Live from the Lilith Blog 1 of 2

January 5, 2017 by

Love’s Labor’s Lost

What struck me most when I stepped outside on that December morning was the scent in the air. Not the cold as it pricked my skin like a million shards of glass or the awkward way the sunbeams sliced through the sky. Rather the wintry, almost funereal aroma, like a coat worn for too long before it gets tucked into the back of a closet and forgotten.

I was then expecting our second child. But only my husband and our doctor knew. As we’d done with our eldest, we were waiting until we had passed the precarious first trimester to share the news. Kein ayin hara. We didn’t dare play with fire. 

I loved that short window of time when it was only ours, when it was, in a way, only mine. I alone carried the baby around like a fragile package—taking my vitamins, switching to decaf, keeping steady on the alpine steps of the subway on my way to work. It also fell to me to camouflage the growing rise in my belly in those last weeks before we told our family and friends. 

At the office, I took my seat at the conference room table, relieved it covered me from below. I cannot, however, say what the meeting was about because soon after it got underway, the room went black with a sudden pinch in my abdomen. The pain tightened its grip until it became difficult for me to remain upright, to pretend I was listening to the discussion, even to breathe. I felt the world slip out of me, and I knew in an instant it was all over. Still, I sat there, straight-faced, drowning, losing my voice, unable to shout that my heart wasn’t beating, and I feared giving myself away, though of course I had to say something to someone.

The two female colleagues usually with me at these strategy sessions were away on business, and a combination of embarrassment and modesty kept me from writing a plea for help to one of the men. My mind was all over the place. I needed to leave the room, but how? What will they think if they see what’s happening to me, and please God, don’t let this be happening to me, and then, finally, “The chair!” I kept thinking, “Oh God, the chair!” 

God was listening because we paused then to refill our coffees. As if it were the most natural thing in the world, I backed out of the room while the others broke into private conversations, and for once, I was grateful to be excluded. I shuffled over to the office manager and spat out the words “It’s gone.” She called the car service while I my paged my husband and rang the doctor. I refused to let anyone at work see me cry. 

The driver and I rode in silence. I stared at the asphalt, opening the window to let the cold numb me, to keep me from feeling anything at all. The scent from the morning lingered in the air, and I knew it was the smell of loss I’d sensed in the offing.

The next day, in the outpatient surgical wing of the hospital where my husband was a resident, I draped myself in a cotton gown. He wore scrubs. We sat together in silence, wrapped in our love for one another, lost in our separate shrouds of mourning. What I needed from him no human could provide, and I knew he worried that he’d lost me, too, that I might never emerge from the sadness or the guilt over what I might have done that would have made any difference. 

There was nothing. Sometimes in the course of the universe, these things just happen. Yet in that torturous waiting, I cursed myself over and over and over until I ran out of curses, and I shouted silently under my breath at the God I believed in more than anything, and I doubted I would let them put me under—me, with my fear that I wouldn’t wake up from the anesthesia—until I had forgiven us both. 

The kindness that tipped the scales came from my doctor, also an observant Jew, who understood that it was the Jewish laws of family purity that kept my husband from holding me and that we would not have it any other way. He knew my husband was left with only words to comfort me where words fell short, at a time when he needed comfort, too. The doctor reviewed the basics of the procedure, a formality to remove what was already lost. He spared us the platitudes, the everything-happens-for-a-reason-it’s-all-for-the-best-you’ll-try-again-you’ll-see-it-will-all-work-out. I’m not sure I heard what he did say, though I could see through the fog he had no idea what to do with my abundance of tears.

Still, he needed to get me into the OR. In the purest, most reflexive of human gestures, he gently wrapped his arm around me as if I were a lost child. He shifted the cordons for that instant, redefining the boundaries between us just long enough to help me think straight and forgive, sign the consent, and look forward, even if I could only manage the view down the hall. He called the nurse, and together they ushered me towards the operating table.

I awoke enraged that I was empty and afraid I would never brim with life again. Only later—much later—would I know that the doctor’s kindness had saved me. In time, the doubt would ebb, and I would find my way back to some version of myself. 

My husband and I would even go on to have two more children, giving us a beautiful family with three sons, kein ayin hara. Yet the hole left by the fourth child, the one I did not bring into the world, never quite filled in, leaving a space in me that still gapes 18 years later. 

When I was young, I loved walking outdoors at night when the Christmas decorations went up in the neighborhood, a Jewish girl bedazzled by the electric lights that mirrored the stars in the night sky. I didn’t want the holiday itself. I already had my own. Rather, I imagined the glow from those flashing icicles and blinking reindeer filling the empty spaces inside me—the insecurities, the places I fell short in my parents’ and teachers’ eyes.

I am still enchanted by those holiday lights, though as an adult, I feel like a petty thief sneaking off with the magic from something that does not belong to me. And yet, I continue to hope the light will displace the emptiness I know is there, that it will soothe the memory that quivers like a phantom limb every December.

There are so many lights in my life, tangible blessings to have and to hold that I wouldn’t exchange for anything. But there is also the one extinguished too soon, and I am reminded each year that it was never mine in the first place. I can forgive the forces that broke the spell. I just can’t seem to forget. 


Merri Ukraincik is an essayist and blogger. She is currently at work on a memoir.

 


The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.