*Image: “Wild strawberries on a ledge” by Adriaen Coorte [Public domain], oil on paper mounted on panel, via Wikimedia Commons
By Elsa Valmidiano
- Any of numerous plant diseases resulting in sudden conspicuous wilting and dying of affected parts, especially young, growing tissues.
- The condition or causative agent, such as a bacterium, fungus, or virus, that results in blight.
- An agent or action that harms or ruins the value or success of something.
- A condition or result of harmful or ruinous action.
A wand, and not a magical one, is inserted into my vagina to inspect the fetal pole that Husband and I should’ve seen on the ultrasound screen, but there is nothing but an empty misshapen circle. In medical terms, there’s a sac and placenta but nothing else. Doctor’s face immediately falls from a hopeful smile to furrowed brows. As Doctor and I both search the screen for that much-anticipated gummy bear that so many expectant mothers are dying to see, Husband instead notices the worried look painted across Doctor’s face. He knows something is wrong before I do.
“There is a placenta and sac but no fetal pole . . . anembryonic pregnancy . . . We should’ve seen a fetal pole by now at eleven weeks . . . When did you say your last period was, and you haven’t had any spotting or bleeding since then?”
These phrases stumble in my head as the answer. The unequivocal answer. It isn’t so much a death sentence. More so, it is an incomplete sentence. Incomplete. It did not grow. It ended abruptly. Somewhere. The sperm met the egg, but that was it. A sac and placenta continued to grow, giving way to a deceptive belly that holds absolutely nothing but maybe a few bits and pieces of a fertilized egg.
Doctor also calls it, “blighted ovum.” The fertilized egg has blighted. Deteriorated. Due to a bad egg. Or bad sperm. It isn’t my fault. The fertilized egg decided on its own to disintegrate. But wasn’t it my egg? Did not the egg belong to my body? A product of my own body? It appears rebellion starts not just young, but when one simply comes into being, even for ten measly minutes of being.
Blighted vine of my being.
How and when did it make up its own mind to end its own beginning? Or maybe my body simply rejected it for being bad. A bad egg. A blighted egg. It never even got to the stage of being a naughty him or her.
I had been under the misconception that miscarriages strictly took place due to the spontaneous expulsion of an embryo or fetus. I had no idea that a miscarriage could also result from a fertilized egg that never develops, though in my case, the cells destined to become the placenta and membranes continued to develop despite the absence of an embryo. For ten weeks, my slightly bulging belly gave me the impression that I was pregnant, when in fact, I was simply carrying an empty home.
Five minutes later, hospital gown tossed into the basket, and clothes back on, I ask with calm urgency, “What now? Should I wait to miscarry?”
“Seeing how far along you are, I wouldn’t suggest it. You could get an infection. You could hemorrhage. You’d need a D&C.”
“Can we schedule one soon?”
“I’ll still need to take blood tests to check your hCG levels, to see if they will drop. You may miscarry within the week.”
But I know I’m not ever going to miscarry, whatever that means. Miscarry. The life within me has obviously ended, and yet I am still holding its fully furnished home: with a fully stocked fridge, but no nine-month tenant to house and feed. I have a strong intuition that whatever is inside of me is going to hold on.
“I’ll have to check your hCG levels first,” Doctor repeats.
I want it out then and there, but I suppose she has to follow standard operating procedure.
“I’ll need two blood tests, 48 hours apart.”
We hadn’t told many people about me being pregnant, having been prepared for a worst case scenario, but as I reached the tenth week with no sign of miscarrying, I thought we were in the clear, so we enthusiastically told a few more people about the pregnancy a few days leading up to the ultrasound.
But that day, after we find out, we waste no time sending out texts as soon as we arrive home.
I draft the text and Husband copies it to each and every one of his friends and family. I tick each one off my own small list when the text is sent. We waste no tears or time with anyone. It isn’t news we want to deliver, but we deliver it promptly, like ripping off a band-aid.
Husband and I go for the first test on Saturday morning. Then the follow-up on Monday morning.
“Is it okay if we head out of town as we had originally planned, or should we cancel our plans?” I ask Nurse.
Nurse replies, “You can head out of town as long as you can drive back to Oakland immediately if you start miscarrying.”
“We’ll be 4 hours away.”
Nurse pauses. “4 hours is not bad.”
“I’ll make sure that a hospital is close by.”
Actually, I never do. I assume there will be a hospital in the area. We are in California, after all.
- Affected by blight; anything that mars or prevents growth or prosperity.
On our first stop, Husband and I go strawberry-picking. The fields stretch before us, the beach not far from where my long hair whips wildly in the wind. While bending down to pick the reddest, juiciest strawberries, I remember a tita who once told me that fruits were the ripened ovaries of a plant, so imagine a field of ovaries, hanging red, ripe, and low, innocently waiting to be plucked by our greedy hands, or blighted by the birds ready to swoop down and devour.
The next few days consist of hiking, biking, and kayaking in a quaint beach town on the Central Coast. It is our first year wedding anniversary and would’ve been our way of celebrating not only our anniversary, but the promise of a new little one. On our second day there, Doctor confirms my hCG levels remain high and steady as if I were 12 weeks pregnant, despite the ultrasound evidence of no fetus. She figures, as well as I, that the possibility of miscarrying on my own is almost nil. She schedules a D&C for that Friday.
The week prior, Husband and I had made love, as if the three of us were connected through our intimacy, when it had been unknowingly the two of us, beckoning at a vacant hearth. Now, on this anniversary, we do not make love but simply hold each other in the dark, waiting for Friday.
By the fourth day of our vacation, there are still no signs of miscarrying. Every trip to the bathroom, I search for that sign of dropping. I find nothing. As I predicted, my body is holding on.
The night before the procedure, I receive a call from my mother. She leaves a short voicemail with her condolences. I refuse to take the call, as my mother’s words are tears themselves, and it is my situation that makes us both remember her miscarriage. It was the miscarriage before me. What I call a true miscarriage. Her body had expelled my older sibling into the toilet. She had been in her first trimester, maybe at the end. Her body had expelled a gray mass of what was to be her child. My father thought it had been a boy. My mother thought it had been her fault. She blamed herself, as my two older siblings were just recovering from the measles then, for having been in contact with sick children during her early pregnancy. But they were her children who needed her, who needed to be taken care of.
She could not save the gray mass of what was to be her child, so she prayed over the toilet before flushing him/her down. She went in for a D&C and then immediately went on maternity leave, as that was the policy of the Philippines then. Following miscarriage or birth, that’s what a woman did. A woman went on maternity leave. Where are those laws in my parents’ adopted country? My mother received condolences from people at work though felt the condolences were insincere and simply standard operating procedure. She didn’t need condolences. Neither do I.
Like my mother, I decide to tell my job, declaring my own kind of maternity leave, not because I want to but because the probable risk of experiencing bright red bleeding afterward might require necessary recovery time. I am not afraid to give myself that time. Also, I can. I know not very many women can.
I think of what the D&C looked like for my mother in 1976. There were no machine vacuum aspirators then. Just metal instruments that scooped and scraped. There were never machine vacuum aspirators in the Philippines. To this day, they at most have manual vacuum aspirators that remind me of cheap plastic tubes used for pesticide spray. Abortion is illegal in the Philippines, which in turn makes the advanced medical technology to surgically complete miscarriages illegal.
As an American, I consider myself lucky. As a Filipina living in California, I consider myself very lucky.
When I think of my mother, I think, Now we have something in common.
- To cause to wither or decay; blast.
- To destroy; ruin; frustrate.
Friday arrives. I lie on my side in a hospital gown as Nurse injects a serum at the base of my back to help with cramping later. I am wearing a black-and-white mini dress with flowers and am told to undress only from the waist down. Since I’m wearing a mini dress, I hike the hem to my waist and cover the bottom half of myself with the gown. Suddenly I’m an aswang. Mythical creature of my childhood, usually a vampire seductress whose top half would dislodge from her bottom half at the waist, taking flight with her long dragon wings, searching for an innocent pregnant woman to slither her tongue into and eat the woman’s unborn child. Had my body eaten my own child by reabsorbing it back into itself?
“Will the shot hurt?” I ask Nurse. She says it feels like a tetanus shot. I think of a long epidural needle going in, but it’s not an epidural. It’s a quick heavy pinch. I suppose some women become aswang during childbirth, losing the feeling in their legs with the help of an epidural, their bottom halves dislodging while their torso takes flight in some part of their mind far away.
Husband stands in the room not knowing what to do. I ask him to touch me. “Put your hand on my shoulder.” He complies. The weight of his hand on my shoulder doesn’t comfort me but instead feels patronizing, and I want to cry because of it. I feel disappointed, not for the failed pregnancy, but for having to tell everyone that it had failed.
Husband rubs my arm as Nurse instructs me to continue lying on my side for the shot to take effect. I hold in my tears as I focus on the numbers of a machine next to me. I don’t know what the machine is for, but it’s not for the procedure. Everything that will be used – metal instruments and vacuum – is covered with heavy white tissue paper on a tray table a few feet away. I point to it and tell Husband, “There it all is.” He responds, “I don’t want to know.”
Would he have traded places with me? Did he love me that much that he would’ve in a heartbeat?
I ignore the diagrams that decorate every gynecologist’s office, the ones that simply paint sex as a scientific event and phenomenon for procreation and existence. There are diagrams of a man and woman’s reproductive anatomies – the picture of a vagina and uterus full-blown to reveal stages of ovulation, stages of pregnancy, the layers of tissues surrounding the entrance of the vagina; while the picture of a penis and scrotum is full-blown to reveal stages of spermatogenesis and the layers beneath the shaft. And there I am on the doctor’s table, feet cold, my half-naked body barely covered by the usual flimsy hospital gown which fails to keep me warm. I feel, once again, like a lab rat.
The mere idea of sexual enjoyment seems a farce as the diagrams depict human life as nothing but a long visual equation.
Emotions seem to have no place in a doctor’s office with its white antiseptic walls, blasting air conditioner, and the tissue paper on the table that crunches and wrinkles as a patient uncomfortably shifts her weight.
Where and what is love, when gynecological procedures just boil down to this one moment when a woman lies down on a doctor’s table with feet elevated on stirrups.
Before Doctor instructs Husband to leave and wait in the waiting room, she asks if I want Valium or painkillers. I say no. I’m afraid it will make me nauseous. “I had an abortion, a D&E, almost twenty years ago and I remember how the pills made me sick. I’d rather not be nauseous during and after this.”
At first I falter and say “ten years” before declaring it twenty. Or maybe it was fifteen. My math skills have become inoperative despite the arresting memory of the abortion invariably time-stamped in my brain. But the sum doesn’t matter. Doctor doesn’t care how long it has been; I notice an expression of relief wash over her face as she learns the procedure isn’t so unfamiliar to me as she had originally thought.
“It won’t be as quick as the last time, but should take at most ten to fifteen minutes,” she says.
It’ll be like coming home after twenty years, I think. Well, not exactly, but I know what she means and I feel relieved that it isn’t awkward or shocking for me to say, and for her to hear, “I had an abortion, a D&E, almost twenty years ago.” There isn’t any need to justify to her why I had an abortion at twenty. Doctor doesn’t need that explanation, but I’m sure the information is helpful.
At twenty, I was in an abusive relationship. I had no insurance then and covered the abortion through cash I pulled that very afternoon from the campus ATM. But there is no reason why that information is relevant now. I am in her office. I am in her office on her table for a much needed procedure. There is no reason to defend why I need to be in her office. Or why I needed to be in another office twenty years ago. Abortion is abortion. Miscarriage is miscarriage. Should it make any difference what we call it, especially in this moment while I’m lying half-naked on top of a table with knees spread?
Doctor asks if I want to listen to music during the procedure. I say, “No. I’ll just go to my happy place.”
“Do you want me to talk you through it?”
Before electing to undergo the D&C, my options were general anesthesia or local. If I had chosen general, Doctor would have had to refer me to another doctor at a hospital, as she doesn’t administer general at her small clinic. But I wanted her to perform the D&C. I didn’t want another doctor. I elected local anesthesia, but mostly because I’m the type of person that if I could have open-heart surgery completely awake and aware, I’d do it. I couldn’t go without knowing what was being done to my body. I need to know.
She injects the local anesthesia at my cervix, the narrow necklike passage connecting the vagina and uterus. What a small but significant passage between such continents that male politicians love having dominion over. The next infinite minute feels like a very long pap smear. She warns me of the sound of a vacuum before she turns it on. It doesn’t scare me. I am an old hat at this, I think to myself in a strangely proud way. I hear the vacuum, and then there is endless tugging accompanied by her apologies, which suddenly makes me think of being reclined in a dentist’s chair. It suddenly occurs to me why abortions have been analogized to dental visits. It occurs to me, I am lucky.
Almost ten years before this moment, I had worked at an organization in my Motherland, the Philippines, which medically assisted women in the safe completion of dangerous and clandestine self-induced abortions. Hospital records listed “spontaneous abortion” as the cause to save themselves from criminal liability while omitting the mention of catheters or perforations found upon admittance. I think of all the ways I have seen women accomplish one goal which, to this day, is seen as criminal. I think of hilot, massaging the baby out with fists, makabuhay leaves boiled like tea, how we all will make choices whether the alley is dark and scary with coat hangers, catheters, bamboo sticks, toothpaste, and black market cytotec pills, or light with low humming machines, fresh surgical gloves, anesthesia, and antibiotics. The darkness or light of the alley never stopped women. And I remember, I am lucky.
The vacuum continues. The tugging continues. My left hand firmly grips my belly. My right hand firmly grips my right thigh. Nurse kindly reminds me to breathe, even though I’d rather hold my breath. I wonder why breathing is so important when holding one’s breath never felt so necessary. I breathe because it feels like a command, but I’d rather not breathe. I breathe deep, simply to impress Nurse. Deep. Ten minutes feels like ten hours. I am wondering when I’ll be able to relax. I’m wondering when the instruments will slide out of me. I’m waiting for that slide of relief. I remind myself, I am lucky. I am lucky.
For a moment, my mind unplugs from my body, and I become a sports commentator giving a play-by-play while also happening to feel her same acute pain. How is it that women can disengage from their bodies as if we are stadiums hosting a massive football game with thousands of fans cheering or booing in the stands for a clear winner? Our bodies – venues to be owned by corporate sponsors and not ourselves.
“You’re doing great,” Doctor reassures me.
“Thanks,” I tell her, though I realize how weird that sounds immediately after I’ve said it.
As Doctor continues to tug and extract, I manage to relive my abortion of nearly twenty years ago. I recall how much more devastated I had felt about my abortion than I do for this miscarriage. Maybe because it had been the first pregnancy at such a young age, a pregnancy I wish hadn’t existed at all. With this anembryonic pregnancy, friends and family want me to talk, almost expect me to, while it was clear abortion wasn’t something you were supposed to talk about at all, as if the pregnancy meant less because it was unwanted. It seemed those around me generally held less compassion over abortion than they did over miscarriage, even though both can be safely completed by vacuum aspiration. While both continue to be associated with stigma and shame, it is clear that the end of one pregnancy can be judged more egregiously than the other, depending on the judge, with abortion as first-degree murderand miscarriage as involuntary manslaughter. You see how one can expect to meet either punishment or pardon.
I stare at the corner of the ceiling, falling into my happy place to distract me from the tugging and whirring. It isn’t really a happy place, but the place where my mind rests to figure out math problems, what is right, what is wrong, what is what. I blight it – My body blights it – It blighted – I – My body – It – Blight – What – Whom – By whom – Am I my body and is this not a part of me?
“Without the activists who have fought and continue to fight for the continued legalization of abortion, the medical research and technology to advance procedures such as D&E and D&C would not be in existence today,” I say as a keynote speaker standing at some misplaced podium in my mind addressing a judgmental faceless audience.
It matters. And then it doesn’t, as I imagine other women, other mothers, others who believe in the sanctity of life, who want to tell me what happened to me but do not bother to listen.
My mind snaps back to present as the speculum is slid out of me. Finally. Doctor apologizes, as she needs to do one more ultrasound to see if she got everything. “Do what you need to do. I understand.” I don’t know if I say that or just think it. With the not-so-magical wand back in, she apologizes again, as she has to go back in one more time for two more minutes. She slides a warm speculum in, except the metal feels hot, not warm. I gasp a little.
“Sorry,” she says. “I didn’t realize it was going to be warmer than usual.”
A few more minutes. Maybe three.
And then I’m done. She’s done. She snaps her gloves off.
“How does everything look?” I say. I need to know. Honestly.
“Everything looks good. You did great,” she says triumphantly. And I believe her.