When your sister has a miscarriage

By Lorren Lemmons
@lorrenlemmons

You’re playing the piano in the children’s service at church when your phone buzzes like an alarm clock. Muttering an apology to the chorister, you fish around in the diaper bag, your pregnant belly making it difficult to bend down. The phone vibrates again as you go to silence it, your fingers stilling as the flashing messages from your mother hit your brain.

“She’s been having a lot of spotting.”

“She lost the baby.”

“Don’t call her, she doesn’t want to talk to anybody.”

Mumbling an apology, you walk out of the room, leaving the kids to sing a capella. You stumble through the halls, trying to find a place to be alone, but people are everywhere, chatting, smiling, sitting on the couches in the foyer. You call your mother, who passes on the basics—your sister and her husband were on a road trip. It happened at a gas station. She has a doctor’s appointment tomorrow. She doesn’t want to talk to anybody. Please tell your brother-in-law that she shouldn’t be using a tampon, because she might not know.

You’re hormonal and tired and there is a bathroom in front of you, so you slip inside and cry in heaving gulps. You think of the phone calls she made all week, worrying about the drops of blood she spotted, the twinges and aches. “I spotted a little bit at first with my second,” you tell her with the assurance of someone who has been a nervous new mother before. “It’s normal to feel a little bit crampy.” You wonder if she hadn’t called you, if she’d gone in to the doctor, if something could have been done.

You think of the first time you spotted, in your first pregnancy. You were in between lectures in your last semester of nursing school. Blood came away as you wiped, and when you called the OBGYN, the nurse on duty said to go to Labor and Delivery. Your husband was in Texas at Officer Basic Training, so you drove yourself to the hospital. You cried alone waiting for your ultrasound, but your baby was healthy and safe, the chambers of his heart fluttering in a rapid cadence on the black screen.

Now, you splash water on your face and blot the flecks of mascara under your eyes. You step back into the service and play the closing song as if nothing out of the ordinary just happened. But as soon as the final prayer is finished, women swarm around you. “Are you okay? What’s wrong?” Apparently your eyes are redder than you realized.

“My sister just had a miscarriage,” you manage, bursting into tears again. The arms hugging you, the cheeks pressed against yours, the voices saying, I had one too, I had four, I’ve been there, leave you feeling like a monster. There is a baby—your third baby—swimming in your body. When you fill out patient history sheets, you write a zero on the miscarriage line. You don’t deserve to be sad.

In the car, you text your brother-in-law: “Sorry, this is awkward, but make sure she doesn’t use a tampon for the bleeding.” You type “miscarriage gift” into Amazon and scroll through gaudy keychains and bracelets with phrases like, “I carried you every second of your life, I’ll love you every second of mine” etched in elaborate script. Ceramic angels, candles, Christmas ornaments with blue and pink ribbons. All the little commemorations look suffocating, saccharine, too tidy.

You keep thinking of a picture a college roommate posted on Facebook a few years ago—the tiniest, translucent hand against her thumb. It had taken you several glances before you comprehended what the picture was, a stillbirth, the anguish that must have twisted her gut as she broadcast the only physical evidence of the baby she had loved. You’re reminded that the weight of this loss is a mystery to you, that you sit here on the outside. Your hurts are pinpricks compared to the amputation that just took place in your sister’s womb.

The life inside you feels like a betrayal. You look around your house, evidence of children in the milk spots on the hardwood, the toys wedged between the couch cushions, the Ziploc baggies of goldfish and graham crackers spilling from your diaper bag. You order a necklace with a delicate angel wing, an etched heart, and a pearl bead—what would have been your niece or nephew’s birthstone. It feels stupid to send a gift, a bandage on a bullet hole, but it feels worse to do nothing, to sit there in your fecundity without some kind of offering.

You send daily text messages, things like, “I’m thinking of you. I love you. I’m here when you’re ready.” You want to respect her space, to keep from obligating her to share the story she won’t ever forget. In a few days, she calls you. She doesn’t cry. Her voice is flat and hard. “I don’t know if it was even a baby,” she says. “It was so early. Maybe it was just cells,” but this makes her voice go ragged. She asks about HCG counts and lab values, and you don’t know the answers.

You both go home for Christmas three months later, your belly too large for you to zip your jacket, hers just starting to make her pants tight. She complains about heartburn, frets that she isn’t nauseated. “It’s hard to feel excited about this one,” she says. “It’s too early to count on it.”

You give her a book about motherhood, flagging your favorite pages, and she tucks it into her suitcase, unread. “I just don’t feel like it’s really going to happen,” she says.

Almost every day, she calls with questions like before, about what is normal, what has happened to you. This time, you end every word of advice with a disclaimer: “But if you’re uncomfortable, make sure you ask your doctor.”

In a year, you’ll meet up in a hotel room for a few hours. You’ll be on your way to meet your in-laws, and she’s six hours away—close enough to make the drive, when usually you’re halfway across the country. She will place her swaddled boy in your arms, and even though in pictures he looked like his father, in person there’s something of your sister in him. Your boys will kiss the baby’s forehead, inspect his toes. Your daughter will squawk from a blanket on the floor—who is this imposter in Mama’s lap?

In that stolen moment, it will almost seem made right, the rainbow baby after the storm.

But in the weeks after your sister loses that first baby, you wonder how your children were all born unscathed. You feel the slow turn and flip of the child inside. She’s oblivious that her cousin, the one she was going to spend her life growing up with, wearing matching pajamas on the holidays and sending scrawled pen pal letters during the months in between, isn’t here anymore.

Some would say it’s only a little loss, and it isn’t even yours. But it marks you all the same.

Lorren Lemmons is a mother of three, a military spouse, a pediatric nurse, and lover of words. She lives in Georgia with her family, but can’t wait to go home to Idaho for Christmas so she can play with her nephew. 

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