By Lisa Quigley
“Write about what scares you.”
I like the way this sounds, what it implies. But there’s a problem: I don’t know how to write about the real horrors.
If I did, I might tell you that we lost a baby. Not a real baby, not one that we ever got to touch or name or smell or kiss. I was eleven weeks pregnant when I started to bleed.
At the hospital, I watched the doctor’s brow furrow while she performed the ultrasound. She pressed the instrument into my belly, so hard it hurt, but I didn’t care. I was watching the screen. I was watching because I knew where to look for the baby, and I was waiting to see the round shape of the head, maybe the briefest suggestion of limbs, something that would let me breathe a sigh of relief. But I just saw black in the circle, no white blob where the baby should be. Her words confirmed what I already knew: “I see the gestational sac…but no baby.”
It turned out, the baby was there, but it hadn’t grown past eight weeks. That was why we couldn’t see it on the monitor. That was why the space that held it looked empty. I sobbed while my husband held me. He cried into my hair when the doctor left the room.
It’s a strange feeling to weep when you are hollow.
I’m not doing this right. There’s more to the story.
I lost another baby ten years ago. I was much younger, a very different me. I had short hair, for one, and I was skinnier and only twenty years old. I was married to a different man, and that baby was an accident. A shock. A wrench in the works.
It didn’t make me love it any less.
I was a waitress, and I was almost twelve weeks pregnant when it happened. I was getting ready for work one morning, and when I went to the bathroom, my underwear was stained with copper brown. I didn’t know as much, back then, I wasn’t as educated, but I knew that blood when you’re pregnant isn’t good. I made my (ex) husband take me to the emergency room. It was a similar situation. Me, lying on a sparse emergency room bed, wearing that open-backed gown, the doctor coming in, saying, “I’m sorry, your baby is dead.”
Me, crying—sobbing—my (ex) husband just staring, not touching me, not saying anything. Me being heartbroken and him being relieved. He never said it. He didn’t come out and tell me, “Thank God,” but he may as well have. You can feel that sort of thing. Relief is palpable. It had been an accident, after all. It wasn’t something we had planned on. Now, we could go on as before, couldn’t we?
Except, we couldn’t. I couldn’t. I didn’t.
I went on, but not as before. I was changed.
We had no plans of trying again. I was not going to try to become a mother anytime soon. But I always felt the loss—like I had started something that was going to take a long, long time to be finished.
Fast forward to the present.
The morning of the day I took the test, and we had a “feeling,” we were in bed, morning had not fully taken hold. “Will we be happy if you are?” he said, in the darkish light.
“Happy, and a little scared,” I said.
“But mostly happy?”
Yes. Mostly happy.
When I took the test after work that afternoon, he was in the livingroom on the couch. I held the test in my trembling hands, watched as the two telltale lines appeared. I stayed there and breathed for a minute, keeping this one moment all to myself. Then I called my husband.
He ran into the room. “Are we?”
We held each other, neither of us speaking, until he said, “You’re shaking.”
We called our families right away, and I called my best friend. I talked to her for over an hour, gushing and pacing our apartment courtyards, my heart flooded, already, so quickly, so instantly, with dreams of the future.
I told my sister, and she was excited, and she told me, “I know it’s early, but I believe this baby will be.”
And so did I. I believed.
I don’t know if I’m getting through to you. I think part of my frustration is that I can’t fully explain everything under the surface that is fueling my grief. If you know me, you know one part of me. You know who I show you, who I am in the context of who we are together.
You don’t know about the dreams.
After my first miscarriage, I started to have strange dreams. Dreams that I was pregnant. My belly would start to grow, then turn odd shapes. The skin would deflate and hang and the doctors would laugh at me: There was no baby, there was never any baby.
Or I would give birth to something tiny, something miniscule and foreign and unhuman. Or I would grow until my belly became strangely lump-shaped, something unnatural, and I would give birth to a thing that came out talking and walking and laughing at me, a thing that pointed at me, with eyes that glittered of other-worldliness. Once, I gave birth to an animal, tried to hold it and pet it and will it to turn into a real baby. In another dream, I was at the doctor’s office, and the doctor reached inside me and retrieved a golf-ball sized sphere of tiny seeds. See, the doctor said. This is your baby. Look closely. But I was confused. Is it safe to have it out like that? The doctor was smiling until I said this, then a look of worry crossed his brow. He tried to put it back inside me, but the sphere shattered, the seeds going everywhere. In the worst of the dreams, I gave birth to something which I then proceeded to cook, and eat. And always, always, always: the belly never grew right. It would start to grow, would seem like it was growing, and then deflate, or deform.
These dreams recurred for ten years. Ever since that first time. The dreams never stopped.
Are you starting to understand? Am I explaining this right? Where the grief comes from? What I have really lost?
I forgot to tell you that we heard the heart beat. This time. Do you know what that feels like? I was laying on my back on the table, the crackling paper covering my belly, the doctor between my legs with a probe. My husband to my right, holding my hand, watching the screen. I was holding my breath, nervous, because I’d never had this experience before. The first time, I hadn’t been to the doctor yet, didn’t get to see my baby on the screen until after it was dead.
This time, watching the monitor, we saw a form appear. The doctor said, “There’s your baby!”
It was strange and foreign looking, but I could see the shape of the head, like a tiny little shrimp, and the heart beat flickered. The doctor moved the probe inside me some more, then did something to the screen, and we heard it: the muffled but steady beat of a heart. Not my heart. Another heart. The heart of the one I carried inside me. The heart of something alive and separate and distinct. My tears weren’t overwhelming, like I’d thought they might be, but instead my eyes were wet and my heart was full. I heard my husband laugh beside me, a laugh of wonder and surprise, and his laugh caught in his throat.
It’s hard to explain to others why I am so sad. Why it hurts so much. It’s understandable. To them, it was invisible. I never stopped looking like me. My belly didn’t grow. To them, I didn’t really lose anything but potential.
It struck me, while driving to work one day, in the aftermath of emotions: there was a heartbeat. There was something alive inside me, and I saw it and heard it. There was something alive, something that died. A heart that stopped beating.
I don’t know how to write about the real horrors.
If I did, I might tell you how much I believed.
The first time it happened, the doctor told me: “Miscarriages are very common, and most common in first pregnancies. It likely won’t happen again.”
I carried this with me, like a mantra, all that time. Miscarriages usually happen in first pregnancies. It was like my body was practicing; learning how to be pregnant. Next time, it would be okay. Next time, my body would know what to do. And after my first marriage fell apart and enough years had gone by that I was actually able to be grateful that it had happened that first time (because life would have been so, so, so different) I even got to a place where I thought: thank goodness I already got my miscarriage out of the way.
As if it was something being controlled, something being allotted. Like there was someone handing out little cards: one for you, one for you, one for you, one for you. So that next time, someone would look at some notes and say, Ah! She’s already had hers. She’s already had her one.
That’s not the way life works.
There isn’t a rationing of pain.
But that belief, you know?
I believed it wouldn’t happen again. I believed this time would be different. I believed I would get to hold my baby. In the face of what had happened before; in the face of a decade of dark dreams; in the face of my own vulnerability: I believed.
The belief was so deep, even when I saw the blood: I believed. My friend bled during her pregnancy and was fine, but we should probably still go to the ER for peace of mind. I believed.
“Have you had sex recently?” the doctor asked me.
“We had sex on Saturday,” I said. It was now Wednesday.
“Sometimes, sex can irritate the cervix and cause bleeding, but it’s not always a cause for alarm,” the doctor said.
“Is it normal to bleed this many days after sex?”
“Not…really,” she said. “But let me do the ultrasound and see.”
I believed, I believed, I believed.
I think that was part of why I was so crushed. I hadn’t held room in my mind for the unthinkable, because it was…unthinkable.
I didn’t think it would—didn’t think it could—happen to me again.
I don’t know how to write about the real horrors.
If I did, I would tell you that I’ve tried and tried to come up with a good end to the story. Something to make you smile, something to show that maybe I’ve learned and I somehow hurt less. Something to make your heart ache with the beauty of it. But here’s the truth: I don’t know how to make the pain go away. I don’t know how to tell you how much it hurts. I don’t know how to tell you that I’m fine, that I’ll live, that I can laugh and drink and eat and work and fuck and sleep and love and feel and carry on with life, that I can smile and breathe and continue, but that I’ll never understand. And to make matters worse, I still believe. Maybe that’s the real horror of it. That I haven’t learned my lesson. That I read books to try to make sense of it and to learn about my body and I eat well and take vitamins so I will be healthy. That the doctor said, “Everything looks to be okay with you. It likely won’t happen again.” That I looked her right in the eyes and believed, like a fool. Fool me once, shame on you . . . That we’re going to try again. That I’m still willing to expose my heart. That I’m waiting for those double lines. That I’m waiting to feel that tiny, wriggling body; hear that heart rending cry. That I still have hope.
That’s the real horror.
Lisa Quigley is a writer, yogini, wife, and spiritual nomad living in Southern California. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from University of California Riverside’s low residency program in Palm Desert. She reads and writes horror and dark fantasy because that’s what feels the most honest. Living boldly, taking chances, and laughing loudly top her list of aspirations. She’s married to a guy who motivates her to be the best version of herself every single day—but best of all, they have fun together. Her list of books to read grows at a much faster rate than she could ever hope to consume in this lifetime, but she keeps adding to it anyway.