It was a Saturday morning.
A little rainy if I remember right. I was out most of the night for the first of a three day training seminar. I awoke to the familiar sight of my wife’s head on her pillow, but instead of her usual peaceful repose, I was met with the telltale signs of pain. It was enough to jolt me into a full-bodied alertness I would later identify as a newly burgeoning instinct buried deep in my guts.
“They hurt pretty bad,” she said as I immediately started browsing all known cramp solutions. This is an old masculine cliche. It’s like my man brain has a trigger that takes over anytime my wife feels distress. It screams, “Fix! Take action! Do!” and effectively drowns out my heart’s gentle entreaties to be still.
I doubt I’ll ever be rid of that. I hope as I get older, my man brain and my heart talk to each other more. On this morning, however, there was no conversation. There was only that old man brain cliche—demanding to fix pain that started as a steady rumble and sharpened into a stubborn stab that could no longer be placated by Advil.
Rewind about six weeks to a different Saturday morning. Once again, I’m jolted out of sleep, but this time, I was met with a bright smile and a positive pregnancy test. This face. This arresting joy is a memory I want to capture and bottle. If I could, I’d sell it or give it away. I’m pretty sure we would stop fighting wars or electing Trumps if I could just figure out how to share this face with the world.
Back to reality.
That joy has been replaced by a mourning we both know we’re about to endure. A mourning for which neither of our hearts are prepared. Because after another hour, my wife’s body made it clear that this pregnancy wasn’t viable. People say that trauma has a way of fracturing memory. Like it gets scattered all over the brain and it’s hard to make sense of and organize.
I remember this moment like it was scripted and directed.
I remember how panicked I was that I couldn’t take care of her. I had to leave home for this damn seminar. I remember thinking that this was the first time in almost 15 years that I couldn’t be there with her in the first tender moments of her suffering. She’d have to endure these few desperate moments alone. So one phone call to her mother and a few hours later, I’m sitting in a workshop wishing I was anywhere except where I was. Actually, that’s not true. I knew where I wanted to be. Back with my wife. Taking care of her.
Well that was the problem, wasn’t it? I had no idea what to do, and that helplessness neutered me. All those screaming messages from my man brain weren’t going to fix something that couldn’t be fixed. In the background, my heart still whispered, only this time it was drowned out by a panicked fury against a raging storm, like Lieutenant Dan strapped to the top of Forrest Gump’s shrimping boat while the winds buffet a sturdy boat.
If I knew better at the time, I would have listened to my heart. I would have unstrapped myself from the top of that boat, climbed down and I would have been still. I was so convinced that my wife needed me to take care of her that I missed her desire for me to be with her. To just be.
I only started to get this the next evening as I stood over a pot of mashed potatoes. My dad called to ask how I was. I remember feeling like I had been on a powerlessness hangover. I said the most honest thing I could think of: “Sometimes all you can do is cook mashed potatoes.” It was a kind of rage against powerlessness. F*ck you pain. I’m making potatoes.
This memory’s dark humor overwhelms me. I was so attached to being useful to my wife that I chose to make a collection of her favorite comfort foods rather than listen to my pleading heart: the only thing that would have truly brought her any comfort.
Let yourself feel. Be in pain. Stop doing. Just be.
In the days that followed, my wife’s grief plateaued while I watched for opportunities to help her feel better. It was well-intentioned impotence. I think she felt most alone during this time. She endured what is, for women, an incredibly common experience. It’s possibly the most common secret our culture keeps. And we’re a pretty great couple. We get along well. We hardly ever throw toasters at each other. But this experience tried to put a little distance between us. That cultural silence started to invade our marriage.
We weren’t grieving the same. It’s like she was in a pit from which there was no known escape. And I knew this, but that knowledge didn’t keep me from trying to save her as I stood on the pit’s edge, looking down with my good intentions and ever striving man brain. My wife grieved a pregnancy. She grieved for an identity that was, at least for the moment, lost. I, however, grieved the loss of my ability to rescue her.
It took time for us to think about “trying” again. Even that word had meaning. But I knew if we were going to be open to the possibility of another pregnancy, I needed to let myself risk as much as she was. This is impossible, of course. There’s no way I could be pregnant. But I could no longer be a spectator to my wife’s pain. I couldn’t stand on the edge of the pit. There’s no rope long enough to rescue her. There’s no encouraging words powerful enough to motivate her to crawl out of walls that are too high to climb. There’s only one answer.
I had to get in there with her.
A few months ago, on a Saturday not unlike two other Saturdays, my wife walked into our bedroom with a measured joy and another positive pregnancy test. I’d bottle this memory also. Perhaps it lacks the sweetness of an unbridled celebration. But this joy is a courageous protest. It’s the kind of joy that’s been in the pit, that knows the risk of pain, but that leans into that risk anyway.
If you want to know what heroism looks like, just look at her face in this moment.
I knew that if we were going to do this again, I had to be attached enough to this little collection of cells that my heart would break to lose it. It may sound backwards, but it’s the only way to deal with an unsolvable problem that brings nothing but pain. My wife didn’t need a cheerleader in her grief. She needed a partner.
So I had to let myself fall in love with this pregnancy. I had to dream up names and read dad blogs. I had to fantasize about being a father. I had to cultivate a love that everyone has been telling me my whole life I would experience the moment I saw my child born. But I couldn’t wait for sight.
I had to do it for her. I had to do it for myself. Possibly for this kid.
So now I carry this little leather journal around with me in which I write letters to my son. I really hope I get to meet him. I know that if we go through another miscarriage, the pain will be almost unbearable. It will be excruciating. It will render my attempts to make things better completely useless.
Because even though that pit would be deeper than anything I’ve ever known, I won’t be alone there. And neither will she.
Author: Mathis Kennington
Image: Geopungo on Flickr
Editor: Travis May