I have a tattoo on my back. It’s a rendering of the old oak tree in the middle of the ranch where my husband and I got married. And out from its branches three little blue birds are tattooed on my skin, flying away, in different directions, caught mid air in the most unsure stage of flight.
My husband has a similar tattoo covering his shoulder, only his oak tree features three red and orange oak leaves.
His leaves, my blue birds, they represent three pregnancies we lost.
The oak just represents us, the place where he asked me to become his family.
I was 27 or 28 when we made the decision to put a permanent reminder on our bodies of our love and our loss. Since then we went on to lose three more pregnancies.
When I list it like that, in a sort of chronological order, it makes it seem like an occurrence, a medical issue that we’ve since figured out and moved on from.
I suppose that’s the reason for the tattoos, although we couldn’t really say at the time except that we both felt the need to mark our bodies in some way, a physical representation of major emotional events, painful losses that leave invisible, emotional scars that we can’t sort out or figure out what to do with.
So we made our own physical scar. We went through the process of the needle dragging across our skin and oddly, the burning pain of it, the seven-plus hours of sitting still and gritting my teeth was cathartic and meditative in a way the actual process of losing those babies wasn’t. Because I was in control. I had the power and I made the decision to do this to myself.
And when it was over and I saw what would forever be inked on my skin until I’m a 100 year old woman sitting in my rocking chair on the front porch, it was a relief to know that story would not get buried in the deepest pit of my chest.
We didn’t know at the time what would become of us becoming parents. We didn’t know, but sort of sadly assumed, there would be more birds, more leaves, to add to the picture, but it didn’t matter. We put ointment on our new scar and moved on.
Today is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day. It comes every year as a way to bring people together to recognize an often-silent pain that affects 1 in 4 women. 1 in 4 families.
As one of those families, this is the first time I have really paid attention, or set out to recognize this official day.
I’m not sure why.
I haven’t been silent in talking about our experience, so why not embrace an event that encourages us to support one another and tell our story?
I don’t have an answer except that I have not coped with these six losses by looking back. I have chosen not to remember loss dates or would-be due dates. I’ve kept the couple of ultrasounds pictures we were able to see tucked away in our safety deposit box, cried the sort of cries that come up from the pit of your guts and make you feel like throwing up, climbed to the top of the hills out here on this ranch and wailed some more, and then came home.
I’ve sought out doctors. Avoided doctors. Embraced the pain and then put it away.
I was determined to not let this struggle be at the forefront of the definition of me as a person, or let the heartbreak tear us apart as a couple. I didn’t want to be looked at as the poor people who might never have a family. I didn’t want pity. I just wanted answers.
And then I found myself scared of the answers. And I’m not just talking about the “you will never have children of your own” answer.
I was also scared of finding the solution.
I found myself asking, “What happens if it all works out after all? Who will I be without this pain that I’ve kept messily crumpled inside my bones, until, in the strangest moments, the wind catches it and sets me off?”
“If I get what I want, and I cry sometimes anyway, what will it be for?”
I woke up this morning to kicks in my belly, my back and hips aching under the weight of a swollen, almost eight month pregnant belly I’d never thought I’d see.
Almost two years ago, after eight years of losses, we got one of those answers I was so scared of. Nine month’s later we got a positive pregnancy test. Three agonizing, hand wringing, breath-holding months after that we saw our baby’s forming profile in an ultrasound.
In a little over a month we will meet him or her.
And we’re elated and terrified and in utter disbelief.
And every day I think about those women who are crying those gut wrenching cries at the top of a hill or in the quiet of their rooms.
Some of them reach out to me and want to know what doctor I saw or how they figured it all out, how we got to where we are. I will talk with them for hours about it if they want to, in grocery store lines or around a table at a wedding reception or in the bathroom at a restaurant. Because I have suddenly turned from a hopeless case to a story of hope and how refreshing and frustrating our story sounds to a woman who’s suffered loss and spent thousands of dollars, traveled hundreds of miles, taken dozens of pills to get to where we are right now…placing our hands on my big belly and worrying about trivial things like setting up the crib or replacing the carpet in the nursery.
But truthfully, we were just damn lucky.
I had a condition that was finally recognized and one that could be remedied. I would be lying if I didn’t admit that, if there was another word for guilt that wasn’t defined as doing something wrong, I feel it. I wonder why it worked out for us but not for others. I am aware at how my growing belly makes women who struggle with infertility or loss feel. It’s not an easy sight to lay eyes on.
Sometimes, in the midst of celebrating or telling a story about my pregnancy, or making a complaint about my heartburn or my lack of sleep, I hesitate, I look around the room and wonder who might be wishing and praying for morning sickness that turns into swollen feet that turns into a prayer finally answered.
I was that woman. I am that woman.
And I don’t want to leave her behind or forget her in my impending date with motherhood. I want to tell her everything will work out, but I know that’s not what she wants to hear. She knows it might not be true.
I want her to know that I know how she feels, to call me anytime, but it’s different now, now that we’re getting what she wants.
I want to tell her to keep trying, to keep hope, but I know how impossible it is.
Women like us, from what we’ve seen, in the case of infertility or loss, we’ve come to realize that you might rely more on God, or magic, than on finding a remedy for the pain or the missing piece of the equation you need for your body to work.
And so on this day moms and dads who have suffered loss will light a candle in memory of lives that they hoped to nurture longer.
The flames will flicker in living rooms, on nightstands, in would-be-nurseries all over the world, bright with hope yet terrifyingly fragile like the young lives they represent.
And tonight, for the first time, I will light candles in this house too–six for the babies of ours who were never born, and one for the women and couples out there searching for answers or a way to help acknowledge the pain of loss.
Because there is healing in acknowledgement. I didn’t understand that until that needle hit my skin five years ago, leaving a permanent mark on my body, a physical manifestation that screams “this happened to us, and we survived.”
One day I might add the last three blue birds to my body. Maybe one day my husband will fill in those last three leaves.
If we feel compelled to commemorate that chapter, that loss, maybe we will.
And maybe you’ll light a candle tonight. And maybe you won’t.
Maybe you’ll sit in your room and cry, or maybe you’ll go out to a movie or sit side by side and be quiet. Or maybe you will just make spaghetti and watch T.V. and find peace with the fact that because you’ve suffered in this way you have found a level of compassion for others you didn’t know existed before.
Because there’s nothing you have to do when there’s nothing you can do and that’s the beauty and the tragedy of the whole damn thing.
For support or information on perinatal or neonatal loss, visit: www.harlynnsheart.org