Sitting on the cool tile floor, I held my breath as I watched a second faint pink line appear. Feeling the welcoming warmth in my belly, I thought This is what I needed.
I began to visualize holding a delicate bundle of a baby, tracing barely-there-eyebrows, inhaling that delicious cocoa puff scent that lingers on the soft swirl of a baby’s hair. Already, I felt the sudden joy about the kernel-sized secret fluttering inside me.
That day, I trekked myself and my two children over to my mother’s house. Typically, I didn’t visit my mother on a school day. After hugging the children, my mother asked me, “Why did you come today?”
“I’m pregnant!” I whispered, the words involuntarily turning my mouth into a smile.
Instantly my mother’s face changed into one I remembered from long ago.
Her dark eyebrows rose, pushing the new wrinkles away; her smile making the rest of her face jealous. This was the joy that I had missed.
My brother’s marriage had crumbled around him that year, and my parents retreated into shells of who they once were. I saw sorrow slumping into their shoulders, worries settling into lines on their faces as they helplessly witnessed the fracturing of their son’s family.
Maybe this pregnancy, this new baby, would be a welcome distraction for them. It sounded good mathematically—multiply more members into the family even when some are dividing.
As my belly started to swell, my hope for the future would grow too.
"They will tell me I'm having a miscarriage."
I say this loudly to no one as I place my heavy feet on the floor from the bed. At eight weeks pregnant, my baby is the size of a raspberry. My mind is angry at my voice and whips back, Stop being so negative.
But the looming feeling is there. I have been sleeping restlessly and having bad dreams. The word miscarriage has been playing in my back of my mind for days, breaking itself into syllables: Mis-carr-iage. Mis-carr-iage. It hovers on the tip of my tongue, waiting for me to voice my concerns, but instead I knot my lips and scroll mindlessly through pregnancy apps that compare baby sizes to fruit.
I'm not sure where that voice came from and with what force. I have sailed through textbook pregnancies and am the mother of two little spunky high-ponytailed-girls.
I squirt minty white toothpaste on my toothbrush and attempt to brush both my teeth and the thoughts away. Straightening my back and my eyebrows in front of the bathroom mirror, I ignore the voice.
Rather, I think, Hurry, the appointment is soon.
I bundle up my toddler into her coat. An hour later, I simultaneously rip open a fruit snack bag as the ultrasound technician rips open her gloves. Small talk is made. My toddler chews on her fruit snacks reflectively in the darkened ultrasound room.
"I don't see anything," the technician says, glancing at me with her eyebrows furrowed. Her voice is warm with apology, but her words feel like ice on my skin.
I loosen the knot from my tongue, feeling a strange relief for a few seconds. I let the words slip out. Finally.
“I knew something was wrong …”
I knew it like the way I knew when to pry open my toddler’s mouth after she slipped a LEGO in, feigning nonchalance while guilt clouded her features.
I knew something was clouding my pregnancy.
The voice of dread quiets only to be replaced with a new sense of loss.The dark room becomes even darker. With no reassuring sound of a baby’s heartbeat, the room’s silence makes me feel small, like I don’t belong, like I’ve been given a test I don’t know the answers to.
Although my belly is still swollen, I feel newly hollow and empty. Leaving the ultrasound room without any coveted glossy baby pictures, I avert my eyes from blossoming pregnant bellies in the waiting room. I fumble while stuffing my pregnancy paperwork into my oversized bag, next to stale Goldfish cracker crumbs. The receptionist avoids eye contact with me when I check out at the front desk. The CONGRATULATIONS that she wrote in big letters a week ago on a fat envelope containing my pregnancy paperwork is now null and void. I do not remember what the anticipation of joy tastes like.
In the parking deck, my toddler compares the structure to a castle. I do not humor her conversation. I buckle her into her seat. My jaw is tight while my hands move without thinking and my eyes look past her.
This time, I do not drive to my mother’s house to tell her the news. But I dial her number while jostling the key into the ignition. Although the heat from the car blows gently onto my face, I am cold. Instead of driving, I sit in the car motionless, my shoulders slumping with heaviness. Drained, I simply let my mother’s voice comfort me over the phone the way mothers do.
Her words are a hug. She says a Muslim prayer I’ve heard throughout my life—Surely we belong to God and to Him we shall return.
Two weeks later, something is still physically off. My belly feels sore and continues to grow, a cruel reminder of my loss. I am exhausted. Sitting on the cool bathroom tile, I throw up daily into the white porcelain bowl. I cannot muster enough energy for errands. I let my library books collect dust and fines. I avoid grocery shopping.
My finger hovers over the pregnancy apps for a second before I delete them. I move from "What to Expect: May Babies" to "What to Expect: Grief and Loss." I try to gain new perspective, but instead I find myself staring blankly at the flowers in a vase that boldly bloom on my sticky kitchen table. I’m bitter at their fertility.
I'm supposed to be miscarrying but my body doesn't know this yet. It continues to grow, produce hormones, and give me enough nausea to throw up every night before the D&C surgery. I am tired of waiting. I am ready to move on.
But after the surgery, dishes continue to stare at me, taunt me, while piling up in the sink. Laundry effortlessly gathers on the floor. My spaghetti sauce stained children desperately need baths. I lament to my OB who says my pregnancy hormones are still very high, and that's why I am exhausted.
I undergo another D&C surgery to make sure all the stubborn tissue is removed and marinate in hope. My body seems like it’s going back to normal. My weekly blood draws show the hCG hormone levels are decreasing.
I begin to tackle the laundry, load after load, and the dishes, and the library fines. But my body knows what the mind does not. The cells and tissue are stealthily multiplying again. Cell after cell.
I am browning ground beef, flipping the red meat over to get rid of the rawness, when my phone rings. Instead of a cheery nurse reading out my hormone levels, it is my OB. Her voice is laced with concern. This week my hCG hormones have increased. Even after two surgeries, my body still thinks I am pregnant.
I turn the heat off the skillet and dutifully write down the number of an oncologist on a blue square of a Post-it.
A couple of days later, I am seated on a plush chair in a creamy consultation room.
"Wait, so do I have ... cancer?" I ask, my voice higher than usual.
"Well, you are sitting in the oncology office," the doctor replies with his eyebrows raised with a wry smile.
I am diagnosed with a rare complete molar pregnancy in which my body stubbornly produces extra tissue and pregnancy hormones, but without a viable fertilized egg. A pregnancy usually produces cells rapidly, but when the body keeps producing these cells when it is not pregnant, it can swiftly become a cancerous tumor. I am stuck in a malignant never-ending first trimester.
They send me home with a white folder full of papers, pamphlets, and potential prescriptions. Words like Gestational Trophoblastic Disease boldly stare back at me. I trace my finger carefully down the side effects of chemotherapy. I straighten the papers, then my back, and lastly, my eyebrows. I set the papers down next to my daughter’s finger painted artwork and as if in a trance and walk over to the calendar.
Uncapping a red sharpie, I take a deep breath. Swiftly, I scribble over my once due date. Then in scrawly letters, I write the word CHEMO on every other square on Thursday for the next month. I am far away from dreaming of newborns. I wonder How did I get here?
In the Chemo Infusion room, my parents and aunt break chocolate into small squares as they sit with me. We make small talk with the nurses. The ward is full of patients triple my age with white wisps of hair adorning their heads.
My father snaps a photo of me hooked to an IV. I flash him a thumbs up and a big smile—as if to reassure us all: we will be fine.
A month later, the chemo is still not working the way it should. My hCG levels steadily increase and my tumor is growing, not shrinking. My oncologist is changing the treatment and if that doesn’t work, I will need in-patient chemo or a hysterectomy.
Moe, the kind nurse with the red hair in a tight braid and deep blue eyes that remind me of my 11th grade English teacher Ms. Carman, is on shift today. She swoops over to fiddle with my IV, check my vital signs, and type in my results. I am on autopilot, prattling away about life with a cheery smile plastered on.
“How are you feeling today?” she asks.
“I’m fine. Really, I feel great. I’ll eventually get better. It must be so hard being with these other patients with so much more going wrong,” I gesture around me to the older patients.
Moe stops shuffling her paperwork and looks at me. I pause as I see the seriousness pooling into her blue eyes.
“I want you to know that what YOU are going through is hard too.”
My smile falters.
Her words give me permission to accept the situation I am in, to stop comparing myself to others, to just be.
Three years later, I adjust the pom poms on my new baby’s hat while simultaneously brushing away swirly wisps of her hair. I joggle her and adjust her on my hip just so.
Health is my friend again. My brown boots tap confidently on the hospital floor. I press the button to the doors of the chemo ward. When I walk in, my eyes search for her. Moe.
Her smile is warm. Her eyes bluer than ever.
“Thank you for your words so long ago,” I say, holding out my baby proudly to her.
I tell her how those words helped me to realize:
I do not always have to be happy.
I am not the one who has to make others happy.
It is fine to be sad, to mourn the loss of what you do not have anymore.
It is okay to admit what you are going through is hard.
Her arms reach out for my round-cheeked baby. And I tell her all that's happened since that hardest year.
Guest post written by Reem Faruqi. Reem lives in Atlanta with her husband and three daughters. She is the award-winning children's book author of Lailah's Lunchbox, a book based on her own experiences as a young Muslim girl immigrating to the United States. After surviving Atlanta traffic and the school drop off, Reem spends her days trying to write, but instead gets distracted easily by her toddler, camera, and buttery sunlight. You can find her at www.ReemFaruqi.com or on Instagram.
Photo by Lottie Caiella.