Lived Through This

What I Learned About Survival When My Baby Died

How an experience 17 years ago prepped me for the pandemic

A black and white superimposed photo of a cloudy sky and a woman’s face.
A black and white superimposed photo of a cloudy sky and a woman’s face.
Photo: Owl Stories/Getty Images

InIn the early days of February 2003, the amniotic sac in my uterus ruptured. It came as a spurt of viscous fluid soaking my sheets in the wee gloomy hours of a morning. At 12 weeks pregnant, nothing about that puddle was a good sign.

The event marked the beginning of a three-month ordeal that would take me through the murky depths of omnipresent fear and uncertainty to the gut-punch of trauma, loss, and grief. The experience would also send me to the giddy heights of existential transcendence. The time I had with that baby would explode my worldview and change my life forever. It’s also the period in my life that is most on my mind these last few weeks. Of all the experiences I’ve had in nearly 50 years on this planet, the season of my first baby most prepared me for life in pandemic times.

The morning my uterus ruptured, I assumed I was losing the baby. But it turns out these things take some time to determine. A trip to the ER, some hours of waiting, hospital maxi pads, a worn-out hospital gown, more hours of waiting, busy doctors who had more significant lives to save than my baby’s— or at least lives to save that they could indeed save—a visit with my obstetrician, an ultrasound. By midafternoon, we had a heartbeat, and it seemed I wasn’t losing the baby after all.

Except that I was losing the baby. Just slowly. There was no way for me to know what was coming in advance, but the baby dying was going to take another three months. For 90 days that felt like a million, I was living in the throes of extreme limbo. It was going to take almost daily bleeding and more amniotic fluid draining from my womb. A dozen trips to the medical center, nine ultrasounds, more hospital maxi pads. Stress tests and dozens upon dozens of utterances of “We just don’t know” and “We just have to wait.” A few weeks before the end, chunks of fascinating and strange red lumpy stuff fell out of me. That turned out to be the placenta. Even after that, there was a heartbeat. Life is amazing. Every time we went to the doctor, which was a freaking hell of a lot, I expected to hear that my baby was dead. And every time there was a heartbeat and he wasn’t dead, we continued together on our strange and uncertain journey.

I lived every day for over three months in a state of high alert. It was stress like I’d never known, like I never knew existed, living constantly with uncertainty and the biggest bottomless terror I’d ever faced and knowing it all had to go on for an unknown amount of time. For as long as it took. Until the end.

I learned pretty quickly that extreme anxiety isn’t sustainable. Fear that huge can’t endure. Eventually, it has to break. It explodes out of you or dissolves within you or is suppressed by you. You get drunk, you binge-watch Netflix, you go to sleep, you work out. Getting drunk was out (pregnant). I didn’t have cable in 2003. I slept plenty. Most of the time, I walked.

On those walks, I started to notice things. The beauty of the river trail, the trees, the flowers. Gratitude for my husband, my family, and my real, true friends. All of that felt more vibrant than ever before, almost as if I’d never really seen any of it until then.

Then I started to notice deeper things, more internal things. Like realizing, suddenly but with absolute certainty, that pretty much everything I’d ever worried about in my entire life before then was a completely stupid waste of time. Did I look nice? Was I a good writer? Was I making my dad proud? Did people like me? Meaningless. All of it. Totally beside the point. Useless drivel ricocheting around in my brain. Not even close to what matters. Maybe not even real.

And then even weightier truths arrived. Really bad things, really sad things could happen—absolute fucking tragedies could happen today—could be happening right this minute. But that’s always true. That was no less true a year ago for me and no less true for that guy I passed on the river trail three minutes ago. I just happened to be in a situation where I knew matters at hand were really high-risk. But being alive is high-risk. Everyone is in a state of the unknown every single day. No one ever knows what’s around the corner.

Then this truth arrived: More bad things were going to happen. Not just this really awful experience now but more in my life, probably worse than this. This was not a one-off, an ultimate final exam that would get me off the hook for all future trauma exams. If I continued to live, horrible things would happen. This, this was devastating. Worse than this? Really? Yes, came the answer, loud and clear.

But the real existential sucker punch came last, right on the heels of the prediction of more bad things: I would survive. I was going to go on after this. I would survive this little death, and far worse, I would survive unimaginable devastation and heartbreak.

Imagining myself, on the other end of that much pain — moving forward anyway, broken but still existing, utterly changed but continuing to live, battered but wiser — that hit me like a ton of bricks. That was the end of my innocence right there: a lightning bolt to the head. I could see it all at once. Death and tragedy and massive suffering would happen, and I would never be the same, not even close. But I would survive. I would go on. That sunk in fast and hard. I lapsed into bottomless sorrow right there on the river trail—pain, pain, pain—and just as fast blasted through pain to a very unexpected state of giddy elation: I would survive.

If I could survive this, I could survive anything. I was going to survive.

That was my moment of enlightenment.

So, it turns out, besides making you want to get wasted off your teakettle or sleep the day away, another thing that big, gigantic fear can do is lead to enlightenment. I’ve never in my life wanted to climb a mountain—I’m terrified of heights and not much of an athlete—but since 2003, I’ve felt a visceral understanding of what motivates mountain climbers. They are chasing this stress-induced enlightenment.

Eventually, on a sunny May day when the wildflowers on the river trail were just beginning to burst forth with glory, my baby died. And it sucked. And it blew my worldview to bits. And after that, I resided in the depths of grief for a very, very long time. And I was never the same.

But guess what? I survived.

Thank you, pandemic, for the reminder that most of the stuff I think about on a daily basis doesn’t matter for shit.

And then good things happened, and then bad things happened. And I survived. Did I exist forever after my baby’s death, through everything that came next, good or bad, in a state of enlightened bliss? No, I did not. Normal life resumed, and I began to worry about stupid shit again. Did I look nice? Was I a good writer? Was I making my dad proud? Did people like me? To churn mentally on matters such as these is human. Thanks, frontal lobe. We have to fight for our enlightenment on a daily basis. Hence, the yoga industry and meditation apps.

But then something like the Covid-19 virus pandemic comes along, and I think: Oh, I know you. I remember you. Thank you, pandemic, for the reminder that most of the stuff I think about on a daily basis doesn’t matter for shit. Thank you for the reminder that the river trail and the trees and the flowers and my precious living children and my amazing husband are beautiful, beautiful, beautiful and all that matters at all. Thank you for the reminder that we are always living on the brink of uncertainty—every single day—even when it’s so, so easy to forget that truth. Thank you for the reminder that really, really bad things happen but that we survive. There’s going to be a lot of waiting. There’s going to be a lot of uncertainty. For as long as it takes. Until the end. Death will happen, and we will never be the same. But we will go on.

Fifth-generation Oregonian and writer, editor, publisher, author, mother. Essay is my favorite form. Beach is my favorite place.

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