Archive for the 'miscarriage' Category

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Poetry Contributor News

Book Cover Still Breathing by Antoinette Voute RoederPoet Antoinette Voûte Roeder

We are proud to celebrate with former poetry contributor Antoinette Voûte Roeder; Antoinette’s second volume of poetry, Still Breathing, is currently available through Amazon. “Whether it is writing about rain, kisses, a cup of tea, birds, God, prayer, Thomas Merton, the sea, clouds, hoarfrost, a beanpot, or aging, Roeder will captivate,” promises Reviews Editor Pegge Erkeneff Bernecker of Spiritual Directors International.

We hope you’ll take a moment to peruse the review. We featured Antoinette’s poem 21st birthday in November 2010 on the Fertile Source. Roeder’s first volume of poetry, Weaving the Wind, came out in 2006.

Poet Janina Karpinska

Former contributor Janina Karpinska (Fertile Source published her poem “Afterwards” also in November 2010) went on to make a radio show based on her vision of the ideal holistic health center. Karpinska writes she created “a memorial for babies lost in early miscarriage, which I’d like to think was a way of writing a kind of creative birth certificate for the real thing to happen and ‘catch up’ at some point.”

Karpinska also related that the day she came to record the program, someone had disturbed the recording equipment. Karpinska writes, “I felt like I’d carefully developed and carried my ‘baby’ all week and then turned up with no techie ‘nurses’ on hand to help me deliver – and Then – the first attempt to record the show and put it on my memory stick failed! I couldn’t believe it – I thought it was an awful mirror of nearly losing my baby.” She forged on and managed to record her show. We hope you’ll take a moment to give a listen to Karpinska’s radio program.

Ultrasound and Skull Tectonics

Two Poems by Christopher Flowers

Ultrasound

At six weeks we knew you as little
more than ethereal storm lingering
over pitch ocean. Your eye,
that of a great white-black, eternally
dilated. Pupillary halo
teasing shoreline.

The absence of thunder.

Delivery of your forecast
is cause for inquiry. Have they weathered
the piercing deluge of a full-bodied
tempest? Do they know
what it is to cling-to rely
on an obscure beacon,

elusive cadence on veiled horizon?

Skull Tectonics

You strained, and there was a fleshy
knoll-a crown covered in nimbi
wisps. Hours later, the conclusion
was drawn: pelvic difficulties.

I, shuffling nervously in scrubs
and surgical mask, clenched
(fists, molars, memories) outside
cool-tiled room.

Inside, you shivered, smiled
as I fumbled cameras upon entry,
gawked at the arrival-tributaries
of blood, vigorous towel work,

sudden animation of ashy limbs-
a sharp cry. Measuring, weighing,
counting. The implicit mystery
in something as simple as skull

tectonics.

Poetry by Christopher Flowers has appeared in Main Street Rag, Iodine, Ideomancer, and others. Read his recent poetry posted at the sci-fi E-zine Ideomancer.

Read Tania Pryputniewicz’s interview with Flowers, “The Common Ground of Emotion under Adversity: Witness/Father/Poet Christopher Flowers on ‘Ultrasound’ and ‘Skull Tectonics'”.

Afterwards

a poem by Janina Karpinska

She
wakes you gently-a vision in blue nylon,

and
asks if you’re ready for a cup of tea.

You
seem to be wearing an invisible helmet,

alarmingly
made of concrete, making it difficult to hear.

It
takes several attempts, and concerted effort,

just
short of hydraulics and pulleys, before

you
manage to lift your head up.

 

She
stands by you as you put your finger through the handle,

judging
its fit and weight-testing your strength as you

jerkily
swivel an articulated arm towards your mouth.

You
bring the two in alignment-using careful shifts

and
pauses-like the arm of a fun-fair machine-

maneuvering
over a grapple of prizes.

Excitement
as it reaches its target-a tiny sip,

a
dribble of success: mission accomplished.

 

You
tilt your head back, and swallow.

It’s
hot-the way you like it-almost solid,

like
a column of heat you can lean on.

Lukewarm wouldn’t have what it takes

to
support the weight of your head.

 

You’re
glad it’s not dark, or bitter; it’s a comfort,

soothing
and familiar, a little like kindness:

it
collects your tears as they silently fall,

like
it’s no big deal.

 

She
beams approval: you’re doing well; recovering nicely;

then
traffics past with her trolley-and-smiles.

 

Leaves
you holding the plain white cup

all
by yourself, grateful for its simplicity,

nothing
jazzy or fancy; busy or tiring; just

plain,
just this-white china, matching saucer.

 

You
start to get the hang of it,

ready
to contemplate the choice between

cellophane-wrapped
Madeira, or chocolate
biscuit. And,

as
you raise your cup higher, you notice in the bed opposite,

a
woman’s head, haloed by white pillows,

beside
a grotto of fruit and flowers.

Janina Karpinska is an artist-poet. She has an M.A. in Creative Writing & Personal Development(with merit) from Sussex University. She runs creative writing workshops in local shops and businesses: confessions / “coming clean” and “airing dirty laundry” @ the local launderette; a tattoo parlor; an aquatic store; an “adult boutique”-the most well attended. She would like to be a writing therapist attached to a general practice or ward. A poem about her father’s death is published in The Works vol 4 by Macmillan’s anthology of verse for children; a poem about her mother’s life-read at her funeral-is in a World Arts Platform publication on the theme of Home; a poem about being a failure has just been published in The Iron Book of New Humorous Verse. She loves experimental writers-and being experimental herself. She has started to “do” performance poetry: “She aspires to be normal / it’s her greatest ambition…”

Check out Janina’s interview, Reflections on Writing: Life, Laundry and Loss with Poet Janina Aza Karpinska, by poetry editor Tania Pryputniewicz.

A Book of Life in Ten Parts

A poem by Alana I. Capria 

1
There was no blue mark and then there was one. I thought in order: douche,
hanger, poison, stairs. Get it out. I pushed a fingertip against my navel
to feel for the fetus. This solid mass was already absorbed into my skin.
It would take a fillet knife to separate the silver skin from my own. When
I bled brown blood in a hotel room while on vacation, I thought
miscarriage. I cried into the dirty shower curtains and tried to hold onto
my uterus.
2
I suffered nightly. My child had a demon’s body and no face. I watched it
bend backwards and give birth to plastic dolls that squeaked mama while
falling into cracks between old floorboards. The child grew a rabbit’s
face and kicked the back of my seat in the car while laughing. Aren’t you
happy we have her, I kept asking the driver but he choked through his
laryngitis. The baby grew scars and porcelain cheeks. It kept running
towards the sugar bowl I kept at one end of the closet. Stay away. I have
to leave you, I kept saying until dawn.
3
During the day, I kept hearing children’s voices. They came from closet
doors and the basement stairs. I stayed in one room, my hair in my face,
and my hands pressed against my mouth. I screamed at the stroke of every
hour. Something followed me when I turned my back. I heard the child say,
you were the best mother you could be.
4
The woman on television walked through a tunnel of aborted fetuses. They
were monstrous, red and yellow tones set against the throbbing pink that
should have been the female vaginal canal. When she came out and held the
child after walking through a cliff-side of hungry corpses, the girl
asked, Why did you let me go? In my ear, a disembodied voice asked the
same question. I would have hurt you, I whispered back .
5
I gave a metropolitan church my baby’s name so that someone else could
remember her. In return, they emailed me a word processed certificate of
inclusion in their Book of Life. Later, they sent me emails urging
attendance at various pro-life rallies. Then my grandmother’s church began
a group that begged divine intervention for every woman contemplating
abortion. Will they take care of the babies the mothers were forced into
having, I asked while ripping pages out of hymnals around the church. I
counted matches and considered burning crosses on their judging altars.
6
My grandmother said that children come into the world with a loaf of bread
under their arms. It was a Cuban saying. She wanted to have a reason to
add the great prefix to her title. She and my mother stared at the
ultrasound picture with me. It is still so small, my mother said. I did
not tell them I had already scheduled an appointment with the closest
clinic. They envisioned carrying around a curly-headed baby while I looked
into the mirror and saw my arms burdened with dirty diapers instead of
pens. My child’s bread was already stale.
7
The fiancé saw the baby first while I lay on the OBGYN’s table with a
paper gown spread over my breasts. The ultrasound screen flashed with
heartbeat. I poked my finger at it. The doctor kept smiling and I felt
badly telling her I was not planning on keeping it. She gave me the glossy
picture and I imagined sitting on the basement steps and drinking cups of
bleach. I’m crazy, I would have told the doctors in the hospital. I can’t
have a baby when I want to kill myself. I can’t go through with this if
it’s already met the poison.
8
Then I heard the heartbeat. I was alone. The doctor put the stethoscope to
my ears and I heard the frantic drumming from my uterus. I felt relieved.
I was afraid of carrying around a cadaver unknowingly. I simply wanted to
fall asleep full and wake up empty. When the brown blood came weeks later
after I finally said I was having the abortion, another doctor would not
let me hear for the heartbeat again. I could not beg while naked and cold.
9
My child knew the scars on my legs and wrists, the macabre thoughts
preoccupying my time, and the suddenness of a manic temper plaguing
daylight hours. Her loss would have been easier if the fiancé had been
there. He could not be and so I gave her a new life. In words, I devoted
myself to her without fear of hungry and soiled sobs. I read pregnancy
pamphlets and magazines to know what she was like. I would not have liked
her larger. I would not have cared once her nine-month self passed out of
me.
10
I accepted an IV while tearing and fell asleep. I worried about the pain,
not the loss. I had never had anything stick my veins. My dreams were
pink. I tasted anesthesia in the back of my throat. I woke and thought of
water. I wrote a series of poems and hand-sewed the binding. The needle
pricked my fingers several times. My fiancé took me to the Hudson River
at midnight. We stared at the skyline until the book dropped from my hand.
The tide flipped through the pages. I imagined our daughter reading my
confessions and nodding her forgiveness. I would have hurt you, I told her
again and she believed me.

Alana I. Capria (born 1985) has an MFA in Creative Writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University. She resides in Northern New Jersey with her fiancé and rabbits. Her chapbooks and links to other publications can be found at http://alanaicapria.com.

Please check out poetry editor Tania Pryputniewicz’s interview with Alana, “Abbreviated Motherhood, Abortion as Form of Love, and Revision as Medicine with Alana I. Capria,” on She Writes.

A Letter Home

by Tonja Robins

On Spain’s southern coast goats come
with iron bells and thick black hooves,
their steps sure along sea cliffs
dotted with pale purple statice.

Below I lie and try to string
cowries on a fraying cord,
my breasts and belly pressing
the flat rock. A severed head

and fins float on the seafoam
while the keening of gulls scrapes my ear,
raw as the crying machine
that pulled your seed from my womb.

Last night I bit an orange
and white maggots squirmed
from its flesh. Tell me again
the careful way to choose.

Tonja Robins lives in Iowa City, IA with her son and four cats.  She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and now teaches literature and writing at a nearby community college. To read her interview with Tania Pryputniewicz, go to Tania’s blog on She Writes.

Chemistry

 An essay by Jamie Odeneal

Quinn and I were tagging along on Norm’s work trip to San Diego when I found out I was pregnant for the second time. When Norm and I had tried for our first baby, I’d stopped taking the pill and conceived roughly two weeks later, resulting in our daughter, Quinn. The efficiency of our efforts the first time around greatly satisfied my inner control freak. This time, I wasn’t at all surprised to find that things had progressed along the exact same timeline. I had expected no different.

Because of the timing of my cycle, I’d including in my packing list for the trip a box of three sticks on which to pee. The first two mornings in San Diego produced disappointing results, but then on the third day, I finally spotted the faintest of pink lines in the test window. Squinting at the test in the bathroom of our hotel room, I called to Norm, “Good job, honey! You knocked me up again!”

Norm hurried into the bathroom with Quinn chasing after him. He strained to see the line while she grabbed at his legs repeating, “Pick up! Pick up!”

“I don’t know,” he sighed and laid the test on the counter before lifting Quinn up to our level. “That barely looks like a line to me. Maybe you should just test again when we get home.”  Even though the weak evidence didn’t convince Norm, I was thrilled. My pregnancy with Quinn also began with the faintest whisper of a line. I’d continued to test over the next few days, throwing god knows how much money at the First Response manufacturers. Each time the line grew darker, my belief that I was indeed carrying a baby, or at least a promising ball of cells, grew more certain.

That morning in our room at the Hyatt, I knew it was just a matter of days before the test showed an unmistakable positive result. Also, I had to think it was more than lingering air sickness that was causing the nausea I’d had since arrived in San Diego. Surely, a sibling for Quinn, and almost certainly the final addition to our family, was on his or her way.

That day, while Norm attended his conference, I rented a car and drove with Quinn up to Long Beach to visit my friend Madeline and her two kids. I hadn’t told her we were going to start “trying” and I was beyond anxious to spill the beans, to share with somebody what was going on in my uterus. Our drive on Route 5 took us through terrain as different from Virginia as any I’d seen, with its plunging valleys with little vegetation other than the occasional palm tree or patch of brush. The southern California landscape was unfamiliar to this east coast girl, but I felt a tingle of déjà vu when we passed exits for towns like La Jolla, Del Mar, San Juan Capistrano, Laguna Beach, familiar to me from movies and television.

I passed the ninety-minute drive fantasizing about telling our families. I remembered well enough from the first time around that there were few things I’d enjoyed as much as telling people I was pregnant. How long would we wait?  Certainly longer than last time, which was practically before the test stick dried. Maybe we’d get Quinn a “future big sister” t-shirt she could sport the next time she saw her grandparents. I glanced at the rearview mirror occasionally to check on my little girl, the person who’d made a mother out of me, and wondered how having a sibling would affect her. She was slumbering in the rented car seat, blissfully oblivious as to how her life was about to change.

I was even more convinced of my condition each time I munched on the giant lemon poppy seed muffin I’d brought along on the ride. The muffin had looked so appealing at the hotel Starbucks that morning, but now it just tasted like buttered sawdust. When I tried washing it down with sips from my water bottle, it just seemed to expand the taste in my mouth rather than wash it away. This strange aversion to a seemingly benign food was definitely familiar.

When we pulled up at Madeline’s apartment building in Long Beach, I could barely wait to tell her the happy news. I decided that after I used the bathroom, which was becoming increasingly more necessary with every mile I drove, I would spend a few minutes exchanging polite pleasantries, taking a tour of her new place, remarking on the cuteness of her kids, making sure Quinn was comfortable and entertained in her new surroundings, and then I’d make my big announcement.

Madeline rushed out to meet us, and we hugged and made the appropriate comments about how wonderfully grown up and beautiful each other’s children were. Then we headed upstairs to her apartment, each of us with a toddler slung on our hips.

“Stay here with Madeline while Mommy goes potty, okay?” I said to Quinn when we were inside. Quinn toddled off towards Madeline’s little girl, Frankie Mae, and they went to work on the big box of Legos. 

There in the bathroom just a few seconds later, I discovered that I was unequivocally not pregnant. Staring at the unmistakable evidence, certainly more than mere spotting, I felt confused, a little dizzy, profoundly disappointed, and strangely, a little ashamed. I had let myself feel the excitement of another pregnancy, arrogantly assuming it was a done deal. The immediacy of our conception efforts the first time around had led me to smugly believe it would be just as easy the second time. Now I was dealing with the aftermath of what I supposed was a “chemical pregnancy”-essentially a very early miscarriage.

I needed to ask Madeline for some feminine product of some sort. I suppose I could have just lied and told her that Aunt Flo had made her appearance a bit earlier than expected, but I needed to tell her, to tell somebody, what had just happened. I sat paralyzed on her toilet listening to the animated sounds of Quinn and Frankie Mae playing in the living room.

A few minutes later, I came out of the bathroom and sunk to the floor next to Quinn and pulled her onto my lap.

“So,” I began telling Madeline, “I was pregnant for a couple of days, I think, but apparently that’s all over now.” I could feel my lips quivering, a sign that my body was betraying me for the second time that day. I am not a public crier, not even among friends.

Madeline, in her wonderful snarky way, responded with, “Oh Jesus, did you just have a miscarriage in my toilet?”  And then she went on to tell me that I didn’t want a September baby anyway because I’d be right on the borderline with school enrollment dates. Throughout our debriefing about what had just happened, she never got emotional about it with me, and I was grateful for that. What I needed was humor, not pity. I didn’t want to cry. In fact, I didn’t even feel like a chemical pregnancy, as opposed to a much later miscarriage, granted me the right to cry. I knew full well it could be a lot worse.

Madeline and I didn’t dwell on the subject for too long, and within thirty minutes, we’d moved on to talking about our kids, gossiping about people we knew, and criticizing other people’s parenting techniques-all of our favorite topics of conversation.

Quinn and I left Long beach just before sundown. Once Madeline and I had said our goodbyes, and I was back in the rental car, it occurred to me that I had spent large chunks of the day not even thinking about my brief pregnancy gone wrong. I don’t get to see Madeline that often, and we had too much to catch up on to linger over unpleasantness that, in the scheme of things, didn’t mean very much. But now that I was leaving Madeline’s humor and companionship behind, I felt blue again.

Quinn fell asleep just a few minutes after hitting the road, which was fine by me because I was in the mood to think and drive in silence. The sun set and we drove past those familiar-sounding towns again, this time in the reverse order:  Laguna Beach, San Juan Capistrano, Del Mar, La Jolla. The deep valleys of southern California felt even more disorienting in the dark, without the context of the surrounding landscape. All I could see was the ribbon of car lights plunging and climbing in front of me, and I fought the urge to slam on the breaks to keep from falling. I was also quite suddenly starving.

I returned to my lemon poppy seed muffin, now slightly stale on the seat next to me. I mindlessly nibbled at it, thinking about how I’d tell Norm what had happened when we got back to the hotel. I wondered if he’d be disappointed, or if, unlike me, he’d been able to temper his enthusiasm, waiting to see more convincing evidence. After a few bites I realized that, despite its slightly stale texture, the muffin tasted markedly better than it had that morning, more like an actual baked good instead of just buttered sawdust. It amazed me how quickly my body and my appetite were returning to normal. I wondered if my mind and heart would follow suit.

Quinn was starting to wake up by the time I spotted the lights of San Diego. In typical Quinn fashion, she launched into her spirited commentary on everything she saw the minute she regained consciousness.

“Lights! Cars! San-dee-go! Mommy drivin’!” she shouted in no particular order from the back seat. I listened to my beautiful, chatty, wonderfully precocious Quinn and felt ashamed of my disappointment. Looking at her, how could I have ventured into the realm of self-pity for even a moment? So this pregnancy had been a chemical one, some sort of chemical reaction gone wrong, a failed science experiment. I had not lost a child, but merely the hope of one, and not forever. We’d try again.

I considered how perfectly our first experiment had turned out. My daughter Quinn was the result of exactly the right chemistry, a biological miracle I could not take for granted. Even if I never had another successful pregnancy again, I couldn’t be ungrateful. When Quinn entered our lives, we became a family of three, a perfectly balanced equation. I almost couldn’t ask for more.

 I pulled off at the exit and headed downtown. I couldn’t wait to see Norm, but not to have him commiserate with me. My hour and a half of brooding was enough. Since we already had the car, maybe the three of us would drive into Old Town for some Mexican food. After the day’s events, I thought I’d treat myself to a large plateful of something spicy, some fiery dish that almost certainly would’ve given me heartburn the day before. I thought I might even order one of those giant margaritas roughly the size of my own head. I might even raise my glass, with both hands if necessary, and toast to our luck, to our family, to chemistry.

 

Jamie Odeneal, a mother of two, lives and writes in Arlington, Virginia. Her essays on pregnancy and motherhood have appeared in The Washington Post, Mothering, and Fit Pregnancy. She is currently working on her first young adult novel.

Girls with Gardenias

A poem by Kristin Roedell

I think some of you
would have  been musical
like my brother;
rhythm travels the pulsing red highways
and encrypts itself in clustered cells.
You may have felt him play the pipes;
it filled my veins with immense
thrumming
like a midsummer beehive.

I’ve imagined you as tall grey-eyed
young men on a cabin porch
where I sit in a straight backed chair, squirrel
rifle over my knees
and the eyes of Katie Elder,
but in dreams you are
girls with corsages of gardenias
tied with ribbon to wrists
white and curved as handles
of china teacups.

When the night is still,
you have your own rhythm.
I cannot find an end to your voices,
and this is the source of the thrumming now.

Should I plant trees,
so that a hundred years from now
what nearly existed
will dwarf what I did birth?
Should I lay out white stones
on a hilltop where the mist
and the moss lie down like lovers,
allowed to keep what they make?

I hope to find you,

but mostly I try to forget:
every cool touch I cannot lay on your brow,
every peppermint sticky hand
I cannot hold.
Kristin Roedell graduated from Whitman College (B.A. English 1984) and the University of Washington Law School (J.D. 1987). She practiced law in Kitsap County Washington, and is now retired. Her poetry has appeared in Switched on Gutenberg, Ginosko, Flutter, Damselflypress, Chantarelle’s Notebook, Eclectica, Quill and Parchment (featured poet January 2010) Open Minds Quarterly, Breath and Shadow, Ekphrasis, and Four and Twenty. Other poems will appear in Chest, City Arts, Soundings Review, and Pilgrimage. Her chapbook Seeing in the Dark was published in 2009 by Tomato Can Press. She is a member of Poets and Writers Association, and the co-editor of “Cradle Songs: An Anthology on Motherhood“, forthcoming from Quill and Parchment Press, Winter 2010.

Incompatible with Life

Essay by Cara Holman

My miscarriage happened so long ago, that I rarely think about it consciously anymore. But when my gynecologist recently informed me that she needed to perform a uterine biopsy on me “just to be on the safe side”, memories and feelings that I thought I had safely buried, came flooding back to me.

It took me back to the time when I had a lively three-year-old at home, and was expecting my second child. I had just passed the second trimester mark, and now that the morning sickness was starting to subside, I was basking in the glow of my pregnancy. My life seemed picture perfect- I was happily married, had an active, healthy young son, and lived in the house of my dreams high up on a hill in Seattle, overlooking the lights of downtown at night. On a really clear day, you could even see Mt. Ranier through the window of our breakfast nook.

Motherhood was everything I had hoped it would be, and then some, in spite of the occasional temper tantrums- my son’s that is, not mine. I could hardly wait for the day when I would hold my second child in my arms, a day that I believed would cement us as a family, rather than merely a couple with a young child. I was one of the last of my circle of friends to get pregnant with a second child, believing that a three to four year spacing between children would be ideal. Jeff would be almost exactly three and a half years old when his new sibling was born in the spring, and I envisioned long days in the park nursing my newborn while I watched Jeff and his friends running around on the playground.

I woke that morning with a feeling of foreboding, but it had nothing to do with my pregnancy, or me either, for that matter. Today was the day my husband was scheduled to have arthroscopic knee surgery. Although his surgeon had assured us that it was a very straightforward procedure, with every expectation of success, still it weighed heavily on my mind as I slowly dressed for the day. I had made arrangements to drop Jeff off at a friend’s house, thinking that a hospital was no place for a restless young child.

“Don’t worry about what time you’re done,” Diane says cheerfully. “I’ll take the boys to the playground this morning so they can release a little energy, then I’ll give them lunch and they can play in our playroom or watch a video. He’ll be fine,” she assures me, nodding her head at Jeff who is already running around the house with Tyler.

As Tom and I head for the hospital, I notice the fall color by the side of the road, and relax just a bit. The muted October sunlight raises my spirits and I can’t help but think what a shame it is that we aren’t taking advantage of this nice weather. We should be heading out to watch the boats in the ship canal, or spending the day at the zoo instead of the hospital. Still, I have every expectation that in a few short weeks, things will be completely back to normal again, and maybe the nice weather will hold out for just a bit longer.

While we wait nervously for Tom to be wheeled into surgery, I suddenly remember that I have a prenatal visit scheduled for that morning, and in the flurry of activity with the pre-op and all, I had forgotten to cancel it. “Go ahead and keep your appointment,” he tells me. “I’ll be in surgery for several hours and it won’t take you long. Forty-five minutes at the outside.” He was right. Erica’s house is just up the road, and I could be there and back in almost less than the amount of time it takes to talk about it. We had thrilled at the sound of the first fetal heartbeat at the last visit, so this would just be a routine check, nothing to get too excited about.

I pause on the front steps of Erica’s house to once again take in the beauty of the day. There are some chrysanthemums blooming in her garden, in all shades of yellow and orange, and I am admiring them when Erica comes to the door. “Where’s Jeff?” is her first question, as she shows me into the upstairs room she uses to see her patients. While most other nurse-midwifes practice out of traditional offices, Erica prefers to see patients in her own house, and I fully appreciate the homey, non-antiseptic atmosphere. I look over at the toy bin in the corner, and smile as I remember how delighted Jeff was to discover it on our last visit.

I explain that I have left Jeff with a friend while my Tom has knee surgery. “I’m kind of in a hurry to get back to the hospital,” I conclude. “Anyway, I’ve been feeling fine. Great, in fact, now that the morning sickness is over. I guess it’s still too early to feel the baby moving?”

Erica does a quick calculation in her head. “Let’s see, you’re 15, no almost 16 weeks along. You could feel the baby move at any time now.” She works briskly and efficiently, all the while keeping up a conversation. It is when she pauses mid-sentence to listen for the fetal heart tones, that I see an expression of concern cross her face, and then just as quickly disappear.

“You know,” she says, in a carefully measured voice, “I’m not picking up the fetal heartbeat.” She glances at her clock on the wall. “I don’t want to take up any more of your time today. I know you’re in a hurry to get back to the hospital. I’ve been having a little bit of trouble with my equipment lately. Why don’t you just come back on Thursday and we’ll check again. I’m sure everything is okay,” she hastens to assure me.

I suddenly get a feeling of déjà vu. Everyone seems to be assuring me things will be just fine: first my husband’s surgeon, then Diane and now Erica. Still, I’m not overly concerned at this point. If Erica isn’t worried, why should I be?

I hardly give the matter another thought in the ensuing days, something highly unusual for a chronic worrier like me, to be sure, but my mind is on my husband’s recovery, and after all, hadn’t Erica assured me everything would be okay? Between taking care of Tom, and keeping Jeff busy, the next three days pass rapidly, until I am once again back at Erica’s to listen for the fetal heart tones.

It is when she still can’t pick them up, for the second time now, that the first inklings of fear begin to seep into my mind. With Tom well on his way to recovery, I begin to focus again on my pregnancy. Why isn’t Erica picking up the fetal heart tones? Is it still too early? No, that doesn’t make sense. We heard them clearly at my twelve week visit. Was her equipment really on the fritz last time, or was that just an excuse she made to make me feel better?

As I look up at her, I see at once that this time she is concerned, though she still keeps her air of brisk efficiency about her. “I think we should schedule you for an ultrasound this afternoon,” she says, “just to be on the safe side.” I notice she is not so quick to reassure me everything will be fine this time.

She steps out of the room to make the arrangements. I take a deep breath and try not to focus on the fear that is slowly threatening to engulf me. What possible logical explanation is there for her not being able to hear the fetal heartbeat this time around? If it is not her equipment that is at fault… But here my mind clearly draws a line. I will not think about the other possibility. What could possibly have gone wrong? Wouldn’t I have known it if there was a problem with my pregnancy?

An hour later, I am in a darkened room, while a young woman whose nametag reads “Jessie” runs a probe over my abdomen. I am not really in any discomfort, except perhaps a little from having a full bladder. As this is my first ultrasound ever, never having had the occasion to need one during my first pregnancy, I don’t really know what to expect. The grainy picture on the screen is quite frankly a disappointment. I have no idea what I’m seeing. I try squinting to see if I can almost make out the baby’s features, and I think I can see a head and body emerge from the black and white image. However, try as I might, I can’t seem to detect any movement.

I glance over at Jessie again. Her eyes are glued to the computer screen as she continues to move the probe around. “Can you see the baby moving?” I ask her hopefully.

“Well,” Jessie says, in the carefully measured tones that I have since learned to equate with bad news, “it’s difficult to say. The radiologist will read it this afternoon and call your doctor with the results.”

“Midwife,” I correct her. I try one more time. “If the heart was beating, would you be able to tell?”

Jessie’s face remains impassive. I notice she still studiously avoids eye contact with me. “The radiologist will read it,” she reiterates firmly, and chastened, I lapse into silence. Although it will be a full two more hours before Erica calls me at home with the news, in my heart I have already read the writing on the wall. I know not how, I know not why, but apparently my baby has died. I am only 31 years old. I have had one non-eventful full-term pregnancy. I have a healthy young son. I myself have always enjoyed good health, and now with no rhyme or reason, they tell me my baby has died.

I feel full of grief, heartbroken, bewildered and inconsolable. Why me? I keep asking myself. Why me? I quite honestly don’t understand. If the baby died, why didn’t I miscarry spontaneously? Why should I believe what they tell me? What if they’re wrong and there’s nothing wrong with the baby? My head is swirling with questions. It is all I can do to get through the rest of the day. Erica drives over and leaves me with some inspirational books about miscarriages and I try to make sense of them. I cry a lot, being careful not to do so in front of Jeff. Still, he senses something is wrong and he is very clingy and insecure that night, adding a layer of guilt on top of my grief.

I am scheduled for a pre-op the next day, and Tom accompanies me to the visit. Somehow, the irony of the situation strikes me. A week ago I was accompanying him to his surgery. Now it will be my turn. When we spoke our wedding vows a mere six years ago, who would have imagined that we would reach the “in sickness” part of “in sickness and in health” so soon? How can this be?

A very pregnant woman checks me in, chattering away about how she only has one more week of work left before she takes her maternity leave. It is her first child, she tells me, and she is very excited. I manage a weak smile. Here she is just bursting with life and vitality. She has a live baby kicking and turning inside of her, while my womb has become a tomb. A place of death. In a week or two, she will hold her baby in her arms. I never will. What went wrong?

As she checks my chart to see what lab work I am scheduled for, she breaks off suddenly, and a look of pity crosses her face. “I am so sorry,” she says in a low voice. “I had no idea what you were in for, and here I am chattering away about my baby…”

“You couldn’t have known,” I reassure her. Is everyone going to pity me now, I wonder. Be afraid to talk about babies in front of me? I am to find out later that the answer is yes, at least initially.

We finish with the financial office, the lab, the anesthesiologist, and now there only remains to meet with the surgeon, a Dr. Olson. He is a very young man and I feel almost sorry for him. Clearly he is in the awkward position of having to break bad news to a woman he has never laid eyes on before. Funny, I already seem to be in the pattern of trying to make others feel less uncomfortable, when shouldn’t they be comforting me?

Dr. Olson is talking to us in a calm voice, a tone I have since learned to be suspicious of. It seems that the calmness of a physician’s voice is in inverse proportion to the severity of the situation, and Dr. Olson is very calm. Too calm. He tells us he is sorry, that these things happen more often than one supposes, that there was nothing I did to cause it. In his way, he is trying to make me feel better I guess, but all I want to do right now is to curl up in a little ball and cry my pain to the universe.

He is still talking, and I struggle to keep up with him. He is saying something about some grape-like structures the radiologist saw in my uterus. I note that Dr. Olson is speaking very earnestly now, and searching my face as if there is something terribly important that I am to comprehend. Why would I care about these grape clusters in my uterus and why is he telling me this now? Does he think making small talk will cheer me up? If so, it’s not working. His words continue to wash over me, not fully penetrating until a single word lurches out at me. Chemotherapy.

I am stunned. I look around the room, searching for clues. Is he talking to me? Wrong patient, I want to tell him, but my lips won’t form the words. I’m the one whose baby died, remember? You’re confusing me with some cancer patient. But he goes on speaking. Apparently I have something called a molar pregnancy. A partial mole, he amends, since at one point there was a viable fetus. Well, maybe not so viable after all. He continues to tell me that the fetus had a condition which made it “incompatible with life”. There was nothing I could have done to save my pregnancy. Is this consolation? I hardly know.

What I do know, or least come to understand as I relive his words in my mind that weekend, awaiting Monday’s surgery, is that not only has my baby died, but my levels of  hCG, the pregnancy hormone, are seriously elevated and this is considered a pre-cancerous condition. A week ago I was living in blissful ignorance, still believing I was carrying a healthy baby, when really all the while, some pre-cancerous cells were multiplying inside of me, and my baby had already died.

Cancer! Okay, pre-cancer, but still! I fluctuate between disbelief and horror. Except for fiery car crashes, there is scarcely anything else in this world that brings the same level of dread and horror to my mind. Cancer! This all seems like a bad dream. I wildly consider doing nothing, but how could the doctors be wrong? They do this everyday for a living. Surely they know what they’re doing.

Monday I check into the hospital for a D & C, and go home hours later. It is a long journey to recovery. There is of course the physical healing, which in a funny kind of way is the least of my immediate problems. A week after my surgery, I am back on my feet and more or less my old self. The emotional recovery is much more difficult.

I beg my friends to tell all of our mutual acquaintances about my miscarriage, so I don’t have to repeat seeing the shock on everyone’s face when I inform them that I am no longer pregnant. I still encounter pity, and it is wearying. Everyone means well, though. I keep reminding myself of that. The cards and flowers and meals come pouring in. Almost like someone just died. Wait, I guess someone did just die, but it’s hard for me to know how to think about my miscarriage. Was it a baby? A fetus? The words “incompatible with life” come back many times to haunt me. Was it ever a baby? I finally decide yes.

I also decide not to ask what gender the fetus/baby was, and consequently, I never name it. It is never to become “he” or “she”. It will always remain “it”. It hurts less that way. And because inducing labor was considered too dangerous and I ended up having a D & C instead, I never laid eyes on my child. In fact, the only tangible proof I have that I was ever pregnant in the first place, besides the mounting hospital bills of course, is the ultrasound. I ask Erica if she can get me a copy of the ultrasound picture as a keepsake of sorts, and she obliges. So now, all I have left of the pregnancy is the grainy picture.

But I understand, even as I grieve for the loss of my baby and the loss of my dreams, that I have far greater immediate problems to deal with. I myself am not out of the woods, with the risk of cancer looming over me. I learn at my post-op that I will have to have my hCG blood levels monitored for a year. If they don’t decline, and eventually go down to zero, I will have to repeat the D & C. And if that is not successful in eradicating the residue of these “grape-like” structures, then we will talk about chemo. Dr. Olson hastens to assure me though, that even if this worst case scenario comes to pass, this type of pre-cancer (or would it be considered full-fledged cancer at that point?) is highly susceptible to chemotherapy and very curable. This is like a bad dream. I simply cannot believe that Dr. Olson is sitting here calmly discussing chemo with me as if it was an everyday occurrence.

It is amazing however, what the mind can get used to. As the next few weeks pass, my life begins to return to normal. In the first place, I have a demanding three-year-old to care for and a husband also recovering from recent surgery, and knowing I am needed helps ground me back in reality. The frequency of my hCG tests decreases, and I start to tolerate being poked constantly by a needle, without feeling like I need to pass out. The trick, I soon discover, is not to watch the needle go in or to look at the vials of blood after they are drawn.

The much harder part is the waiting, between when I have my blood drawn and when my results are available. The uncertainty is almost worse than receiving bad new. I try so hard to put it out of my mind, telling myself that worrying about it won’t make things any better, but worrying is not a rational emotion and I am only moderately successful in talking myself out of my fears. The day at last arrives, three months later, when my hCG level is almost zero, and I finally let myself believe that I will soon be able to put this pre-cancer business behind me.

Friends and family have been tremendously supportive, and people finally stop treating me with kid gloves, and begin talking about babies in front of me again. I watch four women I know from Jeff’s co-op preschool, and then my own sister, go on to deliver healthy babies. I am happy for them, I really am, although inside I still feel a twinge of pain, and yes, some jealousy when I see someone with their newborn.

I also finally allow myself to think about what I will do when my twelve months of hCG level monitoring are up, if my test results are still clean. Will I still try for another pregnancy? I think yes, but defer making the decision until I am actually faced with it. I am seeing an ob/gyn now. Erica has sadly informed me that since I am now considered “high-risk”, she can no longer provide my care. It is a label that I never asked for, and have a hard time dealing with. How can I be high-risk when all my life I’ve been healthy? Why did this have to happen to me? What did I do, or not do, to deserve it?

There are two things that cause me to re-evaluate my life and contribute to making me feel less sorry for myself, and aid in my healing. In the first place, I find out that I am not alone. It turns out that when others learn of my miscarriage, it makes it okay for them to share their own miscarriage stories with me. I am simply amazed to learn how many women I know have experienced miscarriages in the past, and yet I never had any idea. I can’t decide if this is due to the taboo about talking about death in general, or if it simply doesn’t come up in the course of everyday conversation.

In any event, it gives me a tremendous sense of relief to be able to share my feelings with other women who have gone through a similar experience, because by now, most of my friends have made it clear that they think it is time for me to move on, and they are tired of hearing about my miscarriage. In a way I can hardly blame them, but should there really be an arbitrary time limit for grief? Eventually, I do arrive at the point where I can talk conversationally about my miscarriage without my eyes welling up with tears, and the need to discuss it all the time diminishes.

But I said that there were two things that caused me to re-examine all my belief systems. The second is that the day my hCG level finally drops to zero, and I am cautiously optimistic for the future, no, make that joyous, I call my mother to share the good news. After congratulating me, Mom, it seems has news of her own to share, and not such good news at that, although she tells it so matter-of-factly that I am momentarily caught off guard. She has been diagnosed with a pituitary tumor and needs to undergo surgery. Brain surgery. Oh, Mom! I am absolute convinced that this is a death sentence for her, and the thought of losing my beloved mother is unbearable. My own problems pale in comparison to hers.

I am to learn that day that problems are only relative, and that no matter how bad things seem, they can always be worse. Mom’s situation is hands-down worse. But not hopeless. I also learn that where there’s life, there’s hope, and that while time may not exactly heal all wounds, it at least it softens them and makes them easier to bear. I discover that contained within us, humans have an almost limitless capacity for physical, emotional, and also spiritual healing. It is not an easy process though. It takes time and patience to live life courageously in the face of adversity, and sometimes, just when you think things are getting better, bam! You are knocked down again by another crisis.

Life seems to be all about the process of reaching the pinnacle, being knocked off of it, and working your way back up slowly and painstakingly. I once believed that there was a point in everyone’s life when things kind of came together for them, and then they would ride off into the sunset without a backward glance. Now I know better. There are no happily-ever-afters. There are just happy-for-nows.

Although I never would have believed it the day Erica told me my baby had died, I did in time recover from my miscarriage, which is to say, I sometimes remember the time with sadness, but I have moved on with my life. Yes, it has helped that I was fortunate enough to be able to give birth to a healthy baby girl eighteen months later, and a second son, also healthy, five years after that. And that my mother recovered from her surgery and went on to live another nineteen years. There have been ups and downs over the years to be sure. One of the biggest “downs” was being diagnosed with breast cancer in October of 2006. But I have to quickly look on the bright side even of that. My cancer was caught early, and I was given an excellent prognosis, as good as anyone can get, although I understand now even more completely than I did 21 years ago when I had the miscarriage that there are no guarantees in life. Life is completely what you make it, and if my mother taught me one thing in life (and she taught me plenty!) it is always to look on the bright side and count your blessings. My mother’s cup was always full to the brim, never half-empty or even half-full. I strive every day to emulate her.

Which brings me around to the beginning of the story. Six months ago when I was told I had to have a uterine biopsy, all I could think about was that this was somehow related to my molar pregnancy/miscarriage, and that I had been unwittingly harboring some kind of insidious slow-growing cancer inside my uterus for the past two decades. I was relieved to eventually receive a clean pathology report, along with the assurance from my gynecological oncologist that benign fibroids were the culprit this time.

I know this isn’t necessarily the end of the story, and that there will in all likelihood be other challenges in my life, possibly more cancer, and almost certainly more biopsies. The label “high risk” has stuck to me permanently now. I also know though, that I contain within me the capability for dealing with adversity, and for living life fully, and with courage. And perhaps that’s the most lasting legacy of all from my miscarriage.

Cara Holman joined The Women with Cancer Writing Group at Oregon Health & Science University after a cancer diagnosis three years ago. Since then she has had over three dozen personal essays, creative nonfiction stories and short form poetry published both online and in print anthologies. She blogs about books and writing at her blog Prose Posies .

Into the Weeds

Fiction by Curt Alderson

So I stop by the apartment during my lunch hour the other day, and there’s this little yellow slip in the mailbox telling me Sonny’s at the downtown branch and I’ve got to go sign for him.  I got, like, thirty minutes before I’m supposed to clock back in, so I drop the rest of the mail on the kitchen table and hot-foot it to the post office. 

Sonny’s there, waiting, all bubble wrapped and stamped.  I hand my little yellow slip across the counter to the clerk.  She slides another one back at me.  I sign the thing, scoop up the package, then race back across town.  By the time I make it to the office, I’m ten minutes late. But nobody seems to notice.

I take the package in with me and prop it against the wall of my cubicle as I check the messages on my voice mail.  I lean back in my chair and stare at the row of stamps in the upper right-hand corner.  There’s no name on the thing (other than my own), but the return address is from Richmond so I figure it’s from Megan.  We talked the other day.  She called to tell me all about it.  This was two days after the service.

She was wrung out-you could hear it in her voice-and I really felt bad for her.  But I was put off too, at first.  Genuinely pissed.  I mean, my best friend dies and gets planted; he’s six-feet-deep and cold before I so much as hear about it.  Megan says she didn’t even think to call me until it was too late.  Somebody said something at the service-asked about me-and that was the first time I crossed her mind. 

So we’re talking on the phone and she ends up falling to pieces before she can even finish whatever it is she wants to tell me.

“Look,” I say, “forget it.  It’s okay.  I understand.”  Jesus.  Her old man dies, and she’s apologizing to me?

I finish the day out.  I do my time until four, then split.  I tuck Sonny up under my arm and head for the parking garage.  Traffic is hell outside, so I decide to let things simmer down before I make my way back home.  I stop off at Leon’s for a cold one.  Out in the parking lot, I lock my doors, leave Sonny on the passenger seat.

They got the overhead fans turning inside, but it’s hotter than forty hells.  Geraldine’s tending bar.  She says the AC’s on the blink, but Happy Hour’s been extended until eight.  “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away,” she says to me with a wink.

“Seems I heard that,”  I say back.

           

I get home close to nine.  I can smell whatever my neighbors had for supper as I move down the hallway.  It’s a weird combination:  meatloaf,  spaghetti, tuna, grilled onions.  The stale air hangs hot and heavy all around me.  It’s like breathing someone else’s body heat.  A couple of folks have their TV’s going full tilt.  I hear them through the doors.  Sit-coms.  Hollow laughter. 

There’s a cool rush of air when I open my door.  It’s dark inside.  I cut on the lamp next to the easy chair and make my way into the kitchen.  There’s some cold fried chicken in the fridge, leftovers from a couple of nights ago.  I pull the plate out, snap a beer off the six pack I picked up on the way in, and settle into my chair.

I get the TV going and dig in.  I left it on some God-awful station the night before-the Learning Channel or something-but by the time I figure this out, I’m up to my elbows in chicken grease.  The remote’s sitting next to me, but I figure what’s the use?  I just sit there, stripping meat off a breast bone, watching this geek go on and on about plankton levels in the North Sea. 

After the chicken, I think of Sonny.  He’s still out in the car, waiting like he has been since work.  I drop my dish in the sink with the others and go out to the parking lot to fetch him.

Megan’s a very meticulous girl.  That’s not something she picked up from her old man; I can assure you of that.  She’s triple wrapped everything in plastic and used up almost half a roll of Scotch tape.  Eventually, I pull the videocassette free from all the wrapping and pop it in the machine.  There’s a note-card taped to the side of the bubble wrap.  I peel it off and hold it up under the lamp to get a better look.

Ben,

It’s not the same as being there, but I wanted you to have this.  I know how much my dad meant to you.  He talked about you lots.

Look me up the next time you’re in town.  We’ve got a spare bedroom and would love to have you as our guest.  Mi casa, su casa.

Take care,

Meg

I set the note down on the coffee table.  For a second, I think about going back out, maybe catching a band somewhere.  Megan’s all heart.  I know she means well.  But I’m creeped out by the whole thing.  No other way to put it. 

I go back to the kitchen, open the fridge, and check for limes.  There’s one left.  It’s rolled behind a can of Hi-C, so I almost miss it.  I reach in and pull it out.  I take it to the chopping block by the sink, cut it into four fat wedges, and mix a gin and tonic.  The tonic water’s half-flat and the gin is rot-gut.  Just like Sonny used to like them, I think to myself, almost smiling.

 

Sonny and Tina had been married only a year or two when I first met them.  Back then, I was still living in this little three-bedroom cracker box out in the burbs.  Sonny and Tina lived next door.  Our houses were the last two in the cul-de-sac and we had adjoining backyards that ran right up to this thick stand of trees.  The woods were choked with kudzu.  In the summer, the vines turned dark green and snaked through the high branches until they formed a canopy so thick no light could get through.

Shortly after they got settled, Sonny built a big deck on the back side of their house, overlooking the woods and our two back yards.  When the weather allowed, the three of us would get together back there in the evenings.  We’d grill out, maybe have a few beers, shoot the breeze.  After dark, we’d lean back and listen to the stereo play through the screen door as the fireflies danced all around us. 

Sonny and Tina had moved from Montana and Sonny liked to brag on the fishing he’d done back there.  He’d tell me all about the cutthroat he used to go after along the Gardner.  Said how some days you’d have bighorn ram or bull elk coming right down to the waterline for a drink, with you standing just a few feet away.  I told him about Little Buckhorn and the monster browns you’d find there in the back eddies of the north fork.  Tina never said much once we got started.  She’d just sit there grinning, shaking her head every now and again like she’d heard it all before, which I’m sure she had.

A lot of nights went that way.  But this, of course, was long before the rabbits, long before Sonny and Tina’s marriage went south and Sonny followed suit, splitting for Phoenix.

As soon as their trouble started, I could sense a change.  Things got weird.  Tense.  The three of us didn’t get together as much, and the two of them started spending more and more time apart.  Tina would take these weekend trips to Baltimore, where she had people, and Sonny would stay home alone for no apparent reason.  He’d mope around for days, doing bullshit stuff just to keep busy.  I figured a fishing trip or two might help to take the edge off.  I mentioned it to him one night.  He didn’t seem thrilled, but he didn’t say no either.  We talked about heading out early-before daylight-and hitting the mountain streams, but we never made it any farther than Hollet’s Pond.

Hollet and I used to work second shift together at this ceramics factory.  One night we’re sitting in the break-room drinking coffee, and he tells me about his farm-a little fifteen-acre plot about twenty-minutes outside of town.  Said he bought the place with some money he’d had willed to him.  Hollet was what you might call a gentleman farmer.  He kept a half-acre garden, raised a few beef cows, but that was about it.  He wasn’t much on fishing either, but when he figured out I was, he told me about the pond he had, nestled in the far corner of the back pasture.  Said I could come on over and give it a try any time I felt the urge. 

“Don’t really know what you’ll find there,”  he said.  “Bluegill’s about all, I suspect.”

He was right.  After he gave me the green light, I fished Hollet’s Pond every day for a solid week but never caught anything bigger than my hand.  Still, it was nice to go there in the evenings.

Sonny liked it too.  Whenever the two of us went, we’d take our fly rods and one dry fly apiece.  Then we’d make a game of it, keeping track of who caught the smallest fish, because that was something too.  Getting a hit was nothing, but setting the hook could be a trick.

One evening, after we’d been out there a few hours and caught maybe a dozen each, Sonny walked over to where I was still fishing and took a seat on the berm. The light was fading from the sky and the bats were coming out to feed.  I wanted to get a few more casts in before we headed out. So I kept at it while Sonny sat in the grass breaking his rod down.  I knew he was right there next to me, but when he finally spoke, it made me jump a little.

“I don’t think we’re gonna make it,” he said.

I thought I knew what he meant, but I didn’t say anything right at first.  I just stripped a couple yards of line from my reel and made a cast for a cattail stand near the opposite bank.

“You remember that night I took her to the emergency room?” 

I did.  He didn’t say her name, but I knew he meant Tina. 

“It was real late,” he said.  “Past midnight.  You remember?”

I nodded. 

“Well, I told you she had the stomach flu, but that’s not how it happened exactly.”

I reeled everything in, and snipped the fly off the end of my line.  Sonny didn’t say anything for a while.  I had almost finished packing up all my gear when he started up again.

“We’d been trying to make a baby, see.  But we lost it that night.  That’s why I took her to the hospital.  That’s why we both stayed home from work the next day.  She took to the bed and I stayed home to look after her.”

“Damn.  I’m sorry,” I said.  “I hate that for y’all.”

Sonny nodded.  Then he caught a glimpse of a bat circling high above our heads.  It swooped down on the pond for a drink then flew away.  Sonny watched the little ripples moving toward him across the surface of the water.

“Thing is,” he continued, “it wasn’t the first time for us.  Same thing happened once before.  Back in Bozeman.  She was further along that time, so it was pretty bad.  We been to see a few doctors, but I don’t think they know what’s going on exactly.  They said we shouldn’t give up.  Said it was a fairly common thing.  But when it’s happening to you, it don’t feel common at all.”

“What’s Tina saying?”

“Not much.  She’s turned quiet on me.  It’s hard to tell what she’s thinking anymore.”

“So you imagine the worst.”

“Pretty much.  Sometimes I think we should try again, but I don’t know.  I’m scared to even bring it up.  I think she blames me.”

 

That was August.  By December of that year, Tina was pregnant again.  She and the baby made it through the first trimester without a hitch.  But the doctors ran a sonogram the first week of March, and things didn’t look good.  The baby died before the month was out.  The doctors said they couldn’t do anything with it on account of  Tina being so far along.  So she carried it, dead inside her, a solid week before her water broke and she finally had the miscarriage.

Sonny and Tina missed a lot of work through all this, and money started to get tight.  The doctor bills piled up, aggravating an already miserable situation.  Their house fell into disrepair.  The bushes and shrubs along their property-line grew wild, ragged.  One gray afternoon, a storm blew through the neighborhood and knocked down a couple of limbs from an old Dutch elm at the edge of their driveway.  The limbs stayed right where they fell in the front yard.  Weeks passed.  The green leaves withered and slowly fell away. 

Weeds took over the yard, out back especially.  Come May, when the days grew warmer, they started blooming.  It was a strange scene, peaceful almost.  The buttercups would bob and sway in a gentle cross-wind.  The purple clover came alive with bumblebees.  I said something to Sonny once-offered to push mow for him, clean things up a bit.  But he just looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language and disappeared back into the house.

A couple days later, I noticed Tina’s car missing from the driveway.  But I didn’t bother going over to see Sonny.  This once, I figured some time alone might do him good.

Later that afternoon, I’m stretched out on the couch watching a ball game.  It’s halftime and UNC is whipping the piss out of Virginia.  They’re getting ready to sound the horn for the second half when I first hear the commotion outside.  It’s Sonny.  He’s dragged his push mower out.  He yanks the rip-cord ten or twelve times before the engine finally comes to life, choking and wheezing at first, then gradually smoothing out to a steady hum.  I lay there on the couch a while longer with the volume on the TV turned down low, listening to Sonny tackle his back yard.  I hear him grinding away for a moment or two before the inevitable “CHUNCK” of the mower locking up.  I raise up and peek out the window.  I can see him, creeping along, an inch at a time.  When the mower starts to bog down, he tips the front of the deck so the blade can spin freely.  I think about getting my mower out, maybe starting on the far end of Sonny’s yard, meeting him in the middle.  Then I remember the look he gave me the last time I said something.

I give up on the ball game midway through the fourth quarter when UNC starts running four corners.  It’s not quite suppertime but getting close.  I go to the kitchen to see what I can dig up.  I’m standing there looking through the perishables, listening to the refrigerator motor buzz, when I realize I haven’t heard Sonny for a while.  I swing the door shut and walk over to the kitchen window.  From where I’m standing, I can see him.  The bright sunlight glares against the curve of his bare back.  He’s sitting in the tall grass, hunched forward, shoulders trembling.

I rush out my back door and cross over into Sonny’s yard.  He doesn’t turn when I call his name.  The mower’s sitting right beside him.  I can hear it pinging as it sits there cooling.  The heavy scent of burnt motor oil hangs in the air.  Sonny just sits there, shoulders hunched, eyes red, face wet.  He’s trying to say something, but his lips are drawn tight so the words never make it through.

Then I hear something rustling. I catch faint hints of movement out of the corner of my eye.  They lay there, squirming in a tangled heap, inches from where Sonny sits.  Baby rabbits.  He’d run up on a nest of them.  Some are cut clean in two, others lay thrashing, half-dead on the grass.

I get Sonny to his feet and help him into the house.  He’s crying but he doesn’t make a sound, only jerks at the shoulders some.  Inside, he sprawls out on the couch while I go over to the stereo and cut the tuner on.  I get it set on something mellow, but crank it loud.  Sonny never so much as looks my way.

I leave him there, go back to my place, and head straight for the nightstand next to my bed.  I open up a box of shells and fill the chamber of the .38 I keep stashed there.  I drop a couple extra shells in my pocket for good measure then cross back over to Sonny’s yard to finish the job.

After I find a spot for them deep in the woods out back, I go in to check on Sonny.  He’s up from the couch, sitting in a recliner.  The music’s still blaring through the speakers, but Sonny just sits there, staring dead ahead at a stack of magazines on the coffee table.  Zoned.

I turn down the volume and move into the kitchen.  Sonny always kept his fixins up under the sink.  I pull everything out, get some tumblers, and mix us up a couple.  Sonny snaps out of his trance long enough to latch on to the highball I hand him.  I turn the stereo down a click or two then sit in a chair opposite him.  The shades are drawn, and it’s good to be in from the heat.  We don’t say nothing, just sit there listening, drinking.  Then the music stops all of a sudden.  An announcer comes on with the weather forecast.  He’s talking in this whispery voice, makes some remark about the barometric pressure or something.  He’s trying to be clever, but I don’t catch the gist of what he’s saying, and my lack of understanding depresses me.

 

Next thing you know, Sonny and Tina are packing their stuff in two separate

U-hauls-a his-and-hers set.  Hers heads for Baltimore, his for Phoenix. 

I stayed put a few more years, got new neighbors.  But things never were quite the same. And after a while, I put my house on the market too, got the apartment I live in now.  I’m closer to work this way, which is nice in the winter when weather hits.

I kept in touch with Sonny through the mail mostly.  The first letter I got from him was signed “Your Pen Pal.”  I chuckled when I saw that.  But really, that’s how it turned out for us: friendly but distant.  After he moved away, it was like there was always something between the two of us, something more than miles.

We were still friends, sure.  When Sonny re-married, I rented a monkey-suit and booked a flight.  Never thought twice about it.  I was there when Megan was born too.  But those visits never came off the way I thought they would.  Sonny had moved out there to make a fresh start, maybe forget a few things.  Then, every two years or so, I’d show up.  New salt for old wounds.  Of course, Sonny never said as much-treated me like family, in fact-but I knew what my being there did to him.  So I decided to more or less phase myself out.  I pulled a disappearing act.  Sonny’d made a good life for himself out there.  I just left him to it.

 

Now he’s gone.  Now, this thing’s all I got-Megan’s video.

 

I sit back in my chair for a time, stirring ice cubes with my index finger, listening to them clink against the glass.  I press play on the VCR remote.  The TV goes black.  Everything’s quiet.  Sonny’s name flashes up on the screen, followed by two dates.  Then they start up with the organ music.

Next comes the picture, a full view of the casket.  There’s flowers piled high on top of it, flowers to either side on wire stands.  I can see the backs of the heads of all the people in the first couple of rows.  I scan the crowd, over and over, but can’t seem to recognize a soul. 

They’ve got the lid up, but with the angle of the camera, I can’t really get a good look at the body.  I figure it’s best that way.  It’s not exactly Sonny they got boxed up anyhow.  I been to enough funerals-enough “viewings”-to know that much.  Wax dummies.  That’s all I ever manage to think.

The camera must be mounted in a far corner or something, because the shot never changes.  Every so often, somebody comes in frame, walks over to the casket, peeks in, then walks off the screen.  Some are clutching hankies.  They walk up, dab at their faces, then move along, their shoulders all hunched up.  A few people walk by with their hands stuffed in their pockets.  Real casual, or so it seems.  Like they do this every day or something.  After ten minutes of this, I still don’t recognize a single one of these people.  The family’s most likely in another room, out of view, hidden.

The organist plays all the old regulars:  “Just As I Am,” “Peace in the Valley,” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”  I take another swig.  The gin sits cold on my belly. 

They finally lower the lid and a preacher comes into frame.  He stands behind the casket, offers a few words.  Says he didn’t know Sonny but that, over the past few days, he feels like he’s gotten to know him some.  Says he’s talked to family and friends.  Says he’s heard stories.  He tells a few and I watch a couple of heads nod up in the front pew.  The preacher does what he can, but he misses a heap.  A life’s a big thing, and he’s pressed for time. Gotta get on with it, clear the room for the next set of grievers.

He says a few words about Jesus, closes with a prayer.  Someone says “Amen.”  A couple fellas in dark suits show up.  They each take an end of the casket and wheel Sonny down the center aisle.  Then the music starts up again.  But it’s not the organ this time.  They got pickers somewhere, guitar and autoharp.  They play “The Old Gospel Ship,” and I think how it’s about the only good thing to come out of the whole damn production.

I watch as the last part of the casket slips away from the bottom of the TV screen.  The people in the pews all stand up.  I stand up too.  I hold my glass up high, tip it to one side, and let the rest of the highball fall to the carpet.  I don’t spare a drop.

 

Curt Alderson has been writing stories and poems for fifteen years. He lives with his wife and two sons on a small family farm in southwest Virginia. His work has appeared in various publications, including Currents, Red Crow, Pitch Weekly, and Aura Literary Arts Review. For additional stories, poems, and readings visit curtalderson.blogspot.com

In My Innocence

by Aida Zilelian

“I hope that when you have a daughter she is as horrible to you as you are to me!”

I shift in my seat on the living room couch and stare blankly at my mother. If I love her I don’t feel it. I am thirteen. I stare at her bulging belly; she is pregnant with my soon-to-be sister Ani. I can never remember what had transpired between us that afternoon, why she had said what she did, but I am convinced that hearing her utter those words somehow altered the future. The arguments that would erupt between us in the ten years that followed would be venomous, malevolent, and would leave me completely shaken.

***

I always make decisions with my gut.

“I’m going to start looking for an apartment,” I told my mother one quiet evening after dinner. I was twenty-three. I wanted a life I had tried forcing her to give me – a life that demanded unconditional freedom. She still ransacked my room, opened my mail, and eavesdropped on phone conversation until I had a private phone line installed in my bedroom. Not surprisingly, we fought. She accused me of abandoning her and disrupting the family unit. I moved out and she disowned me for a year, but I knew all along how necessary it was. I had also heard that a mother’s love is boundless.

***

“The embryo is intact,” my obgyn tells me.

***

I spent my 20’s trying to recapture a childhood I didn’t have; I had slumber parties with my girlfriends, stayed out late until dawn sometimes, I threw parties at my apartment – the thrill of freedom so exhilarating that it felt unreal. Strangely, I felt an innocence that accompanied the newness of my life, and I wasn’t willing to give it up until I met Brian. And then I realized I didn’t have to give up anything. He loved me and accepted me for who I was; he was warm and passionate, playful and at the same time responsible. When I married him I shook off the creeping sensation of adulthood by spinning it into my own new reality – I had found a playmate who wanted to share my carousing lifestyle with me. Even when we bought our apartment – an experience that Brian jokingly claimed “drained the adolescence right out” of him – it felt less that I was an adult, and more that we had a secure place to live and have dinner parties.

“I’m worried for you,” my mother told me when I was married after four years and not pregnant. “I’m worried that if you don’t have a baby you will regret it when it’s too late. Think of all your friends with babies and how you two will feel going to baby birthday parties with no baby of your own. It’s a sad thing.”

To me, a sad thing has always been not doing something out of fear when I know it’s what I want. It is why I left my mother’s apartment and why I married Brian. I had to stick my fingers in my ears and chant loudly, “LA-LA-LA-LA-LA,” to really know that I wanted a baby. Not because my mother wanted one, or because when we went over our friends Randy and Laura’s house their son Logan was precocious and alarmingly entertaining. When the decision came whether or not to have a baby, both Brian and I were perplexed.

“We couldn’t travel,” I told him grimly as I sipped my glass of wine.

“You’re not wrong,” he said, holding the same serious expression as mine.

“I don’t get how people just do it!” I said, feeling something akin to anger. “You can do your very best job and they could still turn out to be a crack addict.” I realized how cliché my argument seemed, but it was one of many on a long list that truly frightened me……

***

Magically, I was pregnant after one month. The exhilaration of that felt unreal as well; it had happened too easily.

It was right before my thirty-sixth birthday when my doctor confirmed the news. I had friends coming over that night and had taken the day off from work to cook for my dinner party.

“I’m bringing over a special treat,” one of my girlfriends told me, referring to the bottle of Patron tequila she always brought over for special occasions. I didn’t feel right telling her yet, or anyone else for that matter. I wanted a birthday party, not an “Aida’s pregnant” party.

“I’m actually on antibiotics for an upper respiratory infection,” I told her. “I can’t really drink.”

Everyone who came that night seemed to believe my lie, and they all crowded into the kitchen with their cigarettes because Brian had stressed to them how the smoke really affected my breathing. But I had a secret and I relished keeping it for the time being. Yes, I was sitting on my couch alone nursing a glass of club soda – but who cared? I already had fantasies of our son or daughter, three or four years old, sitting in bed with Brian on a Sunday morning, both of them engrossed in whatever cartoon they were watching on T.V. I had an image of what our child would look like, taking the best features of both Brian and I and synthesizing them into a little human being. He would have Brian’s big brown eyes, his graceful feet, his ability to not take everything seriously; he would have my passion for cooking, my thick brown hair and mischievousness. Admittedly, I wished for a boy. The idea of having a girl scared me. As the years had passed I remembered that afternoon with my mother when I was sitting on the couch, and felt cursed by the inevitability of her wish.

***

“You’re going to have to go get a sonogram. The bleeding could be nothing, but you should double-check.” Click.

***

My mother’s care for me seemed inspired by a checklist of responsibilities that she had conjured up – perhaps from her own mother: daily baths, packed lunches, nice clothes, pocket money, and maybe things that I was still unaware of. I knew the two traps that most mothers fell into: they either did the exact opposite of what their mothers had done, or they fatefully turned into what they feared the most – their own mother. I vacillated between this haunting anxiety and an extreme optimism where I reassured myself that I would take what I admired about my mother and practice it accordingly.

“You can still have a life after having a baby,” one of my girlfriends told me. “It’s what you make of it. Of course you can still have dinner parties and still do your writing. Everything just needs to be modified a little bit.” After my thirteen-year emancipation, I was worried that I would resent not having the freedom I had grown accustomed to. And although I was a woman I still didn’t feel like one. In my mind, I was a responsible pregnant teenager, who abstained from cigarettes and drinking during her pregnancy because she loved herself and her baby enough to keep both healthy. The reality was that I was in my mid-thirties, happily married, owned an apartment, worked a full-time job and was five weeks pregnant.

***

“Let me check the book,” my cousin Jacqueline told me. She had two young daughters and had miscarried once after they were born. “Would you be having your period right now if you weren’t pregnant?”

“No,” I said, cradling the phone between my ear and shoulder as I got dressed in the women’s locker room at my gym.

“Have you been overdoing the exercising?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “I’ve been very careful. Just walking and lifting low weights.”

“Hmmm,” she said, and then paused. “What did your gynecologist say?”

“That I have to wait until Monday to get a sonogram.”

As I walked on the treadmill I saw an Indian woman sitting across from me, pedaling on a bike energetically, her pregnant belly bulging under her t-shirt. I approached her and asked her how many months along she was.

“Eight!” she said, wiping the sweat off her face with a towel. Hesitantly, I told her I was five weeks pregnant.

“That’s great!” she said. “Just keep at it with the gym. Go slow, though. And congratulations!” I suddenly felt renewed. It was just spotting, that’s all. I knew it was very common.

By the next morning I knew to call into work to say I wasn’t coming in. I made an emergency appointment with another gynecologist, since mine had not been very helpful about seeing me as soon as possible.

My mother called early afternoon. “What did the doctor say?”

“She said the embryo is still there, but that I have to rest.”

I laid in bed watching cooking shows, feeling the tugging sensation below my stomach turn into severe cramps. I sat on the toilet, trying to shake the draining feeling that began to overwhelm me. I sat, crying, not wanting to get up because I knew I would only have to return. I called Brian and told him to stay at work.

My mother called again. “What’s going on?” She was infamous for her follow-up phone calls – anything ranging from a new recipe I was trying out for dinner to whether or not I had remembered to rsvp for a relative’s wedding.

“What’s going on is that I’m having a fucking miscarriage!” I screamed into the phone. “And I want you to do me the goddam favor of not calling every half hour so I can tell you about it!” I hung up the phone sobbing.

“Are you happy?” I screamed at the phone. “Now we don’t get to find out if she’ll be as terrible to me as I was to you. Are you happy?” I knew I was yelling not at the mother I had now, but the other mother I was scared to forgive.

***           

At least I had the weekend to recover. There was no baby. No little boy or girl sitting in bed with Brian. Neither of them would look at me with the same large brown eyes.  

A week later Brian and I went to a nearby park where we took our dog Champ for long walks. We sat on a bench that overlooked the lake. Although it was April, we could still see our breath form little clouds in the air. I watched the geese padding around the edge of the grass. I grew quiet.

“Are you okay?” Brian asked. “What are you thinking?”

Now I knew what it felt like to want to hold onto something so desperately that it was consuming. I wondered if that was how my mother felt all those years fighting with me – if it was her way of trying to hold onto me for her own reasons that I could not understand.

“I’m thinking how strange it is. I’m thinking how I feel so changed, that I’m not the same person. I feel,” I said, trying to find the words, “that I have lost something. Not a baby only. It may sound terribly foolish coming from a grown woman, but I think that somehow I have lost my innocence.” He took my hand and squeezed it.

Prophetically, a little girl came towards us, wobbling on her bicycle. She looked behind her where a young man was standing, most likely her father. “You’re doing great!” he called out waving. “Keep going! I’m right behind you. I’m watching.”

I watched her as she pedaled away, her father following her with his eyes. It all seemed too easy. And I knew then that everything I had so desperately wanted in my life I had struggled for. I am waiting to find out if I am still willing for this struggle.

Aida Zilelian is a NYC teacher. Her work has been featured in Pen Pusher (UK), SN Review, Visions, Slushpile Magazine, Suss: Another Literary Journal, Wilderness House Literary Review, and the upcoming issue of Halfway Down the Stairs. She has written two novels and is currently looking for representation.




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