We had been pregnant. 13 weeks. Just basically right at the time where you could expect things, statistically, to go well. But, as my wife, Mellisa, puts it, “I’m cursed so statistics don’t work on me.” She had started bleeding. It didn’t seem very heavy, but it was blood, and it brought back a rush of fear, sorrow and insanity.
In July of 2013, 2 and a half years ago, we lost our son Rowan in full term labor. Pregnancy with him seemed fairly normal. We moved ourselves down to the bay area from Portland to be closer to my family. In one emergency trip to the hospital all those plans extinguished, blown out, lots of smoke left over to live through.
13 weeks isn’t a long time for a pregnancy. But it’s a pregnancy. It’s life. It’s a thing you change your life and your self for. It’s a thing you have to open yourself to. And the life inside a woman starts speaking with her almost immediately. The language of the body, sickness, nausea, giddiness, hunger, premonitions.
We had one of those going. It is gone now.
We talk to some experts back home, “go to an emergency room if you can, get an ultrasound to check on things.” We did. Took the better part of that day. I tried not to be disappointed to miss time with my friends while we were in the same town, a rare time for internet friends. I did well. I know not to tread on the impulses of motherhood. We had to wait for the ultra sound technician, they don’t keep one on staff. We waited.
I knew this feeling, waiting on an ultrasound tech. This very same thing happened with Rowan. “I really don’t want another doctor to look up from an ultrasound screen and say, ‘I’m really sorry to tell you this…’”
The images of an ultrasound are black gradients of blobs and bubbles. I saw one bubble I knew to be our baby (not my first ultrasound.. by a long shot). But 13 weeks is very small. Apparently, by 13 weeks the baby already has unique finger prints. I couldn’t see the finger prints from the black and gray blobs onscreen.
In a moment with emergency ultrasounds there’s not a screen for the mother to look at. They keep that view for the doctor. But dads can see. And I saw. With Rowan, I knew. There was no movement, utter stillness. His fully developed infant heart, usually so clear to see on the screen, stillness. I knew before Mellisa.
I knew this time too. That’s a lot of responsibility for a man, those moments between the screen and the pronouncement. In this case the technician had to leave, wasn’t allowed to tell us anything, by law needed to save that for “the guy who gets paid a lot more than me,” the doctor. Mellisa and I had about 30 minutes together before the doctor came.
I wasn’t sure if I should tell her what I saw. Because there was a moment in there where I think I knew. Well, I knew, but I wan’t to make room for possibility because I am not an ultrasound technician and I don’t know what’s what (especially at this early stage of pregnancy).
But there’s one part I knew real well.
When you go get a regular ultrasound in early pregnancy, the best part, the main event, is the heartbeat. They turn up the static and you hear gurgles and slushing as the tech moves around to find the baby before you hear a… wait… there it… in and out the tech moves to zero in on it. And, like a cinematic reveal, bang, slow motion, beauty shot of the heartbeat. You can hear it like a faithful old generator at a cabin, whirring away in time. You can also see, on the LCD screen, the blips on the time line as the heartbeat is measured visually. You can see it clear as day.
This day in Dallas, our tech didn’t turn up the volume, but the screen was clear as day. There was no heartbeat.
“Heartbeat.” When the tech left and we were waiting for the doctor, I wanted to tell mellisa what I saw, but “heartbeat” felt like too much of a word. It speaks to the person of our child. Doctors use terms like “fetal demise” to be exact and to, I can only imagine, protect somewhat from this kind of person-hood. (They have to do this shit all the time, I don’t blame them.) And in that space, when we were waiting for the doctor, I didn’t know how to tell what I saw to Mellisa, life giver, mother of the heartbeat. Eventually it just came out, “I really… I think the baby is gone… there was no heartbeat… like, in the little lines.”
It was during the ultrasound that the baby became a person to me. As a dad you don’t feel the impulses of pregnancy in your body. I didn’t really sense the personhood of my first son until he started showing signs of recognizing me. With Rowan, it wasn’t until I saw his intensely delicate and detailed finger tips. (I still lose a breath when I remember I never saw his eyes.) In this ultrasound I could vaguely see the arms and legs, the shape of this baby, him or her, and he or she became a bit of a real thing to me. What had, up to then, been plans and calendar dates, was now this isolated little person in some real way.
Maybe you become a person when your heart starts to beat. Doctors pronounce you dead, not when your heart stops, but when your brain activity stops. Brain activity begins to show itself pretty regularly (EEG something-or-other measurements) at 25 weeks into a pregnancy. Seems no matter where you draw the line on when someone is a human, you’re doing the same thing a concentration camp worker has to do: define boundaries, who’s in, who’s out.
When I felt for this baby, when I loved him or her, that’s when a real sense of loss came. Not just loss because we had timed it pretty well this time — some other friends having a baby close to us, with some holiday’s scheduled just right. Not just because we had been trying to have a baby for about 4 years, losing Rowan after a complete and healthy pregnancy. Not just due to the planning and calendaring and striving, but due to the loss of this person I just now realized I cared about deeply.
And you must know that miscarriages really happen. They happen often. 15–20% of pregnancies in the US come to a miscarriage. That’s pretty damn close to 1 in 4. We miscarried once before this, before Rowan, and before our healthy 6 year old Aiden. This was our 4th pregnancy. Only 1 of 4 survived for us.
It’s hard for my wife not to feel cursed. Instead of a warm and welcome space for her children, she can picture her body to be dangerous and uninhabitable. She wants to think of Aiden as our miracle child, the only one to survive the harsh climate of her broken body. Can you imagine feeling that way? Can you imagine how difficult to hold those thoughts at bay, to prop up a sense of hope and self love in the face of it? How tremendously tiring for her to stay in the mindset that life sprouts up abundantly, without help, all over this planet.
If that mentality takes root it chokes the whole garden. We prop ourselves up in the face of it. Pregnancy, motherhood, fatherhood, family, tribe, village, these are the names by which human life has survived, and the ways we’ll keep plowing on as a species. Most of us don’t deal with death and life regularly like our ancestors did, but we have the tools for it. It’s deep code in ancient language. You may not have felt deep personal loss before, chances are you will. And you may not have felt that singular experience of losing your own. If you reach toward recreating human life, whether your child survives or not, you will feel more than you knew possible.
Please, help us and help yourself to open to that great vulnerability. It sometimes seems that things all around conspire to close and harden us. But even now — maybe especially now — life is big. I want to keep greeting life with as big a love as I can muster.