The Child We Never Held

On October 15 of every year, besides the usual scramble to get my taxes in on the extension deadline, I take time to remember and think about our first child – a baby I loved more than I ever thought possible despite never holding him or her in my arms or carrying him or her full term. For those who might not know, October 15th is National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day. And, despite professionally being in a field that deals with infertility, miscarriage and infant loss daily, I readily admit that before my own personal experience with pregnancy loss, I wouldn’t have paid this day any attention.

I still remember the day like it was yesterday. Being told that our pregnancy was no longer viable. Being told that my body wasn’t letting go of what it wanted so badly. Being told I would have to return for a D&C later in the week if my body didn’t finally decide to release what it wanted so badly. Realizing that instead of celebrating Christmas and a new baby that following December, our arms would still be empty.

After my first husband died by suicide and left me a widow at 28, I felt incredibly blessed to find love again a few years later. While marrying an amazing man who accepted me scars, baggage and all felt like an incredible gift from the universe, I also admit I felt the universe owed me one more thing: a child. When my husband and I married, we both knew we wanted children, and we knew we didn’t have the luxury of time to get started on our family building. My husband is the oldest of 7 and told me he wanted at least 9 kids. I told him he shouldn’t have waited until age 40 to get serious enough to marry if that was his plan (and I said it with love, of course). And, I felt that after everything I had been through, pregnancy and kids should come easy. And since I was 33 when we married, and, given my career as a reproductive law attorney, I knew we needed to get started sooner rather than later.

So, after a beautiful, intimate wedding in Hana, Maui, a honeymoon in Moorea and Bora Bora, and a year of newlywed fun and travel we decided to start “trying.” Otherwise known as not avoiding pregnancy after an adult life of doing just that.

After nothing happened in 3 months, I started telling my husband we should both get tested. All my years of dealing with infertile clients were whispering in my ear. After my husband told me to just “relax” and it would happen when it was supposed to happen, I bought ovulation kits. And our sex life went from amazingly spontaneous to “I don’t care that x, y, or z is happening, WE HAVE TO DO IT RIGHT NOW!” Romantic. Super romantic. After 4 more months and not even a hint of a missed period, I told him we both had to be tested. And he finally agreed. Or, rather, he finally conceded just to get me off his back.

When all was said and done, it was determined we were dealing with low sperm count and some motility issues. Not dire by any means, but very unlikely we could get pregnant with our current have a nice dinner, enjoy a glass of wine, check the ovulation calendar and have at it at home plan. I still (sort of) laugh when I remember how the doctor explained our predicament and the intra uterine insemination (IUI) to my husband:

“Think of Kate’s reproductive tract as the state of California. The goal is travel to San Francisco, but you are too tired for the drive. So, instead of starting in LA, we are gonna get you started in Fresno.”

Basically we were going to do an insemination to give a push that would hopefully end with that golden moment where sperm meets egg. Only it didn’t work. Not the first time. Or the second. Or the third. Or the fourth.

Finally, we knew we had to take the leap to in vitro fertilization (IVF), and we were both ready. My husband definitely felt responsible and it was difficult on him that our infertility diagnosis was sperm specific. However, as difficult it was on him, he never shied away from talking about it; he never asked me to hide it; and when people assumed I was the one with “the issue” he always corrected them. For me, being that I am so intimately tied to the infertility world, I wished it was “my” issue – simply because we learned quickly there is not a lot of support for men dealing with such scenarios. I also felt like if it was “my” issue, we would have hopped on the IVF train a bit earlier. My husband struggled a bit with that decision. To him, it just took the “oompf” out of our family building and turned it instantaneously medical – way more so than IUI. And, he was right. But if we wanted a child that I could carry, IVF was it.

So we jumped in full force. I became a model IVF patient. I rested. I meditated. I acupunctured. I took every shot and supplement exactly as I was supposed to. My husband did the same. Our egg retrieval was amazing, and we ended up with 14 fantastic embryos. We transferred two and after an agonizing week of waiting, we finally had a positive pregnancy test. Our first ever.

We were over the moon to say the least. The one glorious thing about IVF is that you know the second anything is happening. Before our embryo transfer, we looked at our beautiful embryos in the microscope. And in that moment, those two embryos – those ever dividing and specialized cells, those living organisms – became our potential children. I watched them being transferred to my uterus, and I talked to them and prayed over them and willed them to implant. When we discovered that one did – well, I never felt so blessed. Like all the shit I had gone through finally made a little more sense.

So when, after weeks of positive pregnancy tests and increasing HCG levels and even the fatigue so symptomatic of the first trimester appeared, our doctor looked at us and said “something’s not right,” I felt like the universe really screwed us over. Ok, I felt like the universe fucked us over. It simply wasn’t fair. To find out that our child was not developing, no longer had a heartbeat and would never be a child giggling or gurgling or even screaming in our arms was devastating, to both of us. I started sobbing in the doctor’s office, and I didn’t stop for two weeks. Through medication to prompt a “spontaneous abortion” to the D&C that was performed to remove the fetal tissue because my body simply wouldn’t let go, I sobbed. And then I got pissed. And then I sobbed some more.

The only people who knew we were pregnant were our parents, my sister, my best friend and our doctor. Given my job as an assisted reproductive attorney, what we had gone through to achieve pregnancy, and watching my sister experience the pain of miscarriages after pregnancy announcements years before, my husband and I knew we wanted to wait until well into the “safe” zone to share the news. But because I was such a wreck, people started to find out. Every time someone said “this was just God’s way of saying something was wrong” I wanted to punch that person in the throat. When others told me I wasn’t “that pregnant” and it wasn’t really a big deal because I could try again, I visualized them getting hit by a bus. The fact of the matter was we lost our first child. Sure, I hadn’t hit my second trimester, and I wasn’t showing, but we were making plans. That baby was ours. And to find out it would never be born was totally and utterly unacceptable to me.

It was an incredibly lonely period of time, simply because we found that so many dismissed miscarriage as an insignificant loss.

We have two beautiful boys now. After our miscarriage, I swore I was done. I couldn’t imagine any more pain or loss. But we had embryos, and my husband said we couldn’t give up until we exhausted all of our options – and those frozen embryos were our most promising.

Despite having our two beautiful boys, my heart still aches when I think about their older sibling we never met.

There’s a Tom Petty song called “It’ll All Work Out” that makes me think of our lost little angel whenever I hear the last verse. I don’t know if our baby was a boy or a girl, but for some reason I tend to believe it, or rather, she, was a girl:

“Now the wind is high and the rain is heavy
And the water’s rising in the levee
Still I think of her when the sun goes down
It never goes away, but it all works out.”

It never goes away. But it all works out. In time. And tears.

Goldfish: A Study On Life And Death

I’m often amazed how I can kid myself into thinking I have neatly folded up the pieces of my emotional laundry into my nicely coordinated baggage and stored it away – thinking I have properly dealt with it and don’t need to re-visit it anymore. Until, that is, something happens. And it doesn’t have to be something big. In fact, all it took to unravel me this time was the 4th goldfish death in 2 months.

A $.29 goldfish (or in this case $1.16, plus tax, worth of goldfish) undid years of therapy, grief work, and “everything is really good, thanks for asking.”

Part of potty training graduation reward and ramp up to preschool for my twin sons was the gift of an aquarium. We went to the pet shop, picked out a tank, gravel, plants, two fish, Rodney and Goldfish, and came home not realizing the amount of work these little suckers are. When I was 5 I remember just throwing a ping ping ball into a bowl at the local Fish Fry, coming home with a fish in a plastic bag and my mom putting him in a glass bowl with some tap water. We fed “Lucky” (and he was – he lived 7 years!) whenever we remembered and cleaned the bowl when it got too stinky or gross looking. Now, I had a lecture on temperature acclimation, PH balance of the water, ammonium levels, feeding, filters, food, water changes, slime coats, parasites, something called ICK, and lighting. Lighting. As if Rodney and Goldfish were going to be entertaining or doing heavy studying for their PhDs in the tank.

We acclimated; we slime coated; we fed “just a pinch and no more,” because even I remembered what happened to Otto in one of my favorite childhood books “A Fish Out of Water” (in that book, despite a warning, a little boy feeds and feeds his goldfish, Otto, until Otto grows so big he ends up in the community pool and the pet shop owner has to come and magically shrink him back to size).

And a few weeks into our aquarium adventure, Rodney started to get sick. And I panicked. And obsessed. I searched Google with a vengeance. I visited the pet store a dozen plus times, and I spent days trying to keep this $.29 fish alive. I spent close to $100 trying to keep him alive. Ammonia levels were too high in the tank so I did water changes. I checked the water quality hourly. I sat with the fish in that tank and talked to them and willed Rodney to stay alive. When he stopped eating, I boiled peas and fed them to Rodney on a bamboo skewer. I gave him salt baths. I did everything but take him to an emergency fish clinic and demand surgery. I was as exhausted as when my twins were newborns. I was staying up until 2 and 3 a.m. and then setting the alarm for every 40 minutes to check on Rodney and check the water and search the internet for something new that might save him.

And I couldn’t, of course. Because my son was obsessed with Rodney, and because I didn’t want to have to teach him this tough lesson yet, I pulled a replacement maneuver – going and purchasing an almost exact duplicate and explaining the markings were just a little different because Rodney was feeling so much better.

And Rodney v2 lasted another few weeks. His death was less painful in that we woke up one morning and he was gone. My son, with tears in his eyes, simply said, “Rodney dieded didn’t he? I guess he’s with Grandpa now.”

We had a lovely funeral, complete with eulogy, and 15 minutes later my son asked for a dollar so we could “go pick up a new Rodney.” The grief process is clearly different (and better, in my opinion) when you are three and a half.

And so it went for the following month and two more fish. Rodney v3 again only lasted a few weeks, and, sadly, Goldfish, who always seemed so strong and hearty and playful, started to show the signs of impending death. And, despite having gone through this three times prior, when he finally died, after a long, painful week where I again was trying everything possible to keep him alive, I lost it. Despite the jokes I had made about it on Facebook, despite the fact that Goldfish was “just” a $.29 fish, I felt like I had lost a family member. And, in a way, I had. These were the first pets our sons had that were all their own (we have a dog, but the reality is that she was the first baby in our family). I was crying in the shower. Crying in the car after preschool drop off. Grieving. Over fish.

A friend had mentioned that I should take my Facebook posts, which included an obituary for the original Rodney, and write a piece, because, as she stated, it was some funny stuff. I commented to her that most of it was absurd and funny, but the reality was that I knew I had spent all that time trying to keep those fish alive because there were people in my life I couldn’t keep alive and somehow I was trying to balance what I viewed as failings on my part. I didn’t even realize what I was saying until I said it. I spent hours trying to keep the Rodneys and Goldfish alive because I couldn’t keep my first husband alive. I couldn’t keep a dear friend alive.

I left my husband alone when clearly I should not have. I promised a dear friend I would bring my boys by to swim in his pool, and I never took them. I said things that I shouldn’t have. I made promises that I didn’t keep. Sure, they both knew I loved them, but I wasn’t there as much as I should have been when they needed me the most. I failed them. And they both ended their lives. Despite years of grief work, therapy, reading, retreats and thinking I had a handle on all if it, it took 4 dead goldfish to show me that my greatest fear is not only losing those I love, but not being able to keep those I love alive.

When Goldfish was struggling to stay alive and I knew I might have to perform a euthanasia flush, I told my other son (who Goldfish technically belonged to), that Goldfish was really sick and probably wouldn’t be there when we all woke up the next morning. I told him he might want to say whatever he wanted to say, and the following was exchanged:

Me (near tears): Goldfish is really sick and because we love him so much we need to let him know it’s ok if he leaves us. We want him to feel better. So let’s tell him how we love him ok?

My son (practically kissing the tank): I love you Goldfish. I don’t want you to be sick. I’m gonna miss you. When you get to Heaven, say hi to Grandpa. Say hi to Uncle Mondo. Say hi to Rodney. Tell them I miss them.

And, by then, I was sobbing. People say 2 and 3 year olds are too young to grasp death. But the reality is that when they experience mom and dad being gutted by death more than a few times early in their life, and when mom and dad are age appropriately honest about what is going on, kids “get” stuff on a level we adults just don’t sometimes (a lot of the time). The boys talk about Grandpa and Uncle Mondo (our dear friend who died by suicide) all the time, so it’s not surprising to me that this was part of B’s process.

And what happened next was simply amazing. After two days of fighting death like nothing I have ever seen, our little $.29 goldfish, Goldfish, who had been with us since the beginning of the tank adventure, gave one last tail flap and died. It’s like he actually did want to know that we (yes, me included) were going to be ok. And it helped me immensely, because it was like he was telling me he knew I did the best I could, and his death was out of my control.

I’m not trying to be overly dramatic or sappy, but this was honestly one of the more beautiful moments of my life.

Goldfish, you were a good fish. You and your brother(s), Rodney, actually taught me a lot. About fish certainly (more than I ever could have imagined), but mostly about myself.