By Marika Rosenthal Delan
The world was in a state of unrest when fall came.
In my home state of Missouri, people in Ferguson were rioting and burning shit to the ground. The only thing I was burning were hours of sleep and some old notions about the way things should be. Watching the world in complete disarray already had me fighting back vomit as two pink lines appeared on the stick I had just peed on.
Forty had descended on me like a wrecking ball that summer. I was surprised to find myself embracing this milestone, but had long considered a third child out of the question. I had always joked that I wanted three. But that was before 40, before three back surgeries and endometriosis.
Before. It was before my body was breaking. A baby was not on my radar and it showed up like a UFO.
I had been exceedingly careful with my birth control after once getting pregnant with an IUD- what are the chances? I looked it up: 0.8% in the first year of use whatever the hell that means.
I had eagerly signed consent for tubal ligation while undergoing exploratory surgery for endometriosis the previous year. But I hadn’t met the required 30-day waiting period by the day of my procedure. I woke up from anesthesia with my tubes intact.
A plan B wasn’t immediately established. It took months of discussion after which my hubby finally manned up and volunteered for a vasectomy. This was our three-part plan: We would make an appointment right after the holiday. He would have the procedure. Then we would go to the movies. It would be a date, I joked.
But the day before Thanksgiving our plan B fell through too. I had looked at my calendar and counted. An emergency trip to the Walgreen’s family planning section ensued. My husband was back with a three-pack of EPTs before I had a chance to work myself up into a neurotic frenzy but I made up for that later.
After using every test in the box to make certain, I spent the night crying, reading the headlines of Ferguson, panicking that it was terrible timing. It seemed like a bad omen and besides— I was old, I was broken. I couldn’t imagine how I could possibly do this, but the alternatives made me feel ill. This felt like divine intervention. I didn’t want to mess around in plans that weren’t mine to mess with. I kept looking to numbers for reassurance. What were the chances?
But there were no numbers to look up this time. There were no statistics or predictions I could make that would lull me into a false sense of security. By dawn, I had made up my mind.
I would put all my chips on the bundle of cells propagating in my uterus knowing sometimes saviors show up in strange ways.
I went to the Whole Foods vitamin section and bought prenatal vitamins. I stopped taking my pain meds. I rolled out my yoga mat even though all I could do was get on all fours. I puked my guts up and cried about how wretched I felt. My favorite jeans got tight until I got so sick they stopped getting tighter. The constant nausea and sleepiness from having to take antihistamines for extreme morning sickness made me wonder what the hell I thought I was doing. “It’s a good sign to feel so sick,” everyone kept telling me and I tried to let it make me feel better.
As I advanced in weeks into the double digits, the morning sickness began to ease slightly and I wasn’t so tired. The endometriosis went into remission from the pregnancy which partially eased my crippling back pain. That in itself felt like a small miracle. I talked to droves of women who had babies after 40 that assured me I could do this. I kept reminding myself that it might not have started out as my idea, but now this was the plan. I was invested.
Peter started talking to my tummy every morning. The kids started itching to buy toys and pick out names. I had an uneasy feeling that I dismissed as fear. It was no matter the trees were nearly bare and the end of a season was fast approaching. What sung from every cell of me was a song about spring, This is what it means to begin again.
Then winter came.
We picked paperwhites the day before we found out her heart stopped beating. They grow wild along the road where we take our walks. I hadn’t intended to take any home, but who tells their 5-year-old not to pick flowers for her mommy? She carried them home and we put them in a glass. A tiny handful of blooms were like a full bouquet for days. Their scent heady, unmistakable.
Weeks later I’m unable to part with them, their petals now petrified to paper, leaves and stem shrunken and slack in the glass. I envision crushing them in my hand and letting them blow away in the wind in some ceremonious letting go of things, but I can’t do it. I leave the shriveled wisps in the glass, untouched. Afraid that if I breathe on them, the storm of my grief will carry them away.
Things I read about grieving a pregnancy suggested planting something. A tree. A flowering bush. Something that blooms every spring, something “hearty”. But heady is all that comes to me. Unmistakable. I type ‘how to force paperwhite bulbs in winter’ in my search bar.
Paperwhite Narcissus. Narcissus tazzeta. Narcissus – a classical Latin name, from the Greek “narke” meaning narcotic or capable of producing stupor. Homer, captivated by their essence wrote of them 2500 years ago. The Greeks believed their scent could cause madness, even death.
Further research reveals that they are anything but hearty. Paperwhites can’t tolerate freezing temperatures and won’t survive a cold winter outdoors. The good news, I discover is that they are easy to grow indoors and don’t even require soil. Rocks and water is all that they need to get them started. My husband calls the local nursery. They have twelve bulbs left.
Twelve, the number of weeks I was the day the tech wiped warm ultrasound gel from my silent belly and lamented, “It happens.”
My husband says we’ll take six and they say they’ll put them aside. But by the time we get there I’ve changed my mind and decide I want all twelve. The cashier goes to look and comes back short.
Nine is all I have left,” she says as she sets them down at the register.
Nine, the number of weeks they tell me she measured when she stopped developing inside me.
I say, “I’ll take all nine.”
I pick out rocks and sea glass the color of my children’s eyes and bury the bulbs underneath them. I water them and wait for new life to shoot up from the rocks in the dark.
I make plans to put the paperwhites next to the daisies in hopes of reviving our defunct flowerbed. I assume I can plant the bulbs in our garden after flowering thinking they will just grow like the ones along the road do but consulting Better Homes and Gardens rids me of my misconceptions:
“It might be tempting to try to coax the bulbs into bloom again next season, but they’ll most likely refuse. Just like the breath of spring herself, the beauty of forced bulbs is fleeting and lasts only one season.”
our own impermanence is concealed from us.
The trees stand firm, the houses we live in
are still there. We alone
flow past it all, an exchange of air.
Everything conspires to silence us,
partly with shame,
partly with unspeakable hope.
-Rainer Maria Rilke
Things have grown quiet now but it’s a welcome silence after all the wailing. Rilke’s trees stand firm and exchange the carbon dioxide I exhale for more oxygen in some radically mysterious partnership. We watch life resurrected as their leaves harness the power of the sun, as buds emerge on bare branches and break open overnight.
There are moments when I forget but mostly I remember because everything reminds me. Bulging bellies and babies in strollers crying for mothers milk. My own child noticing as I look longingly at the newborn things at Target, reminding me as she touches my empty belly,
“But you aren’t pregnant anymore, Mama”.
It doesn’t comfort me to remember that initially I didn’t want to be pregnant, or that it was complicated or inconvenient. The genetics report that says our baby was highly likely Trisomy 21. Intellectually I understand without question that something was wrong, that life could not continue and so it didn’t. I’m a nurse. I’ve watched life come and go quickly. But at the end of the day, this does not assuage my pain. I still sense the hollow of my womb. Reason never wins where grief is concerned.
And then there are the subtle things that no one knows about that almost sting more than the obvious– the turning of the month, the tally marks of how many weeks racking up in my head, the Down’s Syndrome boy at the checkout in Safeway that takes me by surprise when I’m rattled so hard that I have to run from the store to the car before breaking down in breathless sobs.
Sometimes I think I’ve caught my breath but then I lose it running in circles searching for somewhere where the air isn’t so thin. Trips outside are one of the few things to snatch me from the deluge on nights when tears have come in torrents so hard I thought I would drown. Something about the way Cassiopeia floats above the valley soothes me, its zigzag of light I can trace against the black with my finger– things don’t have to make sense in the dark. The blue black sky filled with points of light hushes me like a prayer—the way you find your way through a familiar room in pitch blackness, the way you know the route to from here to there by heart.
Yesterday we sprung forward for daylight savings. Usually I meet this with dread, no one in their right mind looks forward to less sleep. But lately I’ve been longing for more time with the sun in my face. Outside it’s now bustling with all the makings of spring. The basil and lavender the kids planted in terra cotta pots have just popped tender lime-green shoots up through damp black soil. Even my nearly barren flowerbed is showing signs of revival as the daisies have begun to push up one by one. And today it seems amiss to sit in my room of grief that is both too large and too small to fit comfortably. Right now life is reaching down to find anchor in the rocks and rubble, and reaching up in search of light.
Last night while we were sleeping, an hour of darkness was lost. Today I woke to see my paperwhites had broken open their first bloom. My daughter ran up behind me when she heard me exclaim,
“Oh look! They bloomed!”
“What does it smell like, Mommy?” she asked as I stuck my nose into the white newborn bloom.
“Unspeakable hope”, I replied
Marika Rosenthal Delan is a scientist/nurse by trade and an artist/freedom fighter by birth who once choreographed her little brother and his friends in a rousing rendition of Devo’s Whip It as performed by Alvin and the Chipmunks when she was only 9. Since being sidelined from nursing by spine surgeries she finds her zen in her children, music, and art of all kinds. She works with her husband, Peter serving the community through their non-profit, Tree of Life United Ministries. Her essays have been featured on The Manifest-Station, Elephant Journal, and The Huffington Post. You can also find her work in the newly released anthology edited by Amy Ferris, Shades of Blue, Writers on Depression, Suicide, and Feeling Blue.