12/20/2013 05:07 EST | Updated 02/19/2014 05:59 EST

Blue Days and Dark Nights: Making Room for Loss at Christmas

The first time I was pregnant, my sister arrived from B.C. a few days before Christmas. We had plans for the day she arrived: I would pick her up from the airport, take her to our favourite bookstore, then bring her along to a routine prenatal checkup with me.

I have this memory of driving along the top of the river valley on our way to that pre-natal checkup. My sister, whom I hadn't seen in months, sat buckled into the passenger seat beside me happily filling me in on her latest exploits, which involved some semi-legal ceremonies on Bowen Island and plans to move to a different country. We were happy. A mere four years earlier, also at Christmas time, we'd learned our mom had terminal brain cancer. Between us, unavoidably, sat that great, unspoken loss. And yet, most of the nausea and fatigue of the first trimester had finally passed, and I was well into my second trimester, past the real threat of miscarriage. The fact that I had dodged this so-common bullet when much of the rest of my life seemed to have been dogged by loss seemed joyously improbable. The blue sky held up the bright white snow piled lightly in the crooks of tree branches, and the world seemed to overflow with more joy than I had dared hope to find.

Sun fractured through intricate frost patterns at the edges of the windshield. I was happy to be alive, yes, and also to have finally cast my lot on the side of life, ecstatic life. I remember that feeling. I remember that I had arranged my seatbelt so that the waist restraint curved beneath my belly instead of, uncomfortably, overtop. My synapses had already started to reinvent themselves, to make this kind of accommodation, just as the rest of my body was learning to do. At the bookstore, I bought a beautifully illustrated children's story, my first indulgence, a present for the fetus that had been growing in my body for so long I had abandoned my correctness (though not my politics) and started calling it a baby.

I brought my sister right into the examination room with me. The doctor squirted goo on my round belly and dragged the doppler wand across it, and we listened to the doppler's staticky, promising nothingness for a long time. I didn't want to believe I could lose this too. So even when my doctor left the room to find a colleague, even when the colleague appeared and took her turn listening carefully, moving the doppler systematically across my lower abdomen, pressing hard, sweeping and turning and sweeping again, and finding nothing--even then, I held out hope that this time things could still turn out in my favour.

The morning after that routine appointment, we arrived at a clinic festooned for the holidays with artificial trees, garlands, and stars, and I had an emergency ultrasound. My bladder was so full, due to the requisition that had me drink a litre of water before arriving, that waiting was a minor form of agony. This seemed commensurate with the difficult but not necessarily dire circumstances.

Once the technician had taken her pictures, she told me I could pee if I wanted to. I shook my head, thinking the radiologist might need to take more.

"Don't be a martyr," the tech said.

I guess that should have been a clue. But I remained hopeful--or at least I kept hope in play, along with all the rest of it--right up until the radiologist came into the room and showed me the image of the baby on the screen.

I couldn't really tell what I was looking at until he pointed out the head and the place where the heart would have been beating, if the baby were still alive.

I had been sequestered in a private room for the taking of these pictures. Now I asked if someone would go get my partner and my sister. That's all I remember: that asking. After that, whatever happened--I must have peed, dressed myself, gone home--I don't know.

Something gave out, some muscle, and I don't have those memories now.

But I do remember other things. The kindness of those who were kind, and the unkindness of those who were indifferent. The sadness of the birth, for it was a birth, if still. Sometime in that week before Christmas I began to understand how desperately we hold our happiness and loved ones and domestic contentment at this time of year, and why, and how easy it is, because of this, without meaning to, to make things worse for each other. Someone in my extended family, that year, while inviting my partner and I to join the rest of the family for Christmas, someone who meant to include us, said "You're welcome to join us, but we're going to have a happy Christmas."

We opted not to go. I was still recovering from the induction and the D&C. We both were. Instead of turkey and traditions, we took a break from festivities, and let the sadness of loss accompany us through the blue days and dark nights of the season.

Loss arrives, and we don't see it coming, or we do. It hurts, and we make space for that. We bring to our hearts what our hearts love, what we can bring. And for the rest, for what we can't bring to our hearts that they love all the same, we let ourselves be shot through with darkness and cold light, empty as the winter sky.

That Christmas, we needed room to grieve. So we made room.

My sister and I made lobster chowder and the three of us took a long, cold, beautiful walk together. We sat beside the tree and gave each other imaginary Christmas gifts, since we hadn't gotten around to doing any last minute shopping.

What we had intended to give each other didn't seem to matter very much anyway.


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