Sunday, October 26, 2008

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination

I wasn't sure if I would write a review for this book or not. Then I wrote the review, and I wasn't sure I would post it. I'm not good with expressing emotions and I'm not good at dealing with accepting other people's expressions of emotions. Even hugging makes me feel uncomfortable. You know I'm comfortable with you when hugging doesn't make me squirm. This is a family issue. Whether it's because we're German or just weird or cold, I don't know. My great-grandmother (the daughter of German immigrants) didn't even believe in rocking her six do so was coddling them too much. So, writing this post has been very difficult, because it is so has to be so personal. This post has turned out to be much more about me and my own experience than anything in Elizabeth McCracken's book, but hell - it's my blog and I'll write what I want :-)

Having a miscarriage was much more devastating than I could have ever imagined. I wouldn't even know how to begin to describe it here. When someone you know dies, most of the time you have memories of them...even though you miss them terribly, and wish they hadn't died, there are usually good things you can remember to help you through it. This is not so with a pregnancy loss. You are mourning for someone you didn't know. I've lost a fair amount of people in my lifetime, so I know about death...I know about mourning. When my best friend died when we were juniors in h.s. (her 28th b-day would have been this past Tuesday - 10/21...which was also the date, many years earlier, when my grandmother -now dead - gave birth to a stillborn son), I remember describing my feelings as if someone had blindfolded me and dropped me in the middle of the forest...I was completely disoriented - how did I get here? where am I? how do I find my way back to a place I know? Even if you do find your way back, it's never to a place you know. It might look the same, taste the same, smell the same, etc., but it's never the same. Having a miscarriage is no different, except there was never a "person" to mourn. Instead, you have lost someone you will never be able to get to know...someone you will never have the chance to meet. It's a mourning for hopes, dreams, expectations. That might sound trivial, like not being able to go on a trip that you had planned, but it's anything but.

In addition, it's a blow to your self-esteem...or something like that. I experienced it - am experiencing it - as a blow to my womanhood. Somehow, I wasn't able to sustain this life inside of me. It is a sense of failure at the one job nature has designed me to do. And there is the inescapable feeling that it was your fault. Even if there is no reason why it wasn't, even if science tells you it wasn't, you can't help but feel it was. The fact that most happen for unknown reasons - they don't start to test for why you have a miscarriage until you've had two or three - gives the whole thing a mystery, and you can't do anything except blame yourself.

Miscarriage is silent. Mine happened before almost anyone knew I was pregnant - actually, only my immediately family, a co-worker, and two friends knew. So, it happens, people send you sympathy cards, the next time they see you they ask how you are doing in a very sympathetic way, and it's over one mentions it again. Everyone moves on, but it remains a very real part of the woman who experienced it. It's there all the time. Every day I think, by now I should have been 5 months pregnant. We would know by now if it was a boy or a girl. Every time you see someone pregnant, hear of someone pregnant, walk past the baby clothes, baby food aisles, diaper and toy commercials on television, Angelina's constantly reminding you that you are no longer pregnant. That this horrible thing has happened to you. Sometimes it feels as if the world is out to bombard you with as many reminders of your loss as possible. For example, checking the OMG site on yahoo, there were two stories about celebs being pregnant, and there is an entire subheading for "baby bumps." I should have a baby bump by now, damn it!

My response to every problem is to read a book. There are plenty of books out there "about" miscarriages...but most appear to be the typical clinical gives you the statistics, it tells you about the stages of grieving, when you can start trying to conceive again, potential causes, etc. But I don't want any of that. I wanted to read a story - fiction or not - about somebody who had gone through this. Try searching for "miscarriage+fiction"...not very successful. So I was very "excited" when I accidentally came upon a review for An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination.

I put excited in quotations because a book about this subject really isn't exciting. Elizabeth McCracken, the author, had a stillborn. Though miscarriages and stillborns - McCracken was very near to giving birth - are two different things, they are both in this general category of pregnancy loss. Hers occurred because of the umbilical chord was wrapped around the babies neck. She was living in France at the time, and was seeing a midwife who seemed very nonchalant about the pregnancy. Had she been seeing a regular doctor, had she been sent to the hospital immediately, etc., the baby (nicknamed "Pudding") could have maybe been saved. But McCracken doesn't play the blame game, or the "what if" game.

McCracken captures beautifully the emotions of this experience. How much it means to have someone say the right thing at the right moment. For me, it was the nurse in the post-op after my required operation. Then it was two of my male friends whose e-mails really surprised me. One even sent me a poem. Dominik - who once told me he hadn't read a book in years - sent me a poem. I was amazed. McCracken also knows about the friends you lose...or rather, the people you thought were friends who say the most hurtful things that you realize you're not friends any more, if you truly were in the first place. I had a situation where two weeks after the miscarriage, I got an exuberant e-mail from my friend that she was pregnant. I wrote back that I was happy for her, and explained what had just happened to me and that I was sorry that I couldn't be as happy for her as I wanted to be...or better put, as happy for her as she wanted me to be. I got a rather not-very-nice e-mail in response. I deleted it. End of friendship. This was the friend that I didn't want to tell I was pregnant because I knew she was trying and I didn't want to hurt her feelings. One of my first thoughts when I got pregnant was, "How am I going to tell her?" She was mad that I wasn't happy enough for her, regardless of my own situation. I'm sorry, I'm venting. Two months later...almost three months later and that still makes my blood boil.

This gets to something everyone needs to understand about pregnancy loss: it causes an unexplained, overwhelming jealousy and hatred for pregnant women. McCracken touches on this in her memoir. Is it irrational? Probably. But it's there and it doesn't go away very easily. An e-mail list that I belong to for women who have had miscarriages forbids people posting about pregnancy, or to do so with warnings, like spoiler alerts, so those of us who still aren't ready for it are spared the details. I have shot death rays in the direction of pregnant women since my miscarriage...including yesterday. McCracken poignantly states that whenever someone has a pregnancy loss, the world should spontaneously stop the reproduction process... I just wish that pregnant women would go away. Though it's already been three months since my miscarriage, I still cannot bear the thought of Thanksgiving, as my sister-in-law is pregnant. I will probably not go. I was due a month after her.

I loved McCracken's descriptions of wanting business cards...that you hand to people that explains what's going on. Kind of like John Singer's cards in The Heart is A Lonely Hunter. "I'm deaf and dumb but I read lips so there is no need to shout." McCracken had been obviously pregnant, and wanted to cards to explain the still birth to people who asked, so she didn't have to explain. I want these as well. But since most people didn't know I was pregnant, it wouldn't be for when people ask about our suddenly missing baby. No, mine would be for people who ask, "So, when are you having children? Have you started trying yet? Have you discussed it yet? WHEN ARE THE BABIES COMING?" Since, as I mentioned, I'm uncomfortable with not only my own emotions, but the emotions of others, to spare myself the embarrassment of their sympathy I just say, "Yeah, we've talked about it" and leave it at that. I wish I had a card that said, "I was pregnant but had a miscarriage. Please don't ask me about babies again, and please don't talk to me about pregnant people."

McCracken went on to get pregnant again and have a happy, healthy child. But she also captures the sense of innocence that is lost after a still birth (or applies to both). Unless you have experienced it yourself, losing a pregnancy, while something you think about, something you avoid feta and deli meat so you don't have, is always something that happens to other people. And then it happens to you. And you spend any subsequent pregnancy worried - deathly worried - that it will happen again. I'm terrified of it happening again, and I'm not even pregnant (yet - hopefully it's a yet, and not a never). It's no longer something that happens to other people - it happens to YOU. And there are women out there who have two, three, five + miscarriages. In fact, 1/100 women have "recurrent miscarriages." Once that innocence has been stripped away, it is never the same. YOU are never the same, and not just because of the loss. It's a once bitten twice shy dilema. McCracken - like all women who have lost a pregnancy - know it's not a when with giving birth, it's an if. It's always an if.

The author also brings up a good point, which I hadn't thought about before. Surviving a pregnancy loss is like surviving a natural disaster. She discusses this in the context of Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans is not over it. But don't we, as country, think...ok, we're over it. Why aren't you? But they're not over it. They'll never be over it. And they have every right to not be over it, just as women who have lost a pregnancy have every right not to be over it.

I wanted to feel the full emotional impact of this book, so unlike with Sophie's Choice, I read the whole thing in one sitting. Maybe I'm masochistic in that way...I won't deny the charge. But I didn't want to putter around in it...I wanted to dive in and be fully engulfed. I couldn't stand to be submerged in it in intervals, like over lunch, or waiting to go to the store. It was all or nothing. Yes, this book made tears just stream down my face. This is not something you read without tissues nearby. But it was perfect. It perfectly captures this experience. It was perfectly written, and it was the perfect time for me to read it. This books comes much closer to "understanding pregnancy loss" than any book that only gives you the causes, and a list of the stages of grief.

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