Today marks exactly nine weeks into this pregnancy, which also marks the exact moment that I miscarried in my first pregnancy. In my mind, that makes this day the perfect time to finally write about that experience with all the joy, excitement, stress, sorrow, and trauma that that time period held for me. So break out your tissues because, if you’re like me, this one’s going to be a tear-jerker. Also, it’s long…
Leading up to my ninth week in January 2016, I was in Austin, Texas for the annual convention of the Modern Language Association. Unlike many of my friends and colleagues, I hadn’t gone to present a paper. In fact, both abstracts I’d submitted had been rejected. Many people who are on the job market and forever optimistic will still register and book a hotel for the convention just in case they get one of the few coveted job interviews. That year, I was one of the lucky few to get two job interviews, but I had decided to go to Austin before even receiving interview requests because of my family.
The vast majority of my dad’s side of the family is still in Texas. He and my Aunt Kelli were born in Austin, and they only moved to Florida when my grandparents decided to head east when they were both very young, following one of my great-uncles. Eventually, that great-uncle and his family moved back to Texas, but Grandma, Grandpa, Papa, and Aunt Kelli stayed in Florida, making my sisters and me first-generation Floridians. 🙂 Anyway, back to Austin. The last time I had been to Texas was back in the summer of 2000 when I was 16 (at the very beginning of my angsty stage so not quite a little shit yet), and my family and I attended my cousin’s wedding (first cousin once removed). So it had been SIXTEEN years since I’d visited with them for any length of time, and I had never met my cousin Heather’s awesome daughters, Sydney and Peyton. With that in mind and the smallest glimmer of hope for a job interview, I reached out to my family and asked how they’d feel about my coming to visit while at a conference. Needless to say, they were ecstatic.
When I first got to Austin, I stayed with Heather, the girls, and their ginormous dog Bentley (who is the sweetest teddy bear in the word, even though he kept stealing my socks… hahahaha). I went to the convention center to have lunch with friends, have my interviews, and attend a very few panels on medieval topics, but half the time, I had dinner with Heather, Sydney, and Peyton and ended the night petting Bentley’s big belly. It was, perhaps, the most relaxing first experience at an MLA convention a person could’ve had so that when I hear friends, colleagues, and graduate students talking about how big and intimidating MLA is, I wonder if they are talking about the same convention that I am. Even after attending and presenting in two panels this past January in Philadelphia–and even staying in the convention hotel–it didn’t seem so big and intimidating to me. Then again, maybe it has more to do with me being jaded and disillusioned concerning all things academia, flouting my “I give zero shits” attitude, that made it seem less of a scary experience for me than for others. Maybe it’s because I have my PhD in hand and now answer to Dr. Thomas. Who knows.
Anyway, back on topic… I breezed through my two interviews, getting a “call back” for one just two days later when they invited me out for my first ever campus visit. A couple days after that the other one told me that I was essentially a second-round draft pick for campus visits, meaning if the first three candidates failed to impress, they’d fly three more of us out (I never got the second call). I was happy, jubilant even… positively buoyant in my glee of almost being done with the dissertation but mostly because I was actually happy to be pregnant (I’ll write another post about my 5-year soul-searching regarding all things pregnancy and motherhood). And, you know, I’d had job interviews that seemed to go well. I had tea with two of my favorite medievalists, Elaine Treharne and David Johnson; I had lunch more than once with my friend and favorite drafting editor at the Dictionary of Old English, Stephen Pelle; and one of my best friends Julia Smith provided me with my first time drinking a Shirly Temple (and, yes, I did enjoy it), delicious meals of Tex-Mex and BBQ, and a day of convention hookie with her, our friend Sarah Andyshak, and Julia’s parents as we roamed around San Antonio. The Alamo was so much smaller than I remembered it being…
When the convention had ended, Heather drove Peyton out to my great-aunt and -uncle’s place on a lake while Sydney and I followed in my rental car. We had fun in the car, cousins bonding one-on-one for the first time: the one a 32-year-old academic unwittingly carrying a dying embryo filled with the hope of a new mom and the cynicism of an old feminist, the other a pre-teen girl excited about wearing makeup (getting away with putting on a pink-tinted lipgloss while her mom was in another car) but also feigning a jaded coolness regarding all things authoritative. But both children of divorce, and I like to think that I imparted some sage wisdom about giving her single working mom a break now and then. What do I know, though? It may very well have flown in one ear and zipped out the other. Either way, we were quite a pair, and the drive went by quicker than I expected.
Now, my Aunt Diana and Uncle John Paul are something else. She’s a petite Texas firecracker, feistier than feisty, and he’s the very picture of tranquility and quiet strength. Have I mentioned that I love them? Because I love them a lot. Casey, Heather’s younger brother, also made it to the lake house where they took me for a tour of their land… and there are so many cool things that I won’t do it justice in trying to enumerate all the fascinating antiques Uncle John Paul has in his “barn” or the different kinds of jewelry that Aunt Diana is working on. One thing that was super fascinating was the replica of an old gas station and store that my uncle has… it’s like stepping back in time to the era of Grease or something. Oh, and don’t get me started on all the cats they’ve got roaming around out there. They ranged from cute and adorable to scraggly and a little disconcerting, but all of them were loved, fed, and cared for.
That night we had burgers for dinner, and the next day Aunt Diana and Uncle John Paul took me to their favorite BBQ place. This was a real BBQ place. The kind where you pick out the cuts of meat you want as you walk up to the grills outside; they plop it down on paper on a tray for you; you go inside to pick out your sides and stuff; and then you sit down at long tables with benches to chow down. There’re baked beans and onions and sauces to get in the back, as well as rolls of paper towels. You eat delicious juicy meat and don’t care that it’s messy because that’s the way that proper BBQ is supposed to be. If the juices aren’t running down your arm, something is wrong.
It was after returning home from this that things started going downhill for me. I noticed some spotting, but I didn’t think too much of it because it was so slight. Plus, I was heading home the next morning so it made more sense to me to just wait until I could go to my own obstetrician. I’m generally allergic to doctor’s offices anyway, and if I could avoid going to an unknown clinic or emergency room, I would. Plus, what would my NYU health insurance cover exactly? I started cramping in the evening, so I took that opportunity to take a mild bath, hoping that it would soothe whatever was going on, which I just took to be indigestion. I was a vegetarian for a long time so sometimes digesting pork and beef can be a little painful. The bath seemed to help, so I tucked myself into bed relatively early and didn’t think twice about it.
A few hours later, I knew the BBQ pork was not the reason for the cramping. I woke up in the middle of the night to cramps that still weren’t as severe as I’ve had during my menstrual cycle before–not the debilitating cramps that woke John because I was screaming in my sleep or the ones that left me curled around a toilet with nausea–but there was one key difference. I was moist between my legs, so I reached for the bedside lamp to reveal what I already felt: there was a puddle of blood between my thighs that seeped down not only through the sheet but also through the soft padding of the mattress protector and a little into the mattress. I immediately got up, stifled the tears that I knew would come, and walked quickly down the hall to the bathroom. I sat down on the toilet as I removed my pajama bottoms and underwear, throwing them across the bathroom into the sink (former basketball player… even under duress, I have good aim), and as I was gathering toilet paper to wipe myself, the unmistakable sound of a plop echoed from the toilet bowl. I had felt something the size of a raspberry leave my vagina just before it, so I already knew what I’d find staring at me from the bright red water.
Like any protagonist in a horror film, I slowly turned to look at the terror any way. There it was, already mostly hidden as it tried to flee down the commode before I flushed. Blood was slowly trickling down my inner leg as I finally let myself feel the loss, and I wept. Quietly. It was the middle of the night, and I didn’t want to disturb my sleeping aunt and uncle. There was nothing to be done, nothing that could help, so I did what I do best: I managed my panic by going into practical mode. I cleaned myself up, donned clean underwear, thankfully found pads in the bathroom and put one on, and I soaked and scrubbed my pajama bottoms, hung them up to dry. Then, I stripped the bed and soaked and scrubbed the sheets. I scrubbed the small spot on the mattress. I peed again to check the status of my bleeding, and I went to bed.
Every hour and a half to two hours, I woke up, peed, and checked the bleeding, sometimes changing the pad. Luckily, the bleeding was becoming less and less, my cramping almost entirely gone but coming back in occasional waves as if worried that I’d forget what had happened. No need to panic. This was a pretty straightforward miscarriage. You can wait until you return to NYC to manage the rest. It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay.
The next morning, I slowly packed my things that I had managed to strew about the night before, and I had to stop several times to let myself cry. One of the biggest triggers for my tears ended up being a stuffed armadillo with a baby in its belly that you could remove because of a velcro opening. Julia’s mom had bought for me when we were in San Antonio because she wanted to celebrate the exciting news. Every time I looked at it, the sudden onslaught of paralyzing grief would hit me. Eventually, I gathered the now-dry linens and my bags and made my way downstairs where I could hear Aunt Diana and Uncle John Paul in the kitchen. I placed my bags in the hall and the linens to the side of the stairs. Calmly, I rounded the corner, bracing myself to share the news, rehearsing what I’d say, which was along the lines of, “I had a miscarriage last night, so I rinsed the bed linens, but you’ll need to wash them. I left them by the stairs.”
When Aunt Diana turned to me with a big smile and a “Good morning,” I barely got the words, “I had a miscarriage” out of my mouth before my throat clogged and my tears choked me. Immediately, she was by my side, crying, and hugging me as I was still trying to get out the rest of my rehearsed lines. “The sheets are by the stairs. I rinsed them last night, but…”
“Why didn’t you wake us up???” is the first thing I remember her saying through her own tears.
It shocked me out of my own because the thought had honestly never occurred to me. I’m so used to being able to take care of things myself, even though I’ve been with the same loving man for almost 15 years now. I’ve just always seen myself as independent, and I rarely ask for help unless absolutely necessary, which often ends up with me being overworked–delegation was something I only learned in running the Medieval Forum in my graduate program. I think I answered with, “I took care of it. There wasn’t anything you could have done anyway.” To which, I think, she responded, “We could’ve been there for you!” I’m pretty certain at that point we just dissolved into tears again while Uncle John Paul quietly stood to the side, watching with concern, and then finally getting a chance to hug me after Aunt Diana let go.
At this point, Aunt Diana demanded that she drive me to the airport because, and I quote, “You’re in no condition to be driving!” I didn’t fight her on that, especially not with that tone in her voice. Uncle John Paul drove their truck as she drove me in my rental car to the airport, and she was right. I broke out crying several times on the way to the airport, and I still have the cloth handkerchief she gave me at home, which I will never throw away or lose.
The next several hours were a bit of a blur. I remember I kept checking the status of my bleeding on the plane, and again, nothing to worry about. Based on the way I returned, I hadn’t even had a chance to see John, I don’t think, because he was at work. I had made an appointment with the NYU student health center to see my normal NP in the Women’s Clinic because I had yet to see the obstetrician due to scheduling conflicts (the earliest they could’ve seen me was when I was in Austin). So I went straight to the health center, and Miriam confirmed that my experience sounded like I’d had a miscarriage. She immediately called the obstretrician to see if they could fit me in that day for an ultrasound to truly confirm it. Less than half an hour later, I was in a taxi heading to midtown, texting John an update, and he asked if I thought he should join me. I told him “no” because I didn’t think he’d need to leave work for this. Little did I know that I was in for an in-office D&C, or the vacuum from hell.
The nurse who handled me was the sweetest, most caring medical personnel I’ve ever interacted with. She hugged me, held my hand, handed me tissue after tissue, spoke to me softly in soothing Spanish, called me “honey” and occasionally “nena,” and explained every single thing that was happening as the older male doctor zoomed around and did his thing. When we went into the ultrasound room and he used a transvaginal ultrasound to show me my empty womb on the sonogram, more tears flowed, but he also pointed out that there was still tissue in my now-vacant womb and recommended the D&C. Had I known more about this procedure, I likely would’ve said, “FUCK NO” and then wait to let the rest of the miscarriage push the remaining tissue out. Then again, maybe not. If it had been about 14 hours since the miscarriage began and it was still in there, who’s to say it would’ve come out willingly? I don’t know.
What I do know is that experience is the most traumatizing thing I’ve ever gone through. Period. Getting my first period? Nah. That was a piece of cake. I had to go cheerlead at a football game, so I stole one of my mom’s tampons, read the box, and stuck it in. No biggie. Tearing my ACL and undergoing major surgery when I was 15? No big deal. So I had to relearn how to walk over the course of four months. Whatever. Witnessing disturbing fights between my parents before they divorced that left me in therapy in high school? Not that bad. As Monty Python says, “I got better.” Thinking I forgot my five-year-old sister at her kindergarten when I was 16 because I walked into an eerily quiet house, then speeding back to school to find her nowhere? It’s fiiiine. She was with her mom the whole time, and I’d just misremembered what we’d said the schedule was that morning. Nevermind the mini heart attack occuring inside my ribcage.
If you don’t know, an in-office D&C is basically a procedure involving a long, clear tube that they stick up inside your uterus through your vagina while it sucks everything out. Imagine that for just a moment if you will. You’ve been cramping for almost 24 hours at varying levels; you’ve just lost the potential for motherhood down a toilet; you’ve been bleeding at varying levels for the last 14 hours from an orifice between your legs; and the person you count on most for emotional support is 24 blocks away and can’t possibly make it to you in time to hold you while you cry in pain and loss and grief. It sucks and sucks until your abdomen feels like there can’t possibly be anything left for it to consume. And don’t even try not seeing the blood and tissue it spits out the other end because that’s a futile endeavor. Your eyes just naturally gravitate to this new form of terror, and the only solace you have is in the sweet Hispanic nurse with a Bronx accent holding your hand, saying, “I know, honey. It’s almost over.” The whole time you’re texting your emotional support through tear-filled, blurry vision: “No, stay at the office. It’s starting now.” “This really hurts.” “I wish you were here, too.”
The bleeding may last for four to seven days. After your next period, you can have sex again and use tampons. Before that, don’t insert anything into your vagina. If you have excessive bleeding or it continues for longer than a week, come back.
The worst part: You can try again after your next full cycle.
I don’t want to try again anytime soon. I’m still too traumatized by the horror of the raspberry plop, by the fear of blood on my sheets, by the suctioning of the tube of evacuation, by the lack of emotional support in the face of bloody tissue, by the silent stare of a stuffed armadillo.
Allow me to be clear: I have never felt guilt over this miscarriage. Never. And I never will. What I felt was pain, sorrow, grief, anger, fear. Or like the woman narrator of the Old English poem known as The Wife’s Lament, maybe I’d characterize it as “uhtceare” or “dawn-sorrow” because every following morning that I awoke for a long time, I felt a deep, soul-crushing weight upon my heart, a depression that took over two months for me to fight my way out of. I had never seen the tiny embryo on a sonogram or heard its rapid heart beat, not to mention wonder at the amazing pain and beauty of childbirth as my infant rests upon my bare chest. And yet I felt the loss of that child, of those moments, of those potential futures.
Today, I mourn and honor that memory, but I rejoice that history has not yet repeated itself.