“I’m so sorry.”
Those are the last words I want to hear from my sonographer.
I’m half-recumbent on the stiff plastic bed with cold lube coating my belly. I’m exhausted from spending four hours in the accident and emergency department last night-into-morning; I only went because I was spotting bright red blood. At one in the morning, a worried doctor younger than me asked mundane questions. I attempted to keep my toddler occupied with my house key. By then, the bleeding had stopped and my bloodwork had come back normal. He ordered me an early scan, just to be sure.
“There is no heartbeat.”
The color drains from my face as I nod automatically. A crushing sensation emanates from my chest as sorrow smashes through my body. I remind myself to breathe.
A second sonographer confirms the diagnosis. No heartbeat. I receive the repeat news in silence.
No heartbeat, no heartbeat.
They release me. I text my mother-in-law to please drive down to stay with me. I buy a mocha. When the Early Pregnancy Assessment Clinic nurse asks me what happened downstairs in the ultrasound room, I tell her: My 11-week-old fetus stopped developing at eight weeks. There’s no heartbeat; I’ve been carrying around a dead baby for almost a month. She smiles sadly at me—all miscarrying mothers must regurgitate their loss to a nurse, so she knows we know—and explains my options. She’s well-practiced. I don’t have any questions because I don’t know what to ask. I’ve barely touched my coffee.
I have been pregnant before; my one-year-old daughter is proof. Surely, if something would have gone wrong, it would have been with her. My first. I worried from the moment that little blue stick turned positive. I stressed over what I ate, how much I worked out, what I wore, how I slept. When I was told my baby was at a higher risk for Down syndrome, I wondered what I had done. Was it the stress of six months of infantry training at the Basic School? Nearly failing out of flight school? SERE training during a Maine winter eating snow and moss? How about taking birth control pills for a decade at the persuasion of the Marine Corps? What about my status as a military sexual trauma survivor? Both of my combat deployments to Afghanistan breathing in moondust and the gritty residue of burned human waste? The possible causes for my loss circle in my head; my confidence in my own body wanes. Any one of those experiences may have impacted this pregnancy. Or none. I will never know.
I make it three-quarters of the way home before my armor cracks. I wipe my face before turning into the driveway. My neighbors don’t need to know yet.
My phone buzzes: It’s my twin on her way to the gym. I’m in England; she’s eight hours behind. I hesitate, then pick up. She’s the first person I’ve spoken to —I’m surprised I can form words. She starts crying. I start crying. Maybe it’s a twin thing. We reassure each other how often this happens, especially early. We compare our list of friends who’ve had similar experiences. The first trimester is the biggest hurdle.
Afterward, I read early pregnancy loss pamphlets. I research online. I drink my cold coffee and eat chocolate tea biscuits. This is what miscarriage looks like. I decide. I’m flying to Dubai in two weeks to see my deployed husband and can’t afford any complications. I type the email that’s written itself in my head to him over the past hour. I title it, “Bad News.” I send something similar to my family—British and American—then my Reserve contact in Germany. I had announced my pregnancy two days earlier. A sinking feeling washes over me when I realize I may be required to run my combat fitness test before the end of December, less than three months from now. I don’t even know how long I have to recover.
My mother-in-law won’t arrive for a couple of hours and my daughter doesn’t need to be picked up from day care until nearly six. So, I mow the lawn.
An hour later, my husband’s soft voice spills from the house phone 4,000 miles away, “Are you all right?” I can hear his devastation in every syllable. I tell him I’m not in any pain, that his mum is on her way. I tell him I’m thinking of having the surgical procedure as early as tomorrow—there’s no use delaying. I tell him I worry about him flying. I know it’s killing him to not be home; he’s probably a flight risk. I wonder if his command will grant him convalescent leave. We both send our love and hang up.
I finish mowing.
My alarm rings at 5:30 the next morning. I slept like shit. My mother-in-law arrived before dinner yesterday, my sister-in-law just past midnight, but I’m the only one up this early. I head downstairs to make a bagel and pour orange juice. I’m not supposed to eat after six. I return to bed when I’m done. My daughter sleeps until eight and I scramble to get her ready for nursery on time. Once back, I shower, pine after the toast and tea my mother-in-law is having, and drink water instead. I pack an overnight bag, just in case. My sister-in-law drives us to the hospital. It’s overcast and raining.
The nurses on Jasmine Ward are expecting me. I’m led to a private room, fill out some forms, and get comfortable. It’s 10:30 and the earliest I’ll be seen is in three hours. I’m first on the emergency list, barring any severe cases showing up. Today is Friday. Maybe it’ll be quiet. I stop drinking water at 11. It’s so I won’t choke on my own vomit while under general anesthesia.
Just past 12:30, a nurse tells me to change into the world’s thinnest backless hospital gown. The room is drafty because the window doesn’t close properly, so I’m allowed to wear a hoodie over my gown. I shroud myself in four blankets as the cold creeps up my back. My mother-in-law sends a long email to everyone. The procedure is imminent. I’m ready.
Two hours later, I’m still waiting. An emergency patient was admitted, and the theater is occupied. The nurse asks if I’d like to go home and come back tomorrow. I just want this to be over. She says she’ll speak to staff, but I’m convinced I won’t be seen tonight. My mouth is dry.
My mind wanders to my next pregnancy. I’m certain there will be another, eventually. The cruel reality of being dual-military with a deployed spouse means we can’t try any earlier than six months from now. I remember filling out the booking paperwork for this pregnancy last month, when I was excited and still in happy shock. I giddily wrote 1+0: one pregnancy, zero losses. I’m a natural at this baby-making stuff. For my future pregnancy, I’ll have to write 1+1, but it won’t equal two.
The nurse breaks my brooding: I’m next since my procedure won’t last long. At 5:30, I’m wheeled through the maze of corridors stitching the hospital together. My mother-in-law leaves to grab dinner, her first food since breakfast in solidarity with my fasting. I joke with the nurses pushing my gurney, hiding my anxiety. In the anesthesia room, I confirm my date of birth and full name one last time. I wonder if my will is up to date. When the chemical drip starts flowing, I ask what they’ve given me. By the time they answer, I’m already lightheaded.
Someone is shaking me, and I don’t know where I am, but I don’t care, I’m clearly not dead. My throat hurts. They warned me about that, the breathing tube shoved deep into my pharynx while under. I drink water. It’s my first sip in nine hours.
I wish my husband was in the room; his absence screams inside my brain. He was there during the birth of our daughter—he would want to be at the death of this life. The pain of our loss is shared: Mine is the stark physical failure, his is unending emotional guilt. Deployments punish both parties. I won’t yet know whether his ship is sending him home and I’ll be picking him up from the train station in 48 hours. I can’t yet imagine what his week back will feel like. When I fly direct to Dubai from London 13 days later, it will feel like someone else’s mid-deployment vacation, despite being nowhere near the halfway point and not exactly a vacation. Two months later, when I stand next to freshly dug earth, silent in the black wool coat I only wear for weddings and funerals, I’ll tell myself this is what closure feels like.
Four observation checks later, I ask if I can go home. My body feels no pain. I show no symptoms. I don’t care that dinner will be at midnight; I’m looking forward to the spaghetti and brownies my sister-in-law made. I exit the double doors in pajamas and red chucks and white hospital bracelets around both wrists.
As I climb into the sporty little hatchback that will carry me home, I notice it’s still raining.
This article first appeared on The War Horse, an award-winning nonprofit news organization educating the public on military service, war, and its impact.