In recent years, the month of March would arrive un-welcomed by me. I hated to see it come, and was relieved as it neared its end. All because of what today, March 20th, is for me. You see, today I celebrate the life, while remembering the loss, of my firstborn child, Alanna Bea. I found out I was carrying her on January 2, 2011. I lost her through a late miscarriage on March 20, 2011. She weighed as much as six pennies and was the length of my ring finger.
It is hard for me to believe it’s been five whole years since the dreadful day of losing the one who made me a mother. The sting of the day’s unique, vivid memories are as strong as if it happened yesterday. As I reflect on this time by reading through old journal entries, I am revisiting a part of me that I’d mostly forgotten about in recent months, since welcoming my baby boy Gunther into the world. I was a different person than I am now, a different sort of mother, but no less of one.
Last year this time, I was anticipating the arrival of the baby I now get to do life with. It was interesting that this “successful pregnancy” had a due date in March, less than ten days away from the date I lost my firstborn. What a complex, bi-polar month. I am still putting together the birth story of my son, Gunther. In a way, I am glad that his is incomplete, so that this one (his older sister’s) can be published first.
In addition to Alanna’s story, throughout this week I will be posting excerpts from my journal, in remembrance of my little girl’s life that ended too soon. It is also my desire that, in so sharing the realities of my painful loss, I can dissolve some of the misconceptions surrounding the topic of miscarriages. Most people don’t understand that a miscarriage involves the birth and death of a real, physical human being.
Motherhood is something I have always yearned for, although I didn’t realize this truth until my mid-twenties. Before I was married, I was certain I had found my “calling” in film and video. It wasn’t until after being married, while working as a video director, that I discovered my ultimate desire of being a stay-at-home-mom.
A few months into our marriage, Jonathan and I found out we were pregnant. This was wonderful news! Of course, we felt a little afraid, but who doesn’t with their first pregnancy? There were so many unknowns before us. Unfortunately, our excitement wasn’t reciprocated with everyone around us. We thought the news of our pregnancy would create a joyful atmosphere. Instead, it brought opposition and anger. I was pinned with a series of questions and statements, at the root of which was the resounding question: “Why do you have to be different?”
- “Weren’t you planning [to not have kids yet]?”
- “Why didn’t you use contraception?”
- “You don’t know anything about becoming parents.”
- “You should have waited a while, to get used to just being married.”
Since when did I have to follow rules regarding the timing of pregnancy within marriage? Whose rules are they, and why am I obligated to follow them?
A piece of my heart was crushed with having to hear such rude lies. Nevertheless, planning for our little one began. Jonathan and I were a team. We did online research, attended pregnancy classes, read magazines and books, scheduled doctor visits, reworked our budget, interviewed midwives, and toured the hospital. I’ll never forget the precious ultrasounds during which we saw our little miracle. She seemed perfect. Untouchable. Happy. She waved and danced for us like a swift and nimble acrobat. We listened to her heartbeat. We cherished it all.
When we came to the end of the first trimester, our doctor assured us that the pregnancy was going well and that if anything, there was a 5% chance of something going wrong. Confident that I would be in the 95th percentile of her statistic, I hand-wrote letters to a few close friends.
But a few short days later, our world came crashing down on us.
It was a busy weekend. Jonathan and I were both working for our church’s leadership conference, while celebrating our 6 month wedding anniversary. On Saturday, March 19th, we had a pancake breakfast, tossed around a frisbee, and walked along the lake in the beautiful spring-like weather. That evening, we enjoyed each other’s presence, dining at two of Madison’s best restaurants, desserts followed by dinner. There was a lot to celebrate about this first half year as husband and wife and we had a lot to look forward to as new parents. The next morning was going to be an early one; Jonathan was leading church services and I was to accompany him.
Before going home that evening, we gazed under the stars with a full moon above us. The day became night. One which would include very little sleep, one whose memories would haunt us for the rest of our lives.
Upon getting ready for bed around 9 PM, I noticed blood in the toilet. I yelled for Jonathan, who came quickly. After looking into each other’s faces with shock, he ran to find one of my pregnancy books. “Do you have abdomen pain?” he asked, flipping through the pages. I hadn’t noticed, but as we moved into the bedroom, I felt the pain starting. We had no idea what to do. So. We went to bed. We thought perhaps this was just a quickly passing fluke, and I’d be able to sleep it off.
How wrong were we. Jonathan and I slept in fragmented segments, as things went from bad to worse. Between uttered prayers, and trying my best not to worry or cry, I somehow fell asleep for a few short hours. I woke up at 2 AM when I went to the bathroom to find more bleeding and lots of pain. Crawling back into bed, I woke Jonathan to tell him I was still bleeding. I hated to wake him because I knew he needed sleep. “We” had to lead church service that morning… but slowly, my cares were being cast away, as I could only focus on what was in front of me. I was moaning and groaning, as the pain increased. I felt like I was choking on air, holding my breath through clenched teeth while the pain surfaced, one wave after another. He rubbed my belly and my back, comforted me and helped me to breathe. “Breathe like this,” he’d say, demonstrating a calm composure. “I can’t!” I exclaimed, in my frustration and panic. Still, somehow I fell asleep again, waking next at 4 AM. This time we were both up for good. I could hardly walk to the bathroom. There was more blood. I was also feeling extremely nauseous. Crying with pain and worry, I went back to the bedroom. It was so intense, it was unbearable — truly, the worst pain I ever knew could be experienced by a human being. It was impossible to find a suitable position to rest in. I’d lay on my side, sit up, or curl up into a ball, but everything hurt beyond belief.
Jonathan called the 24/7 nurse line, who, over the course of half an hour, connected us with a doctor on call. The first thing to come out of his mouth was: “It sounds like the signs of a miscarriage…” Noooo! I wanted to scream at him, “No! Don’t tell me that! I’m 15 1/2 weeks pregnant. My OB/GYN said miscarriage was a 5% chance at this point. We just heard the baby’s heartbeat less than a month ago. We just told our friends and family the news. Don’t tell me my worst fear is happening right now!”
But it was. And only God knows why… the God I served, the God I loved, the God I prayed to, the God I thought I knew… was allowing this to happen to me. I felt his presence and comfort that night, although I went on to question him in years to follow.
The doctor-on-call tried to be optimistic. He said most of the the calls he gets are about bleeding. I was the 4th one that night. “It could be something else…” he said, but told me I should go to the Emergency Room if it persisted.
Persist it did. By the time the phone call ended, Jonathan’s alarm would have been alerting us to start our Sunday. I cried so much — heavy, wheezing sobs. My pillow, sheets and clothes were soaked with salty tears.
What neither Jonathan nor I understood at the time was that my body was going through labor. The pain I was experiencing, in quickening increments, was from contractions. Completely naive, I let my husband go to work that morning. I suppose we were clinging on to some sort of hope, optimistically telling ourselves that this would be over soon and everything was going to be okay.
For the first hour Jonathan was gone, I tried sleeping in vain. I looked at the clock every ten minutes. I observed that my pain was coming about every five minutes and lasting for a few minutes at a time. I fell asleep staring at the clock. Then: awake again. Pain again. And anxiously waiting for Jonathan to come back. Finally, he came home to find me on the floor, my abdomen cramps crippling me to the point of being unable to move on my own. My sweet husband helped me get dressed and packed us peanut butter and honey sandwiches. After what seemed like 2 hours (but was probably less than half that), we left for the ER.
Like everything else from that day, I vividly remember the drive to St. Mary’s Hospital. The twenty minute commute seemed like an eternity. I just wanted to get through this, and I didn’t feel I was able to. I put my legs on the dashboard and cuddled with a blanket. The steady rain was perfectly timed; I felt like the earth was crying with me.
I went, in a wheelchair, from registration to a nurse, in a dream-like trance. The faces of those who greeted me looked blurry through my tears. A nurse took my vitals and started asking questions. I was trying my best to breathe deeply, but was gasping for air. My husband had to do most of the talking. “How far along are you?,” they asked. “Fifteen and half weeks,” I answered myself, without skipping a beat. That was an easy question as I had been keeping a close eye on our baby’s growth. But my answer wasn’t easy for the nurse; he was puzzled as to what to do with me and had to make a few phone calls. “Usually only women at 16 weeks go up,” he explained. I didn’t understand where ‘up’ was, but apparently I was close enough because next thing I knew, I was being wheeled up to triage — the birthing floor. How fitting, I later thought, that I should be among women giving birth to life, while I am giving birth to death.
In my weakness and helplessness, I was thankful for the kind nurse (Nicki) who brought me to the triage floor. The environment was all familiar to me, since Jonathan and I toured it only a couple of months prior. Everything I was experiencing now was so out of “the plan.” Nicki tried to pick up our baby’s heartbeat with a fetal doppler, but nothing could be heard. A doctor in residency (Stephanie) took charge and a few more women entered the room, all for various purposes. We later realized there were about 12 people all involved. They asked a bunch of questions. She (Stephanie) did a pelvic exam, followed by an ultrasound. Her body was blocking the screen. I tried to arch my neck to take a look. After some time, I finally saw a glimpse: nothing. Empty uterus. I looked to Jonathan, who had no expression; he was solemn and quiet.
The sight on the screen surely out-shocked all of the other shocks I had already been experiencing. Our dancing acrobat wasn’t dancing anymore. It was as if someone had kidnapped her. Snatched her from the safe protection of my womb. How could this be happening? I thought she was safe. This was God’s blessing. We had just seen her….
A minute passed before Stephanie faced me and said in a sorrowful, serious tone: “We’re not done yet, but I want to explain what I’ve seen so far…” She went on to explain things in vague, doctor sense. What I understood: My uterus appeared to be empty, while there was “tissue/membranes” outside of it.
Then it was time to wait. I remember being thankful for the nursing staff, while hating them at the same time. They walked in and out of my room without notice, and I desperately wanted privacy; but I also knew I needed help. And yet, in a way, I felt so wrapped up in my own world that I didn’t even notice they were there. What a strange mix of emotions a human goes through during tragedy.
During all this, I was immensely thirsty. The on-call doctor I talked to at a 4 AM told me not to eat or drink anything. I’d had a little water with Tylenol, but that was it. Finally, now I could drink water. I chugged it, for two reasons: 1) I was thirsty. Obviously. 2) They were sending down a special sonographer with a “better” ultrasound machine. I had experienced enough ultrasounds by then to know that a full bladder gives a clearer picture into the uterus so, who knew? It was as if I was doing everything within my power to save my baby’s life.
I didn’t have to stretch my neck to see the screen during this second ultrasound. Everything was apparent; it looked so different from the previous month, when our baby girl was spinning and doing cartwheels. Our little gymnast really wasn’t there anymore. I gripped and squeezed Jonathan’s hand with all my might. The sonographer exited with a sad face. Nicki came in. My bladder was uncomfortably full and I was feeling the urge to go. But instead of urinating, it turned out my body was releasing the “tissue” referred to by the doctor. These “membranes” were in fact our tiny baby, who slipped into a bed pan at 12:20 in the afternoon. Instantaneously, my physical pain ceased and was replaced by the deepest of heart-wrenching pains.
Jonathan and I had a few minutes alone; we held hands and just cried. It was the first time I’d seen him cry. A woman I thought was a man took some blood. Jonathan doesn’t do well with needles, but he watched, while I looked away. He said later that she didn’t do a good job and wiggled the needle a lot, which explained why my arm was sore for days afterward. Then, once again, I was wheeled to another space: a birthing suite for recovery, but not before catching a glimpse of my husband slumped forward, his face resting in the palms of his hands. Seeing him in that state seemed to double my own grief. I tried not to, but I cried during the entire transition. My face was distorted in all the ways only someone who has been there can imagine. My emotions were uncontrollable.
Time seemed to stand still, but the clock wasn’t stopping for me. Back together in the recovery room, Jonathan and I had space to rest. The nurses were great. I went from Nicki to Sheryl to Laurie within that 10:30 AM to 6 PM timeframe of being at the hospital. We were asked what we wanted to do with “Baby O.,” our name for Alanna before we learned her gender. We chose to have her tested externally only, for chromosome abnormalities. (The thought of a gloved hand inserting a needle into her delicate skin was just too much for me to bear.) The nurses brought her to us, cleaned off and put in a tiny hand-knitted blanket. We held her for a long time, though in reality, we couldn’t have held her long enough. She was so incredibly small. The nurses gave us an official document of birth stating her statistics. She was the size of a 13 week old fetus, 3” and .4 ounce, about the length of my ring finger and an inch wide. She looked peaceful, just like anyone would look in a casket at a funeral home. We sang. We cried. The nurses prepared a memorial box for us to take home, complete with digital pictures of Baby O.
It was strange, surreal and shocking to hold onto our dead baby, but it helped provide some form of closure. In the end, I was thankful that [at least] the miscarriage was a natural process, without any need for intervention. No Pitossin, no IV fluids, and no D&C, though some of these things were offered to us or even ordered, before I spoke up against them.
Jonathan and I were discharged. Laurie showed us a discreet exit from the hospital. Jonathan asked if I wanted to be picked up, but I didn’t want to leave his side. We walked together, arm in arm, as new parents, to find the parked car. We were mother and father without a physical child. Then, it was back to the real world. I texted a friend we had planned to meet with earlier that day, apologizing for missing out — “but something came up.” We informed close family of our loss. And the next day, my husband resumed his other job as a teaching assistant.
The weeks and months that followed this horrible weekend were strange, to say the least. Everything I had known was changing, without any form of warning. I was so immensely sad, and I didn’t know how to deal with the unexpected loss. That week, I was back at work myself, putting on a smile as if nothing had happened.
We received some loving support in the initial weeks. I read some grief books, and wrote a lot in my journal. But it was hard to just live the day-to-day life. Everything seemed pointless. What’s the point in eating if it’s just for me now, and not for two? What do I do with all the pregnancy books I’d acquired? It was a lonely, uncharted road. Jonathan and I were grieving in different ways and it took a lot of focus to communicate to each other. It started to seem ironic that we were working for a church, while we were hurting and felt abandoned by God.
In a month’s time, we were attending our daughter’s funeral, on another cold, rainy day. The service was put on by the hospital for parents and families who lost little ones too early. We witnessed a young child dropping a white rose into the grave for their would-be younger sibling; that was heartbreaking. The flowers and music were nice, but still the void was deep. No parent should ever have to bury their own child.
The genetic testing showed that Alanna had a rare chromosomal abnormality called Triploidy. She had an extra set of “Y” chromosomes. For this reason, we nick-named her “Super Girl.”
Somehow, the months passed. As I searched to find my “new normal,” I never got used to the idea of not being pregnant anymore. I’d count the weeks and months in my head: I would be at 20 weeks today. I would be feeling their kicks around now.
And then, as the due date came, it was a matter of celebration and mourning at the same time. And more self-observations: I should be nursing right now. I would be waking to her cries every night.
Jealousy and comparison became my constant companions. When I would see a pregnant woman or a family with a newborn, I would burn with anger, and have to look away. They seemed to be everywhere, at every hour. Not a day went by that I didn’t feel tortured by seeing pregnant women or images. The sound of a baby’s cry would make my heart ache in the most agonizing way. Facebook was plagued with pregnancy and birth announcements. That should be me, I would think. Meanwhile, the question of the day for strangers to ask me (as if this topic is small talk) was, “Do you have any children?” Pregnant women would speak to me about their experiences as if I knew nothing about childbearing. And when I heard mothers with young children complaining about their responsibilities, I wanted to scream at them, “At least you have children!” Socializing was a difficult thing for me. It was easier to stay inside, by myself, than to have to face these kinds of awkward or emotional situations.
Alanna Bea: your life is not forgotten. You opened me to the world of motherhood. You have taught me about sacrifice and hardship. Truth be told, there have been times that I’ve wished your life never began. Because if it hadn’t, I wouldn’t know such deep pain and sorrow. But in my heart of hearts, I could never truly wish this. Because if your life hadn’t existed, I also wouldn’t know such love. And I wouldn’t be able to look forward to meeting you again. I will know you at first glance: your chubby cheeks and your wispy curls. Hearing your squeals of joy as you see me, your mother, I will run to you. Bend down on my knees. Scoop you up into my arms. And hold onto you close, never wanting to let go, and never meaning to. We will be together in God’s world. Until then, my child, stay blessed. You are loved.
Book Recommendations on Grief and Miscarriage:
– When God Lets You Down by Alex Gee
– I’ll Hold You In Heaven by Jack Hayford
– Heaven by Randy Alcorn
– Grieving the Child I Never Knew (Devotional) by Kathe Wunnenberg
– A Time To Grieve by Kenneth Haugk