The exam table paper crinkled beneath me, electric lights buzzed overhead. The doctor clicked on the ultrasound screen and began his search for a heartbeat. My own heart hammered as the walls of my womb came in and out of focus.
The doctor frowned. Silence.
He clicked off the machine, his eyes crinkling. “I’m sorry not to have better news.”
I looked at my husband. Neither of us spoke, but his eyes asked the question. How did I feel? Air seeped out of my chest. We’d been preparing for this since the first ultrasound one week ago. We’d known then, when we’d seen only a dot on the screen where there should have been a tiny head and body, that the odds of miscarriage were high.
The doctor meted out assurances. This was very common, no reason to think the next pregnancy wouldn’t be healthy. I nodded mutely.
Had I expected a heartbeat today, when the eight week ultrasound revealed none?
All week we’d held out hope. We sang songs to the “little bird” we pictured still growing in my womb. Watching our toddler stomp-dance around the living room table, we imagined two dancers, two sets of stomping feet. Maybe I wasn’t as far along as I’d thought. Maybe we’d return to the doctor’s office in a week, hear that thump-thump-thump-thump-thump.
All week we’d prayed. Had I really believed God would intervene? The sinking in my chest told me part of me had. Not because we were more deserving of a miracle than others, but because it had seemed motherhood was God’s way of calling me closer to Him.
Nothing had made me turn to God like my first year of motherhood. Back at work, after a night punctuated by newborn cries, when I had to ask my manager in a strained voice, “Could you repeat the question?” From the fear of being humiliated, deliver me. When my fussy toddler wouldn’t eat, and SPLAT another glob of avocado on the floor. Lord, grant me patience. When at nap time I finally had an hour to myself, and my mind spun between to-dos: the laundry, my unwashed hair, the list of personal projects that now seemed destined to remain forever unfinished. Lord, help me accept that I cannot do it all.
Over time, things got easier. I started laughing at my mistakes at work instead of constantly fighting the urge to cry. I wiped and re-wiped floors and counters and tables and bibs without losing my cool in the constant battle against messes. I shelved certain expectations of how much I should accomplish; wooden spoons clacking on bowls set a new rhythm as I cleaned and carried and cuddled and comforted.
We were ready for another baby. More noise, more mess, more love. I was ready to again be stretched to my limit, only to discover that with God’s help I could be expanded further still.
The doctor explained our options in a soft voice. I nodded along with his words, half-listening. Did we have any questions? I shook my head.
My husband and I exited the building. In the car, I put my face in my hands. My husband took my hand and squeezed it. My hand, my heart, squeezed.
My mom greeted us at the door with my son in her arms. I reached for him and held him tight to my chest. I listened to the sound of his heart — thump, thump, thump, thump, thump. Side by side in my chest, I carried my children, a crush of love, and a hollow.
Time passed. Some days it was almost as if nothing had happened. I’d laugh at a coworker’s joke, make one of my own in reply. I’d rush to the window with my toddler when the garbage truck roared past. I clapped my hands when he learned to answer my question:
“What does the doggy say?” — “Va!!”
Other days I opened my computer, registered the unanswered messages and meeting invitations, and shut it. I climbed down from the couch, dropped to my knees.
Rarely outside of church had I gotten down on my knees to pray. It was enough to speak or think the words from a comfortable seated position. Now the strange weight of emptiness pulled me to the ground.
I’d kneel, recite the rhythmic prayers of the rosary, the beads slipping through my fingers. Time slowed down, the chirp of birds and roar of a lawnmower outside faded. I savored the stillness, the quiet, the soft burning glow in my chest.
When I finished, I got up. The space in my chest was still there, but the emptiness was no longer so heavy.
On a Saturday morning, I got up early with my son, sipped my coffee as he sipped his milk. We took a long walk through our neighborhood. Leaves crunched under my feet and the sun climbed pink and hazy over the hilltops. We stopped at an intersection and watched the cars go by. My son pointed and exclaimed his word for truck, “Gun-ga!”
At home I sat him in his chair for breakfast, kissed my husband as he took over the feeding. I hopped in the car and drove to the nearest church offering Adoration outdoors. I knelt in the parking lot, bowed my head, and basked in the warmth emanating from the Monstrance in the window.
I pictured a friend of mine who lived just a few miles away. Her new baby was just a few weeks old, her older daughter three months older than my son. Right now God might be calling to her through the cries and laughter of two little mouths, the warmth of two little bodies. Calling her too in the fog of postpartum hormones, sleepless nights, the two sets of needs clamoring day and night.
I turned my palms upward. I breathed in the fresh air, open sky, and a rush of gratitude.
I had thought that this year God would call me by doubling the joys and sacrifices of motherhood. I hadn’t considered how God might call me in silence, and the space to be still.
I stood up in the parking lot, tucked away my rosary beads. Thirty minutes later I was home just before my son’s nap time. He greeted me with a wide-eyed grin, charged toward me, “Maamaa!” I scooped him up, and together we plopped down on the couch. Together we turned the pages of Little Blue Truck.
I carried him to his crib, his head resting heavy on my shoulder. I lay him down, slipped out the door, and shut it with a soft click. I retreated to the quiet of my den. I curled up on the couch and opened my laptop to write.
I tapped words on to the screen, exploring the small hollow that is still there in the corner of my chest. God didn’t fill it with another heartbeat, but He is using that space to draw me closer. Slowly, quietly.
Author note: As Easter Sunday 2021, I’m entering the second trimester of a new pregnancy. Thanks be to God for how he meets us in loss, in waiting, and joy.