Nonfiction by Susan Moshofsky
Jesus on the cross, a bronze crucifix, hangs on the wall opposite my hospital bed. No crown of thorns. No nails. Just a tiny, stylized figure of the Christ. Arms raised. Featureless face. It’s the last thing I want to see.
I hear the squeal of furniture legs on linoleum as my husband, Brett, stands up from the chair next to my bed. I feel his lips brush my cheek. “There you are,” he whispers in my ear. “You’ve been out for a while.”
I grab the handrails, pull on them to sit up, but the anesthesia has left me slow and groggy. My eyes focus on the wall across from me, just left of the boxy TV bolted there. I focus on the bronze cross, the small figure of Jesus. And then I remember. It’s the day after Thanksgiving. The day after the cramps and the bloodstains in my underwear. The day after the technician found, instead of the heartbeat of our baby, the ghostly image of a stilled fetus, sixteen and a half weeks along, ten weeks from any possibility of viability. After the doctor couldn’t find the heartbeat in her office. After the insertion of the laminaria at home to open my cervix.
Now I remember. Brett drove me here to the hospital. The day after. To have the dead not-yet-baby removed, our second pregnancy loss this year. After three years of secondary infertility.
I look out the window. The trees are empty. Bleak branches reach to the perma-grey sky.
“Can I get you some water?” Brett rubs my shoulder, brushes his lips against my face.
I hear boots clicking on the linoleum floor as a tall, dark-haired woman strides into the room. My doctor’s partner. Fists stuffed into the pockets of her white coat, she opens her mouth and begins speaking, but I’m having trouble following her words. I can’t draw my eyes away from the crucifix.
She is saying something about how this is a fresh start. They got it all, you can go on, try again. That I’ll bleed at least another week, that she’s writing me a pass. Stay home from work. Take care of yourself.
I’m not looking at her, and I’m not looking at Brett. Just the bronzed, solid branches of the cross where the small figure hangs.
The gleam of the bronze brings me back to the day three years ago when my little brother got married in Buffalo, New York. Rachel, our three-year-old daughter, was the flower girl. I’d stayed up late every night for a week, then all night, the night before we flew to the wedding, to finish sewing her flower girl dress. It was silk, a deep teal, with puffy sleeves and little fabric rosettes made by curling the teal fabric into itself. Whorls of fabric I pulled and spiraled and hand-stitched together. Neck muscles stretched taut, I hunched over my sewing until I’d fastened the row of eight teal rosettes framing the neckline.
Rachel loved that dress; she’d put it on and twirl, spinning until the air lifted the skirt, when she’d say, “Look, Mommy! It dances!”
The day before the wedding, we visited Niagara Falls. The humidity curled Rachel’s shoulder-length blonde hair into tight ringlets, helixes of hair. She looked like a doll the day of the wedding, the day I propelled her down the aisle of the Catholic church, alone. She clutched a tiny basket filled with deep-pink rose petals. I waited at the back of the church in my own teal bridesmaid dress (that didn’t dance) and watched my baby walk down the aisle.
She looked so tiny, walking down that long aisle. Her black, patent-leather Mary Jane shoes clicked on the floor as she took a step, then reached her hand into the basket, grabbed a few petals, flung them onto the floor, then stepped forward again to scatter more.
She stopped. Looked up, then back, toward me at the end of the aisle. I followed her gaze, up to the enormous, bronze figure of the crucifixion above the altar, the agonizing detail of crimson blood dripping from the crown of thorns, oozing from his side, from the nails in his hands and feet. My daughter froze. She turned back toward me, eyes wide. “JEEZUS, Mommy! Look, JEEZUS!” she shouted from where she stood, then came running back to me, crying.
Every face turned to look. Some were smiling. A few laughed. But I was angry at myself for not foreseeing the crucifix, how it would frighten my daughter. Our church displayed an empty cross. Not this. No three-year-old child needed to see that. The blood. So much. So red.
My sister-in-law-to-be floated to us in her white, puffy-sleeved dress. She and I hugged Rachel, together.
So, it’s the crucifix on the hospital wall. Minus the blood. That’s all I can see as the doctor explains recovery. The crucifix.
I must have asked if it was a boy or a girl because now the doctor says, “It was just tissue. You were lucky you didn’t have to wait, then go through hours of labor.”
I’m not sure what I said next, but it might have been something like How is it lucky to have someone scrape your baby out of you, or maybe How is it lucky to lose the baby you were sure that this time, you’d get to keep, or perhaps it was How is it lucky to have to go home and tell your daughter, now five-almost-six that nope, no baby again because the next thing the doctor says is, “Yep, you’re the lucky one. I have to go upstairs now to see my patient who just had her eighth miscarriage. I was up to my boots in blood, tending her.”
It’s the week after Thanksgiving, the week before Rachel’s sixth birthday. Even though it’s been almost a week, I’m still bleeding, soaking a pad every few hours, and throwing it away, leaking leftover baby—all I’ve got left, even if the doctor did say they got it all. Or maybe it’s just my blood. Not his. Not hers.
It’s Saturday, the day of Rachel’s birthday party. I’m wearing the sweater I knitted for Brett a few years ago. The one I loved knitting. The thick, chunky yarn a soft comfort in my fingers. The one he hates to wear because he says it’s scratchy. I was about to pull on my white maternity dress, the one with the slimming taupe panels down the front, but my mother said, NO. You just can’t. You’re not pregnant. But my body still thinks it is. The edge of Brett’s sweater barely covers the stretchy blue panel in the front of the maternity jeans that I so clearly still need. My husband’s sweater, these jeans, that’s all that fits, and I have to go back to school on Monday. I don’t know what I’ll wear.
My daughter is six. Her birthday invitations had already been sent out before the pregnancy loss, so seven little girls will be here, at our house, any minute. We are going to have games—hide and seek; pair up, wrap your partner like a mummy in toilet paper; pin the tail on the paper donkey; and something else. I’m not sure what it is.
We have a cake. I’m watching my daughter blow out the candles. There are so many! How is she six? Someone took pictures. I remember trying to smile and having to leave the room when I couldn’t.
It’s Monday. I’m still leaking out baby, and I have to watch it happen. I even have to go back to work. I walk into my classroom just as the bell rings, fresh from another trip to the bathroom. My students, sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds, look carefully at, then away from me in my white maternity dress. They give me side-eye, slant glances. Tiny, frightened smiles. No voices. Eyes everywhere but my face as I stand at the front of the room. Finally, a girl in the front row breaks the silence. “It’s good to see you.” The boy next to her adds, “So glad you’re back.” I know then that the counselor came in to the class last week to coach them. Only a couple of weeks ago, I’d told them I’d be going on leave to have my baby in May. May 17.
I come home after school. I walk into the kitchen. I look at the countertops, piled with mail, a can of soup, a package of spaghetti noodles, two loaves of bread, a jar of peanut butter—still open. I stand at the sink. I look out the window, past the dirty dishes piled to the rim of the sink, to the cottonwood in our backyard. The cottonwood, a giant, was there before we built the house. When we bought the lot four springs ago, the lot filled with trees, Brett said, “Cottonwoods are messy,” and “Too bad it’s so big—we’ll be dealing with its mess for years.”
It’s May again, when the cottonwood behind our house sends its downy seeds swirling. Fluffs of cotton eddy in the air, pool like snowdrifts in the corners of our deck, the edges of our driveway, the curb along our street. I reach for one tiny seed as it floats my way. It rests on my palm, weightless, as I close it in my fist. As I release it, I remember the baby, due May 17, the baby who might have been. Just as ephemeral and fleeting as the cottonwood seeds. Light as air, yet ever in my heart.
Sue Moshofsky is a recovering perfectionist whose nearly ready writing is squirreled away in file folders scattered around her house. Retired after twenty-seven years as an educator, she has run out of excuses not to submit those pieces. Her work has appeared in The Manifest-Station, Grown and Flown, Brain, Child Magazine, and elsewhere. She has studied with Lidia Yuknavitch, Jennifer Pastiloff, Kim Stafford, and Beth Bornstein Dunnington.