As the plane ascends, I feel the descent within me: clenches, releases, involuntary and indiscreet, sudden saturation. Waves of nausea, the dizziness. The curious mix of contrasting forces: so heavy, so light, so faint. My edges are being rubbed out while other parts are being furiously scribbled in.
I hold my breath, and hope this is not what I know it is. I beg, I bargain. I will my body to stop this. Heave myself up silently, not wanting to attract attention. Hold it together, I tell myself. I do not exhale for fear of further release. Shuffle from my seat at the front of the plane to the tiny bathroom at the rear, and lock myself in. Privacy to view the scene. A horror movie set in my undergarments.
I am being shucked.
I clean myself up as best I can. Plug self like a drain, which is what I am now: draining life.
I know what to do. I am familiar with the process—although each time has been quite different. Individual. Which is what a child is, of course. Each with their own rhythms and way of approaching life. And its opposite. This is what, #6? #7? How strange it is to lose count of such losses. It is not that I don’t remember. And it’s not that I seek to forget, though sometimes I do. I just don’t want to spend too much time there, thinking about it, thinking about them. It is an act of self-preservation to not excavate the past. The ruins there will ruin me.
I must have been in there for some time as a knock on the door comes. Are you OK? a voice asks. Yes, sorry, I’ll be out in a minute, sorry.... I take note of myself in the mirror; splash water on my face. I look pixelated: violent hues of red extending to a palette of pallor. A loss of connection.
Another spasm. Contortions. Expulsions. Parts of me continue to escape, or are being evicted. I open the door and with a sorry-to-bother face, beckon the air hostess and in a small voice, explain. Try not to make too big a deal of it; sometimes others have a tendency to freak out, I’ve found. If I stay calm, it can help them stay calm, which helps me stay calm too, and it makes what is happening more manageable, less real; and that is what is needed.
Nevertheless, she is anxious. I’m sorry to cause a bother, I say. Can I... can I get you anything? she asks. Maybe a lemonade? My mother used to give me lemonade as a child when my stomach was upset. Quickly as if by magic, I’m presented with a bottle of Schweppes. This was regarded as the fancy stuff in my house growing up, the stuff Margo from The Good Life would drink. It comes served with a side of hope that this potion will cure me or, at the very least, offer comfort. The lemonade is sweet and cool. And the bottle itself is glorious cold relief; I place it to my cheek and for the briefest of moments it works: I do feel better. But, as quickly as it came, the relief passes, and then I don’t feel better, and it is clear that I won’t for a while.
I give myself a pep talk: it’s going to be OK. It’s all going to be fine. It’ll likely pass. It might. Sometimes it does. For a while. The air hostess has been to see Ben and moved him to the back row of the plane to be closer to me while I hover in and crouch around the bathroom. She says to us, if the flight wasn’t so full she could clear another row, give me more room, more privacy. She hopes this is OK. Oh yes, we say, this is fine, this is so good of you, thank you, thank you.
It is soothing to have Ben near. I sense he wants to hold me, but is fearful he will add to the pain. While his concern is evident, his face so serious, we try to keep it light. Focus on the positive: a whole row to ourselves! We joke about whether this might warrant a free upgrade on the next flight: we’ve never been in business class before.
The air hostess who has been so kind and so discreet returns, tells us she has talked to the pilot. An ambulance will meet us on the tarmac. The other passengers will leave first. Can you wait? she asks. Yes yes, we say, we can wait. Thank you. And sorry. Sorry about all this; we know you’re busy. She says, no not at all, and that she is the one who is sorry, so very sorry. Her kindness overwhelms us. I smile so I do not cry.
We sit, prepare for landing. Ben holds my hand and it is a comfort, but I have to break away to make fists to try to squash the pain. We touch down in Auckland, and it’s gentle, I think. Have I disassociated? All I can feel right now is the turbulence inside me. We hear the pilot’s voice: We have a medical emergency; please remain in your seat. An air hostess, a different one this time, comes over. The ambulance is waiting outside, she says. We respond, our mouths are circles, like those fairground attractions you throw balls into. Oh, I didn’t realise we were going first. Oh I thought we were going last. Oh. Oh. OK. I stand, but I am not steady. Ben places his hand softly on the small of my back. I try to collect myself; what there is of me that is collectable. Will they see the blood? I don’t want them to see the blood. Is it on the seat? Do I offer to pay for that? It’s down my leg I think. I feel like it’s all over me. I wrap my coat around my waist and hope its length will hide whatever is there and I wish it could hide me; I wish for that cloak of invisibility I asked of my parents for Christmas all those years ago. I want to hide myself and the stains and my shame. I keep my eyes down as though I am guilty of a crime. I am, and that is why this is happening.
I begin to walk. This plane is extending. Time has dilated. I have done many walks of shame in my time, but this is a fresh take. An indignity elongated. I am trying hard to walk tall and straight, but, bent in the middle, my body is a less-than sign, and I am less with every step. As I continue down the length of the packed plane, my thoughts are so loud I’m certain the passengers and crew can hear them. Yes, everyone, I am the one stopping you from disembarking. I feel the eyes on me. I hear their whispers. The voice in my head yells, I’m sorry. Or did I utter that out loud? It is like a death walk, this. It is a death walk: I walk while the tiny life inside me is taking leave of my body. Taking leave of me. Leave of life.
Outside the plane, the night air cools my flushed face. The ambulance is parked below, light coming from within, against a sky so much darker than when we left Wellington just an hour ago. I must have walked down the stairs, because now I’m in the ambulance, and as part of their greeting they put a mask on me, and give me gas. That didn’t happen on any of the previous occasions; VIP treatment right here, so baller. Ground crew materialise with our luggage, and load it into the ambulance; Ben thanks them for everything. They have all been so kind. There has been so much kindness.
We arrive at Middlemore. Everyone is lovely, attentive, dismissing my dismissing: I am embarrassed for taking up their time and their bed and for the ambulance and for the drama of it all. I say sorry to them, I say sorry to Ben. I ask him the time. 6.38, he says. Our flight to Bangkok isn’t for four hours, so there’s a possibility we could still make it? Right? Maybe, he says, and he smiles, and for a brief moment I just suspend myself in that and in him. It could be the gas, but it’s not. It is my gladness for him.
They wheel me into a private room. The doctors and nurses are outside, inside, coming, going, always near. I am still losing things. Things small and then so large and significant-looking I am certain they are necessary to stay alive. Was that my liver? No. What about that? That looks like something important. My insides are falling away. I am trying to be very calm. Ben is trying to be very calm, too. And cool. We make jokes as distractions, to keep spirits up. Ben asks the doctor what time he gets off, the doctor says 10, and I say how about a trip to Thailand? Our flight doesn’t leave till 10.30. If I can’t make it, maybe you two should go. We all laugh. And then we stop because we are reminded of why we are here. Clots as big as saucers. Clots black as tar on the sheets: a newly sealed road marking the dead end of our child’s life.
Hours pass. Our flight is soon to leave. A nurse comes in and puts down a new clean absorbable square beneath me, the type you use to toilet-train a puppy. She smiles and says, I’ll be back shortly. When she returns a little while later and sees the state of it, and of me, she fails to hide her look of dismay. The energy in the room shifts. She leaves. Doctors arrive. Their faces convey the alarm of escalation. The situation has become urgent.
They give me morphine. She glides up my arm so slow and cool. She is very beautiful. A tease, a model, a muse. A celestial form in white, cascading silk, she is tall and fine and smooth and exquisite. Resplendent. With a long elegant train, she leaves everything in her wake in a state of awe. I bow my head in reverence. I understand why songs were written about her. Marianne Faithfull comes to me, and she is singing to me now: Here I lie in my hospital bed. Tell me, Sister Morphine, when are you coming round again?
They make me sign papers and I nod and say aha, but I am half in this world and half in another and I am offering myself to the dark which feels like the light, a place or space or realm that will keep me from thinking about the loss and will grant some respite from this blood and pain and crumbling of the walls of my interior, and I trust the doctors and the nurses and they give me more of this and that, and I say I love you baby to my husband, which is also a tiny incantation to the child too, and I close my eyes and fall backwards into the ready embrace of the light and they do what they must to save me.
White. Grey. Black.
It is the next day and I wake in a different room. Ben is here. I know this is so hard on him. But I am empty now. I have nothing to give anyone or anything. Interior gutted. I am derelict. As a physical space, and in my duty to keep inhabitants safe and well and alive. This room I am in is cold and dull and silent except for an occasional outburst from someone nearby, a tirade of abuse directed at the doctors or nurses or orderlies and I become angry thinking of this person hurling abuse at the staff who are so very kind, but I am also angry at everything and at no one and at everyone and at nothing.
I am angry at myself.
Depleted, I have neither the energy nor the liquid reserves to cry or keen or be anything but silent. Perhaps when they operated they took that too—stitched up the bag that tears come from, to save me from drowning.
I try to keep it together, to not descend into some dark underworld of blame and guilt. But I am dragged by the feeling that this is my wrongdoings being repaid, a curse laid upon me for my crime. I do not know what to do with these emotions. They colour everything, and the next minute, make everything colourless. They are too big and there are too many to fit in the box that holds the feelings of the previous ones. I have no place large enough to store these. Where do I put them? Seams are splitting under pressure. I am coming undone.
I am surprised later when I see myself in the mirror. I expect I have aged and turned grey all over. The colour my nana turned before she died, after her insides had been eaten by the cancer. I expect to look like I’d had a filter applied, with a title like “desolate” or “misery”. And yet I do not. I am pale, but there is some colour there. It is astonishing what ills the body’s facade can hide.
The trip is off. I am in no fit state. It seems frivolous to be saddened by another honeymoon cancelled. The first trip was meant to have been a few days after the wedding, but was called off when we learned that the heart of the child I was carrying had stopped beating. The tightness around my middle in the wedding photos, a secret mausoleum for the small one’s still form. My womb, a tomb: proof of my curse.
All we can do is return home so we fly back; the only available option is an overpriced Jetstar flight. The weight of my emotions far exceeds the baggage allowance and I wonder if we will be able to take off. We are not in our seats long when the crew begin the safety briefing, which is performed to the tune of the Macarena, in a shrill pitch dogs could detect. A loud air steward stands in the aisle next to us screeching the words, cackling, thrusting his hips about. I believe in pacifism but right now I am drawn towards a desire for ultraviolence. It’s too much for me; too much for us. It’s 11am. We’re so tired. Yesterday was a thousand hours long. Grief is exhausting and our souls are aching and my body is aching, too. I want to silence him, to scream out loud the nature of our loss, scream stop! do you not know our child just died, you insensitive fuck. But I don’t. I just bite my lip and tell myself to keep breathing and that this, too, will be over soon.
Home. The house is quiet, as if uncertain of what noises to make for fear of upsetting us. We go for a walk on the beach. The sea and sky are grey, frigid. It is rocky and uneven beneath us and Ben reaches out to take my hand to hold me steady. Even still, I fall. I do not feel worthy of his love; he deserves someone Good. After a while, I say, I’m going back to work tomorrow; there’s no point sitting around moping. Ben is unconvinced; he worries I need more time. I say, no, it will be good to be busy and be around other people too. Plus we need the money. I can see he wants to say no, but he says, OK, if you think that’s best. So the next day we go back to work.
I am shocked that life for everyone there is so very unchanged. I become more aware of how irretrievably altered I feel. For fear of giving anything away, I commit myself to the performance of someone very busy who has no time to engage in conversation. If people do ask—aren’t you meant to be on holiday or your honeymoon or something?—I mumble and wave my hands about in a dismissive way and say something that is actually not plausible if one gave it any real thought, and people accept my non-answer without question, which is both a relief and an insult. Days pass. Drag on. I am still carrying the emotions around; still don’t know where to put them. They are heavy and inconvenient and they alter how I walk and talk and function. I long for a more ordinary sadness. I continue to take my catastrophic self out, masquerading as a normal person. I wear a mask with a smile feigning joy and interest in others and try to go about life.
A friend who is pregnant asks if I would be willing to organise her baby shower and I think oh she doesn’t know, and I think it is lovely to be asked, and I make a deal with the part of me that is pleading, no, it is too soon, that it will do me good to engage in something so nice for her and so outside of myself, and it is all going well until the day of, when we’re getting ready, and her sister who I don’t know says, I heard you had a miscarriage recently, and that is all she says about that before asking me to put the onion dip and the chippies on the table in the dining room and I stand still for a moment as if she had slapped me and then I say, OK.
Guests start to arrive and I stand by the door and say hello, welcome, let me take your coat. I had not anticipated how many would be pregnant. A friend of my friend arrives and just as I’m about to direct her down the hall and to the right, she appears to curl, and to tense, and she says Oh! Oh! and she grabs my hand and puts it to her large swollen belly and says, Can you feel it? Can you feel him kicking? And I pull my hand away like she had forced it into a fire and I see her expectant smile turn to a wounded frown, and I say, I’m sorry; I just got a fright that’s all, and she gathers herself to her full height and shakes out her hair as if to shake off me and then I say, down the hall and to the right, and not long after that I make some excuse and I leave, and I sit in my car and cry and curse myself for being so very, utterly stupid.
I avoid social situations. I don’t want anyone to bear witness to the mess I am, the persistent awkwardness of my sadness. I read books that don’t have small children in them. Watch movies that aren’t about parenthood. Take long baths in the hope of spiritual cleansing. I hang out online and leave comments with exclamation marks so people think I am happy, and I click “like” on the stories of friends and family to feel that I’m still an engaged participant in their lives. But then I start to avoid that too, because Facebook and Google keep serving me baby-related content: glowing, reproductively-competent mothers holding newborns in promotions for nappies and bottles and monitors, the exception being an ad for a fertility company with the words “tick tock” writ large over a sad-looking woman who serves as a warning. When I try to click away, the algorithms follow me around like high-school bullies, reminding me: don’t forget. Don’t forget. Don’t forget.
I do not, will not, cannot say to anyone, help I am being devoured by sorrow, being eaten alive by it, because I believe that this is what I deserve. My reckoning. For my acts of trespass. I am ashamed of so many things. Years ago, I terminated a pregnancy; it seems only just that this is what the Furies, or God or Hera or Eileithyia or the all gods and goddesses combined, have ruled as my punishment. If a friend were to have said that, if she had been me, I would say to this friend, no, sweetheart, you have done nothing wrong. But to myself I say yes, you fucking bitch, you caused this. You made this bed; now lie in it and bleed.
My belief in this as retribution, as righteous vengeance, grows stronger. The shame and the pain and the guilt is what I deserve because of what I did, of what I have done, and what I want most will not be granted because I must pay. I poisoned the whenua. Fruit will begin to grow here but then it will die away. I will forever be a barren land.
I cannot talk about it, and I cannot write about it either—talking and writing being what people of repute regard as necessary for the process of healing. “There is nothing to writing,” a man famously wrote, “all you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” But, surely, there’s been enough blood. And I don’t want to punctuate this, to use a full stop to mark the end, or a comma, that tiny embryo that announces there is something to come—because there isn’t. Not at the moment. And I can’t be sure if ever; so I do not talk, and I do not write.
Even scorched earth goes green
- Kaveh Akbar
Years later, miscarriages later, forgiveness later, I take my newborn twins to the doctor. As I leave, the nurse reaches out her arm and touches my hand. She smiles and nods at me and then at my babies. The ones you lost have come back to you, she says. I am overcome by her words, and by the extraordinary gratitude of being in a world where the giving and the receiving of such kindnesses, can make something beautiful, and connecting, and worthwhile, out of pain.