In her sit-down with NBC’s Meredith Vieira after winning the silver medal for the skeleton event, U.S. Olympian Noelle Pikus Pace told why she’d returned to the sport after being away. She had been fine and fulfilled as a retired athlete, she said, and as a wife and a mom, but then had miscarried a baby and gone into a serious funk. Her husband nudged her back into sledding, suspecting that the exacting training would take her mind off her sorrows. It turns out that - in this instance at least - he was right. Not only did she flourish, but she returned to top competitive form and relished it.
Probably a lot of people heard this and shrugged, or filed it away in the Can’t Relate Folder, and a certain number - myself included - nodded knowingly and returned for a few minutes, or half a day, to that searing country with its oven-hot winds and no shade and no oases.
Background: When I was a boy, my aunt lived with us and married late to a man older than she. There had been a lot of whispering about whether they would even attempt to start a family of their own and they soon did. Several weeks into each of her early pregnancies there was an “event” which was not confided to us children but involved tears, confinement to their room, long silences, meals taken back to their room, and weeks of isolation and sadness. Her husband looked hangdog and we took him to us and played cards with him. We kids couldn’t fathom what had happened, exactly. When we pressed, we were told she had “lost” the baby. What does that even mean? Should we institute a search? Has anyone checked the bushes in front of the house? There’s nothing peskier than a baby, we knew, and the damned things were as likely to crawl into traffic as not.
I doubt we could have put her miscarriages into any emotional context, being so young, so we looked upon her with the chop-chop clear-eyed misunderstanding of the immature. We were quiet around her and gave her space. And were glad to see her come around when she finally did. But each one of these events seemed to take more out of her and her recovery time lengthened. She did eventually have a baby that survived and that baby went on to have more babies. The hard, hard story has a happy ending.
Eventually I/we had the misfortune to have it happen to me/us. Possibly God, in his boundless wisdom, and after noticing how woefully I had absorbed the lessons of my aunt, saw this as an area where I needed a bit of a smartening-up. I don’t think He thinks this way, however, though I’d never presume one way or the other. I will say that if you live long enough, the riches of the world will open before you like oysters one-by-one and so too will the Greatest Hits of all the tragedies. This was probably just my time.
He had been a planned pregnancy. It had gone according to Hoyle and we were certain of his sex for some reason and had settled on a name for him almost immediately, which anyone who knows anything about these things will tell you is rare. We referred to him in conversation by his given name, spoke to the belly and addressed him as such and -hubris of hubris - had the existential temerity to think of him as a done deal.
He passed after one of those viability thresholds doctors seem to know so much about but don’t bother to tell you unless your kid goes face-first into one. Seventeen weeks? I forget now. During one checkup the midwife smeared clear jelly on the belly and listened to the heartbeat and it was triphammer strong and during the next there was nothing. Nothing. The machine is listening into Deep Space and there is only Void. There are three of you in the tiny examining room and the only one who knows anything goes totally silent. Free fall. Urgent questions. Her hand slips into mine and squeezes with the force of a python. It’s grim. All joy is sucked up into the air conditioning vent and goes who knows where and stays away for a season. Specialists. Confirmations. The Drive Home.
Terrible, terrible, terrible. This was years ago and I write these words today blinking through tears. If I say my boy’s name even now I have to leave the room to get it together again. His name is a kind of talisman to me now, a word made out of lightning, a thing of fearsome power. This past year one of my friends referenced an acquaintance of his who just so happens to have my lost boy’s name. I felt as thought I’d been punched in the throat. “What?” I said after a few moments. “Who was this?” But the conversation had moved on and it was then I realized just how badly I’d been put back together. It couldn’t be him, of course, but how could that name have been given to another?.
She blamed herself. She had a second cup of coffee one day, she confessed. I thought of my parents, smoking four packs a day and drinking Old Fashioneds through our gestations. I blamed no one. She didn’t believe me. She said I must hate her. She hated herself. I was aghast. Just when you think things are at rock bottom, that’s when your anchor knot begins to untie itself.
The boy is gone. The ten million smiles he would have provoked in his lifetime - with me, with others - will never happen. His Little League games, his report cards, his graduations, his wedding(s), his own kids, the things he would have done to help others, his ideas. Wiped off the slate. Feeding him, feeling his litttle power-plant-warm head nestled into my neck as he sleeps off his bottle, smiling broadly as I enter the nursery first thing, crawling, high chairs, da-da. Gone. All gone.
Go ahead and tell me this is a vast overreaction to a clump of cells fizzing out. Tell me it happens to X% of all pregnancies. I get all that. I do. But this one was mine. My boy. Mine.
The way to stay together through something like this is to stay together. Hold, love, assure, reassure, listen, be quiet. Take the whipping together. Do not flinch. Do not hide from your fate; it has already found you. Because next on the agenda, if her body doesn’t naturally push out the lost one, is what is essentially the aborting of your dead baby.
This is so laughably grim I won’t bother to revisit it here, but when you leave that place it’s inconceivable you could be any sadder. You have not been able to lose with your dignity intact. You drive home in smithereens, in shards.
Throughout those days and weeks I prayed for strength for his mother - who had to host this terrible event in her body, of course, and who was really the one this all happened to, and had to feel all that I felt plus irrational guilt and overwhelming unearned failure - but what I asked for myself was that he be the first to meet me when I get to the other side. Don’t ask how I could possibly recognize him. I would know him anywhere.
Devastating and magnificent.