Every particle in this body is continually changing; no one has the same body for many minutes together, and yet we think of it as the same body.
— Swami Vivekananda
For eleven weeks I threw up in the late afternoons. I shivered and broke out in sweats, grew bloated and round in the cheeks. My breasts felt tender. My tongue swam in my mouth. I ate grapefruit and soft-boiled eggs, loosened my waistband, fell asleep on the floor under my desk. Inside my womb, cells collided and combined, broke apart and formed again. I pressed my cheek to the carpet and shut my eyes against the light. I listened to my blood.
What secrets does the body hold? I was oblivious, dumb, a dupe. We moved through space, my body and I, but I knew nothing.
I slept on my left side, knees curled to chest. I had orgasms in my dreams. Outside my bedroom window, the mountains stretched out their flanks in the spring light. At night the moon slid past the edge of the skylight above my bed, a watchful eye. I felt a pulling inside my abdomen, like loose skin stretching tight. I sat cross-legged on the floor with my hands resting palms-up on my knees. I pressed the tip of my tongue against my teeth, closed my eyes, and focused on my brow’s center point, the third eye. A black planet pulsed and radiated behind my lids. I tried to sense the vibration of the universe, to hear the sound of Om.
When you see the unborn, uncreated, unconditioned, you are liberated from everything.
— Siddhartha Gautama
Sometimes there is blood, but not always. Sometimes there is no sign at all. Sometimes there is just a brown smudge, like a trace of mud, which is what happened to me. It might have been nothing, but when I saw it, I knew. It came to me that the flooding queasiness, the heavy fatigue, the metallic taste in my mouth had all disappeared, as if they had seeped through a pinhole too small to perceive, leaving behind the familiar self I’d been longing for all those weeks. I didn’t wake my husband. I lay there next to him in the dark, listening to him breathe.
In the morning I lay back on the crinkling paper of an examination table and stared up at the fluorescent lights. The nurse-midwife squirted jelly on my stomach and slid her heartbeat monitor in a slow circle over my pelvic bones. We waited for the rapid woof-woof-woof of a seed-size heart, but heard only the slower thunking of my own. “Don’t worry,” the nurse said. “It’s probably just too soon for us to hear a heartbeat. Maybe you’ve miscalculated the due date. Been feeling sick?” She wiped the goo off my belly with a paper towel. “Then probably everything is fine.”
She sent me down to the ultrasound department, where I waited for an hour as a succession of couples emerged from the examination room smiling and clutching videotapes. “Congratulations,” I heard the doctor tell them. “Everything looks fine.” In a small office across from where I sat, a technician prepared syringes for drawing blood. To amuse a fussy child, she took a latex glove out of a box and blew it into a balloon, a bloodless hand.
The radiologist called me in. “I’m sure everything is fine,” he said cheerfully. In the grainy darkness, I tried to breathe evenly. Gray shapes formed and re-formed on the monitor screen. “Here’s your uterus,” he said, pressing down hard with the probe. A pear-shaped outline shaded gray slid onto the screen like a misshapen moon. There was only gray. The radiologist moved the probe up and around, then set it down. “I’m very sorry,” he said.
I’d imagined a dead baby shaped like a seahorse, knees curled to chin, like the photographs in biology books. But there was nothing but darkness, blank and black as outer space.
This body, formed out of the five elements by the Creator, is known as brahma-anda (the brahmic egg). It is created for the experience of pleasure and pain.
— The Shiva Samhita
“One in every four pregnancies spontaneously aborts,” my doctor told me. This was something I had not known. I stood in her office, my wet umbrella in hand, and cried. She gave me a hug. It was a “blighted ovum,” she explained, which sounded like a biblical plague. “The fetus just doesn’t develop. Something goes wrong for reasons we don’t understand. It is not your fault.” I nodded like a child and took the tissue she offered. Then she said, “The bleeding should start soon.”
I called my husband from my cellphone in the car. He said we could try again. I called my mother when I got home. She said, “Honey, you know that these things happen for the best.” My mother endured six miscarriages after she had me, one a girl born alive at nineteen weeks whom they didn’t even try to save. My mother spent months on bed rest after each one. I remember coming home from school to find her propped on pillows, knitting, or supine on the couch, reading. I remember her crying a lot. Eventually she had my brother, nearly nine years after she’d had me.
My girlfriend took me shopping at the mall. When I told her the news, I didn’t know what tense to use: “I’ve had a miscarriage,” or “I’m having one,” or “I’ll have one soon.” She simply said, “I’m sorry,” which I was grateful for. I didn’t fit into any clothes in my regular size, so I just watched her try on shoes and tried not to think of the stunted amniotic sac inside me, its useless placenta still obliviously pumping out hormones.
I walked through the cemetery near our house, the tombstones stained gray in the spring rain. Magpies chattered and wheeled around the pines. I looked at the engraved names: German, Swedish, Irish, an Italian, a Slav, a small section that were all Chinese. Husbands and wives and children lay side by side beneath the ground. Under a sycamore I saw a half-size marble headstone for a child.
Can you mourn a death when there’s no body? When there never was a heartbeat? The Talmud says life begins at twenty weeks, when the child quickens in the womb. You can’t light a yahrzeit candle in mourning or recite the kaddish prayer for a fetus. You can’t leave a pebble on a grave.
Yoni-mudra (womb-seal) . . . consists in forcing the life energy (prana) through the six psychoenergetic centers (chakras) of the body.
— Svatmarama Yogindra
I sat on the toilet and listened to the sound of blood falling into water. It fell in an alarmingly steady stream, deep magenta, with glistening, liverish clots. The doctor on call had instructed me to watch for any fetal matter I might pass — “It looks grayish, kind of like chicken,” she’d explained — so I took a plastic container into the bathroom with me, but everything I managed to catch in it looked like blood. I hunched forward over my knees, my hands pressed against my face, as the cramps grew more severe. The trickle continued. No one had told me there would be so much blood.
After an hour or so, my husband opened the bathroom door a crack and peered in. “Are you OK?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said.
The doctor had told me to come in to the emergency room if I thought I might be hemorrhaging. My husband handed the phone to me, and I paged her again. When she called back, she sounded sleepy and annoyed. “I’ll meet you there,” she said.
By the time we got to the ER, I was dizzy and nauseated, and my sweat pants were saturated with blood. The triage nurse took me back right away, hooked me up to an IV, and covered me with a paper sheet. Then she left my husband and me alone in the cubicle with its greenish walls and accordion-pleated curtain. The pain was bad. My husband sat on a stool by my side and held my hand. I was glad he was there. It was past midnight, and his eyes looked tired and puffy. He said, “I’m sorry that you have to go through this.”
I said, “I don’t want to have a baby.”
He said, “You don’t have to.”
The shava-asana (corpse pose) is done to reduce stress and tension. Lying on your back, let your arms and legs drop open. . . . Close your eyes. Release control of the breath, the mind, and the body.
— Hatha-yoga manual
The doctor was a disconcertingly young woman with a blond pageboy and frosted lipstick. She looked a little dazed, as if she’d just woken up. After wheeling in a machine with a tall plexiglass cylinder and a thick suction hose, she sat by my feet and told me to open my legs. She told me the machine would make a lot of noise. She told me it would hurt, but that they would give me sedatives, and I would not remember anything later. This struck me as a bad sort of compromise. But, in fact, all I did remember afterward was my bluish purple blood spattering against the cylinder’s walls.
My husband and I spent most of the night in the ER. Every time I tried to sit up, black fingers of static stretched before my eyes, and I had to lie down again. When I began to shake, they covered me with blankets. The lights were ceaselessly bright, but I knew time was passing because the first nurse disappeared and another one took her place. The new nurse wore green scrubs and clogs and had a German accent. She thought I might be having an adverse reaction to the pain medications they’d given me. Finally we discovered that I was simply dehydrated. I went through two IV bags of fluids, drank a couple of glasses of water, stood weakly, and went home.
If you really find out what you are, you will see that you are not an individual, you are not a person, you are not a body.
— Nisargadatta Maharaj
Eventually the body reverts. Or maybe you forget. Or both. I passed through what would have been my second and third trimesters, and slowly I began to feel like myself again. I fit into my old clothes. My stomach flattened. I cut my hair.
Every so often, though, someone who hadn’t heard the news would ask me when the baby was due — even though it should have been obvious just from looking at me — and I would have to say, “There is no baby,” and they would look confused, and then embarrassed, and then they’d say, “Oh, I’m sorry.”
My husband and I had agreed to try again, but for a long time we didn’t have sex. When we finally did, I began to cry. He touched my hair and said, “I had no idea you were still feeling so upset by all this.”
I took a class in which one of the other students was pregnant. Over the course of the semester, I watched her grow round and heavy, her shirts stretched too tight across her chest, a roll of flesh showing around her waist. Her cheeks grew plump; her upper arms, fat. She brought food to class — bags of cookies and nuts and dried fruit — which she arranged before her on the table around which we all sat. She wasn’t feeling sick at all, she said. She talked about herself incessantly, the way I knew I had too, as if no one else had ever experienced pregnancy before. I overheard her in the hall after class, going on about her midwife and prenatal yoga. I didn’t want to hate her, but I did.
An ancient patriarch said, “After enlightenment you are still the same as you were before. There is no mind, and there is no truth.” When you have arrived at this recognition, please hold on to it.
Right around what should have been my due date, I got pregnant again. This time I told nobody. I ran the water to cover the noise when I threw up. I pretended to sip my wine. The winter sun refracted through frost etched on my skylight. I sat on the floor where the blinds cast shadowy stripes on the carpet and worked on the yogic breathing exercises I’d learned. I inhaled through my right nostril and exhaled through the left. I inhaled through both nostrils, then held the breath for as long as I could stand. I breathed in through my curled tongue and out through my nose. I drew the air into my lungs and held it there, listening to the humming inside my head, the sound that lay beneath all other sounds, a distant thumping, like a giant heart. It said: Hold on. It said: Let go.