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first person

Wenting Li

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It came as a surprise, both the beginning and the end. Not planned but not unwanted. A lovely little dream that materialized only long enough for us to play along before we all woke up. Our family of five was slowly reopening storage boxes of baby items. My kids were naively arguing over who would get to share a bedroom with the baby. Friends and family were being told of our news and gifts of tiny hats and shoes were being ogled. Then, after 14 weeks, it was over.

Miscarriage. There, I said it. The word we don’t say until it is happening. That subject we don’t talk about until we are thrust into it. When you are pregnant the topic floats around you like an evil fairy, say its name and it will become real, resting on your shoulders and tempting your baby to follow it home.

We sensed it happening before anyone could admit it. We huddled together in the grey hallway of the emergency room, a teen boy vomiting on his girlfriend’s lap beside us, while we tried to process our fears. We had little faith in the dismissive emergency-room doctor. With cold gel sloshing across my belly, I briefly gushed at the black-and-white image of the perfect little person resting deep inside me. But the sound of silence, quick referrals and evasive responses to our questions left us knowing. After all, we had seen the blood, that red-stained augur.

On the night when miscarriage came, I was snuggled up reading to my middle child, watching as her black eyelashes came to rest on her freckled cheeks. I recognized the pang of pains that softly rippled across the lower belly, the dull ache that began in my lower back.

No! Not that. That word.

Don’t say it out loud.

But the ugly hands of miscarriage grab hold, whether you say it aloud or not.

I couldn’t bring myself to walk forward to my bedroom. Instead, I crumbled backward downstairs, pulled down step by step into the blackness of our basement, wishing for gravity to cradle me or the roused thunderstorm of tears to wash me far, far away. The night was dark and full of cramps.

Hours of anguish culminated into days of appointments and we eventually found ourselves in the maternity ward. The scale to measure the weight of new life sat empty beside us. Posters touting the benefits of breastfeeding plastered the walls. Whose grand idea was it to send hopeless parents to the maternity ward to birth death? Is this where we go to say goodbye? The same white flannels with blue and pink stripes that once welcomed our first-born baby were stacked and folded on a nearby shelf.

A nurse asked me “On a scale of 1 to 10, how bad is the pain?” I whispered my answer, salty tears on my tongue, “10.” She looked at me despairingly before wrapping my body in a cocoon of warm blankets. She knew what I meant: It was the pain in my heart that I spoke of, not the pain in my body.

The lights were dimmed and my husband and I were left mostly alone to hold hands, waiting in anguish for the moment we could move forward, leave that place behind and start the first day of our lives not-pregnant again, owning that word: miscarriage.

So many women have owned this word. They have said it aloud when it happened and then buried it deep in their hearts, only to be uncovered through the grief of another. In the weeks that followed, it became a word unearthed in the circles around me. Women emerged with their untold stories – details we only say to those that have lived that turmoil. One friend tells me about donning an adult diaper and delivering an important presentation. Another tells me that because she hadn’t informed anyone of the pregnancy, she couldn’t bring herself to share the loss – it was just “easier” to go to work. There are horror stories of losing babies in foreign countries, losing babies too many times in a row and a late-night sorrowful recount about searching for the sum of love’s hopes and dreams in the depths of a crimson toilet bowl.

I wish I had heard these stories before this year – my 37th year and fourth pregnancy. How much more prepared could I have been, had I really understood? There are decisions to be made that seem impossible in the moment: Do you want a D and C? Medication? Mother nature to run her course? Do any of these choices make it easier to say goodbye?

I wish I had grasped the ramifications of miscarriage. It’s so much more complex than the “nearly one in four” statistic that my doctor whispered with a consoling hand on my back weeks after it happened. The nearly one in 4 have their stories. Friends and acquaintances recount their traumas to me with an uncanny level of detail and a wave of emotion that reassures me: It is okay to grieve. “Take as much time as you can,” these knowing women have advised.

Time. In Ontario, when a miscarriage occurs more than 17 weeks before a due date, employees are expected to take sick leave. I have used most of mine for appointments. “You can claim disability,” a friend suggests. Perhaps it is my pride, but I am hesitant to go down that road and frustrated that the idea of a “miscarriage leave” is non-existent. However irrational, I want to see those words in print as validation that I can and should grieve. Perhaps the perspective is that no designated days off are required when there is nothing to parent and no casket to bury. It’s no wonder we grieve in silence and bury our pain. Societal norms have taught us that a recovery from miscarriage should be equivalent to that of a common cold.

The lessons of grief: When you lose a baby, you don’t lose more or less because of the size of the baby or the number of hopeful weeks that have passed. Grief doesn’t listen to scales or calendars, schedules or reason. Grief plays on the same team as love – both unquantifiable and irrational.

Slowly, I learn how to sleep at night and rise in the morning again, how to articulate thoughts without circling them, how to breathe to calm the shaking that periodically overcomes my body. Art becomes our therapy. I turn my sorrow into poems and songs. My husband turns his into a beautiful live-edge coffee table. “I think the wood liked what you had to say,” I tell him as we sip our coffee and the kids read and colour beside us. They have learned to tiptoe when they sense heavy air. Their sneaky glances and innocent eavesdropping are only wishes for insight. They need to see that we can shatter and recompose. I have felt them eyeing my every move as affirmation that one can both cry and play; that we can love through sadness. And so, together we look for little traces of sunlight.

Jacqueline Lawlor lives in Ottawa