My mother told us about the baby after Easter. She made an occasion of it, fixed a nice dinner, had us pick daffodils from our yard for a centerpiece. When you arrange flowers, she told us, pick a container suited to their shape, color, and size. Because daffodils are big and bold you wouldn’t put them in a delicate crystal vase. Flowers can look good, she said, sometimes even striking, in things that weren’t intended for flowers, and she put the daffodils in a pottery jug.
This was when I was ten and Suzie was nine and we couldn’t get enough of our clever mother.
At dinner she was silly, handed Finn, our Irish setter, a piece of meat from her plate, though we were never to feed him at the table because it encouraged begging.
He swallowed it so quickly he couldn’t, according to our father, have tasted it.
She grabbed Suzie’s hand with the fork still in it, said “Ooh la la, Mamselle,” raised it to her lips, kissed Suzie’s fingers, ate the piece of baked potato off the fork.
I asked if Daddy already knew, saw his amused look and realized I’d said something stupid but I was still excited. I’ll be good with the baby, I thought. When it was fussy my mother would hand it to me because she knew I could always calm it down. It’s like magic, she’d say, the way you are with the baby.
The miscarriage came a few weeks later, at night. Suzie and I slept through it. When we came down for breakfast my mother was gone. My father said there’d been something wrong with the baby and it was no longer inside my mother.
He set bowls of cereal in front of us. “Your mother is all right. She just needs to rest for a day or two.”
He’d poured the milk with a free hand and the cornflakes, instead of making a neat mound, as they did when my mother made breakfast, floated in little soggy clumps. Where were you supposed to put the sugar, I wondered.
“Who took care of us last night?” Suzie demanded. “Did you leave us alone?”
When she pushed her bowl away, some of the milk slopped out on the table.
Our father swiped at it with a dishcloth, put the cloth back on the hook without rinsing it first as my mother would have done.
“You didn’t even know we were gone.”
She began to cry.
“Be good now. You girls be good.”
It was just the two of us, my father and me, that afternoon, who visited my mother in the hospital. Per hospital rules, Suzie was too young to go. She cried again, wanted our mother, pouted about being left with the sitter.
What I thought was the way she was acting proved she was too young.
My father said he didn’t want to take me either, I’d be sure to say something stupid, upset my mother. I talked too much. “You’re only going because she asked.”
I asked to bring the Mother’s Day present I had for my mother. I wanted to give it to her early.
When he said this, he didn’t look at me, didn’t watch for the effect it had on me, so I knew if I pressed him for an explanation I’d regret it.
I thought he was unfair. I wished I could tell him I wasn’t Suzie. Of course I knew my present wouldn’t make up for the baby. But she’d like it, I wanted to say. Because she’s in the hospital. You take things to people in the hospital.
She was propped up in bed when we came, looking pale and pretty, pulled me in beside her. Her arm around me was warm.
She fussed with my hair, had me get the comb from her purse, and went to work on the tangles.
How was Suzie, she wanted to know, and Finn, he missed her, she bet. She was bored here. Did we have clean clothes for school?
At lunch time Suzie and I had walked with my friend Christy to her house and her mother had made us lunch. My mother wanted to know what we’d had, said it was better than she made for us.
We’d had fun, I said. After we ate, before we went back to school, we’d gone down to the basement and played Christy’s piano.
My father said since we didn’t know how to play we must have just banged. He called our attention to a blue dresser at the front of my mother’s hospital room, pointed out to us that it was stained, not painted. “So you can still see the grain of the wood. Pennsylvania Dutch. In that style, I mean. It wouldn’t be authentic.”
If he hadn’t been there I would have asked my mother to show me how the bed could be cranked up and down, asked for a turn myself.
I gave my mother her gift after she came home, one afternoon when Suzie had Bluebirds and it was just us in the house. I took it to her bedroom, where she was folding laundry, holding the package behind my back.
It was a headscarf, a triangle of crisp cloth with matching ties, the kind that was popular then. My mother said she’d been wanting one and “this is the prettiest I’ve seen.” She put it on and I admired the effect of the bright against her dark hair.
Finn came in then to see what we were doing, jumped up on the bed between us. My mother tied the scarf on his domed red head and he preened for a moment, enjoying the attention. He looked like a character in a children’s book. Mother Dog, on her way to market.
She took the scarf away from him when he started snapping at the ties. “Well, that’s a hell of a note. The damn dog looks better in it than I do.”
This was so funny I laid back on the bed and laughed. My mother fell back too, rolled close to me.
Finn stood over us, licked our faces with his tongue.
What terrible breath you have, we told him in tones of exaggerated sweetness, reaching up to stroke him. It smells like garbage, like the stuff that floats on the top of the pond, like the inside of a toilet bowl, Finn.
I wasn’t admitted to the hospital when I miscarried. I was almost to the end of the first trimester, when the baby has grown to the size of a lime or a fig, depending on what you read. Fruit of some kind, anyway.
My insurance would pay to have the D&C, Dilation and Curettage done in the hospital and I could spend the night there, the doctor said, but I thought that was making too much of it, and she said she could do it in her office.
In person she was kind though she’d been sharp when I called the after-hours service the night before. My doctor, the doctor who’d delivered Tad, Dr. Price, was on vacation. Describe your symptoms, she’d said, and I’d told her that I’d begun spotting earlier in the day.
She interrupted. “This isn’t an emergency. Spotting’s common throughout the first trimester.”
I’d been talking too much, not coming to the point.
“About an hour ago, it got heavier. I’m going through a pad every ten minutes now.”
Hemorrhaging, Jon, my husband, called it. It’s no worse than a really bad period, I said, but he wanted to take me to the ER.
For what, I wondered. There’s no stop the miscarriage and have the baby pill.
After she heard how heavy the flow was, the doctor’s tone changed. She told me it did sound like a miscarriage, “regrettably,” but it was possible to bleed heavily and still have a viable pregnancy. Or it sometimes happened that a woman is carrying twins, loses one early in the pregnancy, carries the surviving twin to term.
None of this applies to me, I thought. She was only saying it so I wouldn’t start crying on the phone.
I wouldn’t, not with Jon and Tad in the next room. Tad should have already been in bed but we weren’t ready to part with him yet and I could hear Jon reading him Grandfather Twilight, his favorite book at the time. When Tad wasn’t around, Jon liked to make up new words for the book. Grandfather Twilight lives among the trees. He furgles the old ladies, leaves them crying oh, yes, yes please. I thought it was funny, how Jon couldn’t bring himself to say fuck even when he talked dirty.
“Come in tomorrow. We’ll get you an ultrasound, sort things out.”
I was wearing a nightgown when I talked to her. When I hung up I saw I’d left a big stain, red brown, old blood from the beginning of my pregnancy, on the back. I changed into my favorite, a birthday gift from my mother, American Beauty roses printed on bleached linen.
Tad was in bed with us. “A treat,” we’d told him, because he was supposed to sleep in his own bed. He still had his baby hair fuzz. To soothe myself to sleep, I rested my hand on his head, on the thin softness.
I didn’t hurt, wasn’t cramping. The gushing, when I couldn’t stick the pads in fast enough, was over, reduced to a moderate flow. I imagined the baby, fully formed in miniature, like the Christ child in a crèche, every detail realized.
You, my baby. Before I wrapped you in it, I’d hold out the gown to show you. See, baby. Isn’t it pretty? You would look at the roses, at me, and I’d hold you in the lovely cloth.
When I studied the Reformation, our assigned reading covered a controversy early in the career of Sir Thomas More. A father refused to give the priest who’d performed the funeral rites for his five- month old son the baby’s winding cloth. The winding cloth was considered part of the priest’s lawful perquisites and More prosecuted the man on behalf of the Church.
I thought More was a prick, but the professor said by imposing the ideas of our times, specifically the primacy of the individual, onto the past, I’d made a common error. What I needed to understand, he’d said, was More’s belief that the rights of the Church took precedence over the rights of the Crown and of the individual.
Jon startled awake, clasped me to him. “I love you so much,” he said, his voice husky and sweet in the darkness.
The man couldn’t make himself let go of the cloth.
At the hospital the next morning Tad was bright, bright, bright. In the radiology waiting room he darted from place to place, everything significant, of great interest. He wanted to accompany me into the x-ray room, check that place out too, but Jon said, “Let’s go to the park, cowboy.”
The receptionist smiled at Tad. “Won’t that be fun?”
Before he cried, he looked at her gravely for a moment, as if he was contemplating telling her yes, ordinarily the park would be fun, not today.
I’d had an ultrasound with Tad, so I knew the camera is always in motion, and that was why for a moment, I thought I saw something moving, like water rippling on a lake’s surface.
At the doctors’ office, they took me back at once, past full-faced girls in pastel-colored sweat suits.
The nurse gave me a little pink tablet with a carved out V in the center, Valium. She called it my “medication,” speaking of it as if it were a tonic, a restorative.
I’d never taken Valium before, was fascinated by the sensation it gave of being sealed away from every bad thing while still able to see what was waiting for you when it wore off.
The doctor talked then, not me. She could see why Dr. Price had been keeping me for himself, she said. I was such a good patient, held so still.
I felt a tug, heard her tell the nurse, “it always surprises me, how much fluid there is.” and “dispose of this, please.”
I didn’t turn my head to see what she carried from the room.
The doctor said she hoped I hadn’t told many people about my pregnancy, because it could be hard untelling them. When she was pregnant with her son she hadn’t told anyone until she started to show. “Except for my husband, of course. And my doctor.”
“What a good idea.”
She smiled, liking praise as well as anybody, told me how long I needed to wait before I could safely attempt to conceive, about a prescription for the vaginal suppository to treat the yeast infection I was “all but guaranteed” to get, about the support group that met at the hospital on the second Tuesday of every month, and how some women found it helpful to buy special jewelry or other mementos to commemorate the baby.
Maybe you should do that, Jon said, when I told him about it in the car. “I could get it for you. I mean, it could be from me.”
I’d already bought a pair of maternity jeans. They were in my closet, still in the bright yellow bag from the store. I thought I’d take the bag up to the attic, leave it there till I knew what was going to happen.
“I’m just worried about you,” Jon said, as I looked at the brochure the doctor had given me. Miscarriage gifts. “I’ll do whatever you want.”
I thought everything in the brochure looked cheap.
“There’s nothing I want.”
Tad’s nap time was long past and I should have just kept him up and put him to bed right after supper but I tucked him in and sent Jon to the store to pick up the prescription so I could make phone calls.
Because I had told people I was pregnant.
My father answered the phone, said, “Let me get your mother.”
His response did not surprise me. Neither of us cared for the other’s company.
My mother would probably cry when she heard.
“I can talk to you,” I said, “since you both knew I was pregnant. I’ve had a miscarriage.”
My father’s voice was deep, the result of practice, but it quavered when he said miscarriage.
“That’s bad. That’s too bad.”
He wanted to know why.
“The doctor said you usually can’t tell this early. There may have been a problem with the fetus and miscarriage is the body’s response.”
“She didn’t think it had something to do with how much you work?”
Suzie and I used to say there was no situation so bad our father couldn’t make it worse.
When I’d told them about the baby the week before he’d just finished reading Middlemarch and he’d talked about that when he was done expressing his surprise and pleasure, saying Tad would be a fine big brother and I should take care of myself.
He didn’t know I’d read the book, that it was a favorite of mine.
He and my mother had seen a BBC production of Middlemarch on Masterpiece Theater and that led him to the book which, he said, was even better. “She just knows so much about everything. The economy, politics, agriculture.”
As he questioned me about my miscarriage I thought of vain, doll-faced Rosamond Vincy in the book. Her husband, Dr. Lydgate, warned her of the risk a pregnant woman takes when she mounts a spirited steed, but foppish Captain Lydgate, the doctor’s aristocratic cousin, wanted to go riding with her.
That was one thing George Eliot didn’t know. Riding a horse, even falling from a horse, doesn’t cause miscarriage.
Maybe it was just bad luck, I could have told my father.
“Well,” he said, “this is going to hit your mother pretty hard.”
Before I hung up, I asked him to tell Suzie too.
Tad came into the kitchen then, smiling tightly, unsure of his welcome.
“I just can’t sleep,” he said, as if astonished, then waited to be told to go back to bed and try again.
“That’s all right. I was missing you.”
We played restaurant. He was the waiter and whatever I wanted, escargot, Chateaubriand, oeufs a la neige, they didn’t have.
“You wouldn’t like it anyway.”
He’d go into his bedroom, come back with a plate of play food. “This is what you want,” and I’d put the plastic chicken leg or doughnut up to my mouth, smack my lips, say, “Heavens to Murgatroyd, this is good.”
When Jon came home with the suppositories and takeout from Taco Time, we let Tad be a waiter with real food. Fetch us some liverwurst enchiladas and veal juice Mexi-fries, we told him. Chop-chop.
Tad thought this was a scream, and dumped the Nachos Grande, bean and cheese burritos, and Crustos in front of us. “This is what you get.”
I was tired and the Valium had left me logy but I played with Tad for a long time, read him book after book till he fell heavily asleep in my arms.
As soon as the baby recognizes your voice, and that’s early, almost as soon as they’re born, there’s a way they look at you, clear and soft. It’s you, Tad seemed to say. You. Everything there is. Everything I want.
Jane Snyder’s stories have appeared in Bull, the Magazine for Men and Cobalt Weekly. She lives in Spokane.