I remember a moment some years ago, when my fourth-grade son was a preschooler, and I took him to a kids yoga class. We had just finished singing the song that ends the class: “Om, Daniel, celebrate Daniel, sing it with an open and a joyful heart! Om, Daniel, celebrate Daniel, sing it with an open heart,” going around the room and filling in each child’s name.
A little 18-month-old girl was throwing her arms wide and smiling a huge open-mouthed smile, tottering across the circle toward no one in particular, but in my direction, then turning and running back to her mom. Her mom would copy her behavior, throwing her arms wide, beaming and smiling, and the little girl would hurry back to her. Each time she ran across I smiled, but I noticed that I couldn’t smile a real smile. I couldn’t smile like I meant it, and I so wished that I could. I wanted to join in and feel that same delight of open possibility, that same joy of the open heart. But I felt nothing. The realization made me so sad. Ten thoughts hit me at once. I wanted to make myself known to the other adults – the other moms and the instructor – but it felt impossible. “There’s your open heart,” I said, hoping they might understand, but instead I thought it just sounded cynical.
What I wanted to say was that I felt choked up just looking at her unbridled joy. I wanted to say I was remembering my now almost 4-year-old son at 18 months and how my little guy – who was practicing angry faces in the mirror, furrowing his brow and narrowing his eyes – used to have a face that absolutely beamed and a smile that knew no bounds. I longed for those days and the fun simplicity of mothering him then. I also wondered to myself if I would ever have the chance to mother an 18-month-old daughter. As a 36-year-old mother of an only son, I was trying to imagine myself with a daughter, and as usual, yearning.
I was also thinking of the little girl. I wanted to say to her mother, “Don’t you wish you could bottle up some of that air around her, capture some of that open heart of hers in a little bottle and cork it up real tight, so that you could give it to her later? So that when she’s older and has just had a miscarriage or a terrible car accident, she could breathe in the air from the place of long ago – from before she lost her brother to war or her breast to cancer – and her heart would open again just a little bit, and she would hear the singing from her soul?”
Looking back at this moment, I was the one who needed to breathe in the air from my own long ago, from my own happy childhood. I was still recovering, mentally and physically, from an ectopic pregnancy that nearly cost me my life. I was approaching the time when the baby I had miscarried would have been born, and though I honestly didn’t know why I felt a sense of emptiness, what I can only describe as an overwhelming sense of nothingness.
My miscarriage was something I was uncomfortable discussing, especially after the initial shock of the experience had passed, so I felt disconnected from acquaintances and friends. It’s a topic people don’t talk about much. When you see someone in the grocery store and they ask, “How’s it going?” you can’t exactly say you’re mourning your miscarriage from six months ago. On top of all that, I went around with a strange feeling in my body at all times: an aching longing.
But the nothingness was the worst. I am not sure I had ever felt anything like that before.
It happened the September my son started preschool. I was playing tennis at a small club 25 minutes from my house. I went to the ladies’ locker room to change and felt a jabbing pain in my lower abdomen that brought me to my knees. I staggered out to the lobby and sat on the couch, trying to think reasonably through the pain. I made it to the front desk and approached the owner’s wife.
“You are so pale,” she said, looking at me with worry. She and two older men helped me get in the back seat of her green Subaru station wagon, and she drove me to the local hospital.
In the ER, I described the pain to the triage nurse, an older man who seemed doubtful and unsympathetic. The pain was so severe that I felt frantic inside, like I would never be able to communicate the feelings in my body to this person. When he asked, “Are you pregnant?” I felt my eyes dart around the room, searching for the truth to answer this question. My husband and I wanted another child, but I had gotten my period some weeks before, or so I thought. “I don’t know,” I said. One urine sample later, and the OB/GYN was paged. After an exam and ultrasound, the doctor tried to explain my condition to me. I was leaving the exam room when I suddenly lost consciousness and hit the floor. (“You crimped,” she told me later.) The next thing I remember was waking up on a gurney, a man with a full head of white hair pushing me quickly down a bright hallway. When I woke up again, I was in recovery.
My surgeon tells me the next day that I had passed out from severe internal bleeding, and we were lucky that one of their two operating rooms was free. “Thirty more minutes, and we would have taken you out in a body bag,” she says, words you don’t forget quickly. A fertilized egg had implanted itself in my right fallopian tube instead of my uterus, and had grown big enough that it basically tore the fallopian tube apart. A gruesome scene in my abdomen, with an explosion and lots of blood. “You had a real bleeder there,” the surgeon says. I lost nearly two liters of blood. I had been somewhere between four and eight weeks pregnant.
I searched my mind for clues of the pregnancy. I had thought that it was strange when my period was so light, and inconsistent, but I just counted myself lucky and blew it off. Really it was implantation spotting, not a period. My stomach was unsettled, but I thought that was from the caffeine in the new iced coffee I was drinking. And when the dress that I wore to my grandmother’s funeral was tight, I puzzled over the weight gain and bought a pair of hose, even though it was August in Florida.
When David, my tennis partner, saw me trying to walk down the hospital hallway the next day, barely hobbling along with my fluid bags on wheels, he was shocked at my state. So healthy one day and barely walking the next! I cry, uncharacteristically, and hug him (same), just glad to be alive. My surgeon talks optimistically about my chances of having another baby, and tells my husband and me that the egg will actually float around to the other fallopian tube, if released on the “wrong” side, and travel through the remaining one to the uterus. She tells us all sorts of technical things we thought we’d never know and beams at the success of the surgery. I left with good hope I’d have another baby.
At home, I receive lots of love from my family and friends by way of cards, books and flowers. My mom stays and helps me get on my feet again. I feel a sense of euphoria that I didn’t die, and am aware of a new perspective on life creeping into my consciousness. My sister tells me about her husband’s aunt, who did die in a Daytona Beach area hospital from an ectopic pregnancy when her fallopian tube burst while she was camping. I feel lucky. And I don’t cry again after that first time or think about what I have lost.
What did I lose? What this even a “real” miscarriage? This pregnancy wasn’t viable after it implanted itself in my fallopian tube, so did I really lose anything? No one I know acknowledges much around the fact that I’d lost a baby; they just all sincerely hope I feel better.
What chance do we have in our society to mourn a loss like this? Many women I know have had miscarriages, but I can count the conversations I’ve had on the topic on one hand. That day in yoga class, I realized that I had experienced a loss, a loss that, for many women, goes unacknowledged by others. And I realized I need to do my part to support others who are going through this kind of experience, not just in the moment but months later as well.
Not too long after this day in class, I find out I’m pregnant again. This pregnancy ends not with an ER visit, but with a blessing: My baby daughter is born, healthy and beautiful. I breathe in her sweet baby smell, hope rushes in, and my heart breaks wide open.