It was a Wednesday night, right after dinner. Paul was trying his best to be good company for Vanessa, but she felt distracted, anxious, her husband's voice the background noise of a radio playing in some distant room, tuned to a station no one ever listened to. Vanessa busied herself clearing the dishes, then wiping off the table and kitchen counters.
She was one week into her third month of pregnancy.
They finished dinner. Paul helped her gather up the dishes and insisted that she go sit down and rest, let him take care of the clean-up, but Vanessa was having none of it.
"Stop treating me like I'm some goddamned china-doll, all right? I'm fine."
"But you look tired."
"You happen to glance in a mirror anytime these last few days? You look like something out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, only without the breezy wit and sidesteps of whimsy."
Paul laughed. "Things have been kind of busy at the restaurant."
She grabbed his shoulders and turned him around. "All the more reason to let me take care of you, dummy. Now, go, leave and do not darken my towels again."
"Line from a Marx Brothers movie. Go. Sit. Relax. In a month or two, you'll be doing this full-time for me."
"And don't think I'm not looking forward to it."
"You're still here."
"That's my good boy."
She was just adding dish soap to the water running into the sink when she felt the smallest of twinges deep inside. She paused for a moment, waited for it to pass, and was reaching for the first plate when the twinge returned, stronger this time, hotter, shooting into her back.
"Something's not right," she said to herself.
"What's that, hon?" called Paul from the other room.
"Huh? Oh, nothing. I, uh...I have to go to the bathroom. Could you watch the water for me? Make sure the suds don't run over the edge."
"I've been doing dishes since I was four years old, my love. We have dishes at the restaurant, as well, remember? I think it might be okay to leave me unsupervised for a minute or two."
Vanessa smiled at him, then left to do her business.
By the time she got to the bathroom, the twinge and heat had passed and she felt just fine- well, she needed to remove her bladder and slam it up against the wall a few times, but what else was new?She peed ten to fifteen times a day now, something her doctor and other pregnant women assured her was par for the course in the wondrous journey toward motherhood. If she could lay claim to no other epiphany resulting from this, she could firmly state that, in the past few months, she'd learned the truth about the so-called "radiance" of an expectant mother: It had nothing to do with her carrying the miracle of life in her womb; oh no, that was a romantic myth best saved for the daytime soaps and cheap tearjerker novels.
The truth was, if a pregnant woman appeared to "glow," if she took on a "luminous" quality, it was because she had just peed, or needed to pee and had discovered there was a bathroom nearby.
Vanessa laughed as she unbuckled her belt and unzipped her jeans and slid the works down past her calves as she sat down on the toilet.
A breath, a sigh, a contended hum in the back of her throat, and the sweet, waterfall sound of radiance filled the cramped bathroom.
For a few seconds, it was bliss.
Then an invisible hand rammed itself deep inside of her and dragged rusty steel hooks down the throbbing walls of her uterus.
For the rest of her life, she would remember the next sixty seconds in all of their terrible detail: First, the pain, wrenching and merciless; then the sound she made, somewhere between a shriek and a scream; next, the floor rushing up to meet her as the invisible hand wetly tore itself free and shoved her off the toilet seat; and then she was curled up on the floor, knees pressed against her stomach, feeling the blood seep from between her legs as she shook, her hands clasped together tight, mashed against her vagina.
She lay convulsing for what seemed hours before she heard the sound of the bathroom door being opened and then there was Paul, his warm, soapy hands cupping Vanessa's face, tears streaking his cheeks, muttering "Oh honey, my love, my love" over and over as he gently helped her to sit up, and then embraced her, rocking her back and forth, stroking her sweat-soaked hair and whispering, "All right, it's all right now, shhh, there, there, it's over, it's passed, it's all right, I'm here, I'm right here, honey, you don't need to--"
Vanessa pulled away from him, wiped the sweat and tears from her own face, leaving streaks of blood in their place, and saw that Paul had looked over her shoulder and was staring into the toilet.
"Oh my dear Lord," he said.
Vanessa moved forward to look but then Paul was there, holding her back, saying, "Don't, hon, you don't--"
Vanessa pushed him out of the way and leaned over, her hands gripping the edge of the toilet bowl.
And there was their baby; small, like a bumblebee, like something you could balance on the tip of your thumb, Tom Thumb, that was its name, floating around in the center of the blood and urine and placenta and what remained of the amniotic sac, wriggling around as the force of its mother's beating heart against the porcelain created ripples in the water, little swirls, and as she stared Vanessa could make out things, little things, microscopic Tom-Thumb-things like fin-flaps that would have been arms, knobs that might have been its hands, a bump that could have turned into a more flattering version of her own nose as Tom Thumb grew older, a dark pinprick of eye, all of it curving into a semi-human shape my child, my baby, swim to shore, swim like a good strong little boy, over here, I'm right over here--
They managed to temporarily staunch the worst of the bleeding with a knot of Kotex pads, then Paul sat Vanessa on edge of the bath tub, closed the toilet lid, and spent a minute mopping away the blood on the floor, all the time checking with his wife to make sure the bleeding hadn't worsened.
"I'll go get...uh, a few things, hon. Why don't you come out and lay down on the couch?"
"No. I'll just...wait here."
"Do you think you ought to--"
"All right, then."
Paul quickly returned with a plastic ladle and a large, clear plastic freezer bag. "I poured some rubbing alcohol on the ladle so it'd be sterile and this bag's got an airtight seal. I figure something like this would be best." He opened the toilet lid and knelt down.
"What is it, honey?"
"I'd like to do it."
"Want me to stay here with you?"
"No, that's all right."
"You be okay?"
"I'll be fine." She placed her hand against his cheek. "You're a wonderful man. I love you right now more than I ever have, I think. Thank you."
Paul's eyes misted over. "You don't have to thank me, Vanessa. You're my wife. I'd do anything for you. I love you."
"I love you, too." She was stunned by the sudden, deep rush of affection she felt toward him.
"You were always there for me, weren't you?"
"Even before either of us were born." He softly kissed Vanessa's forehead, rose to his feet, then left, making sure to give one last smile before closing the door behind him.
Vanessa knelt down, wincing against the pain and the bloodstone-knot of Kotex pads, took a deep breath, then did it quickly, making sure not to stare at the thing that would have been their first child for too long. Everything went into the bag--fetus, placenta, blood, urine, amniotic sac- then with a quick zzzzzzzip! the bag was sealed. Maybe this time the doctors at the hospital would be able to test the remains and figure out why they'd lost the baby.
She closed the toilet lid and sat on it, holding the bag near her chest.
Two minutes. She allowed herself to sit there and hold the bag and cry for two minutes, no more.
Paul filled a small Styrofoam cooler with ice and Vanessa placed the bag inside, then attached the cracked lid.
"Ready to head over to the hospital, honey?"
Vanessa felt as if she were folding in on herself; the pain was still screaming through her center, the nausea was still rising, and the shaking had only worsened. "I d-don't know. I think I c-could maybe use some help." Then came the dizziness.
The next few minutes were a feverish blur: Paul's voice, Paul's hands helping her to sit, to move, then the smell of exhaust fumes and a strange man's voice saying, "Please let us take over, sir," then a second pair of hands, hard and calloused and strong, helping her onto a gurney, then motion, sick-making motion that caused her to leak all the more, so wet down there, so warm and wet so why did she feel so cold?...
...voices and images, people in a drunken pain-dream swarming around her...
...bright lights, other voices, other hands, squeaking wheels and faster motion, her clothes taken away, sterile smells, pain still there, still leaking, her legs gently lifted, ankles into cold stirrups, a needle in her arm, a plastic mask placed over her mouth, numbness, my baby, oh Paul, empty, so empty....
A genetic defect in the fetus compounded by structural problems of the uterus was the explanation the doctors gave to her. They were all very nice and showed the proper amount of sympathy and concern but, despite their words of comfort and their patient explaining of all the medical jargon and Paul's reassuring words and gentle embraces ("We can still try again, honey."), all she heard was Empty, empty, empty...
She came back from the hospital dazed and tired, weak and enormously sad. She tried to remember if she had ever experienced such deep emotional pain before, then decided it didn't matter. The loss was great and complete in the way only death is.
For the first few days she couldn't talk to anyone, but at the same time it hurt too much to be alone. She would just cry and cry without stopping; over this, she had no control. One of the clearest reminders that she was no longer pregnant was the speedy change her body went through. Within three days her breasts, once tender and swollen, were back to their normal size; her stomach, which had grown hard, was soft again. Her body was no longer preparing for the birth of a child: it was simple and blatant and cold.
Explicating the scene, since some have asked: if a woman miscarries, she does not have to take the embryo/fetus to the hospital, but if she wants to get a definite medical explanation of why she lost her baby, the hospital's having the remains on hand for testing is extremely helpful. Obviously, this step is more than some people can handle, so nobody expects them to. A death certificate is not issued in the case of a miscarriage.