Published on September 26th, 2013 | by S. Lynn Alderman5
LITTLE SPARROW: S. Lynn Alderman on Miscarriage
I wasn’t sure I wanted another kid. And then I was.
It was hard for me to justify having even one kid, much less two. The planet is full, there are children already born who need a home, my then-three-year-old was finally able to do things for herself and my 40th was looming, with all its high-risk pregnancy horror stories. My husband, Luke, was sometimes on board and sometimes, like after one of Phee’s preschool epizooties about which panties to wear, not so hot on the idea. I’d agonize about the politics, the financial implications, the, well, aggravation that goes along with a baby. A needy, demanding baby. Sleep-deprived, short-tempered parents. Were we ever going to get to go on our stupid honeymoon?
But in my quiet moments, alone with my blood and animal self, listening for truth, I couldn’t help it. I just felt like our little clan hadn’t all arrived.
In a blink, I was pregnant. That seemed like a positive sign. I felt kind of crappy, which everyone likes to say means that the baby is strong, I guess to hypnotize you into thinking that crappiness feels good. Anyway, everything seemed to be going along the way it was supposed to.
On a Friday in late July, a few weeks before my birthday, I flew to visit a friend I’ve known for more than twenty years, Novie, a soul sister of my life. Over lunch after she picked me up from the airport, I told her about the baby. I was at eleven weeks, so it seemed pretty safe to talk about. We chirped and chatted and laughed and I ate a ton of food. I was starving that day. I could have eaten both our lunches, plus all the scraps left by the people around us. I really kind of wanted to, was fantasizing about how to do it without it seeming weird and disgusting. “That baby is a good eater!” I thought.
We spent the afternoon at museums, and the next morning, too. Somewhere between seeing the real ruby slippers and looking at things made by American visionaries, I noticed I was spotting. Just a little blood. I promptly responded with panic and denial. Told myself it was normal, looked it up discreetly on my phone to prove it. Oh, Internet, you always tell me exactly what I want to hear. After a few hours, I breezily mentioned it to Novie. She wasn’t quite so light about it, but said that both her sisters had spotted throughout their pregnancies and had a bunch of big, healthy babies. No problem. But during lunch on Saturday, it got heavier. I couldn’t really keep calling it spotting. It was bleeding. And there was cramping.
The doctor on call at my OB-GYN said that I should go to the emergency room if such-and-such happened, to decrease the risk of such-and-such. I can remember telling my friend the specifics, but the meaning was blurred by the feeling of the Iron Man armor clicking into place around my body and my mind, to keep me from looking or acting freaked out. This is my superpower, if I have one. Looking okay when things are not okay. It is a good thing sometimes. I am excellent in a crisis and you definitely want me on your apocalypse-survival team. But this gift has mostly kept me from saying what I need to say and from connecting with the people I need to keep close. I’ve been working hard on a cure, like Bruce Banner, or David Banner, if you prefer the Hulk from TV to the comic. See, I am doing it right now! Look over here! Superheroes!
We went back to Novie’s house with the idea that I was going to lie down but when I stood up to get out of the car, blood gushed down my legs. “Oh.” I said. My friend ran inside, said something to her husband. I stared at the ground, waited to see if blood was going to drip out of my pants leg and worried about messing up her nice car. She shushed me, wrapped me in towels and drove me to the emergency room. I walked in, moved through a fuzzy tunnel to the desk and explained that I was pregnant and bleeding. I called Luke and couldn’t reach him and finally got his sister and told her he needed to call me. We waited. I sat silently. My phone rang. I told Luke what was happening. He talked to Novie. They put me in a bed, checked me out, took blood and urine, asked questions. They said the word. Miscarriage. That it appeared I was having a miscarriage.
My friend held my hand in the greenish-yellow hallway while we waited for a treatment room. I wanted to scream bloody murder “My baby! My baby!” I wanted to be hysterical and unreasonable and kick and punch and throw the bed over and sweep all the charts off the nurse’s station and tear down the artwork and cover-your-mouth-when-you-cough signs and leave the building a pile of smoking rubble. But I felt self-conscious and thought, “Don’t be dramatic.” So instead I covered my face and cried.
Something like ten hours and one emergency surgery later, Novie tucked me into her guest room. It was early Sunday morning. I stared at the ceiling. Quiet. Alone. The baby gone. Hardly anyone even knew I was pregnant and hardly anyone would ever know. I was out of town, so not even my husband saw the baby leave our lives. It would be like it never happened. Like so many other hard moments I keep locked away and out of view, to sometimes bubble to the surface in grief and anger that few people understand.
The next morning I woke up and it was still true. That way whenever anything bad happens and you are relieved of the horribleness of it by sleep, but then you wake and the sweet oasis fades away and you are still dying in the desert. I cleaned myself. Got dressed. Walked out to the living room and saw Novie and her husband on the back deck, table covered by food. I took a deep breath, walked toward them, then turned around and hid in the hallway before they could see me. Checked my armor, tried again. Went outside into the killing sun. Ate breakfast, talked. Acted normal.
I asked Novie to take me to her studio. She is a ceramics artist and has a beautiful collective art space and gallery. I moved my hands in clay, not able to make anything. “I don’t know what I’m doing!” I told her. She gave me softer clay, a lovely, fine porcelain. I made some kind of crooked vessel, with a hole in the bottom that will never hold water. Etched dates into it. And left it there to be put into the fire.
As an early birthday present, Novie had gotten us tickets to see Dolly Parton for that night. I’m not such a big country music fan, but Dolly…well, she’s Dolly. Novie wasn’t sure that I would want to go, but I did. We made a picnic and headed for the outdoor amphitheater, arriving right at showtime. Of course, a million people had staked out the best spots early in the afternoon, so we couldn’t find a comfy place to watch her. We decided instead on a little spot under some trees, behind a fence, a quiet, private place that was actually not that far from the stage, but just over a rise and behind a walkway, so you couldn’t see it. We laid on a blanket and listened. Listened to Dolly’s sweet voice in the night. Looking at the sky. Listening.
“Little sparrow, little sparrow. Precious, fragile, little thing. Little sparrow, little sparrow. Flies so high and feels no pain….” Dolly sang my little baby into the trees, over the mountains and safely away.
Back at home, I felt better. Drained and sad, but real. Present. It seemed wrong to do what I always do, so I decided to use the crudest crowbar I could think of to break the baby out of that secret, silent place: Facebook. Now, I am not such a big presence on Facebook these days and was even less visible back then. I only update my status occasionally, deactivate my account for weeks or months when it gets on my nerves or takes up too much time. I tend to keep my creative projects to myself and my work in mental health requires confidentiality, so I end up mostly making kid-related posts that cause me to worry I’ve lost myself in the morass of motherhood. I don’t generally air my sorrows on the information superhighway. But I tapped out a note on my phone, posted it, and went to sleep.
I was planning to tell you in a few weeks. On my 40th birthday, which is coming right up. I was planning to tell you how another person’s very first birthday was going to be in February and how I couldn’t wait! Instead, I want to tell you that, until yesterday, I was 11 weeks pregnant. I want to tell you how happy I was, how excited and lucky I was feeling.
I flew to visit a dear friend and surprised her with the news, then surprised her the next day with a trip to the emergency room. Holding the hand of the soft-speaking doctor who was telling me the baby was gone, I whispered in shame and disbelief, “I was feeling so fearless,” which seemed so absurd now, lying in a bed drenched with what they called the “products of conception.” Searching, searching my mind to try to know what to do, how to do this. Trying to understand reality: I am not special. I am not superhuman. This can happen to me. “Do you see this here a lot?” “Yes, we do. It is very common. People just don’t talk about it.”
So I am telling you this. I am telling you that I am not sorry that some of you were already sharing my happiness, even though I knew it would be “safer” to wait. I am telling you in case you kept something like this to yourself so you know that you are not the only one. I am telling you that I loved the little spirit that filled my days with wonder and hope over the last few months. I was lucky, we were lucky, for a short time, to host someone that just touched this world briefly with joy, before moving on. I am telling you because I am trying to trust that I am not alone in pain and because I hope that you will reach out in yours. I am heartbroken and maybe in shock, but this person was important to me, so I am telling you.
When I woke up, I found so many replies, public and private. Of love and support. And I learned that I was not alone. Practically every woman I knew, with kids and some without, had lost a pregnancy. I had no idea. I should have had an idea, since women are routinely told, especially when they become pregnant, that as many as 1 in 4 pregnancies end in miscarriage. But it doesn’t really sink in, does it? I mean, if someone said that 1 in 4 people’s hands mysteriously fall off, but you never see any handless people, you’d stop believing it, right? People keep miscarriage quiet. It is heartbreaking and I understand keeping the sadness to yourself. But I think that keeping it so quiet makes women feel defective when it happens. Lonely. And like the loss isn’t real. That the baby didn’t count. And it keeps others from knowing how to react, too. How to grieve with them.
When I got home, after crying with Luke and telling my dear Phee, who put her head down on the table and wailed, I wanted to do something. I had a thousand booklets printed about miscarriage. I mailed them in bundles of 50 to healthcare centers across the country. To reservation hospitals in the Southwest, to University health care centers, to women’s clinics. I included facts about miscarriage, gave them resources for support, told my story, gave my email address and reminded people they are not alone. If you want some, just let me know. Drop a line to firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll make more.
I became pregnant again a few months later and we just celebrated Lulu’s first birthday. She is a sweet, shining light. We are all here. But I still miss my Little Sparrow.
(“Little Sparrow” written by Dolly Parton, copyright 2000, BMI)