I am a miscarriage veteran. The first time I miscarried I was a twenty-four-year-old newlywed, and because of a mix up in scheduling a D&C (a procedure to scrape clean the uterine lining), I’d had to keep the dead baby inside of me for two days. While I mourned the loss, I found it macabre and scary to literally be carrying death. After the D&C, I was sad but mostly relieved. Since then, I’d had several very early onset miscarriages between two live births, but nothing so traumatic.
Now at age thirty-four, I was pregnant again. After an uneventful first trimester, my husband and I joyfully announced the impending birth of our third child. Our seven-year-old son wanted a brother, and our five-year-old daughter wanted a sister. They named their new sibling Little Mo; I have no idea why. They purchased infant socks from GAP, 0–3 months, crimson with white rubber soles, and placed them on the mantle like Christmas stockings. Lil Mo’s first 3-D ultrasound photo, a dimpled knot, was pinned to the fridge with a pastel magnet that spelled B-A-B-Y.
A few days later, I dropped my kids at their elementary school and headed to the Lifetime gym. My husband’s job had recently moved us to Georgia, and in the absence of family or friends, bustling exercise classes were my lifeline. After the Strictly Strength class, where I did not lift more than eight pounds, I grabbed a latte and headed back home only to discover that I was bleeding. I sighed as I called the OB-GYN, who told me to come in for an ultrasound.
My husband was sad like I was, but we’d been here before. I told him to proceed to work and that I’d be fine driving myself to the OB-GYN. As I crossed red light after red light that sunny morning, I calmly readied myself for the inevitable devastation of no heartbeat. At the clinic, I was soon enough led to an exam room with the ultrasound. The OB-GYN was no nonsense as she put on her disposable gloves and had me climb onto the table and lift up my blouse. As she squirted the cold green gel onto my tummy and began to roam the ultrasound paddle over my belly, her eyes did not leave the black-and-white screen. I turned my face away and waited for the final pronouncement. And then, suddenly, the sound I least expected: the shush-shush-shush of a beating heart and the OB-GYN’s proclamation: “The baby is fine!”
Still in the following weeks, heavier spells of bleeding would see me at the OB-GYN or in the ER. Each time I was assured that half of all women bleed throughout their pregnancies; it was normal, and the baby was going to make it. At home, almost every hour it seemed, I would seat myself in front of the computer and google “heavy bleeding/pregnancy/healthy baby.” Every day I would read the all the stories over and over again, drawing great solace from these first-person testimonials saying as much. There was nothing to worry about. All pregnancies were different. Some woman had bled the full nine months only to deliver perfect babies. I picked out names: Sahara for girl, and Khyber for boy.
Yet there was no way to measure how much blood was okay for each woman. A few drops, a teaspoon, a tablespoon, half a cup? How was I to know that my baby was still safe inside? And so, over the next few weeks, every time my bleeding increased more than seemed fine to me, I would panic and go to the ER. The vaginal ultrasound, a cold horrid instrument that looks like a medieval torture device, no longer hurt me; I’d grit my teeth and bear it because it was now a friend always delivering the shush-shush-shush of a heartbeat.
One Thursday evening, during a visit to the ER, a compassionate nurse, sorry I was having such a miserable pregnancy, whispered to me as they wheeled me from the ultrasound room back into the exam room that I was going to have a boy. In the exam room, the ER doctor informed my husband and me that the fetus was moving so fast, he was going to come out playing soccer.
Friday, the very next morning, the minute I woke up, I instantly knew something was very wrong. There was a lot of blood, a lot, more than I’d ever seen before. It tried to stay calm, remind myself that my boy was going to come out playing soccer, but something stopped me from believing it completely. Over this past month, the OB-GYN had become increasingly cold and curt, and I was usually terrified to call about anything. But this time, gathering all my courage, I dialed the clinic’s number.
“Nothing is wrong,” the OB-GYN snapped at me. “You’re imagining things. Only last night you went to the ER, and there was a heartbeat. You’re just paranoid.”
“Please,” I cried, “there is a lot of blood, and I won’t be able to survive a minute unless I know if he’s all right.”
Begrudgingly, I was told to come on in then.
The bleeding plus an uncaring caregiver had unnerved me enough that I was in no state to drive myself. However, it had been my husband’s turn to drop the kids at school, and he was already halfway to his office. It would have taken him longer to return in the morning traffic, and so my neighbor and friend Marilene said she would drive me.
I had thought the OB-GYN would usher me in as soon as I got there. Instead I was told to wait. I spent the next hour pacing in the reception area. Marilene kept murmuring that this was not right, and when a few women with appointments found out that I was being made to wait, they insisted that I be seen first.
In the exam room, the OB-GYN glared at me, and as I got ready for the ultrasound, she yelled at me the whole time about how much I was costing the insurance companies and that I could not just get an ultrasound whenever I felt something was wrong.
I knew already. My baby—Khyber—was gone. Overnight.
After the gel was cleared up, and my shirt lowered, and the OB-GYN had taken off her gloves, she led me into her office. I sat on an armchair in front of her, my eyes flicking at the wall behind her adorned with graduation certificates and plaques with quotes from the Bible. Her voice was back to being friendly enough, the way it had been until the pregnancy had started to go wrong. She told me that any OB-GYN could perform a D&C up to twelve weeks of pregnancy, but after twelve weeks only specially qualified doctors could, and my pregnancy had been close to sixteen weeks. However, she said, the two qualified doctors in our area happened to be Jewish, and because I’d miscarried on the Jewish New Year, they wouldn’t be available until Tuesday. It did not occur to me to ask her to ask them if, given the circumstances, they might make an exception. It was not my job to have known to ask this.
The OB-GYN assured me repeatedly that given that just the night before there had been a heartbeat, my pregnancy hormones were simply too high for anything to happen over the weekend, and she sent me home.
The last time I’d had a dead baby inside of me, I’d felt gross and icky. This time, I treasured a final weekend to hold in my baby. Friday and Saturday were a teary blur. I was unsure of how to tell my kids that Lil Mo was gone. These past many weeks of a viable heartbeat had had me convinced that he was going to beat the odds. Now I didn’t have the heart to take the 3-D ultrasound image off the fridge. Every half hour, I looked at the sweet knot of a face. Searched for the outline of hands, fingers, feet, toes. Finally, my husband, who believed his insistence that it was just an unviable fetus and not a baby was helpful, led to me to the living room. But there, on the mantle, were the little red socks. I kissed those 0–3 month crimson socks. I would keep kissing them every few hours, keep thinking of Hemmingway’s one-line story:
For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.
On Sunday evening, after an early dinner where the kids ate dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets and I picked at a few fries, I made myself a cup of chai and settled into my bed. My eyes flickered over the digital clock on my bedside table gleaming a green 5:00 p.m. as I reached for my stack of to-be-read books. I opened each book—novels, poetry, nonfiction, memoir—wishing there was some beginning that could seduce me enough so I could forget what was happening.
At exactly 7:02 p.m., I started to cramp. I sat up, experiencing the worst period pain ever, and it was only seconds later that I realized I was in the first stage of labor. The next few minutes were as if someone was turning a kaleidoscope at warp speed. While my husband called the ER—I might be in labor. Should I come in? Take a painkiller?—I was calling my next-door neighbor and friend Aruna to brief her. Could she stay with the kids until my husband and I returned from the ER? During the few minutes it took Aruna to cross her garden into mine and walk up our steps and inside my house, even as my husband ran to the garage and began backing out the car, a wave of intense pain hit me, and I rushed into the bathroom and lowered my pants and sat down.
I wish the OB-GYN had mentioned the possibility. I wish she’d warned me that if I sat on the toilet seat, catching expelled blood clots in toilet tissue, I could very well deliver my baby’s face into my hands. The reason I was even sitting on the potty catching what came out of me was because my doctor mother, who lived overseas, had instructed me to catch everything I expelled in order to be able to give the D&C doctor a report.
Otherwise everything that came out of me would have simply been flushed away.
As I held his head in my palms, I could hear my husband and Aruna outside calming my scared kids, telling them that I was going to be okay.
His face was no bigger than a kitchen cabinet knob. It was opaque because cartilage is opaque. The outlines of his eyes, ears, nose, and mouth were clear. He looked like an alien out of The X-Files TV show. His outline resembled my older son. I can only describe the attendant wave coursing through me as aging. In those few moments, I’d accumulated decades of grief, and I felt old, forever divided between “before seeing his face” and “after seeing his face.”
Should I kiss his face?
Finally, I held him to my heart and then came outside. I called the ER to update them, and then I put him in a ziplock sandwich bag so he could be sent for an autopsy. Aruna had taken my kids to their bedroom. My husband and I were silent as he drove us to the ER. The whole time I held the ziplock bag in my lap.
At the ER, I was taken to a room, and my blood pressure and temperature were taken. I was shivering and given extra blankets. My husband sat on a chair, staring at a bare wall. We were silent. According to science, it was an unviable fetus; according to my heart, it was my baby.
A chaplain held my hand and prayed with me. I told him I was Muslim, but that prayers are prayers.
I returned home that night, and the very next day onward I couldn’t stop sharing the story of my miscarriage. I told neighbors I’d exchanged mere nods with. I would tell the cashier at the grocery store. While my kids were at school, I would telephone my family, who all lived overseas. I called my close friends, all of whom lived in other states. It was as if I was confessing and my confession had opened gates to a taboo subject. Family, friends, neighbors, strangers—everyone came out. Either they shared their story of their own miscarriage or else someone else’s. It turned out that even my mother had miscarried before me.
Everyone kindly reminded me, over and over again, that I already had two kids. I could have another one. As if babies are replaceable. That I’d been barely sixteen weeks. Too many said, “It wasn’t a stillbirth. You weren’t full term. Stop being so sad!” No one, not even my husband, could quite understand why I was so gutted. Fetus, he kept telling me, unviable fetus.
My kids knew something was wrong. Each time I saw them, my eyes would well up. Each time I saw them I thought: If I can’t keep a baby safe inside of me, how am I going to protect these two who are out and about in the world?
One afternoon, soon after the miscarriage, as my kids cleaned out their Spiderman and Dora the Explorer backpacks, I blurted out,
“Lil Mo is gone.”
“Gone?” said my son.
My son’s best friend’s father had passed away, and so my son had an inkling of life after death: Dylan’s father was in heaven, and heaven was a good place.
“So Lil Mo’s in heaven?” His eyes filled up. “Like Dylan’s father?”
“Yes,” I said, and as I looked into his eyes, I knew that whether heaven existed or not, it belonged more to him than me in that moment, to little children confronted with mortality.
Over the next month, we began to recover, if recover is the correct sum of time plus distance that allows for healing. My husband stopped saying “fetus” even if he couldn’t say “baby.” We discussed how before pregnancy tests, women had to miss up to three to four periods before they could confirm a positive result and that if they miscarried, they might just mistake it for erratic periods, but now, thanks to the early testing, women could get attached at conception even.
One evening, without even realizing I was going to do so, I took Lil Mo’s ultrasound picture off the fridge. My son put it in his album that held pictures of his beloved dead guinea pigs. I took Khyber’s crimson socks off the mantle and tucked them at the back of a drawer that held my own socks. What was done was done. Despite being told that he would come out playing soccer, my baby was gone, and I had to survive in a world where for the one month I’d bled, I’d yet believed that he would make it, that he was a survivor.
Around a month after the miscarriage, I received a call from Northside Hospital: What did I want to do with the remains?
I had not realized there would be “remains.”
The very word remains brought back every little bit of grief that I thought I’d dealt with.
I replaced the cordless in its cradle with shaking hands.
He was dead, and there were remains.
Muslims bury their dead. My husband called the local mosque. He was informed that there could be no burial. In Islam it is believed a soul enters the body at around 120 days (sixteen weeks), and since my miscarriage took place right around that time, there was no proof that a soul had indeed entered; what had been inside me could only safely be considered a soulless fetus.
Fresh raw grief sliced me open. My husband was quiet. He said we could do whatever I chose to do with the “remains.” I took a cordless phone into the guest bathroom where I’d delivered Khyber’s face into my hands, and I telephoned my support at Northside Hospital’s perinatal loss clinic. She was a kind, gentle nurse with whom I’d so far exchanged emails about how the OB-GYN had made a terrible situation so much worse with her callousness. In the nurse’s latest email to me, she’d written that she’d seen my baby’s remains and that he’d been beautiful. There was no thank-you that could have ever conveyed my gratitude for her saying that.
“Please,” I said to her now, “please don’t throw him in the trash.”
“Of course not,” she said. And then, very tenderly, “The hospital takes the remains of such babies for a collective cremation. Would you consider that?”
As soon as she said “collective” and “cremation,” I recalled a trip to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C. I recalled a blown-up photo of a funeral pyre with limbs sticking out. I did not want my baby to be one of many. And yet the human mind is such that, within hours, I found comfort in the very idea of a collective. That way, I comforted myself, Khyber would at least never be alone.
Friday, October 12, 2007, 6:28 p.m.: <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
Directions to Stone Mountain Cemetery: The cemetery is located in old town Stone Mountain at the corner of Ponce de Leon Avenue and James B. Rivers Drive. As you drive into the cemetery, take the road on your right. You will pass some Confederate soldier markers. Make the 2nd right, which will dead end into another small road. The plot where the babies are buried is the site on the right across the road in front of you. It has a very large oak tree shading it on the right side.
A few weeks later, on a cold but sunny October day, my husband printed out the directions the nurse had emailed, and he, I, and our kids set out for the cemetery in Stone Mountain. In the car, the kids chattered about Halloween and how this year they were going to use pillowcases to trick or treat. When we neared the cemetery, they quieted, and there was absolute silence as we drove through lanes between U-shaped headstones, many adorned with wreaths.
My husband took a second right and then another right into a small lane. We saw the plot immediately. It was the size of a small rectangular swimming pool enclosed within gray brick ankle-height boundaries. We parked beside the plot. The collected ashes of all miscarried babies were buried in the plot, which was shaded at one side by a lone oak tree. There were a few bouquets along the sides of the plot.
You will also find a small marble bench with a carved dove on it there. This was donated and is the only memorial that is allowed to mark the presence of the babies who have died. Please feel free to rest on the bench while visiting the gravesite. If you have brought flowers, please use the vase at the side of the bench as a place to put them.
My son had brought as an offering a miniature teddy bear I’d given him for Valentine’s Day, and my daughter, a rose from our garden. They placed them by the oak tree, and then we walked to the bench, which was directly opposite the oak tree. The bench was hewn of simple rough stone, a slab for a seat and two slabs for feet. The slab feet were half taken over by overgrown grass. A dove carrying an olive branch was carved into the center of the front side of the seat slab. I settled in the middle of the bench, my knees covering the dove, my kids sitting on either side of me, my husband perched behind us. We sat for a while. I recited a prayer for my baby. I recited a prayer for all the babies.