I keep my sunglasses on when we enter the building. To remove them would reveal my red, swollen eyes to the world, and I don’t have the energy to fend off empathetic looks or questions. Not today.
It’s my daughter’s fifth birthday, and we’ve brought treats for her class: 14 little hedgehog cupcakes. My daughter leads us down the basement hallway; she’s nearly running in her glittery shoes, part of her special birthday outfit. It’s extra dark with my glasses on, and I walk carefully with the cupcakes in one hand, my three-year-old son clasping the other. I’m thankful that the line at the classroom door is already moving; I don’t have to wait next to the other parents and attempt small talk. When we reach the classroom door, I remove my sunglasses, rest them on my head, and squat down beside the birthday girl. Her eyes amble across my face. “Are you crying because it’s my birthday?” my daughter asks. “Because you don’t want me to grow up?” Tears well again.
“How did you know?” I ask, forcing a smile. I tuck a stray strand of hair behind her ear and give her shoulder a squeeze. “Mommy loves you so much. I have all these happy tears for my birthday girl.” I kiss her head and hand the cupcakes over to her teacher. The room bubbles over with happy shouts, and I watch my big girl run to join her friends.
Outside again with my son, I smell wet pavement, and the maple leaves above us sprinkle us with a morning blessing. Lingering rain droplets land on my bare arms, exposed on this mild May day. I look up to the gray clouds, and the glare of the sunshine hurts my eyes. It’s a sunshower—rain that falls despite the sunshine. It’s tears of mourning and tears of birthday joy sliding down my cheeks. It’s believing I’m pregnant on Sunday and waking up Monday certain that I’m not.
Although it’s only drizzling, I pick up my son and speed walk across the asphalt to our van, not wanting to be soggy for our 20-minute drive to swim lessons. He squirms to get loose, ready to splash in the puddles that have formed in the many potholes I dodge in the parking lot.
I buckle my boy into his car seat and let myself weep behind the steering wheel. I feel guilty as the tears fall, wishing this hadn’t happened on my daughter’s birthday—wishing it hadn’t happened at all. I regret taking the pregnancy tests as early as I did, knowing that a bit of patience would have saved me from my present pain. Now, instead of reveling in my daughter’s birthday, I am blubbering in my car, grasping for bits of joy as a wonderful secret slips through my fingers.
I rest my forehead on the top of the steering wheel and close my eyes. I am ready for a nap even though it’s just after 9:00 a.m., having given most of last night’s sleep away to worry. Huddled in the sheets, I had clutched my phone like a tiny life raft, my thumbs frantically typing bleeding after a positive pregnancy test into the search engine. In the results was a term I hadn’t heard before—chemical pregnancy: an early loss that occurs just after the embryo implants. I prayed this wasn’t my reality and clung to the hope that it was just spotting. That hope diminished throughout the night, and by this morning, my body had betrayed the truth.
I can’t drive until my vision clears, and I attempt to center myself with some deep breaths. I watch the windshield wipers swipe up: breathe in. Slide down: breathe out. It’s not a big deal, I tell myself. Breathe in. It happens to women all the time. Breathe out. Try to let it go.
Rote memory takes us to the community pool, and along the way, I try to ignore how the contrast of the green trees against the gray sky makes them look even more alive.
By the time we enter the locker room, I am sweating, trying to rush without slipping on the floor, slick with pool water that’s dripped off of the early morning swimmers. We shuffle our feet across the pool deck, and the humidity and chlorine-scented air envelop us as we arrive at our usual spot for lessons. One of the other moms waves me over; she must see the frantic look in my eyes as I scan the water for our instructor, who’s nowhere to be found. “Hey!” she calls. I sit down next to her. “Did you not get the text?” My heart sinks.
“What text?” I ask.
“Coach is running late, and lessons are postponed by ten minutes.”
I should be happy that we aren’t late, but the emotions I’ve been riding all morning have treated me as kindly as the Tilt-a-Whirl at the county fair, and I have no control left to wield. My eyes begin to sting, and then there’s no hiding the tears as they spill onto my face, which I know is already blotchy from my earlier sobs. Get it together, I tell myself. My bottom lip is quivering, and I bite down on the inside of my cheek in an effort to stop it.
Before she can say anything, I apologize to the other mom. “I’m sorry,” I say quietly. “It’s been a rough morning…just a lot going on. I don’t even know why I’m crying right now,” I lie. I look out the window because I’m afraid that I won’t be able to stop crying if I look at her face. The rain is still falling, and although light gray clouds fill the sky, it is still bright outside. I can’t see the sun, but I know it’s there.
I take a few sips of my latte, iced even though it’s mid-October. I smile and give a half-wave hello to the other moms before I sit down. The room hums with chatter as women arrive and greet their group members with hugs and laughter. It’s only our fourth meeting of the year, and while the women in my group are nice, I don’t feel connected to any of them yet.
Sweet and savory scents waft in from brunch in the next room, and my stomach growls; the latte is all I’ve made time to consume this morning. As I chug some more of my drink, I notice there are red roses in the middle of the table. Just as I’m thinking about grabbing one to read the note attached to each stem with a ribbon, our MOPS leader starts speaking into the microphone. Before we get started, she wants to tell us that today is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day, and the roses are for any mom who has experienced a loss. I look at the blossoms, each one large in comparison to the poppyseed I lost.
The lights dim, and praise and worship music fills the room. I stand, my heart willing to worship, but my lips unable to sing the lyrics. I’m surrounded by women, all of them mothers. I know there are others who have experienced loss—greater loss than mine, I’m sure. I try again to sing, and my throat catches. This surge of emotion surprises me; my daughter’s fifth birthday was five months ago, and I feel silly for crying now, dramatic for caring so much. When I consider the losses that friends, family, and the other mothers in this room have experienced, I wonder if my grief has a place on a day like today.
Joy and sorrow swell with the drumbeat that is coming to a crescendo in the song. Thank you, Lord, for the two children I have. Please help me be content with the family You’ve given me. I feel a hand on my shoulder and look to my left to see one of the women at my table has noticed my tears. To my right, our group’s mentor mom is also crying. Thank you, Lord, for these women. Please heal our hearts.
After we sit, I see the sympathy in their glances. I feel it in the silence. Without prompting, I tell that table of six almost-strangers about the two pink lines, the two positive tests, about the days leading up to my daughter’s birthday last May when I thought I was pregnant. I tell them I don’t know why I’m still sad; I say I didn’t realize I was still struggling with this. I wonder out loud if a chemical pregnancy even counts as a loss.
When the meeting is over, I’m alone at the table with our mentor mom. The group in charge of cleaning up hovers and scurries around us, picking up decor, brushing away crumbs, and removing tablecloths. I remember her tears from earlier. “Did you experience a loss?” I ask.
“My first pregnancy,” she offers. “It was a long time ago, but you never forget.”
I hand her a flower, and we exchange quiet smiles.
“You should take one, too,” she says, nodding toward the roses that remain on the table.
“I think I will,” I say, and I grab another flower, arranging it so it sticks out of my backpack.
At home, I place my rose in a yellow vase on the window sill. Through the glass, I watch a lizard dart across the patio. I think about last spring and the brief time I had filled with dreams for that new life. I remember how helpless I felt when the bleeding started, the foolishness I felt for assuming everything would be fine.
There’s one thing I didn’t share with my group this morning: my husband and I are going to stop trying for another baby. My grief today is not the same grief I felt five months ago. It’s a grief not just for what was, but what might never be.
I can’t find the lizard now; it’s hidden itself under a bush, and I return my gaze to the rose. I am starting to understand that it doesn’t matter whether I grieve something the size of a poppyseed or a lizard or even something that will never exist. What matters is how it made me feel, what it meant to me. I rub a velvet petal between my fingers, for a moment forgetting the painful memory it represents. I look at our family portrait on the wall and feel content with our sweet family of four—standing in the sunshine, despite the rain.
October 15 is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day. If you have experienced the loss of a child, please know that I am holding space for you. You are not alone.