Having spent much of the last month thinking and writing on compassion, I want to be plain that I am not always on the giving end of compassion. I am often on the side deeply needing and, many times, receiving it. This is one such story. It is one I finally need to share.
Almost a year ago today I was lying on my back in the ultrasound room at Birmingham OBGYN, anxiously awaiting my first glimpse at Laslo baby number 2. Vivian (still not walking at the time-ah, those were the days!) squirmed in her daddy's lap while I squirmed at the feel of cold jelly on my tummy. I was ten weeks pregnant.
We hadn't made the big announcement yet, as we were leaving for Uganda in a matter of days. I spent my first trimester of my pregnancy with Vivian in Uganda. Most folks remembered how physically miserable that was for me. I knew people would be concerned...maybe even critical. So back in March when we saw that blue plus sign on the pregnancy test, we decided not to share the news until just before our KLM flight left the runway. That way everyone would know to pray for me, but no one would have time to try to talk me out of travel.
My symptoms with this pregnancy mirrored those with Viv's. I was nauseous, hungry and wanted red meat.
"How are you feeling?" Cindy, he Dr.'s assistant had asked me when I stepped on the scale.
"Lousy," I said.
"Good," she smiled. "That's a good sign."
The first time I looked at that positive pregnancy test I felt a bit stunned. This is what the world calls an "oops" baby. Of course, I know there is no "oops" in God's vocabulary. My first thought was, "Well, this is what God wants for our family." My second thought was, "I'm not ready."
We had tried and hoped for Vivian's conception. I had months to emotionally and mentally equip myself for the prospect of pregnancy. This time there was no comfortable prep time. All of a sudden our family was bigger and I had to wrap my head around that reality. Morning sickness. Back pain. 3 am feedings. This time with a rambunctious toddler in the mix. Honestly, I was scared and not very thankful.
I knew my attitude was wrong. So I decided to give myself time and allow the Holy Spirit to change me. You know what? He did. In a matter of days I was not only at peace with this new baby. I was excited! I began to imagine all that this new life would bring to our family and home. I understood the blessing. I saw it as a gift-no matter the challenges. And as I laid on that ultrasound table holding my breath I couldn't wait for December 5th to arrive.
The sonographer was doing her usual business of swirling around my stomach, and staring very intently at the moniter screen. It occurred to me that she wasn't saying much. Of course, it was hard to get a word in edgewise with Vivian babbling in the corner. After a moment, the sonographer stood up and said sweetly, "I'll be right back, hon."
I knew before her pink scrubs disappeared through the doorway that our baby was gone. My mind frantically tried to rationalize other explanations for her silence and awkward exit. Scott looked nervous. He held Vivian tighter and tried to look brave for my sake. I looked at the profile of the little baby floating on the screen and felt a cold tear run past my ear and down my neck.
Minutes later Dr. Christine's petite white coat slipped through the door. I saw her face and knew. We had lost it.
She sat on the stool to examine the image. Body. Arms. Head. No heart beat. The baby looked to be ten weeks along. It must have just happened. She started to explain things. Things about "missed miscarriages," placenta and normalcy. I wasn't absorbing. All of the joy and hope I had been anticipating in that ultrasound was suddenly death and loss. I was fighting hard not to crumple. I focused on keeping my face frozen. But I could feel the tears running faster and hotter past my ears and down my neck.
I was helped off the table and tenderly escorted toward Dr. Christine's office. The lights were glaring. I felt naked, flushed and red eyed shuffling down the hallway past happy, pregnant couples sitting cozily in upholstered chairs. In a building full of bright expectations I was a public, tearful exhibit of everyone's worst nightmare.
My doctor wanted to rush me immediately into the hospital for an emergency DNC. They would "take care of it" quickly and as painlessly as possible. This, she explained, is what most women do. I suppose most women don't like spending much time feeling like a casket. That's what you feel like, you know, a living tomb.
Scott and I don't do anything quickly, though. I wanted time to think. I wanted to go home and cry. I didn't want to be rid of this baby as soon as possible and try to forget it ever happened. It was all like a dream. I wanted to wake up.
I knew, though, that I was going to have to go in for the operation. We were leaving for Uganda in a week and a half. It might take up to two to three weeks for my body to reject the baby naturally. I couldn't risk this happened on an airplane halfway over the Atlantic. The DNC is what needed to be done.
At home I curled up into the corner of the couch and wept. In another room I could hear Scott's muffled voice phoning the hospital and then phoning the precious few who knew I was pregnant. I could hear my mother's cracked sob through the receiver. I imagined her walking toward her car to go home and pack her suitcase. Of course she would come.
Scott and I were very quiet after that. It was not a painful sort of quiet that was awkward or disturbed. It was a quiet of togetherness. At some point, I stopped crying.
Rachel from outpatient surgery scheduled me for 8:30 the following morning. I took a Toni Morrison book to the waiting room. I must have read the first chapter three or four times. I saw the words, but did not absorb them. I observed the other families sitting at socially polite distances from one another, passing the time with magazines or text messaging. I imagined why they were there. Maybe the round guy in the red shirt was in for knee surgery. Perhaps the lady with the perm was there to get her melanoma removed. I was there to have my dead baby cut from my uterus.
Before we checked into outpatient surgery we had made one last visit to the OBGYN. This was an optional visit I elected to take-a chance for another ultrasound to be 100% sure that the pregnancy had "failed." Because my body had not started to miscarry naturally it was important to double check and confirm the loss. And honestly, I just wanted to see the baby one last time. I wanted to stare intently at its shape so that I would never forget it. I held no real hope that this ultrasound would tell a different story, though I do remember telling the Lord that I knew He had raised others from the dead before. But just as I suspected, this second ultrasound mirrored the first. In fact, there was further evidence of miscarriage.
Back in outpatient surgery they called my name. It was all so sterile. Hospital gown. Blood pressure. Pee in a cup. All dehumanizing. The anesthesiologist who pumped me full of drugs was especially cold. I wanted to say something witty or poignant so that he's look me in the eye. But I was too tired. Before I knew it the lights in the operating room faded to white.
Sometimes I still wonder what they did with my baby after they took it from me. Did anyone look at it? Did anyone feel sad? Did they throw it in the trash?
Looking back I think I was a little stubborn not to share the news of my pregnancy more openly. It isn't like me to keep secrets. But I also understand it now as God's way of protecting me. Grieving became much easier when I knew I didn't have to face a facebook wall full of "congratulations" or worry about having to repeatedly tell the story until word got around. It was all just...safer.
Those who did know of our loss called lovingly. Those nearby brought food...LOTS of food. Our pastor came to pray with us. He sat on our sofa and talked about not being able to know why God works this way. "Some women take comfort in the knowledge that God knows what it is like to lose a child," he said. I smiled, grateful for his sincere efforts to encourage me. Though I really didn't think the comparison was just.
The most encouraging thing he offered was his presence. Being there. In Uganda when there is a loss...and there are many...friends and family gather for days to "mourn with those who mourn and weep with those who weep." There is little talking. There is mostly sitting. Comfort is found in the presence of the life of others.
In my heart I never asked why I lost this baby. Why does anyone suffer? Why does anyone die? The answers to these questions, I learned long ago, were best locked in the hand of the wise Author of us all. My heart was not created to hold them. But just because the why's do not consume, does not mean the ache is any less sharp.
In the icy silence of my home, after all the casseroles and well meaning messages were gone, I curled up and waited for my heart to start beating again. When I was very still I could almost hear the wails of my African children wafting up with mine to the throne of God. In my mind I saw Jesus standing with the mourning crowds before the tomb of Lazarus. As He wept I believe He was weeping for all of us, for all of His sheep who would lose someone they loved to death.
These are the balms that soothe the ache. He stores all of our tears in His bottle. (Psalm 56:8)
Standing days later with Theophilus in the cool of Ugandan afternoon, he looked across at me and in his rich, wise voice said "I was very sad to hear it. We needed that baby." I sighed. And no more was ever said. This baby was important, this baby was welcome. It was wanted and loved...not just by me. He was letting me know this. But, of course, I already knew.
And of course we both knew that we didn't really "need" this baby in the way most might use the word. For if we had "needed" it, our Lord would have spared it for us. For this dear child I can never know why its life was formed, then taken. But I do know that He formed it and sustained it the exact number of days He determined. Each one was precious.
I will never be able to forget. I will never be able to lie on an ultrasound table without thinking of the baby I lost. I will never be able to allow another Christmas to pass without wondering how many birthdays that child would have just celebrated. I accept the realities of that pain. In the shadows of it the blessings surrounding me now shine brighter. My husband. My Vivian. My distant children.
I have asked for more to love, for a new heart to start again where the one was taken. But none have. Anxiety replaced the pain. Resentment replaced anxiety. Resignation replaced resentment. And now peace. A peace which produces hope sits in that empty place and waits for the Giver of good gifts to continue tell His story. He teaches us much patience. Patience teaches us much. I trust Him.
My body may remain empty, but truly my heart is full. My life is full. I am full of His love. I am full with the lives of children who need me. How can I dwell on what I do not have when I have so much? So much has been given to me to love.