Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Memorial Days

A Loss Lives On

By Margaret Renkl

NOVEMBER 3, 1997:  Every New Year's Day I duly spend about two hours recording in my new calendar the birthdays of all the people I know who have ever told me the dates of their birth--friends and family, former classmates, old boyfriends, neighbors in cities I've not visited for years. I write in red ink, the better to distinguish the human being from the day's appointments and deadlines, and once I have entered someone's name, I never drop it from the list. Every morning when I glance at the calendar, I spend a moment contemplating the birthday person. To those who are long-lost, I rarely send cards or make phone calls, though I could almost certainly find every one if I tried. Instead I consider, just for a moment, the continued fact of their existence and briefly wonder how they are. While I dress, I remember the ways we've made each other into the people we've become. Then I walk into the kitchen and enter the maelstrom of my day.

When I looked at the calendar this morning there was only one entry, not itself a birthday, but one recorded in the same red ink: "Lost Baby (1994)." This is, of course, a euphemism. I did not actually "lose" a baby--I did not misplace it at the playground or neglect to bring it home from the grocery store. By the strictest definition, in fact, the lost baby was no "baby" at all. It was merely, in scientific terms, an embryo--not even far enough along in gestation to be called rightly a fetus--that failed to grow into a baby.

Perhaps it seems peculiar to memorialize a miscarriage by recording its date every year on a calendar. Perhaps it would make more sense to do whatever I could to forget such an experience, to undo from memory the shockingly red spots of blood that signaled a problem, to ignore the ultrasound that showed no beating heart, to erase all the weeks of weeping. A miscarriage is not a tragedy--or if it is, it is a common one, happening to as many as one in four pregnancies. A miscarriage is not the extraordinary sort of sorrow you read about in newspapers.

Besides, it all turned out fine. Even before the miscarriage, I'd already had one healthy baby, a blessing some people never receive. And, despite another miscarriage nine months later, I still managed, finally, to have a second child--a beloved, bossy little son whose demands drive the entire household and who has no idea that his very existence is contingent upon a baby who wasn't born in 1994. Why dwell now, even momentarily, on the grief of that year when there's so much to celebrate?

Maybe it's because, even unborn, that baby seemed at least as real to me as so many of the long-gone friends and colleagues whose birthdays still fill my calendar, although I haven't spoken to them in years. From the very moment the drugstore kit told me I was pregnant, I felt the presence of a human being I knew would alter my life forever. Even more than childhood friends no longer near who helped to shape me as I grew up, I understood immediately that this new human being--my child--would make me an entirely different person. I would be the mother of someone who would change the world.

No doubt this is a gross exaggeration. Even if I'd never had a miscarriage, even if that lost "child" had lived to be born and grow to a ripe old age, what are the odds that it would change human history, that it would end ethnic strife or cure cancer or write poems that people would want to read in every earthly language?

And yet, it might. Surely every pregnant woman considers the wealth of possibility that lies untouched before her child. Regardless of how unlikely it is that any given mother will bring forth a hero, no one can absolutely deny that chance because that's what every new baby is: untrammeled potentiality. And leaving aside heroism, there's always that other truth John Donne pointed out: "No man is an island entire of itself: Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.... Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind." To put it less poetically, we can't help bumping into one another, and every bump changes who we are. It stands to reason that even the tiniest human being alters everyone it touches, and those changed people change others in their turn.

With my first pregnancy, I didn't understand just how thoroughly distinct from me that bulge in my belly would turn out to be, nor how thoroughly that distinctly separate little self would mold me into someone else--a mother, an identity utterly unrecognizable to my pre-pregnant self and yet entirely me all the same.

My firstborn is one of those children jokingly called "an accident." When the home-pregnancy test I used turned out positive, I was certain I had simply failed to follow the instructions properly. Eventually, I had to face the truth, but it wasn't until my husband first laid our son in my arms that I really understood what that truth meant: The world was never going to be the same.

While it took nine months of gestation and 22 hours of labor for me to recognize it the first time, I understood that truth immediately with all my other pregnancies, and it's a truth that makes miscarriage a very particular sorrow. The radiologist who confirmed my miscarriage three years ago didn't understand that kind of grief: "I'm afraid the embryo has stopped growing," he said, looking at the ultrasound screen. My husband held one of my hands; the doctor held the other. "I know this is hard," he said, "but there must have been something wrong with this baby, and you wouldn't have wanted it. You want a healthy baby, a baby who will grow up to ride a bicycle and sing songs." At that instant such rationality was meaningless. I did want it. It was my baby.

Even the most sympathetic friends and family members find it difficult to understand the sense of loss a miscarriage causes, especially to people who are already parents. "Think how lucky you are to have a child," they say, and they're absolutely right.

But it doesn't make any more sense to rank grief than it does to rank pleasure. All loss hurts. Knowing that someone has a heavier burden to bear doesn't reduce in any real way the load you carry yourself. And there are times when the firstborn you love with all your aching heart actually adds to the heartache, pointing out that he's the only kid in preschool who doesn't have a brother or sister. Two weeks after my first miscarriage, my little boy went with me into the changing room of a department store; when I asked what he was saying as he talked to the three-way mirror, he said, "I'm pretending I have brothers."

I look at my calendar and see the miscarriages recorded in red, and I like to think of those babies, to wonder who they might have become. Would they have danced in the ballet? Thrown a wicked curve ball? But I'm not in mourning any more; I know how lucky I am. I understand that without those hard years of waiting, I would never have known the baby I have, this particular boy I love. Rocking him to sleep at night, I don't regret the lost babies who brought him to me. But I won't forget them either.


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