Counting Loss - Megan Gaffney
When I was a kid, I used to click a tendon over my right ankle bone, back and forth, up and down, over and over, counting each click in the rhythm of iambs, a meter that could stretch infinitely in time. I counted through my despair, my fears, my shame -- odd numbers on the up position, tendon above bone, evens when it came down to rest below the bone, counting to drown out the pulsing echo of my sadness.
Seven months ago, I lay on a steel table, staring at painted clouds on a low ceiling, and I willed myself to stay present, to rise above the counting and the clicks. I willed myself to be present for my loss, for this chosen loss. A kind nurse held my hand, a generous doctor spoke in murmuring tones, the violent hush of the machine counting out its own despair, counting for me the many ways there are to lose in this wicked, loving world.
My first miscarriage happened in Texas, on Thanksgiving, when I was 10 weeks pregnant. A very new doctor forced to work the holiday sobbed and told me not to lose hope, that maybe there would be a Thanksgiving miracle, as my tissue spilled from the table onto the linoleum floor. The second time I miscarried, my Mom came to visit me in Brooklyn, her brain already pocked with the nooks and crannies of her disease. I remember that she promised that it would be ok, as she always did, in her vague, cryptically optimistic way.
I hardly remember my third miscarriage. Loss was familiar by then, expected. I do remember, two months after that loss, seeing at last a heartbeat on the cloudy black and white screen - a beautiful flicker, the promise I dared to keep hoping for. And I remember the sound of Frank’s sobs; I remember thinking, I didn’t know he cared that much.
Then a baby girl, and a joy I hadn’t known possible, and a magical year; despite my mother’s precipitous decline, the promise of generational rebirth buoyed me.
And then another lost pregnancy.
I counted the losses. 1 2 3 4.
I was nine weeks pregnant with my son when my mother died. 5. But he stayed with me as I mourned, and I counted his kicks through my grief. He was born 7 months later in the middle of the night after a ferocious but quick labor. And thus began a hard year, wonderful in its own strange way, but hard too. Our second baby didn’t sleep. Stomach pain plagued him, he dropped precipitously in weight, below the first percentile. Doctors panicked us and sent us scurrying to dozens of specialists whose advice conflicted and who were quick to send us packing on our way with prescriptions and shrugs.
When my son was eight months of age, he began to stabilize, mostly because of 2 naturopaths who provided wisdom and guidance. His weight leveled and by 9 months he was occasionally sleeping through the night. And so were we.
And then we took our first deep breath and realized we were miserable. Our lives were wildly unbalanced. My husband had no time to write, I did too much parenting, I was still grieving. Our two year old daughter had turned into a defiant, wild child and we didn’t know how to recenter her. We were exhausted. We fought nonstop about the tiniest things. My husband started therapy, I sought out a couples counselor.
And then when my son was 10 months old, I found out I was pregnant. My husband came home from work one evening to find me sobbing on the kitchen floor, both kids flung atop me, all 3 of us wailing. He walked in the door and I stood up, went to the bathroom, and rummaged until I found a leftover pregnancy test, shoved in the back of the medicine cabinet.
And I waited to have a miscarriage. And it didn’t come. And it didn’t come. Ah, cruel life. And I counted the weeks, waiting. And it didn’t come. And then there was a heartbeat.
And so, we thought we would do it.
My babies did not come easily. Both were born with the aid of extra hormones in a pill called Clomid to fix an undiscovered issue: just doctors shooting arrows in the dark. So forgive my carelessness. Forgive my hope that I could escape the decision.
We gritted our teeth and at night, when our kids were asleep, we whispered fervently in bed, trying to arrive at a place of acceptance or gratitude, trying to find a window through which this third baby could be wanted, a way in which it would all be ok.
I started having panic attacks for the first time in years, fainting in public. The monster of depression, one I had confronted years before and whose return I had cowered in fear of since, reared its ugly head, warping the joy I had in my life, repainting my blessings with darkness.
In my teens and twenties, abortion was a political idea, a feminist no-brainer. I joked cavalierly, not so long ago, tipsy on wine with old friends, that I felt like a failed feminist since I’d never had one. Somehow I survived my reckless, drunken teens, and wandering drug-fueled twenties without an unintentional pregnancy. And at 37, I crossed through the barrier of two sets of metal detectors; through chained doors, I entered alone, my husband and 11 month barred from joining me, barred from holding my hand, for security reasons.
Lonely journey, this womanhood is. During my first, long, torturous childbirth, as I watched, helpless, as my body twisted and contorted itself to bring another being into life, I understood the loneliness of existence. Ah, no one can save you, my girl. I counted my breaths.
But, oh, the rainbow of women that greeted me in that waiting room on Bleecker Street. Younger girls, in their late teens, some crying, some confident, shielded by the forgivability of a youthful mistake, protected by the certainty that this was the only option. Black women, Latina women, women with head coverings, women my age and older, women with weary eyes, women with disbelieving eyes. Some of us came alone, but all of us were alone in that room, partners (if there were partners) shut out because of the violence others wished would befall us.
The hours piled and stretched. Blood tests, ultrasound, counseling session, an interminable wait in between each, then finally, donning paper gowns, we were herded in small groups into a side room, called by name, one by one. 1 2 3 4 5.
I declined anesthesia of any kind, desperate to be present for this choice, certain that my body had endured far worse pain than whatever awaited me.
Afterwards, I sobbed, racking sobs, while I sat in the post-op room with the dozens of women who shared my journey that day, many in the twilight hysteria of anesthesia, laughing and laughing at nothing I could perceive, the emptiest laughs I ever heard, laughs teetering on the edge of despair.
What a different sort of loss. The loss I chose: a loss I accepted and the life I chose. A nameless grief. A regret that stops short of regret. All of these uncategorizable feelings that travel with me now. I try not to count them. I try to coexist with them. Sometimes I can.
Megan Gaffney is a writer and therapist who lives in Brooklyn with her two children and her husband. This piece is creative non-fiction/memoir.