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Winter 01
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The Moments Between
Helen Zelon

"Valentines Day"

The weekend had been cold. Prospect Park was blanketed under 16 inches of snow, with a fresh powderfall that made the icy runs down Mount Prospect a little gentler, made our hard landings into the frozen meadow a little softer. That Saturday afternoon, February 12th, our family was part of a larger outing, a group of eighteen bundled kids and foot-stamping adults, gone sledding en masse.

We rode single and double; airplane style and traditional; tobogganed with our kids in front, the better to feel the sting of the snow over the sled's metal runners. The hotdoggers among us, more than a few, slid down on plastic garbage-can lids, gripping the molded handles tight. As the light began to fade and the bare trees' ashy shadows lengthened, the group parted company. Once we got home again, each of us trouped to the bathroom -- the afternoon in the cold made our bladders' needs plainly urgent, as we relaxed in the comfort and warmth of home. I went last, only to discover three dime-sized drops of bright-red blood on my briefs, and nearly fainted.

Red is the color of Valentine's Day -- red hearts, red roses, red-velvet candy boxes chockablock with praline creams and chocolate truffles. Acres of red greeting cards arrive in early February, for lovebirds to send and receive. Even Hershey's wraps their chocolate kisses in red foil, for an edible prelude to romance. But this red, of blood, was the last red I wanted. I was 14 weeks pregnant with our third child, a pregnancy that I had longed for and lobbied hard to achieve, convincing my cautious husband with the tenacious fortitude of water dripping on a rock. This bright vermilion meant no good news.

I counted ten and stood up, buttoned my Levis and washed my face. I looked in the mirror: Was this the face of someone about to lose a pregnancy? I looked unfamiliar to me, with hooded, guarded eyes, and splashed water on my cheeks again, to bring back the color I had expected to see there. To bring back the red.

My husband and our kids were taking turns, seeing who could dunk a bigger piece of challah into their soup, when I came downstairs for the phone book. Call the midwives, a small voice within advised, call them now. Was I losing the pregnancy, I wanted to know. Maybe, and maybe not, Laurie, my favorite midwife, answered. Wait and see. Should I lie down, take it easy, drink tea, forgo sex?

"Out of our hands," she said. "It can hold or you can lose it, no matter whether you rest or go sledding in the park." I had been sledding, I said, was that wrong? "Time will tell," said Laurie, "you can't second-guess this stuff."

The evening was calm, no blood, no cramps, and we put the idea of a loss aside, counted the days -- 18 -- until my amnio.

"You're past the first trimester," my husband encouraged, now utterly committed to the pregnancy. "You can't lose it now, it's too late, if it happens it happens by 12 weeks, right?" Who knew? Previous pregnancies for me were a breeze, a snap, a pleasure. I was the most boring patient a midwife could wish for: everything fine, baby growing, and eventually, good labors and uncomplicated births. What did I know about miscarriage?

We kept ourselves together until the girls were tucked into bed, then crawled into bed, to wait for something, or nothing, to happen.

Sunday dawned; the sky was clear and so was my lingerie, we were elated. Midday, at lunch at a pizza joint in the city, I went to the bathroom to wash my hands and checked again: bright red blood, this time a ragged splotch of many, many dots, all run in together.

"I'm losing it," I whispered to my husband as I cut our little daughter's pizza into bite-sized triangles.

"You can't be," he said, his blue eyes dark and focused hard into mine. "It's going to be fine, it's just a spot." We finished lunch and walked west on 23d Street.

Monday morning was Valentine's Day. I woke up in the half-light of dawn soaked through with blood, quantities so vast that even the fifteen steps to the bathroom from our bed left a pitiful trail of red connect-the-dots. The water in the toilet bowl turned red. I flushed. The water turned red again. And again. I slammed the tile wall with my palm: I knew it now, it was over, the hope was gone, all that remained was rage and sadness. My husband came into the loo, wadding up the damp paper towels that had sopped up my bloody trail. "Hey," he said, utterly lost in this mess, "the kids are up, and they're scared. They want to know why you're crying."

They knew nothing of the pregnancy -- we were waiting until the amnio to tell them -- and I didn't want to tell them anything, just then. I went back to bed, three towels underneath me, and we said I was sick. My husband got them ready for school while I lay in bed upstairs, bleeding and crying.

But it wasn't over, not yet. We called Laurie again, who rallied: "Go to Methodist, to the emergency room. Tell the resident you're my patient and I'm on my way." My husband helped me dress; I bled through three pairs of pants, one at a time, while he ran to the corner pharmacy for pads.

Birth is a big messy business, I can promise you that, but there's that fabulous bonus, you get the baby. The blood of it is astonishing, though, as you marvel, at psychic arm's length, that your body could contain and even make so much red stuff. But the miss, that was all bloody loss, and the red kept coming, coursing really, soaking through everything in its way. We drove the half-mile to the hospital, and I had ruined another pair of trousers, as well as the towels that covered the front seat of the car.

In the ER, we were triaged into a curtained area -- apparently and understandably, potential miscarriages rank lower than gunshot wounds and motor vehicle traumas, but higher than strep throat and twisted ankles. I say "potential" because that is what we were encouraged to believe -- that a fetus could and sometimes did survive vast blood loss. One earnest resident, in sea-green scrubs and a St Christopher medal, swore that he had delivered the baby of a woman he first met when she was 4 months pregnant and came into the hospital "with blood running down her legs and out the tops of her shoes." The image, of bloody stockings and blood-sloshed footwear, shocked. I was afraid to feel any hope, which was what he was trying to offer. To feel hope again would be to lose it again as well.

Laurie, our valiant midwife, arrived in a blur. Her stethescope bouncing on her chest, she asked whether I'd had a sonogram yet, had anyone looked to see what was going on? "No," I said, and my husband added, "they're looking for a machine now, but can't get one."

"I'll be back," promised Laurie, who announced to the resident and the nurse nearby that she was going to Labor and Delivery for a sonogram machine, they had better be there when she got back.

I had to pee, and I was afraid. Afraid to see the sea of red again, afraid to see the clots of tissue that I felt in blobs and lurches, afraid of everything, wanting to be anywhere else, anywhere at all. But still, I had to pee. The nurse said, "go ahead," and I went to the bathroom in the hallway. I locked the door to the stall and started crying again, clear salty water far distant from the red rushing from another part of me. As I sat, my body recognized an urge that it hadn't felt for years, since my last daughter was born. My body wanted to push. My muscles contracted; I resisted but only briefly. I pushed, a little easy push, and a loud blop sounded out of the red water.

That was it, I realized, the "products of conception," the baby that wasn't meant to be. I realized I could, and probably should, retrieve the clotted mass and deliver it to the resident. He would want to see it. I looked between my knees down into the water. I knew I was leaving behind a piece of me. I could choose to retreive it, but I simply couldn't do it, couldn't dunk my hand forearm deep and feel around in the opaque red water for some physical stuff that I had created and now lost. I flushed the toilet.

I sat there a long time, long enough that the ER nurse came looking for me. I didn't say what happened. I flushed again and washed my hands and face while she waited.

In the exam area, Laurie had set up the sono machine and we gelled my deflated belly to look for some sign of fetal life. I knew it wasn't there, but went through the motions, did the dance, wanting to be the compliant patient, afraid to hope, knowing it was fruitless. My uterus on the sono screen looked textbook perfect, pear-shaped, and completely empty, the two sides of the inner hollow now as closely matched as two palms faced in in prayer, nothing there but blood. My husband cried then, and Laurie did, too. It was decided that I would have to undergo a confirmatory d&c, and the doctor was called who would do the procedure.

We spent the day in the ER hallways, me bleeding, my husband asking for more pads and bringing me, variously, coffee, seltzer, the paper and, at long last, nacho-flavored Doritos. I lay under a green paper sheet, bleeding and chomping Doritos, waiting for the doctor to come and erase the physical evidence of this horrific day. When he finally arrived, I was rolled off into an operating theatre and dosed with splendid medications. I remember crying as they began, then I remember nothing.

At last, it was over. We went home; the private mourning began and continued for some weeks, until it ebbed into a fleeting daily remembrance, less a preoccupation than a familiar touchstone in my mental landscape. Time passed; the girls knew nothing; three months passed, and I was pregnant again.

This was a wild pregnancy, completely calm physically, but a mental roller-coaster ride. I was classed as an elderly multipara — at 39, I was in the outer spheres of low-risk pregnancy -- but the midwives were unruffled. For me, it was different. An hour without fetal movement? panic! A pinhead-sized spot on my underwear? terror! But the baby grew despite my hysteria, and finally, the time was right for his birth.

I was in the early part of labor, when the contractions wrap around your midsection like a brace but don't yet steal away breath, and we were putting our daughters to bed. Both my husband and I thought the baby would certainly come in the night, and alerted our neighbor that she might spend part of the night on our sofa. I read the girls their bedtime stories and kissed them, breathing heavier to ride the contractions, pulled up their quilts and clicked on their nightlights. It was February 13th, 9 pm, and no-monkey-business labor was kicking in. I rocked, I breathed, I showered, I felt my body pry itself open. By 11:20, our neighbor arrived and we left for the hospital (my husband, who loves his sleep, hadn't wanted to awaken her in the middle of the night).

The snow that year was less thick than when we had gone sledding, but the ice was wicked, and walking from our parking spot to the hospital was a virtual tightrope of glass. Catherine was the midwife on call that night, with our pal Laurie due in the next morning. We settled in for another sonogram and what we thought would be hours of hard labor, but even then, our son had a surprise for us: The labor went rocket-ship-fast, and he was born, in a beautiful birth of power and quietude, at 2:11 AM. February 14th, Valentine's Day.

A day that I had wished so much to cast aside, to blot out of consciousness, now was exquisitely transformed, as our boyo squalled and complained while the pediatrician examined him. "He's good to go," the doctor said as he snapped off his gloves, and left us alone together. It was the middle of the night; the girls were home, sound asleep. A year had passed, we had lost yet we had gained, and here he was, a new person in the world, a glorious, red-faced, flat-nosed miracle. The next day, we went home. At bedtime, we read stories, just like always.

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