Vox Clamantis In Deserto
A few days ago, I sat, in the wee hours of the morning, staring at a stick on the floor, watching a single pink line break through the murk and darken as fog washed across the window.
With fervor and frustration, hope and hollowness, I longed for that second line to appear, longed for a breakthrough, a glimmer of hope, a signal that the new life I’d imagined in all of those quiet moments was finally ready to make its debut.
But no matter how long I studied the flat side of that wobbly stick, only one line popped out through the screen. No matter how much salt built in my eyes–how many prayers I muttered through the spaces between clenched teeth–that second line never formed in the window, never rose to the surface.
The space was blank, empty, like me.
The blood didn’t come then, but I knew it would come later.
Then a gush.
Reminding me of the empty hole where life should have gone.
Reminding me that yet again, it failed, we failed, I failed even though we checked off every last box on every last list ever made in the history of mankind.
Reminding me that some events, some dreams, some hopes are simply out of your control.
You can conquer the world, but can’t color in a gap of white. Reminding me it is not always possible to pick up the pen, chart your own path, and choose your own adventure.
Sometimes you just have to wait.
And then bleed some more.
When I was little, the red stuff never bothered me. Kids squirmed when arms gave way on the monkey bars and knees collided with chunks of mulch.
“I’ll get the aide,” I’d say if it was one of my classmates.
I’d wipe my sleeve across the broken threads of skin if it was me.
In high school, Lisa, one of my travel ball teammates, jumped out of a dormitory window just so she’d get a scar, catching her leg on the jagged metal edge between inside and out, choosing that window deliberately–the one above the unruly branches–just so she could see her skin break, bleed and heal.
We celebrated scars back then, tattoos of the living, the fearless, the brave. We wore shorts and footies, choosing to rub our skin against the grains of dirt, sliding hard into second, diving–without hesitation–and then standing with streams of red dripping, and sometimes gushing from our bodies, while our coach ran out with a bandage, hiding the scarlet streams so we could go on with our work.
We were tough back then, tossing and turning beneath cotton sheets, while gauze–gooky with the remenants of raw rips and ripe strawberries–hung by a thread, by a few tacky strips of athletic tape, and a fingertip full of ointment.
Those bandages, those pads, those masking devices kept us kosher, kept us contained, kept us going.
Just like the ones we wedged inside our bodies as we crouched in bathrooms and pulled paper packages from the depths of our sleeves, hiding them with the shame we were given by those who came before.
But even in those quiet moments, back then, blood was just blood.
It came monthly, and sometimes if I caught a rock on a slide into one of the four bags, or when the surgeon ripped me open and stitched my hamstring into my knee. It came when I stepped on slivers of glass walking barefoot down the sidewalk, when the nurse giving me a shot couldn’t find my vein.
It came, and then it went.
Forgotten until it came again.
When I turned 33 and wanted to get pregnant, however, blood became more than an inconvenience or a shameful annoyance; it became my enemy, ambushing me in the trenches, arriving like a torrent–like a monster–violent and vulgar.
Month after month it roared, sometimes a slow growl, its pink drips slipping and spreading from my body like a haunting shadow. Other times, in a rush, bellowing like a beast, like an onerous river demanding to be heard.
And every time it arrived, its presence produced something visceral inside of me:
“Try again,” it mocked in tiny pulses, like the plop, plop, plop of a leaky faucet in the middle of the night.
And each time I heard it call out, I cowered and cried like the child I longed to grow.
After a year of trying–just days before my appointment to figure out what was wrong–a second line finally broke through the murk, and for nine months, I didn’t think of blood. I relished, instead, the rush of movement, the family we would soon get to have. And when the day came for him to arrive, when the space inside of me emptied out, my beautiful boy was covered in the very thing I despised.
I made my peace with the enemy, coexisting just fine until my husband and I wanted to have another. The minute we opened up that possibility, the minute we imagined an addition to our future, my war resumed, and month after month, my nemesis laid siege, burglarizing my body, assaulting the deepest corners of my soul.
Eighteen sticks gazed up at me with single lines.
Eighteen sticks cut through me like knives.
Eighteen sticks paved the way for the violent and vulgar beast to plod on through.
But then, came the nineteenth one.
And once again, we saw double, twin beams rising from the haze, rearranging our entire life in a moment. In the space of five days, we filled in gaps we didn’t know we had, planning and pondering, settling into what it would mean to be a team of four.
But on day six, it all fell apart.
We steeled our faces when the blood came, ignored our grief and pressed onward. I returned for blood test after blood test, waiting for the progesterone levels to confirm what we already knew.
And then, once again, we persisted.
When the beams returned a third time, they popped out in vibrant shades, darker than the time before. We rationalized that it looked more promising, but we dangled nevertheless, breath trapped in our lungs, hope frozen by fear, today held hostage by tomorrow.
Please don’t come, I begged the enemy.
Please let this be real.
Eight weeks passed.
My husband and I walked into the doctor’s office for the ultrasound, anticipating the heartbeat, excited to see the silhouette for the very first time.
But when she blossomed on the screen, we saw the shell of an eight week baby.
The doctor fished and fished, but it was silent inside of me, and for the next seven days I traipsed the Earth carrying the outer casings of life. For seven days, I woke and slept and walked, toting a vessel without a soul.
They searched one last time on day eight, but she hadn’t grown. Her heart was still quiet, and all we had left were frozen white lines on a screen.
They carved her out two days later, and in her place, they left me with the enemy.
Blood that I had to see every time I went to the bathroom.
Blood that I had to think about each time I moved with the swish-swish-swish of a thick pad stuck between my legs to catch falling bits of life, stuck to hide my shame, to keep me sanitary, to keep me kosher.
To keep me going.
For nearly five horrid weeks, I was reminded, moment-by-moment of the fact that my child wasn’t there.
“Maybe you’re not meant to have another,” someone told me. “At least…”
You have one…
You know you can get pregnant…
You weren’t any further along…
One person looked at our son and informed me that “being an only child [wa]s lonely,” and that I wasn’t “getting any younger. Don’t you want your son to have a brother or a sister?” They asked, “didn’t you like having a sibling?”
I wanted to be bigger than I felt.
I wanted to slap on a band aide and run back to the pitcher’s mound. I wanted to be in control of the game again, the way I was when I was five, or ten, or fifteen or twenty. I wanted to feel the seams in my fingers, hush the noise in my head, nod to my partner and decide where to go next.
But I had control over nothing.
I just had to wait.
And I had to bleed.
More tests, more shots, more pills, more scans, more lying on a bed while someone fished a wand around inside of me. More (in)fertility waiting rooms dotted with women casting vacant eyes, more shushing, more prayers, more keeping track, day-by-day of everything. More feeling guilty about a pain we’ve “chosen;” after all, it was one we could abandon any day.
Five years of trying, nearly our entire marriage.
Five years of planning and grieving and wishing and wondering, some part of the process unfolding every single day.
And we were now nearing the end, with one more chance before we accepted the finality.
I thought of that as I leaned back on a table in a room I had been inside far too many times. I thought of that as I gazed over at mauve accents, reminding me of the carpet I wanted in my bedroom when we moved into our new house as a child. I thought of that as I exited my body, as I blocked my emotions, as I made the most miraculous desire clinical.
“What’s the weather like outside?” the doctor asked; it was the same question every time. I mentioned the humidity, the puddles, the heat, and she retrieved her speculum. She opened me up and put the catheter into my uterus.
“I’ll let you insert the water,” she said, handing me a syringe nearly as thick as a bat. “I know it seems weird, but it puts you in control.”
My heart laughed, but my lips stayed still.
Clutching the tube, I leaned forward. Then I pressed my thumb on the flat side of the plunger. Once I launched the water, I craned my neck to see the screen.
“What’s this test for?” I asked.
“I’m checking your uterus for cysts,” she answered, continuing to work, swinging the wand like a pinball lever. Then, without catching my eyes, without inflection or empathy, ordered: “push harder.”
And so I did.
I pushed the plunger because she commanded it, because she was the one with the power, because in those moments she seemed mightier than God.
I despised every layer of my submission, but I numbed the disgust because I desperately want another child.
I numbed it, because those people–the male doctor who mockingly chanted, “go, go, go find your egg” each time he performed the IUI, the physicians who were in and out and never explained what they were doing, the doctor who complained about the rain interrupting his weekly golf date when I was lying back, vulnerable, placing my entire modicum of hope on the process he had come to perform–were all we had left.
“Stop pushing,”she ordered this time, and I dropped the bat. She yanked the stick from the depths of my body, and tapped my leg as if it were the hind of an obedient dog.
“I can see what I need to see and everything looks fine.”
She set her tools on the tin tray, stripped the gloves from her hands, and moved toward the door.
“Get dressed,” she commanded, “And stop by the nurse’s office to get your schedule.”
Then she left.
She left without so much as handing me a tissue or a pad or a washcloth.
She left as I stood there, leaking water and blood, streams trickling down the insides of my legs.
She left, and I realized that despite anchoring my feet to the floor, part of me had left too.
Desperate, I reached for the paper that was once draped over my lap. I rubbed it against my skin, but the sandpaper did little to absorb. I wiped anyway because that was all I had. I wiped until my skin was raw, until the streams of bloody water ceased to fall. I wiped until my wounds could be covered, until the damned liquid was trapped, keeping me kosher, keeping me contained. Keeping me going.
I wiped until I could compose myself in that dim room with mauve stools and Asian art, the room that had a “like us on Facebook” sign, but nothing to dry your hands.
Then I pulled up my underwear, and covered my wounds.
I took in a breath, and reached for the door to a long, empty corridor, one that bent around, past a translucent tri-fold screen and a waiting area dotted with downcast eyes.
I walked, wishing I was in the old dimly-lit hallway in Dartmouth’s Alumni Gym, the one speckled with Ivy League trophies and yellowed team pictures. The hallway people walked with shoulders back and promise ahead. The one I walked when my whole future was in front of me.
I walked, yearning to look tough and brave, like Lisa when she showed us the cut on her leg, the one from the dormitory window.
I walked, wanting to be a voice crying out in the wilderness, not one bowed in shame.
I walked, and I walked, and I walked, hoping that on the other side of my rawness, when I was finally able to study the keloided scars inside of me, I would feel peace instead of disgust.
I walked, wishing I could wake my sixteen year-old self, wishing I had the power to pull her from within, wishing I could raise her from the ashes like a phoenix, wishing I could let her speak, I could let her remind me–with the optimism only a sixteen-year old can possess–to keep my chin up. To remind me that I can do anything if I put my mind to it. And to forget everything I knew about the truth.