I like painting my nails. It’s sort of how I like cleaning the bathroom, a small room that can be done in an hour. I can’t handle the commitment to a daily makeup or hair routine, my clothes are a mess, but I can find a color that makes me happy, and throw it on my nails with skill, and look down at something that pleases me, every once in a while. I write with those hands, too, which isn’t lost on me.
That day, my nails were pretty delightful. I’d tried out these crazy stick-on things that week, white polish with black script, as though I’d really taken the writing metaphor all the way. We woke up and went to the place we were supposed to, gripping each other. I went to sign in, and the person at the desk looked at me, and my hands, and said kindly, “Oh, my! Those are beautiful! Can I see?” She took my hand. I wanted to stay there, to say thank you for holding my hand, I know you know what I’m here for, that I thought I was nearly about to break except they told me I was already broken, and here you are holding my hand, sharing this interest that holds no weight, no special tie to the fetus that is still inside me, but holding my hand anyway.
I sat back down.
I read an email from a colleague. We had a work trip planned, something new and exciting, a project that showcased my skills and took me to a place I’d never been. Colleague was keen to get a move on planning it. Colleague had heard the bad news, said the email, but colleague didn’t want to talk about it, colleague said. Oh. Okay. Well, anything for you, colleague.
Text from another colleague. They knew I’d told them before, but could I remind them of the password? It’s “buzz off”, I wanted to write. Don’t you know where I am? I texted back the password, plus some pre-emptive answers to questions I knew would come up in my absence. “Just FYI, I’m going offline,” I wrote. ‘Gotta dilate this cervix and remove the fetal tissue now, deliverables, etc,’ I didn’t write.
We went back to an exam room. There was an ultrasound machine, on, but with no picture, just a grayscale blank the shape a windshield wiper clears in the snow. This was the same sort of screen on which we had seen the heartbeat weeks ago. This was the same sort of picture we had sent to friends and family. This is the same sort of screen we had been peering at when a technician I’d never met said, “No. No baby! No heartbeat. Growth stopped. No baby. Sorry.” Sorry. No baby, no parents. Go back to your day job.
I lost it. I hated that screen. I wanted to smash it to bits, to ban it from all medical facilities everywhere. “It’s okay,” the doctor said. “You can do whatever you need to.” He had curly hair, and his scrubs were a green blue that the internet tells me is something called “terrace garden” or “forest canopy”, printed with the name of the hospital, ad infinitum. He was a resident, I learned, and he was so good at his job.
What followed was what I think every doctor, every patient wants but almost never has. It was just time, time spent talking, time spent quiet. Time filled with logistical questions, and unanswerable questions, and resolutions that the doctor didn’t need to know but I told him. “We thought we were parents,” I said. “You still are, you still can be,” he said. “This is hard,” he said. “Impossible.”
He laid out my options, with no judgement. You can go home, he said. Right now, he said, if you want to. You can wait, or we can give you a medicine to help the process along. It’s hard, he said. But you might want it, he said. You’ll need to come in for another ultrasound to be sure there is no remaining tissue, and it can be quick and painless, or take a long time and have lots of cramping. But it’s about what you need emotionally. We’re here for you.
And they were.
The other option was what I came for. General anesthesia. Dilating my cervix. Removing the fetus. Curettage or vacuum aspiration to remove the remaining tissue. And then I would wake up, and no longer be pregnant. And then I could mourn my loss, because I would have lost it, and it would be done. It would be done.
I was thankful for modern medicine. I’ve suffered trauma, and that makes me sort of afraid of the range of emotions I know I’m capable of. Structure is good where grief is concerned. Let’s not do this in my bathroom at home, the one where I saw the positive test, the one where I soaked in a bath, the temperature of which I’d measured so as not to harm the growing fetus.
I still felt pregnant. I was still vomiting every day. I’d been on my honeymoon with a dead baby in me, taking pictures of my still growing belly, calling the little bundle a strawberry. We canceled all of the cider tasting, pub visiting, horseback riding across Somerset when we found out. There was joy in being pregnant, so I didn’t regret it. But–well, it was what it was.
I’d lit a candle in the Wells Cathedral. I wonder what that candle ended up being for, after all. I took a picture of it, the singular flame. I don’t believe in a tit-for-tat kind of God, the kind who agrees that I know best and gives me just what I ask for, even if I rarely ask. I didn’t think that candle provided special womb protection, traveled back to the moment of conception and assured against any chromosomal abnormalities that would lead me to miscarry. But when I lit it, I did think it carried the light of my new role, the light I felt glowing around me each time I remembered I was pregnant.
The D&C, the removal of the tissue, the procedure, the anesthesia, etc, was decided. The doctor left me, and a nurse came in. She read the room, and declared that she had to see my nails. “The whole office is talking about them,” she said. Never had a girl felt more impressive with a drugstore accessory than I did that day. And never had I experienced such an unobtrusive way of coaxing me into being cared for, doted upon, for having an excuse to hold hands when I would have never asked.
We moved from the room of the barren-ultrasound-machine to one of a series of curtained off sections in a large open area, like an ER of sorts. Conversations buzzed around us, welcome distractions and reminders that we weren’t alone. It felt strangely comforting to hear snippets of the experiences of others, people we couldn’t see and wouldn’t see again. “You can take ibuprofen for the pain, or call us if it’s not enough.” “You’ll see bleeding for a few days.” “When can we try again?” “You might feel some cramping.” “Could you tell what it was?”
The anesthesiologist came to see us. I was most worried about the anesthesia, as I’d never gone under before. It seemed like diving off the edge of a great precipice, being robbed of all sensory input, of all cognitive awareness, of the ability to feel and think. It seemed frightening– and completely glorious. To learn of none of it.
The pace picked up, and soon I was being wheeled into another room. There was a chair with stirrups, lots of lights, instruments, some sort of mask for me to inhale things through. It hit me that I was having surgery, that I was in an operating room, that I was surrounded by surgeons and they were preparing to operate on me. And I was terrified.
Everyone spoke in calm, soothing voices to me, and in the most professional, no-nonsense tones to one another. I choked out to a nurse, across the room, “Please help. I am scared shitless.” It wasn’t my most eloquent. It was how I felt. Again, the hand. She grabbed my hand and started rubbing it furiously.
“I like to talk about food,” she said. “You must be starving! And after all this, you can eat whatever you want. What are you going to eat first?”
I hadn’t eaten for something like 16 hours. Food sounded fabulous. I had a craving deep down for something heavy and comforting, rich and overwhelming. I wanted barbecue so bad.
“Barbecue. All I want is barbecue. And I have no idea where to get it! I don’t even know of any good barbecue spots in the city!” I wanted the kind of weird but glorious barbecue you can find in crock pots and chafing dishes in gas stations in the south– or maybe cheap and delicious Tex-Mex, a banh mi from that building shaped like a milk bottle and an Indian taco served at a fundraiser, fourteen thin paper plates supporting its weight. I wanted food from home.
The resident perked up. “BARBECUE! YES! How about Fette Sau? It’s insane.” The room buzzed. “Ooooh, where is that?”
“Is that French?” The awkward anesthesiologist chimed in.
“It’s barbecue. It’s fucking delicious,” replied the resident.
The oxygen mask went on my face. A kind doctor stood over me. I remembered her from my initial google searches for gynecologists upon my move to this new, foreign city. “I know you,” I said. “You have an MPH.” It was important to me, a focus on public health. It didn’t really matter right now.
She smiled. “I do!” Things sped up, slowed down, at once.
“Okay!” chirped the anesthesiologist, done futzing with whatever it was he was doing with the drugs I would soon be breathing in. He seemed less than impressed with barbecue. That’s okay, he wasn’t invited anyway.
Everything shifted, monumentally. “Whoa,” I muttered. “I feel craaaaaaaaaaaazy.” I was flying, or swimming, or something. Maybe I was falling into my own womb.
“Go with it,” said the resident, and I could have sworn we held eye contact as I floated away.
I awoke 15 seconds, an hour, or a couple of years later. Mike was there. I immediately tried to sit up, to shake the sleep off, to acknowledge that I was still alive. I mean, I think they knew, but I wasn’t sure.
Dr. Public Health had gone to let Mike know everything had gone okay. She told him I needed barbecue and they recommended Fette Sau.
The nurse who brought him back to me in the recovery area had also reminded him that I was hungry, and he should take me out for barbecue. The place was in Williamsburg, she said, and the other doctor would know the name.
They came to give me the summary: all went well, and they were able to remove all of the tissue. I was grateful. I had been sitting in grey-blue light of spring, alone, for far too many hours with death inside of me. Even though a part of me had died, was wounded, needed to grieve, I was glad to be rid of that talisman. Ready to create some space for Mike and I to cry and cling; and then, eventually, to move forward.
And barbecue. Two more people stopped by to remind us. They told us to order the burnt ends. The resident stopped by again, and noted my MPH comment. Oh. So it had happened. I really had outed my encyclopedic memory of the credentials of every person I’ve ever googled. “I’m glad it’s important to you. It’s important to us. It’s intrinsic in what we do,” he said. “We care. We care a lot.”
I got dressed, took home discharge instructions on a brightly colored flyer. Mike and I ordered take-out Indian food and ate it on the couch that night. I wasn’t in any shape to go out for barbecue, but deeply appreciated the theatrics and continuity of care regarding my next meal, even if we all had an inkling that it was a ruse.
We went camping the next day. I didn’t want to be in our home. It was quiet, and some deer took a walk with us. We rowed a boat on a lake, meandered, and I drank a beer, because I could now. I cried because I could. It felt awful. It tasted fine.
It took us just a few months before I was pregnant again, pregnant with the nearly three-year-old girl now following her daddy around the house, telling him stories a mile long. My due date with her (and many subsequent days) came and went, and so I showed up at the hospital for an induction in the same way a kid shows up to school on field trip day. The high-risk OB I’d seen a few times during the pregnancy stopped by to wish me luck. “Trust your pelvis,” she advised.
I walked back to the labor ward, where I would, in a few hours, deliver Winnie into an overly warm and terrifically welcoming room. Among the doctors and nurses , I caught a glimpse of the curly-haired resident, furiously entering notes on a computer. I didn’t need to go back to that place, didn’t need some great catharsis. But I noted to my OB when she checked in between contractions later that he and the rest of their staff had made what should have been one of the worst experiences of my life into one of the most healing, and I was glad to see his face. And maybe I’d get that barbecue, one of these days. It came highly recommended, after all.