Image Credit: Bryan Engelmann
I stepped outside of the medical plaza and texted my husband. The baby is dying. I’m going to miscarry again. He was several blocks away, running an errand. I saw him running towards me from far off, a speck getting closer and closer, his face obscured by a black mask, just like mine. I just stood there.
The first one was what they call a “chemical pregnancy,” which just means it was so early on that they’d never seen the baby on an ultrasound, so early that it was probably just the size of a poppy seed, too small to try to look at. Doctors don’t really count these as miscarriages because they happen so early that often women haven’t yet realized that they’re pregnant, but all I know is that I was pregnant and then I wasn’t.
My husband and I, having just married in November, were getting ready to go on our honeymoon, a two week trip to Japan, when we found out. “Well, I guess I can’t have any sushi, but I’m willing to live with that,“ I said, happy to make the not insignificant sacrifice.
In the office my coworkers crowded around a computer, looking at a map from John Hopkins that was charting the spread of a new disease. On the screen little red clusters of the coronavirus popped up in Japan from the Diamond Princess cruise ship. We cancelled our honeymoon. We’d schedule a babymoon instead, later that summer, when everything calmed down. Maybe we’d go to the south of France, and I could wear a bikini to show off my bump. I looked forward to being able to be totally unselfconscious in a bathing suit for the first time in my life. No need to suck in my stomach and wonder if anyone was looking at my imperfections.
I read Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors and thought about how I would one day write about the little being growing inside of me. Sometimes I tried out reading aloud to the baby, which according to an app that I downloaded to track the growth by French pastry size, was technically called a blastocyst at this point. But there are no French pastries as small as a blastocyst, so the app said it was the size of a fleur de sel, a tiny flake of sea salt on top of a caramel.
A week later I woke up to find clumps of dark red blood in my underwear. “Bryan, Bryan, I lost it. I lost the baby,” I cried from the bathroom. When I came out, he tried to pull me back into bed to comfort me. “Wait, wait, stop,” I said, stripping off the bloody underwear and leggings. I didn’t want to bleed all over our white sheets.
I took some time off from work, a recovery gift to myself– time to rest, go to museums, take long walks. Instead I ended up laying on the couch, barely leaving the house. We stopped taking the subway when the virus finally arrived in the city, so that limited my movement, but mostly I was depressed. My mind replayed the shock of the dark red clots in my underwear. I didn’t realize these days that I spent laying on the couch were my last precious moments of actually being able to leave the house without fear.
By the end of my staycation, New York went on PAUSE. I ventured out only for a few appointments to make sure that the miscarriage was complete. We still felt safe taking cabs then. We thought only the subway was dangerous. Cabs were probably okay. We were lucky to have hand sanitizer, a hot commodity now. Get in the car, buckle your seatbelt, furiously rub your hands with sanitizer. If we forgot to buckle our seatbelts before putting on the hand sanitizer, we’d have to take the hand sanitizer out again and furiously scrub our hands once more.
I was determined to get pregnant again. This lockdown couldn’t last more than a month, maybe two. I hoped to re-emerge from this whole ordeal pregnant once again. I googled and googled and convinced myself that it was unlikely that I’d miscarry twice in a row. This next one would be okay. Getting pregnant again became my only goal. I needed to achieve just this one thing during lockdown.
I was able to fall pregnant again almost immediately. “Fall pregnant” is what British people say instead of “get pregnant.” I’d learned that in the mommy forums I read. Through the rest of March I laid awake for hours after my husband had fallen asleep, my phone lighting up my face, alternating between news stories about the coronavirus and mommy forum posts from 2010 about strangers who’d miscarried and then gone on to have a healthy baby. I couldn’t believe my luck when I took a test and saw a faint blue line signaling a positive. I took four more tests, spaced out, just to be sure. I kept two of them on my dresser for weeks to remind myself that I’d accomplished my goal.
Now came the challenge of how to get to a doctor’s appointment while a new plague was surging around us. We lived in Bushwick, much too far to walk to an appointment in Bay Ridge. I read articles about Uber drivers being infected, infected people getting in cabs. Were the germs just floating around in the air? Hundreds of people were dying every day in NYC alone. It didn’t seem like hand sanitizer would be enough anymore.
My in-laws live in Coney Island. “They have two cars, don’t they? Let’s just ask to borrow one for the appointment,” I said. An easy solution. My father-in-law had a company car that he was still driving around the city because, for some reason, as a manager of a car wash chain, he’d been deemed an essential worker. “Since it’s early, I don’t want to tell them that I’m pregnant, ” I said, “so try telling them that I need to get to the doctor, that I need to have bloodwork done for my thyroid.” This was true. I have an autoimmune disease, a worry for a healthy pregnancy.
When my father-in-law next called, my husband and I were both sitting on the couch. I was mindlessly playing Animal Crossing. It had become the one thing that I found relaxing. I loved walking around my island, ripping up weeds, digging up fossils, and collecting bugs for a museum run by an owl. My husband and his family are loud talkers, so I overheard the entire conversation over the calming music of my Animal Crossing island, where my avatar was toddling around planting flowers and shaking trees to collect branches.
“Hey Dad, so I need to actually ask you for something. Would it be possible for us to borrow the other car? Kaycie needs to have some bloodwork done for her thyroid,” my husband explained.
“Well, you’re not on my insurance,” my father-in-law replied. “Can’t you just put her in an Uber?”
My husband was quiet, but his father kept talking.
“It’s crazy what’s happening right now, but I’m just glad that you and your sister are okay. Your sister and my two granddaughters. Yeah, I’m just grateful you’re all safe and that’s all that matters.”
Next to my husband, I started to cry.
“Hey Dad, Dad, listen. Actually Kaycie is pregnant. We need to get to a doctor. Don’t tell anyone okay? We don’t want to tell anyone because it’s early, but I really need the car.”
“Oh wow, Mazel Tov! Tell Kaycie I said congratulations. Have you told your mother? Why don’t you talk to your mother? I’m sorry, Bryan, you’re just not on the insurance, you know?”
I was used to snide comments, interruptions every time I tried to speak up at family dinners, the death by a thousand papercuts approach from my in-laws, but I was not prepared for the ache that came with realizing how little my life meant to them, how little the life of my unborn child meant. Now I could quantify it.
My mother-in-law called later that same evening, indignant that she hadn’t been told first about my pregnancy. My husband took the call into another room, but I heard him from down the hall. “Mom, I’m going to stop you right there. No, no, Mom, well, we didn’t want to tell anyone about it yet, but we felt like we had to because we need to borrow the car.” A long pause and then his voice got louder. My dog, sitting on my lap, was suddenly alert. “Do you want to know why my wife feels like none of you love her? Because your car insurance is more important than her safety, that’s why.”
I told my husband that I would never let them see our child. At night when he fell asleep, I cried, googling, “Why do my in-laws not like me.” I was angry that my husband didn’t do more to punish them, to hurt them back. “They’re my family, Kaycie,” he would say, “what else do you want me to do?” “Well,” I replied, “your father is either incredibly fucking stupid or he has no empathy.” “I feel like you’re saying that my parents don’t love me,” he replied quietly. I don’t envy him, caught between his wife and his parents, and so I backed down. “I’m sure they love you,” I sighed, but what I thought was maybe they don’t. When they later called me, curious about how my first appointment went, the appointment for which they would not let us have use of their spare car, I didn’t pick up or call back.
When I told my best friend that I was pregnant, she drove over and delivered a care package—lavender belly oil and epsom salts, non-alcoholic beer, chocolates. She buzzed into our building and dropped the package in front of our apartment door. I held my dog at the window and waved at her when she went back onto the street. She looked up at us, waving so furiously that the bandana she’d tied around her face in lieu of a mask fell off. I didn’t mean to, but I started to cry. It was strange seeing her that way; from all that we’d been told about the virus, it seemed like a real possibility that we would hurt each other if we hugged. An invisible enemy waited to be breathed out, to send someone we loved to the hospital. I shifted my dog onto my hip and waved his paw at her as she stood in the street still furiously waving up at us. My husband was in the kitchen meticulously wiping down every item from the care package with rubbing alcohol.
In the end it was my best friend who offered up her car for my doctor’s appointments. For each appointment, my husband would bike 40 minutes across Brooklyn to her house, leave his bike inside of her building, wipe down the car with Clorox wipes, drive to pick me up, take me to the doctor, wander around Bay Ridge for the duration of my appointment, drive me home, drive the car back, and then bike another 40 minutes back to our apartment in Bushwick. I was anxious each time he made the journey back and forth. I clutched my phone, watching his little dot move across the screen on Find My Friends.
For the second time in my life, I stopped taking antidepressants in preparation of getting pregnant. I only wanted one child, one pregnancy, and I was willing to grit my teeth and bear it, willing to eradicate all possible risks. But I had not anticipated a miscarriage or a global pandemic. Some days I barely managed to get out of bed. I set up parental controls on my own phone so I’d stop scrolling through Twitter and refreshing the news to read about death.
At 7 weeks into my pregnancy, I gagged at the smell of my husband’s morning coffee. Nearly all food was turning my stomach. I felt like my joints were too loose, like if I moved my legs too much they would pop right out of their sockets. I was getting shooting pains in my boobs as they swelled, making all of my bras feel like corsets. My general practitioner told me not to exercise except for light yoga and walking, but I was too afraid to go for walks and yoga seemed like a surefire way to pop my legs out of their loose sockets. I rubbed my stomach, trying to pick myself up for the little life inside, but sometimes the best I could manage was just to get out of bed to sit on the couch for a few hours.
For my first prenatal appointment, I was masked and wearing the only gloves I had, little grey knit winter gloves. I ordered disposable ones online, but they were all backordered and wouldn’t arrive until late May. I was alone, my husband forbidden to come inside with me. I’d never seen this doctor before, but I was referred by my GP who wanted me to see a doctor as soon as possible. The doctor I wanted to work with wouldn’t see me until I was at least 10 weeks. They were cutting down on the prenatal care they offered due to the coronavirus. I was too early for this first appointment, frowned upon because waiting rooms weren’t supposed to exist in the time of coronavirus.
It was hard to fill out my intake paperwork with the knit gloves on and impossible to get into my phone for my pharmacy information. I eventually took one off, glancing up at the front desk, afraid I might get yelled at for allowing my hand to be naked for even a moment. The waiting room was not notable except for a glass display case. I took a photo of it, thinking I’d show it to my kid one day. “Look at this weird thing I looked at so many times when I was pregnant with you.”
A little babushka did my intake. She ran a thermometer over my forehead and showed me the temperature. “Is normal, yes?” And then “you want to keep the baby?” She was wearing scrubs patterned with little cartoon cats, and I complimented them while she was drawing my blood. She was suddenly animated, telling me about how much she loved her pet cat. She asked if I had one, and I said, “No, my husband is allergic. My small dog sometimes acts like a cat though.” She shook her head in disappointment.
She must be in her 60s at least. She was risking her life to be here at work, taking my temperature and drawing my blood. From what I’d read, it seemed you were pretty much a goner if the virus got you at 55+. Yet here she was, drawing the blood of a stranger, while I’d been terrified just to get into my best friend’s car.
I was instructed to go into an examination room and wait, naked from the waist down. When the sonographer came in, she didn’t speak much as she squirted jelly onto my stomach, running her wand over it. Eventually she told me to open my legs wider and then stuck the wand up there too. I looked at the black and white blobs on the screen but I had no idea what I was looking for. Finally she explained to me that she saw the fetus and the sac. She told me how many inches it was. “I’m 7.5 weeks along. Is that how big it’s supposed to be?” I asked. “We don’t know when you got pregnant exactly since you didn’t have a period between your last pregnancy, so I can’t tell you that. It looks like you’re probably about 6.5 weeks along though.” I didn’t argue with her, but I didn’t see how that was possible.
When the doctor came in, she told me that there was no heartbeat yet, but she didn’t seem worried. I’d need to come back next week to see if the heartbeat had started. “So, do you want to talk about food and exercise now or wait until next week?” she asked. She had hint of a Russian accent. “I guess now is fine,” I replied, pulling a note up on my phone. “I actually have a list of questions prepared.” A twinge of worry sprouted in the back of my mind at the mention of only measuring 6 weeks pregnant, but I held a little ultrasound picture and I was excited. I wanted to do everything right.
All of my questions answered, I walked back to the car with my husband, clutching the little photo of our fetal pole. This one had made it past being a blastocyst. The app told me that it was the size of a lavender bud. I could still barely tell what I was looking at in the black and white blobs of the ultrasound printout, but it seemed plausible that it was lavender bud sized. I sent the photo to my best friend. “Look, there’s my baby!” I tried to feel a sense of relief that the doctor had seen it on the screen. Deep down though I didn’t believe that I was only 6 weeks along. That would mean that I’d gotten my first positive pregnancy test at only 3 weeks pregnant.
“I’m worried about them not finding a heartbeat,” I told my husband, my best friend, the Google search bar, “but it seems like this can happen sometimes, I guess.” “Don’t worry,” my husband said. “I understand you’re worried, but try not to stress out,” my best friend said. Google gave me lots of mommy blogs and forums filled with stories about people who found their baby’s heartbeats in the 7th week, 8th week, second appointments. This could be normal, I told myself, trying to steady my own heartbeat.
Again I went upstairs alone, masked and wearing my little grey knit gloves. My temperature was taken. First room on the right, take off everything from the waist down. I climbed onto the chair, pulled the little pink paper robe over myself, nervously trying to be modest even though these people were literally about to have me spread my legs while they shoved a sonogram stick up my vagina.
The ultrasound technician came in, re-entered my info, shoved the stick up there. She waved it around, clicking on the screen. Click click. Click click. I gasped from a sudden sharp pain. “Oh sorry,” she said, continuing to press down, “it seems like you have a gas bubble here so that’s going to be painful, but I need to take more measurements.” Click, click. Then she went to the door and opened it slightly “Dr. A. Dr. A!” When the doctor didn’t appear, she tried to be light, smiling, she said, “she never hears me. I’ll be right back.” Sitting there, half naked, clutching that pink paper covering, I knew. My heart beat faster and faster and then it slowed because, deep down I wasn’t surprised. This one, my second one, wasn’t okay, was dead, would be dead.
The doctor rushed in and the ultrasound technician shoved the stick back inside of me, moved it around, click click, click click, they were both silent. She hit a button and I heard thumping and rushing sounds.
After several long moments of silence, my doctor spoke. “So, the baby hasn’t grown since last week and at this point we’d expect to see some growth. It was this length last week and it remains the same. There is a heartbeat now…but it is much slower than we would expect at this point,” she said, not unkindly. “It will likely be a miscarriage.” The ultrasound technician pulled her wand out of me and quietly left the room. I saw her take the printed ultrasound photo and place it quietly in the garbage. I sat there, trying not to cry, feeling undignified because I was still half naked and covered in ultrasound jelly. A few days ago my app changed to say that my baby was now the size of a berlingot candy. “Oh…I see,” I finally managed to say.
“Have you had any spotting?” the doctor asked. “No, I haven’t,” I said. “Is it normal….for there to be a heartbeat now if it’s not….going to make it?” I asked. “Well,” she said, “it’s slower than we would expect. It’s possible that the heartbeat started soon after we saw you last week and now it’s slowing down, getting ready to stop. If this had been your first appointment with us, I would think it was probably fine, but because we saw you last week, and I have a data point….I’m sorry. We can have you come back in one week or two weeks to see what happens. Which would you prefer?”
“One week,” I said, blinking back tears in front of this stranger, a kind stranger, but still a stranger, “I don’t want to drag it out longer than I have to.”
I didn’t think to ask anything about what my options were. I was alone and I was half naked and I was trying not to cry in front of people I barely knew, so I ended the conversation and calmly scheduled my follow-up appointment in one week.
Very few people witnessed my husband running to me, gathering me in his arms, and the two of us masked, crying in the street. “Why though” I cried, trying not to crumple onto the ground. I was devastated and I wanted to cry, I was crying, but in the moment it felt like I was faking it. I felt empty, a woman guilty of losing two children, a woman foolish enough to think she could outrun a year of death by giving new life in a world stricken with disease.
At home my husband asked me lots of questions that I didn’t have the answers to. I refused to call the office. My husband called the doctor back himself, while I signed into a virtual therapy session. “My baby is going to die,” I told my therapist when he logged on. “They said to come back in a week but probably it’s going to die.”
Every week since early March had felt long but this one was the longest. I was either staring at my phone or pacing back and forth in my apartment while listening to Cuomo give me the daily death tolls. We didn’t know whether or not we were at the apex yet. Each day I announced the deaths to my husband, optimistic at the decrease from nearly 800 a day. The ultrasound photo was taken down from our fridge. My husband didn’t say anything or tell me what happened to it but I was thankful to see that it was gone.
During that week of waiting, I would sometimes do something that resembles praying even though I don’t believe in a god. If there’s something out there, please please keep my baby alive. Let my baby be alive and let it catch up and the heartbeat speed up. Please.
When the time came for me to return to that drab little medical plaza in Bay Ridge, I steeled myself mentally. I complimented the ultrasound technician’s haircut. She’d chopped her long straight hair to just below the shoulders and added bangs. I wondered if she had a hairstylist friend because it looked good, styled. We weren’t allowed to get haircuts. It seemed especially likely that the virus might get you in a salon, all of those people so close to your face. I’d been hacking at my own bangs by myself with kitchen scissors every time they got so long I had to part them away from my eyes. They were lopsided.
“It’s okay,” I said to the technician as she moved the sonogram wand around, “I’m prepared this time.” “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I really am sorry.” “It’s okay,” I said, overcompensating with my cheerful tone. No growth and the heartbeat was gone. It felt like a double failure that my body still hadn’t registered that this thing it was fighting so hard to protect and grow was already dead. I hadn’t had any spotting, no bleeding at all. I was still swallowing back bouts of nausea, subsisting on Saltines and Starbursts. My boobs were sore, preparing to make milk that no one needed.
Because of the coronavirus, the D&C process was not available to me. I would need to be put under for that, and for now, I was not allowed to go into a hospital because there was no room for me there. I could wait to see if my body would expel the pregnancy on its own, but that could take up to 6 weeks, so the only real option was to take the medication, what I guess some people would call “abortion pills.” They’re little pills that you push up your vagina, they absorb into your bloodstream and then your body reacts by contracting until the baby is pushed out.
I hurriedly typed instructions into my Notes app while talking to the doctor:
Take 500-800 mg ibuprofen before using the medication and then every 6 hours as long as you’re cramping. Lay down on the bed and put in 4 tablets as far as they go, stay in bed for 20 minutes. If they fall out after 20 minutes that’s fine. 1-4 hours after expect cramping and bleeding, should be heavy bleeding. That can last for hours and then gets better. If nothing happens, wait until Sunday and then call again.”
It was Tuesday and the doctor recommended that I do this on Saturday because I would not be able to focus on work or anything else when it happened. There was also the possibility that it wouldn’t take. Perhaps the pills wouldn’t fully dissolve into my bloodstream or something and I’d have to do it again.
“How much will it hurt?” I asked. The doctor paused. “It will hurt, it will hurt a lot, but it won’t last forever. I have had a patient once ask me to prescribe a narcotic for the pain, but I have never actually had to prescribe something like that.” She paused again. She was sitting very close to me. When she came into the room, she complimented my dress and came very close to me. I sensed that she wanted to hug me, but hugging was not allowed anymore. Strange, I never saw the bottom half of her face, but she had beautiful big brown eyes. She continued, “There will be what looks like big pieces of tissue, and that’s all it is. It’s just tissue. You won’t see anything, no fetus, nothing.” Another pause, and then “I will say that it hurts more with a wanted pregnancy.”
My medication was ready that afternoon, and I knew I would not wait until Saturday to go through with it. I’d already waited long enough. I texted my boss at 9pm: I am having a miscarriage and as it’s very painful and I need time to recover, I wanted to see if I could have the rest of this week as excused or sick days. I asked my husband for a gin martini.
I waited until 11AM the next morning. I laid down an old towel on the bed and put my dog away in another room. I was deathly afraid that one of these little pills would fall out of my vagina without my noticing and my dog would eat it. I don’t know what happens if a dog eats an abortion pill, but it can’t be good. My husband sat down on the edge of the bed while I inserted the pills, one at a time. I thought I might need him to help me, but it was easier for me to just do it myself. I felt a wave of repulsion as I shoved each pill all the way up my vagina. I was repelled by the texture of my insides.
I waited. There was an iPad propped up on some pillows next to me and I silently watched episodes of Seinfeld while tears rolled down my cheeks. I set an alarm for 4 hours from the moment I’d put in the pills, a countdown to pain.
From my estimates, I expected to start bleeding at 3:30PM, but I was expecting pain to build up to that point.
Hulu has divided Seinfeld into “playlists,” so you can watch according to various themes within the show. I started on the “Susan” episodes. Poor Susan, agreeing to marry a schmuck like George only to die licking the cheap envelopes he got for their wedding invitations.
I ordered a sandwich. Still nothing.
I got up to pee and there was a little smidgen of rust colored blood.
30 minutes later, it finally started. It’s rare that anyone tells you what a miscarriage feels like. I thought I’d be laid up in bed, clutching my stomach, getting up occasionally to make sure I wasn’t bleeding through my pajamas. Instead I sat on the toilet for hours, doubled over, while clumps of bloody tissue plopped into the water. I couldn’t sit all the way up for the pain. I wasn’t prepared to feel the sliminess of big pieces of tissue sliding down my vaginal canal. I’d switched to watch Seinfeld on the Hulu app on my phone. I watched the “some ugly baby” episode. It was still funny even through the cramps.
Some night huh?
Some dinner, huh?
Some house, huh?
Some ugly baby, huh?
Every hour or so it seemed okay to go lay down, but I was always right back in the bathroom a few minutes later. The smell of blood had somehow pervaded the room. I always quickly flushed the toilet without looking too much, but still there was that distinctive sharp and rusty smell. My dog must have noticed it too because he kept coming in and sniffing around every inch of the floor, trying to find the source.
My best friend sent flowers.
My in-laws, having been informed of my imminent loss in the days before, sent nothing. They did not call. I was sitting in the room when my husband told his mother. After a few moments, she changed the subject to how we should know, in case we still wanted to use it, that she had changed their password on the HBOGo account.
After 4 hours, the pain eased enough that I was able to sit up on the couch. I felt empty, and now I was. I’d done it. I was no longer sitting around with a dead baby inside of me. I continued watching Seinfeld.
I checked my email for reminders I’d had the foresight to send to myself. From me: 11:30 PM you can take more ibuprofen. I gulped down the painkillers with a glass of wine, exhausted.
Kaycie Hall is a writer from Jackson, MS currently living in Brooklyn, NY with her husband and their very demanding chihuahua mix Walter. She moonlights in tech and is also currently working on her MFA in nonfiction writing at Bennington.