Wednesday, March 4, 2020
On the morning of February 28, 2016, I slipped out of bed and sauntered over to the living room since our apartment was unusually quiet. My wife, Maria, sat at the far end of the couch, her arms wrapped around her shins, her knees drawn into her chest. Her mouth was a tight line. The blinds were shut, casting our living room into shadow. It seemed as though she was trying to draw into herself. To hide within the darkness. Something was wrong. Very wrong. She was seven weeks pregnant with our first child.
I woke up and found blood on my underwear when I went to the bathroom, she told me.
I didn’t know how to react. This was all new to us. Maria had just told me she was pregnant three days before on the last day of my artist residency. But I had enough sense to know this didn’t sound good.
I remember the way she gazed at the wall—how still she was. As though she was frozen, or unwilling to move.
Shortly after, we passed through the security checkpoint at the hospital’s ER entrance. Maria’s contractions had sharpened. Sometimes it made her double over in pain. I stood by her side as she sat and told the intake nurse the reason for our visit. We then took a seat in the waiting room. Maria and I tucked our chins into our chests. I patted her arm. I was scared, but I tried to hide my fear with a mask of stoicism.
Before long, the intake nurse called us. I could feel my stomach clench. They triage patients at emergency rooms, attending first to those with the most urgent problems. We must have waited only five or so minutes—and we were called in before all the other folks who had already been waiting.
That’s when I realized how grave Maria’s bleeding was.
We sat in an examination room with a plastic see-through partition. I sat on a chair in the corner to keep out of the way. Maria had taken off her clothes and slipped into a patient gown. She was reclined on the examination table. Our nurse was a young, attractive Asian woman. She brought over a pregnancy test. She handed Maria an absurdly small sample cup to piss into, which she held between her legs. The gown made it hard for her to see down there, but she managed.
After she peed, she held up the clear plastic cup. I could see that her urine was red like watered-down Kool-Aid. My sweetheart hung her head. I grimaced. I stared at the nurse to study her expression but she was good—had her serious, emotionless, medical-provider face down pat. The nurse took a seat beside Maria and used a dropper to siphon a urine sample from the cup. She squeezed a few drops onto the test strip. A heavy silence hung over us. Maria and I watched the nurse while she waited and stared at the test strip. Then she stood up.
The pregnancy test says you’re not pregnant, she said. But I’ll double-check with a blood test.
She parted through the plastic partition and stepped out of the room. I turned to Maria.
Lo perdi, she said in a low voice.
¿Qué? I said.
Maria began to tear up. Lo perdi, she again said.
I leaned forward as my mouth hung wide open. Thursday morning I had opened an e-mail from Maria with a picture of a Clearblue pregnancy test strip that clearly and unequivocally read: Pregnant. I remember how surprised but excited I was to stare back at that image—a reaction I wasn’t sure I had within my thirty-seven-year-old self. As Maria quietly cried to herself, it dawned on me that it no longer mattered if that home pregnancy test was accurate or not: she was no longer pregnant. And we had shared our great news with both of our families the day before.
I pulled my chair up to Maria’s bedside. I caressed her arm. I held her hand. She peered down at me.
Our little blueberry just wouldn’t stick, she said.
Maria had already signed up for The Bump’s week-by-week pregnancy newsletter. Each week, they compared the size of the growing baby to a fruit or vegetable. For Week 7, their newsletter stated that an embryo was the size of a blueberry, which is why we began to refer to the baby as our little blueberry.
I looked up at Maria and wished I could have cried but the tears wouldn’t flow. Ever since I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma seven years before it has been damn near impossible to ever cry. Instead, I hung my head and held Maria’s cold hand as we waited for the nurse to return.
I asked Maria if she wanted me to call our families to share our bad news. Though it was a task I profoundly dreaded, I figured it was the least I could do. She was already so sad and dejected. She nodded. And I sighed.
I stepped out into an empty hallway. My cellular reception was poor within the hospital so I marched out of the ER. Up above, the sky was gray, which seemed absurdly befitting. I stepped toward the hospital’s back entrance. As I called my parents’ home, I passed a bronze statue of a female nurse as she stoically gazed upon a newborn cradled in her arms. I snickered and shook my head and turned away from it.
I ambled back to the ER. The young nurse who attended to us told Maria that she had also once lost a pregnancy. Miscarriages are fairly common, she said. She was the first person to tell us. Maria and I were aware that she did not have to volunteer such personal information, but we deeply appreciated her effort to soothe us especially after her colleague—a female Indian doctor with a British accent—had the gall to ask Maria: Are you sure you were even pregnant?
In short time, as we waited for discharge papers, that examination room became our cold, soulless limbo. Around noon, Maria’s abdominal pains spiked. She winced in pain. Arm in arm, we gently plodded down the hall to a restroom. She locked the door behind her. I waited. After a few minutes, I heard a loud toilet flush. Maria staggered out. Her forehead was damp. Her hair was disheveled.
Are you okay? I asked.
There was a large chunk that came out, she said. It was the size of a meatball.
I hung my head as we labored back to the room. It sickened me to think our baby embryo was unceremoniously sucked down a toilet in a public restroom like any old lump of turd.
Shortly after, Maria was given morphine. Ah, this stuff is great, she said to the doctor. I wish I could have it all the time.
I laughed. My spirit was brightened. I was amazed at how quickly my sweetheart was able to emotionally rebound in order to crack a joke.
The ER staff were slow in producing our discharge papers and prescription. The minutes dragged and dragged. All I could do was hold and rub Maria’s hand as she sat with a hangdog expression. I grew tired of seeing her physically and spiritually suffer there unnecessarily. Fuck it, I finally said. Let’s go.
Maria stood from the examination table to get dressed for our jailbreak. A tiny pool of blood and a bloody chunk had secreted on the bed cover. The fluorescent overhead light shined upon it like a spotlight. I shuddered. My eyes filled with tears. It was so plain and heartless to see.
A few days later, Maria met with her trusty OB/GYN, Dr. Eastman. The doctor inspected her uterus. Maria asked her when we could try again.
You’re good to go, Dr. Eastman said.
And we wasted no time.
To my complete surprise, Maria was pregnant again weeks after she had lost our blueberry.
See, back in 2010, at the behest of my then-girlfriend, I had my sperm count tested months after I finished chemotherapy and radiation treatment. The ABVD chemotherapy regimen I underwent posed a small risk of causing infertility—between zero to eight percent. The sperm test results were deflating: I was not sterile, but my sperm count was incredibly low. My then-doctor informed me that my sperm production could improve with time; my reproductive system could heal on its own. From then on until 2015 (when I got my sperm count retested), I operated under the assumption that my reproductive powers were akin to a bombed-out World War II factory.
Six weeks later on April 16th, after sleeping in on our day off, I heard Maria say, oh shit, when she rushed to the bathroom. I shot up in bed. No, not again, I thought. When she returned, she told me she bled when she peed, but that it was light. I told her that wasn’t totally unusual; I had read about that. But really, I was just trying to calm her—and myself.
Soon after, I shuffled to our kitchen to whip up some breakfast. Maria strode into the bathroom and closed the door. I went through the motions as I whisked the eggs, keeping an eye on our bathroom down the hall. My back tensed up as the long minutes passed.
Maria opened the bathroom door. She looked at me as she stood outside the bathroom with a now-familiar hangdog expression. I scurried over. She showed me a piece of tissue she used to wipe herself. She wasn’t spotting. It was quite a bit of blood. I groaned as I stared at our feet.
And so, the death watch commenced.
While I finished cooking, I got really fucking pissed off. I raised my voice, slammed a drawer, and spewed a couple of foul words while Maria milled about our living room. I can’t remember what set me off but I know it was something trivial—like dropping a dirty spoon on the kitchen floor. Right after I lost my temper, I realized Maria might think I was angry at her. That realization immediately cooled me down. I went to her and told her I was sorry, that it was incredibly frustrating and demoralizing to feel so powerless over what was happening. She understood.
Throughout the rest of the morning, I somehow or another worked on a book proposal in our office while periodically checking on Maria as she watched cooking shows on PBS in our adjoining bedroom. Her pain was increasing but it wasn’t as sharp as the first miscarriage. She took some pain medication. But as the day passed, her cramping gradually worsened.
Early that afternoon, while watching a Warriors basketball game, Maria hurried over to the bathroom. I was dressed. My keys were at the ready in my pocket. Soon after, she called me over. She showed me a piece of tissue paper she used to wipe herself. It held what looked like a bloody piece of placenta. I made a low, wincing sound and turned away. She quietly teared up.
We embraced for a long time, resting our heads against one another. Maria was morose but not hysterical or outwardly devastated, which—given the circumstances—would have been completely understandable. I remember feeling that I should have felt sadder because I was well aware that a second miscarriage was less of a fluke and far more troubling than a miscarriage from a first pregnancy.
Later that evening, hand in hand, we walked over to Oakland’s Rose Garden. The sun shined bright above. Maria carried a small plastic bag. It contained a hand shovel and a tiny cardboard box used to hold jewelry, which held the remains Maria had captured in our bathroom. A veil of silence enveloped us. The night before, we had taken a leisurely and chatty stroll through the garden. We had read that miscarriages were especially common for first pregnancies. We were hopeful that our second attempt would fare better.
Holding hands, we descended the long stairwell into the garden. A scattering of couples milled about, admiring the blooming roses. A few young folks sunbathed on towels strewn over the lawn. We shuffled over to a shaded, secluded part of the garden.
After we ascended a terrace, I stared at the nearby hillside. We searched for an identifiable physical feature. Soon, we spotted a bird feeder hanging from a tree. Maria knelt in front of it and dug a tiny hole. She gently wrapped the remains within a paper towel after I dissuaded her from placing it in the tiny cardboard box. Crossing my arms, I stood over and shielded Maria while an old couple approached and glanced at us. In short time, Maria shoveled dirt over our second blueberry. At my request, she allowed me to place one last shovelful of dirt over its grave.
Hand in hand, we turned and left.
We hardly spoke on the walk home.
The next morning, I was unusually pissed off again. It seemed like any miniscule thing would set me off. Maria told me to hit the gym, and I obeyed. I lifted weights with determination and stomped and ran on the treadmill with extra ferocity as some hard-charging thrash metal blared through my headphones.
Sunlight trickled past the blinds into our living room. The leaves from our indoor plants were suffused with light. Being home at our apartment—where we just had a death watch the day before—felt wrong.
We need to get out, I said. Otherwise, we’re going to feel depressed.
Maria agreed. We thought a walk would do us good.
Before long, we descended a hillside trail into Lake Temescal park. Maria and I swiftly surmised something we had not considered earlier, given our fragile spirits: Lake Temescal was popular for barbeques and family gatherings with children.
And sure enough, all along the main lawn, a slew of families gathered at picnic tables or huddled around the grills. Kids laughed and shouted with abandon as they tore around the park. I clenched my jaw and grinded my molars. Hand in hand, Maria and I forged on.
As we approached the lake, two white women in their thirties stood on the left side of the paved trail as one of their boys stumbled across the lawn to stop right in front of us. We came to a halt. He stared up at us, hands on his hips. My face shifted into a what-the-fuck frown. The women casually laughed at their pint-sized, two-legged roadblock. Since he didn’t move, Maria and I had to step around him.
Oh, he thinks he rules the world, one of the women dismissively said.
Yeah he does, Maria snickered as we stalked away.
To my surprise, Maria’s response was kind of loud. It was unlike her. Since we had our backs to the women, I’m unsure if they heard us, but I could have cared less if they did. In that moment—the flawed and fucked-up human being that I am—I hated that boy. I hated him because I figured he would grow up to become just another entitled prick who believes it is his birthright to exploit our planet for his amusement. But I especially hated those women. I hated them for having the capability to bring a healthy child into this goddamned world. I hated them because they probably took that for granted like most of the other breeders out there.
Maria and I reached a bench overlooking the lake. We sat and stared at the sunlight glistening on the lake’s surface. I took a deep breath. All of a sudden, we started talking. The words poured out of us. I talked about how unfair it was that crummy people could reproduce but we apparently couldn’t; people like the young single mother who lived next to us and kept a cold, almost resentful distance from her three-year-old son. But more importantly, we expressed our pent-up feelings. We got out of our heads and shared our frustrations and suffering. And like magic, I could feel a weight lift off of me. Maria began to feel better too.
We continued on our stroll around the lake. Near the beach area, we saw an Asian man around my age slowly cycling on his bike while his daughter—about three or four years of age—followed in her kid-sized bicycle. I can’t keep my balance! she shouted at one point in an adorable voice. Maria and I couldn’t help but laugh. She was so cute. The father-daughter duo pedaled on without falling off. It was a reprieve to no longer feel aggrieved at the sight of children.
After Maria’s second miscarriage, she swiftly made a decision I fully supported: we decided to take an indefinite break from trying to have a kid. We had no desire to bear this disappointment and anguish again. We needed a break. An extended timeout to figure shit out.
Soon after, Dr. Eastman put Maria through a number of tests. It produced one crucial finding: Maria’s body was not producing enough progesterone, a female hormone instrumental in supporting a pregnancy. Progesterone helps to thicken the lining of the uterus. If a fertilized egg doesn’t stick to the uterine wall, progesterone levels will drop and menstruation will commence. But, if a fertilized egg implants in the uterine wall, progesterone will help maintain the uterine lining throughout pregnancy.
Fortunately for us, Maria could take progesterone supplements to raise those hormonal levels. Once we were ready to give it another go, she could take them.
It was difficult and saddening to see my sweetheart during this period of her life. Other than being as pragmatically optimistic as possible, I felt powerless to help her. Although I’m a guy, I felt I could relate with her corporeal woes. I, too, knew what it felt like to have your body betray you. I was all too familiar with how much of a mindfuck it is to feel like your body—your one earthly vessel—is horribly defective. And I knew what it was like to feel like a failure, which is how she took it.
In late April, in the midst of spring, Maria and I detoured off of Highway 68 as we drove south from Taos, New Mexico to Santa Fe. One chapter in our much-needed getaway was closing, and we wanted to document it. Together we stepped out onto the vast, brush-filled plain surrounded by distant mountains. A cool zephyr blew. Dressed in a stylish blue dress, Maria strode out toward the edge of the vista point. She stared at the Rio Grande Gorge in the distance. I snapped pictures of her immersed in this godly landscape, the gaping blue sky above us. Before we got back in our rental car, I asked her to face me. I took picture after picture of her as she pensively stared out over the land. For one picture, hand on her hip, hair blowing in the wind, she channeled a stoic Georgia O'Keeffe at peace with herself and where she was heading. I felt privileged to capture that sentiment, to be a part of that moment. Maria still had a teeny paunch from having been pregnant.
A few days later, we left New Mexico, a state Maria had longed to visit, a land I ached to see and breathe again. Soon after, infused with renewed faith and equipped with an ovulation kit and progesterone supplements, we would try again.
The first weeks passed without incident. But once Maria calculated she was on her sixth week of pregnancy, I couldn’t help but remember our two previous attempts. The first one ended on the seventh week, the second lasted until the sixth week. We had returned to a perilous stretch—and I was incredibly cognizant of it. My anxiety surfaced in my dream life. That week, I had at least two panic dreams in which I dreamt of red blood (which is rare for me—to dream in color). One time, I startled awake in the middle of the night after I dreamt I was in our apartment following a trail of dark rouge blood from a crawling fetus. I turned around in bed and stared at the shadowy outline of Maria’s face. Her mouth was slightly ajar in the dark. She seemed at peace. I stared at her for a good while until I managed to convince my half-awake mind that she and the embryo were okay. Only then could I turn back on my side and return to sleep.
That week, I purposely didn’t mention any of my concerns and anxieties with Maria because I wanted her mind to be free of them. I didn’t want her to entertain such a troubling possibility. I needed to be as bright and optimistic as possible. I believed that this positivity would help Maria keep our blueberry.
To my immense relief, Maria’s sixth week of pregnancy passed without incident. Then the seventh week passed. And another week. Then another. And another.
Although it was too early for Maria to be showing, she was dealing with nausea just about every day. She was also noticeably fatigued. She began to nap regularly during the day, which was un-Maria of her. Although she was visibly fatigued, I was incredibly pleased and happy when I saw her cuddling with one of our stuffed animals while she napped on our couch. I snapped a few pictures of her while she slept because it reassured me that she was pregnant.
By her fifteenth week, Maria was visibly showing. With each passing week, with each new change from our baby, I allowed myself to believe, more and more, that everything would turn out fine. Little by little, I began to quietly and contentedly accept that we were indeed going to have our own baby. Nevertheless, when friends or family would congratulate us on being first-time parents, I courteously smiled but held myself back from fully embracing that peculiar mixture of joy and exhilaration and fear. For me, it was never a foregone conclusion; I knew that about 6 in 1,000 pregnancies ended with a stillbirth, so I knew we were not in the clear just because Maria and her embryo had reached thirteen weeks. Though statistically unlikely, I could not allow myself to forget that something horrible could still happen.
And then, at around 2:15 a.m. on March 13, 2017, Maria roused me from sleep. She was nearly thirty-seven weeks pregnant.
I think my water is breaking, she told me.
Though I had fallen asleep an hour and a half before, my eyelids peeled open like there was a fire outside. My heart thumped into action. It was go-time! My overnight bag was only half packed because we thought Maria still had three weeks to go. I hopped out of bed and swiftly dressed and splashed cold water on my face. I glanced at my reflection in the mirror as I smoothed out my bedhead hair. This is happening, I thought. This is really happening.
Soon we were immersed in early morning dark. The streets were barren. Minutes after we had left our apartment, we rolled into the parking lot outside Kaiser’s emergency department. I parked in one of the designated drop-off spots for expecting mothers, which felt like an achievement. We strode inside and past the security checkpoint. This time, the intake nurse shepherded us to the afterhours elevator that went straight up to the maternity ward. It was like cutting to the front of the line at a club.
I took a breath as we stepped into the elevator. I felt graced to be in the exclusive elevator that we had been told about just a few days before during our tour of their Labor and Delivery department.
Here we go, I thought as the doors closed and the elevator rose. I peered over at Maria as we stared up at the passing floors.
And the ride hasn’t ended.