My husband and I were married on a cold, overcast afternoon the day before New Year’s Eve. Neither of us had imagined having a winter wedding, but we needed to marry by January in order to be posted together for our next assignment. We both work as diplomats, our lives divided into chunks of time separated by tours abroad.
The timing of the wedding was not a drastic change of plans; we had decided to marry within months of our first meeting. We were like two lumbering comets destined for one another all those years but stuck in the stillness of space – parties, other relationships, the passing of loved ones, bad jobs, all the experiences in between – before the romantic collision that was our first hello in 2010. “Today I met the boy I’m going to marry,” I confided (and almost sang) to a friend over the phone. “And if it doesn’t work out, don’t ever bring this up again.”
We knelt at Immaculate Conception church, in my home town in New Hampshire, in a white-knuckled grip before the altar only a year and a half after I first agreed to have lunch with him. In front of us, we watched as Aaron’s grandfather read from the Old Testament: Genesis 1:26-28, a reading I had picked out, being the more religious one. He approached the pulpit dressed in a blue-checked suit, blue shirt and striped tie, an orchid pinned to his lapel. “Be fertile and multiply; fill the Earth and subdue it.”
My husband had consented to a traditional ceremony, which meant hours of marriage counselling in Bahrain, where he was posted. I took the 30-minute flight from my post in Qatar, and we spent the entire weekend in a room full of Filipinos in an officially Muslim country, becoming certified to marry in a Catholic church.
The counselling sessions included some peculiar highlights: family-planning videos, which included crude vaginal fluid viscosity tests for determining fertility; and the meaning of Christ’s unconditional love in a short movie starring a porn-addicted Kirk Cameron. Then there are the parts of the counselling we do not joke about with friends, our first real discussions about faith, where we came from, and where we would go after we were gone. Would that journey be together if we did not believe the same thing? We came to the quaint “love conquers all” conclusions reached by lots of mixed-faith couples. If I could let him be a humanist and he could allow me to practise a vaguely Buddhist form of Catholicism, then that was a good place to start. Dare I say it? We would not pray together, but we would stay together.
Three years later, I am 29 and have already been pregnant twice. My husband and I sit in our car in our garage in Central America, where we both now work. We always wait for the heavy automatic metal garage door to lock behind us before we open our car doors. We are surrounded not by a white picket fence, but by impossibly high walls crowned with shards of glass, nails and concertina wire. We have returned from the hospital where I learned that I had miscarried my second pregnancy. My son, a healthy one-year-old, sleeps in his car seat in the back.
My husband kills the ignition. We are back in the very spot we abandoned in such haste for the hospital just a few hours earlier.
“I have blood,” I said in Spanish to the receptionist, because I had never learned the verb “to bleed”, “and I am pregnant.” The nurse’s eyebrows rose in recognition.
“Tell me what happened,” the nurse asked, laying me down on the bed and steadying her papers into a clipboard.
“I was running,” I said. “The doctor told me it was OK to run.”
The nurse looked puzzled and made a note. I began to cry. I was starring in a scene I knew all too well after years of living overseas – seven countries in 10 years, to be exact – the perpetual outsider. Here I was the gringa; other places I had been the unbeliever, the sullied, roles I could usually tolerate with grace, but all composure, good intentions and self-awareness had fled. I saw myself: crying like a wounded animal into their tissues, speaking stilted Spanish in my blood-soaked yoga pants, talking about running, of all things, when I was pregnant.
The ultrasound revealed no heartbeat. The radiologist, who wore a Bob Marley T-shirt and had been chatty and casual while squirting the clear goo on my belly, became quiet as the minutes passed, pressing the scope down on to my belly harder and harder.
“I’m sorry,” he said finally. “I’m not seeing what I should be seeing at this point in your pregnancy. But only your doctor can confirm it on Monday.”
So there we were back in our garage again, our son no longer panicking in the hospital commotion but sleeping soundly in the back, leaving Aaron and me to fill the silence.
“There’s still a chance,” I say. “He said wait for the doctor, maybe…”
Aaron simply squeezes my hand.
What I do not yet see is that there is no diplomacy to be had, no compromise, no hidden inroad or point of negotiation. This proves our most foreign experience by far, because one does not need to get on a plane to be foisted into unknown and threatening territory. In the space where there was a second child between us, all that remains is the mariachi music on the radio, our unborn, still baby inside me, and the boom of the metal door slamming shut outside the car.
I found myself thinking a lot about the cosmos after the baby was gone, mostly because, instead of finding shelter with the God of my Catholic upbringing, I found doubt and anger seeping through the cracks. I tried to pray, but ended up rambling instead to my grandmother, my goodwill ambassador to God ever since she died. My conversations with her were like poorly conducted interrogations by a schizophrenic: “Why, why, why?” I pleaded, “Help me understand” and, “This doesn’t make sense!” Ending with a whimpering request: “Just help me through this, OK?”
Intellectually, I knew it could happen to me. Why should I be spared inclusion among countless other women who had endured the same loss? My doctor made me aware of this possibility as soon as he confirmed my pregnancy. Yet, in my head, miscarriages were something that happened out on the prairie to the mother of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I cringed, looking back on myself many years ago, arguing in my grandparents’ kitchen with my uncle, a priest, about reproductive rights and the Catholic church.
“A woman should have the right to choose,” I kept repeating, because what other vocabulary did a 14-year-old have to talk about such things? I wagged my finger at him, arguing with the crazy forcefulness of one who has either intimate experience with an issue or none at all. The memories of those arguments with my uncle stung in an entirely new way. They reminded me of a different girl and a different time, where it felt empowering to question my faith. I was not in the business of having and losing babies then; I was a baby myself. I never even entertained the idea that I might have no choice in the matter.
Now, my online friends told me I had become a “member of a club” of which I wanted no part. They were answering a different kind of modern-day prayer, an open-ended enquiry posted to a message board online. I had finally succumbed to the isolation of living overseas and sent my pain into the anonymity of cyberspace. Hundreds of women answered, insisting I had “just another angel looking down”, which not only struck me as untrue, but also forced me to assign a cherubic form to an experience that felt anything but. I could not picture heaven; I could not even picture my baby. I realised all of this was a departure from what I should have believed as a good Catholic. I did not care. They could keep their angels and stuff their feelings into perfectly labelled boxes along with Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.
I found my own solace in science, imagining the expansive universe, the smallness of my situation, and the pain I felt in the suspension of time, movement and sound. Somewhere in another universe, I am five, running to my grandparents’ bed at some ungodly early hour, nestling my curls into my grandmother’s warm chest and insisting she make a tent for us under the sheets. My grandfather protests, though not very loudly, because he is not quite awake and does not like to talk without his dentures. But my grandmother obliges, raising that old leg covered in varicose veins like the mast of some proud ship. The morning light streams in, and we are all there, alive and safe in that world, three Bedouins seeking refuge from the storm.
Although the baby was gone, life continued. My husband did not speak of angels, or what was or was not meant to be; he just pushed on. Surely he grieved, but privately, as he witnessed the pounds slip off me with the passing weeks. I have come to think of these as the “watching the lion pace” moments in a marriage, where the role of a spouse resembles that of a zookeeper more than a partner. He inched life’s essentials, food and water, under the invisible fence between us, while I paced in the only way a woman in the 21st century can: Googling every article ever written on miscarriage, retracing my every step, my every meal, convincing myself I could do what no scientist had done and identify what had made the pregnancy end.
My research revealed that around a quarter of pregnancies end in miscarriage. That figure drops dramatically once, as in my case, a heartbeat manifests. My baby had hands, a small fact that sent me into a tailspin for days – sweet little paddles. I got rid of all my emails to family about the pregnancy and kept only one ultrasound photo to paste in my journal. I could erase this from the collective memory of my family, I thought, but I would never be able to forget.
“And it is in this way that someone dies and someone lives on.” I was haunted by these words in the weeks that followed, racking my brain to figure out where I had heard them. The sentiment perfectly captured my feelings, but what was “this way”? I was sure that if I could place the quote, I would have the answer.
One night, something clicked and I remembered that it was from a poem I had studied in college, Another Birth, written by the Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad. I rushed to find it on my phone, mid-step, coming down the staircase. Breathless, I read the lines to my husband, the verses ending with:
And it is in this way
That someone dies
And someone lives on
I looked up through a kaleidoscope of tears to find my husband seemingly unmoved and vaguely annoyed, and my son protesting that he was not allowed to sit on the staircase like Mama. I registered for the first time the tremendous emotional distance between us. I was crying over an obscure poem, spending my evenings scrolling through message boards for answers; but the life I had created around me was done with mourning. There was no child, I told myself that night lying next to my husband. There was a fertilised embryo that did not progress, a form as basic and perishable as the elements that make me – mere water and carbon. Both of us were disappearing. I could finally sleep.
I went back to work. I told the truth to people who asked, mostly because honesty took less effort. Many of them had probably guessed, watching me swig Perrier every morning in the office like some deranged but sober pirate navigating a sea of morning sickness. I did not want the rumours or leading questions. I just wanted to be able to cry and be left alone in the privacy of the linoleum bathroom walls.
The American women referred to it as “my pregnancy” which “was lost”, like sunglasses ripped from my face in a giant wave in the ocean. “There was something wrong with it,” they said, built to be broken. Would you have wanted a baby that had something wrong with it? Everything hurt to hear, though I was lucid enough to understand that no one could say the right thing. “Yes,” I said. “Yes.” The local women responded differently and, to my astonishment, repeated the same thing to me over a period of weeks, using the same words. “God is perfect,” they said. Many held my hand as they spoke or whispered those three words into my ear in an embrace. “Yes,” I said. “Yes.”
My son tugs at my sarong; I am facing the shoreline of a neighboring island where we have taken a brief family trip for my 30th birthday. It was supposed to be a baby moon, but now more than ever we see the value in stealing away. There is a group of local women selling souvenirs on the beach. They arrange the tiny wooden trinkets on a card table and there are four or five small children circling them, giggling and exuding the kind of energy only a child can so early in the morning. My son grabs a stick and pulls it through the fine sand. I snap a photo of him.
Is he yours?” one of the women asks. She is heavy and short, and looks like the leader.
“Yes,” I say.
“How many children do you have?” another one asks. She is thin and very young, handing a bottle of milk to one of the smaller children fussing at her legs.
I hesitate. “I have one,” I say. I look at my son who is still a safe distance away from the ocean, chasing a pigeon. “And I was pregnant again but I lost it.”
“Oh,” she says and looks away. “But you’re so young. Did it hurt?”
The entire group of women is now in rapt attention. All these weeks and no one has asked me this question. Yes, I want to say, it does physically hurt, but what hurts more is the shame. I feel ashamed, small and powerless.
“Well, it’s different from having a baby,” is all I say, and even offer a half-hearted smile so they know they have not offended me, a face I am used to making after so many years overseas.
“Did you name it?” the leader asks.
“You should name it, so God can let it into heaven.” She smiles.
“Maybe,” I say, and my son and I continue down the beach for our morning walk.
Weeks ago I would have easily dismissed the notion of naming it, but I am brittle and open now, talking to complete strangers about the most intimate of losses. This is the most disturbing mental leap by far: my baby, a nameless angel knocking on those pearly gates, and I, the mother who failed to deliver it to heaven or to Earth.
I carried what remained of the pregnancy for three days after visiting the emergency room. My body held on for the doctor to confirm it Monday morning. We even scheduled the minor operation for that evening. But hours later my body gave up and began to expel the pregnancy on its own.
My husband knocked on the door of the bathroom. “Don’t come in,” I choked out. “It’s happening.” As tightly as we held one another, in sickness and in health, till death do us part, I alone would have to reconcile the idea of the cherubic faces of angels and the memory of all that blood. I would not let him see me lose our baby.
But he would not leave. I heard him slide down the length of the wooden door dividing us and sit down. “Keep talking to me,” he said through the crack. “If you keep talking to me, I’ll know you haven’t passed out and you’re OK.”
With time and distance, I have come to accept that there are two possibilities. The first: that I have assigned inordinate meaning to a most common event belonging to the realm of the body. There was no soul, no protagonist in utero, simply a fertilised embryo that did not progress.
The second: that there was a life, and thus a soul awakened at conception. There was something to mourn, a reason to write these words. As painful as I find that prospect, I accept that it is within the realm of possibility. If one can have the faith to stand in the void and push on without explanation or understanding, then surely one can fathom the concept of a soul.
So I have decided to name her. I have given her my name, because that is the most significant thing I can give her, if there will be no Apgar score, no first breath, no birthdays. She is tethered to me now. And if there is any question about entering those heavenly gates, I will remain her earthly messenger, because neither faith nor science would refute that I was indeed her mother for those few months on this planet. And in some other universe, I am always her mother, eternally in the blissful moment of discovering I am pregnant with her, lip-locked with my husband beneath those dim kitchen lights. “We did it again,” I say, pulling away to take a breath. “We did it.”