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In the Time of Loss

The hardest moment wasn't when the doctor broke the news that I was pregnant for the third time in three years. It wasn't when the nurse told me that the incredible stomach pain I was experiencing probably meant that I was losing the baby. I don't even think it was when I witnessed the look of alarm on my doctor's face as he studied the ultrasound screen in the middle of the night, then informed me that he was rushing me into surgery, ahead of the kidney transplant that was already scheduled for the operating room.

No, the hardest part of the day I miscarried my third child was almost certainly when I woke up alone in my hospital room several hours later.

During that fall of 2001, with the country still in shock from 9/11, my husband and I were struggling to parent our two small children, then 2 years and 9 months old. It had been two years since I'd gotten through a whole meal without attaching a baby to my breast for her own feeding; a full night's sleep was a fuzzy memory; a typical day involved 15 diaper changes, 3 spill cleanups, and at least 2 arguments with my husband about whose turn it was to take care of which child and which household responsibility.

Two babies were already straining our home, and life was challenging at best. With the future uncertain and the news full of the babies who had lost their parents in burning buildings and plane crashes only weeks before, it seemed reckless even to consider bringing another one into this out-of-control world. But even though my hands were full of wipes and rattles and board books, even though we could barely walk through our family room without tripping over an Exersaucer or a dolly carriage, even though the world seemed like a desperate place -- both at home and nationwide -- I still felt that our family would only be complete with a third child at the dinner table. My husband, on the other hand, frazzled by the demands of work and home and babies, babies, babies, would hear nothing of it.

And then that November the doctor told me that, against all odds -- for I had an IUD and had not yet had a period again -- I was pregnant, probably about 11 weeks. I had most likely conceived the baby on 9/11, a night on which my husband and I had turned to each other for comfort and familiarity and the reassurance that the world was not ending. And here it was: proof that the world was not ending. A baby. Surely, a baby was evidence that life went on.

Lisa Tucker McElroy, a writing professor and children's book author, lives in Barrington, Rhode Island.

Nothing to mourn

Except that it wasn't. The very next thing I learned was that the pregnancy wasn't viable. The doctor needed to get me into surgery and remove the IUD, and try to save my ovary and my fallopian tube from the embryo that was probably embedded there. And it needed to be done immediately, before I had time to think, before I had time to mourn.

Here was the rub: In the mere hours I had between learning my baby existed and losing it, I'd loved that baby, connected with it, and gave it a name and a place in our family tree. But while I was making that baby real in my mind and in my dreams, my husband was wringing his hands at the thought of having another child. Life was so stressful already, he thought. Losing this baby might be the best thing that could happen. We'd never known him (to this day, I'm sure it was a boy), and we shouldn't miss him. We should just rejoice in the fact that we had two beautiful, healthy children and that we weren't going to have to figure out how the heck to take care of another one. We hadn't planned this baby; he hadn't wanted this baby; and the baby couldn't be born. To my husband, there was nothing to mourn.

And so, as soon as they wheeled me into surgery, my husband went home to our two baby girls. He didn't sit waiting to join me in the recovery room; he didn't send flowers to the private room where I cried when it was all over. To him, removing this baby that was never to be was no different than having an abscessed tooth extracted. It was hurting me, it needed to come out, and then everything would be fine. Life would go on, not because our baby was growing inside me and offering hope but because losing the baby gave him hope that he could continue to cope with life and with caring for two terrific kids who were already born and whom he already loved.

I woke in my hospital bed the next morning, pulling myself through the post-anesthesia haze to the sound of the phone ringing insistently. It was my husband. "How are you?" he asked me. What happened? I wanted to know. "You're fine, honey, just fine. I talked to the doctor a few hours ago, and you're going to be as good as new in just a few days."

Fury rose in me. As good as new? I thought. Could that possibly be what my trusted doctor had actually said? As good as new? Or, more likely, was "as good as new" my husband's translation for "fully recovered physically"? How could anyone possibly think that I was as good as new? How could my husband, this father with whom I had made three -- not two, but three -- precious children know so little about me as not to understand that losing this baby was ripping me apart just as surely as it would if I lost him later in some terrible tragedy, in a car accident, in a playground fall, yes, even in a blown-up building? "What's wrong?" he asked. "I'm just tired," I replied. If he didn't know what was wrong, I wasn't going to tell him.

Picking up the pieces

My husband drove me home to my two babies later that day. He set me gently on the couch and brought me a ginger ale. He gave me my 9-month-old to nurse and told my 2-year-old to give me some space. "No, Dada," she replied. "Mommy boo-boo on tummy. Kiss, kiss!" She lifted my shirt and kissed my belly. Then she snuggled into my side. "I here, Mommy."

And suddenly, it was clear: My husband, my partner, the one who knew every detail of the past 24 hours, couldn't identify with my pain. My daughter, though barely old enough to talk, had managed to understand just enough to know that her mommy was hurting.

She didn't comprehend that she had lost a sibling. She had no way of knowing that my pain and heartbreak were intensified by the still-lingering helplessness I'd felt when the planes had crashed in faraway cities. Neither of us could foresee that this would be one of the last times that she would sit beside me as I nursed her baby sister because the miscarriage would throw my hormones into such flux that my breast milk would dry up. My little girl just knew that Mommy had a boo-boo and Mommy needed kisses.

My 2-year-old daughter's instinct was to comfort. My husband's was to rationalize.

In a way, just as so many did, I lost my innocence during that fall of 2001. I wish I could say that the experience of the miscarriage brought my husband and me closer -- after all, they say, there's nothing like a crisis to bind people together. But I lost more than my third child that terrible autumn when America was picking up the pieces and trying to recover. I lost my belief that my husband and I could always be there for each other, understand each other, be a source of comfort to each other in a time of fear and grief. I lost my faith that we could resolve any disagreement if only we talked about it, if only we didn't go to bed angry, if only we tried.

The months after 9/11 taught me, like others, a difficult lesson: Bad things did happen in the world, even when we think we've done everything to prevent them, and, even though I had this picture-perfect nuclear family, there wouldn't always be someone there who could kiss it and make it better. I think because of what we've been through -- separately, yet still together -- we've learned to accept our life, our family, our relationship for what it is: Far from perfect, forever scarred, difficult to examine too closely.

My husband and I have picked up the pieces and moved forward. As the days have turned into weeks, the weeks into years, we've managed at times to address, haltingly and painfully, our profoundly different reaction to my miscarriage. But we simply don't see eye to eye. Still, I've found some peace underlying it all, peace in knowing that my husband and I can endure, and love, even when we violently disagree. I've found a deeper understanding of my marriage, and of him. While my miscarriage might have been the first time that we disagreed on something so fundamental, we have many more years to come. Four or five decades when tragedy might strike. Years when we'll have to deal with our differences and survive them, when we'll confront decisions and challenges and fears. In the face of such possibilities, I've found comfort in knowing that my husband and I will somehow struggle through.

I look at my daughters, now sturdy little girls, and I picture the day when I can tell them about the sibling they lost that fall of 2001. I imagine that our conversation will go something like this: "It was a perfect, sunny day here, and we got the news: Planes were falling out of the sky, people were dying in terrible fires, buildings were collapsing, but your father and I, we made a beautiful thing."

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