Miscarriage, Mothers, and Missing What Isn't

By Ashley Rappa

On the morning of what would be my fourth miscarriage, I knew something wasn’t right. The dull, reassuring tweaks and twinges that had pulsed inside for the last three weeks now woke me up from deep sleep. They felt different — deeper, stronger, driven by a separate purpose.

Throughout all our early pregnancies, when things were going well, I would try my best to describe what was happening in my body to my dear husband.

“It’s like little hands reaching around inside to rearranging things,” I’d say. “I feel like a human palate expander.” Then I’d explain how the uterus grows in the early days, slowly pushing other organs up and out to make way. “Or sometimes it feels like this,” I’d tell him, and squeeze his hand as hard as I could with my own, unable to make a dent.

“Our kid’s going to be such a wimp,” he’d reply, laughing impishly, knowing they’d be anything but. Then he’d kiss me with his soft lips and look at me with shining eyes that always said the same thing in those small moments. We’re going to have a baby.

That morning, the pain rose slowly and steadily. I lay still, not wanting to disturb anything, but knew that when it came to these things, there wasn’t much to be done. The body operated on its own schedule, the inner workings whirring on their own, incomprehensible to the brain that tried, and failed, to govern it.

I looked down toward the slight round of my belly. “What are you doing?” I asked it, and hoped it would give a reassuring answer. A twist of tissue and a stab of white, angry pain was what I received instead.

“Something is wrong,” I said to my husband, who slept beside me.

“What’s happening?” he asked, eyes opening in earnest after his palm pressed against my face and found tears. “What does it feel like?”

It feels like razors, I wanted to say. It feels like the little hands that rearrange things have grown teeth and are trying to gnaw their way out from the inside. But what I said instead was, “It feels like before.”

We had a routine down. I rooted myself on the couch, wrapped in afghans his grandmother had made years before that looked like flags from the 70s: orange, lime green, mustard yellow, fallow brown. I hugged a heating pad and propped my feet up on stacks of pillows. He made tea sweetened with honey and wished he could do more.

We waited for disappointment as though it was an imminent Nor’easter. Did we have milk? Bread? Ultra Always pads with wings? Enough energy and love to endure this again?

They don’t tell you, when you are young and the birds and the bees are fresh and foreign things, that making a baby is hard, and growing a baby, for some, is even harder. Sex was punctuated by what ifs and mentioned alongside cautionary tales. Everyone grew up knowing someone who knew someone who had sex just once and got pregnant. But I never heard stories when I was small about someone who knew someone who spent three years trying to successfully introduce sperm to egg, and failed.

There was one exception, so close it almost went unseen. After our first loss, a year after we were married, I was reminded that my mother had miscarried several times between my brother and myself. I was their last effort, their eleventh hour baby. When I was young and first learned this fact, I thought about what it would have been like if any of those children had been born instead of me. I spent nights rolling nascent existential concepts around my brain: Who were those tiny souls? Would they have looked like me? Where had they gone?

I wanted to ask my mother about that time in her life, what she had done wrong or right in each pregnancy, if it hurt as much as it hurt me, if she felt as alone as I did, even when surrounded by caring people. But I couldn’t ask her. She died when I was 21 after a short battle with cancer, 10 years before I’d even considered having children.

The evening of my fourth miscarriage started with a single drop of slick, mahogany blood that bloomed into a knotted river. The days that followed were dark and perfunctory, a string of simple tasks performed in succession. I accepted the platitudes of the select family and friends who knew what we were losing, and my husband and I held onto each other, waiting for the day the fevered grief would break.

It came about two weeks later, after the hormones evened and we had healed just enough, when he looked at me and said, “Let’s go out to dinner. Let’s eat too much and drink Dark and Stormies.” Made of rum, ginger beer and lime, Dark and Stormies were our wedding cocktail, though at the reception we renamed them Light and Breezies. We didn’t want to jinx ourselves.

We changed out of our mourning attire — oversized sweatshirts and elastic waist pants — and I put on a put on an a-line dress that was far too fancy for where we were headed. As I pawed through my jumbled jewelry box to find a suitable accessory, my fingers instead found a sharp edge that was neither clasp nor bead nor charm. I dragged it out from the far reaches of the drawer.

“Oh,” I said, a single syllable carried on a rush of breath. I held in my hand a small glass star.

Years ago, my aunt, my mother’s older sister, had surprised us all by bringing party favors to my mother’s funeral. Two hours of speeches, slideshows and shared memories culminated in a grand finale: a singalong to Hey Jude in which a thousand disjointed voices came together in cobbled harmony to send her off with her favorite tune. But before we sent her friends and family off to a life without her, they were presented with a token to keep them company: a portable heavenly body made of melted sand and ash.

Over a decade later, I ran my finger across the star’s five cut points. It was heavy in my palm, smooth and cool and sure.

Below me, I heard my husband rumbling around, preparing us to be on our way. I tucked the star into the neckline of my dress, nestling it between fabric and skin, and silently hoped it would leave a mark.

I turned downstairs to meet my date.

“Are you ready?” asked my husband, looking at me with eyes still shining.

“I’m ready,” I said, and put my hand in his.