It starts as a message only you can hear.
Not clear, but loud enough to make you go to the store with your blood flowing fast and avoid eye contact at the register. And then back home inside your bathroom. You open the box, unfold the instructions and read them again just to make sure nothing has changed, and pee on a stick. One blue line shows up immediately. The next few seconds are the important ones; the ones where it’s still possible to be you, yourself unchanged and your life unremarkable. But then the second blue line appears, maybe faint or maybe the color of a robin’s egg in the sunlight. On January 13, that was the color I saw.
I was alone in my bathroom. Well, alone for those few seconds only, and then I was with her. On the other side of the door, my son took his morning nap in his crib, but his sister and I were sharing a body. My reaction to the robin’s egg blue is painful to look back on now: I was frustrated at Natural Family Planning, doubtful that I could go through pregnancy, labor, and birth again, and, once I’d done the math and figured Finn would be about 15 months old in September, deeply afraid of life with two babies.
A person with one baby was a person with a baby. A person with two was a mom. Like diaper bag split open, air-dried hair with no make-up, pin you in a corner with sleepy but caffeine-high crazy eyes and force you to agree that being a mom is the hardest job in the world M-O-M. You want to agree but she can’t hear you over the cries from her not-one-but-two children. I must have had a couple of bad days leading up to realizing I was no longer alone there on the toilet, because the concept of losing myself on the sacrificial altar of motherhood was too much for me to bear alone. I told Ryan.
He was excited.
Over the next few weeks, I began to come around, too. Yeah, other (weaker!) women may have denied every need for the sake of children, but not me. I was going to be different. What began as enthusiastic though half-honest mantras (Having two kids will be great. Repeat. Having two kids will be great.) soon transformed into genuine enthusiasm. Full honesty. This was going to be great. We could even get them bunk beds! They’ll be friends forever! We got an ultrasound and came home with a snapshot our little baby in her black-and-white water world. We bought Finn a onesie that announced his new big-brother status and made a plan to tell the extended family. We made it out of the dreaded first trimester and into week 13.
Here’s what was supposed to happen: We would fly to Pittsburgh together for Ryan’s grandfather’s birthday, where his whole extended family would be gathered. I’d dress an unsuspecting Finn in his announcement onesie and put a sweater over it. When the right moment came, we would hand Finn to his grandfather (who would be briefed to know the plan, since the man is 92 and has had all the surprises he needs for one lifetime) and ask them to take a picture. Everyone knows that aunts love taking pictures of babies, so imagine the looks on their faces when they saw his tiny sweater being taken off to reveal that another one is on the way! There’d be tears and hugs. And later, by the time I turned 30, I’d have a one-year-old and be sporting another six-month pregnant belly.
Here’s what actually happened: The day before our flight, my midwife couldn’t find a heartbeat with her doppler. The machine she used to swipe carefully across my belly made a noise like rushing water and wouldn’t stop. I laid on the table listening for one minute, then five, then ten. My eyes searched for a focal point as my ears took in the static. I settled for a patch of purple on the otherwise white window frame—someone had been careless when painting. I stared at it and felt the tears running down the sides of my face and pooling in my ears.
She told me not to worry; it was probably just the doppler, or the baby was just hiding. “But go have an ultrasound. just so you feel better.” And then she put a hand on my shoulder, and I really started to worry.
Ryan and I drove across town to get another ultrasound, saying things like, “She was fine a couple of weeks ago.” and “I’m sure she’s fine.” But on the screen, she was withered. Sometime between my last ultrasound and this one, her heart had stopped, and I’d been carrying death, not life, in my body.
Ryan cancelled our flights and the three of us went home and laid in our bed, alternating moments of crying and moments of prolonged silence. My midwife called and told me to wait, because the body usually expelled tissue on its own.
I was full of fear in the days that followed, when I knew I was alone again. I didn’t want to go through a natural miscarriage with her, to see her body, to take care of Finn while miserable with grief and guilt and pain. I kept waiting for some kind of medical miracle, a phone call where some benevolent doctor would say “Hey, sorry about this, but we got it all wrong! Go ahead and order those bunk beds after all!”
We didn’t get a miracle like the one I wanted, but we got others. Miracle number one: my mom, dad, and mother-in-law came to help, not knowing how instrumental they’d be in a few hour’s time.
The contractions started after dinner on Saturday night, March 12. I remember thinking, “They must think I’m just trying to get out of the clean-up,” but I’m pretty sure I was doubled over in pain before I could finish it. I went to bed to wait it out. The contractions came and went, and it struck me as funny that my body was just remembering how painful it was to give birth to Finn. The techniques came back to me with every wave: deep breaths. Visualize waves. I had to go to the bathroom again.
There, a teaspoon or so of bloody tissue came out of me, and the contractions stopped. “It’s over,” I told Ryan. But it wasn’t.
Twenty minutes or so later, the bathroom was painted red with blood. Liquid mixed with jelly-like clots ran down my leg and onto the floor—one as big as a cantaloupe—and there, alone, where for a moment only I knew of her existence, I saw her body lying on the floor.
Her life began in blue, and ended in red. Still full of fear, I couldn’t move when I saw her. I sat on my knees, looking at her tiny face. Her veins were visible through her white skin. She had a little tail, which she was supposed to grow out of, and little arm and leg buds which she was supposed to grow into. In that little bathroom, it was once more just me and her. I looked at her and remembered the fear of her life I’d once felt, and the words were torn from somewhere inside of me: I’m sorry.
Ryan asked from the closed door if he could help me, and I crawled to the door and opened it. I thought she’d break if I touched her, but I couldn’t leave her there. I picked her up, held her in my hands for a moment, and placed her in a container Ryan had brought. “Can you believe it?” I asked him, “that we all start out so small?”
And then I passed out.
I thought I’d lay on the floor for just a moment, but I just remember being on the couch next, and not knowing what had happened to the baby. Ryan’s mom was saying something about an ambulance, but the hospital, which was inevitable now, was just a few minutes’ drive away. From there, my recollection is a spotty pattern of forward motion: riding in the front seat in the dark, then wheeled down a hallway under fluorescents. I couldn’t really respond when the nurses were sticking needles into both of my arms and asking how I felt, but even while dipping in and out of consciousness, I appreciated the kind tone. Miracle two.
They kept me overnight for observation. Finn, I was told, was sleeping soundly on my dad’s chest at home. Ryan slept in a vinyl armchair at my bedside, where I laid bleeding on the sheets. The nurse were in and out of the room until about 2 a.m., when the lights were finally turned off and we were left alone. She was back at 4 a.m. and asked me to get up so she could watch me go to the bathroom. Every movement required effort, but I made it in there after a few minutes, and when I did, another cantaloupe blood clot came out. Then another flock of nurses and doctors and phlebotomists were in and out until 6 a.m. When the sun rose, a little lady brought me some jello, which made me gag and think of the clots, and then another doctor came in and asked if I wanted to go home. I did.
The funeral was a few days later. Since Ryan and I attend mass at the Cathedral of the Incarnation, one of the priests offered to help us bury our daughter’s body. More miracles: the funeral home provided everything free of charge to us. They put her in a tiny casket and gave us a plot at Calvary Cemetery, where we had her graveside service. We sat in light wooden folding chairs on the bright green grass. Right before the service, Father Neely asked what her name was. Ryan and I looked at each other. Should we give her that name, our favorite name, the name we decided on for a girl years ago, or should we save it? I’m ashamed to say now that we’d been privately wrestling with that question since the afternoon we saw her dead on the sonographer’s screen. But now that we were here we were in our own nightmare, it seemed like such a small gift to give.
“Rosemary. Rosemary Lynch.”
How do we grieve in this age? Privately, mostly, sometimes revealing bits of our suffering to close friends, who shut up and listen at best and say things like “time heals” at worst. But even if I became somehow healed from her loss, I still want the scar. Her death is now a part of my story on this earth, and to deny my grief is to deny my love. Just because she’s dead doesn’t mean I can stop loving her; the love just takes a different form. I can’t carry her inside me any more, but I can lie flowers on her grave. I can’t feed and dress her, but I can cry without stopping myself. I can’t watch her grow, but I can share the story of her little life and death.
Weeks later, the retained pregnancy tissue developed an infection and I laid on yet another paper-covered table while a doctor performed the painful procedure with the grace and tenderness of a drunk elephant. I stared at the ceiling with wet eyes and asked why this couldn’t just be over, and the words of this song came into my head. Ryan and I had listened to it on repeat the day we learned she’d died, staying in bed as the sun was setting and our bedroom grew darker around us. Suddenly it was here with me in the white, frigid room.
Do not be afraid.
Do not be afraid,
For I shall be with you, I have called you by your name.
You are mine.
If you’d asked me a few months ago, I would have told you that a first birthday party for Finn was out of the question. It seemed like so much extra work for something he wouldn’t remember. But now—how would we not? Family is a gift. Love is a gift. Life is random and chaotic and I don’t care if it’s a cliche, it’s worth saying again and again: we need to celebrate our moments with each other. It’s a privilege to be together. On Saturday, my son wore his little blue party hat and smashed his cake like a champ, and I was the one to scoop him up and clean the icing off of him, overflowing with pride that only comes from living in this stage of motherhood.