At an Ash Wednesday lunch, I found myself retelling one of my favorite Mardi Gras stories. In brief, in case you don’t feel like clicking through: My mom and I managed – both of us stone-cold sober – to lose our car on the first post-Katrina Mardi Gras. After our sixth or seventh turn around the same block of Marengo Street looking for it, some people at a house party took pity on us. They invited us in for food and drinks, and then, once the crowd died down some, they drove us around until we found our car.
When my lunch companion expressed disbelief at this story, I added, “Well, I guess they could’ve been so nice because I was pregnant at the time.”
And I was. I left that out of the original story because … well, because I was pregnant, but I wasn’t pregnant with Ruby.
Mardi Gras 2006 was Feb. 28. A week later, March 7, I found out that the baby I’d been carrying since before Christmas had died. Most of the time, I don’t think about it. In fact, an alternate reality in which that baby lives is, by definition, an alternate reality without Ruby, my sweet perfect beautiful baby girl who was born just nine short months after my miscarriage, in December 2006. My grief over losing a much-wanted pregnancy at 14 weeks along was real, no doubt, but it does not even compare to my grief at the notion of a world without Ruby. It’s impossible to hold both in my head and my heart at once. One negates the other. Ruby is here and real and very much alive, blonde curls, greeny-hazel eyes and personality to spare. Mostly, I’m too busy chasing after her to even think about anything else, any other way it could be.
But every year on March 7, I do stop and remember what I lost. I have a necklace that I wear sometimes, a lopsided silver heart with the dates of my miscarriage and Ruby’s birth engraved on it, the same dates I have to list on any medical forms asking for any surgeries I’ve had: “3/2006, D&C following miscarriage; 12/2006, Cesarean section.” Seriously: It was nine months from one to the other. I am grateful. I am lucky. I am unbelievably blessed. But God, it happened so fast. I didn’t have time to fully grieve my first pregnancy before my second was under way. Sheryl Crow’s cover of “The First Cut Is the Deepest” was all over the radio at the time, and although it annoyed me because I definitely prefer the original, I still had to pull over the first time I heard it on the radio. I remember very clearly sitting on the shoulder of Rock Hill Road in Columbia, Mo., the radio up, my hand on my stomach with fetal Ruby curled somewhere beneath it, tears streaming down my face as I promised her that I would “try to love again.”
Still, Ruby’s baby book is completely empty under the “Pregnancy Details” section. The book prompts, “First time Mommy heard my heartbeat: ___________.” And I just left it blank.
Because the first time I heard Ruby’s heartbeat? I was at my doctor’s office because it was a month since my miscarriage, and I couldn’t stop bleeding. A series of blood tests, ordered to show that my hormone levels were going down following the D&C, revealed that my hormone levels were, in fact, increasing, doubling like magic every 48 hours. No one thought, though, that this new pregnancy would last. It was too soon to be viable. The bleeding was unrelenting. And yet, there on the ultrasound screen was the tenacious flicker of Ruby’s heart. The ultrasound tech, clueless about the back story, said cheerfully: “Look, Mom: Your baby has a heartbeat! Let me turn the volume up so you can hear it!” I had heard my baby’s heartbeat – my dead baby’s heartbeat – just weeks earlier. I wasn’t ready for this. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I was haunted by the sound of that baby’s heartbeat, a strong, reassuring whooshing sound that I was told meant my baby had less than a 2 percent chance of dying. And when the ultrasound tech reached to turn the volume knob, I lost it. I pulled my knees up, jostling the ultrasound probe, scuttling backward on the exam table. “No,” I said, breathing hard. “No. No. No. Turn it off. I don’t want to hear it.”
She looked at me like I was a monster. “But,” she said, “it’s your baby…”
My sweet, gentle, wonderful high-risk doctor put one of his clean cool hands on top of mine and one on top of hers. “It’s OK,” he said. “You don’t have to. It’s OK,” he said again when the tech raised her eyebrows at him. “It’s OK.”
I loved him for that – but it’s not going in her baby book.
And the blank square for a picture from “Baby’s First Ultrasound”? That same tech printed me a picture at that same ultrasound … and to this day I am ashamed to admit that I dropped it in the trash can as I walked out. I had ultrasound pictures from my first pregnancy, eight clear shots of that doomed fetus looking just like a gummy bear, and I didn’t want more images to keep them company.
“Mommy’s Thoughts When She Found Out She Was Pregnant”? Well, jeez, even if it weren’t for the extenuating circumstances of this particular pregnancy, I’m not sure I’d want to answer that question honestly in the baby book. What first-time mother isn’t awash in anxiety and mixed feelings? But with Ruby, it was so pronounced. I truly felt like a kid whose puppy had been run over and whose parents then immediately presented him with a brand-new puppy. I didn’t want a new baby. I wanted the baby I’d had. And I felt horribly guilty about it. I still do.
The Buddhist belief, I learned later, is that miscarried babies are wise souls who have learned every lesson they need to learn in past lives and need only to be loved and wanted one last time on this earth before they pass on to Nirvana. I’m not Buddhist, but I held on to this idea. I still have a lot of guilt about how I handled my pregnancy with Ruby emotionally, but I wouldn’t change a single thing about that first pregnancy. No one could’ve wanted a baby more. From the moment I thought I could possibly be pregnant, I didn’t drink a drop of alcohol or even my beloved coffee. I fervently believed in that pregnancy in a way I never believed in Ruby until I held her in my arms – and maybe not even then. I saw two lines on that first pregnancy test, and I was already planning not only that baby’s nursery but his or her high school graduation party and wedding and my grandchildren’s nurseries. With Ruby, even after she was born, here and safe and healthy, I was reluctant to buy clothing one size up because … I don’t even know. It’s not as if, God forbid, something unspeakable happened, I would think, “Oh, well, no big deal because at least I don’t have extra clothing lying around for her to grow into.” But I lost my innocence after that pregnancy, and I never took anything for granted again.
That first pregnancy, all 14 weeks of it, was simple and easy, and, in retrospect, I was foolishly, blissfully naïve. I still think back to that magical Mardi Gras Day in 2006, when I was pregnant and hopeful about everything. It blurs so much that I caught myself telling Ruby that she has never missed a Mardi Gras and that I even brought her in my belly. And then I realized. I didn’t say anything to her, but I realized: That wasn’t you.
I have no idea how to mesh Buddhism and the pagan traditions of Mardi Gras with my own lazy Episcopalian beliefs, but I am glad, on some confused level, that the baby was here for that, that before he and she hit Nirvana, he or she lived through Carnival.