By Mary Adkins
My three-year-old wanted an orange popsicle, and we’d parked our umbrella half a mile down the beach from the snack shack.
“I’ll go,” I said. My husband pulled our sun-spent toddler into his lap, lobster puddle jumper and all, as I sprayed on fresh sunscreen and headed north on the sand alone.
I was still bleeding. Four days earlier, I’d reclined on a table in a dark room while an ultrasound technician had guided a wand into my body. My husband sat behind me, out of view. For several minutes, no one had spoken.
“I have to tell you something,” she’d said softly, removing her blue gloves. “Last week, you remember, there was a slow heartbeat. Today, there’s no heartbeat.” She’d hit the button to mechanically lower the table so that I could climb off. My feet were still in stirrups, and I felt my husband’s hand touch the back of my arm as my will broke. I started to cry, embarrassed. She’d certainly witnessed the end of pregnancies much farther along than mine—8 weeks and 5 days.
We left with a prescription for eight pills to accelerate my body’s emptying of the fetus, and I packed only dark swimsuits for our upcoming vacation.
After ten minutes, I reached the snack shack and surveyed my options. Snow cones were the closest thing to a popsicle. Anyone who knows a toddler knows that they can be very particular; it was likely that my son would protest because it didn’t involve a stick.
I picked cherry.
My body’s emptying of the fetus. What happened to me doesn’t have a name. “Missed miscarriage” is the technical term for the baby’s death, but the rest is without a term, other than “medical management of early pregnancy loss,” which is more a phrase than a term, nearly a sentence.
I had taken a medication—but was the purpose of that medication to make me “miscarry”? Hadn’t I already miscarried? I was post-death but pre-loss, or post-loss but pre-death, awaiting something that no one could tell me a name for or even give me a real timeline for (“12 hours to several weeks”).
Around 10 pm, five hours after taking the pills, the aching turned to bleeding. My husband and son had gone to bed together to improve the chances that our son would sleep through the whole thing. The doctor had said that there could be a lot of blood.
“If it’s too much, go to the hospital,” the doctor had told me, “but if it’s not enough, take the other four pills twelve hours later.” But I didn’t know what “too much” or “not enough” meant, and I hadn’t asked.
The snow cone came in a thin, crinkly blue cup, the kind you get at the dentist for rinsing. Hold it too forcefully, and it’ll crack right in your hand. I clutched it like an umbrella and set out, pleased to see its pointy peak and bright red color—my son would like it, I decided.
But only twenty feet onto the expansive beach, with hundreds still to go, I recognized what was going to happen—an Old Man and the Sea moment. The snow cone’s peak had already caved in. Red juice pooled around the mountain of ice, a thick moat rising.
I picked up my pace.
“It had barely implanted,” I texted a friend while I waited for the pills to take effect.
“Dude, you don’t have to be all science-y about this,” she replied, “it’s okay to be sad.”
And I was. I was so very sad. But the depth of my sadness confused me. I didn’t love this baby—or fetus (was it even a baby yet?)—just like I hadn’t yet loved my son until I saw his face.
Love wasn’t what made this loss so painful. It was something else, something I didn’t understand.
I sent back a heart emoji and declined her call. I knew if I answered, I’d just weep into the phone.
It wasn’t a little melting I was worried about. My son never finishes his popsicles or ice creams. I was afraid of the entire thing melting, of arriving with nothing.
The sun was shredding us, both me and the stupid snow cone, and I fast-walked, pausing every now and then to pour out some of the melted juice until I decided that perhaps the melted juice was helping the ice stay frozen. In the distance, I saw our kite, a triangle in the sky.
Can you grieve something you never had?
It was quiet in our bathroom, just me and the sound of the air conditioner, as I sat on the toilet and waited. I wore a thick sweatshirt but was shivering. My underwear, with a giant, dry pad dangling on it, hung between my knees. I started to cry deeply, from my gut. I’d fought the sadness all day—it was early, only nine weeks; I got pregnant fast; these things happen; it’s for the best; the baby wasn’t viable; better now than later; I already have one kid; I can try again—but, finally, my mind gave up its fight. None of it mattered.
When I felt something with mass fall from inside me, I didn’t pause to think. I just did what my husband had advised me not to do, out of concern for my well-being: I turned around and scooped it out of the toilet.
The wind blew off my hat, sending it skidding in the opposite direction, and I cursed as I hurried back to fetch it.
Oh, but I can use it to shade the snow cone, I realized, perching the straw fedora over the red, dripping snow cone like the dumb thing was an animated Disney queen. I jogged with her highness shaded under my cramping arm. My sweat dripped, the ice dripped, it all dripped.
I let the pink tissue ripple across my fingertips.
I hadn’t realized I was afraid of you, I thought. I didn’t know whether the thought was directed at death or at the baby.
Before this night, I had actively avoided miscarriage stories like they were contagious. I didn’t want to catch it. But now that I was inside of it, I was only curious. I fingered the fibrous clumps, searching for the blueberry-sized corpse. Was that it? Could this be it? The fibers were thick and didn’t bend easily in my hands. I gently tugged at them, peering, as if I got close enough, I could see his eyes.
The mound of ice was the size of a child’s fist by the time I handed it to my son, now seated by himself on a beach chair that swallowed him, along with his adult baseball cap we’d snagged at the nearby farmer’s market that read: MERMAN.
The snow cone had changed colors over the course of my long walk. The juice had drained out at first, leaving it pink and translucent, but as the ice had melted, it had caught up with the food coloring. Now it was saturated again, a hump of four spoonfuls, maybe three.
I plopped cross-legged on the sand, breathless, as he took it, pleased, and poked it with the spoon.
He didn’t eat it. He just jabbed and jabbed at what remained until it crumbled, which didn’t take long. I wished I’d run harder. I wished I had thought to bring him with me, so he could eat it under the shade. I wished I’d just brought popsicles in the cooler.
And suddenly, the way parents do, I saw how this would end: he was going to spill it all over himself, then be angry at the stickiness.
“We don’t play with snow cones if we aren’t going to eat them,” I said, taking it from him and pouring it out onto the sand.
The love came with the tissue.
It came like it had come when my son was born, breathing, blinking, with a face I could see and recognize. There was no recognition here—I never found the blueberry with eyes. But it came all the same.
In birthing the baby, in scooping the remains of that life and holding it, I felt love, and it didn’t matter that he was gone. Death was there with us like an old friend. It said, “Here he is. You don’t have to see his face.”
I hadn’t been grieving something without loving it—I had just been grieving it before loving it.
The melted snow cone dyed the sand a happy red, and my son was furious until I suggested a swim. Minutes later, we were bobbing in the surf, singing songs from Moana. He’d already forgotten about the snow cone that wasn’t a popsicle, and I was trying to. I couldn’t, not really, but I could sing words I made up as I went.
“Mama, sing Shiny!” he said. I sang Shiny.
Of course I did.
Mary Adkins is a novelist living in Nashville with her husband Lucas and son Finn. She teaches creative writing online to writers working on novels and memoirs, and her most recent novel Palm Beach came out this summer. You can find her on Instagram at @adkinsmary or learn more on her site.
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