Sometimes I wonder if we’ll ever clean up the cracker crumbs from the nightstand. And it’s not even really a nightstand so much as a TV tray that sits next to the bed. It’s black and has always been cluttered with too many things that don’t belong on nightstands [or TV trays, for that matter]; and now, there’s crumbs to boot. It’s not even my nightstand, it’s Meredith’s. Except we don’t sleep on the same sides of the bed as we used to, and I’m not sure we’ll ever go back. So when I take my glasses off at night and set them on the TV tray, next to the singular bra strap, the magazine inserts, and the thumb drive, I always take note of the crumbs.
It feels a little bit like losing an entire section in time. Like a four-month stretch disappears into vapors and you can’t be sure it ever existed at all. Like the opposite of waking up from a dream and those few minutes where it still feels so real. I spend almost the entire month of September feeling this way. But then, it feels nothing like that either.
The crumbs on the nightstand are either from saltines or graham crackers. Or probably both. The nurse at the first hospital, who was nice and quiet and blonde [though didn’t appear to have any actual medical training], shoved 18 packets of crackers into our hands when she delivered the discharge papers. The entire hospital staff was, in fact, completely inept; and, to the nurse’s credit, she was probably just keeping status quo. Looking back, though, I’m pretty disappointed we lowered our standards enough to even accept the stupid, fucking crackers.
The worst part isn’t even when it happens. It’s everything that comes after.
“Playing it over in my head helps,” is what I say to Meredith one day in October. “I think it’s like exposure.”
Then we philosophize about the human condition – like how survival is innate – and feel very clever in our abilities to rationalize such a traumatic event. It’s during dinner at a trendy restaurant in Chicago where we’re celebrating our second wedding anniversary; but mostly, we’re just rehashing what a shit year we’ve managed to have. Neither of us mentions that it’s only October and fuck knows what else could happen between now and New Year’s.
They call it a miscarry. Or they say: she lost the baby. Like you’ve been carrying around this thing – this actual living, breathing, growing thing – and then misplaced it, like a set of keys. It’s a rather spectacularly mitigated turn of phrase, considering the reality of it is something far more traumatizing. Emotional damages aside, the physical toll is unbelievable. Like how for weeks after, I’ve still got Meredith as a crutch, helping me to and from the bathroom to pee; and there’s just this well-traveled path between the bed and bathroom because it’s the only movement I can manage. Like even after I’ve stopped wearing a uniform of my father-in-law’s old pajama bottoms, baggy tee shirts, and socks, I’m still light-headed and dizzy after standing at the kitchen island for too long. And then the sight of blood becomes something normal, something you expect to see, so that when it stops – dries up to pink tinges on the toilet paper as the body heals – it’s almost equally as jarring as its first showing. It’s shocking women do this, find the strength to recover, and try again. It’s shocking because I never considered just how terrible things could get until I didn’t have a choice.
At some point between inseminations, I’m on a loveseat in the addition and I’ve had a bit of wine, which is probably why I’ve been on the phone with my sister Amy for well over an hour without realizing it. Though, she always says so much so quickly that the passage of time is rarely noticeable anyway. And I don’t know why it’s even possible that we have any old stories left to tell each other that we haven’t heard before. Our family is really very small and we’re actually pretty old to be holding onto any secrets anymore. Still, this is one I haven’t ever heard. So my reaction is genuinely animated and maybe even belligerent at this point when she starts to tell me about how my grandmother miscarried in Alaska before my mom was born. [And actually, it wasn’t even Alaska so much as the territory that preceded the state – a notation we always insist on making when referencing my mom’s birthplace. Something like, “My mom was born in Alaska in 1954,” and then, “it was still a territory at the time.” As if the footnote is actually the whole fucking point of the story.]
So Amy’s telling this memory that isn’t hers, but the detail is so spot on, since she’s heard it directly from my Grams and also has freakishly sharp recall. And the story is something awful about my grandmother being alone when it happens – alone on a military base at nineteen in a tiny, one-room trailer – and how when my grandfather comes home, he’ll wrap it up in a napkin and bury it outside.
The stick tests positive – the digital kind with the smiley face, because the assumption is that finding out you’re pregnant is going to make you happy. And we are. We’re exceptionally happy, cautiously optimistic, and generally overwhelmed for the span of about fifteen weeks.
Then there’s the day where I’m peeing constantly – can’t sit still for more than ten minutes without getting up to go again. And it’s all taunts and laughs about small bladders and untrained kegel muscles until I get a cramp here and there. Nothing major. Nothing Meredith can’t explain away with extensive internet research. And I think I’ve been drinking gallons of water, since it’s literally the only thing I’m drinking anyway. But, I’m not drinking nearly enough water, apparently, because once I’ve upped the intake significantly, the cramps go away entirely. Plus, Connie, the nurse practitioner – who was a bit unnerving initially because her feet are really wrinkled and this concerning dark blue color – tells us everything’s fine. And the heartbeat, it’s good too.
Meredith’s got this poker face that has absolutely zero tells. So in spite of everything – no matter what’s happening in her head – I’ve got no idea exactly what level of self-combusting anxiety she’s reaching. She’s straight-faced, that one. Does all her Googling on the down-low. Or maybe I’m just incredibly oblivious.
I feel the swell of a panic attack the first time I get my period at some point in October, about a month after. I’m sitting in the living room, reading Twitter or blogs about TV shows that aren’t even on the air anymore, when it hits me. And I’m a bit hungover, feeling shaky from dehydration and lack of food, which is the perfect recipe for a panic attack anyway.
“I’m freaking out a little bit.” And I could have said, “The weather’s nice today,” and it wouldn’t matter because the uneven tone in my voice gives me away immediately.
Meredith isn’t surprised by much and especially not my anxieties so she just answers, “Yeah, I was sort of expecting that.”
Three days after the visit with Connie [the cramping, the unrelenting urination scare] is Sunday and the kick-off of the Patriots regular season. So I’m pregnant, in my jersey, and settling in for my first sober football game since the time I was trapped in PA at my sister’s house, who frowns on alcohol consumption of any kind. It happens about an hour before kick-off, so we end up missing the game. Spend the afternoon instead in the frighteningly incapable hands of the blonde nurse and her colleagues. Turns out it doesn’t matter that I’ve missed the opening game of the season because once I see blood on the toilet paper, I can’t see much of anything else.
I’m bleeding, pretty regularly, still feeling like I have to pee constantly except now it’s coupled with a fair amount of blood. Until finally, at some point, I’m just full-on menstruating. And that’s when I lose composure and cry about what I’m sure is happening even though no one will say it out loud.
Instead, the doctor takes a urine sample to test for infection. Then, upon suggestion from my wife [who has spent the last 15 weeks studying pregnancy like she’s readying for the MCATs] that perhaps he should check the cervix, he considers the option of doing just that. Considers examining my female bits at all – peeking under that johnny and having himself a look. Ultimately, he politely declines, citing a fear of ‘disturbing things’ down there. But, honestly, his expression, his general demeanor, says his fears lie more with vaginas of any sort, full stop. So we wait for the results of my urine sample and the ultrasound.
By the time we get home – packets of charity crackers in our pockets – we’ve got two pieces of information. Neither of which are very comforting, given I still feel like shit.
First, the ultrasound looks good. Baby moving, heart beating. I feel relief about this for exactly fifteen minutes while still laid back in the hospital bed. Cry with Meredith that we might get through this after all.
Second, I’ve experienced a threatened miscarriage. It says exactly that on the paperwork. I’m not supposed to move much so I stay in bed. Meredith makes me broth and I eat it alongside those stupid, fucking crackers.
We don’t sleep. Or, at least, I don’t sleep. I don’t want to fall asleep then wake up Monday morning to something horrible. So my mind stays on – tuned into every movement, every pulse, every sensation that registers. At some point, I go completely nuts and start singing a song in my head. Something repetitive like “Mama’s Little Baby Loves Shortnin’ Bread,” except not nearly as antiquated. I play it over and over and it’s something of a lullaby, or at least I imagine it as such, because I’m trying to relay something to the kid. Something like: hang in there. I’m sorry about this, whatever’s happening, but just stay calm and we’ll work it all out. But then I wake up. So I guess repetition to induce sleep isn’t limited to just sheep.
The bathroom down the hall – the one we use most regularly – is shit. We’ve been talking about remodeling it since we moved in, but then there were other projects that took priority. It still has its uneven plastering, rickety vanity, outdated medicine cabinet, and crappy linoleum. But the things in it are nice: the gray towels, the green bath mat. The shower curtain with squirrels and owls frolicking in a cartooned forest, I really enjoy. I’d never much thought about it. Probably because I’m too preoccupied with my fabulous kitchen or the rooms with hardwoods that we put down with our own hands. Maybe also we’re not meant to form any real, concrete thoughts on the room that flushes out our fecal matter.
My first reaction after it happens, is relief.
I think my low threshold for pain has been well-established. And this kind of pain is immeasurable. So regardless of how I was going to feel – no matter how grim things were bound to get – in those first few seconds I just feel better. Still, recognizing that – true or not – is totally fucked.
I’m not crying when it happens and I’m not crying when I come to lie down in bed – still reeling off the absence of excruciating pain. I’m not even crying when the pain starts up again. I’m just sort of leery of returning to the bathroom, given what’s just transpired – even when Meredith assures me it’s safe to go back in, that she’s ‘taken care of everything.’ I’m not crying even when, for the smallest fraction of time, I stop to consider what that means.
I have all sorts of thoughts on the bathroom these days. We’ll knock out walls and demo the closets. We’ll tile a tub surround the way Meredith’s father taught us, and we’ll laugh about how it would have taken him six months or more to finish the project. We’ll repaint the walls a color that’s not trying to decide between gray and purple. We’ll replace the fixtures. We’ll replace the linens. But the way it happened – the way I clenched my eyes against the pain and swatted away Meredith’s comforting touch to my kneecap – isn’t going to crumble under the weight of a sledgehammer.
Meredith changes the shower curtain – like she knows she can’t readily paint the walls or tear down the drywall but that, at the very least, I won’t be looking forward to those forest creatures as much anymore. For a while I stop using that bathroom altogether because I can’t sit there without the graphic memories of it surfacing. That eventually passes, and it’s rare I’m ever assaulted with visions of grasping the hand towel or kicking my foot against the tub.
I get sad about it now, but like it’s this horrible thing that’s happened to someone else.
It was like that, Meredith later tells me. Like we’d just been thrown into the script of some show like Grey’s Anatomy, and everything starts happening on cue from the minute she erratically pulls up to the glass doors of the ER. I remember it just like this now – always like I’m watching it happen on some stupid, prime-time drama; and I’m such a sucker for the heartbreaking scenes when they’re set to the right soundtrack.
“How fast were you going?” I ask her much later, when we can broach the subject without losing it entirely.
“I think at one point I looked down and we were nearing 85 or 90,” she says.
And she keeps asking me if we should stop at one of the four hospitals along the way – if it wouldn’t just be better to stop driving and get care that’s at least closer, if not total shit. But it’s only been a handful of hours since that trip to the first hospital, and I’m not prepared to be subjected to that level of incompetence twice in twelve hours. Bent painfully against the passenger door, the cramping multiplying at each mile marker, I insist we keep driving to the hospital where we planned to give birth.
I’m in the waiting room just long enough to bleed through my pajama pants. Just long enough to hear a baby crying behind me, which registers as heartbreaking only in retrospect. Because at the time, I’m losing my head a bit – just clenching and unclenching my hands and feet through the waves of pain, which is so fucking brutal that it’s the crying infant’s grandmother who eventually places a hand on my shoulder and relays my personal information to the front desk while Meredith parks the car.
In a different hallway, there’s some poor kid with his head split open who sits a few feet away, his mom holding a towel or something to the back of his head. And he looks a little old to be having his mom holding the wound closed for him. Like when he retells the story at school, he’ll omit the part where his mom’s making sure he doesn’t bleed out. Either way, I’m not really concerned with him being okay so much as feeling bad that I’m about to vomit everywhere. And there’s a good chance that’s going to make things even more unpleasant for the kid, who’s apparently already having a shit day.
Lucky for him, I don’t vomit – in the hallway anyway. I do vomit as soon as I’m wheeled into a room. Meredith’s just managed to get one of those pink, kidney bean-shaped bowls under my chin when it happens. And the oatmeal, on its way out, looks remarkably similar to the way it looked going in.
It’s the last concrete thought I have until later, when I see the shoebox.
Because after the vomiting, it’s all a whirlwind of doctors and nurses and other people in scrubs who probably also have titles. And I have no idea exactly what’s happening except that it’s all happening very fast. It’s not until the room clears that I notice, because she’s sitting right beside the bed after having been pushed to the corner of the room, that Meredith is crying. And I think she’s crying because it’s really sad, what’s just happened. What we’ve just lost – which feels like everything. I haven’t cried since the day before. So I just watch her and feel more than a little guilty that, on top of everything else, she’s taken charge of crying for the both of us too.
It’s not until we’re back home that Meredith explains that the crying was less about the first loss, and more about the possibility of losing me too.
“I was so fucking scared,” she tells me.
I guess you never consider just how grim things must look from the outside – just how pale my face must have been for all the blood between my legs.
Meredith is the strongest person I know, which is saying something because I tend to surround myself with exceptionally strong people. Nearly all the people closest to me, in fact, have withstood sort of fucked-up experiences in life. And, clichéd or not, I like to think we’re stronger for it.
Except, Meredith is really unassuming about it. Because she’s kind of this classic extrovert – loud, funny, theatrical – who also feels acutely anxious in nearly every public setting. She’s the youngest in her family. She’s meant to be the one cared for, not the caretaker. But it’s never really worked like that – not with us. And with her personality as large as it is, you’d think her emotions would be just as big, just as erratic. Just as unpredictable as the girl who’s likely to break out in song and dance, without prompt, in the middle of the afternoon. But she’s not outwardly emotional. Her caring for people is something subdued, something that will catch you by surprise.
And so we’re going through this really horrible thing, the two of us. And I’m lousy with emotion – have no real idea how to manage it or access it when the time is right. So I’m just vacillating between depressed introspection and rare, sudden [usually drunken] outbursts of sadness. Because I don’t often let myself go – choose not to access all those emotions that are tied up in what happened – naively convinced it makes me appear stronger. And then there’s Meredith, consistent and unwavering through all the mood swings. And strong as a fucking boulder when I’ve finally collapsed against her.
“She hasn’t seen it.” Meredith’s at the side of the hospital bed holding my hand and speaking to the doctor – this sort of emotionally removed guy with a stern, confident expression – who’s against the far wall peering into the shoebox.
And I look away, but I can’t even look at Meredith because I immediately realize what’s in it.
And I know that in-between spooning oatmeal into my mouth, dressing me in clean pajamas, and helping me into the car, that aside from calling the doctors, driving to the hospital, berating the front desk clerk for her nonchalance, she’s also been left with this horrible task – this shoebox and the big, plastic freezer bag the doctor has pinched between his thumb and forefinger.
I also know that, without reservation, I can do this – I can face all the scary stuff [eventually], can work through all the buried emotions [with therapy and/or wine], and move on to times in our life that are hopefully less grim – because I’ve got her.
Back in August, I’m sitting in my Grams’ house in northern Michigan, absently propping my hand against my stomach, which has become this comforting habit as it’s at the point of always looking somewhat bloated. We’ve driven from Pittsburgh – my sister Amy, my mom, and me – to spend a weekend reliving moments from nearly every summer of my childhood. My Grams, this staunch, outspoken, religious conservative is actually being really sweet about the pregnancy – worrying over my diet, doling out vitamins, and suggesting herbal remedies for nausea. It’s too hot one afternoon to leave the house, so we’re all in the living room and she’s narrating this photo album full of pictures I’ve never seen – old black-and-whites of relatives I’ve never met. She’s telling these ridiculous stories of her childhood and early years of marriage – the kind of stories you crave after someone’s passed. The kind you never think to ask for until it’s too late and you’re stuck with albums full of old photos and no backstory. And then there’s a picture of the old trailer on the Army base [Alaska, 1953, is scrawled into the bottom right corner], surrounded by these mountains of plowed snow that just dwarf it completely. Grams says visiting the outhouse in the winter was obviously challenging, given the snow. And all I can think about is the baby that came before. The one that didn’t make it. And how there’s not even a bathroom inside the trailer.
We manage these awful moments in life, and probably never stop to question how. Maybe because we have strength we don’t regularly access. Because – regardless of what hand we’re dealt – we’re built to withstand trauma and heartache and pain in the event it happens in our lifetime. Because a survival instinct is just sitting on reserve should we need to tap in. I think that must be true, though I have no real basis for it. Except that this terrible thing happened, and we survived.