Kate Levin

Ghost of a Leaf

  1. “Your due date,” the website instructs, “is calculated by adding 40 weeks to the first day of your last menstrual period. Note that your menstrual period and ovulation are counted as the first two weeks of pregnancy.” You found this bizarre during your first pregnancy, almost six years ago, and reading it now, having just tested positive on a pregnancy test (well, four of the them—redundancy never felt so satisfying), you are puzzled all over again. Officially, gestation predates conception. The first two weeks are ghost weeks, nothing growing except possibility.
  1. Just three weeks earlier, you’d visited a doctor to have your IUD removed. This doctor was new to you, stylish and about your own age, which seemed to take you both by surprise. Perhaps this is why she shared that she was new to Los Angeles, having moved here after a breakup. Perhaps this is why you offered that you are divorced; that you feel lucky to have settled, with your five-year-old son and new husband, into a period of happiness and relative ease. After you reclined on the table and she removed the IUD from the cavern of your middle, she’d asked you if you want to see it. Why not? And there between her gloved index finger and thumb: a tiny, pert copper “T,” a few delicate strings dangling from its lower point, just a glint of a blood betraying where it once nestled.
  1. And now, pregnant? The timing means you conceived just days after removing the little “T.” Bewildered, you return to the same doctor, whose demeanor has shifted a bit. “You are testing positive here in our clinic,” she tells you with a new formality. Abuzz with anticipation, you drive home. “I’m pretty sure you’re the father,” you joke to your husband, the father. You curl into his ribs, stroke his beard with the back of your fingers.
  1. Because it’s no longer just your own, you start to treat your body with reverence. You hydrate. You eat breakfast, go to sleep early. Sometimes you decline to carry your forty-five-pound pre-kindergartener up the stairs to bed, in deference to your tender breasts, your sore lower back. Attending to your (plural) needs feels good, even if you occasionally panic that you have set something in motion that can’t be undone. Even if you sometimes feel pangs of loss for the autonomy, the integrity, of a body that is yours alone.
  1. Just when you thought you weren’t a vessel, you think.
  1. But: mainly joy. Your smile spreads into the darkness after you turn off the lights at night.
  1. The obstetrician who delivered your son retired, so you choose a new one, more or less at random. You pick a woman whose office is nearby, whose last name is hyphenated, like your husband’s. From her website, she looks a little like a younger Penny Marshall. One of the site’s featured post-delivery photos shows her in blue scrubs, cradling twins. Twins! Can you imagine? Too late, your fantasy’s been catalyzed: at your first appointment, the doctor’s eyes will widen at the ultrasound screen. “Double trouble!” you imagine her whooping. “Are you guys ready for this?” And you won’t be, but you will be.
  1. The first prenatal appointment won’t take place until the eighth week of pregnancy, so you wait it out anxiously. Traces of blood appear in your underwear, but you remind yourself that this happened while pregnant with your son, too. Remember how upset you’d been. Remember torturing yourself with worry. Remember the relief of the ultrasound showing him swimming contentedly inside of you, oblivious to your fears.
  1. You start to fetishize the ultrasound machine. If you could buy one for home use, you surely would. A week early, you call to confirm your appointment with the obstetrician and ask if there are any protocols you should follow the morning of your visit. Should you drink water, not drink water? Truly, you just want to hear the assistant say out loud that you will, in fact, be given an ultrasound. “Oh yes,” she says, unaware that she’s speaking to a junkie. “But no need to do anything special, you’ll just empty your bladder here beforehand.” As if it were the most routine thing in the world, and not magic. As if the contraption didn’t consist of an actual wand. As if the wand weren’t the only instrument capable of revealing the invisible, the inaudible.
  1. The Sunday before your appointment, you drive to a friend’s baby shower. Your husband—sweet, eager—has been listening to pregnancy podcasts. You scan his phone for the list of available episodes. “Play the miscarriage one,” you say. You can’t help it. “No,” he says, “really?” “Sure,” you say.
  1. He assents, and you listen to the episode, learning nothing you don’t already know. At the baby shower, you marvel at your friend’s beautifully protuberant belly, at the contrast between her body and yours.
  1. Your new obstetrician indeed looks like a middle-aged Penny Marshall—handsome, ironic. She enters the examination room trailed by a much younger woman in a white coat, whose face is kind. “She’s a medical student,” the doctor explains. “She’ll be observing.” The doctor’s manner is surprisingly brusque, or maybe you experience her that way simply because you exist, at this moment, on a different planet entirely, its atmosphere composed of hope and vulnerability. A thin paper blanket covers your naked lower half. The doctor asks you a few questions. Upon learning how quickly you conceived, she turns to fist-bump your husband. You soften towards her. The chit-chat ends. The ultrasound machine occupies the center of the room; the machine is why we are here. You recline, and the doctor slides the wand inside of you. You can’t see the screen, so you watch her face.
  1. In her London Review of Books essay recounting the day she received her diagnosis of terminal cancer, the writer Jenny Diski characterizes the moment in the doctor’s office—the moment of revelation—as one defined not mainly by shock or sadness, but a sort of wearying familiarity: “The future flashed before my eyes in all its pre-ordained banality,” she writes. “Embarrassment, at first, to the exclusion of all other feelings.”
  1. It’s plain from the blankness of the doctor’s face that the ultrasound screen is blank, too. Well, not blank—but lacking what is essential. “I’m not getting a heartbeat,” she says. She probes a bit with the wand, searching your womb, but you remember from your first time (different doctor, different husband, different pregnancy) a resounding lack of ambiguity: the heartbeat all volume and speed, a helicopter taking off just overhead. When the doctor speaks, only bits and pieces penetrate the fog. Most likely the embryo just stopped growing, she says. It measures around six weeks, not eight.
  1. You want the doctor to say she is sorry, but she doesn’t. Instead, as the medical student listens, she lists the various courses of action for a “missed miscarriage,” like yours—options for removing what needs to be removed when the body hasn’t done the job on its own. But first she’ll do a follow-up ultrasound in a week’s time, just to be safe: “We always do that for a wanted pregnancy.”
  1. Deflated, embarrassed, you get dressed in the exam room, feeling as though you’d lived this moment before—why? Because you had anticipated it, feared it? Had your worry run so deep that it coalesced into something with the texture of experience?
  1. And of course there was that dream you’d had—was it around, say, week six of pregnancy? A nightmare in which your underwear filled with what could only be described as the shimmering contents of a can of cranberry jelly. In the dream, you’d understood the jelly to mean miscarriage; you woke up that morning disoriented, unsure of what was real.
  1. Your husband drives you home from the doctor’s office, holds you on the couch, and says the right and necessary things, the thoroughly loving things. Later in the day, you will see your ex-husband, as planned, for a routine co-parenting exchange. You knew you’d have to don a poker face, but had anticipated masking glee, not grief.
  1. A wanted pregnancy. You manage to spare yourself most self-recriminations—no beating yourself up about wine, or sushi, or your age—but you do linger on the wanting. Did you want it enough, truly? You’d cried so much those first few days: thinking of your five-year-old, wondering whether a new baby would compound the loss you both experience thanks to the routine separations of joint custody. Had you fixated on loss at the expense of the wanting? The wanted.
  1. No.
  1. You take your son ice-skating, a first for him, a first in forever for you. You are no longer so precious with your body; you don’t worry about taking a spill. You can hunch your stomach over your son’s little back as he leans against the support penguin the rink gives children so they can learn to glide across the ice.
  1. Sadness, you could have anticipated, but your anger—loud, vectorless, and futile—takes you by surprise. You imagine smashing glass bottles against the wall, but really any forceful, destructive gesture would do. The opposite of waiting, and waiting.
  1. So what are you: pregnant or not? Or pregnant and not? In the middle of this purgatory week, a bumper sticker you spot on the freeway screams, “IF IT’S NOT A BABY, THEN YOU’RE NOT PREGNANT.” Never having encountered this particular pro-life formulation before, you turn its logic over in your mind. I am pregnant, you think. It’s not a baby—though it may one day be, or not. Either way: deep resentment of the driver, a ponytailed woman who speeds past you, stone-faced.
  1. The night before your follow-up ultrasound, you attend your husband’s office holiday party at a nice restaurant. More or less certain you’ll receive bad news in the morning, you order the steak, and scrape to the very bottom of a deep bowl of chocolate pudding. But you refuse wine. And, when you slip away to the bathroom, you lift your party dress up in front of the mirror and let your hands take the measure of your swollen breasts, your rounded belly. You know. You know. You are pregnant, whatever that may mean, in however liminal a way. So you, atheist, drop to your knees in the tasteful, lambent bathroom. A candle flickers in the corner as you murmur please, please, please.
  1. Your doctor enters the examination room, followed again by the medical student. (A reminder that you are a case from which knowledge is being generated: how will this one turn out?) You are here alone, having dispatched your husband to play with your son at the park. You feel resigned to what comes. The doctor reports the results of your bloodwork first: your progesterone is high, hence feeling pregnant; your HCG, the hormone emitted by the embryo, has fallen. She shrugs: “We’ll see.” She slides the wand inside you again, and this time turns the ultrasound screen for you to see. “The gestational sac has grown,” she says, tracing the elongated black oval with her finger, “but there’s still no heartbeat.” You nod and say that you understand. “What do you want to do?” she asks, and you tell her, without hesitation, your preference. “That’s what I would do,” she says. “I wouldn’t want to sit around waiting to bleed.” This time, you appreciate her bluntness. And especially: the level, almost stern way she reminds you to keep taking your prenatal vitamins. “For next time.”
  1. Dilation and curettage, dilation and curettage. You joke to your husband that it sounds like a boutique law firm. “With a very niche clientele,” he adds.
  1. The procedure will take place in a week. Of course, your body could expel the embryo on its own before then, obviating the surgery. But, day after day, it doesn’t—a morbid clinging that you almost enjoy. You allow yourself the thought: who is holding on to whom?
  1. One of your life’s great pleasures: your son pads into your room in the early morning and crawls into your bed. His feet burrow into your stomach for warmth, and where you might have gently pushed them aside a week earlier, now it’s no matter. He volunteers that he’s had a dream. Excited, you prompt him to describe it. “I went to put on my sneakers,” he says, “but instead of my socks, there were your little socks.” You both grin into the half-light. You remember, even if he doesn’t, that this actually happened—one of your absurdly tiny, no-show socklets did get mixed up with his socks one recent morning—but who’s to say reality didn’t inspire the dream?
  1. The website says that twenty-five percent of all pregnancies end in miscarriages; for your age group, thirty-five percent. You start tallying up your friends and acquaintances who have lost pregnancies, and the ones who are pregnant now. You tell yourself you’re taking a statistical hit for someone else.
  1. Just when you thought you weren’t a vessel.                                                                                                                                                                                          
  2. Just when you thought you were a vessel, you are a coffin.
  1. There are a crop of recent pregnancies, and births, in your social group. A couple of days before your D&C, you accept an invitation, along with your husband and son, to visit friends with a week-old baby, an act of possible masochism. But when you arrive, you don’t feel as sad, or as morbid, as you’d feared. Everyone has fun. For the duration of the visit, you hold the baby longer than anyone else. His hands—how fully formed his fingers, how well wrought—fascinate you.
  1. “I suppose it’s pointless to think of you at all,” Sylvia Plath writes in her poem “Parliament Hill Fields,” composed in the wake of a miscarriage. “Already your doll grip lets go.”
  1. The morning of the procedure, you and your husband check into the hospital shortly after dawn. All of the nurses are extraordinarily kind. Lying on a gurney, an IV threaded in your vein, you seize up a bit at the realization that this is, truly, a surgery. Your obstetrician, dressed in scrubs, walks in and briefly squeezes your foot through your hospital-issued sock. You suspect this is as much tenderness as she is constitutionally capable of, and feel all the more grateful for it. After the doctor leaves, one of the nurses notes that her name is styled wrong on your hospital bracelet. “She’s divorced,” the nurse says. “She only has one last name since she got rid of the ex.” The same nurse motions for your husband to give you a kiss before they wheel you away to the operating room. He does, and takes a quick picture, offering you a peek. Smiling in your hospital gown and cap, you look so much, save for one notable absence, like someone who has just given birth.
  1. Your pregnancy ends the way it began, after two ghost weeks.
  1. You wake up into overwhelming relief, and no pain. You are alone, though a nurse materializes shortly after you open your eyes and gently prompts you to sip some juice. Something she says—or her gentleness—dislodges one choked gasp of grief from your chest, and then it’s over. Your husband appears. More relief, relief, relief: the security of knowing exactly what you are, even if it isn’t what you want to be.
  1. Not much pain, but for a week, you bleed. And then one day, every few hours or so, your body deposits into your underwear a soft, shimmering ruby. Alarmed, you phone the nurse, who calls them clots. “Don’t worry,” she reassures you, “that’s a good sign—you don’t want the blood to flow and flow.”
  1. You know what it is to miss, and to yearn. This isn’t that. You know what it is to crumple into a heap on the bathroom floor because you can’t hold your son, who is sleeping across town at his father’s house. This isn’t that.
  1. “Your cry fades like the cry of a gnat,” Plath writes. “I lose sight of you on your blind journey.”
  1. Doctor’s orders while you recover: for two weeks, you can’t bathe, can’t have sex, can’t exercise as usual. But there is plenty you can do. You can take your prenatal vitamins. You can return to the pregnancy websites, where you can find comforting statistics about your future chances. You can write an essay in shards. You can feel your blood reclaiming its chemistry. You can take long walks, roaming through Debs Park of northeast Los Angeles as though it were your own Parliament Hill Fields, hearing the words ghost of a leaf, ghost of a bird, as Plath did. With every step, you can make peace with a body in which nothing grows but possibility.

Kate Levin holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan. Her work has appeared in newspapers and literary journals including the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Nation, the Paris Review Daily, and River Teeth, and has been awarded a Pushcart Prize. She teaches writing at the University of Southern California and in the California state prison system. Her writing can be found at: www.kate-levin.com.