Editor’s Note: This post contains sensitive content about pregnancy loss.
I am one of eight people in a room. I am the only woman, and I am pregnant. I am fatigued, nauseous, praying for a break from the meeting simply so that I can use the bathroom.
I have had two nightmares of losing it since last Tuesday, when I learned of our secret. There’s a bright red spot in my dreams both times, and I know immediately that the unthinkable has happened. Both times, I start sobbing and then wake up covered in sweat.
Even now as I sit with colleagues who are friends who are all male and have no idea what this is like—who, even though they are friends, cherished friends with whom I’ve been praying and studying and enjoying conviviality, who will support me and show love in the days that follow what’s about to happen—I can’t tell them about it in this moment, because I’m not even sure I get maternity leave as a part-time professor of theology. I must be discreet, even though I trust them. But even now I think I feel my nightmare beginning.
The next morning when I wake up, there is a spot of blood. My Nurse Practitioner had instructed me to write her if there was any spotting, so this is normal, right? I write my NP as instructed, go back to the meeting, and pretend that nothing is wrong. She writes back and tells me I have to go in for blood work. This is intrusive, since I had promised lunch with my friends and colleagues, and must now tell them to find another ride this evening and that I must unexpectedly leave. I cancel my plans with my friends, my colleagues, these men whom I love and respect and upon whom my career depends, but I cannot tell them my secret.
“Something happened at home,” I tell them.
“Is something wrong?” one of them astutely inquires.
“I’m okay, but I need to attend to it,” I reply, and leave after our common prayer.
There is no blood the next morning. I tell myself all will be well, so I drive to an academic conference for which I’ve been preparing, blasting Colin Meloy’s song about the terrible and beautiful world that God hath created. He croons about the “cannon ball in the bosom of [his wife’s] belly,” and wonders about so much joy when others are grieving. “Just think of their grieving! What a terrible world, what a beautiful world you have made here.” I cry en route to the conference because Colin Meloy is right.
At this conference, there are about sixty people instead of eight. I arrive late. An older scholar moves to let me sit in the back. Normally I wouldn’t sit, because I like to be with the men in the back who stand; it gives me a sense of control I don’t really have, but which I cherish as one of the only women in my field struggling with feelings of insecurity on the job market. Normally I wouldn’t sit, but now I am pregnant, so I sit.
The lecture is on Augustine’s concept of original sin: where do unbaptized babies go when they die, Augustine once wondered, to heaven or to hell? Augustine banished them to limbo. I feel—no, I know—because of this little cluster of cells inside me, that what stirs there is life… it exists, and it is life, and it is good, and Augustine was wrong. I count the women in the room: there are seven of us that I can see, out of maybe fifty people, and it is good that I, a pregnant woman, am here sitting in the back.
But it feels like I’m bleeding, and I don’t hear much else in the lecture besides the bit about babies going to hell.
I run to the bathroom without talking to anyone after the Q and A lets out. All I can think about is protecting my secret, and I run past people—important people, friends even, who could help my budding career as a young theologian and part-time faculty member—without even looking at them.
In the bathroom, there is more blood, and a message from my NP: “I’m so sorry, but your HcG levels are very low, and I expect heavier bleeding over the weekend.” I hear a few of the other women at the conference enter the bathroom as the tears start. They are laughing and making small talk. I hide, sitting on a toilet, waiting to have a miscarriage, choking back silent tears.
As I leave—drive the hour it takes me to get home, no Colin Meloy songs this time—I think of the book about Mary, the Mother of God, that I’ve been co-editing for years, that will be published this month. I did not contribute an article, but I added the entries for “motherhood,” “womb,” “sister,” “daughter,” “pregnant,” “pregnancy,” and “maternity” in the index. In this moment, I envy the ease with which Mary conceived, and appreciate anew the taboos that surrounded her pregnancy, that still exist.
September, October, November
Every month, I hope.
Every month, I carefully mark the time, and the days on the calendar fall away to tracking my fertility cycles. There are still no full-time jobs in my field, and colleagues ask me how I’m doing on the academic job market: that, I wish I could tell them, hardly matters now. But every month, I hope.
Every month, the timing is wrong: relatives are visiting; friends have flown in from out of state for “Friendsgiving,” now another holiday in itself, and we don’t spend time at home so we can see them; my husband gets kidney stones. Every month, we try anyway. Every month, I hope.
Every month, I pee on a stick—several sticks, most months—and then wait for the second line to appear. Every month, we turn them over together and have our hopes dashed and it ends in my tears. Every month, our grief is renewed when it remains an empty window. Every month I stare at it for several minutes, every time, pulling it out of the trash can even, hoping against hope that the second line will magically appear. Every month, it never does.
Every month, I remain envious of Mary. The volume arrives in the mail, a small professional victory amidst a host of professional failures on the academic job market, but I cannot open it. Will not.
It is a week and a half before Christmas, and we have spent the day buying gifts for our families, a respite from work. We are in Church, in darkness pierced by candlelight, waiting in a pew for our Lessons and Carols service to start with our closest friends as we do every year. The choir initiates the service from behind us, singing quietly in the darkness about Hope. I am not expecting to cry, and in fact, I am gloriously happy in this moment, surrounded by friends and awaiting one of my favorite Advent traditions.
“Once in Royal David’s City” begins, softly at first—a lone chorister cooing from the upstairs balcony—but then the hymn waxes triumphantly as the entire Choir and congregation joins in. We all sing about our hope for Mary’s baby child and gaze together expectantly with our mind’s eye at an empty manger in a faraway place and time.
I stare at the words in the hymnal and remember that I took another negative pregnancy test this morning.
I start to weep—loudly, uncontrollably—and I’m ashamed of this and scared and feel trapped by the pews. We are all waiting for the Christ Child, and there is so much joy here, but Mary’s womb is full and mine remains empty and I am oh so very, very angry.
We do not make it to Gaudete Sunday the next morning. I tell myself it’s because I need to grade; we went to Church last night, after all, and there is only so much time during the last week of the semester a week and a half before Christmas. A sorry excuse. Really, it’s because I can’t face the joy, because it horrifies me.
Instead I’m lingering over the candle of Hope—that flickering, fragile thing in the darkness that’s so small and so tiny but so painfully bright.
I have never before so poignantly felt the darkness that precedes the coming of God, and I am horrified by the inevitable joy that will accompany the Christmas liturgy as it did on Saturday, that I will not and cannot skip—the exuberant celebration of a baby born of a Virgin’s womb, while my womb remains empty and dark and full of our grief instead of our child.
January, February 2020
More waiting, more hoping, more tears, because there is only ever one line and the emptiness inside.
I catch the flu in late January and miss the first week of the semester while a colleague teaches for me. “Well it’s only up from here!” I think with respect to the rest of the semester.
Several projects are due. My grief from the past several months will not stop me from completing professional goals anymore, I determine. I barrel forward. Every night of the calendar is full, every moment of the day busy. I submit two book manuscripts, one for review, another—an edited volume for the typesetter. I will work on new projects after Spring Break, because “it’s only up from here!” I think with respect to the rest of the semester. But I also think it about my grief.
It’s Ash Wednesday now, and exhaustion overwhelms me. Our rector preaches about the nature of human suffering. He recalls the first time he imposed ashes as a freshly-minted priest, that he had to impose them on the foreheads of children, too, and how that caught him.
At night I proctor a midterm for thirty-six college freshmen in the basement of a church, and I cannot get this image of ashes on children’s foreheads out of my mind as I look at them and feel their stress. Because we went to the morning service, it has been eighteen hours since I woke up. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Exhaustion.
Lent, this year, feels better than Advent, feels right. I need the purgatorial fires and ashes and dust and grief.
The coronavirus breaks out in Italy. We have plans to go to Barcelona for Spring Break in three days, and we wait, and we watch, and we wonder. Montserrat, too. It will be a pilgrimage, for me, to make my peace with Mary and with God.
There are no travel warnings against Spain, so we decide to go.
The First Week of March
On March 1, I wake up with the sun somewhere in the air over Europe. We spend the rest of the day in the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona, mostly enshrouded within the Cathedral, surrounded by darkness and prayer and the smell of incense, by rooftops with bells and seagulls and the wind, and cloisters with medieval tombstones and geese.
I am at peace, I think, for the first time since August. I think not of Mary, but I feel the Spirit again, and that is enough.
I wake up with a runny nose the next morning, and a sore throat. I worry that I caught it. But that would be impossible, since it has not broken out widely beyond Italy in the Western world, and my symptoms do not match those of Covid-19. So we forge ahead to Montserrat.
Montserrat suits us both in our present naivety, though, with its wind and darkness and sacred spaces throughout the mountains. We attend the famous boys’ choir performance beneath the Black Madonna. Before the boys come out, the monks sing the hours, interspersed with periods of silent prayer. A church normally overflowing with tourists and pilgrims yields to complete silence at nighttime, and all we can hear is the wind ripping through the rocks of the mountains and the monastery around us, like the wrath of God reminding me of my place in things, my smallness. But also, strangely, of our significance.
Outside, the Way of the Virgin creeps alongside the monastery between it and the mountain, peppered with votive candles, tiny sparks of lit prayers that pierce the darkness, which the wind—despite its fury—does not snuff out. We linger here after we make our pilgrimage to pay our respects to the Black Madonna.
On the next morning, we hike. We wander from mountaintop to mountaintop, fear of Covid left behind with the rest of the world, discovering crumbling hermitage upon crumbling hermitage. We amble thirteen miles in all, barely running into other people. The Funicular to the Santa Cova—where the image of the Black Madonna first appeared centuries ago, the miracle that makes this entire place a site of pilgrimage—is broken, so in late afternoon when the tourists empty out of the monastery, we hike two miles down to it. Sculptured reflections of the Via Crucis and scenes from the life of Mary line the path there and back again, and we pause before each in silence. We arrive—battered from a day of hiking mountains, but exhilarated—before the doors of the Santa Cova. We have not encountered another person in hours.
I enter, alone, because my husband had time here alone yesterday when I wasn’t feeling well. “You need to be in there alone, too,” he tells me. So I go in.
The silence here is deafening, oppressive. The sacredness of the place in my solitude feels heavy, as though weights pull my body down and up all at once and press it from within.
I sit in front of the altar before the Black Madonna. I weep, and inwardly, I scream at God as I finally face myself after months of numbness. I ask God to speak, because God has been silent for so long, and pray before the Black Madonna for a child.
And then they are there with me! Mary and the Saints in the Spirit, they come and they sit in the silence with me in my grief. And as the silence somehow grows deafeningly louder, the words of St. Patrick reach me from somewhere else: “Christ behind me, Christ beside me, Christ before me.”
After Vespers, we make our way again through the Way of the Virgin. In the black of night as the wind howls, with no one else around, we together light a prayer for our little one and finally say goodbye.
I’m still envious of her, but I think now I can move forward.
The Second and Third Week of March
We land in Boston, and Covid-19 pervades everything, everyone. We are sent home for the semester, and I must learn to teach an online class. My students are scared. I am scared. The economy tanks and we are all scared, but I push it down.
Someone posts something online that’s meant to be a joke, about “coronnials,” the name they’ll call this generation of babies conceived during the lockdown. Jokes about babies, pictures of babies, any talk of babies, trigger my grief and anger, but I push it down.
Some good friends send out an email announcing that they are expecting their second child. This devastates both of us even within our excitement for them and renews the grief amidst the apocalypse, but I push it down.
I ache to be back in the Santa Cova, above and beyond and away from the chaos. But I push that down, too.
The Fourth Week of March
In a dream, I fall into the universe, surrounded by the stars and the planets and the silence of an unspeakable whirlwind. It is quiet and good and the light and the darkness encompass me as my breath takes from my lungs and I enter the everything. I smile at my husband, and then open a door and keep falling. He’s there waiting when I come back, as if he had fallen in, too, and he knows…he also knows the feeling of free-fall, the feeling of our freedom meeting God’s.
“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,” says Julian of Norwich.
Chaos in the waking world continues, and becomes more chaotic when a second, faint, thin, pink line shows up on the pregnancy test.
And another, on another test, two days later.
I worry that it will not be viable. I’m already so afraid that it’s not.
It is an apocalypse, and I am pregnant.
I cannot go outside, because Covid-19 stretches its thin, vicious fingers all over the world, and I am at risk; my child is at risk. So we stay in.
We work from home, we eat at home, we video-chat with friends from home, we attend “Zoom-Bible study” from home, I teach from home, I do not go out.
Home is a one-bedroom apartment with shared laundry in a building that has fallen into disrepair in the six years we’ve lived here. Someone pees in the elevator on a weekly basis now. My husband does everything required “beyond” our home—the safe, 700 sq ft space with paper-thin walls through which we can hear our neighbors’ TVs, conversations, and 1am dance parties, the latter of which have at least thankfully now quieted. He disinfects the laundry room and does our laundry, spaced two weeks apart and completed only as a last resort to avoid exposure; he goes grocery shopping at 6am on Fridays; he goes to the drug store if we need that; and so many other careful little things. He is already a wonderful father.
I, meanwhile, encloister myself with our child.
At home, my body changes, slightly, but noticeably. It is difficult to not become too agitated as my hormones rage and we do everything from home, all 700 sq ft of it.
Obviously, we must find a new home. Our lease is up at the end of June, so we begin searching. We find one after a month of perusing digital ads and two strange showings where we orbit realtors from six-feet away donning masks and gloves in empty spaces, full of hope. We sign the lease and decide to move out all on our own so we won’t need movers, because we want to give this baby every chance it can, which means not catching Covid. It’s a lovely townhouse thirty minutes out, with a nursery, and room to work and grow since we’re both doing everything from home. I’ll even have a finished basement for an office and future guestroom for the grandparents, whenever travel might be safe again.
My husband can move everything himself, he thinks. Thank goodness for IKEA furniture that all comes apart and rebuilds, piece by piece, bolt by bolt, and a hatch-back car that fits all the messy pieces of our lives, which we will need to take apart and put back together again.
We tell our families, but no one else.
It is an apocalypse, but I am pregnant, so we hope. It feels strange to be so joyful when so many are grieving, like that Colin Meloy song.
I am 10 weeks pregnant, almost 11, and it is finally time for our first appointment. My husband cannot come with me, because of Covid, so I go alone, early—the first appointment of the day—while he waits for us in the car. In the Women’s Center at the hospital I am greeted by row after row of empty waiting chairs in a vast, sterile room, with signs posted strategically between chairs indicating that we may not sit there, may not sit together, may not be together. They call me in.
They draw my blood and it is all happy talk, though I am nervous. “December 14th: a Christmas baby!” the NP exclaims.
“I know: we’re so excited!”
I lie down so they can listen for the heartbeat for the first time. A happy picture of kites floating through the sky breaks the monotony of the tiled ceiling immediately above me. I stare at this as the NP listens to my womb, remembering a few nights ago when we watched Mary Poppins. I think of the scene, just before George Banks’s conversion, when Bert the chimney-sweep sings an admonishment to George—“You’ve got to grind, grind, grind at that grindstone, while childhood slips like sand through a sieve”, or something like that—slowly, enunciating each word as he sings. It made me cry, at the time, and I looked at my husband afterwards, and I said, like I always do, “It’s about George, you know. It’s not about Jane and Michael at all.” I think about all this and wonder what’s taking so long.
“I can’t hear anything, which is completely normal, so we’re going to send you down for an ultrasound.”
So I put on my mask, and my gloves, and I take my little urine cup because I still need to give them a urine sample, down to Radiology, where I wait some more.
After what feels like years, the Ultrasound Technician calls me in. They had said I could Facetime my husband for the first Ultrasound, so I ask her if this is possible.
“No,” she says, quickly, curtly, and nothing else.
It is dark and I am alone and the silence is as loud as it was at the Santa Cova, except it is the opposite kind of silence—not the comforting kind, but the kind that precedes something awful, the horrific kind.
“So, I don’t hear anything, so I’m going to do a deep ultrasound. Go give your urine sample and come back.”
I obey, mechanically, unfeelingly. Is something wrong? I wanted to Facetime my husband. Covid makes everything so much lonelier.
I go back, into the darkness, into the silence, where the technician is waiting. “Is this normal?” I muster up the strength to ask.
“Completely!” she says, friendlier this time.
A deep ultrasound is uncomfortable, precisely because it is deep, like a papsmear. I hear its steady beep but nothing else while I begin to shake with fear.
She pulls out the tool, and then very calmly and technically, she explains that my baby has no heartbeat. Also, it is four weeks behind where it should be gestationally.
“Are you okay?” she asks.
“No,” I say, and then I have a panic attack.
She hands me tissues and fetches my husband from his car, who is texting me asking me how things are going with excitement, and I can’t tell him. The Radiologist eventually comes in, with him there now thanks to the technician, and explains to me what happened, what’s happening, that it’s probably not viable, but that I have to wait….that I have to wait and see.
I don’t remember much beyond that, beyond being in an empty room, waiting for my husband whose hopes were also about to be crushed, and having a panic attack and screaming, “Why, God? Why?” in the basement of an otherwise empty hospital during a pandemic.
I leave Radiology in a fog of nothing and am told I have to go back to the Women’s Center. My husband is gone again, because we both thought we could go home, and there, I learn that I will need to come back in three days for more blood work. If my hormone levels have dropped from today, they’ll know it’s not viable and that my baby is dead, that my baby has been dead for four weeks now.
And so I go home, an empty, broken shell of myself.
The Last Week of May
The tests come back, as we had been warned to expect, with much lower hormone levels.
I have three options, my OB-Gyn tells me over the phone. I can wait for my dead baby to leave my body naturally, which can take up to eight weeks, and there will be lots of blood. I can take medication, through which there will be lots of blood, but which I can do on my own terms immediately. Or I can opt for the procedure, a scraping, which would also be immediate but less bloody.
The first option is unthinkable. Bearing my dead baby for four days, while knowing that it has been dead inside me for four weeks, nauseates me. I’m finding it difficult to even walk.
The last option is also unthinkable. I refuse to go back to the hospital alone to have my dead baby taken from me while looking up at happy pictures of kites on sterile ceilings. Not only do I refuse, but I can’t. I know I cannot go back there without having a nervous breakdown.
So I choose the second option.
My husband retrieves the pills for me from the pharmacy. They are not ingestible.
I do this, the worst thing I have ever done, and then I do not get out of bed for a week, other than to tend to the bleeding.
And the bleeding will not stop. I did not realize I would feel it happening, but I felt it, I felt my baby leave me. Its lifeless, heartbeatless, tiny little body that had been entombed in my womb for a month; I felt it pour out of me in a clot of blood. So many clots of blood, all of which I must feel.
I do not get out of bed, except to go to the bathroom and let that blood pour out. Crying is my “new normal” now. The chaos still rages around us, in new and more horrible ways, but it is all white noise against my grief.
The world continues to go up in flames. Another innocent black man, more innocent black people, have been murdered by police, and I want to protest but cannot.
Because I am still bleeding, and now we must also move.
Somehow, we accomplish this. I get out of bed, at some point, in some fog, and I begin packing boxes. It takes us a full two weeks, packing each carload and then carefully unpacking it, and now we are physically exhausted in addition to the emotional drain. My husband has not stopped working in all of this, maybe a day or two off through it all to focus on the move and help me through the worst parts.
He is a wonderful father, I think, and that fills me with rage.
At one point during the move, he is downstairs in our new home hauling boxes of my books to our basement, my new office. I am upstairs after doing the same with boxes of clothes to our bedroom, and I stop at the door of what would have been the nursery, now to be a guestroom and his office. I see, along its empty white walls, what would’ve been: a crib, a changing table, walls adorned with my Grandmother’s Winnie-the-Pooh drawings—kites, also, and childhood slipping away like sand through a sieve.
But the real person who inspired George Banks allegedly died in shame. There will be no kites and no childhood here yet, even as the children in our new neighborhood ride their bikes outside our window in the lot below our would-be nursery laughing and playing, blissfully unaware of the painful emptiness inside these walls.
I envy them, now, and I envy their parents even more. From a distance the other day, one of them joked that we should remember birth control, as though we shouldn’t want kids.
I sit on the floor and I weep, because I’m still bleeding and grinding, grinding, grinding at that grindstone, like Bert warned against.
The move is finished, but I’m still bleeding. It stopped, for just a few days, and then came back heavy and thick. I’ve now spent most of June bleeding out our child.
We hang one of our favorite pieces of art in our new foyer, a small hand-painted icon of the Black Madonna of Montserrat. I bought her in Bareclona to remind us of our time in the sacred silence of the Santa Cova, and to help me remember that Christ is behind me, beside me, and before me, and that Mary’s “yes” to God and her hope and her joy and her grief, all belonging to a mother, made that possible. In our icon, she holds the Christ Child in her lap, and they both hold the world in the palm of their hand.
I no longer envy you, Mary. Your womb was filled and your child fully grown, but you watched him bleed, too. I’ve made it through both Christmas and Easter, and even Pentecost now, and it’s taken all that time for me to realize that we have this in common: a mother’s grief.
I no longer envy you, Mary, but I beg you: grieve for my children, too; and for me as a mother, and for my husband as a father. Because there are mothers and fathers who will never be recognized as mothers and fathers as their children get swept up into that great, unspeakable and silent whirlwind. We shall find them there again, I think, at the center of things, when our freedom meets God’s, because of you—a woman, a mother, a mother who grieved over her dead Son, and who holds the world in her palm because of it—because you affirmed a flicker of hope, that light in the darkness despite that darkness’s impenetrability.
Because it was impenetrable for you, wasn’t it? Even if it’s not through a viable pregnancy, ask your child to enkindle that hope again within me, Mary, so that I might finally leave this all-consuming and empty darkness behind.
“Christ behind me, Christ beside me, Christ before me,” said God to me in the Santa Cova, with Mary and all the Saints present there with me. I didn’t know I would need to be reminded of that so soon, God, you who hold it all in your palm—you who hold my two babies in your palm, too, with Mary and all the Saints there with them.
I sit wrecked, still an empty shell of myself, and I look up and around and within at them, for them, with them. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, light to light. As I continue to bleed, Mary—I know it!—weeps with me. And her Son—I feel it!—bleeds with me. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, light to light in the end of all that’s darkness. She sings with me the words I sang aloud in my car almost a year ago, as we together lament unto God: “What a terrible world, what a beautiful world you have made here! What a world you have made here.”
Katherine Wrisley Shelby is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Theology at Providence College. Her work primarily considers the Medieval Franciscan Tradition.
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