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Lying on my back with an arm folded under my head and blue goop on my stomach, I took one look at the screen and knew, right then, that something was wrong.
At that stage – 10 weeks gestational age – we should have seen a peanut-shaped, wiggly little fetus in there. And a happy little heartbeat. But there was nothing. Nothing but darkness and silence.
"I'm having trouble seeing that right now" was the technician's answer when I ventured to ask, half-hoping I was wrong, if there was a baby in there. Ultrasound technicians are not allowed to "diagnose" – that is a doctor's prerogative. Most of them will happily bend that rule and congratulate you with a smile if all is well, but when it's bad news, they simply are not allowed to tell you. I sympathize. It can't be an easy thing to not do.
I did not cry. My husband and I just fell silent. What was there to say? We did as we were told and went to the ER, where we waited and waited, alone in a cold room. After two hours, a radiologist confirmed, at our insistence, a missed miscarriage. She could not prescribe anything or answer any questions.
We checked out of the hospital against medical advice and headed home. This was, after all, not an emergency. The inert little embryo had been there for weeks. It could wait another night.
I called my doctor in the morning. She faxed a prescription to my pharmacy, and I spent the next two days at home, with my husband at work and my son at daycare, letting my body do what it had to do, watching awful TV in between contractions, grieving, adjusting and, at long last, crying my eyes out when it was finally over (or so I thought).
Two months of a maddening roller coaster followed.
Because the miscarriage was incomplete, my body kept on producing the hormone HCG, and the pregnancy tests I was taking were still positive. (If you can think of anything more screwed up than taking pregnancy tests to confirm a miscarriage, let me know.)
I kept being called back to the hospital, where they promised that if there was still "anything," they would wheel me into the operating room for a D&C, and it would be over. But every time I went, it was a different doctor. Every time, the hormones had gone down a tiny bit, but not to normal levels. Invariably, I was told to "come back next week for more tests." Finally, my obstetrician came back and immediately booked me in for the procedure.
Within two weeks, everything was back on track. I was happy, but terrified: Who knew what the future held now? I had been blessed with a wonderful first pregnancy and a healthy little boy, but what if we went from heartbreak to heartbreak from then on? What if my body was done with this whole pregnancy thing? I was, after all, 36, and part of me felt that I should have been raising young children by then, not trying to get pregnant with our second.
But less than two months later – surprise, surprise – I was pregnant! For two days, I was ecstatic, but very quickly I started to get the ominous feeling that something was off. It was not fear exactly. I just knew something had gone wrong. I felt empty again.
On came a deep, crushing anxiety. The best I could do to function at work and at home was to push any thought of pregnancy to the most remote corner of my conscious mind. I was dizzy, constantly exhausted from that relentless effort. We had to wait three long weeks to get to a stage where a heartbeat could reliably be detected by a sonogram.
As we sat in the waiting room, I was rehearsing in my head exactly what I wanted to tell my doctor afterward: "I want to go directly to a D&C this time. I would like to take a few days off work, if that's okay. I'm exhausted. Could we run tests without waiting for a third miscarriage?" I was prepared for the worst, and found some minimal comfort in that.
What I was not prepared for was a tiny heart beating at a healthy 144 beats per minute. I laid there in shock, with a stunned grin on my face, trying hard to catch up to the news. I was happy, though not entirely relieved. Part of me still could not believe in a happy ending.
Two ultrasounds and a few counselling sessions later, finally, a breakthrough: There was no need to fear that I would not get to be the mother of this tiny baby. I was already the mother of this tiny baby.
Once my perspective shifted from my own apprehensions to the baby's needs, it was easy to let go of what seems in retrospect like a very childish, self-protective denial, and to let myself love the little life growing, slowly but surely, inside me.
Now, I would be lying if I said that anxiety is a distant memory. Before each visit to my doctor, I can feel it crawling out of the dark place where it lies, asking to be fed.
It behaves itself, for the most part, and I don't let it get too close. It just sits there, smug and defiant as a cat that has cornered its prey, knowing full well that there is still plenty of room for doubt – until, hopefully, a jolly newborn sends it and its smugness packing.
Géraldine Green lives in Ottawa.