December 3, 2005
And so today, I give myself to you, to share our lifetimes together, be it the best times or the worst. And if I ever want out, I promise to you to remember today. To remember you, to remember the first time that I ever saw your face, to remember every tear we shed in joy to cover every tear we’ll someday shed in pain. I promise to never give up on you, on us, or our life together.
When you love someone who is hurting, your first thought is to find a way to make their pain go away. But as you live with someone who is hurting, you begin to understand that covering the pain doesn’t help them. And erasing it is impossible.
The only way out of pain is to go through it.
All you can do is listen.
And be ready with open hands when they finally reach out.
December 31, 2015
We step off the elevators and round the corner.
Maternity Unit, the sign reads.
A hospital employee scans her ID and the doors open for us.
“This way,” she passes another sign. Maternity Triage.
I think, Here? This is where we’re going?
While my nurse prepares a space for me, I sit on a bed across from a curtained area where a woman breathes and moans. It sounds like she is nearly in active labor. When she is silent, I feel jealousy. When she moans, I feel compassion.
“Why are we here?” my husband asks. “Just to kick you in the teeth while you’re down?”
I knew what kind of guy I was falling in love with when we ended one of our first dates by sitting on the monkey bars of his old elementary school.
We were 21 years old, enjoying that hazy week of post-Christmas and pre-New Year freedom. Life was full of movies and eating out and driving nowhere in particular while listening to Radiohead.
We climbed to the top of the bars, our breath coming out in white puffs. The night sky was clear and studded with stars. I was freezing. Absolutely freezing.
And I didn’t care.
We held hands.
Then he said, “I forgot the specific heat of steel was so low.”
I laughed. And laughed.
He was the one. I already knew.
“We just need to get your IV started, draw some blood, and do some paperwork,” my nurse says as she taps away on the computer’s keyboard. She has mercifully moved us to the back of triage, away from the laboring women. “And then you’ll be all ready.”
I lift my hand to my lips and close my eyes. Start an IV… Here we go.
“Are you okay?” she asks in a tone that really means, Are you feeling a lot of emotions right now?
But I’m not thinking about the fact that my baby has died. Not right now. Instead, I’m wondering how hard it’s going to be for her to find a vein.
“So my veins are really small and they roll…” I warn her.
“Let me just take a look.”
She places the tourniquet high on my left arm, rubbing, prodding, tapping. She examines my forearm, somewhere comfortable. Then to the right arm. Repeat.
“Okay, I see what you mean,” she says.
Back to the left forearm.
The cool alcohol swab. The stick. The immediate sting, the burn. I squirm. I yell. The needle pulls away.
I know she hasn’t found a vein.
As I start sobbing, I reach out for Doug and bury my head in his neck. All of my emotions rush forward. All of my thoughts from the past two weeks explode in my consciousness and I let them run wild.
Our baby has died.
Two and a half weeks ago.
I want to let it go.
I don’t want to be its tomb anymore.
Isn’t it enough that I’m ready to let it go?
I don’t want to hurt anymore.
My nurse rubs my knee through the blanket covering my legs. With my eyes squeezed shut, I can hear her sniffing. That is how I know that she is crying too.
Shortly after we started dating, Doug saw his mother for the last time.
Lost to her delusional world of paranoia and conspiracy, she cut everything and everyone loose. Parents. Siblings. Husband. Children. Grandchildren. As she slithered away from everyone who loved her, she curled into herself as a last means of self-protection.
In a last ditch effort, Doug tried to talk to her one last time. That was thirteen years ago.
When it ended badly, I held him and his tears darkened my sleeves. I cried with him as he mourned the loss of his living mother.
It was just one of the first emotional storms that we weathered together.
I knew this wasn’t going to be easy. But after I came to grips with the words no cardiac activity, I was ready to let go.
The nausea left. The fatigue lifted. My metabolism picked up.
But no blood.
My body held on. It refused to let go.
So I knew this wasn’t going to be easy.
How do you find your way into a body that doesn’t want to open up?
My nurse re-examines my right arm starting at the forearm. She rubs and prods my arm, moving down until she is gripping my fingers. She rolls my fingers this way and that, my knuckles moving in waves. The cold swab, the sting of the needle again.
So much hotter and sharper.
I yell. I cry.
She pulls the needle out. “I’m so sorry, hon… I’m going to ask someone else to take a look.”
My teeth start chattering. I start shaking. Doug continues to hold me as I heave.
I remember the True Love Waits campaign of my teenage years. Our church’s youth group strongly supported sexual abstinence before marriage.
Sex is the most special gift you can give your partner, a speaker crooned on one of the free promotional VHS videos that our youth group received, along with a catalog to purchase TLW rings and attire. Don’t you want to give your partner the best?, the speaker asked.
As if sex with your spouse is always sacred.
As if sex with your spouse is never selfish or disconnected.
Bullshit, I say.
Sometimes, sex is Oh my God, I need you right now. Sometimes, sex is I love you so much. Sometimes, sex is well, it’s been a while so… Sometimes, it’s we better do it tonight if we want to conceive in this cycle. Sometimes, it’s we’re not going to be able to do it again for the next six days so…
So, bullshit, I say.
Sex isn’t the most intimate gift you can give your partner.
The most intimate gift you can give your partner is your vulnerability. Taking the risk to show the face that you hide from everyone else.
Sex in marriage is a given.
But vulnerability in marriage is not.
A second nurse comes to my bed. She rubs her hands together as she circles me, searching for opportunity. She goes for the crook of my left arm.
Burning, pain, more tears.
Then she goes for the soft underbelly of my left wrist. Hot, searing pain sends me shouting and swearing. My legs and feet brace against each other, rubbing up and down, trying to feel anything besides the searing pain in my wrist until she finally pulls the needle free.
“Is it always this difficult to find a vein?” the second nurse asks sensitively.
I shake my head. “It’s because I’m so dehydrated. I always drink a lot of water before a blood draw, but I had to fast for the anesthesia.”
The nurses talk quietly of calling in anesthesiology.
I wonder if we can just leave. Just pick up our things, get the Cytotec on the way home, and spend the night cramping and making bloody trips to the toilet. Even if my body doesn’t want to do that, at least it would be familiar with the process. At least maybe it would let that happen.
I continue to cry into my husband’s shoulder, where a dark circle of tears grows.
The last time I cried this much was when my father passed away.
On the night before the funeral, I tried to explain to Doug how I was feeling.
It’s like our family has been holding onto this rope for the past ten years and life is spinning us around. Everyone’s letting go, and flying out in different directions. And soon, no one will be holding on anymore. There will be nothing left of this thing that held us together for so long. And it makes me wonder what family really is when you all let go of the rope.
The anesthesiology nurse brings in warm compresses. My first nurse brings in more blankets. Your hands are so icy. Maybe the warmth will help.
More prodding, more rubbing, more tapping, more discussion.
Here? This one looks promising. Oh, what about this one? Wait… is that a tendon? Are you kidding me?
Through my tears, I start laughing. A delirious, dark laugh. I open my eyes to see both of the nurses eyeing my husband’s hands.
“He’s got some nice veins,” I say. “That’s why I married him.”
They chuckle with me.
“Too bad we can’t do him,” one of them says.
The fifth stick—in my right hand.
The sixth stick—underneath my left arm.
My arms are throbbing. My physical pain peaks. My emotional pain flatlines.
Then miracle of miracles—the seventh stick.
The vein that finally accepts the IV, just above my right wrist.
Ecstatic to have finally accessed a vein, the anesthesiology nurse immediately threads it, forgetting to draw the blood.
“Does that mean you’ll have to stick her again?” my husband asks.
My first nurse nods.
He uses his fingers to wipe the sides of my face.
“Let’s give her a break,” my nurse whispers.
The cool IV fluid snakes its way through my veins. The image starts a train of thought.
I think about the anthropology unit that my students were studying just before we left for Christmas break. We learned that in the Mayan world, snakes were symbols of transcendence, creatures that could cross easily between two worlds: the world of the living and the world of the dead.
I wonder how I can become like them.
I wonder why it has been so difficult for me to cross back into the land of the living.
At night, my mind replays and replays the silent, motionless figure, floating on the ultrasound screen. Those definitive words, No cardiac activity.
During the day, I feel the weight of simply living while carrying the dead with me. Everywhere I go.
I think about letting go. The prayers, the wishes, the ways that I have resumed my old life. Wine, coffee, sushi, deli meat.
Hoping the mental clarity would speed things along.
Hoping for blood.
I open my eyes for the first time in thirty minutes. My blanketed legs are covered in empty needle packages, gauze, and tape. My arms are bandaged here and there. My first nurse pulls a new needle from its package and lets it fall among the rest of the debris on my legs.
I don’t even care anymore. I just want this to be over. I give up.
I go slack in Doug’s arms.
But with the eight stick in the right hand, I tense and cry out, “Mother fuck!”
“Look, she can’t do this anymore,” Doug says. “I’m shocked she hasn’t passed out yet.”
Back to my left hand, the ninth stick. It slides in, no sting.
“Okay…” I mutter. I lean back against Doug’s shoulder. “Okay… This isn’t awful. I don’t like this one, but I can do this one.”
A silence in the room.
“It’s not coming out fast, is it?” I ask.
“No, but it’s fine. Just relax,” Doug says.
“Deep breaths, Sharon. Relax,” my nurse says.
A whole minute passes.
“Try making a fist if you can,” she encourages me.
I try, but closing my hand knocks my fingers against the needle. I imagine not having hands or arms. I imagine sliding out of this moment and slipping into the future.
Another minute passes.
I loosen my grip and focus on being empty.
Because that is what this is.
A complete emptying.
Letting it all go.
And hoping that there is something left at the end of it.
To move like a snake, you need to give up your arms, your ability to hold on to anything. That’s how snakes flow seamlessly from one world into the next. They don’t cling to anything.
At the same time, nothing can hold on to them. Snakes need to dodge and evade. They need to slip through fingers. They don’t linger in memory or balk at the future. They exist only in the present. They can move easily between both worlds because they don’t love. Nor can they be loved.
But I have loved. Even if my arms could not hold, I have loved.
This is the pain of miscarriage–to love without reward. There is no newborn cry. No tender face or fingers or toes. Perhaps not even the knowledge of knowing the gender of your child. The pain of miscarriage is to love without the possibility of a future. There is nothing but love and pain.
My journey back to the land of the living will not be seamless. I will not slide smoothly past all of these memories, emotions, doubts, fears, and uncertainties.
Because I have loved.
The challenge, then, is to learn how to move through the pain even though I still love.
“So this is the consent form to have the procedure of dilation and curettage,” my nurse holds a paper on a clipboard. I carefully lift my right IVed hand to sign it.
Dilation. From Latin, dilatare. “The process of becoming larger or wider.”
Curettage. “A surgical scraping or cleaning by a curette.”
Curette. From French, curer and from Latin, curare. “To cure.”
To enlarge and cure.
Staring at the overhead lights in the OR, my anesthesiology nurse clicks a vial of medication into my IV.
“You’re going to start to feel light now.” She rubs my forehead, my hair. Her eyes are bright, but sad. It makes me think she has been through this, too. “You’ve been through a lot, so just rest now. We’ll take good care of you.”
A final tear slips out of my right eye. She wipes it away.
What I think is, This isn’t working. I wonder when this stuff will finally kick in.
Loving is easy. Even natural.
It’s living with love that is hard.
The only way to avoid heartbreak is to choose not to love.
But if you choose to love, grief will take you down into the land of the dead. As you struggle with the grief, you will bleed. If you panic, your struggle will tear away pieces of you. If you panic too much, you will rip yourself to shreds, like an animal caught on barbed wire.
But if you can lift your head when the blood comes, you will see that the bleeding comes from hooks, buried deep in your flesh. Hooks to everyone who loves you. Hooks to your spouse. To your children. To your family. To your friends.
If you can lift your head while you are still bleeding, you can see who is still holding on to you. Then, you can reach up and take the hand that is reaching out for you.
You can move together.
You can climb out.
You will be scarred. You will be stretched. You will be larger, wider, and more flexible.
But the next time you’re caught in grief, you’ll remember to stop and see who is holding on to you.
And who you need to let go.
I know that voice.
“Hey, baby girl.”
His warm hand on my face.
“Hey, Sweets. It’s all over. You did great.”
What I remember is
… to remember every tear we shed in joy to cover every tear we’ll someday shed in pain.
What I think is
…We can get through this. I promised him I wouldn’t give up.
What I say is, “My wedding vows.”
“What? What Sweets?”
“My wedding vows,” I say louder. My eyes flip open. Light and shapes.
“What about them?” he leans closer.
“I meant them.”
He rubs my hand. “Sweets…”
“I meant them. I want you to know that.”