Ex Utero: A Postpartum Notebook by Cheryl Dumesnil
Miscarriage lays an odd kind of grief on the table. My body, once buzzing with hormones that announced an undeniable presence, now echoes like an empty mausoleum. One moment I was pregnant with the future, the next moment that future disappeared in the shades of gray image on the doctor’s sonogram screen.
“It’s called a blighted ovum,” the doc had explained. Her language swiped at me with its sword. “Or a missed abortion.” Her language stabbed.
“Oh.” That tiny vowel escaped from my mouth: “Oh.”
“The gestational sac develops, but not much else.”
Tears collected in the corners of my eyes.
In the center of the static on that screen, a kidney-shaped, ink-black hole sucked all matter into itself: the empty sac.
“There’s nothing you could have done differently,” the doc shrugged. “It’s just a fluke, a trick of nature.”
It’s a mean trick, I wanted to say.
The meanest. Not “your baby has died,” but “your baby never existed.” What I had carried for nine weeks was not the wanted child my wife Tracie and I had thought we had conceived. No. For nine weeks what I had carried was a ghost.
Tears ticked on the exam table paper: o o o o.
How do you mourn the loss of someone more wish than flesh? Clearly something has been lost, but what? A chemical reaction of sperm meeting egg? A spirit shaped by my imagination, like the pretend friend I invented as a kid?
When grief wavers on my horizon, heat rising off a desert highway, threatening to liquefy everything, Logic swoops in to save me: “Come on, don’t be so maudlin. You heard the doc’s words: blighted ovum. You saw the picture on that screen: no baby. You’re mourning the loss of a fantasy.”
With one wave of its wand, Logic turns grief into shame: “Can’t you see? You were duped. This pain is your fault. You were a fool for believing.” Each time Logic badgers me, I give up a little piece of my story. I stop calling what I lost a baby.
When we were kids, my siblings and I played a game: travel from the living room to the kitchen without touching the carpet. We climbed our way from couch back to cedar trunk to wicker chair to tiled counter, until we were sitting cross-legged on top of the kitchen table. In the aftermath of miscarriage, that’s what I’ve been doing — hour by hour, negotiating my way across depression’s sheet-draped furniture, trying to reach the front door without falling through that rotten floor.
After miscarriage, Wendy Ponte writes, “Women will experience the same kind of postpartum depression that full-term pregnancy can bring. A lot of this is due to hormonal changes, but the presence of grief makes it much more acute for many.” This information about postpartum depression would be helpful now. If I knew that a mass exodus of hormones was causing this teetering-on-the-back-of-an-antique-chair feeling, I might be more likely to surrender to the fall, the way I surrender to the flu or any other illness that time will cure. But I won’t discover Ponte’s article for months.
Melancholy’s secret mistress, I paste a smile on my face and try to form some kind of structure out of the sludge that time has become. A daily routine. That’s what I need. I write in my journal: This is my week for setting things in motion. I come up with plans for filling up the empty space that pregnancy has left behind: new classes to teach, new poems to write, home improvement projects to start. Then I close the journal, curl into a heap on the couch, hover in the gap between crying and not crying. A half-hour before Tracie is due home from work, I lug myself into the kitchen, slap together some sort of dinner, and act like this pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps approach to depression is working.
It’s not working. Between the lines of script in my journal, moths flutter, words tattooed on their wings: loser, infertile, failure, empty. I push the closed book away and make small talk with Tracie. Tiny talk. Six-point-font talk that reveals nothing about what’s going on inside. Because she’s been through enough already. Because it’s more than she can handle. Because it’s more than I can handle. Because I’m ashamed of the fog that’s taken over my brain.
As the country ramps up for Gulf War II, I hear a radio broadcast about depleted uranium, toxic leftovers from the super-bullets used in Gulf War I. For years the debris from those bullets has released radioactive atomicity into the environment, poisoning the air, water, land, and the DNA of Iraqi children, multiplying incidents of childhood cancers and birth defects. That radioactive pollution has a half-life of 2.5 billion years. There’s no way to clean it up.
These facts grip me and won’t let go. I search the Internet for more information and find images of infant bodies that look like something created by George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic: a newborn with pencil legs and arms, water-balloon hands and feet; a toddler with three basilica domes growing out of her skull; a stillborn baby whose brain appears to have grown on top of his cranium instead of inside it. In this context, the babies born without limbs look unremarkable, like simple dolls with missing parts. I study the pictures until the revulsion wears off, until I can hold each of those babies in love. And then I think about the mothers.
What was it like for these women to give birth to these broken babies, and in a culture that is, from what I have come to understand, even less forgiving of physical malformations than ours? What is it like for these mothers to know — if indeed the information has reached them — that they can thank a foreign army for the radioactivity that has scrambled their children’s DNA? I stare at the computer screen, wanting urgently to do something, anything, to bring comfort to these women, somehow to make amends for my government’s actions.
I hear the front door open, Tracie walking into the house, hardwood floors creaking under her boot-steps, canary voice lilting, “Hellooo?”
“In here,” I call, attention riveted on the computer screen.
“Whatcha lookin’ at?” she asks, leaning against the doorway.
“Check this out,” I say, pointing to the picture of a woman holding a baby with a skull built like a cartoon alien’s — tiny jaw, miniature cheekbones, beach-ball cranium adorned with a feather crop of black hair. The woman lifting the bare-chested baby for the camera gazes at the infant with a look of total serenity, or resignation, or empathy, or love.
Tracie walks up behind me, kisses the back of my neck, rests her chin on my shoulder, and peeks at the screen. “What is that? Is that a real picture?”
“Real picture,” I say. I slide over to make space for her on my chair, and together we review the photos.
“How come no one knows about this?” Tracie asks.
I shrug. “We don’t know about a lot of things our government does. But you know what kills me about this? I had a miscarriage, and we don’t know why. There’s no one to blame. It’s just something that nature does. But these women . . .” and here come the tears, “these women who had hopes and dreams and expectations, who already loved their babies like we did — they lost all that, and they can point to the people at fault and say, you killed my baby, you changed the course of my life forever.” I shake my head. “Can you imagine the anger? And they can’t do a damn thing about it.”
And then two realizations hit me: First, we have to do something, anything, to help these women. Second, no matter what scientific fact or my own pro-choice politics have to say about it, emotionally speaking, I was a mom; I lost a baby.
For nine weeks I moved in the world as a parent, doing everything I could for my baby — eating for her, reading to her, singing to her, swallowing gag-reflex-inducing prenatal horse pills and drinking gallons of pregnancy tea that tasted like straw mixed with cedar shavings, for her. (Yes, I had been sure she was a she. Yes, I am embarrassed to admit that now.) As soon as I shifted my life to prepare for a baby, I became a zygote of a parent. Now I’m an almost-mom with empty arms, no visible evidence to prove my membership in that club.
The fact is I loved our baby (or my idea of our baby — either way, it hurts), and then baby disappeared. And that loss has opened me to new frontiers of empathy for others. My pain is one grain of sand compared to the vast desert of loss these Iraqi mothers inhabit, but loss itself connects us, remotely, distantly.
I tell Tracie, “We have to do something for these women,” and she’s nodding in agreement before the caboose of that sentence has left the station of my mouth.
While Tracie preps dinner, I spend an hour searching the Internet, learning that the avenues for sending aid to a country our nation is about to attack are narrow and blocked. The best we can do is send money to relief organizations working in the region — a minor gesture, like offering someone a hand towel when she’s drowning in Niagara Falls. I write checks to UNICEF and Doctors Without Borders, sending money and good wishes in memory of our loss, in honor of theirs.
The moment I opened my eyes this morning, I knew something had changed — the way morning sun lit the dust particles swimming in the air when Tracie opened the blinds, how the boiling water hissed when I poured it over the fertility herbs in the bottom of the French press, how the scent of Tracie’s shampoo rode the clouds of shower steam down the hallway to greet me. As I settled on the couch, waiting for the tea to steep, I wrapped a green chenille throw around my legs and wondered what was different. Outside a robin pecked at our front lawn, looking for food, shaking dew off grass blades with each move. That’s it, I thought. For the first time in weeks, the fog has lifted. I feel awake. As if the tiniest details of the world were prodding me back to life, sharpening my senses: look at this, smell this, touch this, hear this, taste this, wake up. And I felt something else: motivated. I wanted to dive into the world and take a total sensory bath, then come back up and record it all in hair-fine detail. When Tracie joined me on the couch, a mug of coffee warming her hands, I told her, “I’m gonna take myself on a writing date today.”
“Where?” she asked, lifting her first sip to her lips.
Some days I crave the solitude of nature. Some days I crave the solitude of walking through the rush and grit of a city by myself. “San Francisco,” I said.
So here I am at North Beach’s Caffé Trieste, listening to the improvised song of coffeehouse noise: “Hey man, got any aspirin? I overdid it last night.” A plastic bottle sails over the counter, tossed by the barista; pills rattle as it lands in a callused hand. Voices weave in and out of the din: “You see, I’m a philosophical type.” Portafilter hits knock box, grinder whines, water blasts through espresso, steamer gargles the milk. A Harley rumbles at the corner. A bus chugs up Columbus Street, coughing diesel smoke into the sky.
Then it happens: cramping pain stabs through my cervix, searing into my belly, then releases. What the hell was that? Five weeks post-miscarriage, I’ve all but stopped bleeding — just spotting now and then. But this, this feels like — and here it comes again, sucking the breath out of me. This feels like the worst of the miscarriage cramps, the kind that finally expelled the gestational sac. The next contraction doubles me over, my forehead pressed to the table’s mosaic tiles. My face flashes cold then hot. When the pain lets go, I push up out of my chair and stumble to the bathroom to ride out whatever is coming my way.
Half an hour later I’m back at my table, pale, drained, and trying to make sense of what happened inside the tiny restroom’s red walls. With each round of cramping, I bore down like a woman in labor, hoping to pass whatever-it-was, waiting for the pain to dissipate. Then the cramps ended as suddenly as they had started, and there it was: on a folded up piece of toilet paper in my hand, a brownish-gray fleshy mass, nearly an inch in length. I pushed at it with my finger, expecting it to disintegrate under the pressure, but it held its rubbery form, the shape of a nine-week-old fetus. God. It couldn’t be. Could it? Not possible. I had seen the intact gestational sac on the ultrasound screen — no occupants, empty. I have a picture to prove it. And a baby can’t grow outside the gestational sac. And the doctor said she had searched every possible shadow in my uterus: no baby. Surely this was a gruesome coincidence? Some matter from my uterus had taken on an ominous shape?
Weeks from now, I will wonder if I should have saved that fleshy mass and sent it to pathology, or at least carried it home for proper burial. Instead, I flushed it, vowing to tell no one about that moment in the bathroom, not even Tracie, because I can’t stand to hear anyone else ask the questions I am banishing from my brain. But for an odd second there, I felt like I was holding my baby in my hand, in body or in effigy, and somehow that made it easier for me to let her go.