I was pregnant…. And then, I wasn’t.
All these years later, with a happy and healthy 11-month-old baby girl crawling, drooling and climbing all over me, I’m finally ready to write about what happened … how my husband and I had a miscarriage and marriage within weeks of each other in 2011.
I left during my lunch break. It was an OBGYN/doctor’s appointment at 10 weeks. Unfortunately, my husband was out of town, shooting a show on-location outside Chicago. My “work husband” Jeff watched me rush out of the office and asked “should I drive you? You sure you don’t want me to go with you?” I reassured him, “no,” that it was just routine blood work and an ultrasound to hear the heartbeat. Why I insisted on going alone I still can’t quite answer to this day, years later. There was Jeff, and any number of other friends, that offered to and gladly would have accompanied me that day. But for whatever reason, I chose to go by myself.
I was driving mid-day west down Sunset, enjoying the California sunshine and yapping on the phone to my friend Diana in New York. We were chatting about the unexpected pregnancy and how a bright future, indeed, was awaiting all of us. Diana and I were both getting married on the same weekend in May and as such, we could not attend each other’s weddings on opposite coasts. I had just shared the news with her that after three long years of waiting for The Ring, it took less than three months for the surprise baby news! I opened the sunroof and let it warm my face, my skin, felt my smile spread wider across my face as I waited in the typical LA traffic and discussed how accelerated the wedding planning would certainly be now. I would have to notify all the vendors and produce the wedding in half the time to make sure I wasn’t waddling down the aisle and “showing” in my dress on our wedding day. It’s what we did for a living after all: producing is glorified event-planning. I remember that talk with Diana as one of the first times I was truly excited about the pregnancy and the major life events ahead; and that the self-doubt and fear of it being unplanned and overwhelmingly impossible all at once began to fade.
The doctor’s office was atop one of the hi-rise office buildings on The Strip. The waiting room was filled with pregnant women – most with their hands on their swollen bellies, some holding hands with their husbands/boyfriends or mothers seated next to them. I, however, had no noticeable “bump” as of yet and passed the time flipping through parenting magazines with curiosity and texting people on my phone.
Had we told people “too soon?” Prior to the 12-week/3-month mark, we didn’t wait until we were out of “The Danger Zone” before notifying several close family and friends of our news. I think the wedding had a lot to do with it. We felt more people than usual needed to know why we were moving the wedding date up so soon and so suddenly. Besides, I was already at 10 weeks, and although quick to “round up” and exaggerate all my life, we were confident that this year would bring “marriage and the baby carriage” almost simultaneously and we felt OK sharing “our secret.”
It was all so new and foreign. I could not believe somebody was growing inside of me already; and so, in the exam room, I felt like I was in school, trying to soak up lessons like a sponge and listening to everything every nurse and the doctor had to say to be as prepared as possible. I was handed folders of paperwork and a pile of pamphlets about banking/donating cord blood, about stem cells and prenatal testing, about childbirth, infant preparation and CPR classes, about Cedars-Sinai hospital tours, about breastfeeding vs. formula; the information was endless.
I studied diagrams of the reproductive system and charts and images of the developing fetus over the coming months. The OBGYN was referred to me by a friend I had known since we were teenagers. The doctor was around our age and had delivered my friend’s first-born – her son – a few years prior. Now, my friend was pregnant with her second! I thought it would be fun to be “in the family way” and “on our way” together; so I jumped at the chance to share an OBGYN she loved and trusted so much.
Dr. L was kind, knowledgeable and totally approachable. She asked where my fiancé/husband/father of the baby was, assessed my vital signs, discussed general family history and overall health questions. And then she said, “10 weeks along. Let’s check the heartbeat and get some images for you to take home and show your fiancé/husband what he missed! I bet he’d love some pictures. When you come back for your next checkup in a few weeks, he’ll listen to the heartbeat then…”
I agreed and was told to wait until the ultrasound technician in the room next door was ready for me. I watched woman after woman waddle into and out of the ultrasound room. I heard the chatter of their excited voices with their loved ones inside the room. I heard the “pregnant pause” – pun intended – as they awaited information and instruction from the technician. Then, I heard the loud drum of a healthy heartbeat echoing everyone’s excitement through the halls and out to the waiting room. I imagine it’s the one instance when people were glad to see something spread from one patient to the other in a waiting room at a doctor’s office – the smiles were indeed contagious, the positive energy infectious as we all watched one after the other exit holding their film strip of images.
It was like they had emerged from an old-school photo booth, like kissing teenagers , treasuring their souvenir. Pointing at and proud of the pictures. Blissful and blessed.
I could not wait to walk out with my images to show Andrew. I could not wait to see our baby again – our first baby. We had went in together at 8 weeks, when we first confirmed the pregnancy, and were able to see the flicker of the heartbeat on the screen. Andrew cried.
I could not wait to hear the heartbeat and felt so bad that Andrew was missing all this! Hearing the heartbeats of all those other mom-to-be’s in utero babies … that’s a sound I will never ever forget. It was like the loud swoosh of the ocean and then the strong determined beat of the rhythm of life swimming in its ebb and flow.
When it was my turn at last, I gathered all my folders and pamphlets and brochures and paperwork and followed the ultrasound technician into the examination room. After some pleasantries regarding the pregnancy and collection of basic info., the technician put the jelly on my belly, maneuvered the instrument around and stared at the screen on the ultrasound machine.
I felt butterflies in my stomach and giggled at the thought of the baby playing with butterflies in there. I waited nervously during that “pregnant pause” and distracted myself by fidgeting with the crunchy exam table tissue paper with my fingers.
The technician kept moving the wand in several directions, a variety of motions and just when I felt like I had been holding my breath forever, I heard her release hers. She let out a slightly imperceptible but still audible sigh.
And I desperately searched her face for any answers until I saw her expression darken. I was too afraid to look but it was as if my neck slowly craned on its own and willed my eyes to peek at the screen myself. And there the baby still was! Sweet relief – I almost laughed! My little Baby Bean still in the same space as when we had confirmed we were expecting only a couple of short weeks ago.
So, maybe the technician had lowered the volume on the machine? Since surely she had it on so high, so loud for all those other expectant mothers before me — proud of their babies’ loud heartbeats. I kept replaying the sound in my head – the swoosh of the ocean, the rhythm of life – and strained to listen for my own baby’s heart.
But there was nothing. I expected the same echo of excitement but instead, the deafening silence of the ultrasound resonated deep inside of me – and there it echoed, the silence bouncing sadly off the emptiness within.
I did not even have to ask her what was wrong, or what had happened. Her words came. But mine did not. She put the wand down slowly and gently placed her hand over mine on my bare and exposed stomach.
The gel was starting to give me a chill but no matter, my skin had already broken out into goosebumps. And little did I know, just how deep and vast the chill would spread. How I would very much be so so cold and frozen for so very long after this day.
“Honey, let me get the doctor.” And she went to leave me there alone, on the hard table in silence, gripping that crunchy paper until it tore beneath crumpled, crumbling me. Before she stepped out, she saw me turn my head again, slowly and pitifully towards the monitor, as if willing the image of the little bean back to life.
In two quick steps, she rushed forward and shut the machine off. “I’m sorry, honey. I’ll be right back.”
And there I lay, staring only at my morose reflection in the darkness of the blank screen. My eyes were blank as well, still staring and searching.
When the doctor quickly entered, it was hard to believe just minutes before she had been congratulatory and bubbly bombarding me with brochures full of information. And just like that, the information instead became:
D&C vs. medication
Passing it “naturally.”
“Products of conception.”
Not a viable fetus.
Wouldn’t have carried to term anyway.
Has not grown since last scan.
No longer a heartbeat.
Are you here alone?
Is there someone I can call?
Yes. I am here alone.
I thought I came in with someone.
But I am leaving alone.
I had come in so full.
And am leaving so empty.
Ultimately, I decided to schedule a D&C. I did not think I could physically or emotionally handle miscarrying at home or at work, not knowing when or how; I didn’t want to experience anymore. I didn’t want to feel anymore. I wanted to be knocked unconscious, I wanted it to be over with, I wanted to forget.
What happened, however, was so much worse. Both the doctor and the hospital could not perform my D&C for TWO WEEKS due to scheduling issues. And so I lived like that for that long. I lived with my baby dead inside of me. And that pain seemed just as excruciatingly paralyzing to me as losing massive amounts of blood. Instead of shedding and letting go, I was literally and figuratively keeping it all in.
I can’t describe how much this fucked with my head. My soul suffocated. And my heart turned black.
I know this as one of the ultimate truths in my life: in that doctor’s office, two heartbeats stopped that day. And our lives were never the same.
Brushing aside all the condolences and sympathetic looks and “are you OK?”s and “can someone come get you?”s of the doctor and her staff, I awkwardly threw out all the pregnancy pamphlets and baby brochures in the reception trashcan. Instead, I took home paperwork about pre-op instructions for the hospital.
Somehow, I got in my car and was able to drive away. Numb and going through the motions. I called my husband. I don’t remember what I said. I then called my “work husband” Jeff on the way home and told him what happened also.
Jeff: “Tess, pull over. Stop the car and pull over. I’m coming to get you.”
“No,” I insisted again. “I have to keep going.”
When asked, “What can I do?” I told Jeff to please call anyone else that knew to tell them the news. I could not fathom saying it over and over again. I lost the baby. I lost the baby. My body failed. I am a failure. I failed us. I failed my husband. All he ever wanted to be was a father and I have failed him. It felt unforgivable. My failure to deliver.
And so Jeff did that for me. He contacted every single person I had so foolishly told already. I suppose I had spread the news so pre-emptively because of the wedding plans over the next few months and because so many of my close friends, co-workers and relatives were also expecting at the same time, most of them with their first babies.
It was these wonderful, compassionate, kind-hearted friends that received our news with the most gentle care, treating us gently while I’m sure still rattled a bit in fear for their own pending families-to-be. After all, it could have happened to any of us.
It was the hardest thing to see them all grow as their pregnancies progressed and then ultimately, I attended their baby showers, and met the babies after they were born — all the time thinking that our first baby would have had the same birthday, been the same age, etc. After the miscarriage, many other friends sent/brought heartfelt notes and cards, flowers and plants and food – everything to simply nourish ourselves after this devastating loss.
What amazed me most was the fortitude of the incredible women that surrounded me. I knew my female friends were strong, but I had no idea that so many of them had shared the sadness of miscarriage; some had even suffered multiple miscarriages. And it became shockingly clear to me just how many of these women hide these painful experiences, like a shameful secret, burying it deep as if it were their deceased child-to-be. These women gave me unwavering support but also cold, hard facts and “tough love” as to the days, months and years ahead when dealing with a miscarriage as a woman, as a wife, as someone who so desperately still wanted to be a mother, despite the fear. It was like being initiated into a tribe of tragedy and our warpaint was scars of loss.
In fact, the most valuable advice after my miscarriage came from my friend Ethan. At the time, all those years ago, as a single gay man, a production executive and lawyer, Ethan gave no inkling to most of us that he wanted to adopt and become a Dad. Now, he is the proud and fantastic father to an amazing boy who is almost two years old! Four years ago when I miscarried, Ethan gave me some advice I will never forget:
“You will only understand why this happened once you hold the baby you will, in fact, have one day. And you will look into that baby’s eyes and know why he/she was meant to be and why other circumstances in life, are not. And only then will you gain a little bit of peace and understanding about how and why you suffered and overcame that loss, for the firstborn baby you are yet to have.”
That all sounded so Oprah to me back then, and I was resistant to hearing anything from anybody about moving on or getting past anything. But it is four years later and now, we do have a child. After a healthy pregnancy and an easy natural childbirth without any drugs or even an IV, our daughter Elyse is almost 11 months old. Now that we are finally parents, I think about Ethan’s advice all the time. The irony is not lost on me that I had the D&C at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Beverly Hills, on the very same floor where I gave birth to Elyse, our first-born, a little over three years later.
When Elyse was born, I think we finally came to peace with losing what would have been her older sibling and how that made us stronger as a couple, as a family unit, even though it was one of the weakest and darkest times of our lives. There are issues caused by the miscarriage that we still deal with to this day in our relationship; and in a sense, we will always have to cope with the effects of that loss we suffered.
I do have to be honest that every time I see my friend’s children that were to be born at that same time in 2011, I think how crazy it is that I could now have an almost 4 year old! These ladies and their families have even had their second kid already! Whenever I see birthdays and announcements and updated pics of their first child — my cousin/like a sister to me Allison’s Nadia, Anna’s Mae Mae, Teri’s Hunter, Jenn/”Boeuf’s” Sawyer, Jaclyn’s Sydney and Rebecca’s Harbor/ “Bo,” who shared the same due date (!!) I see these kids grow strong and beautiful, thriving and flourishing and I still have the pangs of pain that make me wonder why ours did not, could not … then I look at Elyse. And into her eyes. All 11 months of her crawling, drooling, babbling, climbing, standing, sassypants glory and I know … this is how it was meant to be. I will never forget the baby that could have been, but I feel so blessed to have the baby that became our “first.”
This piece was originally published on Tess Gamboa’s personal blog, which you can view here.
Artwork, “The Premonition” by Michael Vincent Manalo via Saatchi Art