“Is he dead?”
Every morning, every day, I wake to this question—my own, terrible alarm clock. Every morning, every day, so far, a push and a ripple silence the alarm with their reassuring answer: I am alive. I am here.
Today, I am 36 weeks and three days pregnant. I am afraid that this is as far as I will get. That I will never get that moment where a warm, slick baby comes home to my arms.
When I pictured being 36 weeks and three days pregnant, I didn’t picture being so afraid. Now that I am past my own pregnancy loss milestones, now that I feel my baby so readily, now that I have named my fear — here on PALS, in the New York Times, to my friends and family — I had hoped I would be beyond it, that I would have leap vaulted over it.
But even at 36 weeks and three days pregnant, I am still a human being subject to human feelings. There is no leap-vaulting.
There is, however, something else.
* * *
At my 32-week prenatal appointment, after she took off the blood pressure cuff, the seafoam scrub-wearing nurse handed me a purple plastic clipboard with a single piece of paper on it.
“Fill this out,” she said. I balanced the clipboard on my overflowing lap and then my hand, grasping for something stable, as I filled out the seven items under the fluorescent lights.
Over the last two weeks, the form wanted to know, how often had I been bothered by the following problems? Here’s what it meant by problems: Feeling afraid, as if something awful might happen. I answered with the number 3. The form said that 3 means nearly every day. What I meant by 3 was nearly every hour.
When I looped the Bic pen around number 3 until the black ink flowed to frame it, I asked myself if this feeling had to be a problem. After all, I had arrived by my fear honestly. Something awful had happened to me, the last time I was in this condition, and other times I’d been pregnant, too. It seemed to me that it would be more strange not to incorporate that knowledge. To fail to grasp that sometimes, yes, awful things do happen. It is normal to be afraid of awful things.
Feeling afraid is certainly unpleasant, but I think it’s a mistake to call fear, or any feeling, a problem. It is unpleasant to learn that things don’t always work out, even things you wish very much would work out. But it is also the truth. I don’t believe the truth is a problem. It just is.
* * *
When the resident came in, I had Google Keep open to my list of questions.
I asked about the contractions I’d been having. And my lemon craving. And about how one day the baby kicked 10 times in two minutes and another day it took him 14. And about the pain under my right shoulder blade.
The doctor heard my questions and then paused to ask me, carefully, one of her own. “Have you considered,” she said, “It might be useful…I don’t mean to suggest…Perhaps maybe you could talk to someone.”
I looked at her. She looked away. “Some people find medication helpful,” she concluded.
* * *
I remembered a story Buddhist teacher and psychologist Tara Brach likes to tell. It’s an old story about the Buddha just before he became the Buddha.
As a kind of final test on the eve of his enlightenment, the demon Mara came to the Buddha and threw every unpleasantness he could muster to disturb the Buddha’s peace — anger, fear, greed, doubt. Legend has it that, rather than ignoring Mara or driving him away, the Buddha did something strange: He acknowledged Mara and then invited him to tea. As Dr. Brach tells it, “Mara would stay for a while and then go, but throughout the Buddha remained free and undisturbed.”
The first time I heard it, this story surprised me. Tea? Why would you invite the worst things you can feel to sit and stay with you? When I first heard that story, I wanted nothing more than to drive away unpleasant feelings. To banish them. I gave this effort so much of my energy. You can spend your whole life trying to push away anger, fear, greed, and doubt. But here is the thing: They will still come back. And you will be depleted by the effort.
* * *
Back in the exam room, I told the doctor what was in my chart. I do talk to someone. I do take medication.
I wish I’d known how to tell her the rest. That I am still afraid. But I am no longer afraid of my fear.
I wish I had been able to explain to the doctor that she did not need to talk around my experience. My fear does not require a wide berth or circumlocution. My fear can be in the room. It can come, and it can go. And I can be ok the whole time.
* * *
After I got home from that OB appointment, I climbed the stairs to my sons’ bedroom. I pressed the spines of their board books, looking for the one I had in mind. Until that moment, I’d found the book annoying. It was the kind you couldn’t help but memorize after six or seven readings, and I resented the mental real estate it had claimed. My kids, of course, loved it.
When I found We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, I thumbed through the dreamy pastel pages. I saw the quintet of kids encounter difficulty after difficulty as they seek a bear. Long, wavy grass. Thick, oozy mud. A swirling, whirling snowstorm. Each time, the children chorus: “We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. Oh, no! We’ve got to go through it!”
I don’t think any of us can get around our unpleasant feelings. I don’t think we can manage the difficulty out of our lives by assigning it a number or saying the right words or taking a pill. These tools can make our feelings more manageable. They can help us invite them to tea. But they can’t make them go away. I think this is true for all of us, but I think it is especially true for people pregnant after loss.
We can’t go over it.
We can’t go under it.
We’ve got to go through it.
Today, I am 36 weeks and three days pregnant. Today, like every day now, I think of those children and their bear hunt. I think of the Buddha having tea with his demons. And, each day, I wake up with fear. I feel my fear. I feel my baby. And then I get up, ready for what’s next.