Mom to Baby Asha
Lost at 11 weeks, 5 days on August 25th, 2011
This is the chronicle of the brief life of a little person. As her mother, I feel like it is my duty to chronicle it. Without me, she has no voice., Already, I can feel that time has this way of chiseling away at memories, and I don’t want to lose anymore. Even though we only knew of her ended life a few days ago, it already feels like an eternity of sorrow. We have been to the inner reaches of hell, and we are trying to crawl back. Here is our story:
We (my partner Aaron and I) began trying to conceive in June 2011, and by July 9th, I had a positive pregnancy test. It was a Saturday, and Aaron was at work at his part-time cafe job. I was thrilled when I saw the blue double-line appear on the white wand. We had told our 4 ½ year old son, Ambrose, that we were trying to make him a big brother, and it was with great joy that I told him that we had succeeded. He was going to be a big brother! Of course there were questions about where the baby was and when it would come out, and so, like any scientific mom would, I found the PBS-Nova special ‘The Miracle of Life’ online and watched it with him that morning, happily pausing it to answer all his sweet questions. I also called Aaron and reported the results to him. He was so happy. We both couldn’t believe that it had happened so fast. Wasn’t it supposed to be difficult to get pregnant? Didn’t people occasionally try for 6 months or more? We were relieved and happy. It had been so amazingly easy.
That afternoon, I put Ambrose in the bicycle trailer and took him down into the heart of Ballard. The Ballard Annual Seafood Festival was going on that day, and my nose was already hyper-sensitive to the smells of discarded fish scales and smoking oysters. Aaron met us down there, and I remember standing at the corner of Sam’s Sushi House, Aaron kneeling beside his bicycle eating a plate of broiled salmon and answering Ambrose’s questions about, well, how did those sperms actually get up there in Mama’s uterus? As good place as any to field such questions, I suppose. In the context of what was going to happen later, I do treasure these memories, of us, together, truly believing that everything would be all right, that we would get through the coming months with our usual familial pizzazz.
The next month was filled with all those joyous early pregnancy symptoms. Nausea? Oh, yes. Constipation and diarrhea? The paradox of it! Gas and gagging? Of course! Excruciating tiredness? You bet. Sore and enlarged breasts? Yes baby, yes. I was sleeping a lot, but also trying to stay focused on my research work. If I was going to have a baby in March, I had to get twice the work done now. But it was difficult to sit at my computer, gagging. And my mind was full of babies. It was as though I had transformed from this rational, sharp, high-functioning scientist-in-training into a daydreaming sloth. Time seemed to go by so slowly, but I couldn’t be my usual high-productivity self. I was already a mother of two! I just had to wait another seven months to hold my second child. I couldn’t wait.
The summer was busy. I was at a conference in D.C. for a week in the middle of July, and my nausea was still awful. Luckily, there was so much food around that I was able to graze continuously, keeping the gagging under control. At the conference, I spoke to other women who had become mothers at a similar stage in their careers. They were successful and seemed happy. Perhaps, I really could be in graduate school with a prestigious fellowship, and still have a baby. I was hopeful.
At the time I missed my second period, I went to my primary care physician’s office to confirm the pregnancy. I received a lot of congratulations from her and the staff. Everyone was so happy and upbeat. I let my PCP know that we would be taking the midwifery route for prenatal care, as we had with our son. The following week, Aaron managed to locate Tracy, the midwife who had delivered Ambrose. We were ecstatic to have found her, and eagerly set up an appointment with her new practice to meet the other midwife she worked with. At the appointment, Geraldine seemed so much like Tracy, so calm and reassuring. At this point, I was in my 10th week, and my nausea had nearly stopped. In the previous week, I had spoken to Tracy and told her that my nausea had been really bad in the previous weeks, but seemed to have miraculously subsided by middle of the 9th. She had mentioned that the peak in morning sickness is usually in the 8th and 9th weeks, so the fact that mine seemed to have stopped when others were peaking seemed strange to me. I expressed some of my concern to Geraldine, and told her that I wouldn’t feel reassured until I heard my baby’s heartbeat on the Doppler. Though this was just a meet-and-greet sort of appointment, not our first true prenatal appointment, Geraldine was happy to look for our baby’s heartbeat with her Doppler. It wasn’t there, but she told us not to be worried. Ten weeks was early for a heartbeat to be heard on a Doppler instrument such as hers. She had another, more sensitive, machine at her house, but she told us not to fret. We would surely hear the heartbeat at our appointment the following week.
I was a little bit worried over the next week, but not agonizingly. I had a small amount of dark brown spotting daily, which had begun in the 8th week. I was initially scared, but I found that many women experienced such spotting, which was described as the uterus ridding itself of old blood. Nothing to worry about, Geraldine told us the following week, when I confessed to her the source of some of my worry. The rest of our health history sounded good, we were young and strapping, nothing to get stressed about. But when we listened for the heartbeat that day, we again could not find it. Geraldine wasn’t worried, but she could tell that I was getting distressed. She would be in our neighborhood that evening with her more sensitive Doppler. Would we like her to come over to try to hear the heartbeat again? When she came over, I strained over the sounds of Aaron’s stir-frying to hear through the mysterious, velvet sounds emitted by the Doppler. Geraldine stood over me for about five minutes, slowly gliding the instrument over a pool of gel on my belly. I held my breath. There was no heartbeat.
At this point, I need to rewind. There is always a time to which we can look back and remember ourselves and our precious naiveté. The last memory that I have of that innocence was August 9th. It was Aaron’s birthday. When we woke that morning, the day had such promise. I was nauseous and tired, but excited to spend a day together, Aaron, Ambrose, and I. Aaron and I are avid cyclists, and we commute by bicycle daily. On that day, we took the water taxi, with our bicycles, over to West Seattle and cruised around near the water. It was lovely and warm, and I had crusty white bread, cheddar, and deep red cherries in my backpack. We snacked and rode. We peered into the water, and saw giant sea stars, wispy anemones, and scuttling crabs. Miniscule sea snails, barnacles, and mussels lined the boulders near the sea wall. Seabirds ran near the lapping waves. Driftwood logs lay on the sand and bobbed in the water. Ambrose collected clam shells. There are photos of us from that day. In those, we are a family and we are happy. We are excited and hopeful about the future. Nothing can hurt us.
That evening when we couldn’t hear a heartbeat, the hurt felt so close. But Geraldine was still optimistic. She told me to focus on the positives, that there were cases where the uterus was tilted and the Doppler couldn’t pick up the heartbeat until 13 or even 14 weeks. I was at the point where we would be doing our first ultrasound anyway, so getting it done soon would be a good way to allay our fears. Aaron was also optimistic. Even though I wasn’t very nauseous anymore, I still had some of my other symptoms. And my belly looked like it was slightly swelling. Maybe. When I had been pregnant with Ambrose, I had only acquired a real belly in my fourth month, so my lack of a mound didn’t seem alarming. When I cried that night, he reassured me. I was prone to worrying. Everything would be all right.
We scheduled our ultrasound for Thursday. On Wednesday, I tried not to be a wreck. I remember obsessively reading about spotting during pregnancy, the chances of not being able to hear a heartbeat on the Doppler, and risks of losing a baby at nearly 12 weeks. The rest of that day is hazy. I know that I did what I could to stay busy, to think positively. I tried to work on a research paper, but my mind was racing. I tried to stay optimistic, not to sink in my own anxiety and despair. The odds didn’t look great, but not horrible either. We would just have to wait and see.
On Thursday, I biked with Ambrose up to Joe Bar, the cafe where Aaron works. We ate crepes, drank juice, and were cautiously cheerful. Today, we would get to see our baby. We made our way to the ultrasound office. I filled out forms while Ambrose clattered a wagon around the room, calling it his train. The technician called us back. The room was just as I remembered it when I had been pregnant with Ambrose. When I had first seen him, at 14 weeks, he was such an energetic bean, jumping around on the screen. So small, but so strong, active, and perfect. Somehow, coming back to the same place five years later seemed hopeful. Of course our baby was alive. She would be just as twitchy and full of life as Ambrose had been. And we could all breathe an enormous sigh of relief.
When I saw her on the screen, I could tell that something wasn’t right. She was lying very still within that black space of gestational sac. Her arms and legs, which should have had discernible fingers and toes by now, looked like flippers. There were no bones or organs, just a characteristic kidney bean shape with the big head, curved spine, and sweet little body. “Is that our baby?” I asked, craning my neck, trying to figure out why she wasn’t jumping all over the screen as Ambrose had been. Aaron, who was cradling my arm, was already beginning to cry. Now, there’s a problem, I don’t see a heartbeat. I don’t even remember that ultrasound technician’s name, but I will always hear her words.
Here is the narrative, in medical terms. Sometime in the 9th week, fetal demise occurred. Unlike many women’s bodies, which recognize the death and miscarry, my body continued to keep and nurture the fetus. I had what was referred to as a missed miscarriage. I was carrying my dead baby inside me. It was uncertain when my body would figure out the tragedy and miscarry on its own. It could be days, weeks, or even months. The agony of waiting for nature to take its course could be excruciating.
The next minutes and hours were nightmarish. Ambrose was wailing in the ultrasound room. “I’m going to be so lonely! Who’s going to play with me? Can we go get another baby? When can we?” Aaron and I were crying and holding each other, holding Ambrose, trying to give him the love he needed while responding to our own drowning grief. The ride home was possibly the saddest time I have ever spent on a bicycle. The sun was shining, traffic was heavy, and other riders were passing us by. We were on our own private funeral march, peddling to a dirge that only we could hear. Our connection with the surrounding world had been severed. The metaphor of the aquarium (see Aleksander Hemon’s “The Aquarium” in The New Yorker, June 13 & 20, 2011) is an apt one: our shock and sorrow put us in a world utterly removed from the seemingly ordinary plane of existence, the world where children played in fountains, busy parents hurried home to make dinner, colorful joggers bounded down the sidewalks, cyclists whizzed by in spandex. In that world, there were no miscarriages. Wanted children did not die. But we were not in that world anymore, that world behind glass, the aquarium. Those ordinary rules did not apply to us anymore.
The difference between a miscarriage and the death of an adult person is that at a passing, an individual is usually familiar to many. There are a multitude of people who have known the deceased, have been touched by the deceased, perhaps even loved him. Mourning is a collective response, and as the social creatures that we are, we come together in our sadness. We grieve as one through our hymns and elegies, memorializing each of our individual experiences into a collective sob. But with the loss of miscarriage, most of our friends and family are feeling the pain through us. Our loss is their loss, only as far as they know what our loss is. But the loss seems so much more personal and private, so internal. Few people know how you envisioned the child growing in your womb, how you imagined her face, her birth, her beautiful future life in your family as your child. It is like hollowness that no one else feels because they have not grown this hope of child inside of them. People who are outside this experience simply don’t know what to say. It is such a personal, but real, sorrow.
The next day was nightmarish. How was I supposed to convince my body to release my dead baby? Did I even want to convince it? Was it wrong of me to want anything other than nature to take its course? So many choices, just not the whimsical ones like nursery décor motifs or christening gown designs that you hope are awaiting you during pregnancy. Initially, I wanted medical induction, misoprostol to convince my body to birth the deceased baby and tissue on its own. But learning of the labor pains, the extensive blood loss, and the possibility of repeated doses, even infection if the process took too long, convinced Aaron and me otherwise. Furthermore, we had our son to take care of, an energetic little boy who was dealing with his grief in his own, intermittent, way. He was at his grandparents’ house, but did we really want him to stay there overnight while I labored at home with Aaron? Aaron’s mother was dealing with her own health problems, and the thought of Ambrose staying there overnight, lonely, missing his Mama and Papa, saddened us even more. In this case, we had to care for both the dead and the living. We chose the D&C.
The term D&C, which stands for dilation and curettage, is something of a misnomer. I only learned this after my initial resistance to it. Dilation of my cervix? That sounded dangerous, especially if I wanted my cervix to function properly during any future pregnancy. And scraping out my uterus with a curette? No way, especially if I wanted the lining of my womb to be healthy and unscarred. But I came to learn that there would be little cervical opening and no sharp instruments involved. Since I had been only 9 weeks along when my baby had died, there needed to be less than a one-centimeter dilation of my cervix, and just a quick aspiration of the contents of my uterus. They whole procedure would take less than ten minutes. Although we had gone through an eighteen-hour all-natural labor with my son, I opted for narcotics with this one. We were still in that void, that place separate from the rest of the world and its rules. Anything to numb the pain, even temporarily, was welcome.
We took our baby home in a plastic specimen jar, tucked away in a paper bag. Actually, that’s not quite right. The fetal tissues were soft from death, which had probably happened nearly three weeks before our unfortunate ultrasound. As a result, the fetus, itself, was not intact following the aspiration procedure. There was no baby to be held. Other than that single image on the ultrasound, where she had been lying, so silent and still, I never saw my baby. What we ended up taking home were the gestational sac and intact chorion, the bag of waters and the beginnings of the placenta, the elements that would have held and sustained her during her time growing inside me.
Leaving the clinic that day, it would have also been appropriate to have been given a t-shirt with the words, “I wanted a baby, but all I got was this little bag.”
These events are still so recent and raw. What has helped get us through so far are the compassion and love that we have received from our friends and family. Even if they only feel the pain through us, they are still shouldering some of it with their visits, phone calls, and words of love, and for that, I am eternally grateful. Even so, this period and the ensuing heartache have been such a lonely time. After birthing Ambrose, there were so many visitors, crowding into our living room and spilling into the hall, all wanting to gawk at and hold that precious newborn person. Now, we, the family unit, are alone, dealing with this grief that is uniquely ours to unwrap, examine, and, ultimately, transcend. Aaron is a wonderful partner, and we have both found solace in each other. And sweet Ambrose is always there, bringing us back into the physical realm in which the sun still traverses the sky, spiders busily weave webs in the tomato bushes, errant bumblebees mate en masse on the deck, and swinging on the rope ladder still exhilarates. In the past, I have been one to fall into self-destruction when sorrow hits, to descend into a world of heavy drink, promiscuity, fast living. But now, my beautiful family, my sweet partner and precious son, always brings me back to my older, more mature self. I can imagine myself sinking into despair, falling into the black void of that empty gestational sac, my now-empty womb, but I don’t. There’s too much to live for and love.
We have decided to give this baby a name: Asha. In Sanskrit, her name means Hope. She has taught us about the fragility of life and the brittleness of expectations. Things don’t always go according to plans. But we adapt, getting used to things that we never knew we could accept, and hope that the ordinary and extraordinary moments may eventually exceed the rending ones.
Please feel free to get in touch with any questions. I will try to add updates to our story in the comments section. And thank you for allowing me to share our experiences. It is refreshing to break through the silence and shame surrounding pregnancy loss.
You can contact Hansi at firstname.lastname@example.org