The summer I miscarried my whole city flooded. The rain came down and down—not just buckets of it, but whole harbors. Oceans. It fell so fast that underpasses filled to the brim like swimming pools. So the freeways closed. Abandoned cars dotted the lanes, small islands hunkered in the storm while water coursed around them.
Kayaks skimmed down the streets, oars flashing in semaphore. Kids floated their bath toys past submerged cars, past wrecked trees. They giggled and splashed in all that rain while indoors, deep in the bowels of their basements, parents watched the water creep up the walls.
The rain fell and sometimes hail. The wind cursed and rattled and sent lonely moans whistling through the eaves. Inside the water rose and outside it never ceased.
I lay in a dim room with my knees in the air. My heels bore down the stirrups while the ultrasound tech stuck a probe inside me and sat in silence while the sonar echoed around the cave of my womb. The screen looked like an old photo of a thunderstorm. Dark and staticky, then darker still.
In the middle of the screen, where a baby should have been, was nothing. A void that looked so nearly on the cusp of being something but, no matter how hard we strained to see it, receded back into the nothing that it was. Just a shadow. Some trick of the eye.
The ultrasound tech said nothing, though I could see her purse her lips as she strained to see the something in the nothing. My husband held my hand and squeezed it. I knew he was searching for the something, too.
The ultrasound tech must have known instantly.
She must have known, as I had known—somehow, two weeks before our first ultrasound—that for all my tender breasts and food aversions, for all the pregnancy bloat, and six positive pee tests, that the nothing that should have been something was not a baby. Was never a baby. And so what was there to mourn?
When the water receded, it left a dark ring on basement walls. At some point during the flood, the sewers began spewing into homes, permeating everything with a fetid odor that even bleach was hard pressed to eliminate.
After the rain stopped, everyone tromped down their basement floors and tromped back up laden with the ruins of their stuff. They carried yards of waterlogged carpet to the sidewalk. They went back down with power tools and came back up with chunks of drywall that had once been painted beige and hung with family photos. The masks went on and more drywall emerged. Sodden wood. The mottled underbelly of carpet pads. Nails hanging off of every edge. Dumped on the sidewalk. Heaped. Just a few feet tall at first, then ten, then twenty.
Mounds of stuff lined the sidewalks and more kept coming.
The ultrasound tech said, “I’m sorry.”
She touched my arm and I took my heels out of the stirrups and tried to straighten the paper draped around my waist. My husband squeezed my hand again trying to say so many things in that one touch.
“This happens sometimes. It’s called a blighted ovum.”
The word cut through the air. Blighted. A cold word. Fit for the long harsh winters of my city when the whole world pales.
I had heard it used before to diagnose the fruit trees that kept dying at my childhood home. They were covered with blight. As a child, I imagined great swarms of Blight surrounding the fruit trees, suffocating them, leaving nothing but a few sticks and rotted fruit when the infestation finally flew away. But the blight of our trees, as with my womb, was not like that at all.
It was silent. Diagnosed only after it was too late.
“Meaning,” the ultrasound tech continued, “that the placenta grew without a fetus.”
“So I still feel pregnant.”
“The placenta is what has all the hormones, so yes, you would still test positive. Still feel pregnant.”
It was my eleven-week appointment. Apparently, the placenta grew without a fetus for eight weeks. Then it stopped trying. There was no point; there was no baby. For three weeks, it just lingered. For three weeks, I walked around feeling not pregnant at all.
But I ate the Saltines and drank the ginger ale, just like pregnant women ought to do. I did light pilates and walked thirty minutes a day. I took my prenatal vitamins and read up on Baby’s progress:
Baby should be the size of a sweet pea.
Baby has its spinal cord, its fingers, its eyes.
Your baby has taste buds.
And all the while I pressed my hand against my flat belly and marveled at the miracle of it all.
After the basements were gutted, people brought out their sodden easy chairs. Their couches, too. Defeated wardrobes with creaky doors. Whole bedroom sets. Ottomans. Children’s toys poked out of trash heaps like bright plastic smiles.
Much of the stuff was irreparable. But some of it looked deceptively pristine, especially after it dried. We could hardly tell they were damaged at all, except for the signs that warned scavengers away. Some people stood by their heaps and verbally warned people away from their trash.
“It was sitting in sewage for forty-eight hours.”
“But it looks perfectly fine!”
“The flood line is eighteen inches high in my basement. Whatever was in that eighteen inches is covered in waste.”
“I think I’ll just take this ottoman and fix it up for my dog.”
“Waste. Fecal matter. Do you hear me? This is all damaged stuff. I’m telling you. Literally covered in shit.”
“I think I’ll just take this home. Maybe resell it after sprucing it up a bit.”
And so the people came from across state lines and began trolling the heaps. They loaded truck beds and moving vans up with shit-water couches and La-Z-boys. They tallied up Cragislist profits in their heads while we in the flood zone were told to stay away from yard sales for the next year or ten.
The scavengers got so bad that some people attacked their own furniture with sharp knives. Gashed all that ruined microfiber to make sure their couches stayed put on the curb. But it didn’t work. The city finally enacted an emergency law sentencing scavengers to jail with a hefty fine.
A curfew was put in place.
The landfill nearly closed, it was so full.
And the piles of stuff grew bigger.
I found out I was pregnant eight weeks in. I didn’t believe it after the first pee test, or the second. Even after the fourth one I had my doubts. I felt fine. Maybe a little tired and queasy. But we had just spent a few weeks hiking around Peru so that was only natural. There was jet lag to consider. But while some were lighter, each stick had the incontrovertible vertical stripe. There was no denying it.
My husband hugged me tight after each test and imagined a nursery filled with books and the fluffy alpaca stuffed animals we bought in Peru for Someday. After each test I kept saying I was not pregnant. Even as my breasts began to feel heavy and my belly seemed to swell, I stayed up late reading about missed miscarriages, where the fetus stops growing but does not expel.
With missed miscarriages, women go about their lives dreaming up nursery décor and baby names. They tell friends and family and start reading pregnancy books. They walk around in a fuzzy baby-happy bubble for weeks at a time.
This was never me. I had never wanted a baby. Not even as a child when all my friends toted baby dolls around wherever we went. Not even as my close friends started calling with their good news and I sent little crochet bonnets along with congratulatory cards peppered with exclamation points. Not even as I grinned and cooed at these children, delighted with their every funny face and tiny baby sounds. I liked babies, loved some even, but I did not want one, until suddenly I did.
It happened sometime after the fifth positive pee test, when my husband and I started swapping baby names on our evening walk. We both liked James, my grandfather’s name, if it were a boy. And Cora, his grandmother’s name, for a girl.
We said these names aloud:
And doing so conjured babies out of thin air. Gave what had been nondescript faces specific features. This amoeba growing in my belly had my husband’s cleft chin. My almond eyes. Our untamable hair.
We were having a baby. A tiny human who would sleep in our arms and puke on our shoulders, who would keep us up late with its squalling, and later still, missing curfews and breaking hearts, mending them, and having tiny humans, too.
The day after the blighted ultrasound, my husband drove me to the hospital. The morning sky was calm. Inside the sliding glass doors, all the nurses knew. They had seen this all before and knew that bouts of crying were typical. Less typical, perhaps, were the ones like me. We didn’t cry at all.
Instead, I put on my Good Citizen face and signed the forms. I slipped on my ID bracelet. I stepped out of my jeans and shrugged on the paper gown. I did not cause a scene. I sat propped at an awkward angle in the pre-op room and watched the IV needle slide into my vein and my heartbeat graph rhythmically across a black and green screen.
In lieu of sleep the night before, I consumed what seemed to be the entire internet, which was somehow filled with whole blighted ovum forums. Photos of blank staticky ultrasounds and more of what I came to call in my head, “The Procedure.”
Some women were awake for The Procedure and regretted it. There was something like a sharp pain, even through the local anesthetic. Some women did without The Procedure and bled at home, on toilets, while unfathomable clots and sacs fell into the water, which some retrieved and reserved in zip lock bags for medical analysis. These women felt either traumatized or healed. There was no middle ground. Only blood. So much that some thought they had died. One woman passed out on the toilet and was found by her boyfriend, her blood pooling like syrup on the cold tile floor.
Many women chose to go under, like I would, and woke feeling empty. Many could not stop crying. Many wondered what they did wrong.
A coded language emerged from the typo-ridden, emoticon-heavy forums. Talk of rainbow babies and baby dust and angel babies. Acquired verbiage and insider acronyms. *Trigger Warnings* followed by white text you could highlight to read. Or just scroll past, that blank expanse going on and on.
The day the flood began I had cooked a meal to bring to a friend, a new mother just barely home from the hospital. Ground turkey sizzled on the stovetop and made my stomach turn, which I took as a good sign. After all the pregnancy tests I began to tally up my body’s symptoms searching for any sign that might resemble a phantom reflection of the life I thought was growing within me.
My pregnant friends had spent whole evenings outlining the woes of pregnancy. One had been hospitalized five times because her morning sickness was so severe. Another said women should be thankful for morning sickness; it meant your body was doing the hard work of making a baby out of nothing.
So I waited for the healthy vomiting to begin, which it didn’t. Nor did the nausea. The most I could muster was this turkey aversion and I clung to it. It was something close to being nausea, if not quite, and thus something close to being pregnant.
Outside, the rain bit hard into our roof. I turned the music up to drown it out. It was only a late summer storm.
When I was a child—seven, maybe eight years old—El Niño swept through my Los Angeles neighborhood with enormous, tidal storms. The water had nowhere else to go but inside. It crept up our living room walls. My brother brought the football team over to rip up all the carpet. We set up industrial-sized fans that blew gale force winds around the room day and night.
The rain came so fast it overwhelmed all the drains in our cul-de-sac. We did not pay attention to the strained faces of our parents, only prayed for more rain. We did not understand the cost of such water wealth. How too much of it could lead to mold and rot. How too much could cause whole foundations to crumble, strike whole families to their knees amidst an infinite stretch of waterlogged rubble.
When I woke up from the surgery, a lazy-eyed nurse was waiting. I had a pad tucked between my naked legs to catch any blood and a dry thickness in my throat. I was told that I might bleed for a few days, that this was normal. Clots were normal, too, as were the occasional stabbing cramps.
“It’s not unlike a period,” the nurse said about recovery, handing me the fabric bag that held my street clothes.
I went to bed when I got home and didn’t wake up for hours. There was a heaviness in my gut that did not seem to reflect what was, supposedly, my empty womb.
I slept some more.
I don’t remember driving the forty-five minutes to work Monday morning, but I somehow ended up at my desk, scrolling through emails, returning calls. Going through all the motions while somewhere within me a wound refused to close.
The clots were larger than I expected, more painful, too. I remembered the nurse saying to compare the clots to coins. To track them and the blood flow for signs of internal hemorrhage. If the clots were smaller than a quarter—as mine were—then I shouldn’t be concerned.
But that did not stop me from heaving at the sight of them, the last remains of what might have been.
What the nurses and miscarriage message boards did not tell me about recovery were numerous:
Going to the bathroom would be more frightening than the time I had a gun pointed at my chest. The pain of it. The never knowing.
That hormones are like time-released pills. And that even weeks after The Procedure I would find myself dashing out of meetings to sob in a bathroom stall while colleagues waited in conference rooms and finally shrugged their shoulders before continuing on without me.
They did not tell me that no one wants to talk about miscarriages—at least not offline—especially not early miscarriages, because there is hardly anything there to lose that soon, so what is there to say?
Or that sometimes no one knows about the miscarriage at all, so then life proceeds and proceeds, even after the clots stop, the cramps stop, even after the tears stop, but there is still that heavy emptiness everywhere and nowhere at once.
No one told me that not wanting a baby in the first place did not make it any easier. No, that was the lie I told myself.
People learn how to mourn the loss of things. We learn young. Favorite blankets or toys get lost and never found. Friends fight and don’t make up. I lost most of my photos from college in an ill-packed move. Learning to grieve for small things makes way for the larger, more permanent losses:
That first love with all the agony of heartbreak. The grandparent. The friend of a friend. A parent. A spouse. There are whole literatures for these. The language of loss begets a language of mourning: My mother passed away—not died—like a ship in the night. Or a kidney stone. Though these bare words skirt around the surface, they at least attempt to hedge the pain.
But the grasping that comes from trying to mourn a void, the loss of a figment or idea or dream, we don’t have a language for it.
Without a context for my faceless loss—that empty, blighted womb—I was stranded. How does one mourn the loss of a baby that never was?
After the flood, I watched my friends pick through the ruins of their homes. Our house had been spared so I busied myself making meals to take them. I mothered them with my homemade meatball hoagies and elaborate from-scratch desserts. The salsa verde enchiladas and freshly baked bread. I cooked and cooked while the clots slowed then stopped.
We spent the rest of the summer patching up the damage as best we could. Our friends bought new furniture and painted their basements. “Almost as good as new,” they told us, feigning smiles to shield us from their worries.
Every night my husband and I slept curled into one another. Sometimes I would let myself cry, though those nights grew fewer and fewer. We talked about going to see the leaves change in Canada. I imagined crisp autumn air, flannel shirts, and rolling hills—all things that seemed utterly impossible while trapped in the muggy swamp of our Michigan summer.
But I could almost smell timber and pine. Even beyond the air conditioner’s drone and needling mosquitoes. Even beyond the dull ache in my core.
Eventually, the flood water receded. The piles of garbage dwindled. Insurance claims were made and denied. The bleach worked or did not. The houses repaired. We planned end of summer barbecues and bought school supplies.
We looked ahead.
And everywhere, the sun shone hot and sure.
Amy Lee Scott lives in Southeast Michigan with her husband and two children. She has an MFA from the University of Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program and her work can be found in Brevity, Fourth Genre, Gettysburg Review, Gulf Coast, New Letters, The Michigan Quarterly Review, The Southern Review, and the award-winning anthology After Montaigne. Essays have also been listed as notable in the Best American Essays 2009 and 2013, The Best American Travel Writing 2013, and published in Best of the Web 2010.