Published on May 6th, 2016 | by Jacqui Morton7
Jacqui Morton on WHAT GROWS FROM GRIEF
I see her rarely in a dream, though her face eludes me even there. I see her in the kitchen. Where the light hits, an altar of rocks, shells, and feathers grows. I feel her tonight, in the rain—it’s a cold rain, like the morning we left early to drive to the hospital, to say good-bye. I feel her most at the ocean, where I first told my mother I was pregnant, and I was sure it was a girl. Her name would have been Nina.
My first child, Ben, was difficult to conceive. But the start of my second pregnancy was different—a bit of a surprise that made itself known through a magical, unspoken conversation with my body. I felt the egg and sperm meet, it seemed. Felt her roots burrow into my soul. I watched all the normal pregnancy things start to happen. My veins grew a deeper blue. The areolas of my nipples became darker, larger, speckled. I was more sensitive to smell. I felt a little sick to my stomach. I pictured a little girl.
Beginning the day before I planned to purchase a test to confirm the pregnancy, my arms broke out in a spotted, familiar rash. It was the same rash I had in the days following Ben’s birth, only explained as a strange bodily reaction to a shift within.
But with this rash, I had a feeling that something was wrong. When I attended my first prenatal visit at 8 weeks, I asked the midwife to do an ultrasound. She did, and it was fine. I was a month away from turning 35, so I made the appointment to have the ultrasound that, as I understood, would look at the back of our baby’s neck—the nuchal fold, a spot of fluid, which, as I understood, may be larger in fetuses with a genetic abnormality. I hadn’t had this ultrasound during my first pregnancy, but I understood what it meant.
I understood less about exactly what would happen next. I thought I’d be dropping off some blood in the days following, for the screening that would consist of a bunch of math that would give us a weird set of numbers that may or may not mean that we would want to pursue further testing that would be able to diagnose chromosomal defects.
We never got to any of the blood work or weird math stuff. As I lay back on the shiny white paper in the maternal fetal medicine department of the hospital where we had planned to birth this baby, the knot that had been brewing in my heart for weeks tightened and made it hard to breathe. I squeezed my fingernails into the sweaty palms of my hands, tearing holes in the paper under me as the technician rolled the cold gel over my belly, now looking a little pregnant. She gave me a small strip of black and white ultrasound photos, and left to get the doctor. Her eyes never met mine.
Dr. Katz was incredibly kind as he recommended we speak with Jennifer, the hospital’s genetic counselor. He suggested we have diagnostic testing—perhaps that day, via CVS, unless we wanted to wait two weeks until an amniocentesis could be performed. I knew Dr. Katz’s name, because I had worked for one of the big Boston hospitals years prior. I knew him as someone who saved sick babies, but I knew from the way he was speaking, he could not save my baby. His mouth said, “It looks a little concerning.” The tone of his voice said, “I’m so sorry.”
At the round table in Jennifer’s office, she sat across from us and, while moving her hands over large visual displays, she very calmly told us that when we entered the office that day, given age alone, the chances of our baby having a chromosomal abnormality were one in a thousand. Now, given what the doctor had seen on the ultrasound, the odds of a chromosomal problem were one in three.
That was a Tuesday, and by Thursday afternoon, she called with initial results. “I have news you don’t want to hear,” she said. “This baby has Trisomy 18.” A week later, the results were confirmed.
I knew this meant my baby would be born dying, or dead, or if by chance my baby survived pregnancy, it would not be able to live independently. I had done the research. I read as many stories as I could find, most of them written by parents who held their child for hours after birth, before death.
I knew that, to be a mother to that baby, and to be a mother to my already living son, I had to let go. It was after I told Jennifer about our decision to have an abortion that she confirmed what I knew: It was a girl. I would lose my daughter, without meeting her. I moved on. I turned 35. My son turned 2. I cried into each cake, knowing the baby in my belly would never have a birthday.
She wouldn’t even have a birth. We drove in the still-dark morning to the hospital where my first son was born, that big Boston hospital where I used to work. We passed the protesters and parked in the secret lot. I chose to have the procedure at the hospital because I thought I would be cared for as a mother losing a baby. The genetic counselor had assured me someone would be there—someone who could help me catch the tears—a social worker? A psychologist? Someone who teaches people how to grieve what they cannot hold? I have no idea what I thought this would look like.
Looking back, I wish someone had told me I would be the only one who could hold my tears. I wish I had taken my belly to the ocean one more time. I wish my husband and I allowed our tears to bathe her. Instead, we stuffed them down and answered the questions that the very pregnant intake person at the hospital asked, first of me by myself, and then of us together. When she asked what we would do for birth control following the procedure, I knew she really had no idea why we were there.
Our sadness was ours alone.
I sat in the back room with three other women, with a pill under my tongue. Misoprostol. Because my procedure was now a second trimester abortion, my cervix needed to ripen. My body needed to go into labor while my husband waited in the lobby. When I had delivered my son, two years and ten days prior, at the other end of the hospital, I had done so without pain medication. I had prepared for that. I had not prepared for this.
When the contractions became unbearable, the nurse gave me a shot of fentanyl. Soon after, I was wheeled into the procedure room. The doctor didn’t realize I had imagined this baby, my daughter, on her first day of kindergarten. In fact she thought I was the patient who was waiting two people away from me in the back room. I corrected the doctor as she did her compulsory verbal medical description of the procedure: “No. D&E, not D&C. No. No implant in my leg. No.”
I wished I had thought to ask if I could have seen the pregnancy remains, or if they would cremate her—or if we could have donated to scientific research—or if they could capture a footprint, or let me feel the fluid from which she came. As my cold feet hit cold metal stirrups, I focused on my breathing under the mask, and closed my eyes. My last memory of that room is the red plastic box by my feet. I guess they put her in there. I’ve never been able to find out what happens after that.
My husband and I, different versions of ourselves, walked through the days that followed, telling some friends and co workers our secret, and crying together late at night. About two months later, I was pregnant again. Surprised, elated, and terrified, I moved on, with fear and anxiety that this baby too wouldn’t have a birth—and guilt mixed with shame for the emotions that I couldn’t suppress during each visit, test, or ultrasound. Even on the day my second son was born, I found myself explaining to the nurses that I had indeed terminated a pregnancy, and yes, it was a girl and yes, I got pregnant again quickly, and on and on.
That second son is William. The family I have now is part of the beauty that has grown from pain. I’m grateful for my sons. My husband and I have grown stronger together, but it took me a long time to come to a spot where anything about anything felt or looked beautiful. To get there, I had to re-learn a seemingly simple word: loss, with my own definition. I had to allow myself to feel and process the cruel waves of sadness that comes with that. When I did, I learned that the grief is what allows us to heal. It’s what can let the sun come in.
The grief is what allowed me to finally name the daughter I did not meet. Her middle name is Rose. She grew whole with my tears, and she lives within my soul.