nose would have been as button-like. But I no longer mourn not knowing. I don't pine for my first un-born: I’m content to just remember.

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