Aspen, Colorado. I had really wanted to love this town, and for a moment, I did.
Dave and I had been married for two years when I joined him there for a work conference held at a resort, the kind of place with enormous stone fireplaces and chandeliers fashioned from elk antlers. Snow glistened on the majestic peaks, and the town was bustling with a Nordic-themed festival complete with snow sculptures and fireworks. I breathed in the crisp air and could practically hear John Denver singing “Rocky Mountain High.”
The first months of pregnancy had been pure elation, and I was sure I’d done everything right. I begged off skiing with our good friends from New York City, Gary and Chris, who were also in town, and opted for a slow walk along a river trail lined with white-barked aspen trees. At a cocktail reception held in an art gallery, I asked for seltzer with a twist of lemon. Afterward, I skipped the cedar hot tub and climbed into bed early with Dave.
After a year of infertility treatment, I began to feel like a mother the moment I learned I was pregnant. Gone were the early mornings sitting anxiously in the crowded clinic waiting room, feeling like nothing more than a last name/first name/ date of birth. Often now I noticed myself humming softly to the tiny being growing inside me. I was in awe of the miracle of life, how a microscopic union of Dave’s and my DNA could morph day by day to become the person who would make us a little family of three. In the evenings, we would try out names for either a girl or a boy, opting for short names to go with Dave’s long last name.
We were waiting until we returned from Aspen, for the final doctor’s visit of the first trimester, before telling anyone we were expecting. Not even Gary and Chris knew, though Chris raised an eyebrow and smiled when I stealthily tried to swallow a huge prenatal vitamin with my orange juice at breakfast.
Back in New York City on a Monday morning, I knew something wasn’t right when the ultrasound technician, who had moments earlier been asking about our trip, suddenly stopped talking. Her face wore a blank expression as she scanned the monitor.
“What are you seeing?” I asked, terrified.
“Wait for a minute while I get the doctor,” she said without meeting my eyes. When the door closed, I immediately reached for my phone to call Dave. “Something’s wrong,” I said, tears already beginning to flow down my cheeks.
A few minutes later, the doctor was in the room in his white lab coat. “Good morning,” he mumbled, becoming the second in what felt like a long line of people who would not look at me directly. I watched him carefully as he pulled on latex gloves, adjusted the ultrasound wand, then leaned in closer to the screen to get a better look.
The heartbeat, which had been so steady and strong in past exams, was now gone.
Two days later, Dave and I were at an outpatient surgical center for a D&C. My eyes were swollen from crying, and the only comfort there seemed to be was Dave’s warm hand holding my freezing one.
Earlier we had been arguing about whether to tell people about the miscarriage. Dave said yes. I said it was complicated. We hadn’t let anyone in on the pregnancy itself, let alone the backstory of infertility, and all of it felt too exhausting and too raw to share. The very act of seeking treatment had already proven that my body just couldn’t do what it was designed to do, I told him. Even as I said it, I knew I’d never let a friend get away with a statement like that.
“And what if they blame me for doing something wrong, like flying to Aspen?” I asked. An unshakable feeling of guilt had lodged itself in my gut.
“No one we know would be that insensitive,” he replied.
In the days before podcasts and blogging, before Facebook was even a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye, I had literally never heard or read a single firsthand account of infertility or miscarriage. I’d never felt so alone.
I watched a needle enter my arm and felt only mildly sedated as the nurse placed my feet in the stirrups and spread my legs wide. The instruments on the stainless-steel tray in front of me looked like the tools of a medieval torture chamber, I thought in a panicky haze. Dave put his forehead on my shoulder and whispered, “We’ll try again. No matter what happens, it will all be okay.”
That night, I propped myself up against the pillows on our bed at home and called my parents. My mother answered. “Can you put Dad on too?” I asked.
“Hi, Annie,” my father said cheerfully. “To what do we owe the pleasure of this call?” he asked.
I started crying before the words even came out. “I had a miscarriage,” I blurted.
There was a brief pause, and then my mother said softly, “I’m sorry,” the three syllables I had been willing someone to say.
My father was silent for a long moment. Finally, he said, “Annie, this too shall pass.”
A week later, two pieces of mail arrived. One was the medical lab report from the D&C. I opened the envelope before taking off my coat. The tissue sample had revealed no genetic disorder. I couldn’t tell if this should make me feel better or worse. I also learned the gender, something I had specifically asked the doctor’s office not to tell me, for fear of being more attached than I already had been. If the pregnancy had survived, we would have had a girl.
The other envelope contained a note from my father. Reserved in speech but expansive in writing, my father would, I knew, send a letter that would offer something for me to consider. I poured a glass of water and sat down on the couch. His handwriting was stereotypical of a doctor’s, nearly impossible to decipher. I squinted and read…
I thought I would share with you a hard-earned insight that has come to me over the years. Maureen’s death remains to this day for me a largely personal matter. I made my own accommodation to it. I thought that to share it, or to seek consolation, would have diminished my personal capacity to go on. Now I believe that solace is found both within ourselves and among others. You will find your own way of making peace with your loss, I am certain.
Up until that point in life, I realized, I had never developed any coping skills for times when life got difficult. I didn’t have to, because, for the most part, nothing had ever really gone wrong. And if I did happen to meet a challenge, I dealt with it by just trying harder. Grades? Put my nose to the grindstone. Job? Double down on networking. Relationships? Fight the tendency to want to be alone and put myself out there more. I was determined, obstinate even. It worked every time.
This longing for a child, though, was entirely outside the realm of trying harder. My body flat out refused to obey our dreams, no matter how earnest they were. The stress was so unmanageable that I noticed an ever-present quivering in my limbs that would sometimes cause my teeth to chatter, even on the warmest days. When I read about a scientific study documenting that struggling with infertility produces the same levels of anxiety and depression as being diagnosed with cancer, I was only a little surprised.
But my father’s letter had left an impression. You will find your own way of making peace with your loss.
What happened next I can only describe through the benefit of hindsight, for only now can I see that I was taking an intentional step into the darkness, trusting I’d eventually find some sort of light to see by. Somehow, rather than running from my pain, I chose to stop and face it directly by signing up for a silent meditation retreat.More than a little embarrassed, I explained the contents of my wildly scattered mind. She smiled. “That’s totally normal,” she said.
Perhaps it wasn’t that far-fetched an idea. After college I had lived in Japan, where I had a job teaching English not far from the famous temples of Kyoto. On my weekends off, I would occasionally wander the grounds, marveling at the meticulously raked rock gardens where gravel flowed like ripples of water. My American roommate was studying Zen and asked me a few times if I’d like to join her to meditate. But at twenty-two, I could think of hundreds of things I’d rather do than stare at a blank wall for hours.
Now, when an acquaintance mentioned that he had just returned from a meditation retreat in rural Massachusetts, something clicked. I made up my mind in an instant. I was going.
It took less than a day to realize that there’s not much silence at a silent retreat. While I, along with my fellow meditators, took a vow of outward silence, the ever-present self-talk inside my head formed a deafening cacophony of senseless random voices. Did my college boyfriend become a ski instructor as he had planned? Wow—my mom used to make sandwiches out of green bread for St. Patrick’s Day. Where did she get that idea? Where is the nearest B&B? Can I get there without a car if this becomes too much?
On the second day, I signed up for a five-minute interview with a teacher. “How’s it going for you?” she asked as I sat down in a chair opposite hers in a little room near the main meditation hall.
More than a little embarrassed, I explained the contents of my wildly scattered mind. She smiled. “That’s totally normal,” she said. “And it’s an important first step—noticing the stories our minds spin, constantly luring us out of the present moment.” She paused. “But mindfulness is not only about intentionally noticing your thoughts and feelings come and go, you know.”
“What else is it, then?”
“It’s about noticing them without judgment.” Without jud ment. I took that in. Was it even possible to let the thoughts and emotions simply be without getting lost in them, without beating myself up?
The teacher’s steady gaze felt disarming. “Try that for a while,” she said, standing to let me know the interview was over.
Once again I took my seat in the large hall and wrapped my shawl around my shoulders. Thoughts started seeping in again, darker this time. The story of my miscarriage began to play out. The technician avoiding eye contact. The dehumanizing procedure to, as they called it, “empty the contents.” And afterward, my body, tricked by the remaining pregnancy hormones, overcome by waves of nausea and morning sickness, with absolutely nothing to show for it. Every moment felt like it had been recorded and was playing back in high resolution with surround sound.
On my meditation cushion, I watched myself caught in dangerous, coursing rapids. “Notice this moment, without judgment,” I repeated to myself, trying not to sound harsh as I braced my hands on the sides of the cushion as if it were a canoe headed for the edge of a waterfall.
I tried again, seeing thoughts arise like overhanging tree limbs, treacherous boulders, and spinning eddies. “Watching blame now,” I said to myself, labeling feeling after feeling as I got pulled along with the current. “Watching sadness.” Occasionally I would find myself in a pool of still water and take a breath.
The more I kept at it in the hours and days that followed, the more I felt like I could sometimes see the landscape as a bird could, soaring high above. There was no denying the close-up reality that Dave and I had lost the pregnancy we wanted desperately. Equally true was this newer view occasionally coming into focus—a certain kind of perspective that was wide enough to include both the pain and the possibility of being kind to my hurting self.
At the end of the retreat, a woman named Janet offered me a ride from Massachusetts back to New York. I was eager to talk to another meditator about her experience. It was pouring rain, and the dirt parking lot had been transformed into a bed of quicksand. When we dragged our suitcases through the puddles to her car, we found one of her tires completely flat.
“I’m really sorry,” she said. I was eager to get home to Dave, but I was on a post-retreat high. “That’s okay,” I said truthfully as we waited for the local garage to send someone.
We sat inside her car and swapped stories of sore knees and necks. She asked me what had brought me to the retreat, and I surprised myself by telling her about the miscarriage. “Had you chosen a name?” she asked. Dave and I had never told anyone the name we had picked.
“Arden,” I said in a near whisper. “That’s beautiful,” she replied.
“Thanks. We named her after the place where we were married, outside of New York City, the Arden House. Also there’s a Forest of Arden in a Shakespeare play. I liked the name as soon as I heard it.”Maybe we were all tired of the silence. Maybe we wanted our loved ones to be seen, finally. Perhaps social media provided just the right distance to be safe.
An hour later we pulled out of the retreat center, riding slowly on a flimsy spare tire. Janet put her hazards on as cars and trucks zipped past us. As she drove, she told me about her life.
“My husband and I divorced after being together for thirty-five years,” she said, turning up the speed of the windshield wipers. “There I was, sixty years old and having to support myself for the first time. I hadn’t been in the workforce for decades,” she said, shaking her head. “So I got a job doing the only thing the local agency had available—cleaning bathrooms at a nursing home.”
“What was that like?” I asked, relieved at Janet’s lack of need for small talk.
“I’d been at Buddhism for a while, and I’d read a bunch of books by Thích Nhất Hạnh,” she said, referring to the famous Vietnamese Buddhist monk. “He said, Washing the dishes is like bathing a baby Buddha. The profane is the sacred. So I took that on. Me—a woman who at one time hired someone else to clean my own bathrooms! But I scrubbed those toilets with pure attention,” she laughed. “Toilet after toilet, day after day. Buddhist practice is like that. We learn to simply do what’s in front of us without the whole drama.” She laughed again, then added, “It surely doesn’t mean that I didn’t apply for other jobs as they became available.”
We sat in silence for a while, as I watched the slick expanse of highway before us. After a while, she turned to look at me. “No mud, no lotus,” she said, quoting Thích Nhất Hạnh again. “Out of the muck of life, beauty will emerge.”
When I returned home, I discovered I was pregnant. I had been pregnant the whole retreat, without even knowing it.
Our son Evan came screaming and kicking his way into the world a year after Arden would have been born. Two years after Evan’s birth, Dave and I would lose a second pregnancy, another girl, who we had wanted to name Adele, after my grandmother. Once again, the pain washed in, but this time, the experience had a different quality. For the first time, I was willing to see that what was happening wasn’t so much a roadblock keeping me from life—it was my life. It wasn’t at all what I had wished for, but it was mine to work with, to make sense of.
Learning to meditate reminded me of summer vacations at the beach with my father when I was a child. My father was never more relaxed, more available, than when he was at the shore. I remember him teaching me to dive under approaching waves that seemed to dwarf my small body. “No matter how big they are,” he advised, “there’s always a calm place under the waves, near the sandy bottom.” And he was right. In contact with the ocean floor, I could feel the gentle tug of the currents in my long hair and hear the otherworldly crackling around me, knowing that I was safe.
Nearly five years after we lost Arden, I gave birth to a second boy, Drew, delivered in distress with the umbilical cord wrapped tightly around his neck, but healthy and wildly intent on living. Arden, Evan, Adele, Drew—a braid of interwoven strands running through the life of my little nuclear family. I think about the girls sometimes, even as I watch the boys kick a forbidden soccer ball in the apartment or find the pot they used to cook macaroni and cheese, unwashed and perfectly messy in the kitchen sink.
Many years after we lost Arden and Adele, I spontaneously posted on Facebook:
Let’s just try something here. Today, October 15, has been designated as a day of remembrance for pregnancy loss and infant death, which includes, but is not limited to, miscarriage, stillbirth, SIDS, the death of a newborn. To show how many of us are in this boat together, please consider leaving a comment . . .
In the first comment, I left Arden and Adele’s names. I had never before breathed their names publicly.
I was blown away by the response. Nearly one hundred came forth, women and men, telling one another of their losses. While I considered all of them my friends, I had known about less than half of their experiences. My heart broke open, appreciative of the vulnerability and honesty of this community. Maybe we were all tired of the silence. Maybe we wanted our loved ones to be seen, finally. Perhaps social media provided just the right distance to be safe. Whatever it was, it was beautiful and brave, and I knew that when it came to grief, silence was no longer an option for me.
From Heartwood: The Art of Living with the End in Mind by Barbara Becker. Used with the permission of Flatiron Books. Copyright © 2021 by Barbara Becker.