I was sitting on the toilet. Plucked from the underpants around my knees, cradled in the palm of my hand, was a blood clot almost the size of my thumb. It was a luminescent red, verging on glittery, the colour of a nail polish bottle I might have picked out at the chemist. What I could never have imagined was that, for a moment, I would think very hard about swallowing that clot.
I’m sorry, did you screw up your nose? I don’t blame you. After all, the first rule of miscarriage club is this: you do not talk about miscarriage club. The second rule of miscarriage club? You. DO NOT. Talk. About. Miscarriage. Club. It helped me somehow to picture Tyler Durden instructing a dank and crowded basement room, but it’s probably not for everyone.
It wasn’t a club I ever intended to be a part of; no-one does. But this time, I didn’t even plan to be pregnant in the first place. I had only given birth to my son, Flynn, ten months earlier. I adored and was exhausted by him in equal measure. His birth had been traumatic: an induction, followed by a case of severe preeclampsia, and emergency delivery by forceps. He slid onto my chest, purple and splayed, and then was taken away almost immediately to the resuscitation table. The umbilical cord had been wrapped around Flynn’s neck and it took a few moments for him to start breathing. I lost more than three times the amount of blood I was supposed to. The following days were a blur of Endone with a platelet transfusion thrown in for good measure. Flynn was fine, we both were, but this was just the beginning of a long journey, of terror and deep love and doubt and extreme sleep deprivation. In the weeks and months that followed, most mornings began with the feeling that I had been hit by a truck overnight.
And so, when those two crisp, red lines showed up on the home pregnancy test this time, I cried. I cried down the phone to my partner, who was away working in Alice Springs. I cried while reading Flynn a story a couple of hours later, and then I cried into my pillow when I was in bed by myself.
My mind was racing. I would have two children under the age of 18 months. I didn’t get enough sleep as it was. We had already booked our wedding, a celebration and a survival party, for the due date. I was meant to be going back to work. I had just started to fit into my pre-maternity wardrobe. Most of all, I couldn’t possibly give birth again, not in less than a year. No. No. No.
But my partner got on board with the idea of a second child straight away and after a few wobbly days, I did, too. We had never intended for Flynn to be an only child. And besides, I was 36 already, my problems (mostly) of the first world garden variety. I booked in an appointment with the obstetrician. We pulled out our dusty copy of Up the Duff. I stroked my belly, and waited for the first taste of nausea. I tried to remember the way my body would swell and strain and flutter. We wrote a to do list with things like ‘find a house’, ‘buy a double stroller’, and ‘cancel the wedding’ on it.
And that’s when it all started to unravel.
Painful cramps that stopped my breath. Spotting, then bleeding. Small, stringy clots, bigger ones. I was dizzy, lightheaded, nauseous. I did another pregnancy test. The second line was still there, but it was lighter, a less confident shade of pink. We went to the doctor, and then the hospital. I was waved almost straight into emergency. A nurse there was so happy to see Flynn that he pulled out a toxic-looking purple bottle immediately and started blowing bubbles. He had clearly been waiting all day for an excuse to do it. Flynn’s bottom lip trembled and he wailed. We laughed nervously.
Another nurse inserted a cannula and gave me a hospital gown – well, two actually—to preserve my dignity. There were curtains between us and the other patients, but you could hear everything. To the left of me, some head injuries, to the right, a perforated bowel. I could hear a woman gasping with pain, waiting for the morphine to kick in. Denial and a dose of perspective kicked in. I didn’t feel great, but nothing a bit of Panadol couldn’t fix, right? I made small talk with the intern doctor assigned to us. I tried to be as polite and cheerful as possible, as if my civility in a place of trauma and stress and open wounds would mean this wasn’t happening to me.
I blinked and a few hours went by. Finally, they brought me into an examination room. The intern was coached through the procedure by an older hand, a woman who was both gentle and precise. ‘Now insert the speculum … that’s right … there’s the wall of the cervix,’ she explained to him while I nodded along furiously from the other end of the bed.
‘Is it all OK?’ I asked her.
That was when her face got really kind and then you know you’re fucked.
‘We never rule out anything,’ she said. ‘I always hope I’m proved wrong, but there’s a fair bit of bleeding. I’m afraid it looks like you’ve lost the pregnancy.’
I got up, leaving a puddle of blood on the bed, and then I really cried. I cried for the idea of a baby, for the loss itself, for my partner, for myself, for our family. For everything sad that ever happened and for everyone else who had been through this same thing and never said anything, not a word.
To miscarry. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary told me it was an intransitive verb. It listed the definitions. Obsolete: to come to harm. To suffer miscarriage of a fetus. To fail to achieve the intended purpose: go wrong or amiss. The plan miscarried. To fail to reach the intended destination. The letter has miscarried. The definition might have been evolving, but the words were all still there. Obsolete, harm, suffer, fail, fail. It was hard to escape the feeling of being at fault. I wrote a mental list of every potential crime I had committed against my bourgeoning pregnancy: soft cheese, a pilates class, a bump to the belly, my initial panic at those two red lines. I knew it wasn’t my fault; I knew it was none of those things, but the feeling of failure followed me around like a persistent mosquito.
Obsolete, harm, suffer, fail. Fail.
The dictionary is not a self-help book, I reminded myself.
I was determined to break the rules of miscarriage club, then, both of them. We told people and they were nearly all kind, caring, generous. Very occasionally, they were awkward and embarrassed. They told us that they were sorry, they were sorry for our loss. That it had happened to them or that the baby wasn’t meant to be. That it was incredibly sad and that they wished we didn’t have to go through it. That it wasn’t my fault.
They asked if we were OK.
We were OK but not OK. It was the longest week of my life and in just seven days the world order had shifted in a strange, indefinable way. The melancholy felt heavy, itchy, uncomfortable.
I tried to rationalise my grief: it wasn’t as bad as it was for my loved ones still trying to get pregnant for the first time, for my friends who had miscarried multiple times and after more weeks of pregnancy, for those who lost babies at birth or soon after. It wasn’t as bad as the horror of SIDS, of cancer, of all those rare and terminal childhood conditions that seemed to strike families indiscriminately like lightning. I thought about still other friends who had lost older children and grandchildren. Accidents, suicide, a drug overdose.
I tried to create a hierarchy of grief and put mine at the bottom. But grief doesn’t really give a shit about rationalisation or rules or pyramids.
One of my favourite writers, Cheryl Strayed, describes grief better than anyone I know. She lost her mother at the age of 22, to sudden and aggressive cancer. Strayed writes about holding onto her mother’s ashes in her memoir Wild:
They weren’t like ashes from a wood fire, silky and fine as sand. They were like pale pebbles mixed with a gritty grey gravel. Some chunks were so large I could see clearly that they’d once been bones…When we finally laid down that tombstone and spread her ashes into the dirt, I hadn’t spread them all. I’d kept a few of the largest chunks in my hand. I’d stood for a long while, not ready to release them to the earth. I didn’t release them. I never would.
I put her burnt bones into my mouth and swallowed them whole.
When my grandmother died, we went back to the house with Grandfather after the funeral. She had been cremated and the idea was that we would sprinkle her ashes in the garden together as a family. I think there was some vague intention for an impromptu ritual, but people were still walking into the house, going to the bathroom, putting down coats, and setting food down on the table when Grandfather decided to just get on with it, to get the whole thing over and done with.
His bride was gone.
Grandfather took the paper bag outside before anyone knew what was happening and grimly shook the ashes out and up into the air. Mostly, he missed the garden and his precious flowers. The scene was more like the flour fight we had near our lockers on the last day of Year 12. The few family members who followed him out there were covered in a fine layer of white dust. By chance, I had stumbled into the tail end of it and some of my grandmother’s ashes flew into my face, a few in my mouth, and then some more settled in a sheen on my unpolished boot. I didn’t know whether to wipe my grandmother off me or not. I felt sick, fuzzy, numb.
A few days after my trip to the hospital, I thought about those ashes falling on my tongue, about Cheryl Strayed eating those burnt bones. About how I didn’t even have any ashes this time, though I was as sad as I’d ever been.
And that’s when I found myself sitting on the toilet, underpants around my knees. Contemplating that clot, almost the size of my thumb. I just couldn’t bring myself to flush it down the toilet. It was the biggest piece of physical evidence I had, of what I’d been through, of what might have been. But what could I do? I thought about putting it in my mouth, but I wasn’t ready for it to disappear, even inside me. Maybe I could put it in an envelope, I thought, wildly. In a little wooden box. Plant it with some herbs on the balcony or under a lime tree in the back yard. Something. Anything. Gingerly, I wrapped the clot in a tissue. And then Flynn cried out from his cot and I left it on the bathroom floor.
I came back an hour later and the tissue was overflowing with ants, like a miniature volcano. I wished then that I had swallowed the bloody thing.
Sometimes nature defeats you, especially in the sweaty tropics of Darwin. When I picked the crumpled tissue up again, ants spilled over onto my hands and arms, nipping at the edges of my skin. I felt a rush of anger and then all I wanted was to be done. Finished. I flushed the mess of ants and blood down the toilet. And then it was gone and I felt lost all over again.
That’s the thing about grief. Sometimes all you want to do is flush it, shove it away, release it awkwardly into the air. Rinse it off your tongue, wipe it off your shoe. And then you realise that it’s all you have to hold onto. You bite down hard on what little there is left. You swallow it whole. You grip it in your hand. You bury it in a safe place and then dig it up again when no-one else is looking.
There have been teary weeks. I’m alright and then I’m not. I get waves of guilt that I spent any part of my very short pregnancy upset and scared and overwhelmed. Because I wanted it.
I wanted it.
In the end, I did find something to hold onto, even though I didn’t have ashes to swallow or spread in the garden, even though the blood clot almost the size of my thumb was swarmed by ants. Those two crisp, red lines on a stick, I still have that. The proof of an idea that existed before it didn’t. My positive pregnancy test is zipped into the lining of my handbag. I took it to show the doctor and it’s still there now.
I can’t bring myself to take it out, not yet. Sometime, some day. And if not soon, eventually.