"I can't find the heartbeat.”
I struggled to hold still, blinking confusedly, my shirt half unbuttoned exposing a belly slathered rather messily with ultrasound gel. The airconditioner hummed out a blast of artic air, sending an involuntary shiver down my spine. I shifted uncomfortably in the thin mattress, clutching the blanket the sonographer provided me closer. For a routinary pregnancy check-up, these were not the words I expected to hear. The import hit me with the force of a speeding train. On the stark screen, I can make out the form of a tiny curled fetus as it lay still in the cavernous vacancy of my womb.
My unborn child was dead.
Just like that, the news of Saab Magalona's loss brought an avalanche of memories. At the age of 24, I had lost four children to natural miscarriages. In all instances, at eight weeks old, the hearts of my unborn children stopped beating on their own accord. I was crushed by the idea of what could have been. To be given a fleeting promise of motherhood only to have it snatched away seemed like a cruel joke the universe was conspiring to play on me over and over. The pain I felt from each loss was devastating to say the least.
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There is a stigma of shame attached to the loss of an unborn child, where society conspires to render miscarriages invisible. After all, how do you deal with the loss of someone who never lived? This, apparently, has a way of making people uncomfortable; proper words would elude those who would discover the loss of my pregnancies. “What went wrong?” is often a question that gets tossed about insensitively by well-meaners. “Nothing went 'wrong,'” I wanted to answer, thinking that a better way to phrase the question would be: “What happened?” But, it wouldn't be considered polite, bitterness and grief are not socially acceptable emotions to display. I learned to remain mute, biting down snappy retorts and smiling politely, keeping much of my inner turmoil unspoken, hidden. Sometimes, a friend would ask: "How are you?" and I would wonder, do they really want to know the extent of my inner turmoil?
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Silence, however, only allowed the grief and rage to fester to a point where it left me shattered, a shadow of my former self. Words had never failed me before but I found myself retreating farther into myself. There are no memories to relive, no moments to look back on, only a blurry image of the ultrasound screen to reminisce about and the remnants of a body slightly altered from the pregnancy. The concept of time started to blur as I folded into my own space, flitting about aimlessly throughout my day. Everything about the world was difficult then. Nothing seemed possible or worthwhile. Dreams of tiny fingers clasping my own and the smell of talcum powder tormented me late at night. I received an email from an online gift registry, congratulating me on my baby's impending birth. I spent the rest of the day staring blankly at the ceiling. Once, on a random walk through a park, I saw a toddler teeter adorably into the arms of his waiting mother. I collapsed onto the sidewalk and wept.
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It was only when I started speaking openly and vulnerably about my losses that I was able to progress towards true healing. I bumped into an older cousin at the mall, one that I had been close to but have somehow lost touch with. In this way, I found a kindred spirit, a woman who has experienced the same loss as I had. Miscarriage, I realized, is a shared story, where a conversation over coffee and silent tears gave us both the opportunity to gain insights that shed a better perspective to our ordeal. There is an inherent comfort in finally speaking my truth; it felt more empowering. And real. Sources of support poured in from the most unexpected people. We shared stories of loss and sorrow, and later on, of pregnancy news that were intermingled with hope and terror. The more I learned about how other women struggled through their own journey, the more I came to understand there was no way to predict what path or promises lay ahead. I discovered that I do not have to bear the pain alone. There will always be those who are more than willing to sit with me through the tumultuous times when the sadness became too much to bear. It gave me the courage to try again.
Today, I am now a mother of two beautiful children. The best way to honor the dead, as they always say, is through a life well lived. There are some days when I try to imagine how different life would be, had my past pregnancies progressed, dreaming of how things could be, not as they are. I think of sticky fingers patting my cheek, earnest voices calling me from across the playground, and tiny eyes that hold my gaze with laughter. I shut my eyes and say a prayer. Then, I pull my son and daughter closer for a hug.
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Photographs from Instagram.com/saabmagalona and the author