Light from the cartoon flickered across the three small faces as I walked into the living room. My two daughters were drifting off to sleep on opposite ends of the couch, their feet tangled in the middle. On the wall above, images of them as toothless, chubby babies smiled down at us. They seemed so grown as I bent down to pick them up. My husband frowned at me. “You’re not supposed to lift heavy things.”
“I know.” I squeezed a little body to mine, and then the other, before setting them down.
My eight-year-old son lay on the floor sketching in his notebook, singing to himself. I ruffled his moppy brown hair. “It’s past bedtime, buddy.” He stood, stretched, and took my hand.
His little sisters, yawning, stood next to him, their height stair-stepped. None of them had changed into their pajamas, and my smallest daughter’s shirt had ketchup from dinner hardened at her heart. I began to lead them to their bedrooms when I heard my son.
“Why was a babysitter taking care of us? She said you were at the hospital.” His brow was crinkled and his voice quiet.
I squeezed his hand, stopping in the doorway of the bedroom where I had set the boxes of maternity clothes I had gotten down from the attic. Between the piles I had made were a few red splatters that had fallen to the floor earlier that day. I remembered screaming and running to the bathroom. My husband had come running, and I sobbed into his shoulder, trying to tell him what I knew was happening.
He made a phone call, and 15 minutes later when a sitter had arrived, we left. We didn’t speak during the drive as rain fell steadily, and the windshield wipers squeaked back and forth. He dropped me off before he went to park, and I faced the receptionist at the check-in desk alone, unable to tell her the reason I was there.
We sat on hard couches in the cold lobby as a loud talk show host droned about teen pregnancy. I looked down to check my legs and the couch for blood. The cramps were coming steadily, the pain making it hard to breathe. I rubbed my stomach with one hand and squeezed my husband’s hand with the other.
“I should call to check on the kids soon.” He stared out the window even though darkness shrouded everything.
I rummaged in my purse for my phone, looking past the diapers, wipes, and snacks. “What did you tell them?”
“I didn’t.” His voice faltered. After a deep sigh, he finished, “I couldn’t.”
When the nurse called my name, we walked into a small, gray room where I got onto the exam bed, the paper crinkling beneath me. The nurse asked when my bleeding had started and how far along I had been. She used words that sounded sterile and polite. I thought about my children at home and the baby we wanted.
“Ma’am?” The nurse was looking at me, thrusting a cup at me. “We need a urine sample so we can check your hormone levels. It will let us know if you really were pregnant, and also give us a baseline to check against in a few days to see if your body did its job or if you need a procedure.”
“Oh, right.” I took the cup from her with words stuck in my throat, words lodged so deep they couldn’t come out. I was pregnant. I may have lost my baby, but I had been pregnant. I handed back the cup to her when I was done and got ready for an ultrasound.
The doctor hummed as he lifted my shirt and squirted the cold gel on my stomach. “Let’s see what’s going on in there.”
I looked at the fuzzy screen as he moved the ultrasound wand around. Every other time my husband and I had looked at a similar screen, we had exchanged private smiles reserved only for each other. This time we couldn’t look at each other. I stared at the monitor, begging the image to move, to show something different, but it didn’t change. My husband grimaced and looked down at the floor.
The doctor stopped moving the wand and then began to wipe it off. “I’m sorry,” he said. He looked me in the eyes and said, “There is nothing you did to cause this.” He kept talking, but I stopped listening even though my head was nodding.
The nurse gave me instructions and told me to return in two days to check my levels again. The doctor said he didn’t think I’d need surgery to remove the tissue, but we had to be sure. I cringed at the word tissue, feeling my womb empty a little more, one word at a time. I winced as another cramp came on.
“For the pain,” the nurse said, handing me a cup with two pills. I let them sit on my tongue until my whole mouth tasted bitter.
She handed me a small bag and a clipboard with my discharge papers. I rifled through the bag past the pamphlets about self-care and support groups and pulled out a small stuffed heart that looked like a vending machine prize. It was trimmed with white lace, and the words “Mommy’s Angel” were printed on it.
The nurse saw me looking at it and said, “The support group gives one to every mom after–” Her words trailed off. She looked at me, her expression soft for the first time.
I took the clipboard and scribbled my signature. My husband and I walked out of the hospital silently, holding hands.
I stood back at home outside the bedroom, staring at piles of clothes I no longer needed.
“Mama!” He held out the first syllable, calling me back to them. All three of my children looked up at me with tired eyes. “Mama? Are you okay?”
“I’m okay.” I kissed three faces. “We’ll be okay, but–” Tears flooded my eyes again at the thought of not having a fourth face to kiss. “The baby in my belly died. He or she won’t be born.”
My son buried his face into my stomach. The girls, just three and six, looked at me, confused. “Why did the baby die?”
“I don’t know. The doctor didn’t know.”
“Does it hurt?”
The cramps were still coming regularly. The pain reminded me of the early contractions at the start of labor with my other children. I gave one last look at the piles of maternity clothes and turned out the light.