I want to tell a story, but there isn't much to tell. I want it to be the story of a life, not just the story of a miscarriage, because a miscarriage is really an anti-story, a wonderful narrative that was about to unfold but just didn't. The few stories that we do have about death preceding birth tend to run short, like Hemingway's pseudepigraphal six-word short short: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn."
But I want to do my best to tell the story of your life, you upon whom we bestowed that tongue-in-cheek code name "Byrhtnoþ," after the ill-fated hero of the Old English poem The Battle of Maldon. Ours was possibly the only contemporary household in which "Byrhtnoþ" coded "baby," although as a medievalist I do know my share of parents who have given their children 10th-century names. We even called you "the Byrhtnoþ" before you were conceived, back when you were a more hypothetical species of hypothetical child. I think some people half-believed that we'd actually end up naming you that once you were born. But you weren't born.
There's a grim maxim in Don DeLillo's White Noise to the effect that "all plots move deathward." I've often thought about the converse of that maxim, the way in which all deaths move plotward: a death demands the narrative arc that will render it understandable to those left behind. Like anything else, death demands a story, a story that will help us make sense of mere events. And the more tragic, the more unexpected the death, the more necessary this story becomes. But how do you tell a satisfying story about eight silent weeks in a womb? The rest is silence, sure -- no end can ever really satisfy, no death can be completely conquered by the story that grows up around it -- but how much worse when everything is silence.
We do have a few scraps of story to cling to. For one, they originally calculated your due date as the very same day that Peter Jackson's first installment of The Hobbit was to be released. My wife spent the better part of her adolescence on a Tolkien message board, and the midnight releases of the Lord of the Rings films had been tremendous events for her younger self. So we often joked -- or, I don't know, maybe she was always perfectly serious about it -- that we would be in the theater that night in December, come what may. Born in a movie theater, or very near to it: there was a great first story that could follow you for the rest of your life. For us, this imagined story added an air of genuine excitement and anticipation to a movie we knew was going to be a disappointment. Since we ultimately had to see it without you, this fragment of the story of your life instead adds an air of genuine pathos to a film we know to be a disappointment.
There really isn't much else to say about your life. For now, here's part of our story, adjacent to yours, taking it from the top: a little over a year ago, my wife experienced a miscarriage. Or should I say "suffered" a miscarriage? "Endured"? "Went through?" The safe but vague "had"? The fact that I can't even find the appropriate verb to pair with the word is almost certainly a function of the pervasive silence surrounding miscarriage itself. There are memoirs, I know now, web-based support communities, occasional posts drifting around the blogosphere. But you generally have to seek out these specialist discourse communities: during those first weeks after, I began to wonder why people didn't seem to talk about this in public. We talk about abortion, postpartum depression, suicide, parental death. Why not miscarriage? Or had I just not been listening? People were certainly telling me all about them now, but it had been twenty-six years and I'd never learned that she and she and she had had a miscarriage. I definitely didn't know the astoundingly high rate of miscarriage until this particular percentage directly intersected with my own life: I've seen numbers ranging from 20% of all pregnancies to a full third of them, and 15 to 20% in women who know they are pregnant. Based on those numbers alone, it seems unbelievable that people can avoid hearing much about miscarriage before they (attempt to) enter the community of parents. One in 4 mothers may well have had a miscarriage, and some who aren't mothers -- or, rather, some that others don't know as mothers because they only had a few weeks, just like we only had a few weeks with you.
Early last October, roughly five months after the miscarriage, my wife and I learned that she was pregnant once again. There was a single day of elation -- or, really, a single moment of elation and a single day of cautious optimism -- but, on the morning of Day Two, she had already discovered some blood, the same horrific sign that had portended the miscarriage last time. The old anxiety descended immediately, followed by a second ER visit, during which they can really only rule out the medical emergency of an ectopic pregnancy. (Ruled out.) While we thought that the spotting was too late to be fresh implantation bleeding, we learned that a small spot of blood around that time could mean the implantation of a twin: in my mind, that meant we had found ourselves in a sort of macabre "double or nothing" scenario. Over the next few weeks, there were three more episodes of bleeding, and so three more times we filed into the ultrasound room, absolutely convinced that the baby was dead. But then a heartbeat, each time: we just had to make it to the second trimester, we kept telling ourselves. If you don't know -- I didn't -- although it's so common early on, miscarriage becomes extremely rare after the first trimester, except in obvious cases of physical trauma. But that's a long time to wait, especially if you've already experienced one miscarriage: it's a long, long time from seeing that positive line on the test strip to the end of the first trimester, almost two and a half months. And after that, of course, it's still not over. I remember one night of panic-terror about halfway through the pregnancy, triggered by some unexpected bleeding and an inability to locate the fetal heartbeat with the Doppler monitor we had invested in. Eventually we found the heartbeat, but the fear lingered.
I remember when my wife called her parents to tell her the news of her second pregnancy. Voice almost cracking, she distinctly said, "Mommy, I'm pregnant." What she didn't say was, "I'm pregnant again." I think that I told my own parents, without hesitation, that she was pregnant again: I don't know whether or not it was a deliberate decision on her part to suppress that insidious word "again," but now I wish I had done it, too. What an admirable way to avoid framing this pregnancy as some second attempt, a renewal of the effort, a repetition, a replacement, a correction. Just, "I'm pregnant," a fact significant in itself. It was also my wife's decision not to refer to the second unborn child by the same name we had referred to the one that we lost, Byrhtnoþ. I was ready to keep on using it, only because, as I mentioned earlier, "the Byrhtnoþ" had always been our term for "Unborn Child" in the abstract, shorthand for potentiality. But she decided, rightly, that the name had become sufficiently attached to a particular individual to retire it. Is there, by the way, a formal term for those various (non-)names we give to the unborn? And I ask that not just because that's the only name our first will ever have. It's an interesting phenomenon, these oxymoronic names before names: I suppose a name before naming is perfectly appropriate for that span of life before life. Junior. Peanut. The Bun. Fetal names, womb nicknames, pre-names? The Latinist in me both does and does not want to propose "praenomen" as an etymologically apt term for these names before naming. (Praenomen: the pre-name, the before-name, but in ancient Rome simply the word for the first name: Marcus, Octavius, Gaius.) In the womb, our newborn daughter Nova was named after Æðelþryð, the Northumbrian queen-turned-abbess whose saint's life by Ælfric is often used to teach introductory Anglo-Saxon. Why Æðelþryð, or Byrhtnoþ for that matter? It was just in fun. We never really gave it much thought, but retrospectively it does seem fitting to match an Old English name to a developing fetus. Philology recapitulates ontogeny, and all that.
But even now I'm wandering from the story. Again, it's simply a difficult story to tell for many reasons. I suspect that we don't hear about miscarriage very often in part because of how it frustrates narrative: a miscarriage is not a story. A miscarriage is a story that never began, a ghost of a story that just wasn't to be lived and wasn't to be told. (Ghost isn't a word I use lightly here.) Consider: even in fiction, we don't see nearly as many miscarriage plots as we do plots about death during childbirth, especially maternal death. A miscarriage just fits so awkwardly into a developing storyline, but, when the mother dies and the baby lives, what a great story that can make: all that potential for drama, emotion, catharsis, symbolism. New life in the midst of death, that kind of thing -- a theme just as appropriate for the stuffiest generational saga as it is for the latest horror flick from the mass culture machine. But miscarriage? How does that advance a plot? Story-wise, after a miscarriage you're right back to where you were a couple months ago.
Except, well, you're not.
I had been planning to write up a blog post for a long time reflecting on how a miscarriage is not a story and never appears as a plot point in narrative media, but then of course one day -- in the waiting room at the OB, if you can believe it -- I overheard a reference in the soap opera running on the TV to a past miscarriage plot: "Are you saying that it's my fault that I lost my baby?" Apparently this Days of Our Lives miscarriage had been caused by some kind of preventable trauma, like a car accident, a convenient way for the show to externalize and render tangible the guilt that mothers feel anyway about spontaneous miscarriages with unknown causes -- that is, the overwhelming majority of them. Is the soap opera, then, the one narrative genre where the miscarriage can flourish, the long-running soap opera that needs to sprawl across years, that even thrives on taking steps backwards in plot development, because they prolong its slow run to nowhere? At the same time, though, what a waste that still seems: so much passion and intrigue went into producing that soap opera baby! In my attempt to track down the episode I had overheard, I discovered a 2012 thread on the Internet message board for the Soap Opera Network titled "Most annoying soap miscarriages/stillbirths", which expresses frustration at how miscarriage storylines indeed simply waste time: "Were there any times when this really annoyed you, or you felt like all kinds of time had been wasted for nothing?"
As you might imagine, that's not quite what living a miscarriage plot feels like.
But maybe I'm forced to admit that it's not really so much that miscarriages aren't stories, just that they're invisible, stories that aren't told because it's easier not to tell them. It took me over a year to compose this short post, after all: I know it would have been easier to remain silent. And it's also hard to tell what kind of stories they are, what kind of stories they should be. Are they ours, stories for and about us survivors? Or can they belong to the unborn child to any extent?
It may seem strange -- I hope not too morbid -- but I just want to get the story of your life out here. I want to tell your story as your story, before, as I know it will, the memory fades and folds into the life story of my daughter, and of any other future children. It shouldn't be your fate to become the bittersweet prologue to another you's story, a roadblock on the path to her, rather than a path to something else that turned out not to be.
This, then, is the narrative I want to resist: you died, but she lived. You died, but we came through it stronger and closer together, etc. (They told us that miscarriages are known to destroy marriages, statistically.) You died, so we felt doubly lucky, doubly blessed to have her. You died, but... You died, then... I don't like the shape of those stories. I don't want to forget when you were just you, and not part of a story that begins with your death. Forgetting is what breeds ghosts. Will you haunt us? What about your sister, will you be her first vengeful ghost? When will we tell her about you? Because here's a part of the story that we can't help but tell: you and she simply could not have both have lived. She came to occupy the same space that you departed, long before your nine months would have been up. Your displacement by her is not merely figurative or narrative, but literal and physical. I suppose your relationship, then, can't be quite brother to sister, since the two of you never could have been brother and sister. If you had survived to birth and beyond, she would never have existed, never would have been able to exist.
This then, is the shape of the story we have to arrive at, the story we can't resist: if you hadn't died, she wouldn't have lived. It's not a consolation for the loss of you; it's just the way it is. I can't say that I'll remember you every single time I look at her, but you'll be there, and I will remember. I'll remember you alongside all the ghosts of potentiality that hover around us as we live our lives in the world, the near-infinite alternative possibilities that each one of us displaces by acting, by even existing. Maybe, just maybe, all those ghosts live out there with you in one alternate universe or another: the science is still out on that.
But it would make a nice story.
And with that I think I'm done for now, but I haven't finished telling this story by any means. At some point in the near future, look for Part II, in which I may get a bit more academic and a little less confessional. I should remind any friends and family who may be reading this post that this is an academic blog, and my continued reflections will owe a larger debt to my critical interests in science fiction studies, medieval studies, and narrative theory, particularly concepts of ending, the latter of which is after all the major focus of my dissertation. I want to look more deeply into the cultural and linguistic histories of the concepts of miscarriage and abortion: after all, "spontaneous abortion" remains, cruelly, the preferred clinical term for a miscarriage. For example, I've never been one to romanticize dead letters, but it turns out that one of the obsolete definitions of miscarriage is in fact "The failure of a letter, etc., to reach its destination; delivery to the wrong recipient" (OED). For the word "abortive," The Middle English Dictionary also records the definition "Parchment made from the skin of a stillborn animal."
As far as literary texts go, Paul Muldoon's short poem "The Stoic" is one of the only works explicitly about miscarriage that I'm really familiar with, but it's definitely worth talking about. But I think next time my major text will be Ted Chiang's science fiction short story "Story of Your Life," the title of which I've already stolen, and which I try to teach in all of my courses because it pairs so remarkably well with Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde and The Knight's Tale. Like several of Chaucer's narratives, Chiang's story grapples with what weighed on us so heavily during the troubled early days of my wife's first pregnancy, and then all throughout her second: the simple, universal uncertainty of being in time, of living a story without a known ending. Like Chaucer, Chiang also explores this uncertainty by postulating a world in which we can know endings in advance. In fact, the whole of "Story of Your Life" could have been inspired by a single line from The Knight's Tale, the famous snippet of Boethian wisdom that urges us "to make a virtue of necessity" ("Thanne is it wysdom, as it thynketh me, / To maken vertu of necessitee" [3041-42]). I've debated with myself about whether or not to bring our miscarriage into the classroom -- "Story of Your Life" also happens to be a story about child loss -- and perhaps a second post can help me find an effective way to do that.
Because these stories should be told.
Timothy S. Miller, Ph.D.