While pregnant, one of my hands is always glued to my belly, even before there is really a visible belly to speak of. It feels as though I can somehow keep the babies there with my hand. Keep them in place and prevent them from slipping away from me. I did this even after the miscarriages when I was no longer pregnant. It would surprise and pain me to find my hand resting on my navel. But it also gave me a weird sense of comfort. As though I was connecting more directly to where they existed.
Did they exist?
For months, I felt a genuine, physical hole in my belly. It ached. I imagined I could almost reach inside. Climb inside and feel around, touching the crater that now inhabited that space. A crater where something used to be.
We closed on and moved into our current house the week we lost our first baby. It’s a big house. Big for us, at least. 3000 square feet. 5 bedrooms. More house than we needed or will ever need but it was a smart financial move, a steal, and we knew we wanted to have a family. We quickly picked which room would be the nursery if we bought the house. A room that looked over the front yard, with a beautiful dogwood tree right outside the window, next to which we would place a rocking chair. The tree would have pink blossoms each spring. A perfect place to hold and nurse a baby while watching birds sit on the branches.
After we bought the house, the room remained empty and closed off other than a couple baby things thrown in. I could barely look in the direction of the room, across the hall from our bedroom. It felt so empty. I avoided.
The neighborhood was filled with families and young kids, but we—the childless couple—owned the largest house. Three sisters who lived down the street—late elementary and middle-school aged—brought us a large, hand-made welcome sign with candy. I remember opening the door and seeing them grinning ear to ear, joyfully carrying the sign. I painfully smiled back at their smiling faces and wondered “what would my baby have looked like?”
I often would have to remind myself to breath. I would catch myself not having taken a breath for several seconds and have a conscious thought, “Maria, breathe.” Sometimes, it was someone else noticing I wasn’t breathing who would tell me. A gush of an inhale would flood in and dizzy me. Bringing me back to reality.
I hadn’t always known I had left.
When we had first toured the house, each room had vibrant color, including a bright pink girl’s room and dusty blue boy’s room. It wasn’t until months later that we actually put an offer in and closed on the house. By then, the owners had repainted every room with a pale cream color, “Iroquois White.” The house felt so large. So empty. So barren. A great, big visible metaphor for my womb. Having moved from a house half the size, we didn’t have furniture for all the rooms. Our voices echoed and the silence felt like a pounding. A reverberation of the emptiness. Nothing to bounce off of and provide a cushion. I slowly decorated. Colors and images I now realize mirrored how dark and empty and lonely I felt. In the front room, above a muted, mustard yellow couch, I pasted on a large wall decal of a single black, leave-less tree, with black birds perched on the branches and circling. They were mourning.
We had been scheduled for a D&C but I woke up with bloody sheets that morning and passed the intact sac over the toilet. It was larger than I expected. I remembered the bereaved mothers I had counseled before who mourned not having gotten to bury their babies and instinctively, I grabbed it and screamed for my husband to get a Tupperware. I couldn’t flush my baby down the toilet. The evening of the day we signed the closing papers, my husband and I planned to meet at the new house to bury our baby. It was rainy and almost dusk as I drove over, speaking to my mother on the phone while I drove. “I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to do this. I can’t do this,” I screamed and sobbed to her.
“You don’t have to, Maria.”
“Yes, I do.”
I slapped my face to jolt my focus so I wouldn’t have to pull over. The tears kept streaming. I pulled up to our new, empty house. My husband carried a shovel and I carried our baby, coffined in Tupperware to the backyard. Our procession. We chose a spot between 4 Camellia bushes, and said a prayer while dusk faded into night and the rain camouflaged my tears. Later, we placed a small garden statue of a baby angel and a solar-powered lantern.
Since I had passed the whole sac, my doctor cancelled the D&C. Instead, I bled for several weeks after, longer than is normal. Daily reminders of what we had lost. Bright red, daily reminders of what my body had rejected. My doctor said, in hindsight, I probably should have still gotten the D&C. Nine months later, when we lost the 2nd baby, it was early enough that I probably didn’t need one, but I insisted. I couldn’t have the prolonged bleeding again. I needed it out of me. We had the choice between having the procedure done at the hospital where I would be put under or in-office where I would be aware but drugged up on anti-anxiety meds. We chose in-office. “It’s a routine procedure,” my doctor described, with the swiftness and confidence of describing a wisdom teeth extraction. They gave me benzodiazepines so I was mildly sedated but fully aware. It wasn’t until much later that I realized the meds were really for their sake, not mine. Sitting in the same waiting room with women who had swollen, pregnant bellies, I felt numb while tears streamed down my face. The procedure room, like their other patient rooms, was lined with hundreds of 2x2” photos of babies. The babies’ eyes stared at me while I lay on my back in the birthing position, surrounded by my doctor holding a medical vacuum and 3 assisting nurses. None of the nurses would make eye contact with me, their faces downcast with pity. I tried to remember to breathe as the tears streamed down my face and inside I screamed “Look at me, dammit. Look at me while you suck my baby out.”
Filing for insurance, the 2nd miscarriage had moved me into a new category. Over and again, I had to repeat the insurance ICD code 629.81: “habitual aborter without current pregnancy.” As if I was on a bender of discarding my babies, with the reminder that there was no current baby.
My body had betrayed me. When was the moment? When did I go from the state of being pregnant to not pregnant? When did they slip away? Was I aware of it all? Not consciously, no. But I questioned—did my heart or mind know at any subconscious level? Was there a feeling that I experienced that I wasn’t aware of? A passing of souls? Were they souls? Were they a “they?” What was it, that feeling? I searched for any memory of when that moment might have been. When was it? When did my body betray me?
Not a why with a question mark. It can’t be answered. I don’t have meaning for it.
We’ve painted almost all of the rooms in the house. Each pregnancy, paint has been my calming and healing release. I painted after each loss and during each of my girls’ pregnancy. I don’t use any tape for the trim. Slowly, methodically, I leave no stray marks. No blemishes. Perfection. Something within my control. And color. Color I can choose.
After the first miscarriage, while I painted, I listened to Adele crooning “Make You Feel My Love” on repeat. Sometimes crying. Sometimes lost in a daze of paint strokes. It brought me comfort each time. I yearned to make them feel my love. For them to know that I wanted to care for them. That I wanted them. Did they know? Do they know? Are they a they? Where are they?
Over time my pain became anger. It spewed out of me uncontrollably. I couldn’t stop it. It hurt to talk about. But it hurt more not to talk about. And it never really felt like a choice. I couldn’t stop talking about it. I could see the discomfort on other people’s faces. Wanting me to move on. To just get over it. To feel better. I resented them wanting me to feel better. The pain felt like all I had of them. The only way I knew to connect to them. No remnants of memories. No photographs. Little evidence. Even the “pregnant” message on the digital pregnancy test faded quickly, as if to further confirm: there is no baby.
We were naïve and giddy with excitement for the first ultrasound. I was supposed to be 11 weeks. The doctor told us we would probably see and hear the heartbeat. We were unprepared. Pretty quickly into the ultrasound, it was obvious something was wrong. We could see a large black sac on the screen but nothing inside it. The tech became noticeably quiet and avoided eye contact. Why do they all avoid eye contact? We were shuffled back to a waiting room and then to get more blood tests. We knew something was wrong. My doctor asked if twins ran in my family. That could explain my high HCG level but empty sac. No, no twins. None. She told us everything might still be fine but that there was a good chance we had miscarried. We would have to wait until after the weekend to test my levels again and see if they were rising. But we knew.
It was Valentines’ Day weekend and the opening night of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. We sat in our bed side by side, watching the opening ceremonies. We held hands and silently cried while k.d. Lang sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” It was the most beautiful and raw performance of the song. While she sang, thousands of audience members waved candle lights, and doves were projected on the stage floor, rising from the floor up to the ceiling via columns to symbolize their release. Alone in our bedroom, it felt like she was singing directly to us and like the rising doves were carrying our baby away.
A few days after we miscarried—Miscarriage. I hate that word. Like a fumbled football pass—I had to go present to a couple hundred local school counselors to recruit participants for my dissertation study. I had been wearing mostly sweats over the previous few days but I needed to look professional. My doctor had told me, “your body still thinks it’s pregnant so you may still feel symptoms until the HCG decreases.” For 11 weeks “pregnant,” I had just enough extra belly to not fit comfortably in my work pants but not enough belly to really hold up maternity pants. The only pants that worked were a pair of black maternity dress trousers. While I plastered on a fake smile, described my study, and begged the audience to participate, I would slip behind the podium to hike up the pants that were drooping down.
Six weeks after we lost the second baby, I was pregnant again. It was the 3rd time in the span of 1 year. This time on a higher dose of fertility meds and working with a reproductive endocrinologist. A short, balding, sweet-looking man, originally from Turkey, he listened to me and my concerns. Gave me his personal email address and his direct phone line. Looked over my crumpled pile of charting notes and told me I was “right” about the things my previous doctor had told me I was "wrong" about. He called my 2 losses “babies” instead of “failed pregnancies.” And he told me that I would be a mother, again. It gave us so much hope.
We were so excited to be pregnant again but so reserved and scared. And still grieving and traumatized from the 2nd one, just weeks before. What if this one would slip away too? Others told us “Just be positive. Don’t stress. It’s not good for the baby.” My doctor reassured me stress wouldn’t cause another miscarriage and that it was pretty unrealistic to not be scared and anxious.
The bonus of being categorized as “high risk” because of the previous losses is that we got lots of early checkups and ultrasounds. The first one was scheduled for 6.5 weeks, on Valentine’s Day. A year to when we lost the first. This time, it was the doctor himself who did the ultrasound. We held our breath while he set up the machine. Everything seemed to stand still. And then, “psschooo, psschooo, psschooo, psschooo,” the sound of a rapid heartbeat and image of a pulsing white embryo. Our baby. I sucked in an inhale and let out the longest exhale I had experienced in the past year. My belly vibrated from happy giggles. The doctor smiled softly and told me to try and not move so he could check for other things on the ultrasound. He told me our risk of miscarriage was now under 3%. I looked over to my husband whose red face was holding back tears. He forced a smile for my sake and we both laughed.
Even now, with our 2 living girls and pregnant a 5th time, I still hold my breath for each ultrasound and for each time they use a Doppler to hear the heartbeat, bracing myself for there to be no sound, no image. That “psschoo, psschoo, psschoo” sound has the sweetest hum and each time brings the most reassuring exhale. The baby is still there. It still “is.”
This 5th pregnancy was a “surprise, oops, yeay!” We weren’t on the same cocktail of fertility meds as with our 2 girls so we feared another loss. Two weeks of sleepless nights and anxious fears, we anticipated the first ultrasound. Filling out the intake paperwork before the ultrasound, the questions and my responses again took my breath away:
Including this pregnancy, how many times have you been pregnant? 5
How many of your pregnancies were spontaneous abortions— “miscarriages?” 2
How many children do you have living? 2
List out all pregnancies, including babies’ sex, weight, dates and place of delivery, termination, or miscarriage. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5.
How many children do you have living? It cuts so deep. Right into the hollow space that has been filled up with the joy of my girls, that has been coated with healing infant giggles, wet, sloppy kisses, and “Mommy, Papi, I love you-s,” but that will never feel all-the-way full. A space that will always remain partially empty. We have 2 incredible, joyful, loving girls—and a baby on the way—that fill our life with so much joy and gratitude we once thought we might not get to experience. They are, and will always be, enough.
And, I will always feel the absence of the 2 we never got to touch, feel, hold, love. On their due dates and dates of their slipping away, I will always think of what age they would have been. What they would have looked like. How my girls would have interacted with them. Whether they knew or know how much I miss them, even without having ever known them.
The ultrasound tech couldn’t find the heartbeat at first for this pregnancy. My husband and I braced and continued to hold our breath. And then the sweet “psschoo, psschoo, psschoo.” Exhale.
We took down the black tree and birds months after my first daughter was born and have since painted the walls and added deep and cool grays, and vibrant turquoises and bird shell blues. The space above the couch, however, has remained empty as I’ve searched for what to place there, knowing I want it to be purposeful. To have meaning.
Songs, birds, and art have been an ongoing theme throughout all the pregnancies. Black mourning crows, white doves of peace, and brightly colored hummingbirds used to decorate our daughter’s bedroom. After we heard the heartbeat for this 5th pregnancy, I knew what I wanted there. I want to create art that will capture our 2 girls, the baby inside our belly, and our 2 babies we never got to hold. Three hummingbirds perched happily above the lyrics of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” written out in cursive and the small shadow of 2 doves flying away into the horizon.
But released and hovering off in the distance. Together, all reminding us that every little thing is gonna be all right.
“Rise up this morning’
Smile with the risin’ sun
Three little birds
Pitch by my doorstep
Singin’ sweet songs
Of melodies pure and true,
Sayin’ “This is my message to you-ou-ou”
Singin’ Don’t worry ‘bout a thing,
Cause every little thing gonna be all right.”