Consider this: I was nineteen years old and I was nineteen weeks pregnant.
I asked myself every day, for every one of those nineteen weeks, if I was doing the right thing. I would usually ask myself this question while I was looking in a mirror, which, right there, should tell you all you need to know about my state of mind.
And just in case it doesn’t, I will tell you now—my state of mind was not good. I did not know what I was doing. I did not know what to think about my boyfriend’s smile—a smile that stretched across his face and around the room—when he knelt before me and cupped my stomach—my stomach that never ended up getting very big at all—and traced the strokes of flat blue veins that radiated from every new swell in my body.
My boyfriend—I don’t think I even called him my boyfriend back then. I don’t think I started calling him my boyfriend until about a week before he asked me to marry him and we set off for Vegas in a truck. And that was almost a month after I lost the baby so, no, I don’t think I called him my boyfriend yet.
Once, when I was still only about eight weeks pregnant and we were on our way to meet my parents at the Oyster Bar and he worried if he was dressed nicely enough, I called him “nothing more than genetic material.” I wanted him to hurt in the way I was hurting. I should add that this was a problem for most of our marriage. I should add that this used to be the driving force behind most of my interactions with people—I want you to hurt the way I hurt.
The pregnancy was uneventful until the point when it became an event. I had a sonogram at sixteen weeks and it was too early to find out the sex but I did get a few printouts on a long slip of slippery paper that I showed to my dad as we walked out of the building where I had gotten my sonogram and onto Fifth Avenue.
“You see,” I said, showing him the baby’s blurred white outline that melted into blackness, “it looks just like me.”
I was trying to get him to laugh but he looked away, his eyes bright, and pointed out that the tall man coming down 61st Street was actually Craig T. Nelson, the actor who starred in a TV show called Coach that my dad and I used to watch together when I was younger.
It was a warm spring. I spent a lot of time walking around. On June 4th I walked down to Canal Street from my apartment on 11th Street and ate some pork dumplings. I walked home and spent the night with my boyfriend, but I couldn’t sleep because of the warm pain in my lower back.
He left in the morning to go to work and I lay in my bed for a while. My room smelled like the roses that my father had gotten me for my birthday the week before. Some of the buds had come tightly closed but in the last week all of the petals had stretched out, soft, opening more and more, filling a rose-shaped void until they started to drop off the bloom.
My room smelled like decay.
I called my father at his office. It was probably about noon. I asked him to meet me at my doctor’s because I didn’t feel well at all. He told he would come pick me up in a cab and not to go anywhere without him.
Every jolt in the cab made my teeth loosen a little bit more in my head and my bones spread farther apart. My mouth tasted like salt. There was a summer rainstorm, the kind where you can’t see any clouds but the drops smack fat and loud on whatever window you’re staring out of.
My doctor told me I had to go straight to the hospital. I got up slowly from her table and saw two drops of blood that had come from inside of me and opened like flowers on the white paper that I’d been sitting on. I realized a few days later that I had left my underwear at my doctor’s office but I didn’t miss it.
By the time we got to the hospital, I was shivering and wet and I knew my father would have given me his coat in a minute but it was so hot out that he wasn’t even wearing a sweater. He put his arm around me instead and later I was still holding his hand when the fetal heart monitor stopped beeping even though my heart rate was still strong. It was so small that I didn’t even feel when it came out.
My doctor asked if I wanted to see her.
I let go of my father’s hand and said no, I don’t want to see it and dug the heels of my hands into my eyelids and pressed so hard that the blackness exploded into tiny hot-pink flecks, a thousand little sparks floating into space.
Then everything else happened. My father called my mother. My father called my boyfriend. A nurse came in to clean me up and gave me an IV with morphine. Her name was Irene and she smelled like bleach and urine and lime Jell-O. Irene had trouble finding a good vein for the needle because my veins are small and she made a mess of my left arm before switching to my right.
Someone brought in brochures. The brochures were glossy, the font delicate, the pictures black and white, as revealing as an X-ray. A tiny hand curled around a woman’s index finger—barely covering the French-manicured nail. There were quotes from women who had miscarried. They had named these corpses, buried them, mourned them, joined support groups to talk about their grief, and allowed themselves to be interviewed by Daily Strength. One woman said she got pregnant again right away and named her new daughter Heaven. One family got a dog. Most of these women had miscarried before 12 weeks—that’s not much more than a blood clot. I was 19 weeks. There had been eyelids and fingerprints.
I stuck the brochures in my lunch. I lifted up the cover on the plate that keeps the food hot and wet and stuck the brochures in a pile of mashed potatoes that were crowned with a pat of margarine that refused to melt.
My doctor came back when nobody else was in the room with me and opened a folder and showed me a picture of the baby. It was a girl. I hadn’t wanted to see it but when the photo was right there in front of me I had to look. In the picture she was on her back and looking to the side and her hands were clenched tight. She was bright red because she was covered in my blood and all babies come out covered in shit but they only bother to clean up the ones who are going to live.
“You have to know that it was real,” my doctor said.
I tried to tell her that all that this picture had proved was that none of it was real. All it proved was that the last nineteen weeks had been a dream.
She asked me if I wanted a prescription for anti-depressants. I said no and pressed the button for my morphine drip and went to sleep.
My boyfriend took me home the next day. I couldn’t have stayed for another minute. I was put on the maternity ward and although I didn’t have to share a room, I could hear the babies crying in the hallway and I could hear the rustle of balloons jostling on the ceiling.
That was a long time ago. I never asked what they did with the body. I never held her. I guess no one did.
Not so long ago, my father died. I was not with him. But I asked to see him; I asked that he not be moved so that I could see him. I held him in my arms. I smoothed his hair and I kissed him and I know exactly what happened to him.
I am older now and I hope that I am a better person than I was when I was nineteen. The pain is not so different though.
There have been so many times in my life when there was loss, when there seemed to be a before and after. Only now, I look at these times, and don’t know that they meant anything on their own, don’t know that they were points on which I pivoted, axes on which I turned.
I just know that I carry these things with me. I can feel the softness of my father’s hair. I can see the white glow of the baby in the sonogram, a light trying to break through the surface of the sea. I carry the tight heat that bloomed in my chest as my milk came in but I had no mouth to feed. I carry all this and consider myself at nineteen and consider myself at thirty and wonder how much more I can possibly carry before I start to break again and look in the mirror every day asking Am I doing the right thing?