Words for a Miscarriage

By Nichole Eck, originally posted on her website.

I don't know if I'm pregnant anymore.

I used to know—missed periods, exhaustion, meat cravings, a little pale purple plus sign, pitter-patter pulsing heartbeats we heard through a static-muttering machine for less than a minute. The doctor didn't even need a whole minute to know.

"That's some heartbeat. Strong."

But that was four weeks ago.

The last time the doctor went searching, just a few minutes ago, the heartbeat had pitter-pattered away and there was just silence.

"We're concerned that the baby may have passed away."

Consider the taut phrasing of that sentence. Let it sink into you. The empathetic "concern," the couching "may have," the tip-toeing "passed away." Doesn't it fit so well into the silence of the room? The silence of the attendant, of the monitor, of my husband, James, across the room, watching long-faced and dog-eyed. All the bounce is gone from his eyes.

The doctor softens the news yet again—the words have no bones anymore.

"Your uterus is tilted, so it's harder to get a reading."

"This is the first time I've really used this complicated machine."

"We're not sure of anything yet."

Are those words supposed to comfort me? Because all they do is leave me in limbo, strung between optimism and resignation, grieving and joy. Leave me to sit and wring my hands and clutch my stomach and imagine. Imagining drives people mad.

"We're concerned that the baby may have passed away."

I am given an appointment with an ultrasound technician in four hours who will be able to tell for sure whether or not there really is a heartbeat, whether the pregnancy is "viable."

vi·a·ble. /ˈvaɪəbəl/adj. 1. capable of living; capable of growing, developing, working, functioning

I hate that word. I hate a lot of words now, like "when" and "how." I can't even think the word "why."

"We're concerned that the baby may have passed away."

Maybe that's what I'll tell the second doctor in four hours. Maybe that's what I'll tell my family. Maybe that's what I'll tell God.

I don't think I'll ever forget that phrase.

I take James back to work and go home to sit and stew in the anger, the sorrow, the joy, the fury, the grief, the confusion.

Three hours before I'll know, but I still congratulate myself on my prolonged childless freedom, on the money I can take out of our baby budget and put towards a house, on the summer I'll now be able to spend at my job.

I want to hide under all the silky silver linings I'm peeling off this raincloud, bunch them up around me and imagine what it's like to be wrapped inside something that smothered you. Schrödinger's Baby. Is it dead? How long dead? How could I have not noticed death passing through me? Why does it take a doctor to tell me that my child is dead?

Three hours later it's official. The baby's dead. The fetus. The embryo. The was-gonna-be-a-baby. "No cardiac activity." That's what the hospital radiologist conducting the ultrasound says after 8 minutes of silence as she navigates over my flat, buttered stomach from every direction. "It's measuring at 9 weeks 2 days." Sixteen days ago.

The screen to my right shows a grainy picture, the worst sort of Rorshach Test. Show anyone else this inkblot, and they'll see a potato, a tree, an elephant. But ask me and I'll see a soft head, noodly fingers, and a tiny mouth learning how to smile.

The radiologist presses a button and little pulsing worms of red and blue appear on the screen. Bloodflow. Oxygenation. Heartbeat. Not one of them touches the fetus. It sits cold and gray as a mountain stone.

"I'm not reading any cardiac activity," she says. "The fetus isn't viable." I sit up and resituate my clothes, stare at the ceiling tiles, which are dark gray and pock-marked and like every high school or hospital I've ever seen. I hate those ceiling tiles.

I leave Radiology, pulling off my hospital wristband as I walk through the icy January parking lot. I am to go see my doctor again for further directions. But first I have to tell James. Text him so he can't hear me crying. But with my phone in my hands, I find I have no words.

What is the truth? "I'm not pregnant anymore"? Kind of. 

What does that word even mean? Pregnant. With child. Expecting. A pregnant pause. A mind pregnant with ideas. A pregnant elephant.

preg·nant. /ˈprɛgnənt/ adj. 1. Containing a developing embryo, fetus, or unborn offspring within the body; 2. Having possibilities of development or consequences.

was pregnant. What am I now? Something more than "not pregnant," surely. What are you if there's a "non-viable" fetus inside you? Nothing developing. No possibilities. Not pregnant. I need a new word. One meant for a time with doctors and their machines that tell us too much too soon.

And I can't say I've had a miscarriage either because I technically haven't. Stupid word. Sounds like an accident. "Oops, I miscarried it. Sorry, dear; won't happen again." Rhymes with "marriage" and "disparage" and "baby carriage."

mis·car·riage /mɪsˈkærɪdʒ; for 1 also ˈmɪsˌkærɪdʒ/ n. 1. Spontaneous expulsion of a human fetus before it is viable and especially between the 12th and 28th weeks of gestation.

So what's it called if it's an expulsion after the fetus was declared viable? In the 10th week? What if the fetus hasn't actually been expelled yet? What have I done if I haven't miscarried? What am I if not pregnant? Need a new word. Need a word that says "used to be pregnant but haven't actually miscarried yet so there's still a dead was-gonna-be-a-baby inside me until my naïve body figures out that it's failed and gets rid of this thing before it starts to rot thank you so much for asking."

I don't even know where to start looking for a word like that. The nearest true thing I can say is "my pregnancy isn't viable," but that implies I have a pregnancy still, which I don't, and like I said, I hate the word "viable." And the word "fetus." And the word "miscarriage." I feel that language is unraveling as I speak it. Unraveling me. How do we find truth in words, find ourselves in words? How can we trust them to carry bits of our souls to other ears? Who knows what they really say?

Once, someone tried to write a book about words, about every word. Big minds with bigger glasses huddled around heaps of paper with sharp quill pens and nothing else to do but feverishly search for language's meaning. Pick a word at random and slice it down the middle, huddle around it muttering and pointing, prick the silver needles through the thin flesh of the word to the wooden table, each needle a word of definition. Try to learn from the lifeless, steaming innards what cannot be seen in the whirling, living beast.

Pregnant. "Containing." First needle. "a developing embryo." Second through fourth needles. "fetus" Fifth needle. "or unborn offspring within the body; 2. Having possibilities of development or consequences." Needles six through seventeen. "Rich in significance or implication; involving important issues; momentous; full, teeming." So many needles the word's flesh is stretched tight all around, perforated and tearing. And somehow the spectacled scholars—knowing that one more needle might bring the entire flesh collapsing, curling in on itself—retreat, wipe sweaty hands on coats, declare that word done and breathe deep before summoning the next specimen, stabbing in the human dark, filling words with words.

But every good-intentioned needle still makes a hole. Even with all the infinite words in the world, there is still namelessness. Despite existence's loquacious, prolific, expansive vocabulary, there are still objects, experiences, situations that don't have words, that exist between the needles. And because there is so much present, more than we could ever truly comprehend, we politely ignore the gaping spaces between the glinting silver. Why would we bother with the sparse missing words when we have so many thousands present at our tongue-tips. Why call the glass one-tenth empty when it is nine-tenths full? Who would consider absence when there is presence all around?

I text James: "I love you! There was no heartbeat though. Stopped at 9 weeks and 2 days. I'm sorry." It's all I can think of to say.

*    *    *    *    *

"First of all, it was nothing you did, didn't do, ate, didn't eat, or anything. It's natural."

Doctor's first words.

"You know, 20% of clinically recognized pregnancies end in miscarriage."

Doctor's second words.

"                                      "

Baby's first words. I don't know why I thought that.

And then I think about everything I did three weeks ago. I got a massage. I had a dentist's appointment. I took a dose of Nyquil. I had jostling, bed-bouncing sex. I missed 8 days of prenatal vitamins. I ate way too much at Christmas dinner. I laughed at everyone who was concerned and overcautious and told them I was carrying a healthy, heart-beating baby, not a stack of glass vases, don't worry, I'll be fine.

The doctor states my options. (1) Miscarry the baby naturally, at an unpredictable time in the nearish future. Labor pains, cramping, heavy bleeding. And since I'm 9 weeks along, apparently too far, there's a chance I might not get the whole thing out myself, the idea of which makes me incredibly nauseated. (2) Schedule a D&C in six days' time, the earliest available. Dilation and Curettage, which translates to anesthesia, dilation, scraping, and suction. I won't be conscious to see a little humanoid piece of flesh expelled, drawn out of my body, the sight of which would certainly give me nightmares. I schedule a D&C, since I can cancel it later if I want, and leave.

Outside I read the text James has just sent me. "I love you a ton and we'll try again. Sorry. It wasn't the massage, or the sex, or the Nyquil. It just happened naturally, nothing we could do about it."

And I believe him. Mostly because I can't believe that such insignificant things could break a cycle that has survived for thousands of years and billions of wombs, in worse conditions than mine. I tell myself that I am just a statistic. That a 20% failure rate for the complexity of creating human life is nothing to cry about. That this is not a tragedy but reality. That reality is not a tragedy.

But reality is being perverted. Two and a half weeks I thought I was carrying life, when I was carrying death. Dreaming of a beginning when burdened with an end. Something sixteen days dead in my womb, still being pumped full of nutrients that aren't taking. Sixteen days. It should be rotting by now, at least a little. I want to go back in and ask the doctor if it is, but I don't really want to know the answer.

In the car, I pull up the calendar on my phone to make sure. 9 weeks 2 days. My first ultrasound was exactly two weeks before that, which puts the death on, my finger sinks to the date. Christmas Eve. That's the night we told my parents and grandmother the news. We gave them matching mugs I had hand-painted to say "Only the Best Ma's become Grandma's." Pa's and Grandpas. Grandmas and Great-grandmas. All of my six siblings were watching. They all screamed or gasped or jumped up to hug me. After all, it was going to be the first grandchild for my parents. The first great-grandchild for my grandmother. The first grandchild for my parents-in-law. We told them on Christmas morning. They started crying and gave James and I a long hug. By then it was already dead. Or dying at least; these measurements are just estimates, after all. There are so many poetic times it could have died. As our parents opened the mugs, as my blushing sister gave me her gift—a pregnancy test, as I dreamed of baby's first Christmas, as I ripped wrapping paper. An unheard tapering away of a heartbeat in the night. I wish to God I hadn't made those mugs. Painted traces floating around the kitchen. I gave them all copies of the first ultrasound we got. I want to collect them all back and throw them to the wind, burn them in a bonfire. I hate that they have those reminders.

And now I have to tell them. My family, my friends, people in 8 different states and 2 countries. A letter, a phone call, a group Facebook message, a series of texts. I wish I had one perfectly unambiguous, emotionally void sentence I could print out a dozen times and hand to people like fliers on a street corner. "Oh, no, don't stop and ask questions. The flier has everything you need to know. Just keep walking." Instead I'm stuck with failing phrases that will attempt for a precise, clinical tone but will have to ask the mothers in whispers to explain everything to their children and for goodness' sake don't call and tell me you're sorry because it won't matter if you are. It won't matter if you've experienced the same thing and know exactly how I feel and don't worry, I'll be up and about and ready to try again in no time.

I still won't want to talk about it.

It is base, animalistic survival. The wounded lion cub, hiding feral wounds in the waving grass. Don't notice my weakness, my failings. Don't see that I am bleeding. Don't know that I am the easiest prey. I can't defend myself. Just let me sit in savannah silence and lick my wounds until I can walk among you again. Allow me my pride.

But even once I walk among you again, I keep my silence, for it is now in place to shelter you. I can't let you know how I still hurt, how my tongue weighs, panting heavy and wordless on my heart. I can't let you find out that I have no words for this. That there are no words for this. This loss has shown me a wordless human void, but why should I risk your sanity by staring pointedly, calling attention to our human deficiency? I am now one of its burdened, wordless guardians. "We avert our tongues from it."[1] Why should I bring up my dead almost-child and look to you expectantly,  wait toe-tapping while you drop your mouth, tip your tongue, fumble through string in your pockets for words that you swore you had a minute ago, rifle through the dictionary that seemed so sufficient until now? Why should I remind people of the tragic lack, the awful absence of language by throwing out my own cold, clinical, precise, insufficient, naked, barren words. It's rude to stare at the space between the needles.

The next day, I call my mom and tell her that there was no heartbeat and ask her to explain it to my youngest sister because I sure as hell don't want her asking me. I ask James to tell his side of the family however he wants, and he emails everyone. I don't want to listen to people pocket-searching for words, so I text my side of the family:

James and I just found out yesterday that my pregnancy isn't viable; there was no heartbeat, so I'm not actually pregnant anymore. We're both fine, but sorry for the false alarm! You'll just have to wait a little longer to see our future baby! =)

I want to punch that stupid smiley face right in its emoticon mouth. See, it's a diversion. So people will see it and not me. So people won't think I'm a terribly sad, weepy, snotty mess over the whole thing. So people can keep on with their lives. I imagine everyone reading and pausing, going back, thumbs hovering over keyboards with no words to say but a compulsion to speak. Someone probably had to Google that word: viable. That's why I put the phrase "I'm not actually pregnant anymore" in there, so people would know the effective result. "Not pregnant anymore." Even if I don't see truth in those words and their definitions, I hope others do.

There is one word that I see truth in: dead. Because doesn't that really cut to the heart of the matter? The still, silent, unbeating heart? And when James says, as he has a hundred times, "I love your guts!" and I wittily query, "Even though there's a dead baby in them right now?" I am ashamed at my own callousness. At the way I have shot the elephant in the room stone-cold dead. I should be more like my doctor ("deceased," "passed away") or like that radiologist ("no cardiac activity," "non-viable"). I should be sensitive, right? I shouldn't call death its name to its face, especially not in light of something so tragic. I should hide behind the protective barricades of such wonderful euphemisms as these, cling to the needles. But I can't. I ignore these rules of social grace and let the conversation break instead of me.

But even with the word "dead," a little voice at the back of my mind wonders if something that was never actually alive can really be dead. More poking at needles. But "dead" is the only true word I have right now, and if I shoot too many holes in that, I'll be left with nothing but dead elephants.

*    *    *    *    *

I don't cry in front of James that first day. I'd cried in hospitals, in parking lots, in cars, on freeways, in doctor's offices, at home, and I am done by the time he gets home. We eat dinner, talk about our new future, talk about how normal it feels now. We think we've accepted it quickly. We think we're done grieving, prepared to carry on.

The next day, I'm fine. I can mostly forget except for a few moments when I remember with a start and a small sadness.

The day after that, I'm fine.

And the day after that.

The day after that I start bleeding. And am suddenly, decidedly not fine.

It isn't heavy, but the bleeding has me terrified that I will miscarry before the surgery, in a meeting at work, silently at my cubicle, on the train, in the car, at church. I prayed that if the baby isn't going to wait until the surgery, it will at least have the decency to wake me up in the middle of the night in the private of my own home.

I find that I am eager for the surgery, for the painkillers, for the chance to do anything besides think. I've proudly held things together, but I wouldn't refuse a dulling of emotions right now.

To distract myself, three questions float to the surface of my thoughts, clamoring for answers.

1.      Is it a boy or a girl? I know they can't tell by ultrasound yet, but once it's out of me can they see a difference? Can they take a DNA sample or something? I'm not sure if I want to know, but I know that if I ever want to know, I have to want it now.

2.      What will happen to it after the surgery? Will it end up in a revolving-top biohazard container with used syringes and people's appendixes? Is there a special quarantined dump where it will be tossed? Incinerated? Once again, I don't know if I want to know.

3.      Am I a mother now?

*    *    *    *    *

The operation itself is uneventful. The hospital has the same stupid, divoted ceiling panels as the radiology lab. The rectangular lights are covered with opaque panels painted with a serene blue sky filled with white clouds. They're not fooling anyone. I get a little loopy talking to the anesthesiologist, vaguely remember being moved into the operating room and having a very uncomfortable mask placed on my face, then I'm waking up in the recovery room. It takes me a half-hour to fully wake up, and then they wheel me into a smaller room to see James. He feeds me Saltines and Teddy Graham crackers with water until they release me. They give me my pain meds, instructions not to lift anything heavier than a gallon of milk, and orders not to use tampons or have sex for 2-3 weeks, until I can meet with my doctor. I don't ask the nurse about my was-gonna-be-a-baby. I don't ask its gender. I don't ask what happened to the body. I don't ask if I'm a mother, if it was a child. I don't want to show the sadness in my eyes. And I don't want to hear that she has no answer. There isn't one.

*    *    *    *    *

I use up my days after the surgery with sleep, painkillers, and work, but three days after the surgery, I find the pregnancy test while cleaning. For some reason, I'd put the cap back on after taking it and tossed it into a grocery bag with the unused one from the two-pack. I guess I just couldn't bring myself to throw away something that had brought me such joy. The positive sign is gone now. Just a vertical line in the big window and a vertical line in the checking window. It now reads what the extensive directions and diagrams classify as an "Invalid Result," meaning you should try again. Not try to get pregnant again, just try another test, because you obviously took this one wrong, dummy. The other two options are "pregnant" and "not pregnant." I think for a moment that maybe "invalid" is the new word I've been looking for to describe the limbo I'm in. It sounds like "viable." It might fit in between the needles. I decide that I hate that word, too. Then I remember that it doesn't matter. There is no more limbo, no ambiguity to toss around or hide behind. I'm pinned under the needles now. I'm not pregnant. I've miscarried. I throw the pregnancy test in the trash. I don't allow myself to wonder how it knew things were going to end this way.

I was calmer before the surgery, when there were definitions to inspect, needles to pry apart and peer under. Before the surgery I could question pregnancy and miscarriage and social protocol and definitions and pretend to be working through things. Now there's nothing to fret about. No questions of identity. No maybe's; only definites. Yes miscarriage. No pregnancy. No fetus. No was-gonna-be-a-baby. No baby. Just nothing. And now I see that the somethings before were only flailings—a thing to do besides sink. I cry the night after the surgery with my husband for the first time since we found out. I don't even know what I'm crying about exactly. I don't want to know.

And now I run my mind in hot, sweaty circles, but make no distance. I feverishly fill paper with words, but nothing is ever said. But still I run, still I write. Because to stop searching would be to let go; to stop thrashing would be to drown.

And now I am like David in Psalmic grief, only barest ounces of pressure—skin knitted to skin—from falling, not to pieces, but into a puddle. "I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels."[2]

*    *    *    *    *

My grief is separate from me. I simultaneously realize that I am allowed to grieve, acknowledge that I am grieving, and wonder why there is so much to grieve about. It's like the grief is something living in me that isn't me but for a few moments at the end every day claws up in me, to my throat, my eyes, my brain, trying to become me. Every night I cry, and every morning I wake, knowing I will cry again.

A few days after the surgery, somebody mentions comforting those who have lost a child, and I, with a start, realize that I am now in that group. When did that happen? It's like the first months of wedlock, when the words "I'm married" still seem like a lie or dress-up. You can forget occasionally, but then remember when you fill out a form at the DMV or see his deodorant on your dresser. You're reminded again and again and eventually it's a part of you. So much a part that you begin to forget what it's like to be not married. But how do you make a miscarriage a part of you? You're only reminded occasionally and then forget and then remember and grieve a little and then forget again. Most of the time, I can function perfectly happily, and talk about pregnant ladies and their babies and think of the hospital and feel like it happened in the past or to somebody else. But sometimes an unbearable, undefinable sadness wells up inside me and has nowhere to go. There's no place for it in me.

*    *    *    *    *

My mom has this analogy she told me once about emotional health. She says moving on is like trying to fly from one city to another. "Hello, I'd like a one-way ticket from Phoenix to Tampa."

But if you're really in Toronto and in denial, then you're never going to get to Tampa, no matter how many tickets from Phoenix you buy.

"Hello, I'd like a one-way ticket to happiness, to healing."

"Well, where are you coming from?"

"I don't know." I don't know. I don't know where I am. I don't know where I should be. But I do know that I'm not getting on any planes to happiness for a long while. A good, long while. Until I figure out where I am. It's foreign territory, this grief called losing a child, this grief of forsaken futures. This "full desertness"[3] that lies "silent-bare / Under the blanching, vertical eye-glare / Of the absolute heavens."[4] I've spent the last week wandering there. I am lost there. I don't know how to get to Tampa.

*    *    *    *    *

In my empty hours after the surgery, I scour the internet, wade through heart-wrenching accounts and strangers' grief. I must find the namelessness possessing me. I stumble across one of the words I'm looking for on a depressingly clinical page: missed miscarriage—"embryonic death without the expulsion of the fetus." Also known as a silent miscarriage, which says so much about the experience in general.

If a tree falls in a forest, and I am the only one to see it, would you want me to tell you?

If I were a child mourning a fallen tree, running to you with goliath sorrow, you might allow me innocence. You might say that it was going to die someday anyway and never worry there are a thousand million other trees in the world to climb and sing and watch. But bless your innocence and grief and belief in nature and the world and happiness and don't I wish you could stay that way forever?

But I am not a child, now, mourning a fallen tree. I am an adult bearing only the crippling grief of a tiny, dusty acorn, which wasn't actually a tree yet and was never guaranteed to be one anyway. So shouldn't I know better than to have hoped or to be sad and don't I know enough to realize that life jades people every minute of every day and if I think about it too much I will go crazy?

A grown-up should know to keep her chin up, keep her silence, and carry on. A grown-up should know that life is hard and cruel and gluts itself on optimism. A grown-up should know that trees die and acorns shrivel and futures fade into the present. A grown-up is not a child and should stop acting like one.

We are only ever children in grief.

*    *    *    *    *

At my post-operation check-up with my doctor, I ask two questions and get two answers:

1.      They could have performed a chromosomal check on the fetus to determine its gender. It's not a terribly unusual procedure for viable fetuses.

2.      After the operation, they took the "tissues" down to Pathology and solidified them in a waxy substance, which they then cut into cross-sections to pin down and observe and test for normal "products of conception." All tests returned normal results. The products of conception were then cremated at the hospital.

*    *    *    *    *

It's been a week since the procedure, and I've been crying myself to sleep in James's arms every night. I feel like a sailor whose lifeboat is taking on water. Doomed. Bailing out meager bits of the sea, bucket by bucket, tear by tear, measured movements, measured breaths. Scared to dip the bucket deeper and throw harder for fear I'll tear out the waterlogged bottom of my boat in fevered, terrored bailing and sink for good. Scared to really cry for fear of breaking out the bottom of my heart. So I just scoop off the emotion that threatens to sink me, the cream of the milk, the foam of the wave. Content in half danger for fear of drowning.

I cry silently and speak softly. I want to forsake treacherous words all together and regress to a keening animal grief that has no words, only sounds. No cold, harsh definitions that can form expectations like icicles that melt and shatter. No words to worry about if it was ever alive, if it ever counted, if I have any right to be this sad.

This happens to other women more traumatically, I think. More painfully. More frequently. Later in life. I'm still young; this was only my first try; I can almost certainly conceive again. It maybe wasn't even really alive yet. It maybe didn't yet deserve a name or a funeral or a gendered pronoun. It maybe wasn't even a person, just an imperfect, unholy, yet-to-be-holy vessel. Cracked. I feel terrible for feeling so strongly about something of so little significance. Feel that I have lost sight of the forest for fixation on this one would-be tree. There are women who can never have children. There are mothers whose older, real children die. I just lost a little bundle of nerves and blood and flesh that I can make again and was a brilliant, undeserved gift anyway. What right have I to mourn?

I half-feel that I'm acting irrationally. That I have been wrongly seduced by potential and am bearing its inevitable red-headed stepchild—grief. But, oh, there was so much potential. The potential of a forest, acorns bearing trees, branches splitting anew, bending in new directions. Endless possible lives. So am I not allowed to grieve at that lost forest? That forest that will never now be. Even if you never saw it, will you trust me when I say that it was there? That it could have been?

*    *    *    *    *

If left alone, a silent miscarriage can turn into an inevitable miscarriage, or the body recognizing and completing the miscarriage naturally by beginning labor and expelling the fetus. I did not have an inevitable miscarriage. I had a missed miscarriage. I had a silent miscarriage. I am so tired of words and definitions. People running out of flesh and birthing new words to immediately cut open and pin to tables.

In all my searching, I find a single word that I cling to, that soothes me: mizuko. It's the Japanese word for a dead fetus. Literally translated as "water child," which is the most beautiful thought I've heard in a long while. A soul never having touched the earth, never having been touched by it. I find peace in the poeticism. This is a word that I can imagine floating down a river, having escaped the scientists and their needles. I suppose it's perfectly full of needles and specifics in Japanese; they just fall out in translation. They tumble into the river, and the soothing water heals up the scalpel's incisions and makes the word whole. A water child. I wish I had a word that felt like that in English.

*    *    *    *    *

I am in two parts. My grief has torn me.

There is a part of me that is done crying. That is washed up on the shore and has dried in the sun and is ready to stand up and move on. That is older and more worn but also free.

But there is also a part that weighs the first part down, keeps one foot in the surf and clings to the free part with a salty weight that stings and scratches the skin, forbidding it to arise and go when it is still so sad, so sorry, so guilty.

The free part knows it is not to blame. It has done its grieving, been marked by it, paid its penance.

But the salty part hurls blame, burrows in it like a sand crab and lives there. Whispers with the waves that I am to blame, not for my miscarriage, but for my miscarriage of my miscarriage. For handling it badly, unjustly. It kicks sand in my eyes, drips salt on cracking raw, jerky wounds. And not until it is cornered against the sea rocks does it truly admit all the reasons it has for blame:

You should have seen it. You looked away to doctors and painkillers, but you should have seen it. You should have waited another sixteen days, twenty, fifty, a hundred, for your body to figure out that it had failed. You should have dealt with contractions and bleeding and crying in the bathroom and seeing a squishy pear of blood and flesh lying in the bottom of the toilet bowl or the shower.

You should have carried its image with you to your grave. The feel of its translucent skin. But it is a thing you were too cowardly to carry, and now nobody is carrying it. And if a thing isn't carried by someone, did it ever really happen? Isn't that history's biggest disgrace? The events and places and people it forgot?

And now you are the only witness of a house that burned down, except you looked away and so missed the child on the second floor who appeared in the smoke at the window for half a moment to look out before being consumed.

And you are bad because it is bad for a person to die alone. It is bad for a person to be buried alone, like no one ever loved them. Especially a child. Especially your child. And you allowed it when you could have stopped it. And there is nothing you can ever do to change that.

And it crawls past my shock back into the waves.

*    *    *    *    *

I have no room for recourse. No way to undo my deeds or make up for their injury. I have no stone to carve, no grave to flower. No ashes to scatter and no stories to spread. I had one moment with this child, and it seems one of ignorance, guilt, and shame.

My darkest imaginings show a tear-stained child in heaven, a lonely testament to my cold-heartedness.

I both fear that I am not a mother and fear that if I am, it is no honor for me.

*    *    *    *    *

But when I have truly heard my fears and guilts—when they are named—they do not possess me. I see clearly what I cannot change, the past as sweeping and immovable as the ocean. I hear the crusted words of the salty part of me, feel the ocean press them up against me again and again, and as I walk I let them fade away. Let the surf pull the words away with each breach. And with each wave I heal, and I begin to forget. And I am both grateful and regretful that the human heart is like the sand on the beach, stretched cleaner with every tide.

The free part of me heals a little every day and thinks less often of my child, and the salty part is finding it harder to stay wet and grieving. It wishes me nightmares of a deformed, bloody baby calling my name. But I think it really wishes to have touched it at least once, to know that it was real and that its guilt is real and that its sorrow its justified and that it can let it go.

And this Lethe-like forgetting is the last guilt, drop by drop. Because if I'm already forgetting my water child, who else is there to take responsibility for remembering it, if its own mother won't? Who else will?

*    *    *    *    *

In grief we are tragically aware of impossibility. Of the dullness of our tools, the number of specimens. And words are everything. They're all we have to capture and understand our lives. Words are the specimens, the needles, the scalpel. We, as scientists, call upon words to study some other word, so we can never truly trust our results for lack of faith in our tools. Every needle we press is in fact a dissection in miniature, with its own set of pins and definitions in an eternally recursive fleshy mass. Impossible to isolate a single word. You fish out a single word from the depths, and the entire soggy net of language is dredged up along with it, clinging to your human form. How can one hope to speak, to understand, to rise up and carry on? How can one not?

Thousands of words before me, and I still am more painfully aware of absence than I am content with presence. I have no flesh to hold, no true words to speak. Only flawed words that I have thrust into words with yet more words. Each of my needles has just missed its mark, and the true thing has escaped into the damp cave of human experience, dragging my net of language with it, leaving me naked. All I am left with are these needles in the shape of grief, of pain, of my just-missed chance at mothering. They are a different shape, but it speaks of my child. Gives me something to look at in its place. And now I have taken it back in another form and placed it within me. And perhaps with time the absence will grow less and the presence, stronger and I can move on.

*    *    *    *    *

I dig the pregnancy test out of the trash. I put it back in the box it came in and collect the ultrasound, a congratulations card, the hospital bands from the surgery, the notes of this essay, anything that will remind me of this lost child. I gather it in a plastic sheet protector and place it in my memory box. Before today, the box held only happy, married thoughts. Wedding cards, extra invitations, the first envelope to arrive in the mail with my married name on it, concert programs, loves notes, mementoes of our life together. But this is now a part of it. So I will keep my memory of this water child away and only pull it out when I am in a nostalgic mood. It will keep with my joyful memories and hopefully absorb some balance, as will I.

*    *    *    *    *

The last night I cried for my child, James said something that reconciled the two parts of me: "I don't know if it had a soul yet or if it's in heaven, but if it is then it knows how much we weep for it, how much we cry, how much we loved it, how much we wanted it. And even if it was a mistake not to see, we all make them and life goes on. But no matter what, you'll remember and you'll write and that will be enough." I love that man. He was my first kiss, you know. And my first cuddle. And as he said those words, with my head on his chest, I remembered a night almost two years ago, on the old couch in his apartment where I was still only a visitor. I was resting my head on his chest then, reveling in the simplicity of the moment, and I realized that my ear was over his heart and I could hear his heartbeat. It was the closest I'd ever been to a person. "Heartbeat." I whispered it so quietly that I had to repeat it when James asked, "What?" So I said it again. "Heartbeat." And I just listened to that drum beneath my ear and knew it would love me with every last beat, and the world seemed a beautiful, stretched, eternal place. And as I listen to his heartbeat now, I know that his still beats and mine still beats and there are billions of human hearts right now beating through shapes of love and hate and pain and grief and joy. And that is enough to hope.

[1] Johnson, Kimberly. "Miscarriage Dictionary." Leviathan With a Hook. New York: Persea Books, 2002. 38. Print.

[2] Psalms 22:14

[3] Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. "Grief." Poetry X. Ed. Jough Dempsey. 16 Jun 2003. 28 Jun. 2013

[4] Ibid. 

Nichole Eck is a freelance editor and writer currently living in Utah with her husband and their three sweet girls. When she’s not vacuuming up cheerios (or laying exhausted on the couch wishing she was vacuuming up cheerios), she loves playing the piano, organizing closets, and working on her science fiction novel.

You can read more of her work on her website www.NicholeEck.com.

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