The Scariest Thing

“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”  – Muriel Rukeyser, as quoted by Terry Tempest Williams in her book “When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations On Voice” A reading given June 21, 2012, Bellingham, WA

“Writers must share the scariest things about their lives.” Sherman Alexie, Opening address, Chuckanut Writers Conference, Bellingham, WA, June 22-23, 2012

 

I will share something very scary with you. I will tell you a truth about my life.

But not just yet.

I attended my first writers’ conference this past weekend. I entered trembling, wondering if there was a secret handshake, if I was too young or too old, if I had too few works published to be credible, if it was written all over my face that I did not have that all-important WIP or MS to offer up (writer jargon for Work-In-Progress and ManuScript). Famous Writers wandered about, as well as a Poet Laureate or two; Literary Agents took 5-minute pitch appointments; aspiring and published writers clutched notebooks and tablet computers – a life’s work on college-ruled or flash-drive – hoping to be discovered.

Oh but no, it wasn’t at all precious. The Chuckanut Writers Conference – held in the earnest, evergreen-and-blue city of Bellingham, perched on a bay just south of the Canadian border – was a welcoming gathering of writers of prose and poetry of every level of experience and ambition. I soaked up insights in sessions on the seduction of a sentence and packing premise into your novel; I scribbled pages of notes on the practice of story-boarding; I held my breath as a panel held court on Breathing Life Into Characters. I came away from each workshop and plenary with concrete ideas to put into practice. I was inspired, motivated, encouraged, overwhelmed and determined.

So, thank you, Chuckanut Writers Conference. I hope to see you next year. And perhaps I will have something ready to pitch. You know, the premise of My Great American Novel in fifty words or less.

But the weekend did begin and end with tears. And there’s that scary thing I said I would share.

The evening before the conference began, Terry Tempest Williams – the celebrated writer of environmental literature, women’s rights activist and conservationist – gave a reading in downtown Bellingham from her new book When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations On Voice. This is a lovely collection of meditative essays on motherhood, nature, faith and love, inspired by the journals her mother bequeathed to her shortly before her death at 54. Three bookshelves of journals, which the author opened a month after her mother died. Each journal was blank. When Women Were Birds is Ms. Tempest Williams’s attempt to understand what her mother had written in those empty books.

One of the several chapters the author read was XXVII. It is, on the surface, an essay on the importance of women’s reproductive rights. But the muscle of her words, what sent the tears streaming, is what she writes about the meaning of menstruation:

“Because what every woman knows each month when she bleeds is, I am not pregnant. Because what every woman understands each time she makes love is, Life could be in the making now. Because until she bleeds, she imagines every possibility from pleasure to pain to birth to death and how she will do what she needs to do, and until she bleeds, she will worry endlessly, until she bleeds. Because until she bleeds, repeat it again, she will check her womb every day for the stirrings of life. Because until she bleeds, she wonders if her life will be one or two or three.”

 

The author writes of women who wait for the reassurance of their monthly cycles. Yet for those of us who have faced infertility, who know the devastation of miscarriage, her words resonate as deeply. For us, who have experienced such loss, this bleeding is an ending of all hope, not a sigh of relief. And so her words, they made me cry.

“Because until she bleeds she will check her womb every day for the stirrings of life.”

Two days later, late Saturday afternoon, just before the final session of the conference, I dashed into the bathroom for a quick pee. I pulled down my panties and saw what I hadn’t felt.

A streak of bright red blood.

I sat on the toilet with my head between my legs as the world went gray.

When I walked into that bathroom, I was ten weeks pregnant. When I walked out, I was

 

Empty.

 

The cramps began after I returned home Saturday evening. They were bad. Then they got worse. By Sunday afternoon I was writhing on the living room carpet, crying and gasping as my uterus ripped itself apart. I have never experienced such agony for so long. I refused to let Brendan take me to the hospital. Women have been giving birth to life and to death on their own since the beginning. These were the only labor pains I would ever know and it was pain I would own, pain I would remember, because I had nothing else. At 10 p.m. Sunday evening, I finally crawled into bed, my body no longer sharing space with another.

Though shocked to learn we were pregnant – we’d long since given up hope after years of trying, years of exploring alternatives, years spent healing from loss – it was impossible not to give in to joy, not to allow our hearts to swell in anticipation of meeting the life we had created. Yet we tried to prepare ourselves for heartbreak; the wounds from our miscarriage in 2009 reopened as we admitted our deepest fears.

In a moment of twisting around to look at a less-dark side I said to Brendan, “When we lost the first baby, I wasn’t writing. I wasn’t creating anything, I had nowhere to voice my grief and rage. But now, if the worst happens, I have a voice. I have a place to go that gives me hope and joy and meaning. At least, if the worst happens, I have that.”

And the worst happened. At the same time that my intellect was pulsing with life, my body was casting off death.

 

I am very very angry.

 

I am so very sad.

 

There is no sense to be made of nor any higher purpose served by our losses; there is no “That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” bullshit platitude that I can bear hearing without wanting to slap silly the mouth which delivers it.

There will be no next chance. I am 43. I am done with this now. My heart cannot take the pain. My body cannot take the turmoil.

Brendan took me in his arms when I returned home Saturday night. My first words to him were, “It’s going to be just the two of us.”

“That’s fine by me,” he replied.

And we cried, because nothing was fine.

But it will be again, someday.

So I work, because it gives me dignity.

I run, because it helps me make peace with my body.

And I write, because writing is how I will create life.

30 thoughts on “The Scariest Thing

  1. I’m very new to Twitter & blogs so have only just come to this through your ‘And then this happened’ post…

    Firstly, echoing many of the other comments, what a raw, brave and beautifully written piece that articulates your loss and grief so well… and in such a way that truly resonates.

    Secondly, how utterly fantastic & absolutely encouraging it is to see you have achieved what you set out to do – create life through writing.

    I attended my first writers conference last week; writing is potentially a way to restore my sanity, self esteem and definitely dignity after losing my career through ill health. I do hope in the future I will one day share that wonderful feeling of holding ‘the real thing’ in my hands too.

    Thank you for sharing – then and now – and I look forward to reading In Another Life & following your writing career.

    Like

    1. What a beautiful comment. Thank you for reading and for taking the time to tell me what this means to you. I’ve found my salvation in writing–it astonishes me that my words are finding people to read them-but the act of writing itself is so profound and wonderful.
      I’m so proud of and happy for you to have taken the huge step in attending the writers conference and exploring your own voice. Anything I can do to help, please let me know! I’m cheering you on from the sidelines!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh Julie…I keep typing and deleting and I have realized that I have no words , I’m glad you could find some. You have a big hug coming your way 🙂

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    1. A hug I will welcome- thank you, sweetie. Can’t decide if the craziness at work this week has been a blessing or a curse, but I will be taking some mental health days as soon as I’m not flying solo. What timing.

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  3. I’m extremely touched by your post. I hope you will try to get it published somewhere so that more women (and men) can read it. I am so sorry for your loss and for the pain that you and Brendan are enduring. I know it, I’ve felt it, and your words ring true. I wish you the best as you give birth to, nurture and send off each new piece of writing.

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  4. Just as Claireful says, stunningly beautiful, sad and yet it appears to be the beginning of a powerful, creative new phase, evidenced by what you have just shared. I am so sorry for your loss, for both of you and send you soft healing thoughts and bundles of creative energy for the journey ahead. I have complete faith in your ability, please keep writing and put everything into it. With love
    Claire

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  5. I was at the Writer’s Conference last weekend, as well, and have similar feelings about all the great things that went on throughout the sessions. So sorry to read about the ending of your weekend. Thank you for sharing your story.

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    1. Liz- the conference was more than I hoped for- such a joy to be inspired by so many wise, pragmatic, hilarious and gifted writers. I believe it was Jeremy Voigt who quoted Kafka “A book is an ax for the frozen sea inside of us.” That’s how I feel about writing, particularly now.
      Take care and may words never fail you.
      Julie

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      1. Ah, yes, I wrote down that quote Voigt shared–as I did with many others throughout the weekend. Look forward to following your writing and hope our paths cross in the Northwest literary world sometime!

        -Liz

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  6. Very sorry to read this. I had a similar experience, but I was also able to have two more, all grown now. But good for you for going to your first conference. Believe me, writing will save you. It did for me after the sudden loss of my husband.

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  7. Dearest Julie, my heart aches for you. I know the pain you are feeling, and I would not attempt to dishonour you by telling you that it will go away, that time will heal. In many ways it won’t. The pain of a lost baby is always there. I still miss my little bundle even after all these years, even though I have other children. But what I can say is that I found my voice after the loss; somehow life followed. But it was a different one.Though you may feel as if you are in the loneliest place in the world, you are not alone. Sending you much love and lots of hugs, Edith x

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