The Secret Language
A friend on Facebook recently asked, what’s something you did in 2020, the pandemic year, that was hard and you are proud of?
I replied that my husband and I moved a 5 bedroom house by ourselves, from Massachusetts to New York State, while still in full quarantine. No help, no Dunkin’ Donuts stops — just us and our truck and many, many trips.
And it was true, in that version of truth you tell most people — the one that lies somewhere between Christmas party chit-chat and a job interview. The truth, but clean it up. Remove the mess. End with a smile.
But life is more complicated than that. And another truth is in December I was a few months pregnant. Being 37 and up until recently set on a choice to not have children, this fact would come as a shock to most friends and family. At least it would’ve, if I had told them. But I followed the oft-stated advice to keep such things mostly a secret, which is, of course, easier to do in a year where the only way to see people is over a high speed connection.
Was it planned? Yes, and perhaps that’s surprising given the pandemic. If I was in my 20s, maybe I would consider waiting for global stability to try and have a kid. But nearing 40, you’re approaching more of a now-or-never type situation. The hard truth is that biology doesn’t wait for you, even in a pandemic.
Was it planned? I answered that very question many, many times as I told the entire story to the OBGYN, then the staff in the blood test lab, then the nurses who rushed in as I lay on the floor with an ice pack under my head. Then to the brusque ER doctor who asked me to explain how I knew I was even having a miscarriage (the volume of blood and… stuff, I replied grimly, then desperately, the OBGYN knows, she can explain), and finally to the EKG technician as she ripped the contacts roughly off of my legs and chest and turned her back to me, off to her next task.
I miscarried the night before a scheduled appointment at the local clinic to have a first ultrasound, to hear the heartbeat. I had been feeling odd for a day or so, but it’s difficult to define ‘odd’ when your bodily state is different than that in which you’ve lived your entire life. By evening it was fairly clear what was happening, and by midnight I was in a level of pain that crept into that supernatural space where you find yourself bargaining with god, swearing that you won’t take a normal headache for granted ever again. That’s something people don’t tell you — that it could be like labor. Not that people tell you much about anything.
Coronavirus was once again beginning to rage in our area, and the next morning I called the hospital to find out if they still wanted to see me. They said I should come in anyway, for some tests, and I agreed.
It was one of the first truly cold winter days, so I bundled up in layers, and a hat and gloves, and of course the now-ubiquitous mask. We left the dog at home, and I grabbed an energy bar to eat in the car on the way. My husband had shaved recently, in order to come in for the now irrelevant ultrasound. Working from home and living on a 4 acre property with easy access to an Instacart pickup meant a fairly strict quarantine was easier for us than many. It also allowed us the luxury of occasional visits from also-quarantined relatives, ones we knew would have to mostly cease during the pregnancy. It was a tradeoff I was okay with, a temporary sacrifice for a long term goal.
I look back at my diary entry from that day:
All around the hospital, the chaos of the pandemic is present. I don’t know the layout of this building, which door to go in, where to wait. There’s a lot of confusion over everything. After waiting for an hour in whatever they call the pre-waiting area, they send me to the OBGYN area, where another hour passes in a series of smaller waiting rooms, one inside the other, like Russian dolls.
The first nurse excitedly hands me a cup. “We’ll be able to tell you how far along you are!”
It’s not her fault, I think. Well, maybe it is. Shouldn’t this be on a chart somewhere, that people read, so this doesn’t happen? “Actually I had a miscarriage.” I say. Her face falls and she avoids eye contact with me while she takes my blood pressure.
The Dr. is mostly nice. She says, “It wasn’t anything you did. It’s very common.” As I am leaving, she says, “It was probably just a bad gamete, given your age.”
“Given your age.” Those words echo in my head as I wander around trying to find the blood lab she’s sending me to. Nothing on the signs. Eventually an orderly directs me to the annex or basement, I forget, accessible through an elevator marked ‘staff only.’
Wait in front of the lab area for what feels like ages, while nurses are giggling and whispering behind the reception area. I’m in a lot of pain still and their chatter annoys me. There’s no place to put my coat so I’m just wearing it, and my hat and backpack. It must be over 90 degrees in this part of the building, everyone is in t-shirts.
Eventually they have me come in, and I sit in a chair. It feels hard to breathe in the mask, and I feel very hot, but I know this is the last stop and then I can leave. I’ve been in the building for many hours at this point. I want to go home.
The lab work order isn’t complete so they are waiting for that.
As I am sitting I start to feel dizzy and confused. I tell the nurse I feel a little strange.
The next thing I see is 4 or 5 nurses around me. I’m on the floor, they have my mask off and an ice pack under my head. They are asking me what I ate and drank — I had a cliff bar this morning. Is that all? They say. And I say yes because I’ve been here for so long. Apparently I passed out.
I have to tell everyone the same story again.
You probably need a transfusion they say to me, authoritatively. I can barely understand it. You’re very pale. We need to admit you. I need to talk to my husband, I say, I tell them where my phone is. They’re trying to see if I can sit up. They think I’m hemorrhaging. I don’t want to have a transfusion. I just want to go home. They ask me how much I’ve been bleeding, but I haven’t checked since I got here.
They take blood while I’m lying down, so they can tell if I’m anemic. I text Cody what’s happening, he says it’s okay to be admitted, they need to make sure you’re okay.
After that I spent a few more hours in the ER. Eventually they discharged me, agreeing that the fainting episode was just exhaustion. Even against the backdrop of 2020-specific fear that I’d get the virus and spread it to my husband, the relief at going home was almost euphoric. But it didn’t last, and the two weeks afterwards were probably among the worst of my life.
The first week, I stayed in bed.
That’s grief, they say, and it’s like staring down a precipice. The clichés are true — you blame yourself. You feel like your body has failed you. You feel you have disappointed everyone, including yourself. But mostly you are just crushed by a deep, deep loss. Because for months you are filled with hopes and dreams, and new experiences. It is a lot like being a child again, excited to grow up. It’s the feeling of rushing towards the future, with open arms. You are happy and hopeful and you don’t know enough to be scared.
I read once that being pregnant means that someone is always with you, that you are never alone. It’s a feeling you become accustomed to, and when it’s gone the loneliness that takes its place is so deep no analogy seems fit. I hesitate writing this, even though it’s very much how I felt. But how you feel about pregnancy is, for a lot of people, primarily a political issue. So even talking about a subjective, personal experience feels like it should be prefaced with a disclaimer. (If anyone wants to know what it’s like being female… this pretty much sums it up.)
The second week I moved downstairs, to cry off and on, on the couch. In the morning I’d let the animals out, my one responsibility for the day. It felt like a monumental task, one that required mental pep talks and debate to even start. I still wrote in my diary most days, just a sentence or two. By that point I was fairly set that this was it, the universe was holding up a sign that said Give Up, This Is Not For You. How could you think it was?
Soon after there was anger. Anger at knowing that even if we “try again’ — an expression I have come to hate — I’d never have the normal experience, the one my mom and so many others had where you’re blissfully ignorant and don’t think about all the things that can go wrong. “All the things that can go wrong” are now part of your life’s inventory: a real thing that can actually happen, proven in an empirical way.
Of course the pandemic added another awful bit: alienation from the rest of the world, with their gripes over having children home from school, their annoyance at the inconvenience of a safe and healthy family. It felt like a personal insult, to be living through this during a time when the meme of the day was collective irritation at being around your children.
In between, I watched TV.
I stop myself here, writing. Why am I doing this? Why would I ever consider sharing this kind of emotional dirty laundry? This is why you don’t tell anyone you’re pregnant, I think. So you don’t have to tell people these things. But I continue with this anyway, with the same compulsion I’ve had to write in the diary I started here in March.
At some point in that two week emotional valley, I started re-reading old entries.
Thursday, September 3
I only trust one person in the entire world, but I trust him completely.
I don’t know how we found each other. It sounds like something out of a romantic novel — we were so young, practically children. That moment in your life where everything is new and complicated, hard and easy at the same time. You aren’t cold yet, experiences haven’t shaped your worldview. Trauma after trauma hasn’t caught up with you.
And yet we found each other and committed to this life in a way that few do — over 20 years together, through so many changes. I have stood by him truly in sickness and in health. Our bond is the one constant, the northern star we stare at from our ship in distress.
I thought about these words every time he came downstairs to sit with me, on the really bad days where I would cry so hard I felt I could hardly breathe. Even deep in his own grief, he could still be strong, an anchor, for me.
After a few weeks of this, I stood up, like a character in a fairy tale who has woken up after a hundred years. Things were not better, but they were a little different. Some things felt more possible — things like getting dressed, eating something, sewing a hole in an old jacket. Small progress each day. It continues to be that way, bad moments and better ones.
As I write now I think about the things the Doctor said — it was just a bad gamete, it’s nothing you did, this is actually very common, you will get through this… the things all professionals say with the best of intentions. I think about how cold that felt, and how little it helped. It’s not their fault, of course. Those reassurances will always ring hollow because they come from people who have read about it, studied it, seen it — but haven’t actually lived it. They can only speak from their own perspective, from the sidelines. When you’ve lived it, you can’t hear the cool objectivity of science and statistics. It’s not your language anymore.
The real answer to the question of what I did in 2020 that I’m proud of is that I survived. That’s it. And what made that possible was talking to friends — the people I had once so wisely ‘not told.’ It was through them that I found people who had experienced such a loss, who knew the secret language of grief. Only in that language are there words to express what it means to lose not just a pregnancy but also hope. To feel lost and alone and angry, to be disgusted by platitudes about “trying again”, to have to face fear and dread instead of joy and excitement. To suffer in silence so you don’t have to see people’s looks of pity. To grieve that some of your innocence is lost forever. These friends didn’t offer guidance, or advice, and they didn’t need to. It was enough that in their stories I heard an experience that reflected my own. They had been through the same awful thing I had, and still they endured. They had survived. And that was ultimately what gave me a path forward.
I go back to my diary again, to read the entry from the day we decided to try and have a child.
Don’t rush in the morning leaving for Holyoke since there isn’t much to do there. We get there around noon, meeting the lawyer at 1:45 to sign paperwork between the glass of our front door, so she can notarize it.
On the drive we talk about the thing that’s been on both of our minds, whether we are giving our love to the wrong things, throwing ourselves into work as the primary focus of our lives. We give and give, and what do we have to show for it?
As with all of our changes, we know it together and say it aloud — we should have a family, this is the place for these things. We don’t want to be alone in the world and we don’t want our lives to be composed of restaurants and vacations and work. I realize now the limit of those things — having so much of that stripped away in the past 6 months. What will our lives be here? 40 years of redecorating the house and work deadlines?
He says, we are kind and loving people, and people need that. It’s what’s most important.
We talk about it all day as we pack up Holyoke. It’s a beautiful day, and we sit outside in the driveway looking through bins and papers from the barn. Everything is dirty, and a mess, but still it is fun to look at some things. I find old love letters I wrote him, when we were teenagers. So many years of birthday and Christmas cards, all in boxes. One from my grandmother.
Regardless of what happens, we will never, ever, ever let work or the trappings of life steal so much from us again. In retrospect I see it now as all part of the same path — getting Gracie, moving, having family here with us. We are becoming ourselves, after years of being someone else.
I try to hold onto this feeling, this thought, this moment in time. And follow it, wherever it leads.