March 31, 2017
The first time I’d miscarried I was a 24-year-old newlywed and, because of a scheduling mix-up, I’d had to wait two days for a D & C. While I mourned the loss, I found it macabre and scary to be carrying death. Afterward, I was sad but mostly relieved. Since then I’d had several very early onset miscarriages between two live births, but nothing so traumatic.
Now I was pregnant again.
After an uneventful first trimester, my husband and I announced that we were expecting our third child. Our 7-year-old son wanted a brother and our 5-year-old daughter wanted a sister. They named their new sibling Lil’ Mo; I have no idea why. They purchased infant socks from the Gap, 0-3 months crimson with white rubber on the soles, and placed them on the mantel like Christmas stockings. Lil’ Mo’s first 3-D ultrasound photo, a dimpled knot, was pinned to the fridge with a pastel magnet that spelled B-A-B-Y.
A few days later, I dropped my kids at their elementary school and headed to the gym. We had recently moved to Georgia for my husband’s job and, in the absence of family or friends, exercise classes were my lifeline. After class, I headed home only to discover that I was bleeding.
I arrived at the OB-GYN’s and readied myself for the inevitable devastation. But there was the shush-shush-shush of a beating heart and the beaming OB-GYN proclaiming, “The baby is fine!”
Still, in the following weeks heavier spells of bleeding would send me back several times. Each time I was assured that half of all women bleed throughout their pregnancies; it was normal and the baby was going to make it. I also drew solace from first person accounts on the internet. I picked out names: Sahara for a girl and Khyber for a boy.
One evening when the bleeding sent me to the emergency room, a compassionate nurse, sorry I was having such a miserable pregnancy, whispered that I was going to have a boy. The doctor added that he was moving so fast, he was going to come out playing soccer.
The next morning, after another bad night, I checked in with my regular OB-GYN. As she ran an ultrasound wand over my tummy, she became silent.
I knew already. My baby — Khyber — was gone. Overnight.
The OB-GYN told me that since the pregnancy was close to 16 weeks, only specially qualified doctors could perform a late stage D & C. Since both the qualified doctors in our area happened to be Jewish and because I’d miscarried on the Jewish New Year, they wouldn’t be available until four days later. She assured me that my progesterone was too high for anything to happen over the weekend, and sent me home.
The last time I’d had a dead baby inside of me, I’d been distressed.
This time, I treasured a final weekend to hold in my baby. Friday and Saturday were a teary blur. I was unsure of how to tell my kids. I kissed the tiny crimson socks and thought of the story: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.”
By Sunday evening, I started to have cramps and realized I was in labor. I wish the OB-GYN had warned me that I might very well deliver my baby’s face into my hands.
His face was no bigger than a kitchen cabinet knob. The outlines of his eyes, ears, nose and mouth were clear. He looked like an alien out of the “X-Files” TV show. Should I kiss him?
Finally I held him to my heart before putting him in a sandwich bag as the E.R. instructed so he could be sent for an autopsy. When I got to the hospital, a Christian chaplain held my hand and prayed with me. I told him I was Muslim but that prayers are prayers.
I couldn’t stop sharing the story of my miscarriage with everyone. It was as if I had opened the gates to a taboo subject. Family, friends, strangers — everyone would share either their own miscarriage story or else someone else’s. It turned out that even my mother had miscarried before me.
And yet too many, including my husband, could not quite understand why I was so gutted. After all, I was told over and over again, I already had two kids. That I’d barely been 16 weeks. I could have another one, as if babies are replaceable. I was told, “It wasn’t a stillbirth. You weren’t full term. It was just a fetus. Stop being so sad!”
It left me upset and alone to have conditions put on grief.
That afternoon, as my kids cleaned out their Spiderman and Dora the Explorer backpacks, I blurted out: “Lil’ Mo is gone.”
“Gone?” said my 7-year-old son.
My son’s best friend’s father had passed away and so my son had an inkling of life after death: Darren’s father was in heaven and heaven was a good place.
“So Lil’ Mo’s in heaven?” he said as his eyes filled up. “Like Darren’s father?”
“Yes,” I said and I knew that whether heaven really existed or not, it certainly belonged to little children confronted with mortality.
Over the next month, we began to recover — if recovery is the correct sum of time plus healing. My son put the ultrasound pictures in a photo album with pictures of his beloved dead guinea pigs. I took the crimson socks off the mantel and tucked them in the back of a drawer. Around the same time, I lost the contract for my debut novel but never again would I equate the loss of a book with the loss of a baby; these creations were not of equal magnitude.
One day, I received a call from the hospital: What did I want to do with the remains?
As Muslims, we bury our dead, so my husband called the local mosque to make arrangements. But he was informed that there could be no burial. In Islam it is believed a soul enters the body at 120 days of gestation (about 16 weeks) and since my miscarriage took place right around that time with no proof that a soul had indeed entered, Khyber could be considered only a soulless fetus.
Fresh grief engulfed me. I called the hospital’s perinatal loss clinic: Please don’t throw him in the trash.
The kind woman told me that she’d seen the remains and she could tell he’d been a beautiful baby. I managed a thank you. She said the hospital would take him, with the remains of other such babies, for a collective cremation.
At first, thinking of a trip to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, I recoiled at the thought of my baby being one of many. But eventually I found comfort in the idea of a collective. That way, I told myself, Khyber would, at least, never be alone.
We printed out directions to the cemetery in Stone Mountain, Ga., where the ashes were buried in an urn in a plot shaded by an oak tree. It was marked by a small marble bench with a carved dove on it. My son had brought as an offering a miniature teddy bear I’d given him for Valentine’s Day and my daughter a rose from our garden.
I sat on the bench with the carved dove. I recited a prayer for my baby. I recited a prayer for all the babies.