Trigger warning: infant loss
“You need to eat.” His eyes averted, my husband dropped a bag of potato chips in my lap and returned to his work call, pacing back and forth in the airport waiting area. I stared at the plain chips — I hate plain chips. I could feel them come again: giant, slippery tears sliding down my face. I tasted salt as I tried to bite them back. What was I doing in an airport in Arizona on a Monday afternoon? Crying in public? This wasn’t me.
But neither was carrying around a dead baby inside me. We’d gone for the five-month scan three days before. The sun had been shining. It felt like a kiss on my shoulders as I walked to the hospital for the scan, blithely unafraid. Even as the technician twisted the wand for longer than seemed necessary, it didn’t occur to me to worry. I loved being pregnant — the roundness of my belly, the shy promise of the person to come emerging in my body, the smiles people gave me when they noticed my bump. My marriage was at its best when my husband could be protective. He opened doors for me and called from the grocery store to make sure he got the brand of yogurt I was craving. We were in this together: pregnancy had temporarily softened the edges of our strained relationship.
Sitting on a molded plastic chair, a plastic bag of chips in my lap, I tried to stop crying. All these years later, and he didn’t know I hated plain chips. My face bent downwards, hair hanging in my eyes, I worried the edges of the bag as I tried to muffle my tears. Since leaving the hospital on Friday, I had felt myself scrambling to catch hold of something, anything, before I fell into a dark hole. The abyss felt dangerously close.
“The baby has no heartbeat,” the doctor told us, quickly looking away. I asked him to repeat himself. The words felt like a whisper and a scream at the same time. What was he talking about? I wanted to hide. Again, he explained the procedure that would have to take place on Tuesday. I nodded, then realized I had understood nothing. “Tell me again.” He sighed, a flash of irritation passing over his face. “After the procedure, you might want to take some time off of work.” Work? What on earth was he talking about? My brain couldn’t calibrate the words.
“The baby has no heartbeat,” I repeated as we walked out, as if by saying it again it might make sense, because it couldn’t mean what it sounded like. Outside, the sun’s brightness, the people chatting in sidewalk cafes, the hum of daily life–it all felt like an assault. It occurred to me that I would have to live with this lifeless body–my baby–inside me for the next four days. I wanted to rip him out immediately, and to keep him inside forever. I kept thinking: maybe they made a mistake.
The ground beneath me felt precarious. Motherhood had started for me when I began wanting a baby, imagining what he or she would be like. For five months, I’d been rearranging my sense of self to include him. Now, who was I?
We went home that day, but I couldn’t stay. “We have to go, we have to get out of here. I need to leave,” I told my husband. I couldn’t sit or even look at the door to the nursery. He didn’t argue. Grateful for something to do, he booked us a weekend at a resort in Arizona. But, once there, I barely got out of bed. “It’s beautiful outside, Sarah,” he tried, yanking open the shades each morning but I turned away, leaving him to walk alone for hours and play video games on his phone deep into the night. We hardly spoke.
He wanted to make it all okay. “Sarah, we’ll have another. Did you hear what the doctor said? It’s going to be okay.” I’d spent hours folding and unfolding impossibly tiny shirts and debating names. I’d imagined myself gently placing him into his crib for the first time in the room I had painstakingly painted yellow, then repainted green. I’d felt him move inside me and planned his future. To me, he was a person and then, in the space of a sentence, he was a procedure. “You have to be hopeful,” my husband told me, faltering when my eyes flashed at him angrily. He could not make it okay, and I resented him trying to do so.
Now we were on our way home to New York. Our flight had been delayed, and I was crying over a bag of plain chips.
Suddenly through my tears, a hand appeared clutching a tissue. I didn’t look up but took the square of paper gratefully, immediately soaking it through with my tears. Another appeared, and then another. Finally looking up, I saw a graying woman, somewhere in her 60s, sitting beside me. She wore a Chanel suit; back erect, legs crossed, her silver hair in a stylish bob. ”Why is her clothing so unwrinkled?” I thought to myself as the pile of snot-filled tissues papered my lap. Her lips were a severe shade of red, but her eyes were soft, chocolatey, and warm. For the first time in days, I realized someone was not averting their eyes.
“Oh honey, I’m so sorry,” this stranger murmured softly. I stared at her.
“We lost our baby,” I blurted out, as my arms instinctively cupped my still swollen belly.
“I’m so sorry for your loss, my dear girl.” Her words felt like a gentle bath. I felt my body relax and exhale a deep breath.
“My husband… he wants me to eat but he got me these chips; I hate them.” I held up the still unopened bag. “I don’t know why I can’t stop crying,” and I started crying again.
She nodded, our eyes still locked.
“There are some moments in life, they become these moments of before and after. It won’t ever be the same,” she said, not lifting her eyes from mine. She moved next to me and took my hand as my body shook with sobs.
While my husband continued to pace on the other side of the airport waiting area, I felt myself catch hold of something. I clutched this stranger’s hand extending from the sleeve of her elegant Chanel suit and, for the first time in days, I wasn’t falling.