Dispatches From Trauma Island
After the tragedy comes the math. I was twenty-seven weeks and four days pregnant when my daughter was stillborn at the end of May, which means I should have been thirty-two weeks and five days pregnant today. Our doctors are performing their own mysterious calculations to determine the probability of this particular thing—non-compaction cardiomyopathy, is what it is called—happening in future pregnancies. It could be twenty-five percent. It could be less than one. Hopeful math: my grandmothers had fifteen children between them; my mother had three; I have twenty-eight first cousins. There are losses in my family but even factoring those it all adds up to a rosy picture of health, fertility, loud Thanksgivings. Call this nightmare pure bad luck and try again. Resentful math: we come home from the hospital on the day they tell us we’re going to lose her, and the Duggar molestation story has broken. Josh Duggar has four children; his terrible parents have nineteen. There are bad parents everywhere, parents who abuse and brainwash and neglect, and all of them seem to have housefuls of children. We do not get this one. This one we wanted without a shred of ambivalence. There are pregnant women everywhere; there are babies everywhere. Too many to count, but none of them mine. This last is the most dangerous math, the least helpful, the kind I work the hardest to avoid doing.
I’ve been practicing what I will have to say to the people who don’t know yet, the people who knew I was pregnant and will wonder why, a little too soon, I’m not anymore. My hairdresser. My college professors who saw me in April. The nice man at the corner bodega who just a couple of weeks before it happened asked, “Are you…?” and then made a wide arc over his stomach with his hands, and was so sincerely happy when I confirmed I was. At some point, to someone, I’m going to have to explain. “We lost the baby” is the accepted euphemism but such an inadequate descriptor of what we went through. It sounds vague and a little careless, like we stopped paying attention, like we briefly lost sight of her and then she was gone. At the point we were at when we lost the baby, “we lost the baby” means we’d already acquired a crib, a car seat, a onesie covered in foxes. An infant thermometer. A hardcover copy of Madeline. At the point we were at when we lost the baby, “we lost the baby” means I had no choice but to give birth to her, to feel contractions, to push. All the usual trappings of childbirth and none of the rewards. At the end, we did not hear her cry. At the end, it was just over.
Isn’t this depressing?
In truth, the reality grows more manageable by the day. Life begins to feel normal—good, even. I read books, laugh with my husband, drink wine, obsessively mainline the first two seasons of The X-Files. I look forward to trips, pets, the tattoo I’m going to get to remember her by. Most of the time the thing that sets me off is not what I’m feeling, but my perception of what someone else must think I’m feeling. The other day I sat in my favorite café drinking iced chai in the sun, writing a very good scene in my novel, texting my friends, listening to my favorite lil skater bro barista sing the mail song from Blue’s Clues to a bewildered postal worker. I spent the whole day happy and then I thought about myself suddenly from the perspective of someone else, someone who knows what I’m going through, and I thought, “What a fucking nightmare this is that I’m living.” Burst into tears, had to go home. I have this wretched vision of myself as others must currently see me—as the nucleus of all sorrow, the person to whom Bad Things happen. My body the site of the catastrophe. It’s mostly imagined, this vision, but for some it’s true. Some people edge politely away from my grief; they don’t talk about it because they don’t know how to, or they don’t want to. Or they think that by talking about it, they’ll remind me it exists. I can’t blame them because I’ve done the same thing in the past—treated grief as a disease we have to quarantine, lest we all become infected. But that’s not how it is: it’s far easier for me to talk about the pain than to pretend (for my own sake or anyone else’s) that I’m not feeling it. It makes me feel like a human being, rather than some kind of rabid Grief Monster, set loose from my long captivity on Trauma Island. I’m stupidly grateful to everyone who has acknowledged it, especially the ones who keep acknowledging it in various heartfelt ways. The ones who send orchids and chocolates and lasagnas, who text pictures of their dogs every damn day. Who bring over soup and wine and sympathy; who arrange for us weekends in the woods. The ones who call and keep calling even when I don’t pick up, the ones who text every few days just to ask how I’m feeling and don’t really expect an answer.
When I was pregnant I felt this wonderful sisterhood with mothers and mothers-to-be—the network of shared experience, of stray bits of advice and flippant warnings, all of it couched in immense love. Shades of life to come. You too shall be this happy, is what they seemed to say. When my daughter died, the coin flipped, and the other sisterhood appeared: the Dark Sisterhood. The Sisterhood of Sadness. These women tell stories of infertility and stillbirths, multiple miscarriages, babies wanted badly but not gotten, and the babies that followed those babies. It’s hard to convey how much this club means to me, even as I wish never to have joined it in the first place. I want to become the elegant witchy queen of the Dark Sisterhood, the woman who will never again in times of other people’s tragedy say, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” and then disappear into the ether. I want to be the one who says “What a fucking nightmare this is that you’re living” and then sticks around for everything that follows, the misery and the agonizing dullness of the misery, the dark thread of humor that lies under so much of it.
(A lot of what’s happened these last five weeks is funny to me now, was funny to me even as it was happening, but I suspect very few outside this bubble of grief would find it funny. What seems tragicomic to me is probably to most tragitragic and so I’m trying to be discerning in whom I share it with, to not come across as totally glib. Is this anecdote glib?: My body knew that I had given birth but it did not know that my baby was not alive, and so it still produced milk for her. I woke up at five a.m. a few days after the birth—the morning my parents and in-laws were due to fly in—and realized it had started. I started googling ways to stop the flow of milk that I desperately wanted to feed to my desperately wanted daughter, but very little of the advice is for people in my situation and thus takes the cheerful tone of, “Just keep nursing your baby!” I was compiling this depressing list of remedies when a notification popped up from Twitter. Someone had read my book and hated it and tagged me to their 140-character review. “Christian-bashing at its worst!” Ice packs sports bras frozen cabbage leaves. “I hated the writing even more than the content!” Watch for redness heat could be an infection. Is this funny? It seems really funny to me, as well as being a pretty good lesson in why you should maybe refrain from tagging authors to your bad reviews of their books.)
I don’t know what to tell you. The truth is that for twenty-eight years I’ve gotten everything I’ve ever wanted: wonderful parents and wonderful brothers, European travels, mental and physical health, a sunny apartment full of books, the career of my dreams. The constant, devoted, empowering love of a man I love so much: love strong enough by far to sustain this. For twenty-eight years my luck has been so good that it never even occurred to me that one single horrific stroke of bad fortune could separate me forever from the person I have always been. That I might continue to resemble her in most significant ways, even in the overwhelming happiness that continues to flood nearly every corner of my life, but that I’m just not her anymore. I’m her, with an asterisk. This feeling, such as it is, is going to fade. In time there will be children and dogs and many responsibilities, and the surreal hysteria of my current reality will have dissipated, will have become just a memory of a time I once had to live through, (hopefully) the worst time. But I know there will be moments—Christmas mornings or summer afternoons, completely average weekday evenings—in which I look around at the family we’ll make and realize that she’s not there, that she never was. It’s the fact around which we’ll have to build the rest of our life together, hoping that the life we build is enough that her absence resonates slightly less than everyone else’s presence.
I think for now what I miss most is just the imperfect joy of anticipating her. I’ll never comb her hair or teach her to tie her shoes; I’ll never attend her high school graduation. I’ll never know what her laugh sounds like. That list is endless and endlessly painful, so it’s easier to focus on the shorter one—the list of everything I know for sure. I know the soft weight of her tiny body on my chest in our first and only hours together. I know what she looked like in my husband’s arms. The length of her fingers, the shape of her nose. I know her name, her biological sex. How much I loved her. My daughter. I know that before she died her ears had developed to the point where she could hear the outside world, and I know then that she must have heard a lot of long, happy conversations about what our lives would be like once she arrived; and loud music; and so much laughter. I know that for a time towards the end she would move when I moved, wake when I woke. That I’d open my eyes in the morning, one day closer to meeting her, and she would kick before I even had the chance to stir. As if to say good morning to me. As if she had any concept of what “good” or “morning” were. Any concept of who I was. As if to say, see you soon.